Sunday, March 6, 2011

To the Cloud - Skype

Last week I started a series of posts entitled "To the Cloud." There are so many resources in "the cloud" that there was no possible way to cover it all in one post. And there are not enough blog posts in the world to allow me to cover every one of them. My intention isn't to cover them all, rather it's to highlight the few I use in my classroom. Too often teachers are introduced to new tools, but are never told how they can use them to enhance what they already teach. That is the purpose for these few posts.

Skype's website explains their product this way: "Skype is doing things together, whenever you're apart." This is the perfect description. Skype is the perfect program to use when you want to be with someone without really being there. Through the marriage of the Internet and a webcam, Skype makes it possible for people to communicate with one another from long distances.

Ok, now that we've determined what Skype is, let me discuss ways that Skype can be used in the classroom, more specifically in my classroom. Collaboration is one of the best ways for students to learn how to get along with others while working toward a common goal. Skype makes it possible for students to work together without actually being together. A few months back I launched a collaboration project with a group of students in northwestern Arkansas. Students were paired up and then worked together to research and report on a national park. Skype made it possible for students to discuss issues face-to-face. In our situation, students were unable to have their own Skype accounts, so we worked around that minor distraction by keeping Skype active on one computer. When students needed to confer with their partners, they simply went to the Skype computer, announced the need for a conference, then went back to the task at hand. If you're interested in learning more about this project, you can read my earlier post entitled Skype in the Classroom, or visit my website that explains the project in greater detail.

The thing I liked most was that my students were much more engaged because they knew someone else was depending on them. They wanted to make a good impression on their partners, so they seemed to work harder. On the other hand, the thing the students most enjoyed was the opportunity for students to make friends with others who lived 500 miles away. Through this, they discovered that students in Arkansas are no different than students in Iowa.

Skype opens the world to students in ways never though possible. While my experience with Skype is limited to working with students in the same time zone, I've gained enough confidence that one day I'll be able to expand to other parts of the world.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

To the Cloud - Wikis

The phrase "to the cloud" has become very common in recent days and with this phrase comes hope for education. With the freeze on school budgets, Web 2.0 tools are opening up a whole new world of opportunities for educators and students alike. Most of these tools are free or relatively inexpensive to use. They cover a whole gamut of activities that include anything from brainstorming tools to collaboration tools to document creation and storage. The possibilities are endless. Through the next several blog posts, I'd like to touch on a few that I have used in my classes and describe how I have used the tool for instruction.

In this post, I'd like to focus on the use of wikis. The word wiki is derived from the Hawaiian term wiki wiki which means "fast" or "quick." In other words, a wiki is a web site that is easy and fast to edit. There are many wiki hosting sites, called wiki farms. Some of these hosting sites are free while others require a relatively inexpensive annual fee., my host of choice, offers a free upgrade to educators, thus providing an advertisement-free site. While there are many wiki hosts to choose from, all of them provide great opportunities for educators and students alike.

I daily use a wiki in my 6th grade Computer Applications class. Students are instructed to go immediately to the wiki when they enter the classroom. There they can find instructions, lesson plans, links, document files, and other important things necessary for the class. Using a wiki designed for specific courses eliminates a lot of frustration for teachers because it provides students quick, immediate access to all the tools (links, files, video, etc.) they need for a given unit or lesson. With a wiki, students who are absent can keep up with what goes on during class just by going to the "cloud."

Near the end of the course, I have students show what they have learned through an activity that asks them to demonstrate all of the skills they have learned throughout the course. In this activity, students create their own page within a different wiki on U.S. national parks or world national parks. Students choose a national park to research, then they report on that park through the creation of their very own page (click here for details). The beauty of using a wiki for this project is that students are not limited to class time to work on their project, and they can work on it from anywhere that has internet access. (There's that "cloud" again!) An added bonus is that students can show off their hard work to anyone, anywhere, anytime. I've even taken the national parks project to the next level by collaborating with students 500 miles away! But I'll save that for another post.

The possible uses for wikis is endless. I encourage my readers to consider how wikis can enhance their current curriculum, then jump in and get started.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Redefining Schools

I'm writing this blog post with frustration (and a little trepidation) stemming from an incident that hit me rather hard recently. Schools everywhere are pushing technology into the hands of their teachers and ultimately their students at an alarming rate around the globe. And that is exciting! But is it enough?

I do what I can to keep up with technology by reading everything I can get my hands on, by following "up and comers" on my PLN, and by trying out new technologies whenever I can. It is exciting to discover something new that I can try with my technology students, and that excitement spills over into my conversations whenever possible. But what I'm discovering is my excitement isn't EVERYBODY'S excitement. I am finding that I make the false assumption that my passion for integrating technology into instruction isn't a passion for everybody (although I will never understand why!).

It is great that schools are finding money to purchase new technologies for teachers to use, but I fear a key element is being overlooked - training. If school leaders give a teacher a new piece of technology, say an interactive whiteboard, but fail to train the teacher how he/she can effectively use it to enhance student learning, they've wasted a lot of money on a piece of equipment that looks nice but will just gather dust because the teacher doesn't have the know-how to fully utilize it. Administrators can't expect that a teacher will automatically spend his/her own time finding ways to implement technology into the curriculum just because there is something new sitting in the classroom. Teachers are busy. They need guidance and direction on something new, just like students do.

Yet my frustration doesn't end there. With the integration of technology into the curriculum, there is one more key element that rarely gets discussed - camaraderie. If teachers are to be successful at integrating new things into the curriculum, there must be a willingness of colleagues to be flexible. Let me share my example:

I am doing a collaborative project via Skype with a group of students in Arkansas. In order for our schedules to jive, I had to find a classroom that would be willing to be flexible and change lunch schedules with me (we're talking LUNCH here, not rocket science - note the sarcasm). I put out an APB plea via email and got ONE response. The response read this: "I'm sorry, our team is too established in our regimen to change lunch sections with you." Basically what this said to me was, "We are too set in our own ways to help your students learn." Needless to say, I was shocked. Not one of my colleagues was willing to give up his or her precious routine to help advance the academics of my students. How sad is that?

In order for tech integration to be successful, teachers need to see themselves less as individual islands, and more as a COMMUNITY. We have to learn to be flexible. We have to come to the realization that there is more to our students' learning than what goes on between the four walls of our individual classrooms. They need to say to themselves, "My class is not the only one out there." If timing is an issue, then teachers need to realize that students may have to miss part of another class if that's the only way to collaborate with students 500 miles away. Flexibility is essential if we want tech integration to work.

Somehow we need to redefine the term school. Instead of being "an institution for educating students" it should be known as "a community of learners with multiple learning-facilitators."

How do we get there?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Skype in the Classroom

A few weeks ago I embarked upon the unknown (to me, that is) and launched a project with my niece who teaches 6th grade in Arkansas (I live in Iowa). We combined our classes via Skype and had our students work on a collaboration project covering the national parks of the United States. The end result was INCREDIBLE. I certainly enjoyed working with my niece who I rarely get to see, but my students were so excited about it. Never have I seen them so engaged and work so hard to create a beautiful project. They learned how to work together even though they were separated by miles of distance. They learned that students in Arkansas are just like students in Iowa. They learned how to solve problems. And, of course, they learned about the national parks of our beautiful country. Check out their fine work at their national parks wiki. Through the beauty of Skype and, the two free online programs we used to complete the project, the students from both classes learned how to work together to create an end product. If you'd like to read more about this experience, see the post entitled Collaborating with Students 500 Miles Away Adds Excitement to a Class.

Since the launching of that project I have had several colleagues pick my brain about the logistics of the project. The enthusiasm the students and I had about what we were doing infected those around me, and several teachers are now working on creating similar projects that they can do with their students. Isn't that what a community of educators should do? Share their successes? I believe we should all learn from one another and pull from the amazing minds of those with whom we associated. As a result, I have re-posted a portion of an article entitled 50 Awesome Ways to Use Skype in the Classroom published by

Promoting Education

These great ideas are all about teaching students in dynamic ways.

  1. See Me, Hear Me: Skype in the Classroom. Read how these students had the opportunity to chat with an author of the book they studied via Skype.
  2. Videoconferencing in the Classroom with Skype. This teacher used the movie "Hoop Dreams" to help teach about social inequality, then was able to get the executive producer of the movie, Gordon Quinn, to participate in a Skype session with her class.
  3. The Many Roles of Skype in the Classroom. These amazing 7th graders used Skype as a part of their history project that resulted in their collaboration with the curator of the National Museum in Canada.
  4. Field trips. If students aren’t able to participate in a field trip due to factors such as budgetary or distance constraints, use Skype to bring the field trip into the classroom.
  5. Using Skype in the languages classroom. Find out how this teacher uses Skype to help her students study foreign languages from native speakers.
  6. Skyping in Mike Artell- Illustrator & Author. This inspirational lesson has an illustrator working directly with 6th graders to work on the art of illustrating and story creation.
  7. After school help. Use Skype as a tool to provide after school help to students needing extra attention. Tutors, teachers, or librarians can be available at set times in the afternoons for student access.
  8. "Not education as usual," with Skype and author Cory Doctorow. This class was practicing how to convince the school board to allow a controversial book to be taught in their school and had the opportunity to Skype with the author of the book to help promote their case.
  9. Interviews. Whether you have students conducting interviews or your class is interviewed, Skype facilitates the interview process. Individual students can interview other teachers or school staff, sending the Skype feed to the classroom for all to watch.
  10. Guest lecturers. Have guest lecturers come to your classroom via Skype.

Promoting Community

Using Skype in the classroom can promote communities within a school or globally.

  1. Inclusion — helping a classmate join the classroom from home. This blog post explains how a 4th grade class used Skype to help a classmate with leukemia become a part of the classroom from her home.
  2. Connect special needs students. Students who may have to be out of the classroom due to special needs or IEP requirements don’t have to miss any special events in the classroom with Skype.
  3. Blue tongue lizard, vegemite and cricket. What the…????. This Australian teacher describes her class’ experience connecting with a Korean class via Skype.
  4. Foreign culture lessons. Skype allows students to see first hand what people’s homes, schools, clothing, weather, and more looks like. If a festival takes place, Skype can bring it to your classroom too.
  5. Connect with families from around the world. Form friendships that can easily bridge distance gaps with Skype.
  6. Skype Calls for e-Twinning in L2. Find out how this teacher brought two classes together that had been Twittering all semester when they finally got to meet "face-to-face" with Skype.
  7. Best Day Ever!. This teacher describes three Skype calls her class had in one day–the most exciting being with a class in a different time zone with whom her students had been collaborating on a project through Google docs. With Skype, the students got to work at the same time and actually see each other, too.
  8. Present a performance. Whether your class puts on a play, demonstrates a science experiment, or presents the results of a class project, share the fruits of their works with other classes, parents, or other interested people.
  9. Share field trips with others. If your class goes out for a field trip, see about connecting with parents or other classes to share your classes’ experience.
  10. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ inspiration uses Skype to help kids in India learn. Find out how Skype is connecting grannies in the UK with children in India for both a cultural connection and an educational benefit.

Skype Ideas for Teachers and Parents

Teachers and parents can benefit from Skype in the classroom, too.

  1. Professional development. Teachers can use Skype to access professional development opportunities, such as watching conference presentations.
  2. Share students’ work with parents. Let parents get a first-hand look at what their children are doing with Skype.
  3. Conference with parents. Whether a parent has to miss a regular conference or a concern comes up that requires speaking with a parent, Skype can provide an opportunity to connect with a parent that may not otherwise be available for a conference.
  4. Innovative teacher uses Skype and Wikis to involve parents. See how this teacher helped share information with parents using Skype and the PBS program, Growing Up Online.
  5. Collaborate with other teachers. Who says Skype has to be fun just for the kids? With Skype, teachers can collaborate on ideas, projects, and more.
  6. Share travel experiences. If you will be traveling during the school year, arrange for your substitute to connect with you via Skype and you can share the experience with your class.
  7. Receive teaching feedback. Have an experienced or mentor teacher watch you teach via Skype and receive valuable feedback.
  8. Be available to students. If your school is suddenly closed for a while or if you want to set up conference hours for students, use Skype to allow students to contact you.
  9. Tutor former students. If a student has moved away or you want to offer accredited online degrees or just moved up from your class, you can be available for tutoring (for free or for a fee) via Skype.
  10. Bring busy parents into the classroom. A busy parent who has knowledge to share with the classroom may be more likely to be able to make the time for a presentation if she or he can do so with Skype rather than having to leave work and come to the school.

Resources for Getting Started and Using Skype

Find out how you can take advantage of Skype with the advice below.

  1. Using Skype in the Classroom (or just learning how to use it!). This teacher provides the basics to get Skype set up with your class.
  2. Skype in the Classroom. This article offers help on ways to set up Skype, tips for finding other teachers on Skype, technical obstacles, and more.
  3. Skype Tutorials for Teachers, Authors, Librarians. Find a handful of video and text tutorials here to get you going with Skype.
  4. Classroom Collaboration with Skype. This primer offers help with using Skype, connecting with others, and ideas for using it in the classroom.
  5. eduwikius – SKYPE. This wiki contains plenty of information about using Skype in the classroom and also provides links to additional resources.
  6. A Skype from the classroom. Find information on videoconferencing in general, the pros and cons of using Skype, school project ideas, and more here.
  7. Using skype in the classroom. Learn from this teacher’s experience as she describes using Skype and how to best prepare your class and yourself for a great educational opportunity.
  8. Skype is a Valuable Educational Tool. This podcast explains why teachers should use Skype and puts some nasty rumors about Skype to rest.
  9. Using Skype in schools – some tips. Read these helpful tips, including suggestions on using Skype usernames at school and home.
  10. Skype: Talk to Anyone, Anywhere for Free. Watch this "techtorial" or print the text version to learn the basics of Skype.

Finding Others Using Skype

Here are a few ways to connect with others using Skype in classrooms and to promote education.

  1. ePALS. Sign up for a free account here, then find other teachers and classes around the globe using Skype.
  2. Skype an Author Into Your Library or Classroom. This site will connect schools with authors through Skype. Short sessions are free, while longer sessions are subject to a fee set by each author.
  3. Skype in Schools. List yourself or find others in this directory just for educators seeking Skype collaboration.
  4. Skype in the Classroom – The EduSkypers Phonebook. Scroll through these comments to find other teachers from around the world looking to connect through Skype. The most recent are at the very end of the list.
  5. Global SchoolNet. This organization works to connect teachers and students around the world through forensic science programs. Browse to find something of interest or start your own project.
  6. TakingITGlobal. Another project-based organization, this one focuses on youth looking to make positive global changes.
  7. Around the World with 80 Schools. This teacher is hoping to connect schools around the world through short Skype sessions.
  8. Skype in the Classroom. Join this community to find other teachers seeking Skype connections.
  9. Going Global – School Skype Author Visits. Linda Lowery and Richard Keep, children’s book authors and illustrators, are available for Skype interviews for a fee.
  10. Mixxer. This group helps connect language learners seeking partners to practice their language skills via Skype.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Thoughts on the US Dept of Ed. National Education Tech Plan

I just finished reading the United States' Department of Education's National Education Technology Plan which would put the United States at the top of the list for college completion by the year 2020 and help close the achievement gap so that all students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and careers.

In this article, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is quoted as saying, "We have an unprecedented opportunity to reform our schools. With this technology plan, we have laid out a comprehensive vision for how teachers working with technology can transform student learning in classrooms across America. We must dramatically improve teaching and learning, personalize instruction and ensure that the educational environments we offer to all students keep pace with the 21st century." I agree wholeheartedly with Duncan. We have GOT to do something different if we expect to achieve a different outcome in education than we do now. As the saying goes, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten." Something HAS to change.

Here are the five main focus areas of the plan:
  • Learning: Change the learning process so it's more engaging and tailored to students' needs and interests.
  • Assessment: Measure student progress on the full range of college and career ready standards and use real time data for continuous improvement.
  • Teaching: Connect teachers to the tools, resources, experts and peers they need to be highly effective and supported.
  • Infrastructure: Provide broadband connectivity for all students, everywhere—in schools, throughout communities and in students' homes.
  • Productivity: Use technology to help schools become more productive and accelerate student achievement while managing costs.
I think they have hit the nail squarely on the head. The aim is to reach each of these five goals by the year 2015. Here again I say, "Bravo!" But let's be realistic. As with every plan, it looks great on paper (but then again, so did the No Child Left Behind Act). The truth of the matter is this though - If the government can't provide the funding for schools to do this, it just plain won't happen. You're never going to get teachers to jump on this bandwagon if they don't have the money to buy the technology it's going to take to reach these goals.

It is easy for me to get excited about working toward reaching these goals. I teach technology classes, so this plan fits right into what I'm passionate about. I've also been provided with have a classroom of 24" iMacs on which to daily teach my students. Unfortunately, my colleagues aren't so lucky. Until the government provides the money that is necessary to provide schools with adequate technology, teachers won't be able to provide the technology opportunities that are necessary for students to come into the 21st century with the skills necessary to compete with students around the world.

If the government can step in and bail out companies that have made poor business choices, why couldn't they put that money to better use and "bail out" the children who are the future of our country? The best laid plans are only as good as the action behind it. We cannot expect schools to teach 21st century skills with the equipment they used in the 19th century anymore than our government officials expect to do today's governing with yesterday's pay. If government officials want schools to bring students up to speed, then they have to step up and provide the resources to do so. Like everything else, it's a matter of politics.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Finding Joy in Your Circumstances

Over the past several months I have found myself surrounded by people with nothing positive to say about their circumstances. They gripe and complain about everything from the weather to students, from parents to the administration. I tried to not let it affect me, but that is easier said than done. I found myself caught in the middle of all the negativity, and over time it took its toll on me. Before long I discovered that my attitude toward everything began to take on a new look, and I didn't like that new look one bit. I'd come home from school feeling like I'd fought a losing battle, and I'd find myself complaining to my husband about everything. I hated going to work. I hated what I did. I hated the idea that I'd be "stuck" in the classroom for the next several years. I couldn't find the joy that I'd once known from being in the classroom. I had let the negativity of others steal the joy in my life. Then one morning I woke up and a revelation hit me like a ton of bricks...I can't change my circumstances, but I CAN change the way I deal with them.

That was a new day for me. By changing how I think about and respond to my circumstances, I started a slow healing process. Now, when negative thoughts start to invade my mind and bring me down, I look for something positive to focus on instead. When others make negative comments about their students, the parents, or the administration, I either choose to walk away, or better yet, counter with something positive instead. I've even gone so far as to tell a colleague who was complaining about how her lack of motivation stemmed from our lack of good leadership that THAT was a cop out. Motivation comes from within, not from others. She didn't like my bluntness, but eventually came back to thank me for reminding her that joy comes from within, not from her circumstances.

Changing my focus from the negatives to the positives has made all the difference. No longer do I dread Monday mornings. No longer do I allow myself to get caught up in the negative gossip of my colleagues. No longer do I come home feeling like I've fought a hard fight and lost. It's not always easy, but at least I'm more pleasant to be around. But best of all, I've rediscovered the joy in teaching that I'd allowed others to strip away. Each day brings new challenges, but I'm much better equipped to face them now than I was a few months ago.

Below is an excerpt from a great blog post by Dave Navarro that was originally posted on about how to take control of your moods. It is a great post that fits well with the life-lesson I've learned. Please allow me to reprint a portion of it here.

Using A Framework to Escape From Paralyzing Emotions

A: AGREE With Yourself That You Don’t Want To Be In This Mood Right Now.
C: CLARIFY The Mood or Emotion You Want To Move Towards
T: TAKE Responsibility For Taking Immediate Action.
F: “What Would I Need To FOCUS On To Feel this Way?”
A: “What Would I Need To ACT On To Feel The Way I Want To?”
S: “What Would I Need To SURROUND Myself With To Feel The Way I Want To?”
T: “What Would I Need To TELL Myself To Feel The Way I Want To?”

* If you ask yourself, “Why me?” or “What can I possibly do?” you‘re going to be paralyzed.
* If you ask yourself “What can I do next, from where I am, with what I have,” you’re going to put yourself in a position of strength.
* Ask better questions. Train yourself to be the sculptor of your moods, rather than being tossed about by urgency and externalities you can’t control.

To read the full article, click here.

As you go through each day, remember this:

No one can MAKE you feel anything. You decide how you interpret the stimuli. You may not be able to change your circumstances, but you CAN change the way you deal with them.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Collaborating with Kids 500 Miles Away Adds Excitement to a Class

Well, I have finally entered the realm of the flat classroom. After attending a ITEC 2010 Conference in Coralville, Iowa, I was privileged to hear Vicki Davis, a.k.a. Cool Cat Teacher, speak about the flat classroom project that she was instrumental in creating. Her keynote address sparked an interest in me that chose to linger long after the conference ended. How could I incorporate global learning into my current curriculum without reinventing the wheel? That question pestered me for several days and then, out of the blue, I was hit by the inspiration train.

I was sitting in my living room one evening, perusing my Facebook page when I came across a status update by my niece Jennifer who teaches 6th grade language arts in Arkansas...some 477 miles away. She commented that it was awesome to see the excitement on the faces of her students when they picked up their 1:1 computers for the first time. After the initial wave of jealousy washed over me, (we aren't a 1:1 school yet and probably won't be for at least another two years) my brain kicked into high gear and began dreaming up ways that my classes could collaborate with hers. There had to be SOMETHING that I was already doing with my kids that could involve hers as well. After a few minutes of pondering, my brain settled on the national parks wiki project that we were about ready to begin. It took a bit of scrambling on my part and Jennifer's to figure out the logistics, but within two weeks of intense planning we were ready to launch our "mini-flat classroom" project.

To start off with, we used Skype to teach in a virtual classroom. Since Jennifer had never done the project and was fairly new to the concept of wikis, I took the lead and taught both my class and hers about the project and how to interact with a wiki. I must admit it felt a little bit strange teaching to a classroom of students that I could not see. It was very rewarding, however, to see how engaged the students were. It's as if they felt they were on display for one another and didn't want to be thought of as disruptive or immature. The students who normally exhibited a short attention span stayed focused for much longer periods of time. The students who normally had difficulty keeping quiet during lessons were suddenly transformed into well-mannered, respectful students. I was so proud of them!

Once we paired up the Iowa students with the Arkansas students, we were ready to begin the research process. The biggest obstacle, however, was finding a way for the paired students to communicate with one another as they worked on the project almost 500 miles from one another. Our initial plan was to use individual Skype accounts for the students. This, unfortunately, was out of the question because the Arkansas students were not yet allowed to have individual Skype accounts. We thought about using, but that plan failed because 6th graders have not yet reached the required age (13) for their own Google accounts. So we chose to use, an on-line collaborative document site that allows students to type simultaneously within the same document and which has a chat feature that students can use to talk about what they are doing. The end result was fantastic! We left Skype up and projected on the big screen in the event the students need to do some face-to-face consulting. This also allowed us to feel connected to the students in Arkansas even though we live hundreds of miles away.

The final step in the collaboration project will be a celebration of our final product. As I write this blog post, students haven't even yet begun to create their own wiki pages within the class national parks wiki. But once they start that phase, the project will be close to completion. I can only imagine the excitement on the faces of the students when they see their handiwork on the Internet for the very first time. When that day comes, I assure you I will proudly write another blog post that brags on my student fine work.

While a project of this magnitude takes a lot of planning and preparation, it is one of the most rewarding of all the projects I've done throughout the past 20 years of teaching. It has been an incredible experience for the students, for Jennifer, and for myself. Even now my brain is spinning in an attempt to come up with other opportunities to go global with my students.