Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Student Skills for Successful Blended Learning

I’ve been using a blended learning model in my classroom for a while now. I’ve found that using this model is extremely effective in providing personalized learning for my students. Moreover, allowing students to learn online for part of our instructional day enables me to teach small groups of students, often forgoing whole-group instruction. I’ve essentially created my own digital co-teacher because my students who are working independently learn online with lessons that I’ve created for them. 

My experiences last year helped me to realize that students need to be taught how to learn online. When beginning this school year, I had an outline of skills that I wanted to teach my students before they began learning online independently.

Media Interaction

Watching a video to learn something at school is a whole lot different than watching Netflix at home. Watching at home is a passive activity with the purpose of entertainment. In fact, many people “watch” TV while also playing on a tablet or phone, dividing their attention. These are not behaviors that will aid learning. For this reason, I take time to model appropriate ways to interact with learning media. We practice these skills as a whole class anytime we use a video, infographic, or image for our whole group learning. 

I encourage my students to pause videos to think and replay parts when needed. I also teach my students to take notes, draw diagrams, write questions, and solve problems while learning online. 

Digital Citizenship

A few of the most important digital citizenship lessons that I teach focus on creating a positive online community. Taking time to reinforce these skills early in the year goes a long way!
When learning online, my students have the opportunity to publish their work online, provide comments for their peers, participate in discussion boards, post video reflections, and topic discussions, and work collaboratively through the G suite.

To make the most of these experiences, I explicitly teach my students how to create valuable comments and how to receive suggestions from their peers. I have found that using student blogs is a great way to teach and reinforce these skills throughout the year. My students use their blogs to publish class work, reflect on their learning, and communicate with their peers. Last year I used a series of hyperdocs to create a blogging network for my class, and this year we are trying Google Sites. So far, I’m happy with blogs being authentic websites because my students have the added opportunity this year to work on designing their website.

Self Monitoring

Learning online takes quite a bit of self-monitoring. It’s one thing to work through an online lesson and complete all the required tasks. What’s better though, is teaching students to reflect on their learning and make choices based on their needs. If students realize they need more help with a skill they have a few options: redo the online lesson, ask a neighbor for help, or request a meeting with me to practice the skill together.

As much as possible, I want my students making decisions based on their learning needs. Of course, I still make most of the intervention decisions for my fourth graders, but they are capable of taking part too.


It’s very important to me that my students troubleshoot technical issues with as little of my support as possible. I simply cannot teach a small group of students if I’m continually refreshing websites, helping students log in, and reminding them to read the directions.

At the beginning of the year, I take a considerable amount of time waiting for students to troubleshoot their issues rather than rushing in and “fixing it” for them. To encourage student confidence, I make time for students to explore new apps before I model using them. I also ask students to demonstrate using apps for the class so that their peers know who to ask for help with certain apps if they are stuck.

My students this year seem to be a bit impatient when they run into issues. I still have students approach me with their Chromebooks during my small group instruction. For this reason, I created this quick chart to remind students of different ways to problem solve. I usually just point to the chart when I see a student coming my way so that I can avoid disruptions. 

Finally, I also designate a few reliable students as “tech support.” These students are my last line of defense before my intervention is needed. If a student has tried multiple strategies to solve their problem and a tech support peer can’t help them, then they can ask for my help.

Eventually, some of my students slip back into bad habits. When that happens, I usually buddy them up with another student for a few online lessons to reinforce positive online learning behaviors. Pre-teaching these skills is great, but I still make time throughout the year to reteach and further develop these skills.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Maker Movement: More than Cardboard and Duct Tape

I remember overhearing a teacher at a conference say, “What’s the deal with all the cardboard and duct tape? Are we really wanting to prepare students to make low-budget items? Where is the learning?” 

Sometimes, as teachers, it’s easy to hear “makerspace” and “STEM” and simply associate those terms with bins of materials. We see the projects students make and wonder how on earth a teacher has connected a cardboard prototype with the everyday math and reading standards outlined in our curriculum maps.

Consider this idea presented by Richard Riley, Former Secretary of Education, “The top 10 in-demand jobs in the future don’t exist today. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

How can we possibly prepare students for a future like this? 

More than Making a Product

As educators, we must teach students more than content- we must teach them how to think and design. Between attending conferences and tackling my reading list, I’ve come to a better understanding of design thinking and the benefits it can afford our students.

From my learning, the maker movement isn’t so much about the end product that students create, although that’s what we typically think of. Instead, it is about the thinking process they are applying. Students are learning how to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. They have meaningful tasks to collaborate on, and they practice the skills to become effective communicators. They also realize they have what it takes to solve real-world problems.

Children are Makers

Cardboard creations and rainy-day forts are part of so many of our childhood memories, and children today have the same natural drive to create in this way. Expressing creativity through building and making is such a great way for our students to learn by doing.

Have you heard about Caine’s Arcade? Take a few minutes to watch his story and consider all the different thinking processes and content areas he used while making his creation. If you were his teacher, how could you have used his arcade with your content standards?

Where to Begin

I didn’t begin with a designated STEM curriculum, a fancy makerspace, pre-made lessons purchased online, or even a weekly time set aside for these activities. Instead, I began by looking for units in my district curriculum map that would lend themselves to this type of thinking.

For example, each year we investigate the forces related to flight by creating a glider. This year, we created and flew gliders from a provided template. Then used what we learned to design our own gliders. We began with researching other aircraft, followed by a few rounds of rapid prototyping. Finally, we created our own models, tested them, and made revisions. Rather than just using a pre-made design, we critiqued it and tried to improve upon it. My students became the creators, not just procedure-followers. Isn't that what we want our students to be able to do in the workforce?

This semester, my class is beginning to use the Launch Cycle to investigate issues they are passionate about. John Spencer and A.J. Juliani’s book, LAUNCH outlines a student-friendly approach to design thinking. In this process, students learn about a topic or process, ask questions, research to understand and navigate ideas, create a product, revise, and share with the world. Our first project focused on the topic of homelessness. After that, we studied animal cruelty, how deployment affects families, making video games, and how to build a house. 

Curriculum Connection

Rather than thinking, “How can this connect to the curriculum?” I want to challenge you with this thought: STEM, Makerspace and design thinking are just a structure and approach for teaching- not the actual curriculum.

Here is a practical example of teaching content standards while designing and creating:

To begin, my students were able to choose the topic they researched while participating in the design thinking process. Through this process, I also taught my students critical reading skills including summarizing, drawing conclusions, and synthesizing information across tests. My reading lessons followed the gradual-release of responsibility model just like they have in years past, but our learning took on greater meaning. Final projects ranged from presentations and websites to video games and physical prototypes. My students worked with me to determine how they would demonstrate the reading skills they applied throughout their research.

My Next Steps

In the near future, I don't have plans to create a designated Makerspace or accumulate bins of stem materials (although I really like the potential for using Bloxels as it can connect to our gamified classroom). I like the way my students and I are making projects directly related to our coursework. My next step is simply continuing to integrate design thinking opportunities throughout our curriculum. After this school year, I will have a better grasp of designing and making as it relates to our fourth-grade curriculum.

I'd love to hear about your take on Makerspace and STEM. Tell me about what it looks like in your classroom.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Tips for Managing Passion Projects

Before beginning passion projects with my students, I had so many concerns about management. I loved the idea of student interest driving our learning, but I had so many questions:

  • How do I manage students working on so many different topics?
  • How much time should be dedicated to passion projects?
  • What does a schedule look like for supporting each group? 
  • Can I ensure rigor and application of skills?
  • Where is the balance between student-centered learning and chaos?
I can’t give a definite answer to a lot of those questions because passion project management depends a lot on the learners and the nature of their projects. I made a lot of in-the-moment decisions throughout the process. Here are a few tips I can offer from my experience.

The Process

I like organization, so the ambiguity of passion projects was daunting. I really liked the idea of using a design thinking process as guiding steps for our projects. I read about a design thinking process called the LAUNCH Cycle, and I thought it was student friendly and just right for our needs. The process follows these steps:

  • L Look, listen, learn
  • A Ask a ton of questions
  • U Understand the topic
  • N Navigate the ideas
  • C Create a prototype
  • H Highlight and fix
  • LAUNCH the product to your audience

Beginning Together

We voted as a class and decided on our first topic that we would investigate together. Working on the same topic allowed me plenty of opportunity to model thinking and reading strategies- tying our work closely to reading standards. It also helped me to realize the amount of planning involved in supporting student groups during the research and creation phases of our process. Moreover, I was able to monitor student understanding and gradually release responsibility to students.

Working together gave us a positive shared experience that we could refer back to. Students enjoyed our first project so much that they anticipated their next passion project with enthusiasm.

Goal Setting

Managing various groups of students researching different topics was a challenge during our second passion project cycle. I quickly realized the power of setting specific goals for each day of work. These goals gave my students direction and helped them to remain more focused when I wasn’t directly working with their group. For teams that struggled with remaining on task, it also helped to give each student a specific job for the day. Knowing that I would check the progress of their work was the accountability they needed to remain focused.


I also shared a Google Doc with students so that each group could communicate with me daily regarding their needs. I set up a simple table with a row for each team. Student groups typed me a few sentences letting me know what they needed from me to move forward the next day. When I noticed trends, I met with multiple groups all at once. Other times, I was able to have students who had mastered certain skills support other groups.

Blended Learning Saves the Day

You know I love blended learning. Creating online lessons and resources essentially allows me to create my own digital co-teacher. When I had student groups wanting to create digital projects including websites, blogs, presentations, and video games, I knew just how to support them.

I created short screencast videos on topics like finding images labeled for reuse, embedding videos, and designing projects that are easy for an audience to understand. I also provided links to tutorials for using Scratch, Google Sites, and Google Slides. Teaching these basic skills in a blended environment freed me up to support students as they created the content for their projects.

Prioritize Skills

I also learned how important it is to continually find relevant resources for students. As each group began researching their topic, they refined the focus of their project and they needed specific information to move forward. For our first two passion projects, I curated credible resources for my students. We will learn how to evaluate sources later in the year and I simply didn’t have time to pre-teach and monitor the progress of that skill yet. I had to continually help students find new resources as they moved through their research.

Ask for Help

Managing so many groups was made easier because I have a wonderful co-teacher. I also wasn’t shy asking for additional help. Our director of virtual and blended learning stopped by from time to time to see our progress and lend a hand, and our instructional coach popped in while we were working on our projects. Two former students chose to help out in my classroom as part of their reward for awesome behavior, and they provided excellent peer support for my students.

Take the Risk!

I learned that allowing students the freedom to direct their learning and own the process is messy. It’s not clear cut and I couldn’t plan far in advance. Those conditions are really about me, though. If I’m trying to create a student-centered classroom, then I need to let go of some of my planning preferences. In the end, I took the risk of trying and it was worth it!

Friday, October 19, 2018

Helping Students Realize their Potential with Passion Projects

We began passion projects a little more than a month ago. Our first project focused around the student-selected topic of homelessness. I quickly realized that I had underestimated my students- and they just continue to blow me away!

To begin our next LAUNCH Cycle for another passion project, we returned to our wall of wonders- a collection of student and teacher questions about topics we are interested in. Students shared the ideas they found the most interesting, and we settled on four topics of study for students to choose between:
  • How do you make a house?
  • How are families affected by deployment?
  • How do you make a video game?
  • Why do bulls not like the color red?

Developing Topics

I was initially concerned with the topic of why bulls don’t like red. It seems like a pretty simple question to answer after a bit of reading. As my students found the answer to their question, they realized that bulls don’t dislike the color, they just dislike being teased and aggravated. Our discussion touched on animal mistreatment, abuse, captivity, and animal entertainment such as the circus and zoo. Rather than simply telling my students that their topic wouldn’t work, I encouraged them to learn what they could and then develop more questions to guide further research.

Student Projects

I’m thrilled with the projects my students created. Are they perfect? No. Are they amazing? YES! These projects are a great reflection of student learning. You wouldn’t believe how excited they were to share their projects during parent-teacher conferences.

How to Build a House

These students decided they would make a model to demonstrate their learning. They used their model to explain the process to the class. Their model included framing, drywall, electrical wiring, and roofing.


These young ladies were very concerned when learning about the stress that families, service men, and service women face during and after deployment. After learning about PTSD, they decided to create a presentation and share their new understanding with the class. They also wrote letters to veterans and their families. See their presentations here.

Video Games

A large number of my students chose this topic. Almost every student wanted to use what they learned about world building, conflict, and character development to write their own video game stories. Student teams used Scratch to create their games. Our class spent time asking questions about the game making process and exploring the games.

One student decided he wanted to write a blog about making video games. He spotlighted a particular group of students and outlined what made their game special.

Animal Cruelty

This group of students decided they wanted to develop a website to inform their peers about the conditions under which animals in captivity live. The class was challenged to consider how they spend money at the circus and zoo.

Standards-Based Instruction

Are you wondering how I “fit in” standards? I purposefully timed our passion projects to fall during our nonfiction reading unit. As we completed our first passion project together, I introduced a simple T-Chart. The left side said, “Text Says” and the right side said, “I Think.” This super simple organizer served to guide our reading. Students were summarizing, making connections, synthesizing, determining problems and solutions, and reading with real purpose. We practiced these skills together during our first passion project, and they worked more independently on the second. I also reinforced these reading skills during guided reading groups.

Student Empowerment

One of the reasons I love passions projects is because my students love them. There is real purpose behind reading, freedom for creativity, and students have the opportunity to publish their work for a large audience. I continue to remind myself to stop underestimating my students...but do you see why they amaze me? They have so much to offer the world, not just later as adults but right now. Passion projects show students what they are capable of. I love empowering my students!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Developing a Passion for Learning with Passion Projects

One of my major goals for this year is increasing personalized learning in my classroom. At the beginning of the year, I set a few goals for implementation. One of these goals is using a design thinking process called the LAUNCH cycle, for student-driven passion projects. Our nonfiction reading unit seemed to be a perfect fit for our first project.

We began by reading the book, Giant Steps to Change the World. My students found inspiration from famous world-changers. We researched these heroes and realized that they are just people like us. If they changed the world, so can we!

Learning Process

I was concerned about managing all 27 of my students studying a different topic, so we agreed to vote and choose one topic for our first passion project. My students took some time to brainstorm wonder statements, explore Wonderopolis, and discuss ideas together. Many students found interest in the topic of homelessness. We decided on this essential question: how does a person become homeless?

We generated as many questions about the topic as we could so that we could determine the direction for our research. Next, we spent days researching. Google Earth Voyager helped us explore what homes look like around the world, documentaries revealed the disadvantages homeless children face, and articles shed light on the relationship between poverty and homelessness. Our Parent Liaison also joined us and led a student activity to help my students understand the challenge of managing resources on a budget.

Learning Outcomes

Through all of our learning, I saw my students practicing the nonfiction reading skills outlined in our current reading unit. They summarized, determined the main idea, synthesized information across texts, drew conclusions, and identified cause and effect relationships. More importantly though, my students had a genuine interest in our topic, they were invested in their own learning, and they made comments like, “Do we get to read more for our project today?” Toward the end of our project more than a few students came to school with huge smiles because, “I can’t wait to do our project today!”

The best part of this project was having the opportunity to help my students grow in understanding and compassion. We learned about extremely difficult situations and we experienced empathy. From that place, my students were inspired to take action and do something about the present problem. They were inspired to encourage others with kindness, and they were empowered to make a difference. I am so proud of them!


As our final project, we assembled care bags for members of our community with materials provided by a grant written by my co-teacher. The care bags were distributed during a food pantry held at our school. My students felt so proud that they could make a difference for so many families at our school. 

We also created separate care bags so that each of my students could keep one in their car to share with someone in our city. We discussed the physical and emotional challenges of homelessness and decided to include toiletry items, snacks, and an encouraging note. Several of my students have already shared their care bag and were eager to encourage their peers to share theirs as well.


Through this whole process, I realized a few important things. Logistically, I made the right choice in having my students agree on one topic to begin with. Working together with my students allowed me to really focus on reinforcing comprehension strategies for my students to apply as they read. For our next passion project, I plan to have my students study three or four different topics. I’ll continue to learn the best way to manage different groups, topics, and projects as the year goes on.

I also learned the importance of pacing with my students. On days that my students seemed to lose steam part way through our reading time, we would participate in guided discussion, revisit our questions, and read to find out how others are already working to help the homeless. These activities provided variety so that my students weren’t expected to read and research for our entire reading block.

Finally, I learned to stop underestimating my students. They are only nine years old, but they have amazing ideas, caring hearts, and eternal optimism! I’m so glad they chose such a serious topic because they showed me what they are truly capable of. One of the best parts of the LAUNCH Cycle is the idea that students create something and share it with the world. My goal was to empower my students to realize that they can have an impact on their world, and by the end of our project we did just that.


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Personalizing Learning in the Elementary Classroom

The beginning of the school year is always full of possibilities, and I’m so excited to start a new adventure with my students this year.

I intend to continue gamified blended learning like last year, and one of my new goals is to take steps to further personalize learning for my students. I began increasing student agency in my classroom by offering more choices and then teaching students to self-assess and plan their own learning steps.

I found new ideas for personalized learning through two sources this summer. Empower by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani is so incredibly inspiring! The book is focused around the idea of students owning their learning. I was also inspired this summer by hearing author Barbara Bray speak at ISTE 2018. Her books about personalized learning are a great resource for teachers!

What is personalized learning?

Personalized learning is focused around the learner. If individualized learning is creating a specific learning plan for each student, and differentiated learning is focused around the teacher providing instruction for small groups, then personalized learning empowers the learner to make choices to drive their own learning. Barbara Bray’s website Rethink Learning offers a great chart that compares these three learning approaches. I plan to give the following ideas a try this year to further personalize learning.

Geek Out Blog

Last year I began blogging with my students. Each student used their personal blog to reflect on their learning, share triumphs, and publish classwork they felt proud of. Not only were students able to publish for an authentic audience, but our class also practiced the skills needed to be positive members of an online community by providing positive feedback and encouragement.

In addition to the ways in which my students used their blogs last year, I’d like to add what Spencer and Juliani call “Geek Out Blogs.” This format allows students to select the topic, format, and information they publish. They are able to "geek out" about what they love while owning the entire writing process from brainstorming to researching and publishing.

Personalized Learning Paths

I began using a blended learning model in my class about a year and a half ago. Over that time, I’ve learned to create online content, track student progress, connect online and face-to-face learning, and engage students through gamification. My next step is to create multiple learning paths for students. Multiple learning paths means that students have many paths and resources available to best meet their learning needs. This will empower students to reflect on their progress and make informed choices about what support they need to be successful. The map below shows three learning paths within Classcraft, the gamified learning platform I use.

This map shows multiple learning paths for success. The yellow path is the general
content, red provides remediation, and purple includes more advanced applications of skills.

Passion Projects

I’ve been interested in trying passion projects, 20% time, or genius hour for a while now. Did you know that Google employees spend 20% of their work time pursuing projects of their own choosing? This concept has fascinated me. If we truly want students to be intrinsically motivated to learn and create, then I think this is a great place to start. This year, I’ve considered our district curriculum units and have chosen one unit where I can begin implementing a choice-driven project.

Wonder Week

Spencer and Juliani challenge teachers to choose one week, possibly right before a longer break or at the end of state testing, where students are given time to explore a topic or idea they are fascinated by. The idea here is to promote student curiosity and creativity. I am looking forward to exploring and creating with my students in this way!

Have you had success personalizing learning with your elementary students? I’d love to hear about what you have tried or would like to try with your learners!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

5 Essential Instructional Design Tips for Blended Learning

It’s hard to believe that I started implementing blended learning about a year ago. What began as an interest in learning about the subject quickly became the most effective way I have found to deliver meaningful and personalized instruction; and gamifying blended learning in my classroom has raised student engagement and motivation to new levels.

The most important concept that I have learned during my journey is that there must be quality instruction at the core of every online lesson. Here are my top five instructional design tips that I take into consideration as I create online instruction for my students.

Creating a quality online lesson does not simply mean changing current lessons into an online format.

First, a boring worksheet or lecture in class is even more boring when students are working online, because they are not interacting with their teachers. Second, students learn differently online than they do in a classroom setting. Taking these differences into account while developing online content not only increases student engagement, but it also helps to increase retention of skills and content. 

Variety is crucial.

I want my students actively engaged in their learning, not simply going through the motions. I've learned that too much routine and predictability can lead to boredom. For this reason, I use a variety of modalities to deliver content, practice skills, and assess student learning. As much as possible, I provide students with this variety by using videos, infographics, audiobooks, songs, collaborative google docs, online games, and to engage with while learning. Visit my Symbaloo Webmix to see some of my favorite web tools that I use. 

It is important to present content in a visually inviting way.

Writing in paragraphs and sections gives the reader a visual break, chunking ideas into manageable parts. Organizing online content with the purpose of aiding student processing and comprehension is just as important. I try to avoid too much text on one page, otherwise my students tend to become easily overwhelmed and they do not fully engage in the lesson. 

Online learning must connect to face-to-face instruction.

It’s no secret that learning done in isolation with no opportunity to transfer skills leads to low retention of content. It’s crucial for my young learners to apply their online learning in face-to-face settings. Sometimes I use online data to drive face-face lessons, and other times my interactions with students affects the online lessons I plan for them. It just depends on the skills we are learning and the needs of my students. Either way though, my students have come to understand that the learning they do online will directly connect to the content and skills we are learning in the classroom.

These students and I are analyzing poetry after learning figurative
language techniques through their online lessons. 

Consider pacing and feedback to build and sustain momentum.

I can’t stress enough the importance of timely feedback. If too much time passes, students can lose momentum and interest in their online learning. For this reason, I strategically plan self-assessment and peer-assessment opportunities within our online units so that my students do not always need my feedback to progress. This balance ensures that my students maintain their excitement for our learning together. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Benefits of Flipped Assessments

Amy has been a music
teacher for 23 years.
Imagine the teaching schedule of a special area teacher in an elementary school. They are responsible for teaching every student, but in most cases, they only see them one time per week for about 45 minutes.

This time of year is exciting for my students because they are learning to read music and play the recorder. During a typical lesson for this unit, our wonderful music teacher, Amy Beasley, assesses each student individually. So with 32 students, she has very little time left for actual instruction. To complicate matters more, our students struggle to retain their learning in special area classes due to only seeing our specials teachers about once per week.

I started thinking about the amount of time individual assessments take out of Amy’s teaching day and a solution came to mind. If we allow students to take their recorder tests at home using Flipgrid, then the entire class period can be used for instruction. As Amy and I discussed this idea we brainstormed a few more ideas and we found so many benefits to using this assessment model. 

Increased Instructional Time

Assessing students through video means that Amy does not have to spend class time individually assessing each student. Instead of having about 10 minutes of instructional time with students this week, Amy can spend more of her class period teaching. 

Individualized Feedback

Before, Amy’s time with each student was very limited, meaning there was little time to provide feedback- but not anymore. Amy and I set up individual google docs for each student so that she can provide specific feedback. This also helps her to track the progress of her 132 fourth graders.

Increased Practice Time

In the past, not many students were motivated to practice at home. Now though, they naturally practice as they record themselves, trying over and over to get it just right. It’s not a perfect solution to promoting practice at home, but some students are practicing more than before.

Positive Music Experience

When using Flipgrid to take their recorder tests, students are able to perform without the pressure of their entire class watching them. Of course, students who play instruments will learn to perform in front of others, but at this young age, recording performance assessments is a great way for students to build their confidence and have a positive musical experience.

Online Instruction

In addition to having students practice and record their assessment at home, Amy and I also developed a way to provide instruction for students as they practice. A simple Padlet page now has a variety of short videos in which Amy plays each song for students so that they can hear each piece.

Challenges and Next Steps

Amy and I are so pleased with the potential benefits of flipping assessment. Not only can it address the issue of instructional time, but it also led to other ideas to improve the quality of at-home practice and feedback for individual students.

The greatest challenge that Amy now faces is motivating the majority of her students to actually record their assessments at home. We initially thought that the benefit of not playing in front of the whole class would motivate most students, but that hasn’t been the case. The next step is finding the right incentive to encourage student follow through.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Creating A Global Classroom

Last year, my class had the opportunity to travel to the island of Borneo through Google Expeditions. With the aid of smartphones and VR viewers, each student was able to explore the rainforest with me as their guide. While on our trip, we studied the ecological changes happening there as a result of deforestation. It was amazing!

Integrating technology in this way allowed me to provide a learning opportunity that used to be impossible. I want to be able to plan lessons with rich experiences for my students- opening their minds to the world both near and far.

I recently learned about Skype Classroom -a free community of teachers and experts working together to provide live virtual lessons, field trips, and collaborations around the world. Skype Classroom has learning opportunities appropriate for every grade level, and students do not need their own devices to participate. Your class can discuss a book with its author, collaborate on projects with classes around the world, and visit experts in their field.

Since each Skype Classroom experience is a live event, you can interact closely with your collaborator, asking specific questions and making your lesson or field trip highly relevant for your students. Here are a few examples of the experiences I’ve scheduled for my class.

Civil War Museum

My class traveled all the way to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond to learn about the life of a Civil War soldier. We were able to see artifacts, learn about primary sources, and gain a better understanding of life in the 1800s.

Indigenous People of the Amazon Rainforest

In a few weeks, we will have the opportunity to visit the Amazon Rainforest to learn about issues facing the indigenous people, study cultural similarities and differences, and explore the ecosystem there.

Writing Tips from an Author

To begin our poetry unit, we will visit with an author. She will share a lesson about writing with your senses and then guide us through practice. This will be a great way to make our writing come alive.

Give it a try! All you need to begin cultivating your global classroom is a free Skype Classroom account and a webcam. If you have tried Skype Classroom, I'd love to hear your favorite lessons, field trips, and collaborations. Comment below!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Designing Online Learning Experiences That Empower Students

Earlier this year, I was inspired by a teacher who required her students to assess their prior knowledge and then choose their learning path for each lesson. Soon after, my co-teacher and I made specific changes to our math workshop in order to increase student agency and ownership in our own classroom. Our goal was to provide ways for students to direct their own learning while also considering long-term projects as performance assessments.

I’ve recently started learning more about empowering students from author John Spencer. In this short video, he suggests 10 ways teachers can start offering choice for their learners.

I considered each of these suggestions when designing my latest online math content, a learning quest through Classcraft. My students engaged with this quest during their independent work time in math workshop over the course of four weeks. Each task in our quest includes a part of our fictional story from our “realm,” lesson content, assessments, and game rewards for student players.

Each location on the map contains lesson content and
learning tasks for students to complete. 

Student Choice in Daily Learning

Each learning task includes a variety of teaching materials such as charts, videos, songs, and examples. Students can choose how they want to learn and practice each skill.

My students are able to choose which topics they practice first. They can build their confidence with topics that were easy for them to understand during small group instruction or they can choose a more challenging task.

We provide students with ongoing instruction in each topic as they progress toward mastery, allowing them to spend more or less time on a topic based on their need.

My students determine when they will take the formative assessments for each topic based on their personal progress.

Student Choice in Final Performance Assessments

Project Format
When many students have shown mastery of most of the topics, we give students choice about how they want to demonstrate their learning with final performance assessments. Students can choose the format, audience, and specific topic of their project.

Project Management
While working on projects, students manage their own work. My role as the teacher is to help students stay on track and provide additional resources as the need arises.

Students have chosen final project ranging from paper and pencil tasks
to creating teaching videos and using manipulatives to model a problem.

Evidence of Empowered Students

One of the benefits of teaching in small groups in a math workshop format is that my co-teacher and I have a clear picture of each student’s progress toward mastery. At the same time, we want our students advocating for their learning needs. Part of what makes this possible is the visual aspect of the quest map. It makes it very easy for students to track their own progress, plus they are motivated to complete tasks to gain points toward leveling up. We have found that students are advocating for their learning needs more often by expressing their need for additional face-to-face help with specific topics. This is empowered learning!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Worldbuilding: Creating a Sustainable Classroom Environment for Gamification

Gamification has so many benefits including increased student engagement and willingness to take on new challenges without the fear of failure. We have been using Classcraft, an online gamification platform that transforms our learning into a game, and we are off to an amazing start! Part of what has made us so successful is that my students had been practicing necessary online learning skills since August, and now they are able to apply these skills independently within a blended learning environment.

I think it’s normal for the newness of an experience to wear off after a while, and it’s easy to fall into a predictable pattern of learning and planning, so I’ve taken intentional steps to keep our learning experiences fresh and engaging.

It’s my goal to create a classroom environment- our own gaming world- that makes our gamified blended learning sustainable. Community, story narrative, and engaging content are key aspects to consider when worldbuilding.


Online learning is not synonymous with isolated learning. The community aspect of a classroom should transcend the actual location of learning- whether that is online or face-to-face. Regardless of where and how students are learning, they should have opportunities to interact with the content and their learning community.

Building a positive community within a competitive gaming situation is critical. Friendly competition is great, but what’s even better is a collective community that is genuinely interested in the learning of everyone involved. One way that we build our community is through collaborative battles within our game. Boss battles are formative review challenges within Classcraft where my class work together to defeat a fictional character. When the class is counting on every student to work hard and be prepared, students are motivated to invest in their peers. It’s powerful stuff!

My student groups also compete throughout the day for extra XP. The red team created a goal without any prompting from me, showing me that they are interested in building up our community too. Classcraft also has random events that can award students points, deal damage, or provide a silly way to have fun together. Whatever the outcome, whether good or bad, we are in it together, and it reinforces our community.


Each quest within our game includes a fictional story. This narrative follows us from one adventure to another. An interesting story goes a long way toward keeping students interested in completing online tasks. I realized that my struggling readers were sometimes missing the narrative of our game because it was difficult for them to understand.

For that reason, I started creating short “quest trailers” that help students jump right into the story and understand the objective for the quest. It was a big hit with students, and after I started using these videos, my class as a whole was more interested in the story behind our game.

Since the quest trailers are a bit time consuming to create, I’ve also been using Blabberize to help students get excited about quests. It’s a quick and silly way to engage my learners, and they are excited to start making their own blabs in the near future.

Secret missions are also a bit hit for my students. I let them know that I’ve “hidden” an extra task in our quest with a large reward. They can unlock the secret mission when they complete a certain task, but they don’t know what that task is, so they are extra motivated to complete their work.

Engaging Content

Let’s be honest. Boring content is boring content. If I want my students engaged, then I need to find and create resources that they are interested in. Our online lessons include a lot of various media- articles, infographics, visual charts, pictures, Youtube videos, book read alouds, songs, and teaching videos I’ve created.

Here are a few of my favorite tools and sites for finding and creating engaging content. I'd love to hear your favorites too- add a comment below!
  • Playposit allows me to make any online video interactive for my students.
  • Flipgrid is a great way to allow students to interact in online discussion or demonstrate their understanding for an assessment.
  • Wonderopolis is a fantastic site that provides students with interactive images and videos on a variety of topics. It’s a great way to encourage students to explore a topic.
  • Thinglink allows you to make any image interactive. There are lots of different pricing plans, but the basic version is enough for me.
  • Kidsdiscover has some great infographics for download.
  • TheKidShouldSeeThis has short educational videos that are perfect for my learners.

Every Game Needs a Gamemaster

In this journey into gamification, I’ve realized that my students take their cues from me. While my role is to prepare content, give feedback, and provide instruction so each student moves toward mastery, I also have the important role of Gamemaster.

It’s important that I show my excitement and willingness to be silly and play with my students while we learn. I’m both the teacher and the Gamemaster. I set the tone for a positive community and a positive game experience, which means my students need to know that I’m all in!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Setting the Stage: Preparing Students for Gamification

My goal for this quarter is gamifying our blended reading groups. Gamification is incredibly motivating for students, and I am already beginning to see the benefits of using Classcraft with my learners. Before beginning though, there were a number of foundational skills and experiences that my students needed in order to find success while learning independently in a blended model.

Online Learning Skills

I remember learning last year that we read online text much differently than we read print text. It stands to reason that students need specific skills to learn independently online. I applied what I learned about creating online content and then taught my students a few specific skills to prepare them for their online learning.

First, I had to teach students the difference between watching videos for entertainment and engaging in video content for learning. It seems obvious, but students need practice engaging with media by pausing, taking notes, making sketches, asking questions, and finding connections.

Second, I’ve helped my students develop visual literacy skills through graphic novels so that they can effectively learn information from visual sources. Third, we have spent quite a bit of time self-assessing our work this year using rubrics and learning progressions. As a result, students have developed a self-awareness of their learning tendencies and self-monitoring skills needed to learn independently online.

Experience with Tools

I have been intentionally been using a variety of technology tools in class this year. From our district learning hub, student blogs, Storybird, Pixton, Blabberize, Google Classroom and Flipgrid, we have been learning and demonstrating our understanding in a variety of different ways. When creating online learning tasks, I mostly use tools my students are familiar with so that they can successfully complete independent tasks.

When introducing each new tool, I encouraged my students to explore a little bit before I modeled using the tool for our learning. I did this to allow students the opportunity to discover new tools, not just “use an app.” I want my students to know how to learn about a technology tool without me directly by their side. That way they have confidence in their tech skills when learning on their own.

Quest Support

I learned last year that it is critical to have students solving their own technical problems. My goal is to teach small groups while students are learning independently online, so I can’t continually provide tech support. This year, I have identified four students who excel at problem solving. These kiddos are able to help their classmates when they run into problems. My quest support students are also available to explain learning tasks when students are struggling, freeing me up to teach guided reading groups.

A Note on Managing Personalized Blended Learning

Part of what makes using Classcraft so great is that students can work at their own pace to complete tasks and objectives. While this is great for my students, it poses a challenge in managing the learning of my 33 students. For that reason, I created our Classcraft board. It serves as our main form of communication for the tasks were are learning.

Student have a magnets with their picture next to their team shield. When they finish a task that I need to check, they move their picture to the scroll. Once I check their work, I move their picture to the treasure chest or book to show that they have moved on to the next task or need to go back, review the feedback I left for them, and try again. This board also helps limit how many tasks students can finish in one week so that my learners are encouraged to complete work well rather than rushing to try to get ahead.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Beginning Gamification with Classcraft

My goal in gamifying our blended learning rotation during reading groups is to increase motivation and engagement when students are working independently. Since students are working on their own, and not in a whole group setting, I was in need of a sophisticated gamification app to both deliver online content and assess student learning. 

While I like the idea of being able to customize game settings to best meet the unique needs of my learners, I really needed an app that is easy to use for a complete novice in the gaming world (that’s me!). Classcraft is a perfect fit. It’s really great, guys! I can easily customize settings for my class, and it has online support via chat, community forums, and all kids of video tutorials. All those resources made it really simple to get things all set up for my class. 

Basic Features

I created accounts for my students and assigned teams in only about 10 minutes. Once that is done, individual students are able to create their own character. Student teams work together to gain points, protect one another from possible negative events, and ultimately, level up in the game. This collaborative aspect of the game provides an extra layer of motivation through peer accountability. As the gamemaster, I can assign students or teams points or damage based on their class behavior, very much like Class Dojo. All this is free for teachers! 

Teachers can view student profiles and add points from
 a computer or smartphone. 

Delivering Lessons and Assessments 

It gets better! What I’m really excited about is quests. I decided to pay for a premium account so that I would have access to this feature. Quests are a series of lessons and tasks that I create for my students. This is how I deliver online lessons and assessments. Each task is accompanied with a story, where I write a narrative of what is happening in our fictional world of the game, and what characters must do to complete the quest and win. 

This map outlines the seven tasks students must finish to complete the quest.

As students work their way through each task, they reveal a new part of the map we are playing through and earn rewards for their character and team. When students earn enough points, they level up, making their character more powerful and acquiring new skills. Students can also use the gold pieces they have earned to get a pet for their character or buy new accessories to make their characters look extra awesome. 

Personalized Learning 

Another great feature for quests is that I can personalize learning for my students. Within each quest, I can create multiple paths for students to reach success. If Student A is completing tasks well, she can continue on the normal path, or even choose a more challenging path. When Student B shows that he has not mastered a skill, I can set up the quest so that he automatically follows a separate path to receive reteaching and extra practice before progressing to new skills. How great is that!? 

After a bit more practice, I plan to start creating quests with these more complex paths to personalize student learning. Here is my first attempt. The yellow path is the most direct route and requires basic mastery of skills. The red detour includes reteaching and remediation activities, while the purple detour challenges students to apply their learning in new ways. 

This map shows multiple learning paths for success. 

Initial Implementation

We have been using Classcraft in our reading groups for about two weeks now and we LOVE it! My students are so engaged and motivated. When students have failed at a task, they have asked to try again so that they can further develop their character. They have even asked if they can "play" Classcraft at home. Wow!! This is winning!

My next goal is to maintain this motivation after the honeymoon phase wears off. I can’t wait to see how my students learn and grow using gamification!