Saturday, August 29, 2015

Thing 23: Makerspaces

I promised myself I wouldn't let the summer end without giving some thought to my makerspace. I did manage to put it off to the last minute, though. Why is that? I love my maker club and the kids who flood in, full of excitement. But I need to make some changes, and I don't quite know what to do, so I've been avoiding it.

OK, here's some background. In the spring of 2014, I started a maker club at the middle school. It was solely supplied by stuff from my basement--odds and ends, some fabric, paint, craft sticks, stamps, a couple of boxes of Legos. It was an instant hit. Kids were delighted to come and play around with stuff. It was noisy and messy. I loved it. 

I applied for a teacher grant from a local foundation and got it--$1500 for materials for the 2014-15 school year! Spending it was a blast--loads of duct tape, LittleBits electronics kits, some Arduinos, batteries, LEDs, paper, hot glue guns. Parents and staff members came through with donations of fabric, yarn, more duct tape, and other fun odds and ends. The new middle school principal--a former science teacher--was completely on board. I again went with a very open model. I put out 3 to 5 activities per session. There was usually something on the iPads (GarageBand, Stop Motion animation, 123D), a coding activity, sewing, and some kind of engineering activity like catapult building or constructing chairs out of paper. We sometimes drew 50 students, which is a lot when you consider that my TA and I were the only adults in the room. After a few months of that, we limited it to 30 students to save our sanity.

There was nothing that was really wrong with this model. The kids loved the freedom to explore. But as the year went on and our district STEM/STEAM team started to meet, I began to think about what I was doing with maker club and where I want it to go. What I see when I look at the kids is tons of enthusiasm and curiosity--and a significant lack of basic skills. If I want to move students along the maker spectrum, from using up toward experimenting and creating (if we use the uTEC model), then they need to be able to focus more on gaining skills instead of just messing around. We have lots of kids who love to play around with something for a week or two but then get bored or frustrated and try something else. That's fine--they need to try lots of things until they find something that really grabs them. And with just 2 adults on hand, it's hard to focus on one or two students. I do know, though, that some students would love to really master a skill, whether it's sewing or making a piece of music or creating a game. So, the challenge for this year is how to meet all these different needs with limited staff.

A few ideas:

  • Recruit more adults. Teachers are required to be in their classrooms during the time maker club meets, but maybe I can find a parent or two who can help out.
  • Balance the needs. 
    • Some students will want to mess around with materials and not commit to anything. Maybe we can keep 10-15 slots open for them and continue to put out a variety of things for them to use. One of the adults can be in charge of overseeing this group.
    • Other students may be ready to commit to a particular project or skill. Can we offer mini-courses to help them? We could start the year by soliciting ideas for mini-courses and see what would fly, then teach a few of them throughout the year. That way, they could build some skills and see a project through to completion. We could recruit adult mentors if students want to do projects that are beyond my knowledge and ability. 
  • Write another grant to cover materials for this year. 
I love having a maker club--it lets students of different grade levels and social groups interact, it lets me see the students in a different light, and it gives the kids a sense of play and possibility. It stretches all of us in new and unexpected ways and creates community. Long live maker club!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Thing 24: Infographics

I really enjoyed working on this particular Thing, though I did find it somewhat intimidating. Learning about infographics has been on my to-do list for at least a year, and I love to study infographics whenever they pop up in my RSS feed. Still, I've been a bit overwhelmed. What data should I use? How should I represent it? What tool, what color scheme, graphics, and font should I choose?  I've looked at a bunch of infographic tools, and went with Piktochart pretty much on a whim. It was easy to learn and had a nice variety of graphics, backgrounds and fonts.

I poked around at various data sets (US government education statistics, NY State DEC endangered animal data) before I decided to keep it simple and work with some mostly true data from my own library to make a mockup of a year-end report. I didn't have exact numbers at hand, but I have a pretty good memory for circulation statistics and purchases, so I know I got those numbers in the ballpark (and yes, my circulation numbers really did skyrocket that much! Yay!).  This was just the right amount of information to get my feet wet--I needed something without complex levels of information for a starter project.

As I worked on this project, I thought about potential pitfalls of using infographics with students. I would love to figure out a really easy tool to use with younger students (maybe just Google Docs?), and I think that I would only attempt something like Piktochart with 7th or 8th grade students for a number of reasons. First of all, deciding on data (even with a defined project) and how to present it visually is a huge challenge--what numbers do you pick? What's the best format for representing it--a chart or graph or text frame? How many images do you use, and at what point do you have too many (because students almost always go in the direction of too many rather than too few!)? How do you keep the flow of information clear and understandable? Can you construct an infographic so that a casual viewer can get your point immediately? There's also the issue of making sure that your content matches those spiffy graphics--some careful editing and proofreading would be necessary! Yikes--these are some high level skills and I would need to make sure that the classroom teacher and I had really put our heads together and had clear ideas and expectations before we could launch into an infographic project. That said, I sure would like to hook the 8th grade math teacher for something like this--I rarely collaborate with the math department and this would be a good prospect. I could also see it as a good fit for the 8th grade periodic table research project--students have a pretty focused task in that project and this might be a good way to represent their findings.

For younger students, I would have to do a ton of research and practice before I felt confident with rolling out infographics. I could see doing something simple with the upcoming 2nd grade project on our community--we could do some basic visual representations of demographic information, for example. 

I loved that this task stretched my brain and got me out of my comfort zone a bit. I think I could spend a lot of time playing around with infographics--now I just need to convince a teacher to take the plunge!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Thing 16: Mapping & Geolocation Tools

For this Thing, I looked at 3 tools: Google Earth Tour Builder, National Geographic Interactive Mapmaker, and UMapper. I've done some summer curriculum work with my 2nd grade team so that we can kick off a project-based unit on community/local history, so I wanted to explore some tools that would help our students learn about maps, explore the geography and surroundings of Trumansburg, and allow us to add content generated by both students and staff. In addition, I've done some side work this summer with a teacher from Chicago who is developing a similar unit, so we spent some time talking through these tools.

I played around with building a tour of Trumansburg in each tool. I abandoned National Geographic Interactive Mapmaker pretty quickly. It looks great and is easy to use, and I like the fact that you can overlay different maps (wildlife habitats, economy, weather), but it wasn't the tool for this project. You can add placemarks and text, but not photos. Also, it simply doesn't offer a close enough view of our little town--I couldn't zoom in fully without getting the "no data"grid. I'm sure it's different for major metropolitan areas, though. So this one goes on the shelf for another time. It may work for that middle school unit on water scarcity.

I liked UMapper a bit better. It's also easy to use, you can add pictures as well as text to the placemarks, and you can lock in the view so that viewers stay on the area you want. You can also add audio, which is a nice feature. This is a front runner for the project. I like the ability to draw on the map, so students could mark it up--find their houses, try to define the town's boundaries, trace their route to school. I think that second graders could use it with just a bit of coaching. Here's my map of Trumansburg:

I think that my favorite, though, is Google Earth Tour Builder. It was a bit of a headache at first. The 3D version won't run on Chrome! This has to do with the fact that Chrome doesn't allow the necessary plugin. The 3D version will work on Firefox, but I need something that will work on our Chromebooks. I had to do some fiddling around to actually sign in--it kept giving me an error message, but finally accepted my school account. From there, I could build a tour in the older, 2d version. I like Tour Builder for several reasons. Dropping placemarks is easy, and you can add up to 25 photos, and even record a video to add to the tour. Google integration means that you can add photos from your own Drive. When you play the tour, it zips you around from place to place (though I didn't zoom in much for my tour, so it's kind of static)--I like this feature a lot. This was the only tool that allows users to play the tour. You can't mark up the map like you can with UMapper, but I could see using both tools for the project--Tour Builder as a way to do a preliminary tour of the town, then UMapper to mark up a map and make a sort of working copy,  and maybe Tour Builder again as a final presentation tool once students have taken pictures of sites around town. You can find my tour of Trumansburg here. 

I so enjoy playing with maps! I think I will end up incorporating some of these tools into the 4th grade social studies units on mapping and New York State history. My 5th graders also do projects on U.S. history/geography, Latin America, and Canada, and I think that the teachers will enjoy these tools. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Thing 6: Curation

Recipes & Resources for Beginning Bakers

This one was fun and also a bit of a hassle. I've been a Pinterest user for years (and a bit too committed to it if you ask my family). I pin recipes, art ideas, lesson ideas, library decor inspiration, garden ideas. So many pins!

For school, though, I've always curated content onto my school websites. It's pretty quick (after my district has moved to its 3rd website tool in 6 years, I've migrated everything over to my own Google Sites so that I don't have to keep rebuilding everything every few years!) and works well. Cool Tools is urging me to expand my options, though, so I chose to explore Learnist. I like it quite a bit. It looks slick, it can handle a variety of content, and it was pretty easy to use. I had a few headaches getting it to publish (I figured it out, but their FAQ and help sections aren't very complete, and the links to their YouTube tutorials are dead) but I finally did. My LearnBoard is a collection of resources for beginning bakers, since my 11-year-old son is very into baking this summer--it was fun to throw together some things that he can explore.

How might I use this at school? Well, the 8th grade social studies teacher and I are working on a project to get students to evaluate and curate resources, so this would be an interesting option, though I wish there was a collaboration element to Learnist so that we could easily have a class board. I can create a class login that we could all use as a workaround. For my younger students, this would present an easily navigable way to present a collection of resources, whether for first grade animal research, the 4th grade project on the Olympics, my Maker Club kids, or the 5th grade unit on Latin America. Learnist would also be an appealing way to push content out to staff as we ramp up our district STEM/STEAM initiative and explore project-based learning.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Thing 5: Digital Storytelling

I've done digital storytelling in the past with students. My younger elementary students did well with Little Bird Tales, and older elementary students loved the artwork in StoryBird. Older elementary and middle school students also enjoyed making book trailers with that old Windows favorite, Photo Story 2 (no longer available to us since the upgrade to Windows 7 and replacement of some Windows machines with Chromebooks). I finally gave up my subscription to VoiceThread this year, after feeling that it just hadn't kept up with the fast-changing world of online apps. We used it for quite a while, but now it just seems kind of drab and clunky.

I turned to PowToon to see if it was worth the hype. They have a great PR department that sends me chirpy emails a few times a week, and I'd been meaning to take it out for a test drive. I tried out the animated presentations, and they have a bit of a learning curve. I could see upper elementary students getting confused and frustrated, while my 7th and 8th graders would probably find PowToon a fun challenge. 

I could see several possibilities for using digital storytelling in general and PowToon in particular. Maybe a math teacher (notoriously hard to get into the library!) could have students create an explainer presentation or video for a math concept. For science, students could present research, explain a concept, or show the results of an experiment. Home and careers or health teachers might find digital storytelling useful for some of their stock projects, like career research, budgeting, or health issue research. Of course, it's easy to think of applications for social studies and ELA--book reviews, book trailers, research...

One of the problems with digital storytelling is that the mention of it often freaks out the teachers in my buildings. A few brave souls have worked with me on these projects (my 5th grade team is great about trying new things!) but the majority still seem intimidated. I'm hoping that, since so much more technology is getting rolled out to classrooms this year, teachers will start to stretch a little and test out some new tools.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Thing 2: Photo Fun

I decided to start with Thing 2 because one of my goals this summer is to work on my photography skills. We've had various point-and-shoot cameras through the years, then phones and iPads, but I've always been a pretty awful photographer. When someone at school asked me for photos of students doing projects this spring, the photos I snapped and sent along were met with a polite "um, maybe a parent volunteer could come in and take some pictures." Mine were really that bad. 

When my family campaigned for a new camera recently, our boys being wannabe videographers who envision YouTube fame in their future, I agreed. It could only help, right? And it has. It's not a fancy camera--just a point-and-shoot with nifty settings--but it has spurred the whole family to look around for good photo ops. I took the above photos in Ithaca's Cascadilla Gorge (a beautiful trail that runs from the heart of downtown up to Cornell University), then assembled the collage using PicMonkey. I shared it via Instagram, which I've used for a while now and really like. It's uncluttered and simple, a nice little window into the moments people share.

At school, my middle school principal is really trying to get staff to use Twitter as a tool to inform parents and the community about the terrific things happening in our building. I like tweeting photos because they can enrich those 140 characters (and, luckily, the no-photo list for our students is so short that I have it memorized, which makes it much easier to share!). 

So, how am I going to incorporate photography into lessons at school? Several things come to mind:
  • At the elementary school, work with the 2nd grade team that's planning a project based learning unit on the local community. One aspect might be a walking tour of the town, and students could easily snap photos of places that catch their interest. These could then be added to a map for an online walking tour of Trumansburg.
  • Upper elementary students and their younger Reading Buddies could do an alphabet scavenger hunt around the school and photograph the items they find.
  • In my middle school Maker Club, students could work on photography projects (I've shown them PicMonkey in the past and they just love it).
For previous projects, like digital storytelling with 5th graders, I've used lots of Creative Commons photos. Some of my favorite sites: