Taking the Plunge (into tech ed)

Exploring technology in education

Video can be a very useful tool for education, but so much of what is available is above the level of my 7th grade students to understand independently, which renders it mostly useless for the flipped classroom. That is why I love Brainpop. Its videos make perfect entry-level introductions to a wide range of topics in history and other topics . Furthermore, it provides follow-up activities and lessons, allowing me to hold my students accountable.

I have used Brainpop videos often this year to introduce or reinforce lessons taught in class, usually at home (flipped model), and sometimes in the classroom.

Just last week I used one in the middle of our research project to reinforce the concept of source reliability. Given the world wide web (literally world wide), I can’t think of a much more critical lesson for students in the modern generation, students who think that Google is their major source of information, rather than understanding that it is only a window to other places.

Flipping the classroom with Brainpop creates great learning!

To help the students with one step in this process of understanding the world of information, I used Brainpop. Following some tips I picked up from other bloggers, I gave my students with an overarching question to consider before they went home to watch the video: How do you know if your source is reliable? It’s been a subtheme for our research all year, and I felt like now they were ready, based on their experience and prior lessons, to truly evaluate sources on their own. Up until now, we have basically required students to follow the steps provided, which forces them to begin with the most reliable sources (academic encyclopedias and databases).

After a very brief intro to the question and topic, I sent the students home. I assigned them to watch the video at home, complete and submit the related quiz, and then answer the questions on a worksheet I provided for them.

The next day they came to class full of ideas around reliability, and I wanted them to reinforce and apply their understanding. For the final stage I used a think-pair-share around the questions on the worksheet. This got them discussing their thoughts about reliable research. Once they were done with that, I gave them a list of 10 types of sources and asked them to rank the sources as a team. This sort of evaluation forces them to really consider the relative merits of each type of source, and hopefully, sets in their minds the learning objectives, 1) that all sources have some reliability, 2) some are much more reliable than others, and 3) even 7th grade students can use their knowledge and skills to help determine reliability.

Overall, I feel that the combination of video, discussion, and application in a flipped classroom model is a powerful learning tool that motivates students and engages them in higher levels of learning without even realizing it.

I’ve been having a lot of fun exploring other people’s ideas about using video as part of effective teaching. The internet, and most especially the blog world, is rich with anecdotes that build on my understanding. Many of these do not even touch on history, yet they inform my teaching as well as any history blog.

The blog below, by “Nev,” explores the power of video in math instruction. He nicely presents a very logical argument for the power of video to engage students through “authentic” instruction.” He says, “engagement is enhanced when students are interested, challenged and feel that the work / task is important.” Video, when it is used well, can engage the students by encouraging them to ask and then answer questions about math in ways that textbooks and lectures probably won’t.


I agree. Video can be engaging, when it is used well. But it should never be left to itself as a means of instruction. What I liked most about Nev’s message is the idea of “unpacking” video, exploring the assumptions, equations, and methods inherent to its story. This is similar to the way that I used the Schoolhouse Rock video to challenge students with the idea that history is founded upon the perspective and goals of its authors.

Ma and Pa Kettle Do Math

Here are my notes from the blog, excerpted with the great tools of Diigo.

Exploring education: Mathematical engagement – images to delight, ignite and excite

  • Any number of studies have endorsed this notion that engagement enhances achievement. The next issue is how to generate engagement?
  • Authentic learning is defined as that which is cognitively challenging and connected to the world beyond the classroom.
  • The study found that student engagement could be improved by up to 22% by shifting to inquiry-based problem solving as the method of instruction.
  • Several educational reformers,   such as the teams at the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow Today and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, also advocate the increased and improved use of technology and multimedia in our classrooms to enhance both engagement and learning.
  • A good video cries out for “unpacking”.
  • The Internet is a rich source of such videos.
  • The use of such images is one way that we can delight,  ignite and excite our students – or at least increase engagement.



Yeah! After much careful coordination, I managed to get all of my students to successfully watch at home a video available on YouTube, the SchoolHouse Rock segment called “Elbow Room.” The video, made in the 1970s, uses a very catchy tune and fun, rolling, primitive animation to present a very cheery portrait of the American movement to expand ownership and control of the entire continental United States.

For homework, I assigned the students to watch the video. But I wanted them to do more than passively watch it. I also wanted them to think about its messages and details, so I assigned a 4-question worksheet with questions for them to complete, ranging from simple to complex.

This morning, I experienced a great thrill in this experiment called “reverse instruction with video”! When my students came to class, after watching the video and completing the worksheet, I led them in a very lively discussion around the main themes of the video.

This video was a very appropriate for the learning that I sought for several reasons:

  1. It succinctly reviewed a number of historical events, figures and themes which we had studied this past year.
  1. It was fun, had a catchy tune, and very simplistic animations.
  1. It was easily available (mostly)
  1. Its very positive, cheery approach to European expansion across the US contrasted dramatically with the lessons for this week, which centered on the conflicts between Native Americans and the white people seeking control of the western lands.



Through discussion, the students were able to realize some great insights about not only the video itself, but even the nature of history and the simple fact that most “history” is driven by the perspectives and goals of its author.

The reverse instruction model worked very well here by using the students’ personal time at home to prepare them for the class discussion. Had I shown the video in class (and I often do), they would have spent most of their time absorbing and trying to understand the video. Instead, they came to class prepared, having already tried to make sense of the video. With a quick little review, I was able to help them understand portions they might have missed, and then guide them to think more deeply about the meaning of history and the various points of view.

Schoolhouse Rock – “Elbow Room”

Schoolhouse Rock - Elbow Room

Can students learn better with reverse instruction?

That is the question.

Now, let’s try and answer it.

I have been inspired by the lessons, articles, and presentations promoting reverse instruction, and I’m eager to apply this in my history class. At the same time, I am also inspired by the power of video as a learning tool, particularly in history class, where video brings so much to life. If I combine these educational tools, can I enhance the learning that occurs in my classroom beyond traditional methods?

In my normal pattern (not that I follow this every day), I introduce and teach new concepts or skills within class, guide the students as they practice working with the new material, and send them home to rework or complement the material with some additional homework. The next day, I usually follow up with some discussion of the previous day’s lesson, supported by the homework.

But, under the reverse instruction model, which I have used at times, I do not introduce students to new material or skills in class. Instead, I assign them a new lesson to face at home, usually without an introduction. Then, I use class time to discuss it, answer questions, and apply it. The advantage in this method is that more class time is now devoted to actually applying and working with the material in a group setting guided by the teacher. In this way, students will hopefully absorb the material and skills better.

I have to admit, I am nervous about the idea of sending students home to learn a new lesson without any introduction. Seventh graders are generally not adept at figuring out the world of academia without an awful lot of guidance. But, what if I use video as the primary medium for teaching new skills or material?

I like the idea of using video to introduce concepts in history for a number of reasons, but primarily because the power of visuals helps us understand the material better than just reading. I have found in my own experience that video tends to stick in the memory much better than text or audio. Especially when I watch it twice. Videos and segments that I have seen more than once I can remember quite well.

In addition, videos tend to be organized by strong themes, so that a thread is kept throughout. These themes then make for great discussions.

Finally, video is more appealing. Anyone knows how much kids hate homework, but watching videos for homework?! That sounds like fun!

So, I’m off to give this a try. Roll the cameras!

I’ll let you know how it goes.





 For my final project, I will examine the ways in which video can enhance learning in our unit on Westward Expansion in U.S. history. I am inspired by the new character education program in our school, which used several brief, 2-minute video scenes as launching points for great discussions about character. I am encouraged by the new YouTube channel for teachers, which demonstrates a growing need for educationally sound and child-safe videos. I am intrigued by the potential of video to capture moments in time and historical perspectives. And I am challenged by the possibilities of using video as the basis for a flipped classroom.

For my final project, I will be asking, and hopefully answering, a number of questions, about the use of YouTube and other video sharing sites:

·        Do these video sites offer meaningful video content for my classes?

·        Do these video sites offer developmentally appropriate content?

·        How can I safely share these videos with my students?

·        How can I use video to prepare my students for the flipped instruction?

·        How can I find good video material?

·        How can I store the links or the material itself?

·        How can I edit the material so that I only use what I want?

·        How can I do all of this efficiently?

When I am done, I expect to be a much more efficient and effective user of video in the classroom, demonstrated by the ways that I embed video into my unit on Westward expansion.

YouTube for teachers

YouTube has apparently launched a new “channel” just for teachers, according to Mindshift. The special channel is intended to make it easier for teachers to show videos, discuss videos, and to use videos as educational tools.

But even better, the blog implies, there may be some sort of kid-friendly  protections built into a future YouTube project.

This really makes sense to me. YouTube offers so much educational material, yet without safeguards built in, it is not very child-appropriate, which can ruin its potential awfully fast. Finding good material and displaying it safely to my class poses some good challenges.

In my own recent attempt to find videos relating to my lesson on citizenship (part of our study of the Constitution), I found one inappropriate video for every safe one.

First, I found a piece called “Citizenship” with a Claymation person attempting to model good citizenship on the street – it sounded helpful, and even funny (always a plus in the classroom). Unfortunately, the same character ends up getting nearly mugged by the strangers he attempts to greet. That’s not at all what I need, nor do I want my students watching this.

Next, I found a piece about citizenship with a short clip that could be useful in the classroom, but the very first comment included an obvious swear word. Again, I have to be careful what I show to my students and where I direct them.

In order to show this video to my students, I will need to embed it on my blog. The problem is that if I link it back to the source, it can still lead students to inappropriate material, so it has to be off-limits to them.

Another challenge with YouTube is finding relevant and meaningful material. I’m hoping that the new channel will improve this aspect of YouTube. After searchinhg through a half-dozen videos, I found one with a very inspiring musical piece – soft guitar music playing in the background as the camera fades over a time-lapse of people walking across a littered park, with one lonely figure moving about slowly and picking up trash.

The narrator then speaks about how much trash we throw away each day.

This is moving, even touching, but not terribly educational. We all know that picking up trash is important, and not enough people do it. What I really need is a video that will show my students some new insights into citizenship that appeals to their interests and speaks to their level.

I’m not asking much, am I?

Here’s to hoping that YouTube for teachers makes my job just a bit easier.








I still feel like a newbie here, but I’m liking the sound of the flipped classroom (great infographic here that illustrates the concept well), especially now that I’m teaching 45 minute classes. Forty-five minutes goes by so fast, and it seems that all I am able to do so far is present and review the basic material. But what if my students could pick up the basic facts themselves? Would I need all 45 minutes to present them? I could do much more with that 45 minutes.

There are some challenges in this model, for sure. Most seventh grade students do not possess strong study skills, so they do have difficulty accessing the material on their own. Last week, when I assigned some questions from the textbook, a number of my students struggled to answer the more complicated questions, even when the answers were in the textbook.

If flipped classroom is going to work, the material needs to be quite accessible to the majority of the students without much intervention from the teacher. Technology can certainly help here. Brainpop videos, which I have used quite a bit this year, work very well.  Unlike the vast majority of online resources, they are designed for middle school students, and presented in a way that is very accessible, even to students with limited language skills.

But even in a flipped classroom, some sort of preview is necessary before sending students home to access the material. They need a frame of reference, a box in which to put the new information. This daily preview should give them enough of a starting point to get them through the material alone, without my help.

Here’s one way to work around this challenge: Scaffolding. If I set up several different levels of information, I can offer basic learners material that fits their needs, but challenge the stronger students with more in-depth info. This could prove meaningful in the classroom portion as well, as students who prefer the challenging material can take off with the topic and develop their interests. I have one student who watched all the Brainpop videos on American history over the summer, and now he can answer nearly all the questions in class. This is a perfect candidate for the flipped classroom – instead of using class time going over the same basic concepts, he can now use class time to run with the big ideas, putting them into play with some type of project that truly engages him. I could even set him up with a few peers who share his passion, and watch them roll!


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without internet!

All week, I’ve been without a convenient internet connection. And I’ve paid the price.


All day Monday, I sat on pins and needles, trying to find out if my fantasy team had won or lost their matchup this week (they won!). This is important stuff! :)

Then I struggled with the 3G connection on my iPhone trying to find out the weather forecast. I finally gave up.

I also wanted post to this blog, but I just couldn’t find a good internet connection to do it.

Life is hard … without the internet. Especially when you live in the cloud. Buyer beware!

I love the advantages that the cloud brings (see my last post), but none of those are any good without decent internet, and I’ve really noticed that this week. For so many of us, technology performs such amazing tricks that we begin to expect miracles. With the right technology, we begin to think, we can solve any problem.

The problem is, there are always problems. And most of us are beginning realize this. Adoption of technology is very much like the path of adjusting to a new culture (or spouse): the honeymoon (we romanticize it); the near divorce, (we almost hate it); and finally, the successful marriage (we appreciate all of its wonderful traits while accepting some that we will never love.)

I think many people are now reaching the last phase with technology – a content marriage. We are beginning to reach a certain understanding: if this technology is going to work for me, I am going to have to accept some rough patches, to be creative in problem solving, and to ask for help.

With our growing reliance on the cloud, we face an even greater threat to our technologically dependent lifestyle – the lack of internet connection. Without internet, The Could is as useful to us as any other cloud floating in the sky. If we live in a modern, vibrant city, we may be lucky enough to have constant, reliable connections (and grow very dependent on those). However, the moment we move away from these safe situations, we encounter unknown difficulties, and our lifeline to the outer world can be desperately cut off.

So, like any other challenge in life, we learn to compromise our dreams to match the reality around us: the cloud works, and it can work well, but you need to have a backup, and you need to be a creative problem-solver. If the internet goes down, what else can you do? Can you store documents on your desktop? Can you patch together a connection with your phone? Can you communicate with text instead of email?

There is no simple solution, but there is usually a solution of some sort, especially if you plan ahead. And then, when there isn’t … well, it’s time to appreciate our grandparents, who also lived, survived, and succeeded without the internet!

Working in the Cloud

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I love the cloud.

I love the freedom that online files give me to organize documents, share documents, and to collaborate with my students and peers.

But without a doubt, collaboration is the primary reason I value online learning. I love the flexibility that it gives to working with others. Collaboration is such a critical component of the NETS(Standard 2 – see below), and I find that the cloud allows my students and peers to improve on the face-to-face collaboration, taking it further to completion. The classroom discussion and collaboration is a great way to learn, but in the past, I found it difficult to enable collaboration outside of school. The cloud is so useful now because it allows this group learning to move beyond the classroom, and it allows each student to contribute in their own way and time.

NETS Standards

This week I had my journalism students work in pairs, scanning student newspapers around the world and completing a document recording their discoveries about newspapers and their topics. By having them use Google docs, I was able to ensure that each student was on task the entire time, and then able to complete the task later.

Last year, when my students created a poster around our class novel, they were able to complete all the pre-writing via Google docs. The collaboration of this meant that the text was edited, proofed and revised by several members of the group, improving its quality.

My appreciation for the cloud was made more real last week when my paper project ran into trouble. In my journalism class last week, I had each group work together on one piece of paper to write down their plans for their newspaper. I find that collaboration around a piece of paper leads to better more dialogue and interaction, as well as providing some physical interaction for my hyperactive middle school kids. But one week later, one-third of those groups could not locate their paper! One other group also suffered because the holder of the paper was absent from school. Had I used the cloud for this project, I would not have had this problem. But I also would not have had the interaction that occurred in the classroom.

So how do I get both? I have decided that if my students complete work on paper that will be used later by the entire group for reference or study, I will make sure that they transfer their notes onto the cloud.

Nets Standard 2

2. Communication and Collaboration

Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others. Students:

a. interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media.
d. contribute to project teams to produce original works or solve problems.


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Take a 7th grade boy growing up in urban Taipei and ask him to imagine the world of camels in the deserts of Pakistan.

Kinda tricky.

But give him a large library of real photos from the desert, and suddenly, it becomes much easier.

Each year, I face this challenge when I teach the novel, Shabanu, to my students at TAS.

So this year I launched a project I have wanted to do for several years, an audio-visual  photo interpretation of common topics in the novel, to be shared with other students. In this way, I hoped, my students would be given enough raw material to help them form the images that fit the actual setting of the novel. The goal was not simply for each student to learn from their own presentation, but to learn from all of the presentations.

With the advent of Qwiki visual encylopedia last fall, I took this as my model, instructing my students to gather photos from the web, collate them into a presentation, and narrate the presentation while the text rolled across the screen.

Overall, I am pleased with the results. My students were quite engaged in this project. They were motivated to do research. They developed scripts, photo collections, and media projects through a variety of collaboration techniques, including Google docs. Finally, they were able to share their work with each other, contributing to one another’s understanding of the setting of the novel. I allowed each group to choose their final format; some chose powerpoint, while others picked Photostory or Moviemaker.

I will definitely use this type of project next year, although I will make a number of changes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of this project. I did find it rather difficult and time-consuming to share the projects during class. Next time, I will find a way to post these videos online so that students can access the videos themselves, on their own time, and even at home.

Originally, what I envisioned was a product similar to Qwiki with multiple flashing images on each screen, and narration rolling across the screen. In true fact, my students were not adept enough with the technology to create that effect in the limited time I gave them. However, they were able to create slide shows, more like powerpoint than like Qwikis, and once these slideshows were shared, the students were given a much broader pictorial base from which to imagine the novel.

Take a look, and see what you think.