Thursday, February 22, 2018

#METC18 Reflection

I can't believe it's already been a week since the METC conference. Of course I am speaking about the Midwest Education Technology Community Conference held last week in St. Charles, MO. After reflecting on this conference, a few things stand out to me as I reflect on the experience.

1. Nothing beats networking

I don't think it matters what you do or where you do it, you need to have a support group of people that you can talk to about it. For me I am speaking about the tech coaching world. As a person that is the lone technology coach in my school district, the opportunity to network and talk about struggles is enormously helpful. These "hallway conversations" are just as valuable to me as many of the sessions I attend. I also can't say enough about getting out of your hotel room and spending time with the people at the conference. Whether you are chilling at the bar, at the silly karaoke reception, or doing a networking event in the vendor hall, these moments are full of opportunity to learn from and be inspired by others.

2. Kids can teach us

I saw several sessions and talks that emphasized student choice, voice, and autonomy in the classroom. And two of the sessions I presented dealt heavily with emphasizing student autonomy, decision making, and creation.

Standout Sessions

Sadie Lewis' pre-conference session on design was amazing. In it she covered layouts, colors, font/typeface, and a multitude of other design consideration when working with creative and practical projects. I like to learn about material like this because it's something that we often forget to emphasize in schools, typically in the name of efficiency. We wan't teachers to teach and students to complete work, and we don't care about how artfully it's done. But something that has changed in my mind in recent years is that working artfully and creating things people want to look at is an immensely valuable skill. It doesn't matter how succinct and full of information your bullet points are -- they won't make a difference if people aren't interested in looking at them. Design really does matter these days as a life skill.

Steve Dembo did a session on harnessing social media for use in education. I am a pretty avid social media user, but I still gained from great insight from what he had to share. First, he used a fascinating icebreaker to have everyone get to know each other. The concept was you gave your name and school district to the person sitting next to you. You then had 10 minutes to research that person and introduce them to the group. This was awesome. It was a great eye opener about what we broadcast of ourselves on the internet, but also the power we have to control out image in positive or negative ways. No one had anything embarrassing come out, but after that activity I would definitely be going back to make sure my name came up clean after popping it into Google.

Steve also shared a lot of great information about various social media networks and how students use social media to be documentarians of their lives. It resonated well with me because at the conference I was also presenting a session about how students should be publishing work on YouTube as "YouTubers". It made me think about how many schools completely disallow social networking or cell phone use in general without consideration of what a powerful storytelling tool these things can be.

I sat in on a panel of folks doing Q&A about starting an EdCamp. Some others in my district are looking to offer more intentional and targeted PD, which is exactly what an EdCamp is designed to do. Our problem is that EdCamp offerings are few and far between in Mid Missouri. It was a very informative experience having conversations about what it takes to get started with the EdCamp model, and some very helpful folks shared some great resources to help us get started. Don't be surprised to see EdCamp MidMo out there soon!

Eleanna Liscombe had a wonderful session about STEAM projects that she does with her middle school class. As a mentor for our new middle school tech teacher, I popped in to get some ideas for him to integrate into his classroom. However once I was in there she immediately challenged us with some STEAM challenges, grouped us together and put us to work. It was a refreshing take at a conference this size, and immediately sold me on the idea of STEAM challenges in the classroom setting.

I could go on and on about the sessions at METC, but I'll spare your time. If you are a teacher and you can get yourself to METC, you owe it to yourself to attend. And definitely check out the preconference!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Create Custom Art with Google Drawings

Some people never truly understand how amazing Google Drawings is. From the get go, it seems kind of boring. You just get that blank checkboard background. The tools aren't conducive to drawing. It's sterile.

All of that is true. But that simplicity is always what makes Google Drawings sooooo amazing. One thing I use to teach students how to get familiar with design and the functions of creating drawings is to have them create their own derivative art using images in Google Drawings.

The secret sauce is this guy:

The Polyline Tool! (you should be imagining that with a big, deep, echoing voice because this thing will CHANGE YOUR LIFE.) Let me show the ways.

First we are going to open up Google Drawings and just drop in any ordinary picture from the internet.

Now we are going to use the Polyline tool to "mask" over the image. This will give us a rough version of the picture that we can then start to touch up with our own personalization.

For this car, I'll use some circles to complete the wheels. I'll also flip through the layers to get the window shapes and some of the trim. After working for a while you'll have a whole mess of shapes that will soon become your own pretty little creation.

The final step is to go in, color it up, adjust your shapes, and add any extra details. This car needs a sweet lightning bolt down the side. You'll also want to delete your original starting image from behind your new creation.

Finally you'll want to group these shapes together to create a cohesive whole. This will let you move, stretch, resize, copy, paste -- all sorts of other things like it was any other image.

So that's it! This is such an amazing hack -- I have used this for countless classroom applications -- creating characters for stories, objects for animations, original images for presentations, I use this at home to have my daughters design their own princesses and castles. I have even used this exact technique to help my wife design a shirt for the staff in her office. There are truly thousands of applications for this, in and out of the classroom. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Talkin' Heads w/ Google

One of my favorite projects to do with kids is to show them out to make Google Slides animations. And one of my favorite projects to animate is your very own talking head!

So how do we do it?

First you need to set up a fresh new Google Slide deck and you need to take a picture of your pretty little face. One thing that makes this tricky is that Google recently ditched the "Take a snapshot" feature from Google Slides. So while you used to be able to take a picture directly into Slides, now you have the extra step of inserting a picture from your computer. I highly recommend Alice Keeler's Webcam Snapshot, which takes a webcam snap and uploads it directly to your Google Drive.

[[UPDATE 2/1/18]] Take a snapshot is BAAAAACK! Yes!!! Makes this project a bit easier.

From there all you'll need to do is add the image to your slide from Google Drive.

Now you'll want to crop the background out of the image -- I like to use the oval crop tool to get as close as I can to isolating the head shape.

Then we need to create a mouth flap and a mouth color. The way I do this is by creating a copy of the face and cutting down a section that will move. I always put a solid color behind the mouth flap as well:

Now that all your layers are in place, you just need to copy the slide and move the mouth flap incrementally for each new frame.

Now you're talkin'.

Now you add something like a screen recorder (my recommendation is Screencastify) and you are creating your own animations, cartoons, and movies.

You can do this with anything -- it doesn't have to be your mouth. You can wave hands, have the wind blow your hat off, or dance a jig. The real beauty of a project like this is that you are showing students how to harness the tool -- now they can create whatever they want with it. The genius is the simplicity.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Baby's First Video Editor: Google Slides

Google Slides is my best friend. Really. Slides and I go way back. We've been teaching together longer than I can even remember. It's weird though, sometimes you learn something new about your best friend, and things are never the same. That's how things are between Google Slides and I since I learned about it's video editing capabilities.

That's right. Google Slides is an epic video editing tool. It's especially great for younger students. That's because slides can:
  • Embed videos directly from your Google Drive without having to upload to YouTube or other hosting sites.
  • Can be clipped down to just the segment of the video you want to share
  • You can play two videos at once to simulate "tracks". Have your video in the foreground and shrink another video in the margins that will play your background music.
  • Implement design elements like clipart, wordart, or the other tools available in Slides/Drawings to design layouts and overlays to surround your video
  • You can publish a video slide to the web so it can be shared as simply as you might share a YouTube video
Inserting a video is crazy easy. All you have to do is click Insert -> Video and find the video you'd like to work with in your Drive. 

Next, you can get into the different options you have for editing. Simply click on the video, and select the "Video options" tab above.

There's not a lot of editorial control you have here, but what you have is pretty useful. First is the clipping option. By using the "Start at/End at" functions, you can clip out sections of the video you don't want to appear in the final product. For example:

Raw File:

Edited/Published Video: 

That's useful for a multitude of reasons. First, most kids aren't one take creators. That means sometimes they are going to need to try to record a few times before they get it just right. This allows them to keep the camera running without having to worry about going back and deleting/rerecording every time they make a mistake. Also, if your students do screencasts or other recordings on their devices that require navigating or menuing during recording, this is a simple way to remove those parts of the video.

The other options you'll have available are simple enough. Autoplay when presenting plays the video automatically when the slide is in presentation mode. This can be a good idea when you are sharing a Slides video by publishing it to the web. Just send the publish to web link and you'll have a video that will start as soon as you click the link. I use this a lot, but add a title slide with directions to start the video. 

Mute audio will remove audio while the video plays. I don't use this too much since in creative tasks we have a lot of use for our audio with either dialogue, narration, or explanatory language. But there would be uses if you were wanting to record a separate track for music or narration.

By understanding these three editing tools, you can really start to do some interesting and creative things.

For example, when telling a story, you could have each slide be a different scene. Have the videos autoplay and go into presentation mode. Now you have a movie.

Since Slides doesn't let you set custom times, you can't let it let the slides auto-advance, which is a bummer. You'll need to either click through the slides yourself, or publish to the web like I did here so the viewer can navigate the scenes. It's not a perfect way to record multiple scenes, but it's a good basic start for those that aren't expert video editors.

Now let's talk about tracks. Since Slides has a free-form editor, it's possible to have multiple videos playing on a slide at the same time. For this reason, you can do stuff like this:

We have used this like you see above -- to have a background track with someone discussing what is happening in the foreground. News reports, storytelling, music videos. Again, there are tons of options.

Sync up a background track by inserting the music you want to use from a YouTube video, and shrinking the video down small enough that you can't really see it. It'll still play full audio, even if it's not visible.

Another pretty cool thing to add to the scene is using the shapes and word art to create digital settings to frame your videos. I did this in the lion video above. I have also done this to have kids create their own news channels, or just to add to the setting of a story they are telling. You should know that embedded video ignore layers, however. This means you can't put still images or shapes on top of a playing video -- it will just smash everything below and the video will set on top.

As you can see, there are tons of things you can do once you know how to mess with the video options in Google Slides. And the best part is, you don't have to be a digital media wizard. If you can record a video and edit with Google Slides, you can make some swag projects quickly and easily. It'd be great to see what you guys create with these powerful tools.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Where Are The Ideas?

Most kids these days are born digital. They live in a digital world, using digital tools, and connecting in digital environments. If we are doing our jobs right as teachers, students should also have the desire and motivation to pursue fresh and innovative ideas and create things people care about.

They have the tools. They have the ideas. Why aren't more of our students working with an entreprenurial mindset? Why aren't our kids making, designing, or marketing themselves. their ideas, or their creations? Does it have something to do with our classrooms? In a world where employers are begging for digital literacy and soft skills proficiency in the next generation of employees, we persist in asking "googleable" questions and forcing students to complete worksheets in the name of points and credit. As a result, we destroy any creativity, passion, or desire to create work students are proud of. 

If there's a solution, it's not an easy one. Most would say, "push an entrepenurial spirit" in the classroom. Teach courses on marketing and selling. Make public school business school. But to believe these are the solutions would mean ignorance to the real beauty and power of what entrepreuership is; A passion or a belief so much in your ideas that you feel the need to share them with others.

Neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs nor Mark Zuckerberg took a class in entrepreneurship while they were in school. They weren't taught to sell or market. It was never about making money or being efficient at managing resources. They were empowered to design and create something first, then market their idea to an audience. And the enduring truth that made their ideas reality was that they had others around them empowering their work and ensuring them that it was meaningful. I think we can take a meaningful lesson from that as teachers.

The secret to entrepreneurial mindset in our classrooms lies with indulgence. It lies with the respect of a student as a human being. It depends on supporting passion, curiosity, and talent, even when those things don't fill up columns in our grade book.

Human beings are born with the desire to create and innovate. We are also born with a propensity for socialization, to communcate and collaborate. These skills make us natural entrepreneurs. Sometimes ideas are silly. Sometimes they are crazy. Sometimes they are so stupid you don't even want to let the kid finish the sentence. But sometimes those ideas are Facebook. 

Monday, October 16, 2017


October 16-20 is Digital Citizenship Week. Schools around the country take this opportunity to build awareness and educate students on a very important topic in their lives; how we behave in digital environments.

Internet safety? Creative copyright? Fake news? These things might not be part of our core curriculum, but they are still crucial lessons that must be taught to our students so they can protect themselves in an increasingly digital world.

I have three rules for teaching this stuff to kids:

1. Be Proactive - Focus on what students can change in the future to use technology more confidently and wisely. Focus less on the mistakes they have made in the past. When you go negative and slam kids for screwing up, they shut down. Keep your message positive and about what they can do better.

2. Guide without using Fear - There are many scary things online that can place children in unsafe situations. Rather than focusing on the fear of these things, we want to empower students to know how to handle these situations and harness digital technologies in positive ways. They should not feel afraid or hopeless -- we want students to feel empowered and safe when they use technology. The internet should not feel like a minefield.

3. Focus on Behavior - Somebody once said, "It's about neurology, not technology." And while I don't know who uttered this powerful quote, I respect the concept a great deal. When we teach kids how to use digital tools in safe and legal ways, we are teaching behaviors, not technology skills. The best digital citizenship lessons don't even involve using technology.

If you want to get equipped to have these discussions or would like resources to start empowering your students to inhabit digital environments, start these these resources:

  • Common Sense Media: A full curriculum loaded with resources and activities to work through with your students. This goes way beyond one week, and that's amazing!
  • Google for Education Digital Citizenship Training: A full course for you as a teacher to explore to learn more about digital citizenship and how to teach it in your classroom. Nothing can prepare you better for teaching this stuff than learning everything about it first.
  • Google's Interland - An integrated online web-based game designed to teach the fundamentals of internet safety to younger students. A fun and engaging way to learn about behavior in online environments.
  • MediaSmarts: Resources for digital literacy and safety including overlooked topics like excessive internet use and managing online privacy.
  • NetSmartz: Online training, lesson plans, and student project kits for teaching digital literacy and citizenship.
  • Teach InCtrl: Inquiry and collaborative lessons and learning activities designed to teach key digital citizenship concepts. 
This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you want more resources, or just would like to follow along with the conversation and the movement, check out the hashtag #digcitweek on Twitter. The more we all talk about this stuff and champion it's importance, the more kids we can empower with this knowledge.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Trouble with Templates

I’ve written about creative struggle before. Specifically how creativity is work and there’s not creative gene. A side effect of not working to be creative manifests itself as a low expectation for students to be creative as well.

Many teachers believe that creativity is innate in students. That students who are creative are just random, and that some students have “it” and some don’t. This is an issue with the way we teach as much as how we train teachers. Little work is ever put into teaching creativity or the creative process. We know that many teachers struggle with being creative themselves, but do you ever think about how this can impact students when teachers don't understand creativity?

First, a history lesson.

In times gone by it used to be that creativity was a natural part of everyday life. Back in the days of artisans and artists, innovation was just what people did to get by. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that routinization of tasks became a necessity. Since most jobs required mastery of repeated processes, there was less need for artisanal work. Less need for thought. Less need for innovation. And schools were developed to support the model of development of basic skills for routine labor. That was key in the development of our nation. This was a template for the way we needed people to operate to maximize efficiency and productivity.

But in a post-industrial society, this template can be quite harmful. While we still need productivity and efficiency in our lives, much of what remains of our industrialized society is automated. We no longer need to train people on basics like we did before. We don’t need to template their lives to be ordinary workers carrying out simple tasks. What we need to do is more encouragement of innovation, free thought, expression, and creativity.

We need to teach students to develop their ideas and own them. Stop borrowing and start stealing. Templates can be a great thing, but when they become a crutch, we rob students from coming up with their own methods and ideas. If we search for a template every time we get started with a project, what will we do when we come up against a challenge for which there is not template? How will we ever innovate if we are always looking for blanks to fill?

We need to encourage motivation for creativity by not assigning grades to the creative process. Creativity and innovation is stifled if we standardize what achievement or effort looks like. I know we need things like rubrics to help develop feedback models and we need assessment data to gauge the needs and progress of students, but do we really need to slap a grade on everything? Too many opportunities to get creative are wasted because students want to get the best grade rather than chase their curiosity or find an inventive way to do something. Grades scare us away from creativity. More recognition of effort and process. Less emphasis on product and assessment.

Sometimes creative efforts in others don’t seem creative to us. When my daughters draw pictures of hearts and rainbows, I often see cliche representations of things that have been done a thousand times before. It is so easy to criticize these types of efforts and not see them as the first steps to something greater. The problem is, we don’t see those first steps in the process of being creative. We let it stop there, thinking these students don’t have “it”. This is just the starting point. This is where we need to start encouraging creative thought and innovation. “How can you take this farther? How can you experiment with this idea? How can to tweak this design to make it personal to you? A heart stands for else could you express this?” In the classroom, these are often the most powerful conversations I have with students -- the moments when we are being reflective about the work we’re doing and how we can make it a more personal reflection of who we are and what we care about.

Demonstrations are tricky. When we show “the way” we make our own vision seem definitive. It doesn’t challenge students to create their own vision, rather it pressures them to create a carbon copy of what we have done. As an example, often in my class we would create video book trailers. I would show them one I had created in the past -- this would inevitably lead to 25 different takes on my process, my layout, my music, my transitions, etc. Ultimately I was disappointed because these projects were not popping with student personality as I hoped. I learned that by allowing students to lead the demonstrations, having them learn the tools but not see my process and vision explicitly, we were able to emphasize their own creativity. We have powerful projects that were fun, creative, and exploding with personality.

Speaking to that, we probably show examples too much and don’t spend enough defining the problem. Explaining the why. Are we just asking students to Xerox an idea or a process? Or do we want them to experience and immerse themselves in in those ideas and processes? Something I learned was to discuss problems with students. Have classroom conversations about big ideas. Challenge them to address those rather than just showing them an example and having them create their own version.

These and other problems contribute to the templates we find ourselves stuck in. Many of us can’t take a risk or get creative because we have build such rigid walls of what school is supposed to look like. Something to think about: How are you challenging students to get creative? Do you make creativity a cornerstone of the work you do in your class? Do you ask students to address problem or create projects? Do you emphasize the process of creation or the completion of the task?

Reflect on this and consider how you might be able to make creativity something you model and emphasize in your classroom every day.