Friday, December 21, 2012

Enrich a Life; Give a Book

As I scramble to purchase those last minute gifts this holiday season, I find myself in a bookstore, contemplating the fact that my life has been an amazing adventure enriched by the power of books.

I first fell in love with books as a young child while listening to my father read about Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh.  Later, I relished the challenges associated with deciphering the silly words and rhymes found in Dr. Seuss books.  That is when I began to appreciate the power of the written word -- marveling at how descriptive language could make a meal of Green Eggs & Ham seem appetizing! In elementary school, I often found myself so engrossed in the adventures of super-sleuths Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, that bedtime came and went without my knowledge.  I laughed with Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer; cried with Scout and Atticus Finch; embarked upon adventures with Robinson Crusoe and Beowulf; and celebrated the triumph of good over evil with Harry, Hermione, and Ron in a magic-filled world.  To this day, some of my best friends can be found on the pages of books in faraway places like Africa or outer space; in different time periods, past or future; and in make believe lands such as Lilliput and Narnia.

In addition to reading for enjoyment, somewhere along the way I began to read for information and self-improvement.  That process began as I strove to internalize the timeless truths presented in Aesop’s Fables.  Reading a biography about Louis Pasteur as a child impressed upon me the impact that one person can have on the entire world.  I even practiced my foreign language skills by reading the French versions of works such as Le Comte de Monte-Cristo and Les Miserables.  At this point in my life, I find that my default process for learning something new is to scour the literature and learn all that I can about a subject.

Books have taken me to places and times that I could never access on my own.  They have exposed me to thoughts, perspectives, cultures, and languages that would otherwise not be a part of my experience.  Books have shaped me – my understanding, my perspective, my moral code – and each book I place on my nightstand or upload onto my Kindle represents a promising opportunity to further enrich my life.

As you finish up your holiday gift shopping, I offer you this challenge:  Enrich a life; give a book!

by: Courtney Cadwell, Principal of Gardner Bullis School 

A version of this blog post recently appeared in the Gardner Gazette.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Edmodo in Action! Improving Communication and Collaboration

          A couple of months ago, I hosted two Edmodo employees, Dan Carew and Irina Blok, during classroom visits to Egan Junior High.  Both Dan and Irina wanted to see Edmodo in action in classrooms.  They were wondering....“How are students using Edmodo? How are teachers using Edmodo to communicate with their students? How is Edmodo creating a community in the classroom? How do students like Edmodo?”

Within a few minutes of their visit, Dan and Irina had broad smiles-they were impressed. Karen Kehlet and Julie Jenkins deftly led their classes using Edmodo as a foundation to weave digital resources within their English lessons. By logging into Edmodo, students had quick access to instruction documents, their digital assignment and a collaborative Google presentation.  
Students create a slide for a collaborative
Google presentation during English class.
Student Learning Challenge
Using Edmodo and Google presentation, students had to demonstrate their understanding of compound sentences by creating a slide to add to a collaborative Google presentation within 15 minutes.  While students were working, teachers and students could see each other’s progress and collaborate. At the end of class, students had time to review each other's work.  The students in Karen and Julie’s classes are using Edmodo in an approach that integrates Google Drive products, allows students to submit work “paperlessly” and encompasses high levels of collaboration at the same time.   
Can Edmodo transform the way that we communicate and learn from each other? Absolutely! 

Edmodo Across Los Altos School District
These teachers aren’t the only ones that are using Edmodo in Los Altos. Since we introduced Edmodo in August, all teachers created Edmodo accounts. Many teachers use Edmodo to connect with grade level colleagues across the district and to share resources and innovative curriculum ideas. Principals and administrators include important documents within specific folders on Edmodo.  As part of our iLearn classes, participants join specialized Edmodo groups to gain access to a wealth of resources and conversation forums to discuss their ideas online...even after our class time is over!  At last count, at least 42 of our 225 teachers have launched Edmodo within their classroom. And more are planning to start! With Edmodo, powerful conversations and collaboration don’t end when the class time is up, Edmodo allows people to continue the conversation and continue their learning.

So how are other teachers using Edmodo? How might a teacher get started with Edmodo in their classroom? How do we go about enriching and strengthening our use of Edmodo and taking it to the next level?

Just Getting Started...Edmodo as a Communication Tool
Edmodo implemented at a basic level can be an excellent communication tool for a classroom community.  Many teachers are using Edmodo to inform students of class assignments, tests and homework. What is the benefit? How is this different from a standard class website? Edmodo goes beyond the traditional one-way communication strategy of most teacher websites and incorporates the student interaction opportunities.  Within Edmodo, students can ask their classmates questions, ask for help or respond to another person’s inquiry.  For classes that meet for short periods of time or rotations, Edmodo is useful to extend the learning beyond the class time frame. If questions aren't answered or need a followup, Edmodo is a great forum! Edmodo allows for teachers and students to communicate within a closed online classroom community which is only available to their class. By using Edmodo, students are building cooperation skills and learning how to reach out and support their peers.  

More Opportunities for Student Participation and Interaction
Edmodo provides opportunities for more student interaction within a classroom community. In particular, students who may not interact in class, may in fact, respond to each other’s posts within the group discussion. Recently, an interesting comment stream took place in a fourth grade class at Santa Rita, all related to books! One of the students asked her classmates to recommend books for her to read. Lots of students chimed in! Girls and boys alike, shared titles they enjoyed or aligned with her interests. With Edmodo, students that may be shy or less likely to speak up in class, have another means of communicating with their peers. Edmodo gives a new venue for students to communicate with each other in a safe manner. As students use Edmodo, they practice digital citizenship skills and learn how to be a part of a safe, online community.

Many of LASD iLearn Classes are Powered by Edmodo! By using
a Group Code, teachers gain access to a wealth of resources and
a built in network of LASD teachers interested in
learning and discussing the same concepts.

Using Edmodo to Post Digital Resources such as websites, videos and more!
Edmodo features are effective for sharing digital and multimedia resources.  Mary Hamilton, the Chorus teacher at Egan, is using Edmodo to post music files for her class. Her students listen to their musical parts, download the sound files and practice their choral parts. 

Chris Patterson, a fifth grade teacher at Oak, regularly posts video links and relevant websites for his fifth grade teaching colleagues across the district. Occasionally, Robin McLaren, a fifth grade teacher at Santa Rita, will pass along Chris’s recommended resources to her students. In fact, Robin commented recently that Chris “is gathering such a following” from her own students! Why is this unique? Even though these teachers are at different schools, by virtue of Edmodo, students in Robin’s class are benefitting from Chris’s insights and research! Thank you Chris!

Fourth grader Amanda shares an article
with her classmates on Edmodo. 

Students are sharing online resources with each other as well!

By linking a URL or website to a note, students can share interesting articles, videos or websites with each other.  A student DJ group at Egan uses Edmodo to share their student created music projects with each other! Students love to hear their classmates' musical compilations.

Just last month, I beamed with pride when a fourth grade student from Santa Rita posted a link to an article about a teenage innovator from Africa to all the students in her class.  Students read the article and commented on it within their class. Was this an assignment? Nope! These students are learning and reading interesting articles recommended by their classmates...just for fun! With Edmodo, even nine and ten year olds can share digital resources to extend the classroom dialogue with their group of peers. 

If students are hesitant, some teachers require student contributions of relevant websites or video lessons at specific times throughout the year. Julie Present, a sixth grade teacher at Springer, had her students create and share Educreations lessons that reviewed concepts before a test. In this case, students not only shared the website link, but were also creators of the digital content as well!

Going Paperless is A Reality with Edmodo
“Going paperless” is something many teachers are striving to achieve.  However, relying solely on Google drive and Google drive sharing features can be a digital management nightmare. Especially if a teacher has over ninety students! Luckily, Edmodo has a system in which teachers can create a digital assignments and have organized rosters for their classes. When students complete their assignment, whether it is a Google presentation, document, Glogster poster or Pixton comic, they simply click on the “Turn It In” button and submit it to their teacher.  In fact, Karen Kehlet, Egan Junior High teacher commented, “By using Edmodo, I get a greater percentage of work turned in and on time. And instantly, I can see who has done it.” Edmodo’s process for digital assignments submissions streamlines the process for teachers; so teachers can quickly provide feedback to students versus sorting papers and tracking missing student assignments.
In order to submit an assignment online,
students simply click "Turn In" and
link their digital product. Teachers immediately can see
which students have turned in an assignment with Edmodo.

Getting Creative: Edmodo Used For International Student Collaboration
Some of our teachers are getting really creative with Edmodo! Julie Present linked classes with Erin Zaich, a former sixth grade teacher at Covington Elementary, who now teaches in Korea. The teachers formed a TransPac Book Club, using Edmodo as a platform for five online book club discussions within their classes.  After students shared ideas and responded to questions on Edmodo, they held five separate Skype sessions over several afternoons. Students were excited to share their insights with other kids their age.  They were also curious about how students in Korea would relate to characters and themes within the novels.

By utilizing the small groups feature in Edmodo, these teachers facilitated online discussion groups to create a valuable student international learning experience.  Especially since all students needed to communicate their ideas in an appropriate and polite manner to participate in virtual discussions with people they have never met face to face. What an incredible experience!
Dan Carew, Product Engineer from Edmodo, speaks to
Egan students about working at a start up company and
how his team is recreating the Edmodo iPad app.

Spotlighting the Innovation in Los Altos
Just last week, Edmodo reached 15 million registered users.  It is clear that the students and teachers in Los Altos aren’t the only ones harnessing the benefits of Edmodo. Yet we must be doing something special! As Edmodo is updating their site, they requested to photograph a few classes to feature innovative learning and collaboration on their redesigned website.  I’m delighted to share that Dan Carew, Irina Blok and I will visit Karen Kehlet and Julie Jenkins’ classrooms again this week.  This time we’ll have an accompanying photographer who will capture some of the powerful learning and collaboration within these classes.

It is More Than the Tool, It Is How Teachers Integrate the Tool
Interestingly, the photo shoot isn’t just for taking pictures of students using Edmodo. The photographer is trying to capture the essence of what is created by thoughtfully integrating Edmodo: an engaging, participative and enriching learning experience. Photos will be focused on raised hands, groups of students working together and teachers working with small groups of students.  For it isn’t about the tool, but how hard-working and innovative teachers integrate tools like Edmodo within their curriculum to create an ideal learning environment.  The most skilled teachers mold, shape and stretch tech tools to new bring learning to new heights. They use tech thoughtfully to enhance and enrich student learning.   We are fortunate to have such creative minds at work here in Los Altos.

If you’d like to learn about more ways to use Edmodo in your classroom, check out 20 Ways to Use Edmodo or the Edmodo Teacher Roll Out Resource page. Feel free to contact Ellen Kraska for individualized support to get started with Edmodo in your classroom. In addition, two Edmodo classes will be offered as part of the iLearn Winter and Spring Series in the Los Altos School District.

Ellen Kraska is the Technology Integration Instructional Coach within the Los Altos School District. She is passionate about edtech, creativity and collaboration within innovative learning environments. You can email her at and/or follow her on Twitter @kraskae. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Learning Curves

How do you take on something new?  Everyone goes about it in different ways. Some take it head on, while others shy away and hope it goes away.  Still others take the gradual steps toward mastery.

I think it is the level of motivation that drives us in which approach to use.  Think about starting anything new, whether it’s playing a sport or a game, or something professional like teaching a new lesson, or incorporating technology into the classroom. I can remember when graphing calculators were the big push for middle school and as a 6th grade math teacher I was asked to use them during lessons.  At first it was a learning curve not only for the students, but for me too!  Together as a class, we learned how to download an app and link the calculators together to share that app before moving on to the lesson.  As my comfort level increased, I even began to seek out lessons that could incorporate the use of the graphing calculator.  

A more recent change or new learning for me was moving to California. Not only was I faced with a new job, but also trying to find my way in new surroundings. Coming not only from a different district, but a different state, I keep telling myself that I need to take some time to learn. Everything seems so fast-paced that we forget that learning takes time and practice.  When we begin a new task, new role or any kind of new learning, it brings on a sense of uneasiness.  Piaget calls this disequilibrium.  We need to be kinder to ourselves and allow for the learning and the practice of the new skill or role to become balanced (assimilation and accommodation).  It’s with this practice that easing into the new will become more comfortable.

As important as this is for ourselves, we need to apply this to our students as well.  At times they feel uneasiness with new concepts.  As teachers we try to connect their prior knowledge to the new concept to help make that transition to the new learning.  This is where hands-on experiences help to make those connections.  As educators, we strive to develop students as lifelong learners as we seek to continue the learning in ourselves.  I am now able to get to the district office without my GPS, but have also discovered a new route to avoid traffic.  That’s the funny thing about learning… it never stops.  It is a continuous experience if you want it be.

By: Karen Wilson, STEM Coach

Monday, December 10, 2012

Computer Science Education For All

  At a time when 'ed-tech' (education technology) is   getting so much attention, there is little time given to computer science education. Some believe that buying new hardware, and using cool apps is all that is needed.  Others consider computer literacy (using computer tools) to be a sufficient step; they believe we must leave anything more to computer scientists. This is equivalent to teaching our students to read but never asking them to write. Today, our students must learn to create technology, not just consume it. To prepare for a future where computing will be integrated into every field, our students must know how computers work. In addition, computer science teaches problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity -  digital age skills that go across all areas.

Fortunately, the Los Altos School District goes beyond computer literacy to actual computer science education. It is a unique public school district; every sixth grader learns computer programming in a required class.  The weekly CSTEM program  ( ) uses creative and collaborative projects to teach the basics of computer hardware and programming. I am that lucky teacher who gets to create the curriculum and teach this exciting program.

This week, Dec 9-15 is CS Ed week   It is a week designated to bring awareness to the need for computer science education. As my personal pledge for CS Ed Week, I want to share some of the work LASD students do in my class. I want to share what is possible in computer science education at this early age. I want to share so that other schools may learn from LASD's example and provide computer science education as a required program at an early age to all students.  

In my classes, students learn a little about computer hardware and create a 3D model of a motherboard using SketchUp  .  They love this 3D design tool and use it to create rooms and houses. Most of the school year however, is spent learning programming. This year, the sixth graders started with some programming basics using Processing.js  ( , the JavaScript implementation of the Processing programming language on the Khan Academy Computer Science platform ). These early projects show them how to create art through code. After this, they will work with a partner to create a math video game using a visual programming language like MIT's Scratch. They will learn how to design, program and create with technology. They will learn math and problem solving as they write and debug their programs. Most importantly, they will learn to use computing to showcase their creativity.

My goal is to show my students that Computer Science can be fun. I want my students to be excited about learning to code. And they are. Every class, they rush in excited to know what they will learn. 'Oh good, we are doing more programming!', said a girl at Covington last week; they are looking forward to learning more each class. They enter the classroom asking me questions like 'When will we learn Python?" "Can you show us how to make a game with gravity?" My student’s enthusiasm to learn is what keeps me energized as I go from one school to another, and one class to the next. Their enthusiasm is what lets me teach 19 classes a week, and still spend many hours outside of class tweaking and customizing the curriculum. The LASD students are quick learners and this inspires me to keep hunting for new creative tools and projects. I am also fortunate to have the wonderful support of the 6th grade teachers in this program.

I learn along with my students. I learn how to blend discovery learning methods with structured computer science lessons. After doing the same lesson multiple times, I learn to keep my demos short and interactive. Students do not want to watch demos – they just want to try it out. One of my challenges is to get students to leave the class when it is over. The 30-minute class is always too short, and many students want to stay on and try one more line of code while I am trying desperately to get them to log off. I have the next class eagerly waiting outside.

Learning does not stop when the class is over. We use Edmodo  as an online class to extend learning and I post homework and quizzes online. I get student messages and questions online after school and on weekends. Sometimes there are questions on coding and sometimes a request -   'Can you show us next time ...'  Mostly, it is excited posts of their latest programs.   

Check out my article explaining the first programming project with student samples here  Some student samples are also posted here   

While credit for the programming projects goes to our students, the credit for creating the CSTEM program goes to LAEF and the LASD administration. LASD has created an innovative learning environment by making place for computer science education in our schools. CS Ed Week may be just this week, but for the approximately 500 sixth graders at LASD, CS education is every week.

Sheena Vaidyanathan is a computer scientist, and artist and has been teaching in LASD for the last 6 years as an Art specialist, Digital Design instructor and now as the CSTEM teacher.  If you want to learn more on CSTEM, check out the latest CSTEM parent newsletter  ( )If you want to know more on why students should learn coding at an early age, read Sheena’s article on KQED's MidShift blog.
Email                  Twitter  @sheena1010

Friday, December 7, 2012

Taking Ordinary to ExtraOrdinary-Big Ideas Fest Didn't Disappoint!

I don’t consider myself an ultra-sensitive or overly emotional person. I don’t cry often, but I was so touched by Matt Harding’s work, I started to cry during his presentation this week at The Big Ideas Fest. His videos from 2008 and 2012 showcase his travels to over 42 countries to unite people...all through the power of dance! They involve a goofy grin and a bit of silliness too! His 2008 video has over 44 million hits! Check it out!

Why was I so touched? As I watched the videos, I reflected on how we all laugh and dance in the same language.  We have more in common than we realize! Do our students think about what they have in common with kids across the globe? I reflected on how a goofy dance had the power to unite so many people. With today’s technology we have the power to connect with others throughout the world.  How might we facilitate more international learning opportunities for our students? How can we connect our children here in Los Altos to other children internationally? What could the future hold for our youth if we help them form connections with each other across the globe?

Presentations and Action Collaboration!
For the first part of this week, I felt like I was thousands of miles away, even though I was just in Half Moon Bay! The Big Ideas Fest, hosted by Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), is not your typical conference! Instead of featuring solely presentations, the format interweaves group collaboration activities called “Action Collabs.” Within my specific Action Collab, we explored the design challenge: “How might we create opportunities for learning through international collaboration.”

I was so fortunate to learn from the diverse backgrounds and the individuals within my Action Collab. Just to give you a feel for some of the individuals in my group; one person captures photos and video for Qatar Foundation International and she visits classrooms all around the world! Her footage from schools in Kenya and parts of Asia was phenomenal! Another person is a curriculum developer with Road Trip Nation. We had several educators in our group. From a teacher from inner city Boston who connects with students in Qatar, to another who works as the head of a school in San Francisco and a government official who focuses on education from a statewide perspective, we had a variety of experiences in Education.  With this collection of people, the dialogue we had around promoting more international collaboration was incredibly rich! Frankly, I found returning to speaker presentations as a refuge and time to reenergize! As Kami mentions in her last post, I appreciated balance between collaborative time and the time to think.  With the flow of phenomenal speakers and a challenging group task at hand, the days were extremely invigorating. How might we make everyday in a classroom like a day at Big Ideas Fest?

From a Moment to a Movement
So who were some of the presenters and what did I glean from them? A few of the presentations made an unforgettable impression. First of all, I loved hearing from Director Nirvan Millick about his creative process developing the Caine’s Arcade film. His message: We should always have our “antenna up” looking for opportunities. One day, when he needed a new door handle, he stumbled upon an amazing boy named Caine with a cardboard arcade and a film was born! After he posted Caine's Arcade to You Tube, the video went viral, and his life took a new course. Not only did he raise over two hundred thousand dollars for Caine’s scholarship fund, but the film spawned a Global Cardboard Challenge. He recently launched a nonprofit organization called Imagination Foundation that has a mission to find, foster, and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in more kids.” All of this has happened in less than a year! It is amazing how this moment transformed into a movement to provide more support for creativity for children.

Taking Ideas to A Larger Scale

Here I am with one of the "Coke and Mentos" guys at Big Ideas Fest!
Playing with something seemingly simple can lead to big results! For example, Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz were curious about the chemical reaction that happens when a few mentos are added to a two liter of Diet Coke. You may have seen the video featured above showing how they took this idea to the extreme! They kept taking their idea to a bigger and bigger scale-until finally, they discovered what would happen if they used lots of Mentos and 100 bottles of Diet Coke. Whoa! That took perseverance! How might we encourage students to design science experiments with everyday objects? I can only imagine what our students here in Los Altos would come up with! 

During their presentation, Fritz and Stephen encouraged the audience to follow their passions and find something that inspires a personal drive. Whether it be post-it notes or chemical reactions, they explained how people can take the “ordinary to the extraordinary” by being obsessive, stubborn, taking things to the extreme and remembering to set limits. I was lucky to have a photo opp too!

So how does this all apply to teaching and instructional coaching? As educators, I think it is so important that we always have our antenna up, as Nirvan Millick was when he walked into an auto mechanic shop last Spring. We never know what may happen if we take advantage of a "teachable moment" and take cue from our students to create a new learning experience. Matt Harding shows how something as simple as a dance can help people learn about our world and its many cultures. Within the Big Ideas Fest, I heard so many people touch on the importance of pursuing intellectual curiosity, fostering international connections and allowing students and teachers to tap into their passions.  For we never know, by providing time and structure to play with an idea, or complete a design challenge, a change that seems "small" could turn out to be the next Big Idea!

Ellen Kraska is the Technology Integration Instructional Coach within the Los Altos School District. She is passionate about edtech, creativity and collaboration within innovative learning environments. You can email her at and/or follow her on Twitter @kraskae.