Thursday, February 28, 2013

Building Classroom Connections With Skype

Why rely solely on textbooks and the internet for research when your students can Skype with an expert? How about having students develop their own questions to further their learning?

A handful of Los Altos teachers are turning to Skype and Skype in the Classroom to satisfy student curiosity and transform the acquisition of content knowledge into an engaging dialogue. We asked Lily Alberts and Melissa Dowling to contribute to our blog for a guest post on how they are incorporating Skype within their classrooms. If you teach in Los Altos and would like support with using Skype in your class, please contact Ellen Kraska at

Student asks questions during Skype with
Explorer Mark Wood
Why Skype? 
Skype is a great tool to connect students to professionals when they can’t visit them physically.  This technology also helps students become globally aware of people that live in different places and are of different cultures. It’s also free!

We started using Skype because we wanted our students to be able to get all of their wonderful questions answered.  By using this technology it puts the learning back on our students.  Students use their curiosity to come up with questions that help them dive deeper.  

Our Approach
We looked through our curriculum for topics that another professional/person would have more insight or first hand experience. Then we used our personal networks and Skype websites to find specific people to join our class for a Skype.

In my classroom, I thought it would be fun to find a scientist who could talk about the environment that they study.  I was not able to find one at the time, but while researching I found an explorer, Mark Wood, on the Skype website for educators that had explored both polar regions.  He was sponsored by Skype and had talked with classrooms before.  During our interview the students were super engaged and talked about it for weeks after.  Mark Wood our interviewee talked about his travels, his gear, his experiences, animals he had seen, etc.  He showed our students a polar bear tooth, Inuit glasses (which connected to our Island of the Blue Dolphin book), and some of his gear.  He even helped the students understand the difference of climate in the polar regions.  He was fabulous!
                                                        -Melissa Dowling 

In my classroom, we were reading a story called “A Very Important Day”. This story was about multiple families who immigrated to the US and on this important day, they were all becoming US citizens. While we were studying the story, many of my students had numerous questions about this citizen process. They were all wonderful questions; however, I realized that I could not answer most of them. It just so happens that one of my friends, Chris Frost, was getting his citizenship that same week. I connected with him and told him what we were doing in class and I asked if he would be willing to skype with my students. He agreed and on our skype interview, all of my students were able to get their questions answered and more! My students were so engaged and had fun asking him questions about his homeland, Scotland.
                                                                     -Lily Alberts 

Before both our interviews, we had students brainstorm questions that they would want the person to answer. We then picked about ten questions for the students to ask and wrote up a script so that students would know what to ask. To help make a successful interview/ conversations, we created roles for each student in the class. Our jobs were: greeter, closer, interviewers, data collectors, photographers, Google Earth/ Maps, and bloggers.
Student roles such as "Google Mapper" differentiate student responsibilities during the Skype video call.
Tips for Using Skype in Your Classroom
1.  Have the students practice introducing themselves and talking in front of a camera.
2.  Have students sit on the floor close together so that they all can be seen.
3.  Talk to students about minimizing background noises.
4.  Talk with students about lag time and if there is a lag to speak slower or pause to restart.
5.  Be sure to specifically teach each individual job-especially photography. During the call, students tend to get a bit camera happy and forget that a blurry picture is not a good one.

Our Next Steps
We both look forward to Skyping again.  Our ideas for new interviews are many.  Here are a few... someone who works on a ranch (ranchos), someone who lives on the prairie (Sarah, Plain and Tall), a geologist (rocks and minerals), an electrician (magnetism and electricity), an author, a zookeeper, another class in California or another country- the possibilities are endless!

Contributed by Lily Alberts, Loyola Fourth Grade Teacher
and Melissa Dowling, Almond Fourth Grade Teacher

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Nurturing Creativity in the Classroom

Last week I was fortunate to attend the Learning & the Brain Conference in San Francisco.  This year’s conference focused on creativity with an outstanding speaker lineup including Tina Seelig,  Madeline Levine, John Seely Brown, Yang Zhou and many others.  As is with most conferences I attend, I left exhausted yet inspired.   We are working so hard in LASD to improve the learning experiences for students and much of what I heard confirmed we are on the right track.  Our teachers are upgrading units of instruction and redesigning learning to be more active, but we have more work to do especially when it comes to nurturing the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of our students. While speakers may have varied  on their approaches, the overwhelming messages where the same -  humans are inherently creative, but creativity must be nurtured. Below are some strategies that may be used in the classroom to help nurture creativity.  

Active Learning with Design Thinking
In order for students to take an active role in their learning, they must work with and use facts, skills, and concepts to solve complex real world learning.  Design Thinking is a process that can be used with students to solve these types of problems. Authentic learning through design thinking is accomplished in collaborative groups, not for the sake of collaboration but because the tasks assigned are demanding and require the role and expertise of each member within the group. Students must start with a problem or design challenge that is created at the appropriate level of difficulty because students will disengage if the problem is either too hard or too easy.  Students then discuss and explore the problem through inquiry and work to find a solution.  Students prototype and create tangible solutions that address the problem.  This process is guided by an instructor but ultimately students take ownership of their learning by creating a solution that is actionable.   This is a VERY oversimplified explanation of Design Thinking with the intent of only highlighting that Design Thinking is an effective strategy to increase the creative output of our students.  There are incredible organizations and individuals doing great work with Design Thinking in K12 Education.  Here are a few resources of interest - Design Thinking for Educators  | Nueva School  |   Center for Design Thinking Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

Reframing Our Questions
We know the art of asking questions is powerful, but it may just be that the art of reframing questions is even more powerful.  In the classroom, we should challenge ourselves as facilitators of learning to reframe our questions and only pose questions that have multiple answers. Reframing the questions we ask as educators is a start, but we also need to teach students to how to reframe things themselves using empathy and jokes.  Empathy, one of the steps in Design Thinking, is essentially learning how to reframe your perspective by shifting to that of another person.  If we can successfully teach students how to look at problems from another point of view we have taught them the beginning of empathy.  Reframing can also be taught through jokes.  In fact, most jokes are funny because they switch frames in the middle of the joke. A great classroom exercise is to have students create captions for humorous pictures.  Think this is easy?  Try the New Yorker cartoon caption contest, it is one of the more difficult contents to enter.

Don’t Settle For the First Answer
Tina Seeling, Executive Director for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, teaches several classes on creativity and is known to push the thinking of her students.  It is not uncommon for Tina to give assignments that may at first sound outrageous such as “create 500 flavors of icecream” or “find a small filled trashcan - now you have 2 hours to makes something of value.” Assignments like these are powerful because they force students to push through the first ideas that come to mind.  It is often not until the second or third wave of thoughts were creative ideas begin to surface.  Allowing students time to think and process is critical in the creative process and time feels scarce in most classrooms.   Many times we are in a hurry and are ready to move on to the next lesson, subject or project.  I wonder what would happen if we allowed students to linger longer on problems?  Students might solve less problems, but my guess is that the quality of work will improve dramatically.

Next week, we are fortunate to have an entire day with all of our Kindergarten teachers and will focus on nurturing creativity in the classroom.  We are thankful to our parent community and LAEF for supporting ongoing professional development!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Third Graders Building Robots? Mission Possible!

When we were first approached with the idea of introducing a robotics project to one of our classrooms, our first direction was a sixth, seventh, or eighth grade classroom. Due to needing a quick start and a flexible schedule, we started looking for a more flexible self-contained primary grade. Third grade, anyone? Reactions were mixed. There were concerns regarding the complexity of the content and students’ abilities for the required tools. The core team, Laleh Rowhani, the classroom teacher, and Karl Wendt, the project designer, believed it could work. With parent support along with two of our district coaches, we accepted the mission.

The third grade class began building a Spout Bot by first learning about energy and electricity.  Instead of just creating a robot that moves, it was important for the students to understand how it works.  It became a deliberate operation of building content first.

Karl Wendt from Khan Academy was in charge of Mission Control. Karl led each phase of the project in the classroom while fine-tuning his online videos and resources available through the Khan Academy site.  Students listened intently while Karl started to talk to them about where energy originated. They learned that it all started with the stars.

The students learned about atoms, the fundamental forces, elements and what the numbers meant on the Periodic Table.  It was amazing to hear students answering questions about fusion!  They also learned about the electromagnetic spectrum and how electricity flows through a circuit if it is connected correctly.  The students also got to power an LED light with lemons.  It took about four lemons to power one LED.

  Students examined how white paper reflects light, while black paper absorbs light. They also rotated through stations learning about magnetic pull and how motors work.  Part of the build required soldering so students were given a practice opportunity to solder two pieces of wire together in preparation for the build.

After all of this hands-on learning occurred, the students were ready to construct Spout.  We had a volunteer team in the classroom to help out with parts of this process which included two district coaches and parents.

Students needed to prepare their robot parts before they started to assemble it.  One of the things they needed to do was to bend paper clips. One was for the support of the motors and the other two were for the antennae which allowed the robot to switch direction if it bumped up against something.  Then the students were ready to work through different stations to complete the build of their Spout bots. There were two main stations where students hot glued motors and then moved to solder wires and connect switches.  Impromptu assessments occurred as students were asked questions about parts of the robots as they were being put together to check for understanding of the mechanics of the project.  If students were not at a station, they were at their desks designing the final look of their bots as well as writing reflections about their experiences with the process.  The build took approximately three, one hour class periods along with an additional day for fine-tuning and decorating their bots.  Now students were ready to present their learning and robot to the world!  

The culminating assessment was a student showcase and robotics challenge. Parents gathered around tables that contained mazes and watched as student teams used their Spout bots to save “Sally,” a face decorated ping pong ball attached to their bot, from the maze. Students shared their journals and design drawings and were able to explain scientific concepts as well as how each part of the bot functioned. Third grade students were able to discuss open and closed circuits, the function of LED lights, the purpose of resistors and where the energy in the battery originates.  Eyes lit up on both Spout bots and students as they watched their creations scoot through the maze. If their bot was performing poorly, a quick assessment and some problem-solving soon had them carrying Sally to safety.

At the end of this project, we all did a little reflecting. Students were enthusiastic about the experience and were able to explain many of the scientific concepts covered. Some even talked about their further explorations at home, which included a few trips to the hardware store for materials to build their own robot. Parents were thrilled by the shift in dinner conversation, with high energy discussions around science and their robots.  Parents also expressed appreciation for how engaged, motivated, and excited their student was about the learning experience. As the project team reflected on this mission, we were reminded that when we engage students well and raise the expectations for learning, students often rise to the occasion. Yes, this grade level needed some additional classroom support for managing the more complex tasks of the project, but students were able to digest the content and make personal connections to their learning throughout the process.

So did we accomplish 3rd graders building robots? The answer is yes!  It took a lot of collaboration, reflection and teamwork, but the mission was possible.

Spout Bot at Santa Rita Elementary School: Mrs. Rowhani's third graders learn about matter and energy by building a Spout bot with Khan Academy. Special thanks to: Santa Rita's volunteer parents, Kami Thordarson, Karen Wilson and of course Laleh Rowhani the class teacher.

By Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach and Karen Wilson, STEM Coach

Friday, February 8, 2013

Hurry up and Learn!
Our fast paced world seems to be leaking into our classrooms. The standardized curriculum guides and teacher’s manuals are bigger, the pacing guides include more content to cover in each lesson, and it feels as if at least once a week we are asked to squeeze one more topic into our teaching. Students must feel as if they are on the express lane of learning. The pace is rapid, the content is deep, and if you happen to drift for a minute, you’re lost. How do we maximize our classrooms for learning?

Step away from the front of the room and let students do the talking. Often, teachers are still controlling the front of the room ninety percent of the time. It’s time to step back and allow students more opportunities to hold in-depth and valuable conversations around subject matter. Letting them take time to reflect on their learning before moving on to the next thing allows them to own the material and share their learning with others.

Focus. We often have students multi-tasking in order to cover a lot of material, and at times, we are quickly finishing one project as we begin to explain how to start a new one. It has been proven that our brains cannot successfully perform two or more cognitive tasks at the same time. Think about what happens when people try to drive and text at the same time. The brain is alternating from one task to the other and we begin to make mistakes. In learning, these interruptions can lead to learning loss. Students need time to shift completely between topics and projects so their brain can focus.

Make it relevant. David Sousa, a former teacher and superintendent and current educational consultant as well as author, shares that our working memory is declining. Researchers have performed tests to understand capacity of the temporary working memory part of the brain, and for students under the age of 14, the number of things remembered dropped from five items to three or four. Researchers are not sure of the reason for the decline, but Sousa states this has “grave implications” in our classrooms. In order for information to be stored, it must make sense to students. “We’re in such a rush, we don’t give enough time for meaning.” Making content relevant to students is sometimes a challenge, but they will remember those things that matter to them.

Control the flow. We are inundated with information on a daily basis. As our devices get smaller, we are staying connected and glued to our social networks with a constant stream of data. Teachers need to help students develop management strategies. Too much information overwhelms the brain and slows down cognitive processing and we remember very little. If you are an avid media consumer, see if you can recall the plot and details of the last video you watched or the last article you skimmed. Watching students research is often an exercise in going from link to link with a lot of enthusiasm but very little direction or retention. Teachers can help by teaching students to locate just the information that they need and ignoring the rest.

Blend Content. As educators, we have fallen into some bad habits. We teach many subjects in isolation. Many high school and middle schools are driven by a differentiated schedule that takes students from math class to history class to science class with very little cross over. In elementary schools, there is more flexibility in self-contained classrooms but we still see content taught in isolation with regimented schedules. With the amount of content that each teacher needs to cover, I don’t see how we can succeed without finding more opportunities to blend. Rather than feeling frustrated about the many things we can’t fit in, maybe we can reframe our thinking and look at ways to weave those big ideas. Finding engaging projects that students can connect with that blend content may be one way to slow down the day.

Slowing down can apply to all of us. At times, when I’m sitting in my car, stopped on the freeway, I watch the cars zoom by in the express lane and wish I was there. However, when I get over the frustration and reframe my situation, I appreciate that I have been given an extra thirty to forty minutes to process and reflect on my day. That’s when my brain allows inspiration to strike and my best “Ah-ha!” moments happen. Still, it would be nice to sometimes be able to travel faster.

By: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach
Twitter: @kamithor

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Today is Digital Learning Day!

A few weeks ago, when my five year old daughter lost her first tooth, she quickly said, “Can we Skype with Nana?” She loves Skyping, FaceTime and Tango, to connect and communicate with our family and friends who live far away. My husband remarked, “What happened to the old fashioned phone call!” and we both realized that her perspective on technology is so different than ours.
It is only natural for children today, who grew up with cell phones and laptops, or even iPads, to have technology as an integral part of their lives.  It is only natural that they will turn to Google for searching and digital maps for directions.  It is no wonder that some students must feel as if they are stepping back decades when they enter classrooms with no access or opportunities to use technology.  As educators, I think it is imperative that we weave technology into the fabric of our curriculum to create meaningful, relevant and powerful learning experiences for our students.

Today is a Digital Learning Day. Today is a day that spotlights educators and their students for effectively for blending technology into their classroom.  Approximately four million people will participate by watching Digital Town Halls, sharing innovative tech lessons on Twitter (#DLDay) and featuring digital learning opportunities within classrooms across the nation. We are fortunate that many days in Los Altos are digital learning days for our students! To recognize Digital Learning Day, I compiled a list of the most successful uses of technology that I have seen in classrooms this year.

Fourth graders Skyping during class.
1. Skype with another classroom or an expert in the field.  Bring the facts and information from textbooks to life and make researching an interactive experience! By interviewing people using Skype or FaceTime, students learn about setting appointments, perhaps time zones, interviewing etiquette and utilize note taking. Looking to see a Skype experience in action? Check out this class blog post from Lily Albert's fourth grade class following their Skype with explorer Mark Wood.  Check out Skype in the Classroom for more resources about contacts for Skyping opportunities.

2.  Utilize Edmodo for online class discussions. There is never enough time to hear from each student during class. Why not create a class Edmodo group to involve all students in contributing to a conversation?  Members can share multimedia resources, such as video clips, websites and documents in instants.  We have over 286 teachers and 1500 students using Edmodo here in Los Altos. In fact, Blach PE Teacher Steve Kane uses Edmodo with his students as a forum for eighth graders to discuss health related topics they cover in class.  Students in Meghan Greenbaum and Cindy Kane's Blach Science classes are chiming in to share opinions on stem cell research. Students appreciate having a venue to express their opinions and make their voices heard.  The best part- students use written communication skills, practice netiquette and all have a chance to participate.

3.   Integrate QR Codes! By using a QR Code generator, any website URL becomes an scannable image. Use QR codes to point students to resources online. Create a QR code scavenger hunt, QR code valentines or a QR code Open House! Jill Croft, fourth grade teacher at Covington, used a QR code for a student scavenger hunt.  Students love creating QR codes and scanning all the codes to go on digital adventures!

How about a student generated QR Code bulletin board?
4.  Use class websites or blogs for student publishing opportunities. When students publish their ideas to a broader audience online, the bar for written communication is raised. Using google sites, sixth grade students at Loyola and Blach seventh graders are integrating learning artifacts within reflective e-portfolios. Sixth graders at Santa Rita contribute to a class blog several times each trimester. Check out their blog here.  Online and digital publishing experiences provide an authentic world-wide audience and engage students in the writing process.

5.  Incorporate Digital Citizenship lessons by using Common Sense Media. As students utilize more digital tools and resources, lessons that address digital citizenship concepts are essential. Common Sense Media provides a wealth of online resources for students, parents and educators to help children “to thrive in a world of media and technology.” 

Here's to transforming more days into Digital Learning Days!

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.