Thursday, April 13, 2017

Creative Gmail Signatures for Students

Remember that time in January that I had to do a Demo Slam at the Winter Google Summit? One of the slams that really stuck with me was one called Your Email Signature Sucks by Jeremy McBrayer. He showed us a super simple trick for setting up an email signature in Google Docs, and then using copy/paste to your GMail settings to give you a spiffy-looking signature that features both an image and some text (usually, your name and contact info) right next to each other.

I used his trick immediately after returning from the Summit, and I've even used it for my non-professional accounts because I love how the formatting makes my emails look so nice!

My current email signature

I began to think about how this trick could be useful in other applications, and then it clicked: my students need to create signatures for their email accounts, too! Perhaps you're aware of the phenomenon that is students who never remember to put their name on anything... well, it happens with emails, too. And even though Gmail might give me a student's name as part of the address info, it's always lacking a few key components, like grade level or homeroom teacher, should I need to follow up on an issue.

I teach all three grade levels - 6, 7, and 8 - so keeping grade levels straight is often difficult (and gets more and more difficult the older I get!), and my students switch every six weeks... by the end of the year, I've taught 700+ students! So, it's a HUGE advantage if I had a photo to help me match names to faces. Which is why this Gmail signature seemed like an awesome opportunity to teach students a neat tech trick that is also super useful and helpful! I like to encourage them to be creative with both their photo and text info.

Here's what we do:
* Open a new Google Doc. Insert a 2x2 table. 
* In the left-hand cell, insert a photo (preferably of yourself, that's kind of the point?).
Yep, that's my middle school photo. It wasn't originally black and white, it's just scanned that way. Color photography WAS already invented when I was younger...! 
* Adjust the size by clicking and dragging on a corner. You don't want to have a ridiculously huge photo at the bottom of all of your emails. 
* Now, shift the vertical border on the right side of your image's cell to fit your image. That will help keep your text aligned next to your image without an awkwardly huge gap of space in-between. 
* In the right-hand cell, enter your text:
  • Your first & last name
  • Your grade level
  • Your homeroom teacher's name
  • A favorite quote, motto, or fun fact about yourself! (I encouraged students to have fun with this part!) 
* Once all of your information is entered, you will select the table and turn the borders to white, so that they "disappear."

Now, you can select and copy your entire table from Google Docs, and paste it into your Gmail email signature settings, and do any minor adjustments to fonts, sizes, etc. - Don't forget to save!

Once students have created their spiffy new email signatures, I have them send me an email to test it out! I promise to reply to each of them with a Mrs Leban Bitmoji, which is usually pretty motivating. I figure that once I do this with each group of students, by the end of the school year, every student in the building will have an email signature with all of the info a teacher might need right there!

I love that this activity helps motivate students to check and actually USE their school email accounts! And it's just a nifty trick to impress students with, too.

How about you? What's currently your favorite tech trick to show students?

- Mrs. L.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Innovation Stations: A Middle School Creative Technology Unit

I know I've referenced my 8th grade culminating curricular unit before, which we lovingly call the Innovation Stations, but I thought I'd take a moment to explain how it all gets laid out and run within our classroom!

From a classroom management standpoint, I have students work in pairs during Innovation Stations. I find that groups of two allow for adequate assistance (students have a friend that they can ask for help), but also allows for students to easily take turns controlling the actual tools. No one just sits and observes, or claims to have "nothing to do."

I have three stations that I need to arrange to have all of the students move through: Makey Makey, littleBits, and Sphero. Grouping and time frames are basically dependent upon which tool I have the smallest number of, which at present, is Sphero. I have four of them (and if I'm lucky, they're all working!). That means that up to eight students can be working at the Sphero station. If I have a class of 24, it works out perfectly to have eight students at each station, with four groups each. Of course, this is an IDEAL situation, and I do often have to make adjustments accordingly.

Each tech tool station has a task list of directions for getting acquainted with the tool, and challenges for the students to complete. Last year, these task lists were printed off on paper and I had to manually "check off" tasks for students after they performed them for me, but this year I've begun making these checklists paperless (as hyperdocs!), and having students photograph and document task completion by inserting the images into the doc as proof.

Depending on how much time we have left in the quarter, I will have students spend 2-3 days at each station, and charge them with getting as far as they can on the task lists during that time. The task list is where you'll find fun challenges, like our Sphero maze.

I'm fortunate to have all sorts of tech gadgets to use in my curriculum, and it's currently structured for students to experience technology at my school like this:
  • 6th Grade - Dot and Dash robots
  • 7th Grade - Ozobots
  • 8th Grade - Makey Makey, Sphero, and littleBits

It works out pretty well, because each grade level gets to experience a new tech tool each year. But the Ozobots and Dot/Dash robots are actually new to us THIS year, so my current 8th graders never got the chance to use them. Therefore, I decided to try something new for 3rd quarter and add two more stations to the rotation of tools: the Ozobots and Dot and Dash robots!

I took my longer Ozobot and Dot and Dash unit materials and shrunk them down into (what I hope are) manageable 2-3 day task lists, like the ones I created for the other three 8th grade stations, and now I had FIVE Innovation Stations for students to rotate through! I'm not gonna lie, it's a lot of device management and attention to things like charging/cables/outlets, but it's a fun type of chaos to see all of the students so engaged in the activities.

One of the things that I ended up doing in order to help make these stations run more smoothly was to create short "How-To" type videos for the most common issues that students would encounter when working with the devices. For example, I often found myself spending chunks of the class period troubleshooting our Sphero connections. The solution? Help yourself! See here:

And despite having very specific and clear instructions on how to properly connect a Makey Makey, sometimes it's just more helpful to watch someone else do it: 

The other station that seemed to need a little more one-on-one assistance was the Ozobots, mostly because there's a difference between using them on paper vs using them on a Chromebook and loading them with programs. So I made these:

I found these short videos extremely helpful for running my Innovation Stations unit, as it freed me up to observe and assist in other areas, as needed. I wasn't feeling so much like a broken record, answering the same questions over and over! 

This is one of those instances where teaching a class repeatedly, like in 9-week terms, has its advantages because I can run a unit for students, reflect, and make adjustments like this. It's pretty rewarding to be able to observe how things improve after tweaking a lesson or unit!

Have you used any of these tech tools before? What new tech tools or toys would you suggest adding to our offerings in the future?

- Mrs. L.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Intro to Coding Using Mr Potato Head

It's always nice to hear a student say something along the lines of what I heard today:
"Mrs Leban, why do we do so many fun things in your class?" 

Which made me giggle and reply, "Oh I'm sorry - is that a problem? You need me to scale back?"

But seriously, it's nice to know that the weird things I do sometimes are actually connecting with kids - you don't always get that kind of feedback from middle-schoolers. So I take it and enjoy it when I can.

Today's activity is a super basic intro to the concepts of coding: namely, giving specific and accurate directions. We have students role play and assemble a Mr Potato Head toy. I call it the "Mr Potato Head Challenge!" Here's how it goes:


Students work in table groups of 3-4. You will need one Mr Potato Head "set" per table. In lieu of having enough toys, you could do one whole-class game, or split into larger groups based on what you have available.

Side note: I received ALL of my Mr Potato Head sets for FREE. I asked my PTA to put the word out for Mr Potato Head donations (used or new!) and I got like a dozen in less than a month's time! All I had to do was sort all of the parts out into "sets," which I store in these bins from the dollar store:

Here's how to explain the game to students:

  • One student is the COMPUTER, who puts together Mr Potato Head, and is responsible for following the directions from the CODER. 
  • One student is the CODER, who gives the directions.

If you want to get fancy, make name tags:

The COMPUTER doesn't know what each object is called. It can only recognize colors and shapes, like in Google Draw. The CODER will have to be able to describe the object. (Proper names of shapes, like oval or circle, are ok.)

Pro Tip: Arrange parts in a grid formation, or rows by color, to aid in identifying specific parts based on location/coordinates...

Students will play multiple games, trading roles so that everyone at the table gets a turn. The observers are welcome to help their fellow CODER, if necessary, should he/she get stuck on a direction. What should Mr Potato Head look like when he's done? That's up to the CODER!

In my observations, it's super fun to play the COMPUTER role, because students can purposely play dumb when they receive vague directions: Put this on the top. Turn this to the side. Put this on the face. They really seem to get into interpreting directions in alternate ways, which is actually really helpful when I explain how a computer can only follow the directions that are given, and that computer languages have to be very precise - a mistyped lower or uppercase letter can throw off an entire set of coding commands!

After much hilarity, you can debrief with your class at the end of the activity:

  • What did you learn about giving directions? Was it hard or easy?
  • Discuss with students the concept of coding and how the things that are coded are only as good as the person who did the coding - give examples of microwaves, street lights, etc

This activity is part of a larger unit I complete with students using Google Draw, where students create a "monster" drawing, and then must also type up the directions for a classmate to follow. The unit following this one is on coding, so I find that this unit is a nice way to ease into the concept.

- Mrs L.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Reflections on ICE Conference 2017

I was really lucky this year to attend the ICE (Illinois Computing Educators) Conference not one, but TWO days this year. Special thanks to the folks at WeVideo, who sent me in exchange for doing a presentation at ICE all about WeVideo, which is seriously (in my 100% honest opinion!) the best video creation site for education.

Why do I feel so strongly about WeVideo? Well, the winning element for me is the fact that it's cloud-based and cross-platform! I can use it on my Mac, my PC, my Chromebook, my iOS device, or an Android phone! Because it's all stored in the cloud, I can access it anywhere, any time. Oh yeah, and I can share projects, too. So if I'm working on a project with a partner and he/she is absent, I don't need his/her device OR login, because it's shared with me and I can access it, too! I can't think of any other service that gives me this much freedom!

My other favorite thing about WeVideo is of course, green screen, which I talked about here, and presented at the Google Summit here.

Our keynote speaker on Thursday was Eric Sheninger, who I think is awesome and have been following for several years now via Twitter, so I was pretty excited to hear in person. Friday was Joe Sanfelippo, who was equally awesome! I want to buy both of my administrators his awesome book, Hacking Leadership.

Side note: Eric Sheninger is part of the group that created the "Rigor-Relevance" framework chart, which I cannot look at EVER without picturing the "Conjoined Triangles of Success" from Silicon Valley. Does anyone else have this problem?

You can view my whole presentation here, if you like!

My presentation was first thing Thursday morning, which was excellent because it meant that I was able to get it over with right away (I get super ridiculous nervous), and then relax and enjoy the rest of the conference.

My department chair was there with me on Thursday (Thanks for taking pictures, Deb!), which was awesome because I had a friend to walk around with. We went to a poster session - something that I had never experienced before - which is like a 4 (or more) in one session: there's a table for each concept or presentation. Each group gives a quick summary up front, and then you can travel around to each table for more info... kind of like a professional development science fair? It was a cool concept, but way too crowded and I couldn't even get to the table I wanted to see, which was all about flexible seating arrangements - something I'm very into and have talked about before here.

We walked around the vendor booths (The swag was excellent this year, by the way! I like to collect stickers from vendors...) and saw another session from Eric Sheninger. I ended the day with a presentation on microphones, which I was hoping would be helpful for audio recording for our video projects, but was really technical and covered mostly microphones too expensive for my school budget. Ah well, you win some, you lose some. It was still cool to hear about though!

On Friday after Joe Sanfelippo's keynote, there was a block of time devoted to teachers perusing the vendor booths, so I hung out at the WeVideo booth with John Kline and Jaime Hernandez, who were super rad and gave me my favorite new WeVideo hoodie:

But more importantly, I got to talk with a whole bunch of educators about WeVideo and answer questions from a teacher perspective. It was really great to get to share and help others in their tech education journeys!

The vendor hall closed just before lunch, so after hanging in the booth and answering questions, I went to a session on textiles and circuitry, which is a project that I've been dying to try out! I'd love to start a "Tech Girls" club specifically focused on STEAM concepts, but just for girls at my school. Not only would we do a light up circuit bracelet project, I'd love to try the "ArtBot" machines I observed at the station next to the one I was watching:

Must. Get. Conductive. Thread... and make these super-sweet bracelets!
I feel like it would be pretty easy to adapt our current stash of LittleBits to create these ArtBots with marker legs!

I love getting to participate in professional development like the ICE Conference because it's so relevant and immediately useful to my daily responsibilities. I always leave with a ton of awesome new ideas to implement and share!

What's your favorite professional development activity?

-Mrs. L.

p.s. Did you notice? I finally bought my own real web address! I decided on, and for now I'm just forwarding it to my Blogger address. I've been playing around with the idea of switching to another blogging platform, but that's all still TBD... 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Ready Player One: Technology + Literacy

It started off innocently enough. It was the morning of February 16th; I was catching up on my tweets, and discovered that it was World Read Aloud Day. I couldn't think of a fun book involving tech to use as a way to participate (yes, I know it didn't "have" to be a tech-ish book, but I like to tie in my subject area when I can...), so I tweeted about it:

Well, I got a reply from Ms. Rubini-LaForest on Twitter with a suggestion to find a section of the book Ready Player One to read aloud. I was intrigued. A quick search of my school library proved fruitless, but my awesome school librarian offered to pick up a copy for me at our local public library. I took her up on it, knowing full well that I am not always very good at finishing books that I start, but I was going to give this a go regardless.

When I actually picked the book up, I discovered that I was immediately sucked into the dystopian tale, and read the whole thing within only a couple of days! Despite my awesomely and surprisingly fast reading, I did not get all of this achieved in time for World Read Aloud Day, but this novel was so good that I couldn't not share it here.

Ready Player One is a young adult novel (I'd recommend a mature 8th grade or above) from 2011 written by Ernest Cline. It is an awesome story (with interesting social commentary and some eerie present-day parallels) of a dystopian future where most of society escapes into the virtual internet/video-game world of the OASIS. When the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, dies, we discover that he has no family to leave his family or fortune to. It is revealed that Halliday has hidden an Easter Egg within the OASIS - and the first person that discovers it will become the heir to his full fortune and corporation. 

Ready Player One begins five years after Halliday dies, and tells the story of Wade Watts, a lowly high school student, and his hunt for the Easter egg. I won't spoil it for you, but hopefully that's enough to pique your interest and get you reading!

The whole novel is filled with 1980's references (James Halliday is a kid who grew up in the 1980's), which makes it super fun for a reader in their late 30's like me who remembers most of these references first-hand. Retro video games, kitschy movies and television, and a whole lot of Rush references -- and more!

In looking up some info on the novel, I was super excited to discover that it's currently in production as a movie directed by Stephen Spielberg. Whoa! And it's slated to come out in Spring 2018. I can't wait!

Do you know of any other fun fiction with technology themes? I loved this book so much, and I'd love to check out more just like it!

-Mrs L.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Tech Age Parenting Q & A

Tech Age Kids is a blog dedicated to helping parents prepare their kids for a positive future with technology. They're currently running a Q&A feature on their blog where they are asking other bloggers and content creators to join in and answer questions about parenting in the current state of technology.

Since I'm both a teacher AND a parent of a five year old, I thought that I might be somewhat qualified to share my experiences in this arena, and decided to discuss the following questions in today's post:


How does your family manage device usage or screen time? (Tablets, Phones, PCs, Consoles etc)

My son, Iggy, has been using an iPad since he was very little, probably around two years old. We owned one iPad - it was a "family" device - but my husband and I each bought our own iPads about a year later, so the old one became my son's. We didn't intentionally buy it for him, it just worked out that way.

He brings it to my mother's house (she watches him during the day), and he'll use it to watch videos or play games during down time. We love the YouTube Kids app, and the Toca Boca and Sago Mini brand games. I bought him the Endless Alphabet/Endless Reader apps, hoping that he'd use them a little more, but he seems to typically gravitate towards other apps instead. That being said, he does know all of his letters, and has started sounding letters out on his own. He starts kindergarten in the fall, and I feel like he's pretty well-prepared.

One of the things I've noticed as a result of him watching videos via YouTube Kids is his vocabulary. He hears words and phrases in videos he watches, like toy "un-boxing" videos, and will then use them in new situations that are not only correct, but often humorous to hear coming out of the mouth of a 5-year-old. We'll be out shopping and he'll say things like, "Oh mom, that action figure is a Target exclusive, and the second of the series." It's pretty cute.

Do you think it’s important to prepare children for future jobs, careers and lives with technology?

I think it's extremely important to prepare children for future jobs, careers, and lives with technology! I mean, it's what I teach on a daily basis, so yeah. I think that it's not important to teach students a specific technology, tool, or software so much as it's important to teach them how to independently problem-solve and navigate technology in general, so that they can adapt and evolve their knowledge to keep up with changing technologies as they happen.

I've come across a lot of adults in my experiences that are afraid of computers... like if they touch one wrong button, it might explode. Sadly, a lot of these same adults seem to have a sense of pride about it! "Oh, I don't know anything about computers..." Like it's something to brag about? It's all very confusing and frustrating to me.

I want students to approach technology without fear, knowing that if they press something "wrong," they have the know-how to go back and correct it or undo their actions, and probably learn something new in the process!

Here's Iggy with his iPad, looking very thoughtful. :)

Do your think your children know enough about how technology works?

For a five-year old, I feel like my son knows a lot about technology. He can troubleshoot and turn the wi-fi on and off for my mom or mother-in-law when they're having difficulty connecting their devices! He can use airplay to mirror his screen to the TV to show my husband and I something.

When it comes to my student "children," I feel like they know a lot, but maybe not enough. Many of them act like they know a lot about technology, but then I see them in action and it becomes apparent that some of them don't know quite as much as they are claiming to, I want them to feel safe to admit that there are things that they don't know! I think maybe because it's middle school, they are sometimes too embarrassed to admit in front of friends that they don't know something, for fear of being made fun of or singled out, so they adapt a "fake it til you make it" attitude. This can be harmful when it comes to things like social media or cyber-bullying situations. They often won't want to tell an adult that they made a mistake, or to seek advice. 

Tell us about your personal experience with technology from your childhood or as an adult.

I feel like my generation (I'm in my late thirties right now...) has the unique experience of being present (and in school) for both pre-internet and post-internet eras. We lived both realities. When I was a junior/senior in high school, it was a SUPER BIG DEAL that our school library had a T1 line and therefore had access to a fast internet connection! Many of us didn't have internet at all; or, if you did, it was AOL and your parents would yell at you for tying up the phone line. I didn't have a smartphone until 2009 - I was already out of college and married!

My students now will never know what it was like to have an original Nintendo - NOT connected to the internet! They haven't had to call a friend's house and to have their friend physically come over to their home in order to play Super Mario Brothers together. If none of your friends were available, you had to play all by yourself! There was no email - you had to write "snail mail," although we just called it mail. :)

It's hard to communicate that, or to expect students to have an appreciation/deep understanding of the pre-internet-era, because internet is all they've ever known. It's weird for sure. 

Do you feel confident to help your children develop tech skills (the T in STEM)?

Because I teach technology to students as my job, yes, I feel confident to help them develop tech skills. If I didn't, I'm probably in the wrong line of work!

I do sometimes have students that are beyond my level of technological knowledge, and I don't hesitate to let them know when this is the case! I try have resources available, like Codecademy or Khan Academy, to allow students to work and learn independently at an appropriate level of challenge. I always caution students that if they're working ahead and get stuck on something, I'll do my best to try to help, but that they probably know more than I do!

Photo by Steinar Engeland

What frustrates you about tech toys, gadgets and educational products for kids?

Lasting power. I did a lot of research before buying my five year old a Christmas present this year because I knew that I wanted something for him that would encourage coding skills. I didn't want to buy something that was too babyish - he'd grow bored and tired of it too quickly. Conversely, I didn't want to buy something above his level that would cause him to give up or lose interest.

We settled on the Osmo system for my son's iPad, because there are a lot of games and options available, and it seems like it will grow with him. I really want to buy the coding pack for Osmo next!

In my classroom, I am really struggling with durability. Middle school students can be kind of rough when handling objects, and things that are fragile, like LittleBits wires, are constantly in need of repair or replacement. I love LittleBits, and I'll probably end up with a set for my son to use at home, one-on-one, but when you have 40+ students using them every day for several weeks, the wear and tear on the pieces are significant, despite all of the preventative measures (like Sugru reinforcements!), organization, and monitoring that you try. I don't have the money to replace pieces constantly.

Some of my other robot gadgets are slowly beginning to have problems with battery life, bluetooth connections, and/or firmware updates... I wish that older versions of some of these things were supported for longer periods of time, as my district won't buy me the latest greatest versions of Sphero or Ozobot every year. I have to make do with the ones that I have. I suppose I shouldn't really complain, because many schools don't get to purchase these gadgets at all.

What are your digital parenting concerns?

I'm mostly concerned about Iggy as an adolescent (granted, it's still pretty far into the future) and navigating social media. We all made stupid mistakes and did embarrassing things when we were kids, but there wasn't an internet to document and preserve it for all of eternity. I think that we need to allow kids to fail at times, and to learn from mistakes... but there needs to be an environment for that, and it's definitely one that does not involve the internet and social media! I worry about my son making good choices, posting appropriately, creating and maintaining a positive digital footprint, problem-solving and utilizing good coping skills for dealing with negative influences, and overall just using the power of technology for good. 

*   *   *   *   *

Want to join in on the discussion? Check out the full blog post here, and use the hashtag #techageparenting on social media!

-Mrs L. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Hosting a Cardboard Challenge at Your School

I remember watching Caine's Arcade years ago when I was still teaching art, and immediately becoming inspired and wanting to do something like that with my students, but it never quite came to fruition...

Then, just this fall, I was listening to the TechEducator Podcast about #CardboardEDU and it all came back to me - I remembered how cool I thought the idea of creating using ordinary cardboard material was, and began to brainstorm all over again about how I could use this at my school. Despite being a technology teacher, I absolutely loved the low-tech aspect, and how easy it would be to create a maker-themed event for it.

A quick Google search turned up all sorts of events and projects at schools all over, like the Global Cardboard Challenge, which has been happening since 2012 ... which left me feeling quite tardy to the party! But I still needed to make this happen. I presented the idea to Mr Walker, our art teacher, and we decided to make it a joint effort. We then went to my principal, who was super supportive, and scheduled a short presentation for us at the next PTA meeting, so that we could present to parents and get some support (and supplies!) from their group, too!

The "official" Global Cardboard Challenge is held in October each year, but since the art teacher and I weren't really sure how this would go over, we decided to go ahead and host it in February (at the time, giving us a few months to sort out the details) because it is a relatively less busy time of the year in our building, making it more ideal for hosting events.

In theory, hosting a cardboard challenge event is pretty simple: collect a bunch of cardboard, find a chunk of time, and have students come and make stuff. But of course, in reality, it helps to be a little more organized than that. Here's what we did:
  1. Write a list of supplies to buy, and ask PTA to help fund: cardboard scissors, saws, tape, and glue gun sticks. 
  2. Ask PTA for parent supervision help (if needed, we found that this wasn't needed as much as we originally thought). 
  3. Pick a date (we chose 3:30-6 pm after school on a Thursday), and reserve a space in your building - we chose the cafeteria for the big tables and sweep-able linoleum floors. 
  4. Advertise! We made flyers and asked each teacher to post one in their classroom or on their door. We also went on our morning announcements to try and hype the event. 
  5. Collect cardboard. Lots of it. Have a space to store it all ahead of time. We used the art room, a storage closet, and even a section of basement hallway. Our maintenance team was super supportive (and patient!) with us. Sources for cardboard included parents, teachers, students, maintenance department, cafeteria team... everyone pitched in and it was awesome!
  6. Create a student sign-up system for the event. We used a Google Form to have students sign up in teams of up to four. We asked them to come up with a team name, and encouraged matching shirts, costumes, or accessories. Having students sign up ahead of time was helpful so that we could estimate how much we needed for supplies. 
  7. Decide if your event is going to have a theme, and if not, consider giving some ideas to students for projects: cardboard forts? armor? robots? games? vehicles? sculpture? costumes? We kept our first year open-ended, but I'm considering having a theme next year. 
  8. Awards. Will you have them? For what categories? Who votes? For our first year, we made simple participation medals (out of cardboard, of course) that read: "I mastered the Cardboard Challenge at SMS," and encouraged students to wear them to school the following day.

I was so excited to have over 15 teams of students sign up for our first ever Cardboard Challenge event! There was so much excitement in the cafeteria. Our administrators stopped by several times to watch the action unfold, and many teachers took the time to stop by and talk to students, too! We even had a team of seniors from the York High School "Invite to Teach" program (it's like a teacher internship for students who think they'll go into the education field in college) participate in the challenge!

For leaving the first year's event open-ended, we got some pretty fun and creative results: two massive castle forts, a life-sized robot, a working skateboard, a cardboard V-8 engine, a basketball hoop, a cityscape, and some cardboard shields and weapons were among the finished products!

I think that the students really enjoyed themselves. Several groups took their finished pieces home; a few others left their creations here at school and are on display throughout the building. One of the nicest things to happen after the event was this super sweet and cute email that I received from a student:

I've literally NEVER had a student take time like that to write me an email just to say that they liked something. So this is a pretty big deal for me. I'm saving it in the happy file.

Reflecting on the night's events, there are a few things that I would improve upon for next year:
  1. I need a better clean up system. There was a huge mess at the end of the night. It would be nice to give each team their own waste bin to toss trash as they work. Also, I should pre-set some large cardboard boxes as recycling "bins" for unused larger pieces of cardboard to be returned. 
  2. An adult sponsor for each team. I'm considering having each team include an adult sponsor, like a parent or teacher, to help with building and supervision. It would be a great way to include parents (or building staff), and also help with my #1 item - cleanup. 
  3. Have a snack/refreshment station. Even just cups for water would be nice, but some cookies or granola bars at a table just beyond the builders would be a good place to take breaks a couple of times during the evening. 
  4. Supply organization and safety. Thankfully, everyone was safe and no one was injured beyond a paper, er, cardboard cut, but I would like to feel just a tad bit more organized by having a pre-set "toolbox" for each group next time, probably consisting of cardboard scissors, exact-o knife, glue sticks, tape, cutting mat, etc... This is also where having an adult sponsor for each team would come in especially handy, too. 
  5. Size limits, and plans for display after the event. Giant forts are cool, but don't always fit through the doorway, nor are there a lot of places to store/display them. I think I need to put a cap on size, unless a student plans on taking it with them!
  6. Trophies and a closing ceremony. Our event just kind of ended with a mad scramble to clean up and get out on time. It would have been nice to have more of a show-and-tell time, or awards ceremony. I'd love to make super cute cardboard "trophies" for the winners, too. 

Have you ever been to an event like this, or hosted one yourself? Do you have any advice or ideas? Let me know!

- Mrs L.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Easy Tech DIY: VR Classroom Tour!

One of my 7th grade students showed me how to create a photo sphere of a location using my phone's camera and the Google Street View app (it's available FREE for both iOS AND Android devices). It makes a 360 degree "street view" image, like in Google Maps... OR, if you use your phone with a Google Cardboard viewer, you can view the space in VR and put yourself directly in the middle of the photo sphere!

Of course, I had to make one of our classroom here at school and publish it on Google Maps. I think it's cool that anyone can experience being "in" the computer lit room from anywhere - it's a totally new take on a virtual classroom tour, and a super fun alternative to a video tour!

Here's how I did it... First, I downloaded and launched the Google Street view app (see top of post for links to iOS and Android versions). There will be a little camera icon in the lower right-hand corner of your screen. Click on it, and select "camera" to use your regular old camera phone.

Your live camera view will pop up, and you're tasked with overlaying the circle on the "dot" - holding it in place until the pie-shaped timer runs out. You then rotate around, repeating this circle/dot step until you get back to your starting point. 

Once you've rotated 360 degrees though, you now can tilt your camera UP or DOWN, repeating the 360 turn and the circle/dot routine, until you've basically photographed an entire sphere around you! 

When your photo sphere is complete, you'll get a green check mark icon. You can then select it and publish it to a specific Google Maps listing. Once that step is finished, you can then choose to share your photo sphere via email, messages, etc... You can even embed your image to your website or blog, like I did above!

If you open our classroom photo sphere (here's the link: 360 Sphere of Room 020) using your mobile device, you can choose the "Google Cardboard" view, which works when you insert your mobile device sideways into a viewer. Without a viewer, it just looks like this:

I loved how easy this was to do, and although this has actually been around for quite a while, I'm just catching on now, and thought that it was totally worth sharing. Check it out!

- Mrs L.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Portable, Wearable Green Screen?

I've been asked a few times to give some more information about my DIY portable green screen for video production. Which is actually kind of embarrassing due to the extreme primitive nature of its construction... but here’s the scoop:

I was slated to do the Google Summit Demo Slam, and I had decided that my topic would be color keying, since it’s my favorite WeVideo feature. I was trying to figure out a way to demonstrate how to use a green screen without actually having a green screen, or somehow make it work to setup a green screen within a 3-minute Demo Slam timeframe.

I considered a 3-fold “science fair”-type project board, but this would have still required me to have a surface (like a table) in which to set it on behind me. I decided to instead try and paint a standard piece of foam core with green paint. The original idea was that during the slam I could just hold it behind me and film via webcam, then demonstrate how to do color keying.

I painted 3-4 coats of acrylic paint on the board and let it dry. It did, unfortunately, warp the board a little bit, which was less than desirable. But the color looked pretty good, so I pushed forward.

I logged in to WeVideo and tried recording from my webcam while holding the board behind me, but it became obvious pretty quickly that there was no graceful (or steady) way to hold up the board behind me while filming. Frustrated, I explained the situation to a group of my 7th graders and asked them what they thought I should do. We started brainstorming ideas for mounting or hanging the board behind me (like, “Can we attach it to a selfie stick somehow?” “How about putting it on a backpack?”), which inspired my very rudimentary solution: bend a couple of wire hangers into shoulder mounts and attach it to the foam core with tape!

If you look carefully, you can see the top of the hanger wire (you know, the hook part) underneath the tape.

This is what the final result ended up becoming: a curvy piece of painted foam core with haphazardly bent wire hangers as a shoulder mount. Embarrassingly primitive, but funny nonetheless, so I brought it with me to the GAFE Summit and used it as a prop in my Demo Slam. Fortunately, it got lots of laughs and attention, even if it didn’t end up winning the competition.

I didn’t actually USE the portable green screen contraption to film, as it still has some limitations:
  • It’s not quite large enough to span the webcam’s view all the way to the edges of the frame.
  • The foam core only reaches to the top of my shoulders, making the green screen only useful for neck-up situations, which is… limiting, to say the least. 

Therefore, I have some ideas for improving upon my design for the future:
  • Buy colored foam core and skip the paint part, which would eliminate warping.
  • Use a larger piece of foam core, so it will cover the edges of the camera frame. 
  • Attach a green piece of fabric to the bottom of the foam core, which would create a “cape” of green behind me, which would allow me to film from the waist-up (ish) and still have green background behind me. 

I’m not necessarily convinced that the portable green screen is better or easier than just toting a green fabric sheet around with me (that’d certainly be more compact!), but it does make for a great conversation piece! So there you have it. If you decide to make your own (probably improved!) version, please share it with me!

-Mrs. L.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

2017 IL Winter Google Summit: My First Tech Presenter Experience

I've definitely attended my fair share of tech conferences in my past 15 years of teaching. This was the first time I actually presented at one! It was like jumping into the deep end, and hoping that you can swim...!

It all started with my ridiculous YouTube video for my 8th graders that I use as an intro to their video assignment. I will always act like a total goofball fool if it means that it might entertain and motivate my students. I don't really consider that other people, like adults, or even other education professionals might watch it. I just figure that they don't have much reason to... although if I was that embarrassed by it, I definitely wouldn't have posted it online in the first place. 

Nevertheless, somebody at WeVideo watched the darn thing. And then contacted me. And asked if I wanted to be an ambassador for them. It sounded super cool, so I said yes! They even did a little blog on my experience with WeVideo and made me the October "Educator of the Month" - this was extremely cool, as I feel like I sometimes can under the radar within my own district. It's nice to get noticed sometimes!

Part of this ambassador gig involves representing WeVideo at select events as needed. I've presented at art teacher conferences, and at in-district PD events, so the thought of it wasn't totally foreign. I agreed to do a presentation at the IL Winter Google Summit hosted by EdTechTeam. This year it was held in Des Plaines, IL, which is not too far from me. Yeah, I could handle that.

...and then it happened.

I discovered that another part of the deal involved participating in the Demo Slam. A Demo Slam is a friendly competition where participants give a 3-minute (or less) presentation on a tech tool or trick, but in a really engaging way. The crowd actually votes on who's the best. So a good hook or creative angle is key. And of course, at the end of the slam, you get to actually say, "Slam!" - mic drop. 

Sounds like fun, right? Yes, absolutely... to watch. To participate? I immediately began FREAKING OUT about it. Although I teach, and I often act like a total weirdo in front of my students, adults are a completely different world. And they'd be JUDGING me. Ooooof. 

My topic was already decided-ish. It was going to have to do with WeVideo. My favorite part of WeVideo is the color keying tool, so I decided to focus on that. I started to brainstorm about how I could demonstrate using a green screen in a portable way. I started by painting a piece of foam core with green paint; I thought that I could hold it behind me and shoot via webcam. But when I tried it, holding the screen was just too awkward and it wouldn't work. 

What does one do in a situation like this? Ask a seventh grader, of course! I ran the concept by a group of students in my class, and together we brainstormed a way to "mount" the green screen on my shoulders using two wire hangers bent so that they fit over my shoulders. It was pretty hilarious, if not completely practical. I had pretty much decided to ditch the green screen contraption altogether until a coworker suggested that I use it in the presentation, even if just as a funny prop. I decided to go with that.

So, by the day the Summit came, I had spent at least a full week freaking out and planning and testing and running through slides and re-running through slides. And making my husband sit through practice runs. He's a champ. My main presentation was entitled "Planning For Video Projects, Featuring WeVideo," and I was feeling pretty confident. I had demo "student" accounts for teachers to try out, complete with a bunch of photos and video clips that I had pre-loaded into the media libraries for the demo accounts to use. 

Want to check out my presentation? Here's a quick overview:

The presenting part seemed to go pretty well, until the second half where teachers logged into the student demo accounts to find NONE of the photos or video clips that I had spent so much time loading prior to the day! Worst. Nightmare. Realized. I was mortified. A quick call to my WeVideo contact (hey awesome customer service!) helped me figure out and fix where I had made a minor mistake in the sharing locations. The rest of the session went fine, but I was feeling pretty down and discouraged for having this issue after all of the planning and testing I had done in the days before in order to prevent just such a thing from happening. How could I have missed that? On a positive note, I'll never make that mistake again!

Algonquin Middle School in Des Plaines (where the Summit was held) has an amazing makerspace classroom that they call the "Dream Lab." In it, they have some of the same robots and tech gadgets that I am lucky to have in my room, plus much much more! The dream lab has a lot of supplies like paint and art materials, LEGOs, sewing machines, a Cricut machine, and even several GoPro cameras!

I drool over spaces like this. I wish that every school had a room like this, and teachers could either bring their classes down, or check out materials and take it to their own room, and I could be the organizer of it all. I could help students with their projects and coach other teachers to incorporate maker concepts in their classrooms. Ugh. I need to stop daydreaming.

So back to the Summit. I gave my presentation, and you heard how that all went, but I still had a Demo Slam to tackle. I was scheduled about 2/3 of the way down in the order, so I had a little bit of time to observe how things went with others. One interesting thing that happened was that the sound system went out. Like totally out. A portable mic/sound system was brought in. It was okay, but not great. Thankfully, I really only needed the mic.

Then it was my turn. It sort of went so fast that I don't even remember too much... "Blah blah, green screen, remove the background... Look! I'm on the moon! Look! I'm in a video game!" And then I put on my ridiculous green screen contraption and the crowd went nuts. I was so excited to hear them giggle at its ridiculousness. I threatened them that they'd "better not steal my idea because I'm going on Shark Tank!"

...and Slam. It was over.

I didn't win the Demo Slam, but I feel like it went really well. I felt good, and I was so proud of myself for getting up there and just going for it. It was such a great counterpoint to my slightly imperfect session earlier in the day. A bonus was that I even got a Twitter shout-out from Jennie Magiera! It made me feel like a cool girl:

In the end, I'm really grateful to have this experience "under my belt," as I'll be presenting again in about a month at the ICE Conference! Let the freaking out commence. :)

- Mrs L.
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