Our Department’s iPad Initiative


This post is by Bree Valvano, an English teacher at Randolph High School

file.aspxI feel very fortunate to be one of five teachers selected to be part of the iPad initiative program in the Randolph High School Humanities Department. Our school recently purchased a number of classroom sets of iPads that are housed in Tech Tubs, a locking and recharging solution for tablets or Chromebooks. Since being selected, I have thought about how I can share some of the tools I find with others. I thought the best way to share this experience would be to post entries, outlining my findings, to the humanities blog. So here is my first entry.

After downloading some of my “go to” tools, such as Nearpod and Showme, I started to do a little research to find other apps I can use in the classroom. Over the long weekend I found two interesting apps that I will be trying out in my English IV classroom.

The first app is called Smule Auto Rap. This free app allows the user to record a short Auto_Rapspoken clip and the app turns the clip into a rap that can be shared via email. I thought this would be a great way to make “do nows” and/or “exit tickets” more fun and relevant for the students. I plan on trying it out when students start reading The Kite Runner. I am going to have students record their reactions to pivotal events in the book, and after recording their responses and turning them into raps, they can share their recordings with other students and eventually email them to me. I feel like this could end up being a fun way to share their reactions and check for understanding.

Trading_CardsThe next app I found this weekend is called Trading Cards, and it is made by the people who run the ReadWriteThink web site. This free app allows the
user to create a trading card of information. This information could be about a character, a historical event, a novel, or a concept. Students are able to add up to 120 characters of information for each question asked and a photo. The trading card can be saved to use later when studying for a test and/or shared with others.

Again, I am so excited to be part of this initiative, and I look forward to sharing more information about helpful apps as I continue to find them.

Power Posing


Two years ago, Amy Cuddy gave one of the most famous TED talks ever. Viewed by over 20 million people, her video currently ranks as the #2 most watched TED talk ever (Sir Ken Robinson’s “How Schools Kill Creativity” is #1). In her talk, Amy discussed the science behind nonverbal communication–basically, how our body language can help shape who we are. In a series of studies, Any found that people who sit in high-power poses for a few minutes show an increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol, which is a hormone small-changes-in-body-language-change-your-body-chemistryreleased in response to stress. So, her findings indicated people who sit or stand in high-power positions are generally more confident, assertive, and do better in stressful situations than people who sit or stand in low-power positions. Standing in power poses for just two minutes can have a big impact on how you feel about yourself. “So it seems that our nonverbals do govern how we think and feel about ourselves,” concluded Amy in her talk. Check out Amy’s talk below. I think it would be interesting to have students practice their power poses before taking a test. Would it help them feel more confident? Would they do better on their assessments? Would they feel better about themselves?

Amy’s TED talk, however, is about more than just posture. It’s about rising to challenges and believing in yourself until everyone else knows you belong. This weekend I tried my own “power pose” and agreed to give a talk for The Educator Collaborative’s first ever day of online professional development. The Collaborative is a think tank and professional development provider founded by the educator, Chris Lehman. In all honesty, I was worried I didn’t belong. Some of the people presenting yesterday are beyond impressive. I mean, Donalyn Miller and Rafranz Davis andand-thats-the-key-message-for-all-of-us-professor-cuddy-says Jen Serravallo! What a group! I couldn’t help but think: “Am I supposed to be here?” But, I had to do it. As Amy says in her talk, if you do something that makes you uncomfortable you have to go for it. And you have to keep trying. “Don’t leave that situation feeling like, oh, I didn’t show them who I am,” she says in her closing. “Leave that situation feeling like, oh, I really feel like I got to say who I am and show who I am.” So, I stressed for days and days, but went for it. I gave my talk. It’s on YouTube forever. I had never talked to my computer for 45 minutes before but I did it. I wasn’t perfect but it’s done. I think I showed who I am…and here it is:

I’m glad I did it. The next time your students feel uncomfortable or think they don’t belong, share Amy’s story and have them do a power pose.

All the sessions from yesterday’s professional development opportunity can be found here. There are about 12 hours of free professional development to be had whenever you need some inspiration. Just use the drop down menu on the top of your screen to select which presenter you would like to see.

Big History

Nasa/JPL-Caltech via Big History Project

It’s not every day that history is the cover story of The New York Times Magazine. This weekend, however, saw the cover devoted to Bill Gates and his dream to reimagine how students are taught world history. It’s called the Big History Project and is a collaborative project between Gates and a professor from Australia named David Christian. As Andrew Ross Sorkin details in the story, Gates became enchanted by a series of  48 lectures Christian had put together for “Great Courses” on world history, called “Big History.” To Gates’ surprise, Christian did not take a conventional approach to teaching the history of the world. Instead, as Sorkin writes, Christian “put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields…into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth.” You can get a sense of Christian’s style and what Big History is about by watching his 2011 Ted Talk:

What Gates and Christian hope to do is to bring their vision of history–this mixture of the sciences and the arts–to classrooms everywhere. A free curriculum with resources are available online for schools to use. According to Sorkin, about 1,200 schools throughout the country will offer the course to students this year. While this doesn’t seem like much, considering there are over 35,000 secondary schools in the country, it is significant considering the project started in just five high schools in 2011. Gates has used part of his vast fortune, and Christian’s charisma, to promote this endeavor. They both hope over time to see Big History implemented in most schools, supplanting the traditional world history course that has been taught pretty consistently since the 1970s.

While I’m no expert on the Big History Project, I think it might be worth a look. Teachers can register for more information here. I just don’t know enough about the course to offer a critique at this point. At its core, I think Big History might be useful because it does what many successful history teachers do in their classes–it shows connections between events that happened in the past with what is going on today. It encourages students to make connections. It’s why when my students studied the Middle East, we’d also listen to Malala Yousafzai and learn her story. Or, when we studied the industrial revolution we would also study current revolutions, like those happening in fields like synthetic biology. When we fail to make connections and show relevance between events in the past and our own lives and passions, the study of history will fall flat. Do we need a new world history curriculum? I’m not sure, but I’m always ready to listen and learn.

Rethinking Our First Day of School

Ever read a course syllabus to students on the first day a class meets? How about outlining your grading expecations? Have you had students fill out an index card with their contact information? I know these are not great ways to start off the school year since I’m guilty of trying all three. When I first started teaching I took a rather “conventional” approach to the first day since that is what I thought I was supposed to do. I realized many years later that there were far better ways to spend my first minutes with students. With this post, I’m encouraging readers to be original and creative with how they plan their first day of school. Let’s save the course syllabus reading for a homework assignment and instead start the school year off with some student-centered activities guaranteed to set a positive tone for the entire year. Here are two examples of how to get there:

Can you guess what this is?

Hands-On Learning. One of my favorite opening-day activities was a hands-on approach to learning. My co-teacher and I set out historical artifacts in brown paper bags at different tables and had students in groups of four try to guess what each artifact was. They had about five minutes to examine the artifact, fill out a chart asking them to identify the material(s) used to create the artifact, time period they think it was from, and what they thought the purpose of the artifact was. They worked collaboratively to try to find the answers. After five minutes, groups would rotate to a new station. Students were so engaged in guessing what items were, I don’t think they realized they never got a chance to sit down. After six or seven rotations, students would share their findings with the class. Then, we had the big reveal. Have you figured out what the artifact pictured above is? It’s a glass insulator from a telephone pole. Students rarely got this one. And, since I was a  history teacher, it was a natural segue into a conversation about electrification, the industrial revolution, and westward expansion. Raid your attic,mIAnov-ZsBEFmzBKWOJrddQ go to a swap meet, or visit a garage sale. In about an hour, you’ll have a collection of artifacts that will have students scratching their heads and asking, “what is this!” To date, no student ever figured out that this was a Victorian Age knife rest.

Generative Learning. Try starting off the first day with a problem. Generative learning is at the root of problem- and project-based learning. Generative learning is a process where students attempt to solve a problem without the benefit of being taught how. They have to use prior knowledge, their experiences, and new information to arrive at an understanding or solution. Think of the first unit you’ll be teaching this year, or a larger theme, and create a problem for students to solve. Give them 20-30 minutes to work together in groups and let 7212809_origthem tackle the task. For inspiration, think of a problem around the framework of a SOLE lesson (Self-Organized Learning Environment), Sugata Mitra’s inspiring (and oft-critized) model for teaching. Can a poem change the world? Why do humans have two lungs? Why was the Gettysburg Address so important? What was Native American society really like before 1492? These are examples of problems that students will struggle with and will need to answer collaboratively. Start the school year with a generative learning task. An added benefit is that it will offer a glimpse of students’ prior knowledge and problem solving capability. For SOLE stories from around the world, visit this SOLE Tumblr.

Redesign your first-day plans to feature hands-on, authentic learning experiences for students. Think about it this way: Would I be excited by this lesson? Save time by flipping your expectations and syllabus as these teachers and school have. Have a great first day!

Here is a link to download the SOLE Toolkit.

Using Children’s Books to Engage Young (and Adult) Writers


Tucked away in The Times a few weeks ago was a short essay titled “What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon.” In the piece, Aimee Bender deconstructs the classic Margaret Wise Brown children’s tale. One night, while cracking open Goodnight Moon for the first time, Bender was struck by just how brilliantly the tale was written. “I was struck and stunned,” she writes, “as I have been before, by a classic sneaking up on me and, in an instant, earning yet again another fan.” For the rest of her essay, Aimee examines the text, describing how it informs her own writing process. As the calendar flips into August, I am inspired to shake off some summer rust and deconstruct one of my favorite children’s books. My attempt won’t be as good as Aimee Bender’s, but I’m willing to try. If nothing else, you’ll see that children’s books can be used in all types of classes as a great model for teaching close reading and the writing process. Here’s my attempt:

I don’t know how I stumbled upon The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I thinkUnknown I ordered it as a present based on an Amazon.com recommendation. However it happened, the book made its way into our home and quickly became a classic. Okay, it’s my classic. Something about the story just spoke to me the first time I read it. Maybe because it’s about books and this rather lonesome figure, Morris Lessmore, who wants to read and write all day. I was enthralled by the text the first time I read it and continue to be every time we pick it up at storytime. Morris Lessmore might not be my childrens’ favorite, however. There is plenty of competition in our house. As long as Waldo keeps getting himself lost in Medieval battle scenes, Brother and Sister Bear remain afraid of the sitter, dentist, and bad dreams, and the hungry caterpillar keeps eating, it’s impossible to name a true #1 in our house. Any book’s reign is short-lived. I’ve even seen a classic tale get bumped after a few days by cheap Spiderman knockoffs or by something called Pinkalicious. Books, while devoured here, can rarely dominate for long. Even so, for me, I’m continually amazed at the brilliance in The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. William Joyce’s prose and the brilliantly imaginative graphics by Joe Bluhm create a world where books and their words mean everything.

Morris Lessmore opens with the main character sitting on his porch, surrounded by books, writing in his notebook. He looks content. The book begins: “Morris Lessmore loved words. He loved stories. He loved books.” With just ten words in three short sentences, William Joyce tells the reader a great deal about the protagonist. And who couldn’t like Morris? He’s someone who just wants to read and write all day until a storm suddenly rips through the pages, turing Morris’s life upside down. After losing everything, Morris Lessmore begins his journey. “He didn’t know what to do or which way to go,” writes Joyce, “so he began to wander. And wander.”


During his wandering, Morris is met by a woman being flown by a squadron of flying books that show Morris the way to a magical library. It’s here where Morris Lessmore finds meaning. My favorite sentence happens as Morris walks into this athenaeum for the first time. The sentence reads: “It was filled with the fluttering of countless pages, and Morris could hear the faint chatter of a thousand different stories, as if each book was whispering an invitation to adventure.” It’s here, in this sentence, where Joyce captures the beauty and mystery that awaits all readers the moment they step inside a library. I hope readers can attest to the time they picked up a book and, like Morris, became lost in it, “scarcely emerging for days.” It’s during Morris’s time in the library that Joyce takes a bit of risk with his narrative, showing a double page of illustrations depicting Morris Lessmore sliding down a page of text, scattering the letters of his book in a million different directions. Inspired by his books, Morris continues to write about his life late into each night after all the other books have gone to bed. He writes and the time flies by until he becomes “stooped and crinkly.”


It’s now that Morris decides to leave his world of books and return to his former life. As Morris Lessmore leaves his friends behind at the library, William Joyce indulges his readers with a twist. Morris leaves his own book behind. Like many of us, Morris writes about “his joys and sorrows, all that he knew and everything that he hoped for.” And finally, Morris’s book that he worked on for years starts to fly. Morris has given his story wings and the book takes off. A little girls encounters Morris’s book, opens it, and it’s on the last two pages where Joyce’s story comes full circle: “And so our story ends as it began…with the opening of a book.” I never tire of reading this story as the words, ideas, and images are crafted perfectly–they continually mesmerize me.


I find, for some reason, that I can relate to Morris Lessmore’s struggle with words. For much of Morris’s life, his words just never took off. I made a decision a few years ago that I was going to stretch myself personally and professionally and start to write. At times, I feel like Morris Lessmore. Words I write fall flat. Ideas in my head never seem to appear as vividly on my computer screen as they do in my imagination. Like Morris, I sit well into the night hoping that I can capture something interesting with words. Throughout this writing adventure, I’ve had a fair share of disappointment with a bit of success. Like Morris, I think I’ll continue for awhile longer. Like Morris, I write about life and what I’ve experienced. Right now, this means teaching and learning. Will my words ever take flight? I’m not sure, but I’m hopeful.

The trailer for the Oscar-winning short film based on the book.

Additional Resources:

Scholastic’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids

New York Public Library’s 100 Great Children’s Books


The rise of the e-athlete

madden25cover_610aaa This summer, inspired by middle schoolers everywhere, I’ve made it my mission to figure out how to play Minecraft, and I’ve chronicled my efforts in a series of posts on Randolph Hum. The motivation for this quest was to better understand how games and game design are becoming a bigger part of education for students. Two major organizations, the Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, have spent millions researching how video games help kids learn. As USA Today reported last year, they’ve invested over $10 million in designers and researchers to help with an initiative they call the Institute of Play, a major part of which is something known as GlassLab. GlassLab looks to bring the principles of game design to students throughout the nation as video and computer games have become a focus of many schools, especially in lower grades. By teaming game designers with experts in learning and assessments, GlassLab is leveraging “digital games as powerful, data-rich learning and formative assessment environments.” One of the initiatives of GlassLab is a game called SimCity EDU, where students play the role of the mayor of a city forced to address the environmental impact of pollution. To read more about how big an impact games have had on education, check out Edutopia’s collection of game-based learning resources and this video from Katie Salen and her school for digital kids in New York (funded, in part, by the Institute of Play):

If all this isn’t proof that video and computer games have a future in education, according to the Chicago Tribune, Robert Morris University in Illinois just announced they will be giving out athletic scholarships to students who are good at the “League of Legends” video game. Robert Morris is calling these prospective gamers, “e-athletes” and hopes that this initiative will reach an underserved student population–“technologically minded young men who aren’t into team sports, and who need an extra boost to get to college and stay there.” Robert Morris will set aside $450,000 to fund about 30 scholarships for three varsity teams of expert gamers. E-athlete Zi Huang was quoted in the Tribune as saying “(The scholarships) just show RMU_Esport_LoL_intro_press_graphicthat ‘League of Legends’ is a sport and should be recognized by many colleges.” Starting next year, those that play the game will be recognized at Robert Morris as part of a team but will not be a part of the NCAA. The college will look to compete in events like the Collegiate Starleague, which, the Tribune reports, runs national championships in three games: League of Legends, StarCraft II and Dota 2. To date, about 550 schools compete in these tournaments. Since announcing the e-athlete initiative, Robert Morris has been inundated with over 700 inquiries from prospective gamers looking to grab one of their 30 scholarship offers.

If the last few weeks are any indication, I don’t think I have a future as an e-athlete. I’ve spent about six hours total trying to learn Minecraft and I haven’t made much progress. But, what I’m starting to like about the game probably holds true for students regardless of their age. Being able to take control of my learning, work at my own pace, and embrace failure by learning from my mistakes are all positive aspects of the gaming experience. While the verdict is still out on how big an influence computer and video games should have in a classroom, I think some of the basic lessons one can take from the gaming experience have value no matter your age or subject being studied. I don’t know if I’ll ever go see a League of Legends tournament; however, I would like to visit Katie Salen’s school.

Total Hours Playing Minecraft: 6

Lessons Learned: I like games but finding time to play is difficult. #adulthood

ISTE Day 3 Reflections (two days late)


So, after 3+ days at ISTE Atlanta, I was wiped out. Too wiped out, in fact, to even think about writing a blog post. I chronicled my first two days at ISTE (here and here) but by the end of the third day, I was exhausted. Besides, you learn so much at this conference and connect with so many educators that it can be a little overwhelming. Like the first two days at ISTE, day three was action-packed and eventful. Here’s a brief rundown:

A morning keynote with Kevin Carroll started my day three. Kevin has an amazing story to share but is most famous for the series of books he has written on the concept of play. After a career as a translator in the Army, Kevin started working as a trainer for NBA teams. That led to a position at Nike where he was hired to be a creative force for the company.  One story Kevin shared with ISTE was the time he had every employee at Nike play a giant game of tag one afternoon. Employees had such a good time acting like kids that Nike decided to create an ad about the experience. This ad is one of the more memorable ones that Nike has ever produced:

Kevin Carroll from http://v4.kevincarrollkatalyst.com

Kevin left his career at Nike to follow his dreams of being a change agent. He has written a series of books titled around “the red rubber ball” that advocates bringing passion and play into your life. An hour with Kevin was one of the highlights for me of the ISTE conference.

After Kevin’s keynote I attended a workshop hosted by Digital Promise, a non-profit organization authorized by Congress with the mission of helping to close the digital learning gap. Hosted by Jim Beeler, the Director of the Innovative Schools Initiative, the workshop explained the mission of Digital Promise while unveiling some new initiatives. One initiative in particular seemed interesting: educator micro-credentials. Micro-credentials are a form of digital badges to recognize professional development and the mastery of professional skills. Educators can submit artifacts like classroom videos or student work for review by experts and peers. After submission, teachers will earn badges to signify their accomplishments. To learn more about micro-credentials, click here and to participate in the micro-credential pilot program, click here.

The CNN Center (yes, that’s a giant earth)

In the afternoon I attended a luncheon hosted by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt at the CNN Center. I was hoping to run into Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer while there but I think they use a separate entrance. HMH put together a great lunch followed by a talk from Mary Cullinane, Chief Content Officer for the company. Mary gave an impassioned talk about how textbook companies need to adapt in a changing electronic marketplace. Her major points were clear and on point. However, it’s still difficult for schools to make the switch to digital texts as they are cost prohibitive and not very engaging (for the most part). Despite the inherent difficulties that exist in the e-marketplace, it seems from her talk that Mary is the right person in place to bring about change.

After four nights and five days in Atlanta, I’m worn out and still thinking about all the experiences I’ve had. Overall, ISTE was a fabulous conference and I hope to attend again in the future and maybe even give a presentation. My fellow traveling companions and I still need time to reflect on everything that we learned. Next year, ISTE is in Philly and anyone interested in technology and education should consider joining the 16,000+ people that attend every year.

So, from Georgia and John S. Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-Cola: cheers.

Outside the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanfa, Georgia


ISTE Day 2 Reflections (thankfully I brought sneakers)

The expo hall main floor

I heard a great story during a workshop on Twitter and digital literacy today. A burglar was recently caught in Minnesota because he logged into his Facebook account at the house he robbed and forgot to log off. It didn’t take authorities long to track down the Facebook-obsessed burglar as the victim recognized him on the street from a Facebook profile picture. This story is true (and sad), and important because it’s a reminder that we need to watch how we use the Internet. The larger lesson, of course, is to not rob houses.

Day two has come and almost gone at ISTE Atlanta and I’m tired. Today was the first day of the full ISTE conference activities and a ton was going on. ISTE is the kind of place where you can overhear these actual conversations taking place:

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original”
  • “Are you a Google certified teacher?”
  • “How many iPads can you fit in this storage bin?”
  • “I can’t wait to hear LeVar Burton speak!”
  • “Your digital footprint is more like a digital tattoo–it can’t be removed.”
  • “Is that Google Glass!?”

Today, I attended five sessions ranging from how to manage Apple, Android, and Windows in a BYOD environment to screencasting to Twitter storytelling. Here’s some of what I learned:

  • A great way to look at BYOD is through the lens of DNA: Device-Neutral Assignments– teachers need to give students choice how they will complete assignments based on the technology available to them.
  • Over and over you hear that Twitter is still the best way for educators to seek out professional development opportuntities.
  • Two great apps for annotating images are skitch (IOS and Android) and thinglink.
  • Educreations is a great app for creating and sharing video lessons with your iPad or browser.
  • Tagboard is an innovative way to search twitter hashtags.
  • Two twitter hashtags for storytelling in ELA classes are #twitterfiction and #twitterature.
Robotic legos

I also spent a large part of the day wandering the expo hall where literally hundreds of vendors are set up and ready to interact. Admittedly, expo hall can be a bit intimidating. I spent most of my time avoiding the huge presentations and instead focused on some of the smaller booths. My three favorites were ASCDVocuabulary.com, and Lego Education.

So, after the second day I’m totally exhausted and my feet hurt. I didnt realize I would do this much walking. But, I consider day two a success. In the end, you know you’re at ISTE when your district’s assistant superintendent and elementary supervisor join the “Ask Me” team without being asked.




ISTE Day 1 Reflections

photo%202Wow, what a day. ISTE is an amazing experience. But, I’ll be honest, I’m exhausted. I’ve been out “conferencing” since 8:00 this morning. I entered this experience as a total newb–this is my first ISTE conference. So far, so good. In fact, I think ISTE 2014 will be one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended. Our team flew in yesterday, registered, and got everything in order. Today, however, was our first real day of conference activities. Here’s what I did:

A smartphone charging locker

This morning I attended a 3-hour workshop “Make BYOD Programs Work for You” hosted by three educators, Dan Morris, Ryan Imbriale, and Susan Brooks-Young. This workshop stressed how schools can make BYOD initiatives work better. The presenters stressed the need to formulate BYOD goals around current research. Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up reports are a great place to start if schools want to find data to inform their educational technology programs. The speakers also stressed the need for school leaders to clearly define goals and ensure that continued support is given to teachers as they try and implement those goals in their classrooms. Ryan had a great line during his part of the presentation: “Teachers are comfortable with smartphones in a social setting but not necessarily in a classroom setting.” One of my favorite parts of the presentation was an icebreaker scavenger hunt  where we tried to find people in the room who had done things like “tweeted this week” or “in the last week accessed the digital cloud.” (you can find the activity on my Twitter feed). Overall, it was a great workshop, not just because the presenters were knowledgeable and organized but because they also encouraged attendees to connect with others in the room throughout the session. In short, it was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended.

Our cab ride to ISTE selfie
Our cab ride to ISTE selfie

In the afternoon I attended ISTE Ignite, where about 12 speakers gave 5-minute, 20-slide presentations. My favorites were:

ISTE Ignite

Pat Yongpradit, Director of Education at Code.org, who spoke about the importance of teaching kids to code. He wondered how all students can be prepared for future jobs when they aren’t taking computer science.

Jennie Magiera, a teacher and co-founder of PLAYDATE, spoke about the importance of educators taking control of their professional development.

Rafranz Davis, an instructional technology specialist from Texas, spoke about the power of having kids create and sharing their creations with the world. She shared the experiences of a student named Braeden who wanted to make puppets and how his journey making and sharing forever changed his life. You can read about Braeden’s journey here.

And of course, a special shout-out goes to Nick Provenzano, aka the Nerdy Teacher, who sang the Phineas and Ferb theme song to about 2,000 people.

After Ignite, I toured the ISTE Social Media Meetup with the rest of our team. When your district’s technology director snuggles an inflatable dinosaur, you know the day was a success.


Day two is tomorrow. If it was anything like today, it’s going to be great.