Wednesday, January 16, 2019

When Older Students Write Stories for Younger Students

Do you have a dream project? I've been able to do a few in my career. Here is one that I've done three times now, expanding on it each time. I'll repeat it again soon with another group of students. It has been so successful this year that I believe it will become a regular event in our district. I'm still tweaking many aspects, but I'm excited to share it with you.

Overall Goals

I wanted to make a project that would get younger students excited about reading. I designed a simple routine that requires older students to write short stories for and about younger students. After doing it a few times now, I've found these additional benefits.

  • It's very engaging for older students. Even the most unmotivated students write a story.
  • We have good conversations about what makes an inspiring story.
  • We relate the important theme of finding our gifts and overcoming obstacles to our own lives.
  • It can make use of as much or as little tech as the teachers want.
  • There are many options for extending the learning.
As you read this lesson idea, keep in mind I have the advantage of working in any building in our district. If you're a classroom teacher doing this project, just think of another teacher you could work with and what each of your roles would be in the activity.

I usually work with an elementary teacher and a middle school teacher, so I'll use that in my explanation. The steps below are usually separate class periods, but but I try to do the first few in consecutive days. The goal is to get the students writing right away. The whole project takes two to three weeks, mostly because the middle school class spends 5 - 7 class periods writing their stories. 

Step 1:  What Makes a Good Story?

I take one class period with a middle school class. I explain that we will be writing stories for elementary students and that requires us to find what makes a good story. Through examples and discussion, we build up to a definition I have written about before, based on Donald Miller's books. He explains that every good story is about...
  • A character...
  • Who wants something...
  • And overcomes conflict to get it.
We look for this pattern in movies and books we like. I also have them (in groups) read one-page biographies of famous people who did something good after overcoming obstacles. I'm still tweaking this part, but some of these people have been Helen Keller, Ben Carson, Louie Zamparini and Phiona Mutesi. We sum up those biographies in terms of the conflict the person overcome and what good they offered the world after that.

By the end of the class, I show them some of the slides I will share with the elementary students. Of course, as I talk about what i will tell the younger ones, I'm really trying to reach them too. I explain:
  • I want students to use technology to discover and use their gifts. And we all have a gift.
  • We also all have obstacles we face in life. I have referred to these as "walls" or "challenges".
  • If we learn to overcome those obstacles, we can discover and use our gifts.
Summing it up, I explain that their stories will be based on how the younger students want to help others (their gifts) and what challenges they face. I explain that we will ask the younger students some questions in a Google Form and I take suggestions from the class about what to ask. 

As you can imagine, I have no problem getting ideas from the class. By now the students are always excited to learn about the younger students.

While the list of suggested questions varies each time, for the most part we get the same types of questions. I always include a few of my own to sharpen the focus of the survey. I'll give examples below. 

And last of all, I take a picture of the class before I leave. The younger students love to see who is writing for them.

Step 2:  Meeting the Younger Students

I usually meet with third grade classes and I try to make this part take about 20 - 30 minutes. It's always such a pleasure to talk with younger students and see their excitement. As I told the older students I would, I begin by explaining my job and how tech can help us discover and share our gifts with others. I talk about one student I worked with a few years ago who started writing and selling her own books on Amazon. 

I explain that we all have gifts that the world needs us to use. I also talk about walls we face in life. I explain how I was voted "most shy" when I was in school and how hard ti was to get in front of a class. I also talk about my wife. She faced abuse as a child, but as an adult has helped many homeless people in our community. 

Then, before I set them loose on the survey, we go through each question that I and the class came up with. 

Speaking of the survey, one big challenge is to include what the middle school students wanted to ask without getting too much information. If I come back to the middle school with too much information, the students try to include everything. Their stories turn into long lists of random events, each revealing some tidbit the young student put on his or her survey.

I want the older students to feel they contributed to the survey, but there are really just a few key things we need to do this right.

The surveys usually are something like this:
  • What nickname do you want us to use for you? (We don't use their real names.)
  • Are you a boy or a girl?
  • Who lives with you? (I explain they don't have to list names, but just things like "two brothers, my grandma", etc.)
  • What do you like to do in your free time?
  • What is one gift you have that you think you could use to help others? (We talk about some examples, but I have to be careful here or they mostly just tell me things I listed as an example!)
  • What is one challenge you face in life?
I use Google Forms for this survey, since it's easier to compile the results in the next step. 

As with the older students, I try to take a picture of this class as they take the surveys. It really inspires the older students to start writing! (Actually, if I have the chance I take a picture of the class before I even meet with the older students. Starting the whole discussion off with the photo puts it in context.)

Step 3:  Compiling the Survey Results

I use Autocrat to compile the students' survey results into a single document. That Google Sheets add-on can be a little intimidating at first, but when it compiles 25 or so surveys in about a minute, it's well worth the investment of setup time.

This is an example of one student's responses compiled in
a table. Notice his "gift" is walking dogs!
I made my template for Autocrat so that it puts each student's answers in a table. I print those, then work with the classroom teacher to decide how we will assign the younger students to the older students. It depends a lot on class size, but so far we have always combined two younger students for each story. Most students will end up in two stories. Sometimes the older students work individually and sometimes we put them in groups.

Note that attendance can be a complicating factor as  you wait for all survey results to be in. You will want all younger students to be represented in the stories, but we've had cases where a student was absent for several days and we had to start writing before we had the results. This requires flexibility. While I haven't had to do it yet, there are times I just moved along with the process and I planned to write a story myself for any student who turned in a survey very late.

Be aware that the younger students do not always understand what I meant by their "gift" and a "challenge". Sometimes they are very literal. Many times instead of writing a significant life challenge, they will write something like doing wheelies on their bike. It's understandable and middle school students often get a kick out of how they interpret the questions! 

Often their challenge will be a school subject they find difficult. We end up with a lot of stories about learning math! Sometimes they are a lot more serious, like dealing with bullying. One time a student even said her challenge in life was dealing with the loss of her mother. Those things can be difficult, but handled gently, they make an important learning experience for all involved.

Step 4:  Starting the Stories
Each page of the story template has space
for an image and some text.

A lot of the details of the writing process are completely up to the classroom teacher, so I am not very involved with this part. I do come in the first day and give some examples of how I would use a student's survey results in a story. I also show the class the simple template we use.

The length of the stories and how long the project takes are all up to the teacher.

A few things to note:
  • The teacher I've worked with the most has them write an outline and then a draft, both on paper first. Once approved, they start writing on the Google Slides template.
  • While we haven't mastered this yet, we use some guiding questions to help them plan a story that focuses on the students' gifts and the challenges they want to overcome. All the other details they find on the survey results are meant to flesh out that story, not distract from it. 
  • None of our students have purposely included inappropriate content, but the teacher and I have redirected a few things here and there. As you would imagine, you will want to have at least a couple points in the process before they turn them in where you can read their stories in detail.
  • When the writers are working in pairs, we have one student open the template in Classroom, then share that with his or her partner. So the one student actually never has to use Classroom for the assignment. This is just a simple way for us to monitor their work throughout, as we have access to the stories in Classroom. (And it lets us easily provide the template.)
  • I come back at a later date and show them  examples of title pages. I don't go into great detail on the features, but I point out how to add Word Art, gradient fills and drop shadows. I don't start with this, because it will distract some of them from the writing.
  • As I mentioned earlier, every student has written a story so far in this project. I always see a couple students who are obviously tough cases. I've been warned by the teacher that they might not complete a story. So far no one has dared to make their assigned student go without a story. 

Step 5:  Editing and Compiling the Stories

I have been working with a middle school elective class most often on this. While we've been happy with the students' engagement and effort, stories submitted by middle schoolers are rarely ready to go straight to the younger students. Here's what I do to edit them and prepare the files for the younger students.
I share the stories with the younger
students on a Google Site.
  • I open the Drive folder from Classroom and I make a copy of all the completed files. I do this so the teacher can grade the students' stories exactly as they were submitted.
  • I then drag those copies into a new folder and share that so everyone in our school can view it if they have the link.
  • I read each story carefully and make corrections to spelling, grammar and punctuation. I change some words for young readers if necessary.
  • I change the name of the story so it matches what the writers put on the title page and I also include the nicknames of the students it is written to. For example, a story might be The Day at the Park for Anna and Chloe.
  • Last of all, I create a Google Site for the project and I add a link from that site to each story. I usually use pictures I've taken to decorate it too, so it's inviting to the younger students. I link to that page from the website the students see when they sign into Chromebooks.
  • Last of all, I tell the elementary teacher that the stories are ready.

Step 6:  Students Read Their Stories and Respond

As anyone would expect, it's an exciting time in the classroom when the students read their stories. There's no doubt my goal of hooking them with stories written for and about them has been accomplished. They read their stories as well as stories for their classmates. 

At this point there are many other options to continue the project. One teacher had her class write handwritten thank-you notes back to the middle school students. Another teacher wanted to have the classes meet up through a Google Hangout. Even though the schools are only about eight miles apart and some of the students even knew each other, both classes absolutely loved it.

That teacher also had her students (with their hearty agreement) write stories back to the middle schoolers. We gave a quick paper/pencil survey to the older students. The elementary teacher invited me to join them during their writing hour each day for a week. I taught them some basics of using Google Slides and they had a wonderful time making their stories.

I also have a follow-up reflection survey I like to give the older students. It encourages them to consider their interests in writing stories. Very importantly, it also asks them if the project has helped them think of their own gifts and challenges in life. I'm still perfecting this stage of the project, but I believe the reflection is essential to solidify the most beneficial lessons.

So that's my dream project. I look forward to developing it more each time we do it. I'll be glad to hear what you'd add to it or what you like best.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

A Simple, Powerful Reflection Activity with Google Drawings

For some recent professional development I have been focusing on thinking routines from The Visible Thinking website.  One particularly powerful reflection routine caught my attention, so I created a related template for it in Google Drawings.

The routine requires the learner to complete this statement and explain why:
I used to think _____, but now I think _____.

Of course, this comes best after the students have done something that would have changed their thinking. It could be a lecture, video, book, event or a significant passing of time.

As a tech activity, I made a Google Drawing template (which you can get at the link below). It uses two photos and brief text. Ideally students would edit the template to make it their own, then explain to the class (or other audience) why their thinking changed.

Here's an example I made based on a shift in thinking that happened for me after I left the math classroom to work in ed-tech.

Click here to get a copy of the Google Drawing template.

As this next image shows, students can change the text and replace the images easily. I have a few other tips listed below.

Other tips for this activity:

  • There are many ways to get the images. Students can take them themselves or they can use the search feature. I include the word "Pixabay" when I search, so it will use the Pixabay site as a source. Images from there are free to use without attribution. 
  • If students use images from other sources, they should be sure they are citing their sources properly.
  • I made the text boxes a semi-transparent color to make text easier to read. With some background images you will have to experiment with text and fill colors and possibly font styles to be sure it can be read.
  • Remind students this is meant to be a quick tech activity. The thinking that goes into the wording and the explanation of why thinking changed is far more important than getting the right images and fonts. 
  • Download the Drawing as a JPEG or PNG file (in the File menu) if you want to post it in a blog, website or on social media.
  • This is good reflection activity for teachers too!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Quick, Simple Google Chrome Extension for Student Video Responses

Here's the most popular tool I showed at the miGoogle conference recently. It's a simple Chrome extension from Alice Keeler called Webcam Record. It records a short video clip from a webcam on a laptop or Chromebook, uploads it to Drive and automatically copies a link to it so you can paste it where you need it*.

So teachers can use this to give simple video directions and students can use it to share their thoughts back to the teacher. See it in action in the tutorial below.

You can get it in the Chrome Web Store here or have your G Suite admin push it out to users. I pushed it to all teachers and all students in grades 5 - 12.

*I do have two important things to watch for.
  1. Unfortunately when we've tried to share the video using the link that's automatically copied it doesn't give the user access. I tried sharing the whole folder and it still didn't work. I showed students they can copy a shareable link just by right clicking on the video and clicking Get shareable link. It adds a few clicks to the process, but it's not bad. The tutorial below shows this workaround.
  2. Every once in a while we used this on a new device, it didn't upload the first recording properly. I suggest you make a short test recording the first time you use it, just to be sure the file saves to Drive.

Here's a tutorial I made for the teachers and students in my district.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Using Say Whaaat!? in the Classroom

Images from DrawLab Entertainment
and used with permission
My party game Say Whaaat!? will be released this month from DrawLab Entertainment*, but I made the original version long ago. I have had years of experience playing it in different ways with students and as a classroom activity. It has proven to be a fun icebreaker or an engaging warm-up for lessons about opinions, priorities or leadership.

At the heart, this is a game about ranking random things order of importance. Words like Underwear, Justice and Coffee might turn up, for example. There are ways to do that in class that look a lot like what’s described in the rules. Others suggestions below are more innovative, like having the class imagine how Abraham Lincoln or Hester Prynne might rank the items.

Most of the ideas below are based on my experience, but some come from other educators who have enjoyed the game with their students. Instead of explaining all the rules of how to play here, I will just describe the changes to what’s written in the game rules.

Using one copy of the game for multiple groups

This could allow a class of 25 - 35 students to play in small groups using one copy of the game. Be sure they understand the ranking process before breaking into groups.

  • Divide them into groups of 6 or 8 students. 
  • Shuffle the 100 Word cards and divide that roughly evenly between the groups. 
  • There won’t be enough Ranking cards for all the students, so you could make additional sets on colored notecards. Alternatively, the students could just secretly write their rankings on paper. 
  • When playing this way, they could use the standard rules (with one Judge ranking the items and the others guessing) or the partnership variation (as long as groups have an even number of players). If playing with a Judge, the Judge should use Ranking cards from the game even if all the Guessers are just writing the words down. This makes it easier for everyone to see his or her rankings.
  • After a few rounds, groups should exchange their decks of Word cards so everyone can play with as many as possible.
  • If scoring is important, students or partnerships can just keep their points on paper. 

Everyone ranking the same Words

Sometimes it will work best for the lesson to have the class rank the same five Word cards. Here are different ways for them to do the actual ranking. Ways to select the five cards are also listed below.

Same Words, Many Groups
All students play in groups of 6 - 8 exactly like above. Any of the options and changes can be used. The only difference is the students rank the same 5 word cards that you display to the class. My friend John Golden has his students play this way as an icebreaker. He gives the judges time to explain their rankings to the others in their groups.

One Judge, Many Guessers
This is how I used the game before starting a lesson on priorities and goal setting.

  • Choose one student (or the teacher) to be the Judge.
  • The five Words are presented and all other students try to guess how the Judge will rank them. They record their guesses by listing the Words in order on paper.
  • If a score is important, the students (on their honor) can record it on paper. They get a point for each Word they had in the same place as the Judge.

Getting the Class Rankings With Digital Tools
I have used tools like Google Forms or class response systems (clickers) to let students send their rankings digitally. This is a fun way to see how the group thinks.

Different tools allow for different ways to do this. Most simply, you can just have five “questions”, each being one of the Words. A student’s answer for each question would be a number, 1 - 5. For example, if they wanted to rate Coffee as least important, they would pick 5 for that Word. Students would just have to remember not to use a number twice when choosing the numbers.

After all rankings are submitted, these tools usually display a graph that shows how each Word was ranked. After looking at the class’ responses, students can give themselves a point if they matched the majority for a Word’s ranking. For example, if “Justice” was ranked in the first (most important) position by most of the class, every student who had it as most important would get a point.

If two or more Words all tie for a position, all of those Words would count for a point, even if they also end up most in another position. That can happen, so don’t get too caught up in the details of scoring!
One fun idea for this method is to have everyone predict how some other person would rank the words. But this person doesn’t have to be in the class! They could be a historical figure or a character in a book...or maybe not even a person.

With carefully selected Words central to the lesson theme, this can result in a short reflective writing assignment. Students would have to explain their ranking and what they thought of the class’ overall ranking.

John Golden sometimes has his class rank by criteria other than importance. For example, he will have five concepts for discussion and ask them to rank them by how much they understand them. Another option is to rank them by personal preference.

Ways to Choose the Word Cards

Regardless of which of those methods you use, here are some different ways you can choose the five Word cards for each round. Most will help you more or less focus the type of thinking and discussion you want to encourage.

For any of these, you can actually draw those cards in the moment and display them under a document camera or write them on the board or screen. Or you might want to save class time by forming the lists in advance.

  • Random - Just shuffle the deck and draw five, randomly choosing one side or the other on each card.
  • Random from Subset - Choose several cards from the deck ahead of time that fit your lesson theme to form a smaller drw deck. Then when you play, draw completely randomly from that deck.
  • Semi-Random - Draw 7 - 10 cards at random, then choose which 5 you will use for the round from those.

Of course, you can also just make Pre-Arranged Lists ahead of time by selecting the exact Words you want to use. Feel free to add in words that aren’t in the game, if they’d be beneficial for your lesson or discussion.

Conversation Starters

As one last suggestion, a college professor told me he just kept the Word cards on his desk in his office. When students stopped in to talk, he would draw cards (or have a few pre-selected) to generate some conversation.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Authentic Audience and Authentic Engagement - Interactive Stories Using Free Google Apps

I already wrote a lot this summer about the most exciting, creative project I've been involved with in a long time. I worked with some students to create a story one short piece at a time. What made it amazing was we'd publish the story on the school website, then let the readers complete surveys to tell us what should happen in the next chapter.

This gives the students experience with writing for an engaged, authentic audience. Everyone involved was excited to find out what happens next in the story!

We told our story in comic form, using my favorite method of combining real life photos with comic elements. Of course, it will be much easier to create the stories if they're written as prose rather than comics. I'm calling them interactive stories and I will outline the process below. (There's even a 10-page ebook with tips at the link at the very end of this post.)

We actually ran into a snag in the middle of our comic project, so I resorted to some written chapters just to keep the story going. That gave me some experience with what I'm about to describe.

The Flow of the Project

  • Explain the project to the students - This includes the very important aspect of telling them what course content you expect to see in the story. They need to know what they are supposed to learn from it.
  • Write the first chapter - Students (the Storytellers) would begin by writing a short chapter to kick things off. It just has to be long enough to introduce some characters and make a cliffhanger that will hook the Readers. I suggest using Google Docs for this, since it's easy to share in a later step.
  • Create a short survey - Using Google Forms, the Storytellers create a survey with three to five questions that will help them decide what happens next. We embed the link to the survey right in our story, so anyone who reads it can easily find it. See the link at the end of this post for lots of tips about making good surveys.
  • Publish the story - We put a shareable link to our story on our school website. The Readers would find it there easily, read it and complete the survey.
  • Make the next chapter - The real learning happens here! Combining the lesson goals, the Storytellers' ideas and the input from the Readers, the Storytellers have to plan and write the next chapter.
That process continues with another survey, publishing the new chapter, getting feedback and so on. As it comes to a conclusion (probably after several weeks) the Storytellers probably will request less and less feedback. 

If doing the story as a comic sounds even better (which I think it can be!) I created this ebook for the process using comics and it includes a ton of tips for getting started and working through the project. 

While it can be so much simpler to have students write the story in Google Docs, much of that ebook will till be helpful. The link below takes you to a free, shortened version that will help with these written stories.

Some tips specific to this written process are:
  • Use a fairly large font with generous spacing. Dense text is not fun to read on a screen.
  • Even with large fonts and spacing, try to keep the chapters to less than two pages. Your Readers might go for longer passages, but we found many wouldn't bother reading longer chapters.
  • Make sure you set up Google Forms so the responses are not anonymous. This is very important if you ask for open ended comments. As the teacher, you might choose to manage the survey responses.
I summed up the Gathering Feedback section of my ebook into a much shorter PDF. You can find it here:

If you do this project with a class, I'd love to hear about the results! Please send me an email and let me know how it goes. Include a link to the story too!