Sunday, March 17, 2019

Quick Image Effects Without Green Screen

Who needs a green screen for image effects?Here's a simple process for making fun composite images using Google Slides and This can come in handy for making comics. (I've written about the comic creation process in many posts such as this one.)

The short video below shows you exactly how I do it on an iPad. Any phone or tablet should make this easy and then you can use another device to edit the slides (and possibly add the comic elements.) Here are the steps:

  1. Go to
  2. Tap the Select a Photo button and choose the option to take a photo.
  3. The site will automatically remove the background. I've had great results so far! Copy the image that has no background.
  4. Paste it into a slide using the Google Slides app. 

Ideally you'll have some other background you're pasting into. Those slides can all be set up ahead of time as needed either on the same device or a computer.

 You can watch the process here:

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Boomwriter for Engaging Collaborative Writing

Boomwriter is not new, but I hadn't used it with a class until recently. I am presenting a session about collaborative storytelling at the MACUL conference this week, so I asked our middle school Creative Writing teacher if she'd be willing to let me run the activity in her class. After I explained what it is, she was excited to try it.

For those unfamiliar with it, Boomwriter is more or less a game where students write stories one chapter at a time. Everyone writes, then everyone votes on the submissions. The winning submission becomes the official next chapter. The process continues until the story is done.

Overall Thoughts

If this sounds at all interesting, definitely try it out. The students really enjoyed the activity. Due to a number of circumstances, the teacher and I had to rush much of the activity. I'm not thrilled with the quality of the writing that came out of it, but I am looking forward to trying it again. So are the students!

What We Did

Our class had 27 students in it, mostly seventh graders. I divided them randomly into groups of 5 or 6 students. The site allows students to dress up their "Boomer" avatar using Boomer Bucks. More Bucks are earned through writing and winning the votes. I wasn't sure how seventh graders would take to this, but our group was definitely into this feature.

With five groups, that means we had five stories. I provided a single sentence as a story starter. Boomwriter has several initial chapters to choose from and, judging by the ones I saw, they expect the first chapter to provide a lot of detail. I didn't want to give them a long passage to read, so my first "chapter" was just one sentence. For example, one of them was The main character is trapped in a video game. I wanted the students' imagination to drive the direction as much as possible.

I set the length of our stories to five chapters, so that meant we had four rounds of writing and voting. The teacher and I were very impressed with how the students were engaged by the activity. Almost all the chapters they submitted were fairly short, but the teacher provided some feedback on the second round of writing and I saw an improvement.

We had many snow days this semester, so we have been pressed for time in all classes. For this activity we really rushed a few rounds. In a couple class periods we just rapidly went through as many rounds as possible (usually two writings and a vote). This amounted to a lot of frantic clicking on my part as I approved chapters, called for some revisions and moved stories along to the voting stage.

When the stories were almost done, we gave the class a survey about the experience. When asked how they liked Boomwriter for collaborative stories, 68% gave it five stars and 20% gave it four stars. Some were disappointed when we didn't immediately start a second story!

Before we did the activity, I wondered if the voting process would discourage students who didn't get picked. Well I did see some sign of this, only 12% said on the survey that it affected them in this way.

Be aware that Boomwriter hopes you and the students' parents will buy the stories as books when they are done. Because of this, I didn't find any way to view the complete stories. Maybe I missed it, but the only solution I came up with to see the whole story was to copy and paste each winning entry into a single document. (While I'm not against them selling a product and I would consider buying one in the future, this time around our stories were not good enough for that.)

What I'd Do Differently Next Time

We plan to use the activity again next marking period. If we do, I will have larger groups and fewer stories. I was hoping to keep the number of submitted chapters down, so students didn't get tired of reading several. Since there was very little sign of that problem in our class, I am going to aim for about 10 students per group in the future, which means three stories.

This should help with what I considered to be the biggest negative on the site. The students' submissions were organized by story, so I was constantly clicking on a story, then clicking through the submissions to approve them. I had to keep going out of one story and into another to find the students who were ready to be moved along. It would have been much easier if there was another view where I could just approve any student regardless of the story he or she worked on. Having fewer stories will at least make this a little less frantic.

And along those lines, I also hope we will have a lot more time to work on each chapter. My plan would be to use the activity along with other things we are doing in the class. After several days of having the chapter open for writing, we would close it then vote. That way I could send back revisions and raise expectations on what they are submitting (in content, spelling, grammar, etc.).

I'm looking forward to our second attempt with Boomwriter and I hope to share some of the stories next time around!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Beyond Slideshows - Four Alternate Options to Show Off the Learning

In my job in a K - 12 district I am always looking for simple, quick ways for students to show what they've learned. We use Google Apps and Chromebooks in our classrooms.

Recently I updated some resources for our teachers and put everything on one website. I made a public version at the link below. All of the projects on it have shown up on this blog in one form or another, but I hope even my regular readers will find this single location helpful.

These projects range from easy enough for early elementary to something middle school students can create. All of them can also be extended to final products appropriate for high school students.

With each project on the site I include:

  • At least one example of the final product
  • A video tutorial of how to create it
  • A document of directions that a teacher can edit and distribute to the class through Google Classroom - This document also includes links to the example(s) and the tutorial.
  • Suggestions for extending the projects
Here's the link to the site. If you find it useful, please share it with others and let me know what you think of it.

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!