Monday, December 30, 2013

Games, Tips, Insights and Music in the Classroom - My top 10 posts from 2013

Crystal Owen and me introducing our math music video project
2014 will mark three years since I started this blog. My early posts focused mostly on some games I created for Promethean boards and response systems.

Three more years of putting the theories of my studies into practice have led to a much wider spectrum of topics. Most recently they highlight the creative work and insights that have made this year the best of my career.

I now can write about better games, tech tips for many applications and deeper insights into what's really going on in school. Most exciting for me personally has been the increase in work with music.

My role in education is like oil in the machine. Most of what I do isn't the main point, but it's vital to keep things running. 

I was happy to find my list of top 10 posts (in terms of views) written this year reveals this. It includes a good mix of all of these topics and many came from the past four months. Here they are in order, starting with the most popular.

6 Ways to Teach Like an Artist - I'm so grateful to find this was my most viewed new post. The thoughts behind this one sum up not just a year, but my career of 20 years in education (and maybe 40 years of going to school). I like this original post, but the ideas that emerged from it have led to a theme and series of posts that reveal my journey. It has been my gift and message this school year.

Coming Soon - The Creativity Game of Movie Trailers - This final creativity game marked a turn in my attention from classroom games. It stems from a dream project, far more significant than just a game, and I'm glad to see it got attention over the months since I created it.

10 Tips for Recording Video in the Classroom - A lifetime of loving video creation came together in this list of practical tips I repeat constantly whenever we do such projects in class.

What's It to Ya? Randomizer for Class Presentation Games - I don't know why it took me so long to think of this, but it's probably the best way to play the game that I have written about the most. This Flash app selects five cards from my game of values and opinions. Free and very accessible, it allows groups or a class to take advantage of all the critical thinking games and activities based on the simple game.

My Attempt to Encourage Creativity - I'm a little hesitant to include this one, but I am glad people found it useful. When a group of students were afraid to make their own music video, I decided I better take the plunge first. I'm not a vocalist and my video is one of the few I made that has a thumbs-down on YouTube, but it made my point and kicked off my favorite project of my career.

Creativity Exercise for Creative Writing - This is the low tech, party game version of the movie trailer game from the number two slot. Cards can be printed and the game played in small groups.

8 Things I Emphasize When Teaching About Game Design - I love making games and I get excited when I can teach about the process. Here's how I address it in class, and most of this has nothing to do with the how-to of making a game.

How to Inspire Creativity and Teach Content - This is a very practical post about a process I use to create music videos in under 3 hours. I have had a lot more practice with it since I wrote this in April, so my regularly updated page about Music Creation in the Classroom is the go-to place for updates.

6 Reasons Your Students Need to See Your Mediocre Art - Back to my artist theme, this one comes from my personal experience of sharing my less than amazing talents. It meant a lot to me that Kevin Honeycutt tweeted about this one. He is directly responsible for the thoughts behind it and his attention to it helped it make this list.

Middle School Music Video Project - At the end of March I finally completed my first music video project with a class. Everything else was in theory, but this first attempt brought it altogether and the results made my year the best yet as a teacher. Two things worth mentioning:  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Editing videos for the Smart Jams project

When the songwriting and recording for the Smart Jams math music video project was all wrapped up I ended up with audio files, pictures and video for 23 projects. That means I spent a lot of time editing over Christmas break!

As of today (1-5-2014) I have completed 14 videos and eight more of the songs are mixed down. Over the next few days I'll finish the rest. I haven't had much time for blogging through all this, but here are a few things I learned:
  • I wish we would have piloted this with only one or two classes! I really enjoy the entire process, but managing all the files is quite a task.
  • I am editing the videos this time around because I need to see the whole process and the project took enough class time already. The overall goal was to identify a simple process and have the students compile the audio, pictures and video themselves in the future. I learned a lot about this and I'll post the information in the weeks ahead.
  • I originally planned on having each video play through the song three times. Previous materials I posted referred to that. Now that I look at what I have recorded and how much editing is before me, though, I see it's far more realistic to just repeat the song twice.
  • I need more structure to the picture and video recording portion. Some of the factors (creativity, attendance, timing, availability of devices...) caught me off guard and what I have to work with is making editing take longer. I'm sure that by the time I finish all of these I'll have a much better list of guidelines for that phase of the process.
For now, here's a compilation of a few videos I have completed. I blurred the faces because we haven't had a chance to get signed release forms from parents. Also, I wanted to see how that feature works on YouTube.

Comments are welcome!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Steps or The Big Picture? How we approach teaching and learning

Did you ever notice this sentence at the end of any list of directions from Google Maps?

"These directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, weather, or other events may cause conditions to differ from the map results, and you should plan your route accordingly."

I have relied on Google Maps for years to help me plan my travel. The steps are invaluable. I love that short disclaimer at the end, though, because it reminds me that steps alone are not enough in the real world.

Besides real life throwing us an unexpected obstacle, another problem with steps is that if you get off track for any reason it can be really hard to find where you're going.

When traveling somewhere for the first time, nothing beats looking at the map first and getting the route and the area in your head. Even a GPS, while it is so helpful when turned around in busy traffic, is a short sighted aid that will only take you to your final destination. A map, studied and remembered, offers a few advantages.

First, connections between other close destinations can be made. Looking at the map, we can see the cities passed on the trip and roads that remind us of other places we know or might want to visit. This aids in planning future travel or maybe opens the door for someplace fun to check out on the way home.

When lost in an unfamiliar area, a map in the mind compared to having a list of steps makes it so much more likely we can still get where we want to go. Having a mental picture of our general position relative to our destination, and knowing most of the roads are going north, south, east or west, is usually enough to get us where we need to be. It's not magic that makes some people better than others at finding their way in unfamiliar areas.

And lastly, I'd argue that having that mental map makes the whole trip easier to remember. Each site I pass that I might want to return to at another time can be effortlessly stored away in the already existing picture in my mind. I might forget it was between the first and second light on the short road going south, but at least I know the general area. 

In short, not having to think of every step makes it easier to pay attention. Everything I pass along the way, whether I need it right away when turned around or years later when thinking of another trip, a mental map helps organize it.

I trust it's clear this isn't about how to plan trips. The parallels to teaching and learning are obvious. The steps to a process are important, but I'd argue that every time steps are not enough if we want the learner to do something with the learning.

Steps get you from point A to point B if you can remember them or have them available whenever you need them.  They are effective as long as nothing changes in between. They do not require deep thought from the person relying on them.

In a constantly changing world, we need to give our students a big picture. With it they can form new connections and use the learning in new ways, taking them to places they have never been before.

Here are some related thoughts:

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Free game for holiday fun - The Game of Christmas Cheer

Here's a print and play version of a game I made with my wife and kids a few years ago. It is a very simple "push your luck" family game filled with some of the best and the most stressful moments of the holiday season.

This will be fun for families, but it could also be used in Sunday school classes or in schools. (It has one card about "the true meaning of Christmas" that some won't want to use in a classroom setting. This was important to our family and our original project.)

More than just as a game to play in school, though, it could also be a great exercise for older students design their own cards or possibly add a completely different theme to it.  Rule changes can also be introduced to make a very different game.

To play, you need to print 10 cards, preferably on cardstock, and cut them out. The game also requires a die, a pawn and 10 chips (pennies or other counters will work) per player. If six players are playing you only need 8 chips per player.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Wrapping Up Smart Jams in the Classroom

This was probably my last week in the classroom for the Smart Jams project. (Check my Music in the Classroom page for the full outline of this math and music video project for elementary grades.)

While it has been five weeks, I really only met with most classes about nine times for 45 minutes each. That comes out to around six to seven hours of class time. It's more than I wanted, but I have learned some ways to save time. I will write all of that up in a later post.

This week most groups were finishing their signs for their video.  Meanwhile, I met outside the room with groups to record the parts for their video.

A lot of students had big ideas of how their video would look, but I told them we had to be realistic! The project involves 23 videos altogether and we simply didn't have time for lots of effects and different settings. To keep it manageable, I told them we had about 20 minutes per group for recording. Most times we were done in 15.

Almost all the students had a lot of fun performing for their video. It was good to be a part of a project with so many smiles and much laughter.

Here's the general process I used for most groups as I recorded the content:

  • Make and record a problem in Explain Everything that will be displayed on screen during the first time through their song. Ideally they created this problem on their video planning sheets. Some wanted to work the problem on paper instead.
  • Get pictures of each of their signs.
  • Take video of dancing, displaying the signs or, in some cases, lip synced performances of the song.  We used the Video Star app for this. (Small note: Video Star was updated this week with a feature for using multiple devices to record a performance. I haven't had a chance to try this yet, but I hope to next week. If it works as described this could be an excellent feature for multi-camera productions.)
I finished with about half the groups this week, so next week I will pull the others from their regular music class activity to finish up.

Here are other notes about this week:
  • When students finished recording I told them I needed some logos and designs for my Smart Jams portion of the website and for my MACUL presentation. They created these with the same low tech approach as their signs.
  • I gave half the students a post-test. Those students were given a pretest before we started, so I am curious to see how much they learned about the math in this project. I still have to check those.
  • Speaking of work, I am still touching up recordings, working in UJam and processing pictures. The vocal performances varied quite a bit in quality. I had to line up audio on the beats in almost every case. Sometimes it took only a few minutes. In other cases, the students' rhythm was way off and it took me way too long to get something that's barely satisfactory. I am going to speak with Crystal about the best way to address this in the future. One thought is that with a group that struggles (often because of absences), she would perform the main parts and we would have the others just do backup vocals here and there. I will write a full report on recording and processing files along with demo videos and more notes on what I learned.
  • Video editing is going to be my big job over Christmas break. While I am going to polish up a couple outstanding examples, most videos will be very simple. I am going to limit editing to 15 - 30 minutes and work exclusively on the iPad for those.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Teaching Like an Artist

New for 2014: Follow the continuing Teaching Like an Artist series on

I had a lot of chances to express myself creatively this past year and it has been exciting. Without a doubt it has been the best time of my 20 years as a teacher.

Through reflecting on this and through blog posts, the theme that developed is Teaching Like an Artist.  The general idea is 
Artists get a vision for something that doesn't exist, 
they work to make it real 
and they share it with others

As teachers we can inspire more students if we follow that same pattern.

Here's a list of those articles, beginning with a couple that I didn't even know were in the same series when I wrote it:

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Going Low Tech This Week - week four of the Smart Jams math and music video project

(This post is part of a series highlighting work in a project funded by a MACUL grant. See my Music Creation page for complete information.)

This week groups continued taking turns practicing their songs with Crystal. When she thought they were ready, they would record with me. While waiting their turn, they made signs for the video.  We easily could have come up with ways for them to make signs digitally, but instead we went low tech.

This weekend I am putting several hours into processing the music files we recorded.  We will have over 20 videos by the time this is done.  Even though I can simplify the process greatly and finish a song and video in under a few hours, each big step that I do on my own can take a long time.  Once I finally decide on the best way to do this (I have changed the plan a few times so far with the first examples) I will post a tutorial.

For now, some thoughts on the benefits of low tech are below.

When I was finishing my master's I was inspired by something Kevin Kelly said in an interview.  He had a big impact on my thinking from that point on.  I wrote to him once to ask for advice as I was doing the project for my final class.  

His brief reply gave me nothing specific, but he said to use non-digital tools whenever possible.  Actually, I'm not paid to spend time with classes when they aren't learning new technology, so most of the time I disregard his suggestion.  Still, I see the value of putting the computers aside.

Of course, I've seen the students enjoy creating with paper, markers and colored pencils just as much as with computers. I'm not a trained art teacher, so I can't speak to the value of virtual tools compared to real world tools in terms of developing creativity and artistic ability.

I do know there are usually two or three students in each class that don't like using computers.  They need tech skills, obviously, but I appreciate the chance to let them enjoy part of the project in their own way.

From a more personal perspective, I can see how hands on creation through early years benefited my own children.  My wife was trained in early childhood development and when we had our kids she stayed home to raise them.  Under her direction they grew up on good, old fashioned crafts with loads of glue, paint and glitter.  At a time when the early elementary art teacher tells me she finds more and more students who do not know how to use scissors or how to play with clay, I am very grateful for the balance my wife brought to our young family.

In our home there was also computer time and video game time over the years.  Now that my son and daughter are older they are just as comfortable (and, yes, too comfortable at times) with their iDevices and laptops.  But they are capable makers in the real and virtual world.  The versatility they gain as well as the opportunities it offers in finding their strengths is vital.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Know Your Audience

New for 2014: Follow the continuing Teaching Like an Artist series on

Not every artist would say she needs to know her audience. The purpose and form of the art probably makes a difference. I remember reading a recent interview in Rolling Stone with Bob Dylan.  He said something to the effect he never wrote for anyone other than himself. Some artists can get away with it.

But I remember how valuable the question of audience was when I was making games or helping other game designers. Any problem or uncertainty throughout the design process was immediately put in focus when we came back to who the game was for. On the other hand, confusion resulted when the vision of the target audience was poorly defined.

I see a similar problem in school. When teaching like artist, who is the audience? I'd think the obvious answer is the students. In a sense, we'd like to perform for them--to share and connect--in hopes of inspiring them. They are the ones coming in daily, seeing our work and walking away with something of value.

But all too often school loses focus because we are bringing the students along on a different show planned for someone else. It feels like we're putting on a performance for the state--a play practiced for months and months, shown to a faceless crowd in hopes of a good review. And then there's another big show next year.

We practice for a vaguely defined employer. Day after day we rehearse our lines. The best students, even in elementary school, know they're getting ready for this person they might meet more than a decade down the road. They answer questions about why with memorized responses--"Math is most important because you use it in any job." The heart wins out, though, and study time is easily overtaken by the endless stream of more interesting options.

I see students going through the motions for so long they forget what they're really doing it for. Learning turns into routine. Check off the list for the minimal requirements and get the credit.

What if the teacher modeled a passion for life and learning that inspired the students to do the same? Is it too idealistic to think students could care so much about their work, and that the teacher designed it so skillfully, that they learn what they need to along the way? Maybe those big tests, important as they are in the process, could be more like an art show where the public sees one presentation of all those individual works.

To be sure, school is multifaceted. It takes most of a year to get through. For the teacher acting as an artist, there is enough opportunity to have more than one performance or reason for performing. There will always be those days when it looks like a rehearsal, with everyone practicing for that faceless audience. But it gets boring for the students when school done that way wears on and on.

Standards matter and the tests have their place. Obviously we are there partly to prepare the students for the world of work. But those things are not enough. We know this because we know so many students sum up the second half of their time in school with something equivalent to the word "boring". Somewhere around fifth grade, little by little, we stop reaching the intended audience. Then eventually many of them stop coming to the show.

This happens whenever we let the standards and pacing guides become an excuse to we can dodge the real work of our art.

On the other hand, we know there are teachers getting the job done and infusing some life into the system at the same time. None of them say it's easy. I never hear a hard working teacher say the pay is worth it or that the principal gave them enough time to complete the project. They just follow their vision, develop their talents and and play off the energy of the crowd.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Samples from the Smart Jams Math and Music Project for Elementary Students

Just before Thanksgiving break I recorded a few of the math songs the students wrote. Two samples are posted below, but first here is important information to consider if you do this project.

As I mentioned in another post, the songwriting was probably the hardest part of this for students. The second hardest part is getting them to sing or rap on the beat. In most cases we get close in the recording then I adjust some phrases in editing.

Here are a few other things to note:
  • Students are not making full songs. We are doing short choruses. See my music page for full information on the project. 
  • I'm still working on the background tracks and we haven't started recording any video yet. These are just quick audio files from GarageBand on the iPad to offer as a preview. 
  • In the final version the chorus will play at least three times. A sample problem will be worked out on screen while the chorus plays to help the steps make sense.
Sample 1:  Long Division

Sample 2. Reducing Fractions