Exploring "Bring Your Own Technology" and Project-Based Learning



January in Georgia is NOT my favorite time of year.  Christmas is over, it gets dark earlier, a lot of people are out sick and I’m generally dragging myself from one day to the next.  Until this year.  On January 9, 2017 school was closed because of inclement weather- snow and ice.  In Forsyth County teachers post lessons for the students online, which allows students to complete their work without making up the school day.  Teachers work from home, posting lessons, checking emails, and answering student questions, during  office hours for the day. The downtime gave me an opportunity to check out a couple of webinars and plan ahead for the next few days.  I found a webinar about gaming in the classroom.  After 45 minutes I was sold on the idea, but confused as to where to begin.  I thought, maybe over the summer I could figure out how to run my classroom like a game.

Lunch and more hot coffee fueled my desire to figure out how to make my classroom a game, but where to begin?  Suddenly, the idea occurred to me that someone had probably figured this out.  So, I did what I always do and what the students are told not to do- I googled it! That is how I found Classcraft.  This program, which works on all technology devices, changed my dreary winter days to fun, engaged my students, motivated them to work together in teams, provided easy formative assessments, and surprised us daily.  It was so easy to get started, which was good for an old timer like me with no gaming experience.  Classcraft provided a getting starting video and I watched most of it before I jumped in with both feet.

When we returned to school the following day, I had a plan, a skip in my step, and surprise for my students.  I showed my class the Classcraft introductory video.  They were so excited!  I explained that I needed their help and they were more than willing to walk me through it.  Over the next few days we divided into teams, chose team names, team crests, and student roles: warriors, mages, or healers.

Next, students helped me tweak the behaviors that would earn XP points, (experience points needed for the next level) or take away HP points, (health points to keep you alive).  This led to good conversations about behavior expectations and consequences. It did not take very long to accomplish and I think students bought into the game because they had input.

Next, we tweaked the powers of the warriors, mages, and healers. It is essential for each team to have at least one warrior, mage and healer to provide balance.  Each role has special powers that help the team.  At this point the teams were able to start earning points for being prepared, answering questions in class, or turning in high quality work.  (We had a great discussion on what high quality work would look like.)

Then, we added the Random Events.  When students enter my classroom there is a short warm-up on the board.  Students begin this work while I take attendance.  As soon as I finish attendance, I click on the Random Event.  These are so fast and fun.  We started with the preset events and then added more as we went along. Here’s some of our favorites:

  • Gift of the Gamemaster- 1000 XP to one random student
  • Abundance of Energy- 15 AP to the player with the least AP
  • Boon or Bane?- you find a cursed blade, one player loses 25 AP, but gains 300XP
  • Thief- One random student loses 50 GP, and one random student gains 50GP.
  • Plenty to Go Around- the player with the least XP on each team gains 300XP

Next, we added the Wheel of Destiny which chooses one random team or player.  This is where Classcraft went from improving behavior and motivating students to increasing student learning.  The Wheel of Destiny made two immediate improvements in my classroom.  First, when choosing teams, students, who were too shy to answer, would speak because they had an opportunity to clarify their answers with their teams before answering.  I could hear the team conversations and was immediately able to assess the level of understanding.  Secondly, when choosing individuals, the students were suddenly motivated to complete the work to be able to answer the questions to get the points.  (Can you see me smiling?)

Finally, we added the Boss Battles.  Boss Battles are quick formative assessments.  I choose a monster for students to defeat, make a short “quiz” with multiple choice, true false, or short answer questions, and decide the reward.  Students can play as teams or individuals to defeat the monster.  Students LOVE the Boss Battles!

Boss Battles and the loss of health points for negative behaviors caused some students to die in battle.  When this happens, team members may step in the heal them, protect them or transfer power to save their teammates.  However, if a student dies in battle, their name goes into the Book of Laments.  When this happens, a student has to carry out a sentence in order to get back in the game.  We tweaked the sentences to fit my class.  Sometimes, students get a free pass, but other times they have to  clean the classroom, do a review worksheet, work a crossword puzzle or complete some type of assignment to get back in the game.  This is a great opportunity to review material and student work willingly and eagerly to finish their sentences.

Classcraft has other tools that we’ve started enjoying.  My favorite is the new volume meter.  It uses the microphone on my laptop to monitor the sound level in the room.  I set the acceptable level of noise, enter the points and gold pieces for the reward and click start. Have you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagined students asking to work quietly???  My students do!  It is amazing to watch students work quietly in teams, with a partner, or individually for a set amount of time.  Even with the end of the year chaos right now, they will work quietly.  If an announcement is made or a fire alarm goes off I can click false alarm and students do not lose their reward.  If they get too loud, the reward is cut in half- but not taken away. When I started using the volume meter, I could hear the angels singing.

In addition to the Random Event, the Wheel of Destiny, the Volume Meter, and the Boss Battle, there is the White Mountain Countdown.  This is simply a countdown timer.  I use it to inspire students to finish work quickly or focus for short sprints of work.  It really helps them focus.

There are other tools that I’ve just started using.  For example, Classcraft works with Google Classroom.  Classcraft converts grades and work turned in on time to points and gold pieces for rewards. There is also interactive class content which allows me to post extra credit work for students to complete for even more points or gold pieces.  I try to post something for extra credit each month for points, not for a grade.  Students have created tornadoes in a bottle, completed a tsunami web-quest, completed a water cycle web-quest, carried out at-home science experiments and discussed a Ted Talk about the oceans just to earn bonus points to get to the next level in the game.

So, Classcraft has  increased student motivation, participation, and engagement, along with improving behavior.  It has encouraged students to work in teams, to collaborate, and build on each others knowledge.  It has also added an element of surprise and fun into my classroom on a regular basis.  I highly recommend Classcraft for your classroom.

Technology: Tools or Toys?


Here is my presentation for the Georgia Academy of Science for Saturday, March 30th. This is a summary of my research on student achievement and engagement so far.  I have included samples of student work, apps that students have enjoyed and websites that have been dependable.  We had a slow start at the beginning of the school year, because this was new to everyone.  However, now we are having so much fun and the students are excited about showing off their work.  I will post some other samples of student work in a separate post very soon- students are still making revisions.


Example of Student Work Using Technology

Fossils:Uncovering the Past See a movie trailer made by a sixth grade student, March 2013.  This  is an example of how creative students can be when given choices of products to demonstrate what they have learned and the tools to make what they envision come true.



Hooray for Diffendoofer Day


Testing time will be here soon, and as usual I start to fret.  Watching this video made me feel much better. 


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Easy Organization with Evernote


On more than one occasion, I have been frustrated because I needed files from my home computer at work or needed files from work at home.  I have tried to keep everything organized on a flash drive, but that did not work well.  I also wanted to create an online science notebook for my students because important information gets lost all the time.  I played around with two options: Microsoft OneNote and Evernote.  For personal use either one would work well, but for using with students- Evernote won.  It has been easy for me to download files, add pictures, capture PDFs online, and organize everything.  The best part is that I can click on share, then click on link, post the link to the class webpage and students can add it to their Evernote notebook.  I started by sharing a study guide for our last unit and now I have shared information for a project by students are completing.  In both cases it was easy for students to access the information and the links within the document continued to work after students saved the document to their notebook.  It has been difficult to find apps that work on a variety of devices.  Evernote also works on all the different devices: laptops, tablets, and cell phones.  There are a lot of  Evernote tutorials to help get started.



Today our school hosted a BYOT tour: I hope it was helpful to others that want to use BYOT devices in their classrooms.  For me, it was a good chance to reflect on how our school and my own instruction has changed since August 2012.  I teach sixth grade earth science and seventh grade life science, and I have been teaching in public school for 13 years.  However, I started my official teaching career at age 40, and I am also a grandma.  As a grandma and a teacher, I know what I like, I know what works, and I have little patience for things that waste my time.  So, I had my concerns about BYOT in the classroom with middle school students.

New things are sometimes disconcerting and I was uneasy about how students using BYOT devices in my classroom would work.  When I began planning for instruction using these devices, it was difficult to form a picture in my mind or predict the flow of how things would go in my classroom.  It was a lot like learning to cook when I first got married.  There were so many pans, cookbooks, ingredients, and ideas available, but I had to practice to become successful and predict what time to start dinner for everyone to eat at a decent time.  In the same way, when beginning to use BYOT, I did not know about apps, or which app to use, or which app to use for a particular skill.  I was not confident about classroom management and monitoring students.  I had no idea how to make using these devices meaningful, instead of just a gimmick.  I’m still learning along with my students, but we have made a lot of progress.  So many of my worries were premature. 

Monitoring students is usually not too difficult.  There are a couple of telltale signs: the white glow of the screen reflected on their face and because they feel guilty they try to hide the device- a lot like passing notes in class.  I know I don’t catch everything, but I try to keep them busy so time is not available for mischief.  Students keep the apps on their desk or table in front of them when they are not being used.  We just say, “Devices down.”

I am learning about apps and as my students learn more they are sharing ideas with me.  It is fun to see the different projects that students create and they take pride in their work.  Their projects are neat, colorful, informative, and thrifty.  Technology eliminates items like poster board, glue, glitter, and markers.  There’s no more trying to store, grade, and display 50 posters about the rock cycle.  If students make a mistake, they just hit delete or undo and fix it, instead of starting over.  The best part is that I can carry everything home to grade on a flash-drive. 

Nothing is perfect and starting something new takes energy and planning, but it is worth it.  This is going to be a work in progress for a long time, but education is always a work in progress, so that is okay.  More and more of my work is completed digitally so it is natural that students work would follow suit.  To get started with BYOT, I get my best ideas from fellow teachers and others who have shared ideas on the internet.  I am trying to assemble my favorites and pass them on to others through my blog.  (Whoever thought I would have a blog! LOL) 

Personally, I enjoy gathering ideas and sharing ideas using Pinterest.  Between visits, I keep in touch with my granddaughter using Facebook.  I can send text messages and receive text messages and pictures of my grandbabies.  I have posted a few twits on Twitter, but I am a quiet person in reality and in virtual reality.   Overall, it is nice to know that I’m not too old to learn and not too ornery to try.

App for Staying on Task




About three weeks ago I was able to attend the NSTA conference in Atlanta, and I missed two days of school.  After being out of school, I found myself behind on grading papers, planning lessons, and returning emails.  Then, my husband got sick and was hospitalized for seven days.  He is doing better now, but then Thanksgiving Holidays came around and I found myself further behind than ever.  So, I downloaded an android app called “Stay on Task.”  I have been using it to get things done without feeling overwhelmed.  It is easy to use and for some reason, helps me focus.  At random periods of time, between five minutes to twenty minutes, it makes a sound and displays two buttons.  If I am on task, I click the picture of the student at the desk and it responds with the words, “Good for you!.”  Then I get back to work.  If I am not on task, I push the other button and it responds with, “Get to work.”  When using this app, working feels like a game and I find myself racing against the time.  I have been digging myself out from under the pile of papers and I feel good about getting caught up.  I think I could use this for individual students or the entire class by offering a reward for time on task.  Maybe a minute of freetime at the end of class for each segment of time on task, a thirty second dance party, a round of silent ball, or accumulating points towards one big rerward at the end of the month.  I downloaded the app for free, but today it is $1.99 at Google Play.

Changes and Challenges



The first nine weeks of school have flown by so quickly, and looking back I realize I have made a lot of changes in my classroom this year.  The first week of school I set the stage by implementing 5 seating challenges.  My poor sixth graders.  The first day of middle school and I greet them with a challenge from the first hello.  Once they realized I meant for them to work through it and not give up,  they got to work and were successful.  The second day was easier and by the third day they were asking for more.  I think these activities set the tone for communicating and working together to solve problems.  I have also had more group work and hands-on labs.  However, the main difference is that I am asking more questions, waiting longer for answers, and asking follow up questions.  One of my favorite new online programs is ClassDojo.  Students earn or lose points based on behaviors discussed and agreed on by the class.  Of course all of these changes have little to do with BYOT  or technology of any kind.  Sometimes it takes awhile to build a foundation.

We have dabbled with BYOT with mixed results.  We have used Socrative for surveys  and science lab questions.  It is simple for the teacher to create a quiz or a “ticket out the door” activity for students.  It is similar to using the quick response systems,  “the eggs”, only it is easier to set up.  I have also learned to use a QR Code Generator so students have an easier time using their cell phones to navigate to the websites.  I’ve used TodaysMeet for gathering student feedback.  However, most of my effort has gone into setting up Edmodo with folders containing websites, interactive games, passwords, review sheets, videos, and songs for each unit.  Edmodo has been an easy way to communicate with students and parents along with collaborating with peers.  In addition, the students can earn badges for different achievements and these have been very popular and easy to manage.  I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year creating more badges and then found I could easily share badges with other teachers and other teachers could share badges with me.  StudyStack has been a simple and popular way for students to create games for review.   One of the most engaging activities involved creating bulletin boards using Linoit.  I made a sample board about the layers of Earth.  Then students began to make their own bulletin boards with information about the layers of the earth and plate tectonics.  My current project is creating a Wiki and updating this blog.  I have finally decided that Edmodo is mostly communication, Wikispaces will substitute for the interactive notebook, and my blog is for reflection and organizing my resources.

Now for the challenges during this new school year.  Time is the biggest challenge.  Because I am back in school myself, I am juggling my coursework and research along with teaching.  My husband has been wonderful to pitch in and help, but focusing on what I really want to accomplish, choosing websites or apps from the huge variety of options, learning how to use these programs, and envisioning how to use them to teach students takes a lot of mental energy.  In a lot of ways I feel like a new teacher, only without a mentor or role model to give me the answers.  I am enjoying this journey, and I have to laugh at myself often.

To illustrate my early BYOT skills, I will tell you briefly about our summer vacation.  The weekend before we left for Florida my husband and I bought new smart phones.  Phones too smart for middle aged grandparents to use quickly.  We managed to make calls, but neither of us could figure out how to answer a call.  For the entire week of vacation, we had to listen to the phone ring until the person hung up.  Then, we called them back.  My friend had mercy on me when I returned from vacation and showed me that you don’t tap the button to answer you slide it to the right.  It is the little things that remind me how much I have to learn.  The surprising part of this is that my students face the same challenges.  I thought they would know how to use these devices, how to download apps, how to navigate websites, how to use a search engine, how to find basic information or follow simple directions,  but that has not been the case.  In addition, students, sixth and seventh graders, have struggled to set up accounts, log in using the correct username and password, keep the devices charged, or keep the devices with them.  They do not understand why an e-reader can access the internet to download a book, but not navigate to the webpage they desire.  They bring a gaming device and are frustrated to realize they cannot read the QR code, get on the internet, or send a message.  So, the learning curve is substantial, but the students enjoy the adventure and take comfort in having their device with them.

The next question always concerns the students who do not own the devices.  We use school owned laptops whenever possible, take turns using the classroom desktops, or share devices.  I lend my own tablet and cell phone to help out.  Sometimes students “huddle” in groups to share one device for five or six students.  We need more devices to lend to students.  Cell phones or other devices able to access the internet are at the top of every Christmas list this year.  I have heard from parents that kids are coming home saying that everyone else has a device.  That is not the case.  On average, we probably have about one third the number of devices we need.  When asked, students insist they have a device, but they are too young to realize that some of the devices are limited in function and will not access the internet.  So, we are learning to figure this out.  Flexibility, a smile and a good attitude are essential right now.  The funny thing is that we are having a wonderful time along the way.


Quiet and the Ideal Classroom


I am reading a interesting book, recommended to me by my daughter, a fellow introvert, that has me wondering about the best learning environment for all students.  BYOT and collaboration sound fun and exciting, but what about the quiet students, like me, that prefer to work alone?  In my mind, I imagine the perfect classroom boasting a lively atmosphere, filled with energetic groups of students questioning, talking, laughing, and learning.  But, is this the ideal classroom for all students?  For example, I recently attended a BYOT training with other teachers in my district.  I was excited about the training because I plan to begin BYOT with my own students next fall and I want to be as prepared as possible.  In addition, in the midst of summer break I miss my friends and the social interaction of work.  The training was great: a mixture of modeling the technology, discussions, and time to practice.  However, during the training I was distracted and somewhat fascinated by what other teachers were doing; I found my mind spinning with possibilities and questions, but without any direction or idea of where to begin.  At that point, if I had been trying to complete a project, meet a deadline, or collaborate with friends I would have been frustrated and hopelessly lost.  My contribution to the group would have been to amen any reasonable suggestions, volunteer to complete any independent,  behind-the-scenes work, and escape as soon as possible.  As it was, I was able to come home, relax with my dogs, and let things percolate awhile before taking any action.  Over the next few days, I started this blog, made friends with Twitter, toyed with the technology, researched on the net, and entertained plans for next year.  So, my own experience and reading Quiet has helped me realize that I am not alone in my work preferences and habits.  Some students, perphaps even middle school students, are most productive and creative when given quiet time and space to ponder, reflect, and create.  How can I use BYOT to provide a peaceful environment for these students while simultaneously allowing other students to work in meaningful collaborative groups?   Today I have more questions than answers, but surprisingly, I am okay with that dilemma.



Old Cell Phone

Welcome to my latest adventure in teaching middle school science.  Next year my school will begin BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) in the classroom.  Students will be allowed, even encouraged, to use their own mobile, wireless devices for instruction during class.  When I first heard this I panicked as my mind flooded with questions and concerns.  First, I wondered if I could really learn the technology and classroom management skills necessary to be successful.  Next, I worried that students would not feel included or would not be prepared for standardized testing.  Finally, I realized that the way I teach and access student learning would have to change for BYOT to be implemented in a way that would be meaningful to students and applicable to real life.

At the time,  I owned a little red cell phone that only made phone calls and I had never sent or opened a text message.  I left things like blogs, Twitter, text messages, chat rooms, wikis, QR codes, avatars,  and apps to the younger generation.  I was content as long as my husband or son were nearby to show me which remote to use or to troubleshoot my laptop when something went wrong.  Personally, I used technology to send emails, shop, research, pay bills, prepare documents, or take pictures.  In my classroom, I incorporated online games, quizzes, videos, current events, and media presentations into my class webpage.  Sometimes I reserved the school computers so that students could complete online labs, simulations, conduct research, or review material.  I was comfortable, but something was missing.

After completing BYOT training, for the last two days, I realize this is not about technology devices, but about making education relevant to students of the 21st century.  The skills necessary for future success include critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity- the Four C’s.   Modeling and practicing those skills in my classroom will require changes in how I plan and present lessons, in classroom management and communication, and in my expectations and assessments of students.   I have a great deal to learn and it is exciting.

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