Tech Salad

With Crunchy Bits and Bytes

Category: Cool Tool (page 1 of 9)

Cows, Pigs, Blocks, and Learning

“What did you do today?”

“My friends and I blew up pigs with TNT. We called it a barbecue.”

“That’s not very nice…”

“We also started building a gothic cathedral in our village. It has flying buttresses but we don’t know how to add stained glass windows.”

“That’s better.”

Variations of this conversation are common at my dinner table. Love it or hate it, Minecraft is here to stay, at least for a few years.

Personally, I love it. I have never used it myself, but I’ve sat next to my son as he gives me tours of his ever-growing village with serfs’ cottages, a castle, a forge, community gardens outside the castle wall, and all sorts of things he’s read about or seen in movies. He has also done serious research online to make sure everything he’s including is accurate. What started out as something he had to know for a test has turned into something he really enjoys. And he continues to learn on his own.

If you hate it, you might agree with what this dad wrote for the BBC Magazine: kids become obsessed and do nothing else. Still, think of making the most of the benefits of becoming an expert Minecraft builder. Or think about the serious research kids have to do when building something as accurate as a Minecraft replica of the Forbidden City. Then give this parent a chance and read his very sound advice written for The Guardian. Instead of fearing Minecraft, try understanding it. Instead of keeping kids away from it, set parameters.

I hope teachers will follow this advice and encourage kids to use Minecraft for learning rather than goofy digital mayhem.  In fact, I hope we are able to use formally soon.

Photos For Class

Last week was Spring Break and on Tuesday I made a very conscious decision to disconnect and have a very slow dinner with my children. I knew I’d be missing a couple of Twitter chats, so I went looking through my feed on Wednesday morning. There were lots of really good ideas there, but one stuck out because it solves a problem I see over and over in our schools and have been unable to do more than put little band aids on it over the years.

Katie Morrow (@katiemorrow) shared the Photos For Class website. This is a website that searches Flickr and finds only G-rated images that can be used in school project. It gets even better. When you download a photo, you automatically get the citation.

I know this resource, if used consistently, will save us many disappointments in the future. Just in the past few weeks, I have had to revise plans with teachers multiple times because what they planned to publish openly online was full of copyright-infringing images pulled from Google and other online sources. I also know this resource is trustworthy because I know that Katie practices what she preaches and she would not recommend a broken resource. If you would like to see what students can do with the right guidance, take a look at Katie’s blog post on students as published authors.

We have all the tools. We have a great example. Let’s make it happen.

Writing Navigator

When a tool just works the way it should and students see their growth, we should share the story. I’m very happy to see Ms. Bay and her students embracing better writing with good digital scaffolding.


Sharing Copies – Google Apps

In previous posts I have written about Teacher Dashboard, Google Apps, and how to share documents with students. Here is one more way that lets you share a link to a document in Schoology (or anywhere else) bypassing the Smart Copy button in Teacher Dashboard.

If you need to share a document with students and you want each student to have his or her own copy, here is what you do:

  1. Create the document in Google Drive. Make sure it has a distinctive name that lets your students know what it is when they see it in Google Drive again.
  2. Click the SHARE button and select to share the link to the document by clicking on GET SHAREABLE LINK.
  3. Copy the link and paste it into Schoology (or your blog, or an email, or Twitter…)
  4. Before you send or publish, edit the link. Change the last part of the link where it says /edit?usp=sharing  so that it says /copy
  5. Share the link!
When your students click on the link, they will see the following screen:
When they click the blue button, they will have a copy of the document they can edit and turn in to you via Teacher Dashboard or Schoology.
Easy, right? Let me know if you have any questions.


Feedback: Google, TD, and Schoology as Puzzle Pieces

It is funny how sometimes we have to go far away to hear what people nearby are saying. While I was in Ireland last month, I was sitting in a presentation and the following quote was on a slide:

Providing written feedback at the culmination of a writing product is like doing an autopsy. It’s deconstructing a dead document.

The quote was attributed to Samantha Morra (@sammorra on Twitter) who teaches in New Jersey. I usually do not take pictures of slides during presentations. I find that looking at the pictures later, out of context, is not very useful at all. But, in this case, I did hold up my phone and snap because feedback is something I discuss with teachers every single day. And, while this quote is specifically referring to writing, I believe it applies to all projects regardless of the medium or subject area.

When I work with teachers to plan projects, I discourage single due dates. I encourage teachers to break up projects into smaller parts of the process, each with a deadline and maybe even a grade. While we want students to be independent, we have to understand that they are children, students just developing those skills that allow them to be independent. These intermediate deadlines let teachers see where the final result is headed and help correct the course before it is too late to turn the cruise ship around. Of course, the frequency of the feedback and the size of each chunk in which teachers break down projects should be different at each grade level.

The best part of this idea is that we have the perfect collection of tools for students to share their work with us and for us to provide feedback.

Regardless of what your students are working on, the work can be shared with you using Google Drive. In the past, this was a cumbersome process. Now we have Teacher Dashboard that lets teachers access student work very easily without getting lost in piles and piles of shared documents. Once a student creates or uploads any file, teachers have access to observe and comment. While almost anything can be shared via Google Drive, the easiest way to give feedback from within Google is to type comments on the sides of documents.

In addition to these two tools, we also have Schoology. Instead of creating a single final assignment, teachers create multiple assignments in a folder, with the last one asking for the finished product to be turned in. Anything a student has in Google Drive can be turned in via Schoology. And inside Schoology, teachers can give feedback using text, annotations, voice recordings, and video.

Imagine a classroom full of students turning in a particular assignment to you. You write “Great work!” across the page of a bunch of papers. Or you draw a smiley face. Or you simply check boxes in a rubric. You could have done all these without really telling the students what you think of their work. Now imagine a classroom in which you record a ten second audio message telling the student something about their project. Those are not just words on a page. Students can tell you really liked their work, or not. And it takes no longer than typing or handwriting repetitive, mostly meaningless feedback.

As you see, there is a great area where Teacher Dashboard and Schoology overlap, but the tools are both necessary and useful. I have put together a handy cheat sheet outlining the differences and similarities between the two. Below is the portion related to feedback. If you would like the full sheet, I’ve made that available, too.

Now it is your turn to provide some feedback for me.

What do you think of these tools? What can I do to help you incorporate their use into your everyday teaching routine?

Learning the Old-Fashioned Way

School learning is a relatively new development in the history of the world. For hundreds of thousands of years, nobody went to school, and the world did not end. Everything progressed slowly, but I’m sure they will say the same of us in 500 years, right?

How did anyone learn? We learned by doing. But before we could do, we could play. It turns out we can still learn through play.

Yeah! Break out the Angry Birds!

Not yet. There are better games with much more thought and research behind them. You can read about Physics Playground on the Mind/Shift blog from KQED. This is no ordinary game, and the people behind it have put a lot of thought and research into the project. They explain it much better in their own words on their website. Here is what what I found most interesting:


I’ve been known to complain about “educational” games that simply hone fast reflexes behind a thin veneer of content (Cool Math Games,, etc). I wish teachers who let students fritter away their time on these sites would take a more honest look and ask themselves the questions in the above screenshot.



The Minecraft Revolution

Last year around this time, I worked with Ms. Kass on a project in which students used Google SketchUp to create a zoo enclosure for an endangered species. The enclosure had to incorporate elements involving basic needs, comfort, health, and visitor safety, all of it researched by the students. At the time, I blogged about how easy it was to help students to use SketchUp compared to several years earlier and attributed the change to the rising popularity of Minecraft.

Lots of people are writing about Minecraft and how much kids can learn from it. Here is a small sample from the New York Times.

Earlier this year, for example, a school in Stockholm made Minecraft compulsory for 13-year-old students. “They learn about city planning, environmental issues, getting things done, and even how to plan for the future,” said Monica Ekman, a teacher at the Viktor Rydberg school.

Although there are no official Minecraft manuals, kids know where to go to learn and get the latest news. From a dedicated wiki to hundreds of YouTube channels with clever how-to videos, the Minecraft community is all about collaboration and keeping up with news about mods, skins, and all sorts of things that sound rather foreign to many teachers and parents.

Earlier this year, Minecraft was in the grown-up news when the entire country of Denmark was recreated in Minecraft accurately to scale and including all roads and buildings. The Danish government funded the project as an educational experience. Then it made news again when the server housing the project was hacked and the virtual replica was “invaded” by the United States. While hackers are no laughing matter, this incident calls attention to something else kids can learn from Minecraft: digital citizenship. Learning to communicate in an online environment like a Minecraft server helps young kids navigate later experiences.

Spatial and critical thinking, collaboration, perseverance, curiosity, creativity, self-directed learning, digital citizenship. Do any of these skills sound like they have appeared together on any other list recently?

The new item for my wish list is a school account on MinecraftEdu.

Let’s Give Them Something To Write About

I don’t have much time to comb through Twitter to find good stuff these days, but a tweet by @intrepidteacher caught my eye while I stood by the microwave at lunch.


@mywriteabout is a twitter account full of really fun ideas for writing assignments. For example, look at this book review idea.

Or look at this idea for using descriptive language in a persuasive piece.
Or meet the kids where they are. This would prompt them to write a BuzzFeed-like post.
These are just three examples. If you have a Twitter account, this is a great feed to follow.

Everything Is Awesome!

“When my students use the word ‘awesome,’ I make them justify it or do ten pushups.” Brad Overnell-Carter (@braddo on Twitter) said this to me about five minutes after we met. I think he was joking. It was an awesome conversation (haha) discussing the ridiculous overuse of some words that lead to some truly great words being completely ignored.

Of course I use the “a-word” myself. It is so easy to just grab for the first adjective that pops into my head, even if I sound like a goofy character in a television sitcom. After all, if I am just chatting informally in the hallway outside my office, my choice of adjectives doesn’t really matter. So what if the ice cream I had yesterday didn’t really inspire awe? It was very good. I’ll just substitute “awesome” because “good” doesn’t quite capture my appreciation for the ice cream. And fun people all over the internet use “awesome.”

When students are writing, everything changes. How long have “word graveyards”and “dead word walls” been around? We often ask students to stay away from words rendered meaningless by overuse, but beyond pointing them to a Thesaurus, we rarely provide fun alternatives.

When I can’t think of a good word to use, I visit the Lexipedia, a pretty cool service that would take very long to explain. So just click on the link.

Why do I like Lexipedia? I like the spatial arrangement of words and what it says about their meanings and connotations. I can mouse over any word to see its definition. I can click on any word and go deeper into my search for the perfect term. I like that the site gives me antonyms, synonyms, and “fuzzynyms,” or words that are related but are neither antonyms nor synonyms. I absolutely love that Lexipedia is now available in Spanish, French, German, Dutch, and Italian, too.

Lexipeida is not new, but it is free and awesome.


Building Your Nation State

Yesterday I arrived at my house to find my children hooting with laughter as they scrolled down a list of fake country names created by my daughter’s classmates. How often do kids stay up late working on an assignment that is so entertaining?

Of course, making up amusing names does not sound like an assignment that requires too much content knowledge or critical thinking.

But that’s not what this is about. My daughter’s Civics teacher has registered his classes on the NationStates website for a year-long project. Making up a name was just the first step. Each student had to select a form of government, primary industry, religion, wildlife, level of militarization, legislative system, etc. Based on their choices, students’ countries are rated on multiple scales. Some are quite humorous. For example, the fishing industry is rated on a “Nemo depletion scale” and the ranking on how many people believe in God is measured in “Dawkins.” My daughter and her 8th grade peers will get the Nemo reference, but might have to run a search to find out who Richard Dawkins is. I could not stop giggling over this one in particular.

Once the students establish their countries, design flags, and generally have lots of fun making up currencies, languages, city names, and everything else, they start making choices that change their country. Basically, the kids become all three branches of government rolled into a single person. Last night, my daughter had to decide whether voting should be compulsory. She was given three quotes from three different people spread out a wide swath of the political spectrum. We discussed each quote and what the implications were. I reminded her of items we have read or heard in the news, and I hope she made a thoughtful choice.

While this website was created as a promotional tool for a novel, it does provide an incredible non-traditional educational opportunity. Rather than reading about the functions of government in a textbook, students are wielding incredible power over their fictional countries and populations. As the website says, students have total control. They can “…care for its people. Or deliberately oppress them. It is up to you.”

I am as excited about my daughter’s country developing over the course of the year as she is. I would love to see what kids in Goochland do with this website, too.


« Older posts

© 2019 Tech Salad

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑