Category Archives: apps

Putting an Educational Spin on Fidget Spinners

"fidget spinner"

If you haven’t seen one of these lately, you are:

  1. Not a parent
  2. Not a teacher
  3. Probably living under a rock, and even from there you can probably hear the whirring siren’s song of these Weapons of Mass Distraction

The above device is called a “fidget spinner” — a bit of a misnomer, if you ask me, because these toys are marketed as tools for reducing anxiety and improving attention — ie. as helpful devices to combat challenges imposed by ADHD, autism, and more, due to the fact that there is some research showing that fidgeting (and sensory stimuli) can be beneficial for some people. (In fact, I myself fidget, and had to learn productive ways to do so, starting in middle school when my teachers would say “Can you stop tapping the pen on the table?” Since then, my go-to is silently bouncing my knee/leg under the table. It gets the blood flowing — in fact, I do it more when I am either thinking hard or under a little bit of duress — and I think it helps! I have actually taught this method to my students as an effective “non-disruptive” form of fidgeting!)

But the reality is… there is no proof that “fidget spinners” actually meet the above need. They are a toy. “Some experts do believe that so-called ‘fidgets’ — silent, unimposing toys like squeezey balls or textured items like puddy — can provide some children with an outlet for brain stimulation to counteract hyperactivity in the classroom. But, says Anderson, ‘the distinction between those interventions and [fidget spinners] is that those interventions allow the child to move, but this particular intervention isn’t necessarily letting the child get their wiggles out, but rather play with a toy.'”

So, long story short: fidget spinners aren’t eliminating distractions and increasing focus on learning — they are doing the opposite.  When my students say to me “You know what tricks I can do with a spinner?” my response is “My trick beats all of those… I can make it disappear!”

A Positive Spin…

Middle School Fads of 2016-2017However, I know a good craze when I see one (and nowhere are trends more pervasive and addictive than they are during the adolescent / middle-school years!  This year started with Pokémon, progressed to “bottle-flipping,” transmogrified into DIY “slime” being brought into the classroom, and has now spun out of control in a new direction…), and I know that it’s wiser to redirect excitement than to quell it entirely!

As such, I came up with a plan (above and beyond simply confiscating spinners in my classroom — which I also do): I was already going to make my end-of-year classes fun, PBL-style projects involving learning CAD modeling and 3D printing; why not inform the kids that one of the things they would be able to print would be a “fidget spinner”??

Now, that got their attention!  Of course, there were a few caveats (the key is to make something that you really want them to do anyway seem like it’s a special privilege or reward — which, of course, is what gaining knowledge really is, but it’s not always viewed that way by students…):

  • In order to participate in our 3D modeling/printing activity, they would have to have all of their math homework done for the end of the year.
  • They would have to provide some of their own parts/money (in particular, the key component of spinners — ball bearings, such as those used in skateboards and in-line skates — can add up in price. Especially if you have 75+ students like I do.)

Especially fitting was when one of my many “spun” students asked “Can we really design and print our own spinners?” and I replied “Yes… but you’ll probably need to provide your own bearings… not sure I can afford them for everybody, or purchase them in time.”  His response? “That’s okay… they’re cheap. Only $5.”
“For how many?” I asked.
His response: “Does it matter?”

Uh oh. Time for a math review!  (Unit price is a 6th grade CCSS standard!)

Ways to give Spinners an Educational Spin!

Spinner Design in TinkerCAD

Here are some creative ideas I came up with to bring spinners into the classroom and incorporate the excitement, rather than crush it:

  • Perform an experiment to see how long spinners stay spinning on a single flick. (Science and math, including hypothesis, scientific method, dependent and independent variables, mean and median.)
  • Create your own DIY spinners: CAD modeling/3D printing, or even out of other materials (For ours, we will be creating CAD designs with TinkerCAD, and then 3D printing the models — you can learn more about 3D printers on my Maker Tools For Schools website)
  • Spinner science:
    • What makes the spinner spin?
    • Does it matter if all of the sides or “spokes” are balanced?
    • Why are they weighted?
    • What happens if you move the weights further out from the center?
    • Does the type of bearing in the middle matter?
    • What about the bearings on the outer edges?
  • Spinner math:
    • How much will materials cost to make one?
    • How can we find the best deal on parts? (Example: I will be having students compare unit price of different offerings for bearings on
    • Performance Task: Determine the “best” components to purchase to create a fidget spinner (hint: this is not a single, simple answer! It involves unit price, as well as evaluating and weighing user reviews, as well as recognition that the purpose of center bearings and outside bearings are not the same…)

Happy spinning!


Class Bank – Google Sheets Add-On to Bank, Spend, or Raffle with ClassDojo!

ClassDojo Class Bank


I have been a big fan of behavior-management app ClassDojo for several years now… basically, ever since its inception. I started by using it in my computer classes with students in grades K-6, and it allowed me to easily send behavior reports to their homeroom teachers.

Often, those teachers would have a system of rewards based on performance. I, too, have used ClassDojo for this purpose in my class (and this year I plan to use it as a currency system integrated with my PokéMath classroom game!) Unfortunately, the app lacks built-in tools to help facilitate any sort of rewards or currency system in the classroom. Some teachers like to use the points as currency that can be spent, in a classroom store or auction. Some teachers like to use points as “raffle tickets” to win prizes.  Doing any of the above has been a fairly difficult process to manage… until now!

I programmed Class Bank & Raffle to help streamline and facilitate the process of doing any or all of the above in your classroom!  It still takes a few steps, but is much simpler than manually managing the processes… so let’s get started!

class bank setup / import

  1. To set up Class Bank, create any blank Google Spreadsheet that you would like to use. You can name this file anything you want, and store it in any folder.
  2. Next, install the Class Bank & Raffle add-on. This can be done under Add-Ons–>Get add-ons…
  3. Upon install, your Add-Ons menu will now have a Class Bank sub-menu. This is where you will go to: Update or Reset your students’ points in the bank; Spend student points; or do a Raffle drawing.
  4. To get set up — and every time you want to update the balances in the bank to reflect current totals in ClassDojo — you will need to download a ClassDojo Report csv file and make sure it goes into Google Drive (as a Google Sheet).  Here’s how to do this:

a) Log into ClassDojo and open your class. Click on the “View Reports” button:
ClassDojo ViewReports

b) Click on “View Spreadsheet” to download the CSV file:
ClassDojo View Spreadsheet

c) Upload the CSV file into a location of your choice in Google Drive. You may want to make a special folder for these. You may also want to either delete them after each use, or rename them to make it easier to find the correct one you are looking for. Note: The file doesn’t automatically get uploaded as a Google Sheet unless you first go into the Settings (gear icon) of Google Drive and make sure the “Convert Uploads” checkbox is checked.

Once you have a ClassDojo file ready to use as a Sheet in Google Drive, Class Bank will work! First, you just need to Import Points  (from the Add-Ons–>Class Bank menu.)  The first time you do this, be sure to select the “Reset” option, which imports all points and resets all “Spent Points” back to zero! Note: The Import Points feature defaults to “Add to existing points” because, if you prefer Total Points, it is easy to re-do the import with the correct setting… but if you chose Total and you really wanted to Add to existing points, you can not later recover your old point balance! (You could always use the Google Sheet’s File/Changes history to recover an older version, though)


spend points

Class Bank will automatically keep track of how many points your students have spent and keep a running balance for easy reference.  If a student tries to spend points, you don’t need to worry about manually checking whether they have enough to spend in their balance — Class Bank will check to see if they have enough points and, if there are insufficient funds in the Balance, it will not deduct the points and it will let you know which students had insufficient funds!

To spend points, simply enter a specified point value in the box, and check the boxes of all students who will be spending that many points.. This amount of points will be deducted from all selected students (as long as they have enough!)



The raffle drawing can be run at any time and does not alter the points in any way — it simply chooses “winners” based on how many points they have! Each point a student has is one entry/ticket in the raffle.

First, you must specify whether you want to use Total Points or the points in the Balance (this works well if you want to use both currency and raffles in your classroom.)   You can also set how many drawings to do in a row, and whether to limit to one prize per student — using this feature means students with more points will still have a better chance of winning a “top prize” or first pick, but will not be selected more than once.


privacy / coppa / FERPA compliance

Class Bank is a Google Sheets add-on that does not collect nor share any of the information contained within your files with any third parties. The only people who can see or access your spreadsheets (including data downloaded from ClassDojo) are those who have permissions set for the file/folder in your Google Drive.  Be sure to follow your school’s policies/guidelines regarding ClassDojo and Google Drive & Google Apps for Education, and the best practice is to keep the Class Bank file and ClassDojo reports in a folder that is visible only to yourself.

bug reports & suggestions

If you have any suggestions or need to report any bugs, please contact me at:


PokéMath – Gotta Solve ‘Em All!

Ash and Pikachu celebrate 20 years together...Introducing… PokéMath! “Gotta solve ’em all!”

I decided I wanted to do something thematic in my classroom this year, and was originally considering a Minecraft theme, because I know that there are a lot of Minecraft-fanatics in my incoming class of students… (and it lends itself well to things we study: geology, various math concepts including area and volume, etc)

HOWEVER, with this sudden Pokémon Go tidal wave, I changed my mind. I just know that many students are going to show up to school Pokémon-obsessed, so why not ride the wave of enthusiasm instead of fighting it?? [To be honest, I had thought of doing PokéMath for several years now, but there had never been such a fervent Pokémon interest in recent years, until now]

How does PokéMath work?

In essence, PokéMath is just a thematic rebranding of a sticker/badge rewards system. In this case, students are awarded badges (pokémon) for each specific skill they master in Khan Academy! The pokémon are based on the wildly popular new Pokémon Go game (151 slated pokémon at this date, though not all are readily available), and the goal — of course — is to “catch ’em all!”

Students “catch” a pokémon by reaching mastery level of a specific skill in Khan Academy, as listed in the table below. At the end of each week (ie. usually on Friday), I will collect the student math folders (a plastic pocket folder with metal tabs for holding notebook paper.) After school (Friday evening or over the weekend), I will check the Student Progress and/or Skills Progress section of the Khan Academy coach dashboard to see which skills have been mastered. For any skills that have been mastered, I will locate the corresponding monster sticker on that student’s sheet, and will affix it to their folder!

In this way, students can maintain a “pokédex” of their collection as trophies to be proud of, to show off to their friends, and to remind them (every time they take it out for homework) that they probably still have many more to catch!

Materials & resources


As the teacher, I have set up my PokéMath table of creatures based on the following procedure:

  1. Set up a class in Khan Academy for your grade level (mine is 6th grade, so I assigned “6th Grade Mission”)
  2. In the Khan Academy Coach Report, go to “Skill Progress” to see the required strands/skills. Copy & paste the name of each individual skill within the strands. For each skill, right-click (CTRL-click on Mac) on the “Open skill in a new tab” link and and choose to copy the address (URL).I then pasted one skill per pokémon, based on the following algorithm:
    1. I put related concepts together in a pokémon “family”
    2. The more evolved the pokémon, the more challenging/advanced the concept I assigned (the last level is often “word problems”)
    3. I generally structured it in chronological order synced to our actual math curriculum (Pearson Digits — it is a different order/sequence than Khan Academy, but I use Khan in addition to it)… the more “rare” the pokémon, the later in the year we will learn the concept.


Students will obtain pokémon by mastering the requisite skill. The dashboard for Coaches in Khan Academy shows the level of mastery for each subject. There are various levels:

  • Struggling
  • Needs Practice
  • Practiced
  • Level One
  • Level Two
  • Mastered

When students go directly to the chosen skill and “pass” the practice activities for the first time, it counts as “Practiced”… in order to master the skills, they must then be passed in the Khan Academy mastery challenges.

Evolution & Spending Points

Pokémon are arranged into “families” — ie. there is a “base” pokémon, as well as later “evolutions” or iterations based upon that original base. To obtain the evolutions, students must start by obtaining the base by mastering the required task. However, after obtaining the base pokémon, there are two routes to evolution:

  1. Master the required skill listed for that evolution
  2. or Spend a certain amount of points (listed in table) to achieve the evolution

In this way, students have an alternate route to obtain evolved pokémon if some of the more advanced math tasks prove too challenging.

Where do these points come from?

That is up to you. In my class, they will be ClassDojo points.  Every day, when students come to class, they will have multiple opportunities to earn points simply by paying attention, putting in effort, being well-behaved, and exhibiting Growth Mindset. If they do these things, they earn ClassDojo points, which can be spent (in lieu of mastering the math skill) to evolve a pokémon!

Notes on Evolution:

  • Evolutions cannot be skipped. To get to the third level (2nd evolution), you must evolve twice. (ie. master two skills or spend the points for the first evolution, plus the points for the second evolution. Or a combination of the above.)
  • When students obtain an evolution, they still get to keep the lower-level pokémon of the same family. They simply add the new one in addition to the others.


Not a lot is required to do this!

  1. Set up a table — like the one below — and assign within it the skills you want mastered for each pokémon.
  2. Determine how/when you will check mastery. I will be checking every Monday, and it will be student responsibility to let me know they have obtained one (or more) for the week, which they will do by lining up at my desk and waiting for me to confirm in the Khan Academy records. To help facilitate this, the full PokéMath Pokédex (the table below) will be distributed to all students in Google Classroom, with an additional column labeled “Caught?” Students can monitor their progress in Khan Academy and, as soon as they reach mastery for a skill, should place an “X” in the caught column.
  3. Hand the student a sticker of the pokémon! I will be custom-printing them (templates in Google Drive folder linked below) on 3/4″ round labels, which will then be stuck onto the student math folder as a badge of progress.

More fun stuff: thematic groupings

I decided I wanted to go all out with the Pokémon theme this year (just for fun — I’m even going to show up to school dressed as Ash Ketchum!), so I thought about ways I could incorporate that into the classroom (other than thematic decorations and features, such as Pokémon wall decals and miniature Pokémon figurines.)

I use friendly competition a lot in my classes (middle schoolers love it!); in addition to the individual aspects, students are assigned to small groups (ideally 4 students), both for competition purposes but also for group-based activities. In the past, these groups would often have very uninspired names (A, B, C, D, etc), but sometimes I would make it a little more interesting by bringing an education theme into it. For example, when we did our Ancient Greek unit, each team became a city-state, and we had “Olympic games” competitions during PE (sometimes actual games, like teaching them how to throw a discus; sometimes more silly stuff, like “chariot races” aka wheel-barrow race.)

This year, the small groups could be organized as Gyms! To keep it simple and easy to remember, I will just use the old-school Kanto gyms from the original Pokémon games: Pewter City, Cerulean City, Vermilion City, Celadon City, Fuchsia City, Saffron City, Cinnabar Island, and Viridian City (easy to do, they are basically just colors. You can click here to find the colors.)

Sometimes I need to separate the class into larger groups… for example, when we do Jeopardy-style quiz-show review games. In the past, I would simply split the class in half down the middle… but perhaps this year I should split them into three Teams: Valor, Mystic, and Instinct?  (the numbers this year mean I will have 6 Gyms per class, so it would amount to 2 gyms for each Team)

In the past, I would just tally points on the whiteboard (this year I was even considering buying some printable magnetic sheets to slap up on the magnetic whiteboard, showing the team colors or insignia), but with 3 different classes coming to me for math this year, that could be a challenge.

Instead, I will probably just log all group points in ClassDojo (they have had a Groups feature for about a year now)… only one set of groups can be created, but they can be named such that the larger Team is indicated, such as “Pewter (Valor)”

Note: This still poses challenges for one-on-one competitions. Those will either have to be round-robin turn-taking events, where one team spectates while the other two compete… or the Teams will have to be “broken” into two equal number of groups.

Morning Warmups / Entry Routines / Bellringers – 1:1 Style!


Many teachers have an “entry procedure” or “warm-up” or “bell-ringer” routine for students to do as soon as they enter the classroom. This is a great idea for several reasons:

  • Students can immediately get to work as soon as they enter the room (no “down-time” which leads to chatter and off-task behavior; it can be hard to then “rope them in” when it’s time to start the lesson)
  • It is a regular routine, so easy to get into the habit
  • It is independent and does not require the teacher’s guidance — this means the teacher can focus on other important start-up routines, such as a getting a lesson or materials ready, or taking attendance

Traditionally, this has been done either on worksheets/packets, or in a student’s notebook (based on problems/prompts up front on whiteboard or projector.) There are a few drawbacks to this:

  • What if students finish early? Then they get bored and/or off-task (plus, if they are advanced… why not push them as far as they can go and allow them to have extra challenges?)
  • To be meaningful, there has to a way to check the work and see how they did — this eats up precious class time because,  usually, you have to have a little review or peer-grading session to go over the answers.

With 1:1 computer technology tools, you can go so much further! Using tech tools gives the following advantages:

  1. No need for materials (don’t need to Xerox anything, hand out or collect anything, or sharpen pencils, etc)
  2. Students can get individualized practice — sometimes they can get remediation and assistance if they need it, other times they may be advanced students that can rise to new challenges by moving forward at their own pace.
  3. You usually get instantaneous data/feedback about how the kids are doing, what they may still need practice with, and what you might need to reteach or provide personal assistance for.


If you are a single-subject teacher, it can be pretty easy to decide upon a daily warm-up routine. For math, it could be math facts or drills. For English, perhaps  they sit down and write in a journal or do some typing practice. In Social Studies, perhaps they do a “current events” news-reading activity. In Science, perhaps they do note review or flash-card style scientific vocab practice. But what if you are a self-contained multiple subject or elementary teacher?

Well, I fall into the latter camp (even though I teach “middle school” grade level – 6th grade), and it’s really hard to decide what to have the kids practice because, realistically, they need to practice and improve in nearly every subject!

Well, you have a few options: (1) do multiple warm-ups every day! Keep the same sequence, such as math practice, then reading activity, then daily writing log [this is what I was doing for a while, because my students really seem to always need more practice with all of the basics!]; or (2) you can have a theme/topic for each day of the week, so that you can spend a little more time focusing deeper on one specific skill.  This is the new format I am going to try!

Math Mondays: Students come in and immediately begin self-paced math practice! Currently, I have them do two tasks: basic mental-math building using, followed by relevant topics we have been studying (or, sometimes, topics we simply need more practice with), which I assign  via links to Khan Academy skills practice via a Weekly Math page. Possibilities here include:

  • – speed-building and mental math of “math facts” – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division.
  • Khan Academy – A variety of topics at various grade levels, but best known for math tutorials (I assign the skill practice, not the video lessons, although they are available for students who want to move ahead, or need reminders/remediation)
  • – Online math and English skill-builders and quizzes
  • Dreambox – Very visual, interactive, and conceptual math-based program (subscription fee)
  • KnowRe – Another “gamified” math tutorial program, focused on Pre-Algebra and Algebra levels (subscription fee)
  • SumDog – The kids love this game because it is multiplayer online, so they can play against their friends… and there are lots of games/activities choose from. However, because it can get a little exciting/distracting, and because they like it so much, I don’t use it as a warmup activity — I save it as a whole-class reward for working hard and getting our other work done in a timely manner.
  • Prodigy – This is similar in the sense that it is also very engaging and high-interest. It is a multiplayer RPG (role-playing game) with fun anime-style graphics. Students like being able to choose character name and avatar, collect treasures, and “level up.” However, similar to SumDog, I reserve this as a may-do activity that students can opt to play when they are finished with the rest of our required work.

Typing Tuesdays / Tuesday Newsday: Typing documents using the computer is now a CCSS standard for students in 3rd grade and up! Keyboarding is no longer an optional skill in our society… and touch-type keyboarding can improve the speed and efficiency of working in other topics/tasks!  Lots of tools exist for this, but the ones I use are:

  • TypingMaster (now called TypingQuest) – Cloud-based touch-typing tutorial program including lessons, games, and administrative assessment/data-logging tools.
  • RapidTyping – Online typing games for fun practice (after students have passed the full tutorial course; note: some games have some violence and might not be suitable for all ages)

Tuesday Newsday: My students also need a lot of reading practice, and we use to have students read leveled/differentiated news article that come with short written response prompts (such as “main idea”) and Common Core comprehension quizzes that focus on vocabulary, finding supporting evidence, summarizing main ideas, etc.

Writing Wednesdays: Students, at least from what I have seen, can always use more practice with writing! By writing I don’t mean handwriting, but simply mean “creating text compositions for various purposes” (such as informative, narrative, persuasive, and creative.)

Writing can be a cumbersome activity to manage, but some cool online tools I have used this year are:

  • – Free practice of English grammar / mechanics, including skill builders as well as proofreading exercises.
  • – Students have their own blogs which they use as journals for writing responses to daily or weekly writing prompts. There are other blogging tools out there, but Blogger is owned by Google so it is very easy to use if your students have Google accounts!


Throwback Thursdays: The idea here is to do a “throwback” to last year (you could also move this to Friday and call it “Flashback Fridays”; if you do this, you could switch to Tuesday Newsday and perhaps Typing Thursdays.)

In other words, students will get a reminder of the things they learned (and should have mastered) in the previous grade level, and should still remember! These skills could be math, ELA, or anything really…

Currently, we are using (subscription fee) site to do this, since the student accounts still exist and it is easy to access skills by grade level… but any site that allows to find standards by grade level (such as would work.

Film Fridays: Film Fridays arose from two challenges: (a) We want to sometimes show movies or videos related to what we have been learning (social studies units, novels we have read, etc.), but it can be difficult to justify spending the time doing so and finding the time to fit it in; (b) We wanted an end-of-week enjoyable activity that would reward those students who have been working hard all week and completing all of their work.  So we have reserved showing movies for Fridays, and students who have been on-task and have all of their work done for the week get together as a whole grade level to watch.  Meanwhile, our teaching team takes turns hosting a “Study Hall” in a different classroom, where students who have not completed their work for the week can go to get it done while the others watch the film.  Where do we get our movies from?

  • Netflix – You probably know what Netflix is, but anyway the on-demand selection of streaming is pretty good for younger/animated movies such as Disney films. However, be aware that many movies would still need to be obtained on DVD
  • Discovery Education – This contains basically Discovery’s entire library of educational videos and documentaries. We use this mostly for science and social studies concepts.
  • YouTube – When all else fails, there’s YouTube. (Or, maybe that’s the first place to look — but the above two usually have better materials for school.) What, you’ve never heard of YouTube??

You can check out my class website for examples of scheduling and activities (writing prompts, weekly math practice lists, etc.)

Digital Whiteboard using Google Sheets

“Old School”

When people think of a school classroom, they often think of this:

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  Nothing, in itself — a student has come up to the front of the room to show what she knows, and the teacher can analyze it and use it as an example for the rest of the class. It’s a great activity for the above purpose, and this student is probably getting a lot out of it.

But… what about the other 20-30 students in the class who are patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for her to finish? What are their brains doing during this time? Are they really examining closely, thinking, and processing like the girl at the chalkboard is? Does the teacher have any way to know what they are thinking? Does the teacher have any way to know if this one student’s abilities reflect the same level of understanding as the other students in the class?

All of the questions above highlight that we can improve the ways we do “show what you know” formative checks and practice! And we can do so by “getting with the times” and using some modern technology!  Chalkboard and whiteboards were great for the times  they were invented… which were centuries (chalkboards) or decades (whiteboards) ago!

Going New School

While reading my students’ blogs recently, I noticed that the kids were still having a lot of difficulties with certain grammatical and writing skills I wanted them to master (despite having done grammar lessons, plus practice at sites like Particularly, students were not using commas appropriately in sentences (for lists, yes; but not for direct-address, prepositions, appositives and compound sentences.)   I decided I needed to do some quick practice, reteaching, and checks to see who “got it” and who still needed help, or whether I needed to reteach a subject to the whole class.

I wanted something like calling students up to the front of class to show their work, but I wanted it to be faster and easier and to engage all students, not just one or two at a time. My first instinct was to create a shared Google Doc, but I realized it would be very difficult to have 20 students simultaneously type on that — they would probably be overwriting each other’s work, moving things around inadvertently, and/or copying work from what they see another student writing.

So, I figured I would use a Google Sheet (spreadsheet), since it is already organized into rows and columns, making it easy to assign a row or cell to each student as their own workspace.  It worked great! As a bonus, the student work is hidden while they are writing — all students can work simultaneously without being influenced by each other’s answers! (I didn’t originally realize it would do this, but this makes it work even better than I had expected!)

I now use this very simple, but very powerful, activity on a regular basis. I have found it especially useful for things like:

  • brainstorming
  • KWL charts
  • sentence and grammatical structure practice

Give it a try!

Easy as 1-2-3:

  1. Create a blank Google Sheets file in Google Sheets (name the file based on its purpose or skills you will be practicing)
  2. Add your student names/roster in the first column (A) so they know which row belongs to them. You can practice multiple skills in the same file by making new sheets/pages/tabs using the dropdown tab at the bottom (name each tab based on what skill or activity you want them to do on that page)
  3. In Google Classroom, create “Add Assignment” and locate your Sheet from the Drive. Then, before Assigning, make sure to change the student permission to “Students can edit file” (this is what allows everybody to work together simultaneously on the same screen!)


Make Writing “Social” With Student Blogs!

The challenge is this: you want your students to practice writing more often, but they aren’t very excited about it… and you aren’t, either, because it feels like it takes forever to grade them and give feedback. Without good feedback, how are they going to improve? But giving sufficient feedback takes a lot of time — even more when there are a lot of mistakes to correct and give feedback about. But how do we fix  that? With more writing! (ugh)

Here’s the solution: Daily writing! Doing short writes in a journal (or blog) every day makes it a more fun, casual experience, and it actually saves time because you can (a) randomly select a few students to use for analysis/examples in front of the class, and/or (b) pick and choose which topics/skills you want to grade.

Doing this the “old school” way in a journal was good; doing it the 21st century way via an online blog is even better!  What advantages does blogging provide?

  1. Builds 21st century communication, collaboration, and technology skills.
  2. Makes it easier to view student’s work… instead of collecting journals, you can just click and link and voila!
  3. Allows students to read each other’s work…
  4. Encourages best effort and pride in work because it is more of a “social network” style format!  By having an audience — and a global one, at that! — students find it both more motivational and more enjoyable.

So, how can you do this? Well, if you’re using Google Apps for Education, it’s easy! is one of the most popular free blogging tools on the Internet (the other most popular tool being WordPress) and, conveniently, it is owned by Google!  This means that anybody with a Google account (such as teachers and students at GAFE schools) can easily sign in and create blogs!*

You simply guide students through the process of signing in, creating a blog (they will need to specify a blog Name/Title and URL address; I instruct them to use a specific format for each of those), and then click to add a new entry! The editing tools are pretty basic, similar to Google Docs and other text editing tools. The main difference is: you need to make sure to Save your posts and, when it is ready to show online, you have to click PUBLISH to make it visible to other people!

So, what to write about?  Could be anything! I started by using Daily Prompts online, such as at:

However, as time went on and we did bigger writing projects, I found that I wanted students to practice and master specific skills — in our case, they needed a lot of improvement with descriptive writing, narrative fiction, persuasive arguments, and dialogue format — so I created some of my own fun prompts to address those needs!  Click here for the living and growing Google Doc of my 6th grade prompts.

Click here to read our current student blogs!

*It’s always a good idea to check “Terms of Use” or “Terms of Service” to see, for example, if there are minimum age requirement. Currently the Blogger Terms of Service only specify “You may need a Google Account in order to use some of our Services. You may create your own Google Account, or your Google Account may be assigned to you by an administrator, such as your employer or educational institution. If you are using a Google Account assigned to you by an administrator, different or additional terms may apply and your administrator may be able to access or disable your account.”

Having said that, here are some Best Practices to follow:

  1. Tell students what you want the web address (URL) and title of their blogs to be. This will (a) prevent inappropriate words or names, and (b) allow you to easily find their blogs if you need to.
  2. Be sure that students aren’t using too much personally-identifying information. I have students use first names, but no last names, for example.
  3. Create a Google Sites page or Google Doc or Sheet in which you can create links to each student’s blog to easily access them, share with the class, with parents/administrators, or with the world (up to you how public you want to make it!)

Don’t Just Play on Your Phone, Program It!

The title of this post is a quote from President Barack Obama, as he kicked off Computer Science Education Week in 2013 by urging kids (and students of all ages) to learn problem-solving STEM skills — specifically, learning how to code.

I have a long love affair with coding (I prefer “software engineering” — coding is like writing a sentence, but engineering, well… engineering is like writing a book; engineering is true problem-solving) — it began in 1986 when I was 8 years old, teaching myself how to create video games using MS-BASIC on an IBM 286 PC running DOS.  Like many kids, I liked loved video games — first the Atari 2600, then the Nintendo NES — and a realization grew in me that I could make computers do what I wanted them to do, and that was an awesome idea, even to 8-year-old me.

I have recently been giving some conference presentations about how to jump in and get kids programming, but it wasn’t until now that I have found an excellent way to actually use coding and app development as an authentic product to assess learning of science concepts, directly integrated in with our science standards.

It began when I exposed my students to MIT App Inventor, a free online resource that allows you to create actual Android apps using a simple blockly-style interface, familiar to anyone who has used Tynker, Scratch, or

When students saw that they could manipulate my Android phone’s speech recognition and voice synthesis tools to create a talking (and listening) app, they were amazed and excited! (Easier said than done with jaded and technology-inundated 6th graders…)


So when I saw that my colleagues had put together a science project including creation of a mobile (you know, the dangly arts & crafts kind you probably haven’t made since 3rd or 4th grade, in which things are suspended from a clothes hanger), something clicked in my head.  Why show your knowledge through a mobile when you could demonstrate the same knowledge — in a much more engaging way — via a mobile app. My thinking is this: if the kids are just as excited about an authentic production tool as they would be about an arts & crafts project, and the end result demonstrates the same — or superior — understanding of the content knowledge… then why not do the project that incorporates relevant 21st century skills which could potentially prepare them for future college and careers?



So, we have begun creation of “Animal Expedition” — a simulation game for Android devices, in which you must rescue an animal by relocating it to a suitable environment.  This project covers science standards related to ecosystems, abiotic and biotic factors, energy pyramids and food webs, symbiotic relationships, and more… all while learning real-world-relevant skills of mobile app development. Stay tuned for finished product…!

Click here for app planning template

Bringing #3DPrinting into the Classroom

Last year I decided to try a cool PBL (project-based learning) activity with my students, which combined multiple subjects: social studies and language arts integrated into STEM skills and products.

The “Parthenon Project” was designed to be somewhat challenging and to get my 6th graders to use and apply their knowledge in new ways, ways that simulated real-life problem-solving scenarios. One of the end products students needed to create was a scale model of the Parthenon, using free SketchUp CAD design software.

Earlier in the year, there had been a lot of resistance to going paperless — despite being “digital natives”, my students had been indoctrinated into our antiquated, pencil-and-paper classrooms.  They had just spent 6 years learning that “learning” = “books and paper” whereas their association with technology was that it is a device for entertainment and socializing… YouTube, video games, FaceBook and Instagram and Vine.  I just named pretty much every purpose my students used their devices for.  Nobody had taught them that computers and the internet were invented to be tools, and since they weren’t ever using them that way in school (other than one hour every other week when they came to me for “computer lab”), they had no way to know any better.

To make an already-long story short, the kids had a difficult time accepting that modern technology could be used to do many of the things they were used to doing with other media:

  • eBooks
  • art
  • most surprisingly, models

They had done the obligatory models of things like California Missions, using clay and popsicle sticks, etc.  Nobody had ever taught them that you can get more precision, without spending a dime, simply by modeling in the computer.

“Yeah, but what if you want to touch or hold it?”

That’s when I showed them 3D modeling and, knowing that we had a MakerBot replicator at the local high school that I could get access to, I made the promise that I would take the most perfect model made by one of the teams and would print it out to put on display in the class.

I had feared my students might not be able to handle the challenging assignment, but to the contrary it showed just how much they could achieve when they were motivated and excited about what they were doing.  CAD design and the promise of being able to bring a vision into a physical reality at the push of a button helped do that.

So this year I decided I would have students make models of even more iconic buildings and architecture from our Ancient Civilizations social studies curriculum – The Great Pyramid, the Ziggurat of Ur, maybe more.  To do that, I would need my own 3D printer so that I wouldn’t have to rely on if and when the high school teacher was available to help me use his.  An even bigger motivator, if I did this, would be to actually print models for my students to have and to keep — if they were successful in their CAD designs.

Thus began the process of investigating the newest, most affordable 3D printers that I could bring into my classroom to encourage students to create, to produce, to invent, to solve problems… to use modern technology for something more than mindless entertainment, and to get them curious and excited about where progress and innovation can take us.

Coding for Everyone!

There is currently a nationwide (if not global) push for improved STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills in our students and our schools.

One piece of this has been a recognition that computer technology is no longer a “niche” subject or an optional part of education and work; computer technology is ubiquitous. As such, computer literacy is essential to thriving and surviving in our modern society. Now, finally, there is a call to go beyond computer usage to computer programming and actual software engineering skills in students.

It can be difficult to know where to start with coding in the classroom — or where to go next — so this presentation is meant to be a resource and a roadmap to get you jumping right in:

Educational Websites That Use Flash

Four years ago, with the ongoing advent of HTML5 and the non-Flash support of iPads, many people declared that “Flash is dead.”  However, anybody who has been paying attention will realize by now that such a statement is easier said than done: Flash, Java, and similar technologies were used for more than 20 years of rich internet application development — especially in the world of educational websites.  While that has started to change, many (if not most) of those educational resources still have not changed to cross-platform supported technologies such as HTML5.  So, in short, it is still important for a paperless device to be able to access all sorts of educational websites — including those that use Flash (and preferably even supporting other plug-ins like Unity, Java, Shockwave, and more.)  Chromebooks can access most educational websites, including Flash. Windows and Mac can access even more, including Java, Shockwave, Silverlight, Unity etc.  But iPads and Androids are much more limited; neither can access Java, Shockwave, or other plug-ins, and Android devices can only access Flash by going through some special setup routines.

Currently, Flash is used on about 15% of websites — so this is lower than the 25% that required Flash four years ago.  However, the percentage of educational websites that require Flash is much higher. Here’s a list of some examples…

Textbook-Publisher Curriculum Resources

Other Educational Resources That Use Flash
(just a few examples — there are many, many more!)

And these are just the tip of the iceberg…

As you can see, even in 2014 students are missing out on many resources and opportunities if they are unable to access educational resources (including Flash) online — and all of the above can be used for free, without installing any apps.

Some people believe you can get around this problem by simply using a “Flash app” for iPad (or Android) — these are actually cloud browsers, and are not great to use for a variety of reasons. For one, they are more laggy and not as smooth of an experience as simply using Flash would be. The bigger problem is that these cloud browsers — including iSwifter, Rover, Puffin, Photon, CloudBrowse, and others — are actually streaming video to your device, which requires a ton of bandwidth so they can cause serious problems if used on multiple devices sharing an internet connection, which is the case at schools: