Happy Earth Day – Time to go Paperless!

Happy Earth Day from the paperless classroom!

I recently started presenting some presentations about going #paperless at conferences, so figured I would share the information here:

Did you know…

  • American schools use nearly 100,000,000,000 pieces of paper per year!
  • If you stacked up all of the paper used by U.S. schools in one year, it would extend into outer space, 6000 miles past the International Space Station
  • Going 1-to-1 with technology devices actually saves money (!) versus using old-school, traditional materials.

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 Xtramath.org, 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:

  • Xtramath.org – 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)
  • iXL.com – 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 Newsela.com 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:

  • Quill.org – Free practice of English grammar / mechanics, including skill builders as well as proofreading exercises.
  • Blogger.com – 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 EducationCity.com (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 IXL.com) 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 Quill.org) 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!  Blogger.com 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: Daily-Writing-Prompt.com

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!)

Updates coming soon: PBL, CAD, 3D Printing, and a virtual Whiteboard

Just a quick note to say that, even though things have been super busy this year, this blog is not dead!

I will be adding a few new posts soon, including:

  1. How to use Google Sheets to replace your Whiteboard (or blackboard/chalkboard… or document camera), and achieve better learning in the process
  2. “The Parthenon Project”, an example of 21st century interdisciplinary PBL that incorporates math, language arts, and social studies skills with Google Docs, CAD modeling (and, possibly, 3D printing)
  3. Why Student Blogs are a great way to improve writing (and how to handle the logistics)
  4. Updated info and tips regarding 3D Printers in the classroom…

Stay tuned!

Making Math Magical

Although I am very logical, technical, and serious about teaching, many people (especially my students) are surprised to discover that I also have a whimsical, theatrical side… and a sense of humor.

I think bringing these things into the classroom  can be extremely powerful.  Who doesn’t like fun? Who doesn’t like to laugh? Plus, cognitive science tells us that things are more memorable when:

  • they are new/novel experiences
  • they inspire some sort of emotional response (surprise, shock, laughter, joy… even fear or disgust)

Fraction math is one area that has always seemed a bit esoteric and ambiguous to the kids –not to mention understanding why fraction multiplication and division are so useful and important.  One of those realms is in scaling recipes (chefs and caterers constantly multiply fractions)… but why make some regular old food recipe* when you can bring some magic into it?Wilybeard

Introducing… Potions 101!  A simple but fun math activity/practice/assessment hosted by our “substitute teacher” for the morning: Dr. William Wilybeard, Professor Emeritus, Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

* I do, in fact, have another character who reinforces fraction math via creation of actual food… like gingerbread minions!  His name is Dr. Friedrich  von Kookie, but that’s for different post..

The paperless classroom test results are in… and they are good!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on Paperless Mojo, for a variety of reasons — some of them being that I am developing lots of things (interface jacket, game, and possibly even a camera to capture the real world as a VR environment) for virtual reality, as well as developing an inexpensive computer/curriculum to teach kids coding via Minecraft (stay tuned!)

However, I’m also still here teaching a paperless classroom, for the third year in a row, and things are going great. The #PaperlessMojo is strong again this year!

How strong? Well, why don’t we just take a look at some objective, standardized data to measure how well our paperless 6th grade class did last year (results obtained from official CAASPP website):

ELA Results

Math Results

Notice anything remarkable? We ditched cursive and read from e-textbooks online, and the results? Only 6% of 6th graders scored “Standard not met” in English Language Arts testing.  Likewise, our math curriculum (Pearson Digits) was entirely online, from e-book to e-homework.  End result: 26% of students exceeded standard.

Compare our paperless 6th grade results to the other, non-paperless grades at our school.

Heck, compare our results to the entire state of California:

CA ELA ResultsCA Math


Now consider this:

The population of our school district, in which the paperless 6th grade outperformed average, is:

  • 86% disadvantaged (low-SES/free-or-reduced-lunch)
  • 83% Hispanic
  •  77% English learners (EL)

The implication seems clear: going paperless/digital certainly isn’t detrimental to the education of our students!

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 Code.org.

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

#InventionHour for #STEM and #STEAM – Better than Genius Hour!

As mentioned in the previous post, this year we have begun a new endeavor in which students learn the process of invention through authentic application. I am calling this exercise #InventionHour, and I wanted to explain a little more about what it is and why I started it…

It is more imperative than ever that we begin integrating true, authentic opportunities for problem-solving and product-producing in our classrooms. The fact of the matter is that just about every job in existence requires employees to solve problems — whether it’s finding cures for diseases, inventing new forms of green energy, or even just cleaning toilets. These are all problems that need to be solved.

This is especially true of modern careers in our information society. Some of the highest-paying careers with the most demand are those that require the most rigorous problem-solving capabilities. In particular, colleges and employers are finding that students and job applicants are severely lacking in requisite #STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills.   More recently, people have started recognizing a need to include Art into that mix, as well (#STEAM), which makes a lot of sense, because you need those aspects of imagination, creativity, and visualization for many of these tasks — graphic designers for software and apps; industrial designers for cars, computers, and other inventions.

To that end, our class has begun the inaugural participation in something I call #InventionHour. The idea is similar to “Genius Hour.” During Genius Hour,  students pursue an academic investigation of their choice, increasing motivation to learn. For one hour per week, students take ownership of their learning through individual research projects and reports, or producing  a variety of products based on student interest.

However, while the idea of Genius Hour is a great one, I have personally found Genius Hour to be a bit lacking and difficult to execute in practce.  Last year, while some of the class attended Band practice for one hour each week, the remainder of the students did “Genius Hour” during that time period. Right away, students were lost and confused — they had never been presented with a situation like this before. What was the goal? What was the product they were expected to create? How were they going to get the information they needed?

These questions, in and of themselves, are not a problem — they are exactly the kinds of questions we want students to learn to ask, because it represents the kind of open-ended problems they will face in the real world: Where are we going, and how do we get there?  That is the value of PBL (project-based learning), engineering, coding, invention and, yes, Genius Hour.

However, even with the role of teacher as a “Guide on the side” instead of a “Sage on the stage,” the very open-ended nature of Genius Hour poses problems:

  1. Students don’t know what they don’t know. Thus they have a tendency to stick to what they know, which defeats the whole purpose of Genius Hour (in which we want them to learn something new)
  2. Research and presentation is an easy choice, but product creation is a more relevant and engaging one. The problem with product creation, however, is that: (a) students will choose to create products they already know how to create or are already good at (see point 1 above); or (b) students will simply try to find something other people have done and to follow a simple recipe or tutorial (via YouTube or website) … while this is fun and does allow them to do something new, merely following a recipe to replicate what somebody else has done doesn’t really enforce the types of 21st Century skills we want the kids to be learning: inquiry… planning… failure (yes, failure!), and what to do when failure arrives: troubleshooting, revision.

Thus I found Genius Hour both difficult to teach/conduct, and lackluster in its final results.

This is how #InventionHour was born. Rather than simply do some research, or replicate products others have already made, why don’t we actually try to obtain and apply knowledge to actually solve problems and make the world a better place? Because, in the end, that’s what education is for: to get the tools you need (whether it’s reading, writing, math, or electrical engineering or quantum physics) to solve problems and make the world a better place.

A few years ago, when I was teaching GATE (gifted) students, we participated in a Smithsonian/ePals Invention Challenge and ended up being a Featured Classroom as well as being First Place Winners in the 5th grade age division of this international contest.  I figured… why not bring that process and that challenge to all students? You don’t need to be gifted to come up with good ideas for solutions to problems (you really just need to think “outside the box” a little bit), and you don’t need to be gifted to learn a step-by-step process to make that idea reality.

I am currently developing and sharing #InventionHour resources at www.InventionHour.org, so be sure to check that out and give it a try… you’d be amazed what kids (or even you) can do!

Introducing the Tri-Stand Tablet Stand!

This year our class has participated in the inaugural year of an exciting endeavor: #InventionHour!  Invention Hour is a new activity I have created, similar to Genius Hour, but with a more specific goal: to learn the process of invention and actually invent an authentic solution to a real problem. [Click here to read more about #InventionHour !]

Despite being very similar to Scientific Method and the Engineering Cycle, the “Invention Process” was a very new concept for most students, so as a first step we decided to undergo the invention process together to learn the process before working on our own individual or group inventions. The real problem we identified in our classroom was this: since the Lenovo Bluetooth keyboards caused problems, we switched this year to using USB wired keyboards. However, that meant we also needed tablet stands.  I had ordered adjustable metal stands off of Amazon for $8-9 each, but soon discovered that there was a design flaw in them which caused them to eventually break or fall apart even with regular, responsible use.  So we came up with an idea… could we invent a stand that would still allow us to have multiple angles, while being durable and inexpensive and with no moving parts to add complexity and chance of breaking?

In the end, we completed the entire Invention Process (including publicizing our invention) by inventing the “Tri-Stand” — a durable one-piece solution that allows multiple angles and can be printed on a 3D printer for less than $2!