do-it-yourselfA problem I’ve been kicking around for a while is how to give my students clearer feedback on their learning progress. In a standards-based system this can be a challenge, because feedback is more detailed than a single percentage grade; a single assignment often covers more than one learning goal and therefore is given multiple grades. This detail can be very useful to the student for guiding their learning, but only if they are able to take it all in and manage the feedback in a positive way.

Unfortunately, most grade books out there haven’t mastered standards-based grading, making it difficult for both teachers to enter grades and students to access and understand them. I know this from first-hand experience: the past two years my middle school has been struggling to use Perason’s PowerTeacher Gradebook for our standards-based grading (and to think they claim it’s the “next level in classroom technology”- ha!). There may be some helpful updates on the way at some point- I haven’t fired up this year’s version up yet- but instead of waiting around for Pearson to solve your problems, how about taking matters into your own hands? Continue Reading »

google-classroomJust when I thought I was ready for the beginning of a paperless new school year, something new comes out and changes everything (this is a familiar refrain with education technology I’m afraid!). This week, Google started releasing the new Google Classroom to all its Google Apps for Education users. If you haven’t heard of Google Classroom yet, check out the preview video here and if your school has a Google Apps for Ed account, check out classroom.google.com to see if you have access yet.

So how does the new Google Classroom affect a paperless classroom and digital notebooks? In the short-term not much, but looking forward I think it’s going to be a game-changer. Here’s a quick synopsis of what Google Classroom can do now (not too exciting), some thoughts about what it could do in the future (potentially pretty awesome), and my current thinking for how use Google Classroom with digital notebooks (feedback appreciated!). Continue Reading »

IMG_2501One of the highlights of my summer was watching my son Graham learn how to ride a bike. He’s only 3 years old- so I was blown away when he took off without training wheels on the 3rd day of riding. I’m pretty sure I didn’t ride a two-wheeler until I was like ten, and that was after many, many knee-skinning spills! How did Graham do it? His secret is using a balance bike and avoiding the pitfalls of “training wheel teaching”, which is a metaphor that I think will serve me well in my own classroom.

Last summer when we were shopping around for a tricycle for Graham, a friend recommended buying a balance bike instead (a bike with only two wheels, but no pedals). They claimed the balance bikes help kids to learn how to balance so well that their own child skipped training wheels and went right to a two-wheeler when they were older. I was intrigued, but a little skeptical: training wheels have been around since the early 1900s helping generation after generation learn how to ride a bike- was there really a better way? The more I looked into it though, the more excitement I found about the benefits of the new balance bike design, and so we bought it (literally and figuratively!). Continue Reading »

digital notebook2In this third and final (at least for now!) tutorial about digital notebooks I explain the steps your students will need to follow to create and maintain their notebooks. You’ll need to have already created a template on Google Sites of the digital notebook, which I explained in the last tutorial. As you’ll see in this video, setting up and maintaining a digital notebook is super easy for students to do, and most of the organization is automatic. Since I teach Middle School students, this is a huge selling point!


digital notebook2Here’s the next instalment in my video tutorial series on digital notebooks. In this video I explain how to create the actual notebook using Google Sites. When you combine this with paperless documents using Google Docs (explained in the first tutorial video), you have a digital notebook that is easy for students to use, simple to keep organized, and ready to take advantage of the ever-growing number of technology tools for learning.

Here’s the link to the digital notebook template: https://sites.google.com/site/digitalnotebooktemplate/

And here are the blank versions of the post-it note pictures so you can create your own pages to match what you need for your class (click on a picture to open the full-size version and then save it for your use):

post-it yellowpost it pink blankpost-it blue blankpost-it green blankpost-it blue blank shortpost it pink blank shortpost-it green blank short

Update (July 6, 2015)

A teacher who is customizing the science notebook template for her own class just asked me a great question that isn’t covered above (thanks Erica!): How do you add new unit pages? If you have more units of study than I have on the template, you can add new ones, but it does take a little bit of extra work. Basically you need to create a new page (along with a new sticker on the cover) for each new unit, along with the sub pages for each new unit (class/lab/homework stuff). Here’s the steps if you’re curious:

First you click the icon to create a new page (which looks like a paper with a plus) and then, when the new page screen comes up, give it a name and select the template “Unit Home page” like this:
Inline image 1
This will create a new page set up just like the other unit pages. You’ll then need to go in and create new sub pages for the Class, Homework, and Lab stuff (if you’re using those). When you make these pages, just make sure to pick the right template and put them under the new unit page like this:
 Inline image 2

The last step is to fix all the links to your new pages. You’ll need to fix the cover page sticker to go to the new unit page, and then the tabs on that new unit page to go to the right sub page. Finally you’ll want to go into the sub pages and fix the links too. A little annoying, but it should go quickly. Oh, and you’ll want to change the stickers to put the right unit sticker on all the new pages too!

digital notebook2Last school year I used digital notebooks with my 6th grade science students in place of traditional science notebooks, and I’ve received a lot of interest and questions from teachers out there who want to know more about how to set them up. I posted last summer about the basics of setting up digital notebooks, but one of my readers (thanks Belinda!) made a great suggestion to create some videos that could walk people through the process. So my new summer project is making a series of short tutorials that will explain both the nitty gritty details of setting them up and also show off some of the advantages over paper notebooks. Hopefully this will enable anyone out there- tech savvy or not- to give digital notebooks a try!

The first video in the series focuses on the “pages” of a digital notebook, which create using Google Docs. For those unfamiliar with Google Drive and Google Docs I explain some of the advantages, and then I demonstrate how you can use them to replace paper notebooks and paper handouts in your classroom.

If there’s anyone else out there using digital notebooks or considering going paperless, please join in the conversation! Despite the fact that our students are now “digital natives” and the technology available is more than capable of replacing paper, I have found very few resources out there about digital notebooks, and I would love to hear new ideas.

Another goal of mine with digital notebooks was to enable new forms of collaboration in my classroom. Because digital documents like GoogleDocs allow multiple people to access and edit the same document online at any time, it opens the door to new possibilities for both students and teachers:

1. Colaborating like scientists

Lab work in my classroom is almost always collaborative. Even before going digital my students would work in teams to plan and perform experiments, which encourages scientific communication and cooperation which are authentic science (and life) skills. Using digital science notebooks can take this collaboration a step further, because instead of individually recording in their own paper notebooks, with a digital notebook students can share the same document so that each of them can edit and view each others changes on their own screen. This is wonderful for typically collaborative tasks such as planning a procedure or collecting data. I’ll often have lab teams start with a collaborative document for an experiment so they each have the same document in front of them:

Saturation Puzzle doc

An added benefit of doing this type of group collaboration is that with a digital projector you can quickly turn it into whole class collaboration. Have a group that’s stuck? Display their document for the whole class on the projector and see if anyone has a solution. Have a group that’s doing stellar work? Share it with the whole class as an exemplar.

When it comes time for a more individual task (like writing a conclusion to an experiment) they can copy and paste the group work into their own document, and then finish on their own:

Saturation Puzzle individual

2. Researching as a team

Another collaborative task that is enhanced by technology is researching a subject as a team. This is similar to the classic jigsaw learning approach, except that all the students on a team are editing the same collaborative document. Depending on goal of the learning activity, you can either assign different students specific sub-topics to be responsible for and become an “expert” on them for their team, or you can let the team decide how to divide and conquer the research. Here’s an example of this from my 6th grade earth science unit:

collaborative research

I adapted this first learning activity from a fantastic inquiry-based lesson called Discovering Plate Boundaries developed at Rice University. The multi-part lesson engages students with real maps of relevant plate tectonic information (volcanology, seismology, geography, and geochronology) and challenges them to discover patterns at the boundaries of plates and then classify them. Each student on the team becomes an expert on one of the 4 maps, and then they use their combined understanding to classify all of the major plate boundaries in the world on a collaborative document (I still have them label the map on paper though- it’s just much more efficient for coloring!)

3. Giving feedback to peers

This is something I’ve only scratched the surface of this year, but with more modelling and practice I think it could be a game changer in the classroom. The power of peer feedback is particularly obvious with the Middle School students I work with, and digital notebooks make the process much easier and more flexible. Students can leave comments on each others documents in real-time, even while a student is still working on them. Multiple peers can comment simultaneously on a single document, and the commenting doesn’t need to be done in person- for example it could be assigned for homework. What’s more, students can reply directly to comments, opening up the door for a back-and-forth conversation. I haven’t done enough of this yet in my own classroom, but if you’re interested check out Oliver Quinlan’s post for more details on how to do it well. What I have done a lot of is teacher-student feedback using Google Docs comments, which works extremely well. If students are making edits to a piece of work, I suggest having them make any corrections in a different font color rather than deleting anything. This way students have a nice record of their learning in their notebook and better learn from their mistakes. Here’s an example:


4.What about plagiarism?

This was another one of my main concerns going digital last year: with most student work online, would the temptation for copy-and-paste plagiarism make it a problem I would have to constantly police? Yes and no. On the front end, for any digital work discussing plagiarism and making expectations clear to students is a must. We did this at the school level and I also reinforced it within my classes. Even so, instances of plagiarism popped up, but in my opinion no more than normally. Digital notebook may make plagiarism easier to do, but it also makes it easier for a teacher to identify. GoogleDocs shows the last editor of a document right in the Drive view and tracks all editors in the revision history. So if a student is editing a document they shouldn’t be (like doing someone else’s homework), it’s plain for the teacher to see. Checking for plagiarized work is easy too- if I’m ever suspicious on a research project I can just Google a sentence of a students work to see if it’s original or not. Same goes in Google Drive- you can search for text within documents, so seeing if a student is using someone else’s words is only a click away. So yes, digital notebooking does make plagiarism more of an issues, but it’s a issue that I think needs to be taught, and digital notbooking allows students to start practicing habits of a good digital citizen.