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My biggest fear about going paperless was the impact I thought it might have on student engagement. Would students stare at their screens and ignore each other during class discussion? Would the laptops become more of a distraction than a tool for learning? To try and avoid this fate I began the year by creating a set of technology rules with students, which is the topic of this 2nd reflection on my paperless year:

#2: Technology rules- but rules for technology use are trickier than they seem

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 4.33.33 PMTo create our technology rules I based them on our school’s 4 core values of respect, honesty, responsibility, and compassion (see the template on the left). Unfortunately I don’t have a finished copy of the rules-  I was a little to zealous in my classroom cleaning this week- but I’ll need to improve them anyway because there were things I didn’t anticipate. Here’s a sampling of some of the rules:

 

I will be respectful:

  • Close your screen during class discussion

I will be responsible:

  • Stay on task when using your computer
  • Bring your charger to class

I will be honest:

  • Don’t copy and paste other’s work

I will be compassionate:

  • Help others who are having problems

For the first half of the year everything ran smoothly, and I was laughing at myself for being so fearful of the switch- my students were using their computers responsibly and they seemed no more or less distracting than a piece of paper would be. There were a few violations here and there, but it was so rare I didn’t even keep track of them. It seemed so easy that I even started composing a blog post about going paperless the “painless” way.

However, as the year moved on and those teenage hormones started kicking in, I noticed a sudden uptick in bad technology behavior. More and more students had lost their charger and almost every class someone had to go on a “charger hunt” around the classroom to find one to borrow. The chat feature in Gmail became more popular with students, who started routinely chatting with friends in other classes. Certain students also started getting sneaky about staying on task, quickly switching their computers from one screen to another. All of this made me start to feel like a technology policeman, keeping a watchful eye on potential criminals and doling out punishing justice whenever a caught an offender. It wasn’t painless any more.

What I thought were simple consequences also turned out to be problematic. How do you confiscate a student’s computer in a paperless classroom? In some cases I could just print out their document and let them continue on paper, but what if the learning activity involved a simulation or creating a movie? All technology violations are not created equal either, so I had to make tough judgement calls about whether students needed a reminder or some kind of consequence.

To improve things for next year I know I need to be more proactive and prepared. Now that I know the most common problems I will encounter, when we make our technology rules up for the year we will need to discuss more specific examples so expectations are clearer. We will need to review our rules too, probably once a quarter to keep them fresh in student’s minds and also to be able to make changes if we need to.

In terms of accountability, next year I’m going to base our rules on our Middle School’s Learning Habits. These are similar to the school’s core values, but they are more specifically about behavior and students receive grades on these every quarter. This way students would get feedback on their technology behavior in their report card, which would help hold them accountable. I will need to keep better track of both good and bad technology behavior, and perhaps even use something like Class Dojo to communicate this with students. Also, by tying our rules to the Learning Habits students could self-assess themselves periodically so it wouldn’t just be me as a technology policeman.

As for consequences of failing to use technology properly, I need to rethink these to make them more effective and to help students make better decisions. Instead of just a verbal reminder the first time, I think making it visual by attaching a Post-it note to their screen would be a helpful reminder. A discussion after class could also be part of this process, so the reminder is not just shrugged off. If student continue making poor choices I need be more prepared to have them go back to paper. This way I can move students to this swiftly when the laptop is getting in the way of their learning.

So overall it was a year of a lot of learning for me, successful but certainly not painless! I’d love to hear other ideas and suggestions from other teachers out there about how to manage technology well.

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The school year has come to a close, and I finally have time to blog again! This year I experimented going paperless in my science classroom by using digital science notebooks- an online version of the classic science notebook that I set up using GoogleSites. I’ve already blogged about setting that up, so I won’t go into the details here, but I’ve received so much interest from teachers about digital notebooks that I plan on making some how-to videos this summer, so stay tuned! What I’d like to do in this post is start sharing my thoughts on how the digital science notebooks worked (especially in light of my goals from the beginning of the year), and how I’m planning on improving them for next year. There’s a lot to reflect on, so I think I’ll post it one nugget at a time.

#1: Digital organization is much easier (most of the time)

My first reason for going paperless was to help students stay more organized, without consuming class time with menial tasks like sorting papers into binders or gluing sheets into notebooks. To accomplish this, all of my “handouts” were Google Docs, which are easily shared with students using Hapara. My students had three folders on Google Drive which contained all of their documents: Science Class, Science Lab, and Science Homework, and could access these documents either directly through Google Drive or through their digital science notebook on GoogleSites. So opening up a document wouldn’t take longer for students than passing out a stack of papers. Each time we completed a unit of study we did a little clean up with their folders to put all their documents in a sub-folder, which would take about 5 minutes in GoogleDrive. The biggest digital advantage over paper is that students never lose documents- so that excuse becomes totally  obsolete. Another handy benefit is that students who are absent in class get the documents digitally anyway, so they can get caught up even before the next class.

On the teacher side there is a nice organizational advantage as well: no more time wasted at the beginning of class collecting assignments. Since GoogleDrive tells you when the document was last edited, and Hapara shows you this data for your whole class at a glance, it’s super easy to “collect” docs and see which students have missing assignments. For projects and assignments that students might edit and improve, you can also tell right away when they’ve made new changes to the document:

A student's geology documents in their digital science notebook

A student’s geology documents in their digital science notebook

One simple improvement for next year is the way I named student’s documents. I used the Hapara feature of including the student’s name automatically in the document title, which makes searching up a specific student’s document a cinch, but I should have also included a number at the beginning of each document title (01, 02, 03, etc). This would make documents appear chronologically in on students’ digital science notebooks, which unfortunately only lists documents in alphabetical order. Numbering the docs would not only make new documents easier to find, it would maintain a clear chronology of learning for students to see, much like a paper science notebook would.

The main drawback is when computer issues get in the way. Occasionally a student would have trouble connecting to the Wifi network, or their laptop would need to be charged, or their computer would take a long time to log in. Little snags like this can be annoying- do you pause the lesson to help solve the student’s technical problem, or continue on without them? Since this is my 6th grade students first time in the 1 to 1 program, they aren’t extremely tech savvy yet, so often I would choose to wait and help them out. But next year I think I need to spend more time developing students responsibility and critical thinking around technology. For example, bringing your laptop charger to my class is just as important as bringing a pencil used to be, so I need to make that expectation clearer from the get-go with a technology agreement and prepare for the inevitable day when a student still forgets, which will bring me to my next reflection about technology rules…

photo[4]For some reason after a few years of blogging, my most popular post remains how to make a human sundial. Just last week I received an email from a PTA president in Texas who actually had a human sundial built at their elementary school and was looking for ideas on how it can be incorporated into their curriculum. Even though I don’t teach elementary school any more, building our human sundial (pictured above) was a blast and there’s some great teachable moments that it can provide. Here’s some ideas:

In Kindergarten we have a science unit about sun and shadows, and one of the learning goals is about how the length of shadows changes during the day. The sundial is a great focal point for this, as classes can visit it in the morning, at lunch, and again in the afternoon and observe the difference in the direction and length of the shadow. Depending on the grade, they could even measure the length of the shadow and compare it to the height of the sun in the sky at that time. It’s a clear way of understanding that the higher the sun is, the shorter the shadow, as well as the idea that the sun moves across the sky and the direction of the shadow changes. After observations, we’ve even done drawing assessments where students predict what the shadow would look like given a position of the sun. You could use an actual picture of your sundial for this, and students could then check their predictions the next day to see how accurately they predicted the length and direction of the shadow. Here’s the link to a hands-on science unit you can buy from Delta Science Education that gave me some of these ideas.
In 5th grade our students study the seasons, which is a good opportunity for students to learn about why you need to stand in different places on the sundial depending on the time of the year. It could even be a good opportunity for a long-term study: each day or once a week in the morning, have students observe the sundial at a particular time, noting the position of the sun (measurements could be made with a compass). Students will begin to see how the position of the sun fluctuates with the seasons, which leads to the idea that some seasons have more direct sunlight (and therefore more heat) than others. Another approach which I wish I could try would be to have no date stones on the sundial at all in the beginning of the year and explain to the 5th graders that you aren’t sure how the sundial works. Then you could give the students the job of “calibrating” the sundial, visiting it at the same time each day and marking where they need to stand to make the shadow point to the accurate time. After a few months they would begin to notice the analemma (the shape that represents the changing position of the sun, pictured below) and it’s this shape that allows you to know where to stand exactly to make the sundial work. Here’s a kid’s science site I found about someone who actually tried this with really neat results!

Image from Stanford Solar Center

Update: This post is my original instructions for setting up digital notebooks. For the updated version (and tutorial videos!) check out my Digital Notebook page.


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After much fiddling around and way too much time spent trying to make it look “cool”, I’ve figured out the basics of how I’m doing digital science notebooks with my students this year. Several teachers out there have also expressed interest, so here’s the nitty gritty below of how I’m setting it up. One caveat though: my Middle School has a one-to-one laptop program, so my students basically always have their laptop with them and are already pretty well-versed in the technologies I’m using for this. So what works for me at my school might not be the best fit for you.

Step 1: Goodbye paper, hello GoogleDocs

All of the traditional papers that I would photocopy and hand out to my students in the past will instead be shared through GoogleDocs. GoogleDocs is a great way to digitally manage documents so that the teacher can decide whether students are editing documents individually or in groups as appropriate. Anytime the teacher (or another student for that matter) leaves a comment for a student on their document they get notified by email. In addition, whenever students makes a change to their document, GoogleDocs automatically saves it and keeps a record of when all changes were made (good for accountability). Last year I already used GoogleDocs for almost all my students’ homework assignments (here’s an example), and it worked well. Now I’ll be taking it one step further and turning everything digital: notes sheets, lab reports, handouts, homework… which means no more collecting, lugging around, and passing out papers. Yay.

Step 2: Manage GoogleDocs without making a mess

 A lot of people who “don’t like GoogleDocs” complain because if it’s left untended, your Google Drive page starts looking like the email inbox from hell. Since all of the documents that you create and edit will show up there, you need to set up some organizational system to make it easier to access the documents you actually want. Last year my students and I created shared folders for our GoogleDocs to simplify things. Everything I dumped into my shared folder was automatically shared with my students, then they would make a copies of those master documents and put them in their own GoogleDoc folder that was shared with me. Decent solution, but Middle Schoolers being Middle Schoolers, there was always a handful that would forget to share their copy with me, leading to a recurring digital paper chase.

This year my school is paying for Hapara which creates software that handles all this organization for me. With a few clicks documents are automatically shared with the right students and accessible by me. Hapara also gives teachers a handy “teacher dashboard” that will show you at a glance all your students GoogleDoc documents- whether or not they have remembered to share them with you:

Hapara Teacher Dashboard

Hapara Teacher Dashboard

Don’t have Hapara? It’s certainly not a deal-breaker, since you can manage GoogleDocs yourself with a little pre-planning like I did last year, but there’s also a free option out there: Doctopus. Created by an awesome educator who’s work I just discovered on YouPD.org, this GoogleDocs script also lets you automate the generating and sharing of digital documents.

Step 3: Putting the “notebook” in a digital notebook

As great as GoogleDocs is as an education tool, without a way of organizing documents in the same way you would within a traditional 3-ring binder or notebook, all these digital documents float electronically around in students’ files the same way their paper counterparts do in the messy backpacks teachers abhor. In my switch from paper to electronic documents, my first two goals were to find a way to make digital notebooks better at organization and presentation than traditional notebooks. So the last step is to figure out how to tie all these digital documents together, easily and elegantly.

There are several different options I considered (Blogger, LiveBinders, EverNote) but in the end I decided on using GoogleSites to create the notebook. Most of my students already have experience making websites on GoogleSites, so that played a part in the decision, but the main reasons were the flexbility offered by a website and the synergy between GoogleSites  and GoogleDocs.

The flexibility of a website allowed me to go retro and design a digital notebook that looked like a classic composition notebook:

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By clicking on the “stickers” on the notebook cover, students can navigate to the different units we study, and then within each unit there’s a section for Class Stuff, Lab Stuff, and Homework Stuff which look like Post-its in an actual notebook:

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 9.33.45 PM

You can actually insert entire folders of your GoogleDocs onto a GoogleSite, which means my students won’t have to individually add documents to their digital notebooks- they will be added automatically whenever I create a new document and put it into one of their shared folders (no wasted class time!).

Using GoogleSites also makes it easy for students to incorporate anything created with GoogleDocs in their digital notebook: data tables or graphs made in Google Spreadsheets, scientific sketches made with Google Drawings, Google presentation projects, Picasa photo slideshows, the list goes on and on. I want their notebook to be able to easily highlight their best work so it doubles as a portfolio, and GoogleSites will allow student to do this easily without jumping through a lot of technical hoops. I’m also working on the possibility of creating a “learning dashboard” for each student that will display their progress on the learning goals for each unit and guide them to helpful resources when they fall short of meeting expectations (more on this later!).

You can go ahead and check out the template notebook site here (or go here for my updated template). When it’s completely finished I plan on saving it as a GoogleSite template so others can use it as they see fit.

In my last post about reinventing science notebooks, I described my summer project to introduce digital versions of the traditional science notebook with my students next fall. Before I get into the nitty gritty techie side of how to do this, I’d like to state my goals for these digital science notebooks. Although I’m currently leaning toward a Google Apps/Google Sites combination for these digital notebooks, I’m not wedding to any technology in particular, and if anyone out there has a better idea for what tool could accomplish these goals, I’m all ears! So here goes:

#1: Help students stay organized, easily

Middle School students are notoriously bad at organization, so I’m looking for a solution that will make it easy for students keep assorted types of documents organized. Just like a 3-ring binder could have sections for homework, notes, lab work, project research, I want their digital notebooks to keep things orderly, well labeled, and chronological. Unlike a 3-ring binder I don’t want students to waste a lot of time hole-punching, sorting, and still ultimately misplacing their documents!

#2: Share students’ learning like a portfolio

We do student led conferences at my school, and it’s a powerful experience for students to share their learning and reflect about their learning with their parents. The past few years we’ve had students set up an “e-Portfolio” using a GoogleSite, so they can put all of their evidence and reflections in one place, but this is a time-consuming task. As long as it is set up in an attractive, reflective way, a digital notebook could double as an e-portfolio.

#3: Enable and encourage collaborative learning

Most science classrooms are naturally collaborative, but the collaboration doesn’t need to end at the lab table. Tools such as Google Docs make it easy for students to share work and ideas with others, as well as comment and build on each others ideas. A good digital notebook should allow for different types of collaboration (peer, small group, whole class) as well as allow for some documents to be private when collaboration isn’t appropriate.

#4: Connect students with learning resources

This is something that can really set digital notebooks apart from their papery counterparts: the ability to link up students with learning resources that can help them either review or extend their learning. Imagine a student finishes up a lab on the properties of solids and liquids, but they’ve still got some questions the lab activity didn’t answer. A digital notebook could allow the teacher to provide links to different online resources for the student to explore further. There could be links to similar content for the struggling student to review as well as links to new material to challenge those students that are ready to move on.

#5: Give students more feedback about their learning

This last goal might be the most challenging but also the most important. With traditional science notebooks the teacher could periodically collect the notebooks and write feedback to students, but we teachers know  how time-consuming that is. I began this past year with a goal of giving more formative assessment-type feedback to my students, but it became challenging to keep up with the pace. The more immediate feedback is, the greater the impact it will have on student learning, so a good digital notebook could help provide additional opportunities for learning feedback, as well a keeping a record of their progress. I’m imagining a kind of “learning dashboard” for each student that would keep track of all their learning progress from many types of feedback: graded teacher feedback, practice quizes results, self-reflections. I’m not the first person to think of this (Kahn Academy has a “gameified” learning dashboard, and my school is currently creating one a school-wide one), but I’ve yet to see something that takes advantage of teacher’s online gradebooks and feedback and create a student-friendly summary of their learning progress.

So there you have it. I know it’s an ambitious list, but I think there is a ton of potential in education technology tools that are currently being way under-utilized. Hopefully with the help of like-minded teachers out there, we can move science notebooking into the 21st century where it belongs! 🙂

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One staple of traditional science education is the scientific notebook: the classic composition notebook filled with kitchen chemistry experiments gone awry, detailed sketches of leaves, and dozens of exciting scientific discoveries written in childhood chicken scratch.

Surprisingly, after 8 years of teaching elementary science and 1 year of middle school science, I’ve never made traditional science notebooks with my students. I’ve always been wary of the potential for notebooks to value product over process, as a few of my own science teachers did: Did you carefully copy the procedure down as I told you? If you did, A+!

Instead I want my students to use their valuable time to think like scientists, not just go through the motions of doing something that appears to be science. So I’ve always opted to create my own worksheets that scaffold activities to save students time on less valuable tasks (copying down a procedure) so they can spend more time on the real learning. In my experience worksheets work very well in the moment, but they lack the portfolio quality of a traditional scientific notebook. Yes, I know you can try to have students keep sheets organized in a folder or a binder, or even try binding them up like books- and some of my colleagues have students paste sheets right into their traditional notebooks- but all of these methods take a lot of effort and class time to be successful. There’s got to be a better way!

Digital science notebooks to the rescue! Making an digital version of traditional science notebooks is an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time. At first it seems pretty obvious: computerized communication has all but replaced pen and pencil in so many aspects of our daily lives, and there’s no sign of that slowing down. It stands to reason that our current students will be living in a paperless society by the time they are adults- so why can’t science notebooks join this wave of the future?

This is why I was more than a little surprised to find out how few teachers out there in the blogosphere (and scientists too for that matter!) have embraced a digital version of the composition classic. Googling around I could only find one teacher/blogger who has much to say on the subject: Greg Benedis-Grab, and unfortunately his blog on the subject seems to have been taken down (though it’s still cached here). Greg used the Google Apps suite with his students to do nearly all pen and paper tasks (including drawing!) in an online format, and students used a Google Site as their “notebook”. For more info on Greg’s digital science notebooks, check out his webinar video.

What about real scientists? Surely they have embraced modern technology, right? Again, I was surprised to find out in this article from Nature that scientists are only beginning to move away from paper notebooks even though the “electronic lab notebook” has been technologically feasible for more than a decade. However, it does seem pretty clear that many scientists are making the switch to digital notebooks- all the more reason for our students to do it too.

How do teachers make the switch to digital science notebooks? I’m not sure- but it’s my goal this summer to figure out a way, and then pilot the digital science notebooks with my 6th graders in the fall. So if any of you teachers out there are currently using some form of a digital science notebook- I’d love to hear from you! Currently I’m leaning towards a Google Apps/Sites solution since my students are already familiar with these and my school will be using Hapara next year which should make my life easier… but there are still lots of issues (both technical and pedagogical) to figure out. I will continue to blog on my thoughts and progress over the summer, and I welcome you to join in the discussion!

Back in April, we hosted a Science Collaborative Workshop with 21 PreK-8 science teachers from 5 international schools. (Check out these previous posts if you’re interested in the planning process or my take-aways from organizing the event.)  Since we all use the same AERO science standards, one of our goals was to work together to create standards-based science units that could be used as exemplars for other international schools. We nearly accomplished that in the span of the 3-day workshop, but making these units accessible (and legible) on a website took over a month of continued collaboration remotely (and a little bit of arm twisting on my part!)

I’m happy to announce that these exemplar science units are now published and freely available on our website www.AERO-Science.org. The seven units are:

Please take a look and let me know what you think of our work! Each of the units was designed using the Understanding by Design approach and was a collaborative effort between teachers from different schools.

Next fall we will be holding a follow-up workshop at the NESA Fall Training Institute to continue and expand this collaborative project, so if you also teach at an AERO school, please join us!