Saturday, May 31, 2014

Student ePortfolios: First Steps and Next Steps

This entry is cross-posted on my personal blog.

An elementary school is always a busy place, but we're always trying new things too!  Right now, a number of teachers and I in three different schools have been piloting the use of ePortfolios to save and celebrate student work!  Right now this project is happening in a couple of forms, but the goals are still the same--to bring self-reflection and meta-cognitive thinking skills to the fore, and to increase student engagement and to give them more opportunities to be proud of the work they are doing.

What is an ePortfolio?

Of course, I should probably begin my discussion of ePortfolios with a definition.  An ePortfolio is an electronic portfolio.  It means that we are using technology to build a collection of our work.  Even if that work is not on the computer (maybe it is handwritten or drawn), we can create digital copies of our work with scanners or digital cameras so that we can include just about everything.

Portfolios can be a whole lot of things, both educational and professional.  Generally (and the way we've presented them so far), though, portfolios start as collections of our best work.  In this regard, portfolios are like folders or binders, but what puts them over the top as an educational tool is the use of reflection.  Meta-cognition, recognition of our own thinking, is a key trait for success in school and career, and portfolios are a tool that can help us develop those skills, even in our younger learners.  As we work on implementing ePortfolios in some of our elementary classrooms, we will be working on finding the right questions to ask so that students are able these important meta-cognition skills.

1st Grade ePortfolios in Google Drive

Right now, we have begun a number of pilots that we are hoping to build on for next year.  We currently have four 1st grade classrooms in three schools that are piloting an ePortfolio project using Google Drive.  While each classroom has its different approaches, generally, we are taking pictures of students' best work using iPads and uploading them using the Google Drive app.  Two of the schools have student technology teams, so they are also a part of the process.  The fifth grade students at the Nickerson School and some of the fourth graders at Searsport Elementary School go into the first grade classrooms to help the first graders take the pictures and rename them in Google Drive.

So far, we have observed positives as well as some causes for concern, though both I believe will be helpful to us for implementing next year.  First, we've noticed that most of the students appear to be more motivated to write, even if they already like writing to begin with.  In quite a few cases, though, we've noticed that the students are now motivated to revise and improve their work more than they did before, because we set the standard that we would only include their very best work in the ePortfolio.

In other cases, we have observed that students are rushing to write stories because they want to "publish" as much as they can.  In the future, we will need to make sure that we are communicating more clearly about what "best work" means.  We also may need to space out the frequency in which we are adding pieces to their portfolios (monthly versus weekly or bi-weekly, for instance), and have students pick out one piece out of a number.  I think a "less is more" approach will ensure more quality and also encourage students to think about why they would prefer to publish one piece over another.

In any case, I feel like we have had a successful pilot so far.  The first graders appear to enjoy having their writing photographed, and it also gives them a lot of pride to be able to share their work, especially with the older students on the tech team! 

4th grade and 5th grade Google Sites

While not as far along as the first grade projects, I have also begun piloting 4th and 5th grade ePortfolios.  This project really began at Searsport District Middle School, where Laurie Rule, the tech integrator at that school, has been working on implementing the use of ePortfolios in Google Sites.  Her student tech team "Viking Pilots" were instrumental in that as well, creating "model" ePortfolios for others to learn from, and helping their classmates with building their portfolios and adding artifacts to them.  A couple of months ago, my 5th grade tech team started meeting with the Viking Pilots at the middle school, and one of the things that we set about doing were ePortfolios.  The middle schoolers helped the elementary schoolers create their own ePortfolio using the middle/high school template.  Then, after brainstorming ideas for what an elementary ePortfolio looked like, I was able to create a template that was just for us.

4th and 5th grade students, being older than the 1st graders, are (or should be) able to manage their own portfolios without the kind of support that the 1st graders need.  At the same time, they also need a medium that will help them exercise the meta-cognitive skills that make portfolios a worthwhile educational pursuit.  So, I used Google Sites to create a template ePortfolio that students can build off.  What I like about Google Sites is that you can build template pages that have template subpages built right into them, so I am using that feature to create a couple of page templates for adding a new subject or new artifact to their portfolio that will have instructions baked right into the page.  To go along with that, I have been working on a resource page designed to help students set up their ePortfolios independently.

Right now, my fifth grade tech team and the members of the fourth grade tech team who are also in the Extended Learning Program are piloting ePortfolios.  I am trying to have them pilot with as little involvement or direction from me as possible, so that they have to use the resource page I have been building.  That way, I can gather feedback on how helpful that website is, and how closely (or not) they are reading the directions.  The two groups are also piloting two different possibilities for organizing an ePortfolio.  The fifth grade students are focusing on organizing their artifacts by subjects.  For now, I have the subjects divided up into the three types of writing under the Common Core (narrative, explanatory, opinion) as well as math, science and social studies.  I'm also encouraging students to create "optional" subject pages for other subjects like art and music, as well as individual pursuits in and out of school.  Meanwhile, the fourth graders are organizing theirs by methods of thinking.  In the Extended Learning Program, these students have all year with Mrs. Gass, the ELP teacher, in examining how and when they think at different levels.  Toward that end, we created a template based on Susan Winebrenner's model (page 45 in the PDF) that also expands on Bloom's Taxonomy (revised).  Ultimately, the ePortfolio gives us the flexibility to adapt and build templates for each grade level and how each teacher would like to use it.  In the end, we hope to be able to present a couple of different examples of options for organizing an ePortfolio to continue generating conversations around creating and using them in the classroom!

If you have worked with elementary portfolios, I'd like to hear from you.  What were some unexpected challenges that you came across?  Do you have ideas for great questions to ask students in aiding them with their meta-cognition?  Please post your feedback in the comment section below!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Visual Representations with Word Cloud Generators

Text from Cell Phones=Learning article (Tagxedo)

Recently a teacher asked me to recommend a "word cloud" generator.  In its simplest form word clouds are graphical representations of word frequency in text passages.  Copy and paste some text into the creator and the resulting image shows the frequency of word use by word size.  Wordle has been around for a while but it has Java issues with our image so I did some research for alternatives.  I discovered that word cloud generators have come a long way and are now an even better educational tool! 

Word Cloud Comparison of Two Speeches (Tagxedo)
Clearly word cloud generators are fun and engaging but they can be so much more.   
5 Ways Your Students Can Use Word Clouds has suggestions and ideas for getting started. An example to the left shows two speeches with all words in common in the same colors. This  visual representation of two texts makes comparing a very different student experience.  Imagine using word clouds to initiate student discussion and engagement prior to interacting with challenging text. 

Check out 9 Word Cloud Generators that Aren't Wordle to see some of what is available.  I liked Tagxedo because it was so easy to use and had several fun features that that did not detract from the educational value of word clouds.   

Tagxedo can browse directly to a URL and create a word cloud from the website text. Options include many shapes and orientations, other photos and images can be added, font and color can be changed, particular words can be emphasized more.  I used to think that one or two "wordles" were plenty but after flipping through 101 Ways to Use Tagxedo my mind is changed!

Text from SDMS's URL (Tagxedo)

Text from SDMS's URL inverted (Tagxedo)

More Resources

Students Show What They Know with Google Sites

If you think creating one website might be overwhelming how about creating dozens and dozens and dozens of websites!  All year teachers at Searsport District Middle/High School have been using Google Sites with their students to show evidence of their learning.

Weather Websites - After 6th grade Science teacher Katie Legere explained the learning goals for her weather unit I created a "template" - or web-based graphic organizer - to which each student then added their own project information.  The rubric is built into the template.  With a click both viewer and student can check the expectations for this project.  Students also conducted interviews with a person who has actually experienced a weather event.  By sharing the raw video in Google Drive the students downloaded relevant clips and posted their edited video on their website.  Be sure to click on the Flood Interview with Mrs. Hoffman tab in Daegan's website.  By using Google Sites Katie was able to collect all the student website addresses, view progress at any time and provide numerous rounds of descriptive feedback. 
Daegan's Weather Website - Grade 6

Multimedia This! - High School Multimedia teacher Leslie Gregory sees Google Sites as a way for her students' to display their work digitally while reaching a wider audience.  Once students create their Sites and Leslie collects their URLs she can view their progress at any time.  Her class website Multimedia This! features links to her students' individual photography portfolios and project assignments.  Though Leslie's class assignments are highly visual she also includes a significant literacy component for students to describe, reflect and critique their work.  Everything is easily incorporated into Google Sites while enhancing student creativity and expression.  As their authentic audience, the class would appreciate your feedback on their site efforts.  Check out all of their work but for a quick look see Logan's Photograhy Portfolio with Critique and The Langlais Project.

Logan's Photography Portfolio - Grade 11

Grade 7 PBL Zoo Projects - The 7th Grade Team used Google Sites to create their PBL Zoo Projects.  In addition to basic information about an endangered species, students embedded persuasive essays, a scaled zoo enclosure drawing, video and bibliography.  All three teachers were able to access 48 student websites anytime, anywhere to check on progress and provide ongoing feedback.  See Kimber's and Lauryn's Wildlife Park sites.
Kimber Mace's Zoo and Wildlife Park site
This explosion of Sites started because all of our students created Google Site ePortfolios in the fall for use annually during their spring student led conferences.  While we are still learning we know that these online portfolios and websites provide some new and exciting ways for students to be more self-directed and show what they know.  Here's an example of a 6th grader's ePortfolio - William has really explored the possibilities.  Intrigued and want to know more?  Please contact Leslie Gregory, Katie Legere, Susan Capwell, Laurie Rule or your Technology Integrator.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Free Rice: A Great Cause with Something for Everybody

Free Rice is a website where students can practice things like math facts, English vocabulary, even finding countries on a world map.  While it is in many ways a "drill and kill" website, it is a fantastic resource for students.  Why?  Because students can make a world of difference while they practice!  Free Rice is run by the United Nations World Food Programme and helps support its cause of feeding people who go hungry all over the world.  They do this through the website's sponsors, who fund Free Rice.  The website works by having students answer multiple choice questions.  For every question they get correct, 10 grains of rice are donated by the World Food Programme.  Many of these subjects are self-leveling too, so students can get ample opportunities for practice while also ensuring plenty of opportunities for donating rice.  They do pile up quickly!

I've noticed that Free Rice motivates two types of learners in particular.  Of course, people who are motivated by service and helping others will want to do what they can to donate rice to those that are hungry, but I've noticed that students who enjoy video games and are motivated by achievements and competition are also motivated by Free Rice, as they seek to donate as many grains of rice as they can and to answer as many questions correct in a row as possible.

Best of all, Free Rice offers something for almost everyone.  With subjects like multiplication tables, basic math, and English vocabulary or grammar, even students from third grade on in elementary school are able to get in on what this website has to offer.  In fourth grade at SES, the students are using Free Rice and then keeping track of how many grains of rice they are donating using a Google Spreadsheet.

Free Rice is free to use and doesn't require an account, though you can create one if you are 13 or older (or younger with parental permission).  Give it a try!
In "Information Security - what is it?," we examined guiding principles of information security: C-I-A and your responsibility in maintaining information security in RSU #20.  In this installment, we'll take a look at personally identifiable information (PII).  PII is anything that identifies you: a driver's license number, SSN, credit card number, or fingerprint.  In 2012, there were 12 million cases of identity theft reported in the United States (Identity Theft).  How can we protect ourselves?  Here are some tips taken from Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know:

1. Be careful when giving out personal information.
2. Check your monthly bank and credit card statements.  Review your credit report annually.
3. Properly destroy your personal information: buy a cross-cut shredder.

Phishing and Spyware:

Phishing:  Phishing is one form of identity theft.  The term first came into use in information security during the 1990s.  Typically phishing occurs through email, but also occurs via phone or social networking websites (Scams).  Some phishing schemes are blatantly false or suspect. Have you received an email from a Nigerian prince wanting to give you millions?  Did you contact the prince?  Probably not.  Other phishing schemes are extremely clever.  "I'm stuck in Singapore and I've been robbed,” has tricked a number of people into sending money to assist a friend in need.  In this case, the sending email account, or in some cases Facebook account, has been hijacked by scammers.  This scam uses an unsuspecting victim's email address book (or contact list) to blast out emails asking for money. When the request arrives in your email inbox, you are willing to help, because you recognize the email address as that of a friend or colleague.  How many email addresses do you have in your personal email account?  How many are in the RSU #20 email address book?  What would happen if your email address book was compromised?

Spyware is a broad term for software applications that unsuspectingly monitor your actions on a computer.  Spyware is typically encapsulated in an email, but may be delivered from a website.  In an email, spyware delivery typically requires a user (you) to click on a link, but that is not always the case.  From a website, spyware delivery is typically accomplished through "drive-by" downloads: it is delivered in the background as you view a web page.  At the least, spyware slows down a computer.  At the worst, spyware harvests PII.

How can we protect ourselves?  Here are some tips taken from Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know:

  1. Don't open an email unless you know the sender.
  2. If it looks suspicious or too good to be true, delete it.
  3. Don't provide PII in response to an email or a pop-up.
  4. Don't pirate software.  Don't download programs with which you are not familiar, especially on your RSU #20 computer.  The time to repair an infected machine could run into days just for hardware issues and this does not include the time to repair your credit history should you release PII.
  5. At home, secure your computer.  Block pop-ups.  Use anti-virus and anti-spyware software.  Make sure to keep them up to date.

Here are some sites with additional information: (check out the resources page)

Next installment: Securing PII of our students

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Field Trip to Unity College

On Thursday, April 17, the applied GIS class at Unity College hosted Mr. Thomas’s AP Environmental Science class from Belfast Area High School in a state-of-the-art GIS computer lab. Three college students and professor Kathleen Dunckel from Unity College guided BAHS students through a tutorial using ArcGIS Online software to construct maps of all the organically certified farms in Maine. The technology allowed students to add and manipulate data for each farm, such as addresses, size of farms, products sold, distances between farms, etc. Students were also able to use program tools to determine distances between farms and Belfast, and also to insert equations to calculate the corresponding carbon dioxide emissions due to transportation. Students concluded that long distance transport of organic food produces significant carbon dioxide emissions, such that it may be more sustainable to buy food from local sources, even if they’re not organic.
BAHS students concluded their work in the GIS lab by exploring other data layers available in the ArcGIS Online database.  The maps generated by students were saved to their Google Drive accounts. While this field trip was merely an introduction to GIS technology, students recognized the potential uses of GIS across disciplines to represent data spatially, for both presentation and research purposes. After eating lunch at the cafeteria, students were taken on a tour of campus.