Tuesday, February 21, 2017


As our district begins to explore deeper ways for students to apply their knowledge and demonstrate understanding (such as exhibitions and capstone projects), there is a greater need for presentation tools besides Google Slides and MS PowerPoints.  One of the newest ones I've discovered is CheckThis.  They use the term "social poster" to describe their published product, but it's really just a simple website creator.  It's free, extremely easy even for younger users, and students/teachers can log in with their Google account (Twitter and Facebook are also options) to quickly register on the site.

How does it work?   You can access CheckThis via a web tool or an iOS app.  Once you register your account and create your post, you can start by editing the title, subtitle and beginning text.   By hitting the green "plus" button, you can add more multimedia: text, images (uploaded from your computer or URLs from the web), video (YouTube and Vimeo URLs), website links (Google Maps, online sound files [SoundCloud, BandCamp], tweets, or any other site URL), and built-in CheckThis apps such as a poll.

When you are ready, you can publish your "social poster" and share the URL via Twitter and other social media.  One of the interesting functions of CheckThis is that not only can you see how many views the social poster receives, but you can also receive "likes" and comments.

I found this helpful video of a user making a social poster.  I like it because it effectively demonstrates how easy it is to click and add media:

It should be noted that CheckThis will allow you to publish a social poster without logging in, but there are many benefits to creating an account, not least of which is the problem of students putting work into publishing without an account and later not being able to find the URL to edit it further or share.

An example social poster I made about "Ideas for Nearpod" is linked here.

Note the embedded YouTube video at the top, the website linked at the bottom, and the commentary column on the right side.

How could you use it?   As I already mentioned, CheckThis could be a basic website page creation tool to go with digital presentations, especially for projects that wouldn't need the complexity of options that something like Google Sites or Weebly might offer.  It could also be a way of creating online multimedia personal notes, since you could easily switch from text to pertinent links, images and videos.  Lastly, the commenting feature might create an opportunity to have digital discourse, as students give each other feedback and perhaps have a running dialogue.

Downsides?  When I first tried CheckThis and created the social poster linked above, you had another option for creating an account by using an email and password.  Recently, however, they removed that option, which leaves my account in limbo because I can no longer log in via my email.  That's a personal problem, but I had to share, as I have tweeted CheckThis and not heard yet how to successfully merge my "email" account with another option.  Of course, if you are brand new to CheckThis, you won't have this issue.

It should be noted that comments cannot be turned off.  Since these social posters are completely public and cannot be moderated, monitoring of commentary (especially with younger students) may be a necessary burden for the teacher.

Do you already use CheckThis or see other ways it could be utilized?  Please share in the Comments below!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Free Tickets for Edtech Share Fair 2017!

Our third annual Edtech Share Fair is fast approaching!  Mark your calendar now for March 22, 2017, from 4:15 to 5:45 on the Southside Elementary campus.  Tickets are FREE but you do need to order them via our Eventbrite page.  We enthusiastically welcome educators outside of the Shelby school district to come.  In fact, we also welcome parents and other community members to see the innovative tools that students are integrating into their learning.

We may also have some Facebook postings on the Share Fair courtesy of my new Edtech Elixirs Facebook page.  (Hint, hint.  Follow and Like, my FB Friends.  End of hinting.)

Since our first Share Fair in 2015, the event has steadily grown and expanded. We have a few highlights to celebrate this year:
  • We have our first student-led panel discussing a web-based math learning tool, facilitated by East Middle School's Rachel Kinsey.
  • We have two library media specialists presenting!  (We had one present in 2015 and none last year.)
Already a third of the tickets are gone, so hurry and reserve yours today!

Here is our Smore flyer for the event:

And here is a widget where you can order the tickets directly:

Be sure to tweet and let others know you are coming by using the hashtag #SCShareFair!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Guest Blogger on Classcraft! (Creating an RPG adventure for your classroom)

I have been a fan of Classcraft ever since Tim Oltman introduced me to it in his Collins classroom.   A few months ago, on the behest of some of our Shelby elementary teachers, I even created an online "primer" on how to get started on Classcraft.   Of course, Classcraft resonates strongly alongside my interest of gamification and game-based learning in the classroom.

Knowing this interest, Stephanie Carmichael (the head blogger for Classcraft) reached out and asked if I would be interested doing a guest blog entry for their site.   I was flattered, but what would be something new I could talk about?

Then, it hit me.  Roleplaying games in education.

The first RPG I ever played was TSR’s Star Frontiers back in the mid-1980's, and from there my fate was sealed.  Soon I was tumbling polyhedron dice for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and Marvel Super Heroes (TSR), James Bond 007 (Victory Games), Car Wars (Steve Jackson Games), Ghostbusters and Star Wars (West End Games) . . . the list of games rolled on and on, including customizing and making my own. In short, I'm a huge fan, although I lament that I have far less time to play nowadays.

So, I took the RPG lens to the classroom and wrote about several free edtech tools: Habitica, Lone Wolf Online, Inklewriter, and more. Please check out my entry on Classcraft's blog, and keep those dice tumbling!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

First SnoGo Days, and Eminence's EdHub

Welcome back from the holidays!  We had our first significant snow last week, so Thursday and Friday (January 5 and 6) became our first official and inaugural SnoGo days!

For the uninitiated, "SnoGo Days" are non-traditional instructional days, where students work at home on material prepared in advance by teachers.  It's the enactment of our philosophy that learning never stops and continues beyond the boundaries of a brick and mortar building. The teachers also remain in contact with students via email, phone, messages via Schoology, and more.  Speaking of Schoology, our LMS was a crucial tool to organize work and accept submissions during SnoGo . . . and students definitely used it.  Here's a way to compare just how much: during the week before winter break, our most active Schoology usage day inside our buildings was December 13 with 45,591 Schoology page views.  On January 5 and 6, we had 79,046 and 75,929 views, respectively.  I should point out that teachers certainly could give students a menu of optional offline work, and just as they would for an excused absence, students have a small window to make up work upon their return.  We don't want lack of Internet access at home to limit their SnoGo learning!

Our SnoGo caught the attention of two local newstations.  WHAS 11 discussed the non-traditional nature of the learning.   WAVE 3 talked to the Leonberger family, and got this great quote from eighth grader Jake: "I think it's really cool they gave us these Chromebooks and made SnoGo a thing. It makes it so kids can pace themselves at home."  (Add a path of learning and factor in the choice of when to do the work, and you have our 3PT program.)  Both stories include video with some helpful visuals of Schoology at work.

And learning didn't stop with students.  Lora Shields (our Shelby Staff Developer) and I created modules in -- what else? -- Schoology, in order for classified staff to have professional development online during SnoGo.

Several teachers, principals and students tweeted throughout our SnoGo, but this is probably my favorite:

On Day Two of SnoGo, I took an already scheduled trip over to a nearby neighboring school: Eminence.  I've been wanting to see their library expansion, named the EdHub, since it opened at the beginning of the school year.  Along with SCHS's librarian Julie Webb, we got the grand tour.   Here are some of my social media posts:

I particularly like the picture in the last tweet of the Scantron sheet and pencil, an archaic artifact of the past, enshrined in a museum case for future students to puzzle its ancient purpose and use.

We left with some great inspiration on how to better utilize our own libraries and increase our makerspace opportunities.  Thanks to the EdHub Director and secondary librarian James Allen for being a gracious host!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Hour of Code 2016

It's that time of year again!  Shelby County just experienced another week of #HourOfCode (Dec. 5 - 9).  Our previous years had memorable milestones, but one thing I could see differently this year was how many of our librarians took a lead in getting students excited about coding.   (For this, I have to give props to Sarah Price at Wright Elementary for setting a high bar last year.)

I asked for Shelby County librarians to share their 2016 coding stories via email.  Here are some of their responses (slightly edited):

Penny Bland, Heritage Elementary:

Renae Orange, East Middle: "I have a personalized learning class I teach.  We spent our time yesterday coding at code.org.  Some of my students are exploring how to take what they learned to build a robot and program it."

Vicki Stoltz, Clear Creek Elementary: "I am introducing a few unplugged lessons for my K-1 classes with 4 little Bee Bots and some floor mats [see the video below].  Dash has also been a big hit with the older kids.  Second through Fifth Grade students have been exploring bookmarked coding sites as well."


Jennifer Tinsley, Painted Stone Elementary:  "The prior week, we discussed coding vocabulary and did a little intro with Angry Birds from the Code.org website.   On Hour of Code week, we used mainly Angry Birds and Star Wars.  So far so good!  I've even heard from several students 'I want to do this at home'!"

Sarah Price, Wright Elementary: "Everybody is coding in the library all week long on activities found on Code.org (Star Wars, Minecraft, Angry Birds) as well as iPad apps such as Kodable with our kindergarteners.  I set up folders inside a Schoology Course with grade-appropriate choices to help them narrow down which program to click.  I have been using a few fifth grade volunteers to help with the K-1 classes, and that has been working very well.  Having the high school volunteers was nice last year, but I think it is even nicer to be using our own student leaders."

Of course, our teachers independently did their share of coding as well.  Tina Eden (East Middle) tweeted out:

What better way to end than to share a tweet from Matthew Watts from Collins High School:

That is our hope for Riley and others: that the coding we start at school becomes a passion they want to do at home and beyond.

Thanks to all who encourage their students and children to code, last week and every week!

Friday, December 2, 2016

PPBBL: Personalized Project-Based Blended Learning

Greetings, readers!  I never meant to take two months off, but we've been a busy county.  Our elementary rollout is complete, and we are now a 1:1 device district (iPads for Kindergarteners, Chromebooks for the rest).    I am spending a goodly amount of embedded time at our elementary schools to support our staff as they continue the transformation into digital classrooms.  Lately, as part of that work, I've been reflecting quite a bit on three educational strands that are strong on the radar of Shelby County and are current hot topics across the world: blended learning, project-based learning, and personalized learning.  This musing has lead to some questions of how and when these models are applied in classrooms.   (Note that these questions are not meant to imply critiques of Shelby classrooms specifically.  Instead, they are "thinkalouds" of how and when blended, PBL and personalized learning are generally utilized.)

BLENDED LEARNING:  As I discussed in a previous post, I'm a fan of Michael B. Horn and Heather Straker's definition as given in their book Blended"Blended learning is any formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace.”  One of the reasons I like this definition is that the end of it dovetails nicely into personalized learning itself (which if done in the absence of technology would be very difficult).  But it's important to not forget what is actually being blended: online digital tools with human interaction and instruction, usually in a brick and mortar school.  Both components, in a good balance, is necessary.  Content may be delivered digitally in an innovative way, but it is the teachers' roles in nurturing, nudging, and knowing where their students academically stand that make them an integral face-to-face resource.

Do we sometimes concentrate too much on the digital tool and not on the analog teacher or desired outcomes?

PERSONALIZED LEARNING:  This school year, one of Shelby's grass-roots and teacher-led efforts of innovation (encouraged and supported by John Leeper) is happening at several of our elementary and both high schools: 3PT classroom cadres.  Pilot groups of students in each building are exerting control over the path, place, pace and/or time of their personalized learning.  Ideally, your passions and your post-school plans should affect your educational journey and give you options.  Digital tools certainly make it easier to access content, assess mastery, and track progress; with a laptop and wifi, you can do your reading in a school's bean bag chair just as easily as your kitchen table at night.  To that end, I have been heavily involved in supporting tool integration to help the program hum along, such as Edgenuity (which contains coursework monitored and customized by teachers to deliver content) and Schoology (a learning management system that contains teacher and district curriculum, folders of links and resources, and assessment tools).  In 3PT, bell schedules and even chronological age differences fade away from the real focus: learning that is flexibly paced and about mastery, not compliance or seat-time.   (To see pictures and follow tweets about our district's 3PT stories, see #3PTSC; there is some awesome work going on out there.)   It should be noted that unlike differentiation or individualization, only personalization is student-centered.   However, we again must be vigilant for balance.  We risk impersonalized learning if this model leads to teenage cubicle drones, pecking in isolation at their laptops. Students should have a chance for discourse with their peers; teacher conferences and whole/small group instruction still needs to be a vital part of student learning.

How often do we concentrate on content delivery over student dialogue and groupwork?  Does technology enable an increase in both the quantity and the quality of teachers conferring face-to-face with students?

PROJECT-BASED LEARNING:  Since participating in PD on PBL in the summer of 2015, I have been excited about the ways it can combine personal student interest with relevant work that seeks to elevate or solve real-world problems, publishing or presenting to authentic audiences.   It is often collaborative and done by groups of students. The danger is that PBL could be seen as "one more thing" instead of a model that can integrate seamlessly with both personalized and blended learning.

How can PBL be brought more systematically into a personalized, blended learning environment?

Why I won't claim to have solutions to all of these questions, a few resources on the internet might point us in the right direction.

This resource and graphic from The Learning Accelerator is perhaps my favorite visual on blended learning.   What I appreciate is how it goes beyond a definition and concentrates on what blended learning can help you enable and accomplish.  Most importantly, blended learning should empower educators to make sure every graduate "attains the skills and mindset needed to succeed in college and life (academics + habits/character)."

Note: this graphic is part of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Lately, educators are buzzing about Summit Learning, who recently has released a free digital learning platform, which includes a core content curriculum for personalized learning.   While the tool itself is fascinating, I am more intrigued by their school philosophy: content delivery should be only as important as the application of cognitive skills in the form of PBL work.  In a recent introductory webinar (visit their site for upcoming events), they shared the following example of a Summit school week:

Screen captured from an archived webinar, linked here.

Look how many slots are appropriated to PBL, in comparison to content acquisition time!  In addition, mentor time is scheduled and guaranteed at least every Friday.   While this may not be the perfect model, it does reveal how important authentic application of knowledge is to the Summit vision of learning, and shows how blended, personalized and PBL can weave together like a well-made rope.

Like any well-woven rope in education (he says with a tongue placed firmly in his cheek), an acronym is necessary for naming.  The significance of calling this balanced system PPBBL is even built into the order of the letters.  Personalization is the first priority and therefore the first letter; leading by student needs and interests quite naturally segues into project-based work; blended is the way to make it all work effectively and engagingly.  And learning should be the last word -- the point, purpose and result of these transformative models of education.

So we will keep pushing ourselves with our questions -- reflecting, refining, reinventing what it means to be in a classroom, or to be a student, or to be a teacher.   

[Note:  part of the inspiration for this entry came from my work with one of our district Instructional Coaches, Melba Bradley.  As we recently planned a PD session on blended learning for a teacher personalized learning day, we discussed how PBL needed to be a stronger component of a blended learning classroom, and the first version of this entry's mashup acronym was born.]

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

My One Hundredth Blog Entry!

A little over two years ago, I started a journey into the unknown at Shelby County Public Schools.  I left teaching in a high school classroom in order to pursue a passion of mine -- educational technology -- and for a leadership opportunity to positively affect a large number of students and teachers on a scale I couldn't imagine previously, in a position that was brand new to the district.  Not counting some false starts before, it was also the first time I seriously attempted to professionally blog.  In my first entry for Edtech Elixirs (dated August 1, 2014), I wrote that I was "committed to making meaningful and ongoing posts, but most importantly, making my blog a useful resource for others."

Others will have to judge if my posts are useful or meaningful.   However, as I write this entry -- the one hundredth post since I started Edtech Elixirs -- I can at least affirm that the posts have been "ongoing" in ways that I couldn't imagine in 2014.  My output has slowed down this school year, but my overall average is nearly a blog entry a week.  And I was worried I would run out of things to share and say!

Let's stop this entry cold so I can recognize and thank you, the readers.  Numbers aren't everything, but they certainly point out that many of you stop by my various social media sites.  Back in June of 2015, I wrote an entry summarizing the reach of Edtech Elixirs to that point.  At that time, I had cleared 10,000 total views when the blog was not quite a year old, much to my astonishment.  As of this writing, I am a few clicks shy of clearing 37,000.   In the same blog entry, I discussed my social media stats, and again, it's hard to believe what a difference nearly 16 months makes.  I'll just point out two examples.  I had nearly 800 Followers on Twitter and over 3,300 tweets in June 2015.  I now have 1,466 Followers and 5,119 tweets.  On my Watsonedtech YouTube channel in June 2015, I had just over 6,000 views, the highest number going to Adjusting your Lenovo Yoga Microphone (1709) and How to Use Plickers (Part One) (2364).  Sixteen months later, the channel has 55,489 total views with 18,238 views on the "Adjusting..." video and 22,292 views for "Plickers."

But back to the blog.  Here are my top 10 most popular entries of all time (ranked by number of individual direct views as of today).

  1. Lenovo Yoga: Fixing your Audio for HDMI Connection (2/5/15, with 5257 views).  Back in June 2015, this was only the third most popular entry with 417 views.  Now it is by far the most clicked.  Apparently, between this and my entry on adjusting the microphone, many people are Googling for help on their Lenovo Yoga.
  2. The Power of Positive Social Media #StartsWithUs (10/16/14, with 1040 views).  Started with a hashtag and clothespins in a St. Louis school, I shared this powerful story of how social media can be utilized to make a positive difference.  One of my favorite entries.
  3. Rose/Bud/Thorn and Design Thinking (4/29/15, with 976 views).  A great reflective strategy for students that I found and shared, along with a short overview of what Design Thinking is.
  4. Why Chromebooks? (8/22/15, with 685 views).  Probably popular if found when people Google "Why Should I Buy a Chromebook?"  I lay out some reasons why a Chromebook is a solid device, and how it fits with our district's philosophy and overall academic plan.
  5. How I Spent My Summer Vacation 2015 (8/7/15 with 683 views).  Only a few clicks shy of fourth place,  I am perplexed how this made the top 5, much less the top 20 or 50.  Perhaps because I talked about EdcampKY, Mooresville (NC) and our own district personalized PD in one entry?  Maybe it's a Google-able mother lode.
  6. Flubaroo, Doctopus and Goobric (5/27/15 with 566 views).   Three highly useful Google tools you can creatively integrate into student assessment and learning.
  7. Game-Based Learning and Classcraft (1/12/15 with 534 views).  A primer on game-based learning and gamification in the classroom, an overview of Classcraft, and an interview with Collins High School teacher Tim Oltman.  A bit overstuffed, but like #5, its popularity may come from showing up in different types of Google searches.
  8. PBL and Eusessments (7/1/15 with 467 views).  Is "assessment" a bad word? How does PBL work, and can lead to "good products" that truly demonstrate student understanding?
  9. Makerspaces (12/1/15 with 419 views).  Besides an explanation of what a makerspace is, it contains a link to a Google Doc occasionally updated by myself and our district librarians; it is full of various makerspace resources.  In addition, the entry has an interview with Heidi Nelt, who recently was named the 2016 KASL School Librarian of the Year!
  10. Garlic Necklace, Not a Silver Bullet (5/14/15 with 381 views).   There is no such thing as one device that fits all needs...and that's a good thing.  I discuss a possible alternative way of thinking about and integrating technology in a classroom, school or district.
I want to again thank Shelby County for giving me this opportunity to help teachers and students, and for every reader that has ever clicked on one of my blog entries, tweets or videos!