Google Challenges – Information literacy old and new @GoogleForEdu

Fast paced and frustrating.

A Google a Day challenge is a class favourite. I’ve conducted the challenges with big Year 7/8 kids down to Year 4.

Google has a large selection of challenges available for teachers to use. The challenges include a few sentences that have some clues that the kids can use to search to help find the answer. They then email in the answers into the teacher. To the untrained eye it probably looks like the kids and I are fluffing around on a computer but the classroom is often a hive activity that comes from groups kids trying to nut out the answer.

To be successful the children need to be able to break questions down, find out the meanings of unknown words and decide what the question is really asking through creating search strings. I’m sure a few will probably criticise me for teaching out of date search methods however I’ve found that the children are starting to make links from these challenges back to reading groups, skimming and scanning for information, using key words to help with comprehension, discussing purpose and intent that make these challenges worthwhile.

I’ve also been tweaking the format to suit my needs.

Many of the challenges on the google site now included hacks where people are answering the question directly online.  While I love the idea of promoting greater information literacy in class, the challenges themselves often were random facts rather that were competed unrelated to the unit of inquiry or topic we were studying

So I started writing my own.

This is a challenge related to last years unit of inquiry into the rainforest.


Google challenge

The image provided a magical teachable moment. The kids recognised the bird as a toucan and started search for ‘proof’ that the toucan produced a weapon. They were outraged that the image had led away from the answer. However I was able to show that our world is full of images, some of them enhance the writer’s message others will distract and it’s up to us to decide about the purpose of the image.

Images can also be used as a way to find information.

In this case the children were able to use the picture of the girl in this google challenge to help them find the information they needed to identify Adora Svitak.


Sometimes I’ve used Google challenges as a way to spark kid’s curiosity.


The challenge on Ruby Bridges quickly had the kids curious about the era of segregation. The idea that people shouldn’t be able to mix based on the colour of their skin seemed alien in my international school classroom. They were also curious as to how art and music can bring about social change. The children quickly located the song and the Norman Rockwell painting provoked further interest in the intensity of the protests Ruby Bridges faced on her fist day of school.

We’ve yet to explore how video, newspapers and news can be used to help us and I’m sure as google’s tools become more sophisticated the potential for teaching information literacy actually becomes more important not less.

Weekly Reflection: Making time for things that really matter

Our time is precious

Our time is precious

The most valuable resource in schools is not a fancy building or shiny gadgets but teachers’ time.

It had been a busy week.

I was at the GAFE summit the weekend before, my report comments needed a final proof read  and this week had been extra stressful due to a family member being sick back home.

Yet somehow I had said yes to volunteering at a swim meet on Friday afternoon when really I just wanted to be curled up on the coach watching bad TV and eating takeout.

As it turned out in terms of building relationships with both the kids and their families that 90 minutes was pure gold. Over half of my class were involved in the swim meet and they were so excited to see me there that my worries and tiredness soon washed away. I had a quick chat with a number of the parents which seemed so much more relaxed than the speed dating feel of learning conferences.

We often forget that young children spell relationship T-I-M-E but so do their parents.

Face time trumps a class blog mass email or even personalised written communication every time.

Teachers showing up to extra curricula events to have a quick chat or a friendly hello show we are invested in kids and want them to do well.

So why is it so hard for teachers to find the time for the things that really matter?

In this age of automation of communication teachers should be a lot freer to invest their time in these sort of community building interactions. Yet I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who spends a lot my week in survival mode trying to keep all the balls in the air until Friday.

Why is that?

Schools are very good at adding things to collective to do lists but not so good at taking things away. We don’t stop to ask ourselves if that meeting really necessary? Does it need to involve everyone? Does a mass email need to be sent or is it better to send it to just a few recipients?

Most important focus needs to be on being awesome in the classroom with relationship building within the school community coming in a close second.

I know I’m also guilty of letting time get the better of me on projects that don’t really add much to the experience of the kids in my class. Perhaps it isn’t that I don’t have the time, it’s that I need to make sure I’m spending it on the things that really matter.

#gafesummit – Moving from talk to action redux

A @shareski inspired jump shot.

A @shareski inspired jump shot.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 2 years since I last attended a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) summit. Life has changed a lot since then.

When I left the last GAFE I came away with a lot of plans and a zeal to share my plans with anyone who would listen and many who didn’t want to.

My plans were:

  • Do a series of 1 minute ‘what’s going on in your classroom?’ video. Review with my tutor teacher to look for improvements in teaching practice. Post reflections to my blog for input from a wider audience.
  • Contribute to the digital citizenship project.
  • Institute a daily google challenge to improve my class’s digital literacy (thanks Wendy Gorton for the book, I also plan to write some questions relevant to my New Zealand context).
  • Design an app for my class to communicate more effectively with my parents/students. Students and parents to have input into key functions.
  • Use google maps to develop a virtual tour for incoming year 7s for next year.
  • Hold an end-of-term ‘innovation day’ based on the principles behind google’s 20% time.

Did I achieve my plans?

Erm yes and no. I did post a few videos of cool stuff and even a welcome video for my new principal, I still do google challenges and innovation day happened at my old school. But when I look at that list, I realise that there were a lot of things I didn’t come close to accomplishing. My lesson is that I’m very good at coming up with crazy ideas not so good at implementing them.

Coming to GAFE Singapore was a change to reconnect with all that crazy googly energy. To remind me that coming up with ideas is one thing, but implementing is so much harder.

So my new action plan is:

Geek Girl Dinners – Something that bothers me at educational technology events is the lack of women presenting and sharing. Teaching is a workforce dominated by women yet the field of edutech is largely dominated by men. Instead of quietly complaining I’m publicly planning to help do my part to get more women sharing how they use edutech in the classroom. I’m hoping to get the first event underway before christmas

Telling stories better - It’s amazing how quickly I’ve gotten out of the habit of using my phone to video moments of awesomeness. I really do need to get into the habit of capturing things. I took on @shareski point that teachers need to tell stories. I’m using Humans of New York as inspiration to tell stories about the kids in my class. 

Share the Joy – I’ve gotten out out of the habit of sharing. Making time to write more instead of faffing around consuming stuff on twitter I need to put time into creating things for others.

Just do it – I’m not sure if it is a fear of failure or poor time management on my part but I’ve become  a lot more risk adverse these days. I’ve already got one project on the boil at school and another one I’m in the process of putting together.

Weekly Reflection: Why do we treat behaviour differently from learning?

This week a bit of my time and concentration has been focused on unwise decisions made by my students. I’ve run the full gamut of emotions; shock, anger, denial and sadness all the time trying to keep my cool.

It’s funny the way we view behaviour.

If a kid makes a mistake when they are reading, we don’t immediately stop them from coming to reading group. We model, guide and support the child until they can get over the hurdle by themselves.

A mistake is a learning opportunity.

Yet when it comes to behaviour, we are still very much in a fixed mindset. That child is no good, comes from a poor family.  Sometimes children’s behaviour is seen as being a reflection on their teacher. We go into damage control mode, not wanting to be judged.

We just want to get on with our lessons rather spend time sorting out yet another bad decision.  Behaviour is something we solve on our own and hope it isn’t one of our kids who flooded the toilets, left their instrument on a bus or was misbehaving at the shops down the hills.

But surely mistakes and muck ups in behaviour are just as an important learning opportunity that all teachers in a school should take ownership over?

Developing all those attitudes we stick up on the wall in PYP schools don’t just happen because we’ve decided to look at empathy during our ‘Sharing the Planet’ unit. Often it is those day to day interactions that present a time to go back to those attitudes and the learner profile.

How did you feel when Sarah took your pencil?

What effect did missing practice have on the rest of the team?

Could you have communicated you forgot your swimming gear earlier?

These lessons aren’t the ones you plan, but is where the learning is needed right then and there.

Weekly Reflection: Inertia


Photo by author

My knowledge of physics ends at barely scraping through a pass in high school. However over the last week I’ve been thinking a lot about inertia, the principle that every object has to preserve its present state whether in movement or not. The bigger object, the more energy there is needed to get moving.

What on earth does that have to do with schools?

Schools are large, organisations they go from being at rest to a hive of activity very quickly. Getting that moving requires huge amounts of energy usually powered on adrenaline and large amounts of caffeine.

As the school year moves on from being ‘new’ to established classroom there’s new sort of pressure. To get all those reading and maths programmes up and running, at a time when the body hasn’t quite gotten over the shock of coming from vacation back into the frenetic world of school.

There are assessments to be done, groups to be formed, interim reports to be written, meet the parents evenings. Meetings seem to crop up.

Once the programmes get going, and the routines have been established things seem to even out, your body gets used to the pace. Coming to a halt at the end of the year? The same problem but in reverse.

As we start the year, I’m already behind. I have tendency to linger on building classroom culture which comes into conflict with the cold hard reality that I’m only six weeks from the end of term. Have we done enough writing? Those spelling groups need to be formed.

However the most important job for a teacher at this point is getting to know the kids and their families , the kids getting to know you, which sets the scene for learning.

Yet perhaps part of the problem is that our traditions in schools take us away from those goals not further to them.

Why do schools keep passing students on from one teacher to another year after year?. I’ve looped students before and see so many benefits. You know the kids. The kids know you. Classroom routines can be built on and relationships enhanced. Teaching siblings already puts me at ease with some of my parent community.

Keeping meetings and administrative tasks to an absolute minimum to focus on building relationships. Our team has items we talk about if there are questions, rather than talking over every single point. I’ve also had a few meetings cancelled at the start of the year and oh what a difference that extra hour makes. Which leads to wonder, how many meetings do we call just for the sake of calling them? Instead of coming together information shouldn’t it be for collaboration?

Maybe we could do more with less and that object wouldn’t be so heavy and so hard to get moving?

Where are you from?


Image by author

Where are you from?

It’s the question often most asked when you live abroad and often the one that is most difficult to answer.

International school students have connections to several continents before they’ve hit double digits in age. Their parents might be from different countries, they might be born in a third and now the family lives in yet another land. Teachers also have personal histories stretching over multiple countries and languages. 

Where are you from?

It depends on who is asking the question.

Where my bills get sent, my accent and my country of birth straddle 3 continents.

I generally say  New Zealand – that’s where my family lives. Except I was born in Canada, spent vast tracts of my childhood moving around New Zealand domestically, lived in Korea for four years in my early 20s and now find myself in Singapore.  So when pressed to find a home town that becomes difficult.

Is it where I spent the most time? Is it the place I last lived before moving to abroad? Is it the place my parents live?

Again 3 different towns.

Where others have strong roots to a place that have accumulated over time I often feel most disconnected when I’m not moving. The longest I’ve managed to live in one place ever has been 5 years and that was when I was a teenager. 

There are benefits and drawbacks to this lifestyle.

You get happy birthday updates across multiple time zones on Facebook but you might spend your real time celebrating the occasion with complete strangers.

Friendships are both intense and superficial at the same time – I’ve met some incredible people living abroad but at the same I’ve lost contact with so many friends the minute they cleared customs. In big cities there’s an odd feeling of being constantly surrounded by people and still feel lonely especially in the first few weeks.

The process of constant moving means that you don’t tend to acquire vast amounts of possessions. Every move I end up throwing or giving away a lot of stuff that I no longer need.

The bonus to teaching in this context is that long-held assumptions about learning and life are constantly getting challenged. This process can be both professionally invigorating  and threatening at the same time.

You constantly do a double take.

Do I teach the way I do because that’s how we do things in the place I trained or is it because it is good for learning?

My first class of students all had rich personal histories. Singapore for many children is their first trip sojourn into the unknown while others might be seasoned veterans in the art of the big move.

Nevertheless that question, where are you from, is one we must frequently answer.

Weekly Reflection: A new school year

Essential agreement - process as well as product.

Essential agreement – process as well as product.

A new school year starts.

If finishing a school year in June was weird, beginning one in August is even weirder.

A new year brings with it new challenges and opportunities, some expected others not. There is no such thing as the perfect class, just a group of kids you hope leave wiser and happier after spending time in their classroom.

I’m moving down another year level to Year 4 with a bit of Year 3 and Year 2 thrown in for good measure.

There are new names to remember, routines to establish.

It’s also been the first time in a number of years where I’ve been forming a class from scratch. Previous years I’ve had students I’ve worked together with previously or come into an already established classroom. This time around it’s a fresh class though having taught in the school I’m now teaching siblings of previous students.

Looking back on my previous attempts to make the start of year more awesome some things still remain the same.

Welcome to a new school year video. I find video a fantastic way to set the scene for the year ahead kids.  It is a way to show your personality and in this case introduce the PYP learner profile to the class. It was also a fantastic way to reach out to parents and really shouldn’t every year start with the opening crawl from Star Wars?

Lollypop moments – In 2012 I stumbled onto this awesome TED Talk by a guy called Drew Dudley, who argued that true leadership was in the little every day things that we do to make each others lives better which he called lollypop moments. I used this metaphor throughout the year and I think it really added something special to our classroom culture.  While I won’t be divving out lollypops with as much frequency as I did in the past, the moments will continue to be there. I’m also recording who nominates and who gets nominated as a way to start looking for patterns in the class. Who needs help, who is not being recognised?

Whimsical and fun challenges The BP tech challenges have some fantastic challenges for kids to solve challenges based on supplies commonly found around the school. Building a tower out of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti is my personal favourite mainly because the kids usually end up eating the marshmallows at the end of it.

Augmented reality tour  Forget the usual school tour. Let the kids loose with an iPad and a list of places to go visit to find the secret clues. Great way to ‘meet’ specialist teachers without having to bother the specialist teachers.

Essential agreement/class treaty  Whatever language having a common understanding of how we all should be treated in the classroom. Show the process of getting there rather than just a nice picture otherwise the words are just classroom wallpaper.

The art of sketchnoting #adesketchnotes

Sketchnoting by author

Sketchnoting by author

Confession time.

My handwriting is so messy I can barely write my name legibly.

Actually messy is an understatement.

A drunken chicken making its way across the page is a more accurate description of my penmanship.

It’s not for want if trying, more a lack of fine motor control and spatial awareness.

Unlike many primary teachers, I find creating visual arts a form of torture. My classroom wall displays have tended to be more about function than form. Pretty is for Pinterest. While I can appreciate art, creating it was for those fortunate souls who had the ability to see objects in parts that could be put together.

Thus I approached the idea of sketchnoting with trepidation.

For those who have not come across the term before, sketchnoting is creating a visual story in reaction to a speaker or reading a text. The art uses a form of visuals and words to convey key ideas and concepts.

Surely sketchnoting is just a twist on the time-honored tradition of doodling?

As a non-doodler I tend to think of sketchnoting as doodling with a purpose. Much how twitter forces the verbose amongst us to condense ideas down into 140 characters, sketchnoting forces the creator to be succinct in words and images to convey complex concepts. The creative constraints this time are time, space and, for people like me, artistic ability.

I had a play with using paper, a free app for the iPad during the Apple Distinguished Educator institute and was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

For the first time in my life I enjoyed drawing.

In the past my mistakes would have resulted in having to redo a work or messing up a page by using an eraser. With Paper I can use the erase tool without damaging my work or better yet rotate my two fingers and use it to rewind my actions.



However the biggest revelation has been the zoom tool. My sloppy hand movements are no longer a problem as I can simply zoom into an area I want to write or paint and continue to use larger strokes.


As a final bonus your creations no longer languish in a journal. They can be easily shared and imported into other apps.

While paper not turn me into Picasso anytime soon, I’ve enjoyed the process of sketchnoting and may yet become a doodler.



A lesson in effective communication

Flight delays.

Like many small set backs in life the attitude you take determines your experience.

In attempt to make hay while the sun shines, I sent out this light-hearted tweet.

As this conversation was taking place, Tripit was quickly sending push out notifications of gate changes and delays to the flight to my iPhone.

At no point did I ever feel lost. In fact I was spending time dropping in on #satchatoc and #educampakl while waiting for my flight.

Aside from extra professional learning time, my biggest takeaway from being delayed in Dallas is that in an era of instant, personalized communication the traditional models schools use to communicate with students and their families – newsletters and reports – are relics from another age.

In pre-email days school communication was mass produced, one size fits all, periodic and lengthy. All parents received the notice containing details of the Year 4 cross country date in the weekly school newsletter whether they had a child in Year 4 or not. The piece of paper containing the newsletter might make it home in time or languish in the bottom of the school bag until the day before, or after, the Year 4 cross country.

In the era of email we’ve gone to newsletters on a slightly smaller scale, year group or syndicate. Delivery has become more accurate and content more relevant. Yet this system has added to teacher workload without really giving parents what they want; timely, relevant and personalized updates about their child’s learning.

Unfortunately I’ve yet to find a way to balance the need for report comments to be timely and relevant for each child in the class while at the same time teaching a full course load and attempting to have a life.

Non-teachers can find it hard how time consuming writing reports are. To put things in perspective, my last batch of report comments was just shy of 12,000 words – the same length as my Honours dissertation. Despite my effort my comments were inherently flawed.

As I was giving my end of year reports a final proofread, I remember thinking how out of date many of the comments seemed. Goals reached, extra effort by the kids in the last few weeks of school went unacknowledged in their report. It was too late to change each child’s report then have the updated comments proofed and checked.

Information cycles in the real world have sped up considerably in the last few years. Guidebooks are out of date the moment they go to the printer, newspapers update their websites after the morning edition. Yet in schools our information cycles stare from another time.

Which is where the problem lies.

Like many teachers I operate in two eras of communication. I’m still creating the mass produced, lengthy, periodic, just in case communication from the industrial age while at the same time attempting to create responsive, timely, brief and personalized communications that are characteristic of the digital era.

I’m sure there will come a day when the time consuming process of creating industrial communication in schools will come to an end. However despite the technology already being here, communication systems for educators still aren’t up to scratch. I’ve yet to find a learning management system that does exactly what I need it to do.

The closest I’ve come is doctopus with the goobric extension which enables me to quickly push out content to kids using google apps for education. The students can share their content with others, I can give personalized feedback to each child yet still maintain an overview of where the class is at. It’s personalized to me as a teacher and to each of the kids.

However parents are the missing component from this ecosystem unless the child or I share with mum and dad. In the past I’ve subscribed parents to their child’s blog as a way for home to get automatic updates without adding to my workload.

And that’s the key, automation and mobility. Technology should make communication for teachers more timely and effective. It should not add to our workload through needless logins, cutting and pasting information between windows and terrible user interfaces.

However most learning management tools require teachers to do just that.

I often joke that any learning management system without an iOS app is dead to me.

Instead of turning somersaults to make bad information systems work we need to be more demanding in our technological needs. Not just for own sanity but for the experience of our students and their families.

In an era where an app on my phone can push out personalized, relevant announcements faster than the airport departure board, we need to rethink what effective communication looks like in schools.

And it shouldn’t involve anyone needing to login into a browser to look for their communication.

It should just be there just when we need it.

PostScript. The flight to Chicago was accompanied with a midair proposal that even had the cynic in 18F smiling. Despite all the advances in technology there is some communication best done in person.

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#ade2014 – getting my geek on

If ever there was an event to take a sledgehammer to my end of year funk , the Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE) global institute in San Diego was it.

After the phenomenal Asia/Pacific institute in Bali last year, my expectations were high. Apple didn’t disappoint.

The institute was not a conference where participants spent much time in ‘sit and get’ mode. Instead we found ourselves recording water samples on an app, looking at plankton through a live view in our iPad, adopting trees, sketch noting, hunting for iBeacons and sharing stories about what is going on in our classrooms to make learning more awesome for our students.

The San Diego event also coincided with the 20th anniversary of the ADE programme. Over the course of the event How frequently teachers elevate their ADE selection as a life changing event. While a cynic might suggest that the fantastic hospitality provided by Apple encourages devotion by ADEs to both the programme and the brand, I think the connection runs deeper.

I suspect that many ADEs are the oddball on their teaching staff. They challenge the status quo, ask difficult questions and are highly passionate about using technology to transmogrify learning in their classes.

In short, we’re geeks.

The ADE programme is our tribe. We arrive as strangers and leave with a group of life-long friends. While a shared love of Apple technology is what brings us together, it is the connections ADEs make with each other that motivates us to travel great distances year after year. The institute was a chance to make new friends, reconnect with old ones and more importantly reconnect with my old teaching self.

The challenge from this institute is to bridge the gap from conference to the classroom. At times I remember sitting at the in the institute feeling overwhelmed at the creativity and innovation from the ADE tribe. But then I remembered we all started out the same way, with some technology and an idea to do something differently. For me that starts with a welcome to a new school year idea fermenting in my head.

The purpose of this post has not just been to recount my experience but encourage to other teachers to apply.

Applications are open for the new intake of teachers for the programme will happen later this year. I encourage women teachers in particular to put their name forward.

Too often awesome teachers think there are people far cooler and more knowledgeable out there. But chances are if you are reading this post, you’re already a bit of geek so why not share that with others?

You don’t need to be part of a 1:1 Mac programme, just have a passion for using Apple products and willingness to connect with the world beyond the walls of your classroom.



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