Saturday, March 30, 2013

Author Skype With Ellis Weiner

The story goes like this:

Teacher goes to library. Teacher immediately falls in love with a new book. Teacher abandons current classroom read aloud for said new book. Students fall in love with the new book, too. Teacher has to  buy several copies for students. Teacher has a sneaky idea. Author plays along.

That's the short version of how we got to Skype with Ellis Weiner, author of The Templeton Twins Have an Idea. 

But seriously. Have you heard of this book? My students and I have been obsessing over it for the past few weeks. The Templeton Twins Have an Idea has everything you'd want in a new middle-grade series. It's clever. It's silly. It has a recipe for meatloaf! My students love The Narrator's snarky voice, the crazy inventions created by Professor Templeton, and the Twins' ability to outwit the evil Dean brothers. I love the unconventional-ness of this book (it has three prologues and cheeky 'Questions for Review' at the end of each chapter), the random puzzles and witty references sprinkled throughout, and how it was able to completely captivate twenty-five young people within the first page and sustain their interest to the very end. We also used this book to practice inferring (among many reading skills); analyze how the author's voice and word choice affects the story; and discuss concepts of energy, force and motion. If you're looking for an intelligent and fast-paced book with a definite "nooooooo!" factor (as in, "nooooooopleasedon'tstopreading!"), this is it. 

After a few sneaky emails to Ellis Weiner (unbeknownst to my students), we were in business for an author Skype a few days after we were scheduled to finish up his book. I broke the news upon reading the last chapter and you would have thought I had just announced Taylor Swift or Justin Beiber was coming to play a secret show in our classroom. That's how big of a deal this book was to my students. 

During our Skype session we asked all sorts of questions:
  • What inspired you to create the Templeton Twins?
  • Did you always want to be an author?
  • What are your  hobbies?
  • Did you ever have a ridiculous dog?
  • What was your life like as a kid?
  • What's your writing process like?
  • How has technology changed the way you write?
  • Have you ever been to Seattle?
  • Are you more of a sports person or a video games person?
  • If you won a million dollars, what would you spend it on?
  • Do you have any friends that are author's, too?
  • How'd you get so funny?
  • What advice would you give kids today?
My students even had the fun idea to prepare three 'Questions for Review' à la The Narrator to end our call. We had a lot of fun trying to emulate his style. 

Ellis Weiner talking with my students about the
 upcoming second book of the Templeton Twins series. 
Thank you, again, Ellis, for taking the time to talk with us and for writing such an engaging, witty, and hilarious book. The call was definitely the highlight of our week, and we are most certainly Templeton Twins fans for life!  

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Third Graders in Battle

If you walked past my classroom at 2:55 yesterday afternoon, you would have seen students crying and hugging each other. You would have seen ripped up pieces of scrap paper being thrown up in the air and 25 children jumping up and down like little bits of popcorn popping. You would have heard screams and shouts and high-five slaps. There were fist-pumps, yes!'s, way-to-go's, and even a spontaneous rendition of Kool and the Gang's Celebration. 

And it would have seemed like total chaos. But it wasn't.

For the first time in the history of our school, third graders placed at the annual Battle of the Books. Twice. In complete underdog fashion, two teams from my classroom took first and third place. While I don't put too much emphasis on Battle of the Books, this was our game plan from the first day of school:

Love of Reading + The Right Attitude + Collaboration = Success!

Leftover sign from our Battle of the Books (BOB) Competition
First, Battle books are notoriously hard for my third graders to read. I chose to read two of the sixteen aloud to the class (The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling), but that was it. The rest they read on their own because they were just plain good books and they love to read.

Second, we went into Battle with the attitude that a win for one third-grade team was a win for all third grade teams. The phrase "better together" became a daily mantra. Students agreed that no matter what team they were on for the event, in our classroom they were one team, united.

Third, we had to work hard. Sure, having the right attitude naturally fostered collaboration among the group, but students quickly realized they had to put in the time to practice. I helped by setting up an Edmodo group and a Google Spreadsheet. They took over from there. Students created quiz questions for each other, compiled important book information, and generally spent a lot of time just talking about the books - both in person and online. When one student didn't understand or was confused, another was there to help them comprehend. They began to show patience and trust each other's expertise. They began to really listen and learn from one another as a result of the process. This was a major breakthrough for a group of very independent, competitive, and strong-willed kids.

Seeing the joy and excitement yesterday afternoon was a great reminder of why I'm in this profession, despite all the hardships that led up to the event. It's about the process and love of learning. It's about the joy of collaborating with others. It's about celebrating successes - those that can be seen and those that can't. I hope my students never forget that feeling of 2:55 yesterday afternoon. I know I won't.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mystery Skype

Mystery Skype has been an incredible teaching tool for me this year. My students love it because it challenges them and allows them to connect with other kids around the world. I love it because it is a fast-paced and rigorous adventure across the globe! But, Mystery Skype is more than just a fun game - it's a learning experience that lets my students practice and apply a great deal of academic and social skills in a short amount of time. There are many of fantastic blog posts circulating the internet about Mystery Skype (here and here and here), but I wanted to chime in on how we've made it work for us and made it our own.

Start With the "Why"

Last week I armed a group of students with sticky notes and asked them to brainstorm all the skills they learned and used in participating in a Mystery Skype. I think this chart speaks for itself:

Look at all that learning!


Spokespeople (3-4) - these students are the face of our classroom. They ask and answer questions and talk with the kids on the other side.

Atlas Masters (4-5) - these students use atlases to narrow in on the location. They use various types of maps to determine possible regions and landmarks.

Narrowing down the regions

Google Mappers (4-5) - these students use Google Maps to narrow in on the location. They are very helpful in locating cities our atlases might not list.

Working together to find the city

Clue Keepers (2) - these students record the questions and answers on our easel to help the questioners.

Keeping track of clues helps everyone stay focused.

Questioners (4-5) - these students synthesize the information given to us from our clues and determine the next questions we will ask. They sit between the Spokespeople, Atlas Masters and Google Mappers for easy access.

Possible next question?

First Responders (2) - these students are the problem solvers. They help re-engage students who might be off task, solve technical issues, provide voice level reminders, etc.

Recorders (2) - these students take photos and videos of our Mystery Skype experience.

The recorder captures another recorder - how meta :)

How We Extend the Learning Experience

Graphing - after each call, students add the new location their bar graph of regions and write a few statements on the updated data.

Estimation & Distances Traveled - we note the distance of each school in relation to ours on a big map in our classroom. This information helps students make educated guesses when the time comes to add a new label. Once added, we calculate the round trip or find out how much farther away or closer another location was.

Compare & Contrast - one of our our favorite activities is to "fly" to our mystery location's school on Google Earth and compare physical landmarks and school characteristics. We also take a few minutes to compare time zones, temperature, and city data.

Questions - sometimes our post-call conversations inspire us to find out more about that location. For example, we recently connected with a classroom from Danvers, MA (the site of the Salem Witch Trials). Many of my students were not yet aware of this time in American history, and our call sparked many great discussions that carried us through the rest of the day. Another call to Canada also triggered questions about forms of measurement, language, and the differences between a "state" and a "province." Letting students ask questions allows them to process the experience and encourages them to find out more.

States & Provinces we've "been" (as of early March '13)

  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Ontario, Canada
  • Texas

If you're new to Mystery Skype and would like to know more or you're a seasoned Skyper and would like to connect with us, please let me know. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter (#mysteryskype) or at Skype in the Classroom.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

NMCk12 Ambassadors

Remember this post?

Well, I was selected to be a New Media Consortium K-12 Ambassador. Here's the official press release for posterity.

To be honest, I feel like I've joined the Justice League and won Miss America all at the same time!


Being a part of this incredible group of crazy-talented individuals is truly a dream come true. Working together, we can amplify our voices to reach a broader global community, utilize our individual strengths to foster meaningful change, and build upon our crazy ideas to help combat wicked problems facing our educational system and prepare our students for an unknown future.

This journey will no doubt be challenging, but I know that the NMC is full of my people. I have no doubts it will provide me with countless opportunities to learn, connect with others, and stretch my thinking in ways I never thought possible. Many thanks to my family, friends, and Twitter PLN who not only helped me realize this goal but have supported me in ways I cannot even comprehend. I am so grateful for this opportunity to make my mark on the world and I can't wait to see where it takes me.