A story in 2 minutes – a multimedia activity for all subjects

My principal shared this video with me today. It’s called Our Story in 2 Minutes. The video summarises the Earth’s history from the Big Bang till now in two minutes.

This inspired me to come up with some similar story-in-2-minutes activities where students can create a video using images only to represent the development of an event. It doesn’t even have to be two minutes. It can be one minute, three minutes, however long you and your students like. A video of images can be made to sequence the events in the evolution of life on Earth, the development of our current understanding of the universe, development of the cell theory, development of our understanding of genetics … the list goes on and on and it can be used in subjects other than science.

What I like about this activity is that it’s simple and yet allows students to create and engage in deep learning that extends from a subject area and even be part of a cross-KLA activity. It’s simple for both students and teachers as it involves searching and selecting images that represents certain ideas and events and then inserting the images into a video-editing program such as Windows Movie Maker or even PowerPoint. Technology tools that don’t require a high level of technical expertise from either teachers or students and are available to most students. The activity is also simple in the sense that it does not have to take long, which can be a good activity to suggest to teachers who are concerned about being pressed for time.

To create stories in 2 minutes also allow students the opportunity to learn about digital citizenship. Can students use any images pulled from the web? Do they have to search for creative commons images? How do they acknowledge the source of images? This activity is not only about the content of a subject area.

Finally creating stories in 2 minutes can be adapted into project-based learning or provide an opportunity to create a product that can be shared with a public audience beyond the classroom. Creating a story in 2 minutes require students to first understand the content, select and justify appropriate images that best represent the content and sequence them in a logical order. It allows students to apply higher order thinking skills.

I teach in Sydney, Australia so my school year is starting in about a week’s time. I will be definitely using the story-in-2-minutes concept this year.

What will you use it for?


Small changes can make a huge difference

Over the past few years I have been constantly changing the way I teach due to introduction of 1:1 laptop initiatives in some classes and a continually-developing understanding of how students learn. In a lot of cases it has involved turning things upside down and completely rewriting units of work. This is tiring. Worth it but tiring. But I found out recently that small, minor changes can make a huge difference too. The Student Research Project (SRP) has been around since I was in high school. It’s an oldie but a goodie. The SRP involves students planning, doing and reporting on an experiment of their choice. It is a compulsory activity for all Year 7-10 students in NSW, Australia. Each student must do at least one SRP once in Year 7 and 8, and another one in Year 9 and 10. By doing the SRP, students learn how to design a fair experiment, a must-have skill for all scientists! See here for more info on the SRP.

It was the Year 8’s turn to do the SRP in September this year. The traditional way of doing the SRP is for students to choose an experiment, plan it, do it and then submit a written report. This year my faculty decided to revamp it and not just rehash the status quo. However this didn’t involve major changes that would stress everyone out. It involved a few tweaks that would have the most impact. Like always we gave students the choice of whatever experiment they wanted. My class were doing experiments ranging from water absorption of different types of soils to whether particular types of video games would improve people’s reaction times to using Gary’s Mod to run a simulated experiment. However instead of forcing students to do a written report, we decided to let students choose how to present their SRP findings in whatever medium they wanted. Some students still chose to submit a written report (but by sharing it as a Google document to make the feedback process more efficient) while other students chose to create Prezis or videos. Students had to justify why their chosen medium would be the most effective in communicating their findings to others. At the conclusion of the SRP, students shared their findings with their class over a two-day conference, just like real scientists.

In the presentations I would usually get students to give each other feedback (one medal and one mission) by writing it down on a piece of paper, which I will take home and collate and then give back to students. This was a really inefficient way of doing it. Students had to wait at least 24 hours to get peer feedback and it took me time to type of the students’ feedback. This time I decided to create a backchannel on Edmodo that students used to give feedback to each presenter. Students did this by using laptops. A designated student had the role of creating a post for each presenter and then the whole class will reply to that post with a medal and mission for the presenter. Doing it this way meant that the presenter got the feedback as soon as they finished presenting; they didn’t have to wait till the next day after I’ve collated the class’ feedback. Students really liked the immediacy of the feedback they got from the Edmodo backchannel. There was also one student who made a video for his SRP, but he was ill over the two days of the presentations. His video was still shown and he was able to receive feedback on it at home from his peers via the Edmodo backchannel.

A sample of the Edmodo backchannel

So just with a little of tweaking, the good ol’ SRP has been thrusted into the 21st century. I didn’t have to completely re-write it or turn it upside down. Just by adding Google docs, more student choice and Edmodo, the SRP was made a million times better for students as a learning process. From the end-of-term evaluations, many students from across all Year 8 classes identified the SRP to be their favourite activity this term because it gave them choice, it let them use technology and they learnt by doing.

Next time I’d like to have students sharing their findings with a global audience, or at least with an audience beyond their class. But one small step at a time 🙂

Using video as evidence of learning

Today my Year 8s used lollies and toothpicks to model elements, molecules, compounds and mixtures. This isn’t anything new. Lots of teachers and students have done this before. However, I decide to allow students to film themselves explaining how the lolly models they made represent elements, molecules, compounds and mixtures as evidence of learning. For one group, I decided to record a question-and-answer conversation on my iPad.

The video showed that this student understood to a certain extent how particles are arranged in elements, molecules, compounds and mixtures. The student did accurately use the lollies for this, but upon questioning, she was confused about how many different types of particles made up her lolly models of compounds and mixtures.

I’d like this type of evidence of learning to be prominent in schools. As a system I think we rely too heavily on written exams and assignments to elicit student understanding of concepts. Having videos such as the one shown above is much more powerful to give feedback to students and to use as evidence of learning. Eventually I’d like each of teacher in my faculty to a collection of videos like this for professional discussions on our students’ learning.

BYOD – the first steps

So my school has decided to journey down the BYOD path. This is for several reasons, including students already bringing in their own devices (not just their own smartphones but quite a few students bring in their own laptops and tablets) and asking for them to be connected to the school WiFi and wanting to continue technology-rich learning post DER (DER stands for Digital Education Revolution, an Australian government initiative that gave Year 9 students their own laptops. The funding for this has ended.)

Several teachers have asked for a blog post on our BYOD journey so far so here it is …

Before we jumped on the BYOD bandwagon, we wanted to know what students thought of this. This involved chatting to students to explain what BYOD is and whether they would bring the devices they already at home to school. We put the feelers out to see what students, parents and teachers think. The students we spoke to in these informal discussions were very supportive of the idea of BYOD and wanted to be involved in the school’s exploration of possibly implementing BYOD.

At the same time, we also looked at the literature review into BYOD and did some further research, which included using the insights from Mal Lee’s Bring Your Own Technology. Once we had a good grasp of the educational research and grounding for BYOD, looked into other school’s journey into BYOD, looked at what we already knew about our school community, we decided to propose a BYOD model where students bring in whichever laptops or tablets they wanted as long as the devices connected to the school WiFi and had certain basic software and apps installed. We also seeked feedback from people with a bit more expertise than we did at BYOD (hat tip to Pip Cleaves and Stephen Turner in particular).

So at this stage, the senior executive team was happy, the students we spoke to were happy and the teachers we seeked out for the BYOD trial was happy with the model. At this stage, our Community Liaison Officer and P&C gave their support to the model and was able to help us explain our BYOD proposal to parents. This launched us into mass data collection stage. We had a fair idea of what devices our students already owned and the challenges that will face our students’ families if BYOD is implemented, but wanted to be 100% sure and to hear as many voices and ideas as possible.

We surveyed Year 7 and 8 students and their parents. From the student survey data, we chose a group of students that held a diverse range of views towards BYOD for student focus groups, which is also acting as a student advisory group for BYOD. The focus groups enabled students to explain their concerns towards BYOD in detail and as a group come up with solutions to address their concerns.

From all the data collection and consultation with the school community, there was overwhelming support for BYOD and the reasons cited include:

-students already being familiar with their own devices
-having access to their own devices in class caves time as they longer need to move from their regular classrooms to a computer room
-bringing their own devices to school will make learning more fluid between school and home
-technology being a part of students everyday lives

The main concerns that were raised were:
-how equity issues will be addressed
-safety and storage of devices
-digital citizenship

The main lessons we’ve learnt from our BYOD journey so far is to involve the school community as much as possible. This sounds obvious but from our experience it is the students and parents who have come up with the best solutions to address challenges of BYOD.

Our next step is to work with teachers and students on the next challenges, which includes leading a classroom with multi-platform devices and learning design that will best utilise students’ devices.

Using PowerPoint to tackle misconceptions and embed literacy in science

Many people frown upon PowerPoint, It has become rather unfashionable these days. Search ‘PowerPoint’ in Google and you’ll get websites with titles like:

“Be Less Boring: The 4 Best Alternatives to PowerPoint”

“Hate PowerPoint? Here are 5 Web-based Alternatives”

“5 PowerPoint Alternatives to Wake Up Your Presentations”

Anyway, since PowerPoint has been getting such a negative spin lately, I’d like to share some a learning activity that uses PowerPoint a little differently.

My Year 8 class are currently learning about states of matter and the particle model. It is one of the most conceptually difficult science topics for middle school students. The most difficult aspect is probably because the particle model is an abstract concept. There are also many misconceptions associated with this topic. Let’s take particles of water as an example. Students often think that:

  • particles in ice, liquid water and steam are physically different from each other

  • particles change in size as water changes from ice, liquid water and steam

There are also a few conceptually difficult ideas that students need to grasp such as:

  • Particles are inside objects (as opposed to particles actually making up the object)

  • One particle of water is actually two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom

  • The behaviour of the particles that cannot be seen is directly related to the behaviour of the macroscopic object they make up

  • The particle model is a model and every model has limitations in what they can explain

This is one of those topics where a lot of regular and frequent formative assessment is very  beneficial as it allows you as the teacher to identify and tackle any misconceptions as they happen with each student. This is one of those topics where you don’t want to find out your students have completely misunderstood particle model at an end-of-topic test.

So with my Year 8s I decided to use PowerPoint to identify misconceptions. Their PowerPoint task looks something like this:

This is an unfinished audio slideshow made by some of my Year 8 students

This activity was done over three lessons, spanning three weeks. At the end of each of these lessons, students upload their progress onto Edmodo and I give them feedback based on the medals and missions model.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean.

screenshot of feedback

And here’s my feedback to them on Edmodo.

And here’s my feedback to another group. From their progress I was able to pick up on one of their misconceptions.

screenshot of feedback on Edmodo

From my observations of my Year 8 students doing this activity, I have found that they actively engage with the text when they are finding images to match different sections of the text. In their groups they were often arguing and justifying to  each other which images were the best to use. I also think that this activity allows students to ‘talk science’, which will be particularly beneficial for students learning English as a second language. Setting aside time where students practise using scientific metalanguage to talk about science with each other is also something that is often neglected in high school science.

During this activity, it is also the students who are working the hardest to learn. It isn’t me showing pictures of circles and talking about the particle model. It is them talking about it and me regularly checking their understanding.

So don’t just think of PowerPoint as a boring presentation tool. It can be used as a very easy way to create a student-centred learning environment that frees up the teacher to tackle student misconceptions.

Learning about sound waves with English Language Learners

Sound waves and waves in general are concepts that I’ve found many students have difficulty understanding. These are concepts that deal with understanding how energy is transmitted from one place to another through a scientific model. Why are these concepts difficult? Firstly it is abstract. You can’t see waves. When you speak or hear music you can’t see the waves coming out from the source and travelling to your ear. You can’t see the vibrations of particles. Secondly learning about the transmission of waves comes with a lot of academic language. Here’s just a sample of academic scientific jargon you’ll hear when you sit in a lesson learning about waves:

  • Equilibrium

  • Particles

  • Transmission

  • Transfer

  • Amplitude

  • Frequency

  • Period

  • Wavelength

  • Compression

  • Rarefaction

Due to this, learning about waves is particularly challenging for students who are also English language learners. Not only do they have to deal with difficult and abstract scientific concepts, they also have to deal with the intense bombardment of academic language.

This year I have a Year 9 class who are students learning English as a second language. I didn’t want to start the topic with a waveform diagram and pointing out what is an amplitude, etc. I planned a learning sequence that will move them from concrete to abstract, and from everyday language to academic language.

The first concept I wanted them to understand is that sound is vibration, or things shaking back-and-forth very quickly. We used the good ol’ tin can phones for this. We also did an experiment where students used a vibrating tuning forks to tickle their noses and make tiny splashes with a beaker of water (I thought they would find these experiments too boring, but they absolutely loved it). Every single student left that lesson knowing that sound is caused by vibrations.

The second concept I wanted them to understand is that we can represent sounds as waves. Students used Audacity to record their voices and experiment with how the loudness and pitch of their voice affected how the sound wave looked like on Audacity. We also experimented on whether saying “Hello, My name is ____” in English and students’ first languages had a difference in pitch.

Here’s a video on Audacity. It’s a free program that can be downloaded.

Students worked out from this Audacity activity that the higher pitched their voices were the more squashy the waves were. They also worked out the louder their voices were the taller the waves. I was happy for them to use the words “squashy” and “high” to describe the waves for the time being.

The following lesson I introduced frequency and amplitude. By now the students had a conceptual understanding of the relationship between sound and vibrations, the relationship between pitch and “squashiness” and the relationship between volume and the tallness of waves. They now just had to replace “squashy” with frequency and tallness with amplitude.

I really like the strategy of teaching a concept with everyday language first and then introducing the scientific terms after students have actually understood it. Science is hard enough without a bunch of difficult words bombarding students as well.

Plague Inc – Learn while you infect the world

It’s the summer holidays here in Australia. This means I get to play more games than usual. Rather than spending my evenings planning lessons, I get to sit on the couch with my tablet and play games while watching the Australian Open.

Last week I stumbled across a game called Plague Inc, available on iOS an Google Play. The goal of the game is to design a disease that will become an epidemic that wipes out humanity. You as the player chooses where you start the disease, the symptoms of the disease, how the disease will be transmitted and the defence mechanisms it will have such as drug resistance.

The game is an authentic simulation of epidemiology. While it is not 100% scientifically accurate, it is accurate enough to reflect the following epidemiological aspects:

  • The location of the origin of the disease affects where and how fast the disease is transmitted. For example, a disease originating in a third world country with limited health care resources will spread faster than the same disease originating from a first world country. The disease will also spread via transport routes.
  • To design a disease that will kill everyone on Earth, the player needs to balance the rate of transmission, the severity of the disease and how lethal the disease is. Making the disease too lethal early in the game will result in doctors noticing the disease and research on a cure will begin too soon.
  • Islands are harder to infect. In the game it is often difficult to spread the disease to Greenland and Madagascar.
  • The transmission of disease follows trade and travel routes.

Plague Inc has a lot of potential in games based learning. I am planning to use it as an introductory activity for students to think about how diseases are spread on a global scale and how scientists approach epidemics. The game can be used to discuss evolution of pathogens and vectors of diseases. The game can also be used for students to test out how wealth and regional location affect a country’s ability to respond to epidemics.

Plague Inc also throws in some ethical issues. In the later stages of the game, it shows how countries begin to respond to massive numbers of people dying. Some countries’ governments are overthrown, some countries fall into anarchy and some countries bomb areas with large numbers of infected people in order to control the spread of disease. This can be used as a stimulus for a whole variety of learning that spans across many subjects.

I am planning to use Plague Inc with my Year 9 class this year when we are learning about diseases. I am going to use the game in the beginning and have students come up with questions they would like to explore and mould that into a project based learning opportunity.

Plague Inc is a bit morbid and perhaps not entirely politically correct, so it is best to check with your principal if you are thinking about using Plague Inc in your classes as well.