Friday, December 3, 2010

Google Docs Rocks

Google Docs allows you to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations online. These files can be created from scratch, created from an online template, or you can upload existing files in their native format. The idea is simple: rather than emailing files back and forth to numerous people, have those people edit the SAME document online. Everyone stays on the same page and can see edits made by their peers. It's genius! Their Google Docs in Plain English YouTube video explains this more clearly.

The main selling point to why someone would use Google Docs compared with Microsoft Office is its collaboration features. As the owner of a document, you can choose how to "share" it. There are three options by default:
  1. Public on the web: Anyone can search for and find the document (no sign-in required)
  2. Anyone with the link: You can share the link to a document on a website or with a certain group of people via email or chat (no sign-in required)
  3. Private: Only people explicitly granted permission can view the document (sign-in required)
Once you have decided who you want to view this doc, you then decide who has editing capabilities. Say you share a spreadsheet with ten people, you may only want two of them to be able to edit whereas the rest can view only. There is also an option where you can allow anyone to edit (no sign-in required). I have yet to find a purpose for this though.

Most of my teaching documents are public to some extent, but I only allow other science or team teachers to edit my docs. The exceptions would be personal docs or teaching-related docs that include private information such as test material or student grades.

The other great thing about storing these documents in the "cloud" is that they can never be accidentally lost. Say goodbye to the days of students forgetting their flash drives, leaving a report at home, printer running out of ink, etc. They can either share their documents with the teacher or at the very least access them at school via the Internet.

Over the course of the one year that I have been using Google Docs (I currently have 100 documents stored in their cloud), the improvements have been solid and often. I feel they really do pay attention to customer feedback and are dedicated to making this service stronger. The embedded video below shows some of these improvements.

Ideas for using Google Docs:

Use Google Documents to plan our team meeting agendas and write up our parent newsletters. Teachers on our team would add agenda items and class updates ahead of time so our meetings were more productive. We would then copy and paste the parent updates into an email which the ELA teacher would then zip off to all of the team parents. We would use the same file each time and change it to reflect what was new. This year, I plan on making different docs each time, and then having a link on our team website to the newsletter archives for parents.

Communicate with non-English speaking parents. Google announced just last week that all Google Docs can now be translated into one of 53 different languages! 

Make Google Document lessons public and viewable for students. This includes handouts, homework assignments, and all Google Presentations. I uploaded all of my PowerPoint presentations and while they may not convert perfectly (especially if you have animations or transitions) it is very helpful for students to use for reviewing for a test.  

Have students share assignments with you and other students. I only utilized this during my science fair project. Students shared a document with their partners and a few shared their ongoing lab report with me so I could give ongoing feedback. I do know that Mr. Pizzuto (ELA teacher) collaborated more with students due to the larger number of long term writing assignments he assigned.

Use Google Spreadsheets for my student grade book. While their Spreadsheets cannot do everything that Excel can, it's getting close. The pros far outweigh the cons. I have instant access to all of my students' grades from any computer without having to worry about losing my paper grade book or Excel grades should my laptop crash. For this school year, I also plan on creating a spreadsheet for my plan book. Students will have

Use Google Forms to create surveys for students and parents. This ranged from getting parent feedback on our student-led conferences to finding out a good date for our team hike.
These can also be used to make short little quizzes for students. I also used it as my beginning of the year "getting to know you" survey for students. It gave us a lot of great information we were able to revisit throughout the year. Regardless of how its used, you can access a "summary of responses" to get instant feedback. This event creates an appropriate graph depending on the format of your question. See an example below.

Resources for using Google Docs 

Lots of great videos from the Google Apps team

Final Thoughts: 

I have found myself using Google Docs more and more over the last year. However, I am not ready to totally quit using Microsoft Office either. As great as it is, Google Docs still does not quite have the formatting capabilities of its software counterpart. The good news is that if I have a document, or even a pdf file, I can upload it to my Google Docs withoutreformatting them. This lets me share the doc and keeps it looking exactly as you want it, but this also means you will not be able to edit it online. 

As I said in my earlier post, I feel that in another year or two of updates and improvements, I will be ready to fully adopt this as my editing suite. I am confident it will be just as good if not better than anything else on the market. Let's just hope it stays free!

Google Apps

Early last summer, when I began to research emerging technologies to use in the classroom, I signed up for a free Google account. I had long grown tired of my Yahoo email client and Gmail drew me in. I had never used any Google applications other than just their basic search engine, but that was all about to change.

Once I became comfortable using Gmail (which I absolutely love by the way), I began to explore other Google apps that would benefit me in the classroom. You could spend days just reading on all of the different tools Google offers, but I chose to focus on learning just a few: Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Reader, and Blogger
Over the past year, I have learned a lot by using these apps in both my personal and professional life. In order to give you a sense on just how valuable each of these has proven to be, I will be writing a separate blog post on each.

I would like to point out that I have been using these Google apps to collaborate with a relatively small subset of teachers and students. I am hoping this will continue to expand to include at least a majority of teachers in my building. Somewhere down the line, I hope to speak with our IT Director to consider looking into Google Apps for Education. This is a FREE suite of communication and collaboration tools that is meant to replace expensive software-driven Microsoft applications. Each student and faculty is given access to Gmail for their email client (much better than Entourage!) as well as Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Wave, Google Sites, Google Video, and Google Groups. In May, Google announced that other apps including Blogger, Google Reader, iGoogle, and YouTube would be integrated into the Google Apps for Education suite this Fall as well.

While I do think this is where many schools are heading, I admit that I am not quite there yet. Give me Gmail and Google Calendar now, but as I'll explain in my next post why I'm not quite ready to abandon my Microsoft Office suite for Google Docs. Give me another year or two, and I'll be "all in."

Monday, October 11, 2010

First attempt at inquiry

Before I ease my students into using a science notebook, I am scaffolding the process for them. Our first inquiry investigation involved finding out the density of water. I provided the focus question for them (which I realize is not ideal in true inquiry), but let the groups identify the variables involved and design their own experiments. Student groups measured the mass for different volumes of water.

This was all standard for my class and nothing new. However, their measured data used to stay within each group. On this day, all data was shared via a class data table and graph. Students could see the results of everyone. We discussed class trends and explanations for possible outliers. This made the data more meaningful.

One of the key concepts in an inquiry investigation is the use of claims and evidence. Once all groups recorded their data on the board, students made claims and used the class data as the evidence to back up the claim. Just like in a court case, a claim is meaningless unless you have the evidence to back it up. Students can use their own data as evidence or the data from anyone else in the class. Depending when you reach this point, students could also use evidence found in a textbook or another activity.

While the conclusions and reflections students generated were really good, this idea of claims and evidence is what I found the most beneficial. It really makes them take a solid look at the results and whether they had meaningful data or not. It also helps that the ELA teacher on my team also teaches the students that they need specific textual evidence when analyzing a passage in a book so they are hearing the same message in two very different contexts!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

CSI: Lab safety

I am obligated to cover the basics of lab safety at the beginning of every school year. During my first few years of teaching, I spent about a week on safety, reviewing the rules and safety symbols. I had students create posters, skits and commercials all to drive home the importance of safety in the classroom.

I eventually realized that students were doing these same activities EVERY year. The rules were mostly common sense and I was determined to find a quicker, more engaging method of driving home the point of safety.

I came across an excellent article in NSTA's Science Scope magazine called "Good, Messy, Frothing Fun". It explained how to use a forensic crime scene to show the dangers of a science classroom lab if students disobey safety rules. I had always been a CSI fan so I first tried this activity a few years ago with great success. The original article called for an adult (principal, aide, parent, etc.) to lay down and pretend they were dead. I wasn't ready to go that far, nor do I want some poor sap to lie on my floor all day, so I use my team mascots, which are stuffed animals we have won through magazine drives.

Billy Bob is dead!
Students walk into my room to see my mascot lying dead on the floor with fake blood and vomit (Ritz crackers and water works well!) all over the place. The phone is off the hook, and there are numerous beakers, cylinders, hot plates, and food and drink on the lab table. The students must process the scene and determine all of the safety violations "Billy Bob" broke that led to his demise. They then work in CSI groups to determine what happened based on their observations of the evidence.

Students are very engaged and usually come up with elaborate theories of murder, and I am often considered a prime suspect. The crime scene gets more detailed every year. I even created a an audio recording of Billy Bob calling 9-1-1 to report that he accidentally drank chemicals because he confused it with the water he was drinking. You can listen to the audio recording below!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What would Rocky do?

As my students began to prepare for this year's Field Day event, I told them to keep one question in mind: "What would Rocky do?" I used the Rocky movies to not only to motivate them to win, but also encourage them not to give up. So whether they were pulling on that tug-of-war rope or running in a relay race, they were determined to succeed.

To my surprise and delight, my team of 8th grade students also embraced the theme song "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor. Just imagine 90 students walking out to Field Day (many with "What would Rocky do?" written on their shirts!) with the entire school watching us while this song blasted from my speakers. It was pretty amazing. As I listened to them sing this song again and again over the last week of school, the lyrics really resonated with me.

I had always been a huge fan of the song going back to my high school hockey days, but I have come to think of this song as a good metaphor for teaching today. Despite what many people think, being a good teacher is not easy. I will use this blog to write about my experiences as I take on the challenge of engaging my students with scientific inquiry while adhering to state and national standards and providing them with technology and 21st century skills.