Shared Google Maps

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What we did

I recently tried using a shared Google Map as a prior knowledge / brainstorming / discussion starter, as part of an intro to a Grade 6 unit on the Silk Road. I asked everyone in the class to add some markers about places they’d been, and told them to add details about local, food, culture, or any other local specialties they remembered.

Why we did it

I really enjoy using shared Google Documents for all sorts of daily classwork, and I keep hoping that shared maps will eventually allow for some of the same collaborative magic. I’ve tried collaborative maps in the past and found them too slow and chaotic, but that was years ago. I realized that I hadn’t investigated this aspect of Google Maps for two years or so, and I thought I’d give it another chance.

What happened

Chaos. Madness. When I made a new map and shared it with the class, everything went wrong. Unlike Documents, the map refreshed itself very slowly and in a weird way, so that students couldn’t see the changes they’d made until 10 or 15 minutes had passed.

It didn’t help that our map immediately became unmanageably complex – many of the students decided to quickly add markers for every single place they’d been in their lives, so minutes after starting the map we had something like 135 markers.

Marker names and descriptions updated far more slowly than the actual markers themselves, so for most of the time we spent on it, it frustratingly looked like we had around 135 blank markers, even though most of them had been given names and descriptive text by the students.

After 10 0r 15 minutes of frustration, some of the students (understandably) started trying to speed the map up and organize things by deleting the dozens of apparently blank markers – except that they often weren’t blank, but were just very slow to update. This meant that some students were deleting others’ work.

Finally, one or two students figured out how to change all of the markers’ icons at once, so by the end of our time trying to collaborate on the map, we had maybe 10 or 15 informative markers and over 100 seemingly blank ones, the icons for all of which had been turned into fish heads. It was not the most productive use of class time.

What I learned

Maps are still not Documents, although they now share a similar “sharing” system. A whole class can’t work on a shared map without several major problems cropping up.

There need to be either strict limits on the number of markers that students place, or the number of people working on a map at any one time. Perhaps maps might be successfully shared in groups of 2 or 4 students, but attempting to have the whole class collaborate on a single map was not a success. The less exciting but more practical setup of ordering each student to only make one marker per map might also lead to more manageable results.

When we finally abandoned the non-updating, extremely messy map, the students seemed more upset at the “waste” of 15 or so minutes of class time than I was. When I tried to make everyone feel better by explaining that they’d helped me in a technology experiment, two of them immediately demanded payment for their services as test subjects. Unpredictable exchanges like that are part of what makes teaching middle school so fun. I did not pay them.


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Cloud Commenting

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What we did

Shared reading of an English text with comments in Google Documents. Long story short: we were studying fairy tales in Grade 6 English. I found some online texts of Brothers Grimm and other fairy tales, pasted them into Google Docs, and told the students to add comments. The only instructions I gave the students were:

Highlight text and insert a comment (command+shift+M) when you see any:

  • interesting descriptions

  • words you don’t know

  • exciting opening

  • good dialogue

  • figurative language (symbols, simile, metaphor – “x is like y”, “x is y”)

  • anything you want to comment on

Why we did it

While I love reading alone, and try to encourage students to do it as much as possible, it can be hard to have fun doing it during class time. What I decided to try earlier this year was to make the act of reading itself a bit more interactive and social.

I guess this might be categorized under “Social Learning”. Social learning is a shift to “involving individuals in processes and practices within which knowledge, understanding, and ideas are produced by participants as social accomplishments.” (Lankshear and Knobel 2011, paraphrasing Brown and Adler, 2008)

What happened

Every time we looked at a section of the text together, we had a VERY large number of comments added in a very short amount of time. Some students focused on definitions of unknown words, some looked for shocking events or descriptions, and some found connections to other things they’d read. We quickly had so many comments that they couldn’t all appear on the screen at the same time. Students answered each others’ questions and had debates about certain events or terms. It all happened a lot faster than I could follow.



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What I learned


I liked the way that this technique took a silent reading activity and made it interactive and social. It allowed us to read the same text together in class, but also let everyone tackle the same text at their own pace. I definitely got some insight into students’ different reading speeds and styles. Some students only commented on the first few paragraphs, while some raced ahead and read the ending first, or skipped around.

This approach also resulted in a document of students’ reactions to and interactions with the text which has possible future value to us as a class. For example, it easily lets the whole class see which words were difficult for which readers, and it would be easy to compile a glossary or list of hard words based on the students’ self-identified unknown words.

I also liked the way this allowed anyone to become a peer “expert” and help with definitions, etc. This peer teaching element might be a good activity for early finishers or those who are more confident with their understanding of the text, and it makes the whole process of reading a more social and collaborative act. Having this peer help available takes some of the pressure off individual readers to look up unknown words themselves, and having the whole class modeling asking for help in this way might help English language learners feel more confident when they don’t understand particular words.


I do think that this activity was distracting for some students, and in the future when we do something similar I’ll try to create some more structured guidelines for how to comment. A few people treated the comments like chat boxes and spent time writing greetings or jokes. Having all the students on the same document at the same time probably contributed to this, and I’d like to explore doing this commenting in smaller groups next time, making multiple copies of the document. Roles might also help address this – maybe one student should be the word definer, one should look for metaphors, etc.

It’s also definitely true that the act of linear, contemplative reading is disrupted by this method. Some students scrolled up and down throughout the document looking for entertainment, or got caught up in reading the others’ comments and ignoring the text itself.


I think the act of reading these fairy tales on paper, individually, still has a great deal of value for these students and will continue to be part of our study of them. However, for the specific purposes of:

  • finding unknown words and defining them
  • documenting our reactions to unusual, confusing or surprising parts of the text, and
  • finding and analyzing literary devices or techniques within the text,

I think this type of commenting activity seems perfect. After incorporating a bit more structure in the commenting process, perhaps by splitting the class into reading groups so that everyone isn’t using the same document at the same time, I think this would be a really valuable process to go through with any electronically-available text, and I am looking forward to future experiments.

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New Literacies Investigation – Phase Alpha: iPad publishing test

I haven’t written anything here for a while, but I’ve been thinking a lot this year about pushing myself forward in terms of technology, and I think I’ll have a few things to share in the near future.

I’d lump a lot of what I’m thinking about recently under the umbrella of New Literacies, although that might be so vague that I’ll have to further define or unpack that before it’s a useful term for me. Since I’m teaching MYP English this year, I’ve got more ideas about literacy in general than usual, and hope to put some of them up here, probably with an emphasis on tech.

I’m lucky enough to have a iPad Mini to play with today, so that’s my first challenge to myself – testing the process of posting on here using the iPad. Here goes.


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Rendered view of G7 Minecraft server

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I made this by following suggestions from here and here.

This is my first try, and I’m not good enough at the programs involved to even change the view – so Tyler’s house really dominates the view. But I’ll try to see what else I can do and add some more impressive images soon.

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Minecraft Mania – Course 5 Final Project Reflection

I’d like to briefly describe the project under consideration at the start here: it’s a narrated video tourist guide to a virtual structure based on a real-world building or artwork from the Renaissance or an important historical empire, for Grade 7 MYP Humanities. However, due to technical issues involved in setting up server space for the students, none of the video reports are finished yet, so these reflections will be mainly about the process of setting up the server and beginning the modeling.

UBD Unit Planner for Project

1. What were your goals for your lesson/project (Standards)?

The academic side of this project, while I think it’s solid and interesting, is not really the heart of this initiative’s innovation, and I’ll try to explain the reason for that now. The academic goals of the project were focused on meeting the standard MYP criteria for a Humanities (a.k.a. Individuals and Societies) project about Empires and the Renaissance.

Although the goal of this final project was to plan and implement a unit/project/lesson which used technology in a way that would be “redefinitive” on the SAMR model, for this project it would be possible for students to reach almost the same outcomes by not using Minecraft at all, by making a slideshow or other type of model of their building. This was, however, by design – due to the unusual nature of the tool being used (Minecraft), I planned from the beginning to make the academic side of the project something that could be completed by students who – for technical reasons, parental refusal, etc. – weren’t actually proficient in Minecraft, and it would be possible to meet most of the project’s academic goals by making a slideshow or other visual representation of the structure.

In other words, the use of Minecraft in this project – considering only its academic goals and standards met, and not its wider possibilities – is not necessarily redefinition, but could be seen as mere “substitution”.

However, I think the redefinition aspect of this Minecraft initiative is definitely present and has great potential, but it’s not on the individual project, or even unit level. The use of technology here which I think is most interesting, powerful, and “redefinitive” is three-fold:

1) The opening of a shared virtual space for physically or temporally separated students to work on models together; and

2) The possibility of mixed use of the space as a place for both expressly academic work and free creative expression and play; and

3) The maintenance of the same virtual project space into the future, to be added on during future projects.

It’s the third one that most intrigues me – I think would be amazing for a particular grade level to have a Humanities “world” strewn with construction projects which had been tied in to different units, at different times, throughout the year, and this project was the first step toward that.

2. What tools did you use? Why did you choose this/these tools for this/these task(s)?

Minecraft, of course! Reasons for the choice were:

1. Student interest.

Over the past year several of my students have made models in Minecraft as supplements to their project work without being asked (pyramids, temples, volcanoes, biome simulations, etc.). When we’ve shared these extra-curricular models in class, the interest and excitement level was always very high. I want to find a way to let students have the chance to make similar models as “official” parts of their Humanities projects.

2. Educator interest.

At the same time, many people in my extended personal learning network of educators have been discussing the game and gaming in education in general, and I’ve seen high interest in Minecraft expressed by educators around the world.

3. Personal interest (the less said about this, the better)

3. How did you go about introducing your lesson/project?

First, I had to lay the groundwork for the acquisition and setup of Minecraft in an academic setting. This started with meetings w/ my amazing admin and IT department last year. The introduction of the project involved a lot of intermediate steps after that, some planned out well in advance, some less so. Here’s a list from an e-mail I sent out a few days after the project was official underway. It details some of the steps that led up to the actual project start:

    • Parent letters for signature went out last week for 7A and 7B, and an e-mail version went out earlier this week to 7C. 
    • I set up accounts with numbered usernames for everyone in G7, named which are all linked to one e-mail account so we can reset the passwords and take them away from students if necessary (or for reuse next year).
    • I requested server space for educational use from a recommended hosting service – We can theoretically have up to 100 users on each server at any one time. In a rather surreal development, several dozen squatters from around the world were holding deathmatches in one of the servers before I had the chance to change the security settings, but I’ve successfully evicted them, changed the server to private, creative mode, and re-booted the world they were using.
    • I’m planning to only have the G7 multiplayer server on from about 5-10 in the evenings, and if there are any parent complaints or any issue of people spending too much time on it, I can change the hours.
    • We designed a Humanities project where students, in teams, will propose to study an important Renaissance or imperial structure or work of art, write a report on the structure and its importance, model it in Minecraft, then conduct a virtual tour while narrating their report. Students who aren’t experienced in Minecraft will still be able to pick a structure and complete the project regardless of their modeling skills.
    • Rebekah and I used about one class period each to get students set up with their accounts earlier this week, but this will mostly be a project to be worked on entirely for homework. One of the neat possibilities about this is that students from all 3 G7 classes can collaborate on the same buildings during the hours when the server is on in the evening.
    • The G7 students have been using the server for the past 3 evenings, and have already built dozens of separate buildings – not all are historical, but everyone seems to be having fun, and construction on 5 or so major historical buildings has started already. Attached is a shot of the Colosseum, Big Ben, the Parthenon, and Juulia’s cathedral as of yesterday.
    • So far there have been an average of 10-15 students from all three classes online, building things peacefully, during the evenings. However, since the virtual world includes things like fire and lava, there is the possibility for vandalism of others’ buildings. I see these issues as a chance to explore evolving digital citizenship issues in a new space, and aside from a few hiccups I think the G7s can be trusted to share this construction space in a…. well, constructive way. There are hourly and daily backups of the world that we could restore from in an emergency, but so far I think most students have been regulating their own risky behavior and learning to share space with their neighbors.
    • I’d be glad to take anyone on a tour of the current state of the server if you’re interested. We have a few extra account codes – if any teacher or admin wants to set up an account and look themselves that’d be really cool. If any teacher already has an account, I would just have to add them to the “whitelist” (the list of people who can go on the server). Rebekah was on for a while last night, and the students seemed to really enjoy showing her around their buildings.

4. How did the students react? Include actual samples of student reflection (video, images, etc)

[long story short, reaction was overwhelmingly positive and resulted in an immediate and enormous construction spree – see the relevant section of video presentation above]

5. Outcome? Did you meet your goals?

As described above, the academic side of the project is still in progress, but server has been a success overall (but with issues of digital citizenship and responsible behavior still being explored), and the three main “redefinitive” aspects outlined in section 1 seem to be creating some powerful interest in the server both from students and other teachers.

6. Evidence of learning? Remember to include student evidence like video, images, reflections.

[Again, please see the relevant section of video presentation above, which includes a lot of student feedback, including: ]

Student Feedback:

I think overall it is going well. We are able to work on a lot of the project in a short period of time. However, there was some vandalism that made the server a bit unsafe to use. Sort of like the medieval time!

I prefer minecraft because it’s a game and easy for us to learn how to play the game. It’s motivational if it’s a game. 

I think Minecraft is a good source for students to make buildings connected to Humanities. But I do not like about people burning and breaking buildings down because students take a lot of time building it. But it is a good idea to cooperate with other students and friends to make a historical building. 

I think the renaissance report would be best because we can all have a video about our building and we could all have something different to say in each of our videos. Also making a slideshow would not be very fun and you maybe cannot show the whole building itself with moving around. 

I think so far this minecraft project is going well because we are all working hard and I think we should continue this for a while. I really don’t like all the griefing that is going on and we should somehow fix them.

Students are still working on their academic reports, and have already shown some great learning about their historical structures being modeled, and evidence of learning in other ways has been tremendous. Students have learned and demonstrated new skills of digital negotiation of a shared space, finding each other and figuring out how to deal with the problem of numbered usernames. They’ve had virtual events like parties, come together to put out fires and stanch lava flow, taught each other construction techniques, figured out etiquette for visiting other peoples’ houses, used Skype as an additional communication tool for times when Minecraft’s chat function wasn’t sufficient, and any number of other things.

7. What would you do differently next time? What did you learn? (Reflection)

A lot of these reflections are on an ongoing process. The first thing I’d do differently would be to set things up more collaboratively and with more input from others. I tried to meet and ask for advice from several people, and I got some terrific advice from friends on Twitter, but I also did a lot of the planning on my own and think some aspects of the setup could have been stronger if I’d sought more advice. Another thing would be to have set up the timetable of this rollout differently. I think things have worked out OK, but as it turned out I set up the server quite quickly once the space became available, and wish I’d have had more time to plan the project, meet with my teaching partner and IT department to set things up beforehand, etc.

In terms of how things have progressed since students have had access to the server, I think the biggest issue has clearly been “griefing” or vandalism. The game includes things like TNT and fire, and it’s relatively easy for someone to use them undetected. I think dealing with these issues, however, has resulted in some of the most powerful learning and reflecting on digital citizenship both for the students and me, and I am glad we’ve had to struggle so publicly and openly with the issue of destructive behavior on the server.

It’s been an interesting journey. However, since student feedback overwhelmingly identified vandalism as the biggest problem with the server by far, I’ve recently taken steps to turn off TNT and fire by using mods and plugins. Destruction remains an issue, but it’s less likely now that someone will lose an entire building to fire, and I think some traumatic events could have been avoided if I’d modded the server from the start.

One thing that has been extremely interesting about all of this is the social simulation side of it. I – as the overlord of the server – found myself becoming suspicious of students, following them around to see if they were behind the vandalism. I also deputized some students by making them “OPs”, which gives them access to more commands, and I quickly found that my OP brownshirts had constructed a jail for incarcerating suspected “griefers”.

This whole social microcosm of crime, suspicion, punishment, and rebuilding after tragedy has probably been the most interesting side of going on the server for me, even if it has been slightly unpleasant in its moral and ethical implications at times. I wanted to create a place for peace and creativity, but found myself spending a lot of time thinking about rules, punishments, and banishments. I think I’m starting to reach a balance between accepting that the students will do crazy things on the server, but also doing what I can to minimize uncertainty or conflict so that it won’t – in the words of one of the students – be like “medieval time”.

8. How do/did you plan to share this with your colleagues?

Here, on Twitter (hashtag #yisminecraft), through a Pecha Kucha talk I recently gave (video to possibly follow soon), and by inviting people to tour the server.

9. What was your greatest learning in this course?

I think it was the realization of just how much more productive, cooperative and organized the students are when they’re passionate about something they’re doing. It’s something you hear all the time, but watching entire cathedrals rise in just a few hours really demonstrated the power of motivation to me.

10. Did this implementation meet the definition of Redefinition?

As explained above in section 1, in terms of the goals of this pilot project in Humanities (integrated into the curriculum) itself, no – but in terms of the collaboration between all sections of the grade, the ongoing digital citizenship negotiations and combination of academic pursuits and play in the same space, and the creation of the shared space for possible future use, a resounding “yes”.


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Audience Inspires Art

source: Me. Note the contrapuntal juxtaposition of analogues. What bold compositional legerdemain!

In recent months Instagram – of which I am a very infrequent and frankly unskilled user – has given me a great example of the inspirational and creative power of community, sharing, and audience – all of the things that educators are always saying should be part of projects that encourage student learning and achievement.

The example worked like this: I am a terrible photographer. I’m shy and hate being on either side of a camera. I feel like taking pictures of people is a really invasive and weird thing to do, so I usually only take pictures of large buildings and monuments. But I feel so self-conscious and trite standing around pointing my camera at large buildings and monuments that I rarely take the time to focus or even point the camera properly. During an entire year abroad in London, I took a total of 2 rolls of photographs, and half of them are of my thumb, the other half of Stonehenge.

But Instagram has changed something. I’m still a terrible photographer, but I feel the urge to take pictures of things. It’s not a lot by most people’s standards, but I’ve probably posted more photos to Instagram in the last few months than I’ve taken in the last five years combined. And I want to add more. The only real reason for this shift? Having an audience, even if it’s just a few people.

I can’t remember having personally been part of such a clear example of how an audience can energize creativity  (or at least interest) where none existed before. I’ll try to keep the lessons of Instagram in the back of my mind when planning projects for students.

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My Semester in Tech

The semester’s far from over, but I’m thinking ahead to final grades and winter break already. I’ll try to take advantage of this mood to make a few reflections on my use of technology in the classroom  and out over the past couple of months.

Push Notifications 1

Last year, I would frequently have students share their finished work with me – by sharing on Google Docs or e-mailing it to me – and then I would sit down with a heavy sigh and start making a spreadsheet of who had turned in what. This year, for each project, I’ve been creating a Google Document with a blank table, and telling students to add their own names and links to finished work. For more complex projects, I’ve been adding more columns for each blog post, reflection document, etc. that’s required. This simple change has been a big success – I think it’s saved me some time, but I also think it’s got some ancillary benefits for students – they get a visual reminder that it’s their responsibility to fill in the gaps in the chart, early finishers can proudly add their names to the top of the list, and late finishers have an easy place to review some of the turned-in work (if it’s public) to get a better idea of what they should be doing. Vandalism of the shared document is a distinct possibility, but it’s easy to discourage after a couple of shaming trips through Revision History.

Push Notifications 2

Conversely, I think I’ve been getting some positive results from pushing a bit more information out to the students, particularly through the use of e-mailed Google Calendar invitations as homework reminders. Last year I think I tended to only place this information on my blog or in a central Google Doc of class reminders, but thinking of my workflow as an adult, my e-mail inbox is my main way of telling when someone wants something from me, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t take the extra minute or two to push reminder e-mails out to students’ inboxes.

Push Notifications 3

It’s a small thing, but this is the first year that we’ve had a database that allows one-click sending of an e-mail to one or all parents in a particular class, and I’ve really appreciated the function. In previous years I’d often found that dredging up a parent’s e-mail seemed to take forever, and half the time they had changed addresses since the last time I’d collected them. The new system we’ve got makes communicating with parents almost instantaneous (so thanks, IT department and Veracross). Another thing this new system is great for is for finding, within just a click or two, where a student currently is (or should be) in the building. Invaluable.

The Death of the DVD

Confession time. Earlier this semester, I wanted to watch part of a video which was on a DVD about 10 feet away in a cabinet at the back of my room. I found and watched a streaming version of the clip instead. It probably wasn’t good to take up some of the school’s bandwidth just because I didn’t want to go fish around for the disc, but, well, it happened. Something similar’s been happening with some of the resource books I have around the class – I’ve actually spent more time looking at PDFs of certain books with the students than I have passing the actual books around. I love books, but overall I’m at peace with this odd development.

Google and Apple

This is a very minor thing to note, but I think this semester I’ve started mentally distancing myself a bit from my previously feverish admiration for these two behemoths. While I still use their products constantly, I sense possible rumbling portents of their upcoming Microsoftification, and I think I’ll be ready not to care. A couple years ago, I was really excited about seemingly dozens of things like SketchUp (since sold), Blogger (haven’t used it in ages), Google Plus (tumbleweeds), Ping (avalanche of tumbleweeds), etc. The fact that the two of them seem to be starting to getting a bit childish and evil-er in their competition with each other – Google forcing me to use Chrome for various things, Apple killing iOS Google Maps, etc. – is making my preemptive mental cold shoulder that much easier.

The Twitter Convergence

For a couple of years, my window to the Web was my RSS reader. I might be late to realize this, but this past semester I’ve really noticed that, since I’m following the Twitter feeds of most of my news sources, Twitter has begun to almost replicate my RSS inbox. So, yes, Twitter is still the place where individual people can bore us with what they had for breakfast – but it’s also now the first place I go for news, blog updates and, well, pretty much everything else. I’ve also started to notice a greater awareness of, if not use of, Twitter among the Middle School students. They still don’t seem interested in it at all, but they’ve heard of it.


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