Be the Fly on the Wall: Mystery Skype

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There can never be enough examples from the classroom to share. The benefits are many, from creating a ripple effect of digitally documenting and sharing to a glimpse in someone else’s classroom by having the opportunity to be a fly on the wall via a video clip.

I have shared the Excitement of Learning that can unfold with a Mystery Skype call before. The following video clip is from David Jorgensen’s 8th grade Humanities class (São Paulo, Brazil), recorded during their first Mystery Skype with a class from rural Iowa, USA.

Take a closer look at the collaboration, roles of each student (based on Alan November’s Digital Learning Farm), and their practice of questioning techniques.


Building Content Knowledge: Collaborate and Curate

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Mark Engstrom. 8th grade Geography teacher and Assistant Principal at Graded- The American School of São Paulo, has redesigned his entire course.

Students move through the modules of this blended learning course on Geography at their own pace. They build out content knowledge using a Personalized Map (through google maps) and the content delivered through this Digital Learning Farm method will be curated so that they can build out multiple pins on their map. This content is then used as content knowledge to increase their understanding of the region.
He wanted to experiment with a different type of note taking to add to students’ documentation of gaining subject specific content knowledge.


The class was divided into 3 groups. Each group contained one person responsible to contribute by :

  • taking notes on one google doc- each has a column
  • adding raw data (statistics, facts, charts, graphs, etc.)
  • adding images that visualized what was being talked about
  • writing on the backchannel
  • asking questions
  • linking to the course’s Essential Questions

collaborate-curate collaborate-curate 3 collaborate-curate collaborate-curate2 collaborate-curate4 collaborate-curate5 Take look at the following video summarizing the class.

It is incredibly insightful to be going through and analyzing the backchannel chat after the class is over. It gives you a better understanding of:

  • what students heard
  • what students felt was important to capture
  • the discussion that evolved in the backchannel alone
  • the connections students made and shared

waitingfortherains-backchannel1 waitingfortherains-backchannel2 waitingfortherains-backchannel3 waitingfortherains-backchannel4 waitingfortherains-backchannel5 waitingfortherains-googledoc waitingfortherains-googledoc2 It was now back into each individual student’s court to CURATE their own notes. Students had access to all documents from each group as well as the backchannel. It was up to them to go trough the information and take the pieces that they deemed important to add to their content knowledge. Digital curation

is the selection, preservation, maintenance, collection and archiving of digital assets.Digital curation establishes, maintains and adds value to repositories of digital data for present and future use.This is often accomplished by archivists, librarians, scientists, historians, and scholars. Enterprises are starting to utilize digital curation to improve the quality of information and data within their operational and strategic processes

Curating information has become a critical skills as part of information literacy. The ability of finding, evaluating, analyzing, remixing, organizing and archiving information is more important than ever in the information overload era. The amount of information we are confronted with and that is being thrown at us is exponentially growing with no sign of stopping nor slowing down. We need to find ways to support students in becoming curators of information. One of the students, Ben, observed the following as he was going through the notes from the Backchannel group:

I found these very interesting because Florens and Tibet really try to link what is happening in India to our life in São Paulo which for me is a smarter way to learn things; by comparing them with your everyday life.


Student Led Conferences: Sick and Tired of Blogs and Reflections?

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Our students just finished a second round of Student Led Conferences
(SLC) this school year (one in Semester 1 and another in Semester 2).

SLCs are a formal opportunity for students to present to their
parents about the state of their learning. The students’ advisor (a
teacher responsible for a specific group of students during the school
year) serves as a facilitator to prompt and guide the students if
needed, but is a silent presence as the students share their learning
with their parents. SLCs are not a time to talk about grades, student
behavior, but about learning habits, process, improvements and goals.

Although there was emphasis placed
on an ongoing documentation of each subject area as learning and reflection happened throughout the school year, a significant amount of
time was dedicated to prepare for the SLCs.

Preparation for Student Led Conferences


Each subject area had to be represented with at least one blog post. Each SLC blog post was to contain a title, an artifact, a reflection and be properly labeled.


Min Kyung’s Blog



Karin’s Blog


Juan Carlos’Blog



Ji Won’s Blog


Using the documentation posted to their blogfolios (process and
showcase items), they selected posts and artifacts that best demonstrated
improvement or mastery of a learning target. Students connected their
learning to specific school identified Core Values.

The slides below were shared with students to guide them through the process of preparing for the SLC. (Thank you Claire Arcenas for written directions as well as Visible Thinking Routines) 









Student Led Conference

Students and parents gathered with the advisor for up to 30 minutes
in a classroom setting. The student’s blog site was projected to the
screen and students used the artifacts as a trigger to talk about their
learning. They spoke about their challenges, successes and areas of
growth in relationship to the Core Values. Parents were encouraged to
ask clarifying questions at any time. To wrap the SLC up, students spoke
about the learning that occurred by going though the process of
preparing for the conference and their learning goals for the last

Notes and Reflections

There was a loud rumbling noise among students in the days that lead up to the SLC.

Comments such as the ones below were expressed by many:

  • “We are tired of writing reflections”
  • “I am sick of having to write a blog post in EVERY SINGLE CLASS!”
  •  ”Why do I have to do this?”
  • “I am writing what my teachers want to hear, but not really what I think.”

I seriously started to doubt the approach to support Blogging Beyond One Classroom. Was
it inevitable, if students were expected to “learn, reflect, share”for
all their classes  (from Math, Humanities, Science to Orchestra to
Physical Education), that they were going to burn out? Could the
“exponential explosion” of reflective blog posts  clumped together in
the immediate days before the SLC be blamed for it?

reflective school culture

Was “too much of a good thing”…. well simply too much?

  • Did we need to be more selective with WHAT types of reflections we
    asked students to make their learning visible? (Not every assignment,
    project or activity needs to be documented and reflected on?)
  • Did we need to adjust our language to not bunch everything under an umbrella of “Please write a reflection on your blog”.
  • I am reminded that “It’s one thing for us as teachers to articulate
    the kinds of thinking we are seeking to promote; it is another for
    students to develop a greater awareness of the significant role that
    thinking plays in cultivating their own understanding.” ( Making Thinking Visible
    by Ron Ritchhard, Mark Curch and Karen Morrison). Do we need to double
    our efforts in helping students develop that awareness and continue to
    give them the why behind maintaining a blog (learning, reflecting and
    sharing as part of an overall process)?
  • Did we need to change/alter/modify the routine of adding the
    reflection as a separate piece, tagged on the end of a assignment,
    project or activity?

Despite the fact that students openly did not seem to “enjoy” the
process  of  blogging and reflecting as it was happening in the days
before the SLC (among my advisory students), it was unanimous (again
informal survey from among my advisory students) that the process of
reflecting, thinking about one’s learning and going back to
re-read/watch/look at previous posts and artifacts  to identify areas of
growth HAS helped and they are glad to have gone through the process.
Students also recognized and articulated in their SLC specific learning
opportunities and teaching methods from many of their classes that
inspired and supported them in their learning process.

SLCs are an opportunity for:

  • Authentic opportunity to showcase skills in information literacy (organizing, categorizing and archiving of information created and published)
  • Building blocks of a positive digital footprint (How
    do we support and guide our students to positive online publishing?
    What does it mean to be “googlable?” How do we not only build, but also
    maintain a positive digital footprint?) 
  • Digital citizen issues come to surface (What is shared? Why should we share? Observance of copyright. How do we keep ourselves safe? )
  • Evidence of using technology to demonstrate learning (Technology
    is not only about Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or video games.
    “Digital natives” might be wizards in using technology in other domains,
    but need guidance for using it for learning)
  • Resource or non-academic subjects are given time in conference and equally contribute to the students’ learning profile
  • Advisors have a chance to step outside of their own classrooms and learn about their colleagues’ work 

As compared to first semester’s SLC:

  • Overall blog quality has improved (communication through a
    variety of media forms, logistics of inserting & embedding different
    media, beginning of hyperlinked writing, advantages of writing  in digital spaces became evident
  • As blogfolios are continued being  maintained, it is possible to track learning over time
  • The connections to the Core Values seemed much more natural and not an add-on
  • Student (oral and visual) presentation skills were practiced  in a supportive environment
  • Students and parents focused less on academic grades and more on learning habits and process
  • SLC served and supported parent education in terms of modern skills, literacies and learning pedagogies

Juan Carlos‘ Blog:

“I used to think my learning was accomplished by simple
things such as paying attention , doing my work and taking it seriously
but now I know that learning has more than those things , you need to be
reflective , critical thinker and also a communicator. You need to
apply all the core values to able to learn in an effective way.”

Kari’s Blog

“In which of the core values did you show the most progress or growth?  What makes you say that? 

I am getting better at communication.  I am learning more Portuguese and
improving with my blog and other technologies.  This is very important
in terms of communication.  Balanced says that you can communicate in
multiple languages.  Improving in Portuguese means that I can
communicate more to people who do not speak English.  Also, I am getting
better at using my blog which is another form of communication.  People
can come on and see my work and how I use my Blog.”

“I used to think my learning was mostly about critical thinking, but
now I think my learning is more about being reflective.  Sometimes you
cannot really grasp what you have learned unless you reflect on what you
have done.  This is an important part of learning and changing your
learning habits and becoming better at something.  If you just do
something once and then never again, you don’t really learn anything .
Reflection makes you rethink again and understand better. “

Now what?

Where do we go from here? My hope is to continue:

You Have 1 Minute to Hook Your Reader

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If you are blogging with your students, you have been exposed to them. You have been exposed to hundreds of unimaginative, cloned, generic and uninspiring BLOG TITLES.

When opening your RSS reader that contains the latest blog posts of your students, you are confronted with a list, similar to the one below.


How do we help students write better blog post titles?

1. Make them AWARE of the importance of a title

We live in a hyperlinked world. No matter if you are trying to drive traffic to your blog via email and include a link, an RSS feed, where you compete with hundreds of other subscriptions or entice someone to follow your link on Twitter. You have 1 second or less to hook potential readers and make them want to click on your title to read your content.

Although the content of your blog is the most important component of your blog, if the title isn’t up to par, you will not get the audience the content deserves.

It is the title’s job to make a potential reader a reader.


2. Take a look at a variety of good and bad.

After making students aware of their unimaginative blog titles, titles seemed to improve for our sixth graders below.




The Hub Spot Blog Topic Generator, might come in handy to discuss with your students the algorithm behind the generator and what are considered common features of a “good topic/title”.


Notice the features that are included in the following titles, after I entered: global, experiences, poetry into the generator:

  • questions
  • appealing to reader’s curiosity
  • numbers
  • lists
  • vocabulary such as “ultimate”, “everyone”, “should be”
  • attention grabbing
  • controversial ( cheat sheet)



3. Practice, model, practice, model, practice writing good titles

Visible Thinking Routines
One of the Visible Thinking Routines from Project Zero is actually called Headlines. Embed this VTR into your daily routine with students to model and to practice “summarizing and capturing the essence of an event, idea, concept, topic, etc.”
Writing tweets (in analog form, classroom Twitter account or individual student accounts for older students) are a wonderful example of headlines (they have to stand on their own and can entice the reader to click on a link or react to a statement to join a conversation) and help practice “summarizing and capturing the essence” of learning moments as you are connecting to an authentic audience.
Visual Titles
A great exercise for your students, could be to make their title visual. Have your students go through the exercise of creating a visual title by using Quozio or Haiku Deck for example. Students enter their title and then they can customize the title (background, font, etc.) to be downloaded as an image. Why not present students’ images to the class and put them up for a vote among them “Which one would you click on?”


Created with Quozio


created with Haiku Deck

Tips & Advice:

Pamela Vaughan suggests in 6 Characteristics of Exceptional Blog Titles

  • Actionable
  • Brief
  • Keyword-Conscious
  • Clear
  • Definitive
  • Intriguing

On the SkyWord Blog, 6 Best Practices for How to Get that Click are suggested:

  1. Teasers
  2. Instructions
  3. “Threats”
  4. Lists
  5. Engagement
  6. Secrets

While students might not have a choice always of what they are writing about (ex. if the assignment can be written as a list) , these recommendations could be tweaked.

Kevan Lee, author of the blog Buffer suggested some headline tips (supported by data from seven key commonalities)

  1. Make the most of current events: Tie your headline to news and newsmakers
  2. Break some “rules” of headline writing, like length
  3. Seek to pique the reader’s curiosity
  4. Never underestimate the emotional factor of a headline
  5. Call the reader to action with direct action words
  6. Make bold claims
  7. Sound like a human, not a robot
How are you helping students write better blog post titles? How do you incorporate the idea of connecting and “hooking” an authentic audiences? Please share your experiences and resources with us.

Upgrading Assessments with Screencasting

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Our young learners can explain what they know in powerful ways by combining drawing and/or photos with a voice recording. Using Doodlecast students can create screencasts. Our first graders created screencasts demonstrating their learning of the water cycle.

How could you use screencasting in your classroom to more effectively assess student knowledge and skills?

Socratic Seminar and the Backchannel

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Humanities teacher, Shannon Hancock, at Graded, the American School of São Paulo, read and worked through The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo with her 8th grade students.

Not only did they read the text, learn about literary elements, but also learned to articulate and discuss in a professional manner the text with their peers. Shannon chose to use the Socratic Method, specifically a Socratic Seminar (Inner/Outer Circle Fishbowl) to hand the learning over to her students. She stressed to them: ” Educators don’t need to have all the answers, it is about asking the right questions.” Wikipedia explains the Socratic Seminar as follows:

This approach is based on the belief that participants seek and gain deeper understanding of concepts in the text through thoughtful dialogue rather than memorizing information that has been provided for them. While Socratic Circles can differ in structure, and even in name, they typically involve the following components: a passage of text that students must read beforehand and two concentric circles of students: an outer circle and an inner circle. The inner circle focuses on exploring and analysing the text through the act of questioning and answering. During this phase, the outer circle remains silent. Students in the outer circle are much like scientific observers watching and listening to the conversation of the inner circle. When the text has been fully discussed and the inner circle is finished talking, the outer circle provides feedback on the dialogue that took place. This process alternates with the inner circle students going to the outer circle for the next meeting and vice versa. The length of this process varies depending on the text used for the discussion. The teacher may decide to alternate groups within one meeting, or they may alternate at each separate meeting.

Shannon prepared her classroom by physically arranging the desks in an inner and outer “circle”…


… and prepared her students with the Socratic Seminar Norms for the discussion.


We tweaked the traditional format of the Socratic Seminar to include a backchannel. A backchannel is a parallel discussion, a collectively shaped comment on some ongoing conversations, not that different than the outer circle described in the Socratic Seminar. The backchannel in this case was the secondary digital discussion of the literary text. One student was the backchannel moderator in charge of making sure that Today’s Meet was projected and refreshed properly on the screen.


Watch the video below to catch a glimpse into Shannon’s classroom and their use of a backchannel for the first time.




Reflection of the Backchannel as part of the whole class text discussion:

  • All students had opportunity to contribute to the conversation (even the “silent” outside circle)
  • (Shy) Students who had a harder time articulating orally their opinions in the “inner” circle were able to contribute in written form
  • The skills to listen, observe, document, contribute, read, write, add value, ask questions and respond to others in the backchannel, all at the same time, is not a skill we are born with. It requires exposure and practice.
  • The backchannel log, gives an opportunity to review and assess individual students beyond the “in-the-moment”. It also gives students an opportunity to review and reflect on the experience.
  • The backchannel exposes students to a collaborative writing environment.
  • Possible extensions: Assign a student (or a group of students) to be the “Backchannel Cleanup“, responsible for saving, copying and pasting the log into a shared document. They then edit and format the log by deleting duplicate, unrelated or non-comprehensible comments. They can also organize the comments according to topics.

Analysis of the Backchannel Log:

There were many different layers going on in the Backchannel.

  1. Observation and comments about the Socratic Seminar behaviors
  2. Observations of literary discussion elements
  3. Documentation of inner circle discussion
  4. Added commentary of own opinions.
  5. Parallel conversation going in backchannel and inner circle.

Please note that the screenshots below are not in chronological order. They are shown to illustrate some of the points of the reflection and thoughts about the use of the backchannel.













I must admit, that I was in complete awe of the students and their teacher of how well prepared they were to come together and have a serious literary discussion round. The Socratic Seminar lesson could have stood on its own without adding any further layer facilitated by technology. It was the quality of the teaching and learning already present that allowed the backchannel to add another quality layer.

I can’t help myself, but I am already dreaming of further amplification.

What if ..

  • What if the class connects with another class who is reading the same book.
  • What if the one of the class can potentially contribute yet another perspective (possibly due to culture or geographical location) to the understanding and comprehension of the text. (Ex. Could our Brazilian class not contribute the perspective of the controversy of the Alchemist book here in Brazil to a class located in Sweden, for example, reading the same book?)
  • What if half of the inner circle (the fish) is in one class and half of the inner circle is participating via Skype or Google Hangout from a different class? (Synchronous)
  • What if the backchannel is comprised of students from BOTH classes (synchronous (Today’s Meet) and asynchronous (Google Document)?

Interested? Let’s dream up another layer of collaborative reading, writing and discussing literary text.