Redesigning a Performing Arts Unit with Technology

A year into my Coetail journey, I’ve redesigned many aspects of my teaching with technology in mind. Last year my team modified a unit of inquiry on plants, with students eventually demonstrating their understanding of the central idea through imovie documentaries.

Now it’s time to look at another unit, this time on performing arts, and better integrate technology from start to finish. Rather than posting the entire 9 section planner, I will highlight the standards and changes we will make to enhance student learning with technology.

Standards Met: – 1 and 2

1. Creativity and Innovation
Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.
2. Communication and Collaboration
Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.

Central Idea: The performing arts are a tool for creativity, expression, and enjoyment in different cultures.

For those unfamiliar with the PYP framework, the goal of the unit is for students to demonstrate their understanding of the central idea through a summative assessment. For this unit, the students prepare a final performance in groups. They have freedom in choosing what to do for the final show, and the results are often creative, such as this combination of Filipino tinikling (traditional, bamboo stick dancing) and Taylor Swift.

The unit went well without too much technology last year, but I think there are some tremendous opportunities to increase student communication and reflection. Curriculum wise, it is a nice meeting of the 2nd ISTE standard (see above) and the PYP trans-disciplinary skills (communication skills and social skills). Here are the news things we want to implement:



For the first line of inquiry, students investigate common features of different performances. One way we investigate this is interviewing adults and other students about performances they have done. Last year we did this with paper and pencil, but audio recording the interviews would be a great chance to develop communication skills while doing research.

In the past, I stayed away from podcasting in part because I imagined it to be difficult, involving fancy microphones, complicated software, and an involved publishing format. I recently stumbled across audioboo, however, and it seems to be a quick and simple way of recording and publishing, done with an iphone or ipad.

I will report back with a future post once we’ve actually tried this, but for now we’ve already planned to go ahead and give podcasting a shot.

Video (recorded and uploaded by students)

We’ve used video before to reflect on and improve performances, but everything was filmed and shown by me. I think it’s time to relinquish that control and let the students take over. As a Google Apps for Education school, YouTube is the simplest way for us to share, privately and publicly, but I’m still in conversations with our tech team and admin over whether or not 3rd graders should be publishing with their own accounts (previously everything has gone through mine). I’d love to hear what other schools are doing about this issue.

Regardless of which direction we go, we are planning to make video a weekly part of the unit, rather than something we did once or twice in a month and a half in the past. The students do many small, classroom performances leading up to the big one, and video will be a key way for students to self-assess how their skills are developing.



With this commitment to video, we need to decide the best way to share and reflect on the student work we are uploading. In the past we’ve used edmodo, but my recent experiments with Blogger have shown that its ease of use and privacy settings would allow us to try blogging for the first time. We will start with a private, class blog, where students can upload a small performance and get feedback from peers through the commenting.

Ideally, after they learn the skills of blogging, I would like to continue with open blogs as they finish the year with two research-heavy units, but we can cross that bridge when we get there.

Google Drive

This will be the simplest thing to implement, as we’ve already been doing this. Still, interview questions for podcasting, whole class scripts, and groups scripts will all be written on shared documents through Drive.

Of all the technology in the plan, I am least familiar with podcasting and student blogging, so that will require more research along the way. I will report back about how those things go, as well as the unit as a whole. Please let me know if you have ideas or suggestions about the plan so far.

Student Created Video Dictionary (update)

It’s been about a month and a half since I first proposed the idea of an online video dictionary, created by students. At the time, we had one prototype and many ideas of how to make things better. Since then, my students have taken on the project with enthusiasm, creating 30+ videos in only about 3 weeks of school time. We also teamed up and taught the creation process to a neighboring fourth grade class, who made 15 of their own videos one morning last week. Here is an example:

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I am happy with both the quality of the videos and the amount of time spent making them. I was initially worried that this project would soak up too much time and take away from other inquiries, but we’ve settled into a routine where, after writing the scripts and drawing the pictures in advance, the students can create and publish a video in less than an hour. They’re also becoming skilled with Youtube Editor and adding annotations. We’re planning to work on new videos about once a week. Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 1.27.13 PM

Now the question is how to move forward. This project could go for the rest of the school year and beyond and will probably become my course 5 project. I have an abundance of ideas and questions about what to do in the future:

Possible future steps:

  • Get other classes involved. We’ve already shown a fourth grade class how to make videos. At our school, we have two other fourth grade classes and one other third grade class we’d like to get involved. If the other classes embrace the idea, it would increase the number of words we are able to teach fourfold.
  • Recruit an audience to learn from our videos. Right now the videos are linked on our class Edmodo page, and they are public on Youtube, so people may stumble across them. We want as many students as possible to learn from the videos, however, and in the beginning, I may have to go out and find an audience. I’ve already chatted with the second grade teachers at our school about having their classes watch the videos (and later having my students quiz them), so that’s a start.
  • Take things outside of our school. Starting close to home is a good idea, but a global audience, by definition, goes farther than down the school corridor. Getting other schools involved, first in learning from the videos, and eventually in creating videos of their own, is an important goal. Let me know if you’re interested.
  • Start blogging the videos. I recently discovered how easy it was to get started with Blogger if you are already using Google Apps for Education. The first thing I set up was a “Word of the Day” blog. I haven’t done anything with it yet, but we already have enough content for more than a month, and it would be an easy way to introduce my students to the idea of blogging.
  • Start tweeting the videos. Another simple step to promote the videos could be creating a twitter account and tweeting the videos a few times a day. I personally haven’t been on twitter for about half a year, but my brief experimentation with it last year showed it could be a good medium for showcasing student work.
  • Create a website to house the videos. This is the big step. Twitter and blogging are a good start, but when the quantity of videos reaches a certain point, more than 100, a dedicated website would be the best way to organize them. This would also fulfill the idea of a true, online video dictionary. There’s a lot to learn before then (I’m happy to take suggestions), so I will hold off on this one for now.

I’m sure there are other things I’m forgetting, but those are a few ideas about how to move forward. I’d love to hear some feedback, and I will keep you updated on how things progress.

Experimenting with Blogger (Google Apps for Education)

Now that my school is a year into using Google Apps for Education, everyone is familiar and comfortable with the main features, especially Gmail and Google Drive. There are other features worth exploring, however. For example, it takes literally less than a minute to set up a blog from your Google account. Let me show you how.

First, click on your shortcut menu in Gmail. Google often changes the architecture of its layout, but for now it’s in the top right side. When you click, you will see several App icons.

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Click “more” to see the Blogger icon on the bottom right:

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The blogger home will appear in a new tab. There is a list of your blogs (empty if you are new to this), and big button labeled “New Blog.” After clicking it, you must enter a name and url for your blog, and you are also given templates of how you want your blog to look (you can change this later, so don’t fret too much over the choice):

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 6.04.12 AM


The next step is to start blogging. Coetail members are already familiar with how to do this. Coetail uses wordpress, but blogger is not too different. If you prefer to set up outside of the Google world, here is an ed tech guide to setting up a wordpress blog.

Now that we’ve got the technical stuff behind us, let’s talk about how to use your new blogs. My primary interest is getting students involved with blogging. This can be tricky territory, especially if there is no precedent at your school. Some schools charged ahead with student blogging years ago; others have never considered it. Jeff Utecht makes a good case for student blogging (check out his free ebook). If you only want to experiment, there are steps you can take to keep the blogs private. On your blogger dashboard, click on the “settings” tab. This is where you will add authors (perhaps your students) and decide who has access to your blog.

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Right now I plan to use this as another outlet to publish my students’ videos. Later on, I think the transition from digital learning logs to individual student blogs is a natural one, but we will take things slowly.

Using Google Drive for a Class Reading Log

Like many elementary teachers, I assign independent reading as part of my students’ daily homework routine. We keep this simple — no summaries, no book reports — just choose a book, read for at least 20 minutes, and record the title and author. Ideally, this log of books serves as a launching pad for conversations about different stories, genres, and authors. In practice, however, it’s difficult to find time during class each week to go over the reading logs and check in with each student individually. When it happens, if it happens, it’s often rushed.

To counter these problems, my students have moved their reading logs to the cloud with Google Drive. Now that my class has started with Google Apps, I was able to set up a class reading log in less than 10 minutes. Here’s a quick tutorial I put together to show the steps:

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As soon as your students enter a few books, it will look like this:

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 6.43.36 AMTo add comments or questions about your students’ books, select a cell and click the comment button in the upper right side (or select Insert –> Comment).

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So far I’ve kept my comments and questions simple — I don’t think a spreadsheet is the place for deep conversations — but I’ve been able to communicate with my students about their book choices with more regularity than before. Students are also able to make comments to each other. I haven’t promoted this feature yet, but it’s already happening.

There are other options for children to share what they are reading. Some classes at my school are into BiblioNasium, which is like Goodreads for kids. I can see advantages to a website like this, but right now, Google Drive is the simplest choice for my class.

Getting Started with Google Apps for Education

With more and more schools adopting google’s suite of applications, there are an increasing number of teachers and students learning to navigate gmail, drive, youtube, blogger, and the rest of google’s offerings for the first time. Many tech-savvy people are already familiar with google’s products and can quickly adapt them to an educational setting, but there are many teachers and students who are operating this software for the first time. Getting started can be intimidating.

google ed

Last year I experimented with one google account for my class in December, and my school implemented the entire suite of apps in January (which coincided nicely with the gafe summit (and the start of Coetail)). I was all in. In fact, looking back at my blog from that time, the first ten posts all dealt with google in some form.

This school year, although my students had accounts from the first day, I’ve waited to get started. We have used google occasionally, but when I asked them to sign into their accounts last week, more than a fourth of my class couldn’t remember their passwords, a sign of infrequent use.

Forgotten passwords aside, I’m ready to get back into it, and for the aforementioned teachers who don’t know where to start, I thought I would document a few things that will help you along the way.

If you’re new to google apps for education, the first thing you should do is put your students’ emails into your contacts list. After that, it’s time to set up two folders in drive that will allow you to share documents with your students. If that sounds complicated, don’t worry, I’ve created a quick video to show how it works:

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This will be basic for many Coetail readers, but I’m hoping to share other tips in the coming weeks, and I’d love to see how others are using google in their classrooms.

Unleashing 3rd Graders with Youtube Video Editor

After my students began to create content for an online, video dictionary, Clare and Mariko gave some good feedback about how to improve the videos. When recording, the students gave example sentences for a vocabulary word with illustrations included. One of the suggestions was to add the text of the sentences to the videos, so the viewer could both hear and see the example sentences.

The bad news is that the tool we are using to make the videos, Doodlecast Pro, does not include a feature that allows you type text. And writing the sentences by hand would be too time consuming—we want the video-creation process to be as streamlined as possible.

The good news is that youtube, where we have published all of our videos, allows you to add text easily. This is a useful feature which is unfamiliar to many people. I created a quick video to teach my students the process:

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After watching the tutorial yesterday, one of my students was able to add annotations to her own video in less than 10 minutes. This segued into the “Kids-Teaching-Kids” method, and in less than a day, half of my class was comfortable with adding annotations.

I was initially worried that Youtube video editor would be a little too complicated for third graders, but once again I am happily surprised with their ability to quickly adapt and figure things out.

The “Kids-Teaching-Kids” Method of Implementing Technology in Elementary School

Rolling out new technology to a full class of elementary students is an intimidating task. No matter how well you model the tool with a projector, most students will not properly learn until they use the tool, make mistakes, and get assistance along the way. When a rollout happens at once, however, with a class of 15-25 kids, a lone teacher can easily become overwhelmed. There are ways to assuage this problem. You could bring in extra teachers to help your class. You could enlist older students to assist younger students. Or, if students have their own resources at home (or are in a 1:1 setting), you could flip the lesson using a video screen cast and hope students have parents or siblings around to troubleshoot when problems arise.

When my students recently started a video vocabulary project using iPads with Doodlecast Pro, I chose another way of implementing the new technology. Rather than trying to show my entire class how to create videos, I started with two students.


Photo credit to K. W. Barrett (Flickr).

The next day those two paired up with (and taught) two other students. Later, those four taught four more, the eight eventually expanded to sixteen, and within a few days my entire class was independently writing, creating, and publishing videos. Some students chose to continue working in pairs; others chose to make videos by themselves. It was much smoother than a huge roll out where everyone is confused and the teacher is pulled in a dozen directions at once.

I’m sure this has been done countless times, but I’ve never heard a name for it, so I’ll call it the “Kids-Teaching-Kids” method of technology implementation. Once my students were into the project, I still turned on the projector and showed the whole class a few tips and tricks, but mainly they were teaching each other.

I’d recommend this method to anyone who is hesitating to start a new project involving technology. Big rollouts are intimidating; starting small is a piece of cake. The next step for my class is to teach my school’s other third grade class, and then have the entire grade get another grade involved.

Has anyone tried a similar method of introducing new tech in the elementary? Or suffered from a disastrous big rollout? Let us know in the comments!