Student-Produced Images with “Draw Free” app

My third grade students are creating imovie documentaries on plants, a project first attempted over a year ago. One of the main tech lessons of the project is having student use “free-use” images instead of taking whatever photos they find on the internet. For some ideas, however, the students have had trouble finding images that fit with what they want to explain.


For example, two of my students wanted to illustrate the different zones of the ocean, but a google search for “free-use” images turned up nothing. Feeling more comfortable with the project a second time around, I challenged them to make their own image. This was the first time to do this, however, so I was unsure what was the best ipad application for the job. I heard about “Art Studio” at the course 5 presentations, but a quick search showed it cost $5 and probably had features that we didn’t need.

mzl.jsyghlzyAnother more reasonably priced app ($0), appropriately called “Draw Free,” did the trick. My students were familiar with Doodlecast Pro, which has similar functions, and they were able to independently figure out how to use it. Despite the similar logos, I’m sure “Art Studio” is a more powerful application, but for third graders trying to whip up a quick illustration for their movie, “Draw Free” will get the job done. Here’s what they came up with:


As my students get more into their movies, I hope more will be able to create their own images. We should be finished by the end of the week, so look for an update soon, and let us know if you’ve tried other drawing apps that have worked for your students.

Celebrating 100+ Student-Created Videos (course 5 final project)

For my COETAIL final project, I had three goals. I wanted my students to:

  1. develop their vocabularies
  2. use technology to communicate their learning in new ways
  3. teach other students (from classes in our school and beyond)

To achieve these goals, my students learned new words, created videos on ipads (using DoodleCast Pro), and published through youtube and google sites. Here’s one example:

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To see our entire library (or dictionary) of student created videos, click here.

Once my students had learned new words, turned them into videos, and published them to the world, it made sense to keep the momentum going with some kind of goal. Shortly after creating our google site with about 30 videos, we decided that 100 vocabulary videos was an ambitious but achievable goal. We whipped up a quick chart and were on our way. IMG_0598

We created new videos about once a week, usually in pairs (there are 19 students in my class). We used the kids teaching kids method to get the neighboring 4th graders involved, but most of the work was done by my class. Two weeks ago, we hit our goal (though my students show no sign of wanting to slow down or stop).

Most of this process has been documented on this blog, so I will post a few links and fill in the blanks in areas that I haven’t covered. Here is the idea in its infancy, and an update a month and a half later. There have been some minor tweaks, but the steps used to create the videos have remained largely the same throughout the process:

  • Students choose words that they already learned and are confident they can use (more on how and why to teach vocabulary).
  • Students write a script for their videos. Here is the template we use. The most important parts, or at least what I emphasize the most, are the two example sentences. We try to create examples that show different contexts in which the word may be used. This is also a great way to assess the depth of students’ understanding.
  • Students draw two pictures to go with their example sentences.
  • When the script and illustrations are finished, I quickly check them and the students can get iPads and use DoodleCast Pro to create slides. Then they record. I publish all of the videos to my youtube account. I’m not sure if this is the most efficient way to go about things, so I’ve thought about creating a youtube account just for the student vocabulary videos. That would allow me to share the password and students could upload their own videos. For now though, they are all on my page.
  • Once the videos are published, my students add annotations with YouTube editor. You can make this step optional, but my 3rd graders figured it out quickly.
  • Finally, we collect the videos on a google site.
  • My students became so efficient at communicating through this medium that we easily created some math tutorials using similar methods.

Once the site was up and running, we kept cranking out the videos, but it took some time before we moved onto our third goal of teaching others with the videos. In fact, I checked the website analytics in March and realized nobody was using the site:

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Most of the student learning had been completed, but to reach the “Redefinition” stage of the SAMR model (and to have an authentic, global audience), I knew we needed to connect with people outside of our classroom.


We started with the other third grade class from our school. My students created a worksheet with some example sentences, we explained how to access and use the website, and that was it. I let my students wander around the room like real teachers to help people who had questions, but I think their favorite part was checking the work of others. Then they gave feedback to their students, which I hope enhanced their own understandings of the nuance of words. Soon the second and fourth grades were on board as well.

And to make the project truly go beyond the classroom walls, we connected with schools in China and the Philippines to learn from our website. Again, reaching a large number of people was not the main point, but by mid-April we were getting hundreds of website page views every week:

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The true success of the project, however, can be measured in confidence with which my students use the new words they’ve learned, and in the enthusiasm they have for wanting to learn and share more.

Although this marks the end of course 5, this project is in some ways just beginning. Only a few classes have used our videos, but we would love to get more involved (please contact me or leave a comment if you are interested). At this point, two classes at my school have made videos, but the other classes who have been using our website are ready to start making their own tutorials. If we combine forces with other classes and then other schools, the number of student-created videos could easily be in the thousands, not the hundreds.

I hope to keep posting here to let you know how it goes. Please leave a comment if you have thoughts or want to get involved. Thanks!



How Children Learn Vocabulary – Bringing Words to Life, Part 1

One of the constant challenges of international school teaching is having a large number of students who might use limited English outside of school. Depending on your situation, you could have students with both parents as native English speakers, or both parents speaking a non-English mother tongue, or half and half. Some students speak their mother tongue with their parents and English with their siblings. Some speak one language with their mom, another language with their dad, and English at school (and sometimes you can throw in lessons or classes in the host country language). In any given class, you will most likely have combinations of all of the above scenarios.

Being bilingual or trilingual will give our students great advantages in the future, but less English exposure means that all teachers need to emphasize vocabulary development. This is not an issue limited to international education. When I started my teaching career in inner city Detroit, I was aware of the research showing significant deficiencies in language exposure for children growing up in poverty. In the National Reading Panel’s review of 45 different studies of vocabulary instruction (see pages 23-27), they found significant links between vocabulary instruction and reading achievement.

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Very few educators or parents would argue against the idea of vocabulary development in children. How then, shall we best help our students develop their vocabularies? I’m glad you asked. The best method of vocabulary instruction that I’ve found is laid out in the book Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan. I’ve been using their methods of vocabulary instruction for more than half a decade, and If there’s one thing you should take away from this blog post, it’s that you should read this book. I will try to summarize the ideas here, but I will keep coming back to the same theme: read the book.

The authors promote the idea of “robust vocabulary instruction.” Giving students a dictionary and skills to look up words in not enough—students must have opportunities to learn the word (with simple definitions), see it in multiple contexts, and apply it on their own. Here is a lightning round of important ideas coming from the book:

Context isn’t enough

One of the first ideas the authors discuss is that simply reading a lot and learning new words from context is not sufficient for true understanding of new vocabulary. The problem is that there are several different types of context:

  • Misdirective contexts lead the reader the incorrect meaning of the word.
  • Nondirective contexts do not give the reader enough information to figure out the meaning of the word.
  • General contexts allow the reader to put the word in a certain category, but it is not specific enough.
  • Directive contexts, finally, lead readers to an accurate meaning of the word.

With so many contexts lacking specificity, or even misleading the reader, it is clear that direct instruction is the best way for students to learn new words. The next question is which words should students learn.

Tier one, two and three words

photoNow that we’ve determined the importance of direct vocabulary instruction, what words should we teach? Beck and McKeown have divided words into three tiers. The first tier is made up of basic words that are usually learned without instruction (for example: desk, write, sad, adult, etc.). The third tier contains specialized words which are important only within a certain domain (for example: photosynthesis, polyhedron, crevasse, etc.). The second tier, where we want to focus our attention, consists of words that are used frequently in literature and mature conversation and can be applied generally to different situations (for example: admire, mischievous, smother, unique, etc.). These words will be most productive for our students.

Student-friendly definitions

Anyone who has asked a child to look up a word in the dictionary is aware of the flaws of dictionary definitions. In some cases, the student may get it, but he is often just as confused as he was before looking up the word. The authors of Bringing Words to Life suggest using “student-friendly explanations” as opposed to dictionary definitions. Giving multiple, directive contexts (ie. good examples) is also important.

Let’s look at an example for the word “tender.” Here’s what your macbook’s dictionary would give you:

tender 1 |ˈtendər|
adjective (tenderer, tenderest)
1 showing gentleness and concern or sympathy: he was being so kind and tender.• [ predic. ] (tender of) archaic solicitous of; concerned for: be tender of a lady’s reputation.
2 (of food) easy to cut or chew; not tough: tender green beans.
• (of a plant) easily injured by severe weather and therefore needing protection.
• (of a part of the body) sensitive to pain: the pale, tender skin of her forearm.
• young, immature, and vulnerable: at the tender age of five.
• requiring tact or careful handling: the issue of conscription was a particularly tender one.
• Nautical (of a ship) leaning or readily inclined to roll in response to the wind.

That’s just one of the definitions. On the other had, here is my student friendly explanation:

tender – soft; gentle

It is not as detailed, but initially, it is better to teach one meaning of the word until the students have mastered it. For more examples of student friendly definitions, check out the videos on my students’ website. In my next post, I will provide a list of around 350 tier 2 words (with student-friendly definitions) that I have used.

Coming Soon

Despite pouring multiple hours into this blog post, there is still a lot to be covered, so I will break it into two parts. In my next post, I will cover sources of words and some specific instructional techniques that I use.

In the meantime, here is an interview with one of the authors, Isabel Beck (link if the embed doesn’t work):

The final question you may be asking, as you read this “ed tech” blog, is where does the technology come in? I’ll get to that eventually, but when students are learning new words, thinking about the SAMR model, I’m not sure technology is that necessary. I use shared google documents and spreadsheets with my students, but paper and pencil do a fine job for all of this.

Once my students have mastered new words, however, we get into all sorts of fun technology: iPads, doodlecast, youtube editor, and google sites, all of which I’ve written about on this blog.

Student and Teacher Created Google Sites

google sites-icon-largeAs my students created more and more vocabulary tutorial videos, published to youtube, the question became how could we best organize and share them with other students. For our own use, we started simple with technology the students already knew – a basic google doc with each word hyperlinked. I thought about creating a twitter account to tweet a word of the day, and had a brief love affair with blogger, but I knew the best way to share the videos would be a website.

I started researching how to create websites and realized I had a lot of work ahead of me. Luckily, at our face to face meeting, Phil explained how easy google sites were to set up, and Kim assured me that third graders would be able to navigate and edit the site without too many problems. By lunchtime the site was set up, and I created a quick tutorial to show my students how to use it:

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After that we were off. I haven’t needed the entire class to work on the website, so we did it on a volunteer basis, but it only takes a few minutes a day to update the site with the latest videos. Here is what it looks like now.

Google sites are so easy to set up and use, I will be using them more frequently for both teacher and student created pages. It only took a few minutes to set up a research hub for my students to learn about biome plants. Here’s how to do it:

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At this point, I see only a couple of drawbacks to using google sites as part of the google apps for education suite:

  • Unwieldy domain names – Forget simplicity or a name your students can remember. It will more likely look like this:
  • Difficult to find with search – A problem closely related to the first one (and strange considering it’s a google product)…I can’t enter a few words into google and find our site. You have to either have a link or type in the entire url.

Those minor problems aside, google sites are a fantastic way for both teachers and students to share and communicate. Let us know if you’ve tried it and how you use it.

Visible Thinking with iPad Math Tutorials

How many times have teachers looked at a student’s finished math problem, seen an incorrect answer, and wondered how the learner got from point A to point B? Conversely, how many times have students solved problems correctly but still had conceptual misconceptions in their thinking along the way? The issue in both situations is that the students’ thinking is invisible.

One of the top benefits of implementing new technology in the classroom is the ease with which you can document your students’ thinking. Using tablets and screen casting apps, students can solve problems while explaining their thinking, and the entire process is recorded.

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After getting some inspiration at the EARCOS Teachers’ Conference, I recently experimented with visible thinking in math. Through our big vocabulary project, my 3rd grade students were already experts on using “Doodlecast Pro” on the iPad. If you’re unfamiliar with screen casting, this post will give you some basic information on how to do it. Through my own flipped math lessons, they were also familiar with teaching and learning through video, so there were low barriers to getting started.

We brainstormed a list of learned math concepts, and then each student chose one, grabbed an iPad, and they were off. Unlike other videos we’ve made, I asked them to create their math tutorials unscripted. When finished, we published the results to youtube:

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Though difficult for the perfectionists in my class, I asked them to keep going through minor mistakes. Documenting thinking was the main purpose–the global audience was an added benefit (and there’s no need to publish the videos at all if you prefer to keep them private). Some students did a great job of stepping into the teacher role though:

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My students went ahead and linked the videos to our vocabulary website, so you can see the rest of them there under the “math” tab.

Watching your students’ videos will give you great insights into how they think and what ideas they need help with. In general, I noticed right away that my students needed more instruction with mathematical vocabulary. I also was able to give individuals specific feedback on misconceptions I saw. If the project continues, we will have well-documented records of their thinking over time.

One more quick question for teachers interested in trying this: how do you get an entire class recording videos at the same time without too much commotion? It can be a logistical challenge in one classroom. Luckily, my classroom is surrounded on three sides by the outdoors, so we took advantage of the nice Spring weather in Tokyo and recorded outside. We also finished by spreading out in the cafeteria, and I encouraged them to use a loud voice and power through background noise.

Let me know if you have questions or if you’ve tried something similar in your class.