Monday, July 18, 2016

Web Tools to explore before the summer ends

Summer is coming to an end. As you start getting your teacher hat back on, and dreaming about your "perfect" classroom, you may want to look at some web-tools that could come in handy. Here are my favorite free or low cost summer discoveries:

Write-About: This site allows students to engage in high-interest writing for an authentic audience. Students browse through a collection of ideas, each one paired with an image, and write about them on the site itself. Students can even use the built-in voice recorder! Posts can be shared with the class or made publicly viewable so that registered students and teachers can comment on them. teachers can provide feedback on the writing and moderation tools are included. A yearly classroom plus subscription is around $40.00 USD allowing up to 250 students and unlimited posts. Want a closer look?

iPiccy: Similar, but less complicated than Photoshop, this is an image editing tool that allows users students to apply filters, add effects, crop or resize an image. All online.

EducaPlay: Create your own embeddable activities. From fill in the blanks and interactive maps to video quizzes and sentence jumbles, the possibilities are endless. You can also share activities, collections and search for content created by other teachers.  Free accounts allow you to create groups and see reports (a big bonus for data driven instruction). Watch how easy it is to create an activity in EducaPlay.

PrimaryAccess: A suite of free online tools that allows students and teachers to use primary source documents to complete meaningful and compelling learning activities with digital movies, storyboards, rebus stories and other online tools.

JustapoxJS: This Knight Lab tool allows user to tell stories by comparing two frames, including photos and gifs. Ideal for then/now stories that explain slow changes over time (growth of a city skyline, regrowth of a forest, etc.) or before/after stories that show the impact of single dramatic events (natural disasters, protests, wars, etc.). This is their own example using Google Earth's Images:

If none of these catch your fancy, maybe you will find something interesting in my growing collection:

Mrs. Garcia's Classroom Webtools, by mrsgarciaserrato

Friday, July 15, 2016

Pokemon Go in the classroom?

As I look around my neighborhood today, I cannot help but notice the bands of kids and teenagers walking around looking at their phones. Yes, Pokemon Go has hit my otherwise quiet street, and I immediately start thinking to a couple of weeks from now, when we get back to the classroom... I know the kids will come back from a summer of hunting Pokemon. I know they will be itching to talk about this or that amazing find. So, how can I harness that enthusiasm? What can I do to transform this "distraction" into some meaningful learning activities? Am I crazy for even thinking about it? Here goes:

Pokemon Go Math:

Pokemon caught are transferred into what is called a Pokedex. Clicking on the Pokedex, you can access data for individual Pokemons, including weight and height (in metric, Yay!) Students could use this information to determine things like, "If you were building a Pokemon dwelling, how many Squirtles would fit in an 64 square meter area?", the area needed to house all the Pokemon in their Pokedex, the height:weight ratio of unevolved to evolved Pokemon, or the ratio of "seen" vs. "capture" - does it vary by type or location? . You can even go as far as having students try to determine whether there is a proportional relationship between type of Pokemon and size.

The game also keeps records of all events in the Journal. The data gathered there could be used to figure out average Pidgey appearances for particular locations or times, or average out the number of Pokeballs given at Pokestops. Taking it one step further, they could also graph their Gym results, which has the added benefit (to the students) of helping them create the "best" team.

Pokemon Go Language Arts:

The game has the interesting feature of allowing users to take augmented reality pictures of "wild" Pokemon and placing them in the scene the camera is facing. Students can use these pictures to develop stories. Prompts could include things like "A day in the life of ...", or "When ____ took over the ____".

Pokemon Go Science: 

As part of a unit on biomes, students could use their knowledge of Pokemon types to develop habitats for specific types. This could also lead to lively discussions about why some Pokemons are more common in different places. What characteristics are shared by Ice Pokemon and the animals that inhabit the Tundra?

A study on the mechanisms of evolution could be followed by having students create scenarios that led to the traits observed in their favorite Pokemon.

On a more ambitious vein, you could have students develop a complete Pokemon utopic city, powered by electric Pokemon!

Pokemon Go Social Studies:

Many Pokestops and Gyms tend to be in historical landmarks.  Students could use these places as a basis for further research into the landmarks, or create virtual fieldtrips and advertisements encouraging others learn about those landmarks and/or visit them in pursuit of "Catching them All".

Any other ideas? I would love to hear all about them.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Chopped - An activity for the first days of school

The first day of school offers up many opportunities for us to define what our student's experience will be like for the remainder of the school year. Many of us spend this wonderful day asking students what name they prefer we use, going over classroom rules and expectations, passing out green sheets and having students look at our carefully crafted syllabus. The adventurous among us might even create a classroom quest to get students familiarized with the layout and having students look for different items, creating a classroom constitution or perhaps playing a round of "Find someone who...". These are all cool, and I guess important, but your students are either "listening" to you drone on, or participating half-heartedly. This year, I invite you to forego these tried and true activities for something more exciting, a Chopped design challenge.

Before the first day of school, prepare identical "baskets" of 3-5 mystery materials. These can include empty water bottles, paper towel tubes, cereal boxes, baggies of pom poms or beads, trinkets from the dollar store, etc. The more the mystery materials "don't go together", the better. You will need one mystery basket for each group of 3-4 students.

On the first day, assign  groups of 3-4 students randomly (using a count-off method or whatever you prefer), and distribute the mystery baskets. Then, in your best Ted Allen voice state:
"Welcome to Chopped. Your challenge - create a useful product from the mystery items hidden in each basket before time runs out. Every one of your mystery items must be used in some way. Also available to you, our maker items. When the bell rings (we have 10 minute bells), you will place your item in the judging table and clean up your space. During our next session you will present your product. Our distinguished judges will critique your work on usefulness and creativity. If your product doesn't cut it, you will lose the privilege of ____ for the remainder of the week ."
The maker items are any materials you have in the classroom. This may include glue, different types of paper and tape, cardboard, foam, etc. The privilege lost can be something like getting to choose seats or listening to music.

The student work time on this first day gives you the perfect opportunity to walk around learning student's names, conduct brief interviews and observing the class' dynamics.

On the second day, I provide students with a rubric to evaluate the products, and have each team present their product. Presentations on the second day allow students to introduce themselves to the class, and set the tone for peer evaluations which they will use for the remainder of the year. They also give you an insight into the students' personalities helping you create teams for future assignments.

As a follow up, you can hold a class discussion (or individual written reflection) centered around questions such as:

  • What worked well/did not work in your group?
  • How were decisions made in your group?
  • How did you organize yourselves?
  • What did you learn about yourself/your team members/your classmates during this activity?
  • If we were to do this again, what would you do the same/differently? Why?

What do you think? Isn't this a much more fun and engaging start of the school year?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Beyond the Leaderboard: Self-ranking charts

A couple of days ago, I talked about creating a multiple-class, self-ranking leaderboard. My students love the idea of being able to see where they rank, and compare themselves to one another, creating this competitive gaming environment that often leads them to perform and to keep working, simply to "outrank" one another. As I was updating my class website to include this new board, I started thinking about how to use the leaderboard as more than just a ranking system for the XP. Could I use it to inform students about how they are doing in different categories? Could I show the data in some way that would maintain the integrity of the leaderboard, but focus students' attention on opportunities for improvement as well? And almost as important, is there an easy way to do it; one that would not require much more than inputting values as the students grow? The answer turned out to be YES on all accounts.

Before I show you how, let me share the end products:

"I Need To Do More" chart

This first interactive chart, displays the totals for each XP category. As the year progresses, students can see how much each of the categories has impacted their XP totals. On their own, or with some help, they can decide to go back to assignments they may have missed or where they scored low XP and re-do/re-submit in order to up their total XP for that category. In my case, it could show an Aha moment akin to, "I have not done many of my blogs, if I do them now I can gain all those XP I missed".

"I Need To Do Better" chart

In this other format, the same data is displayed by average XP obtained in each category. When students see the data organized this way, they can quickly see areas where they can focus their efforts, to increase their standings.

The beauty of both of these charts is that they use the same Pivot Table I created for the self-ranking leaderboard, so not only do they update as soon as I input new values, they are also tied to the original ranking. The student order within the chart updates as well as they move up or down on the leaderboard, making it a "one-stop" responsive system that does not create more work for me to maintain or update.

The following video explains how to create the charts, and I am also sharing a template that you can use to draft your own.

Let the games begin!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Appsmash to Gamify - From Leaderboards to Quests

Although many of us agree that gamifying your classroom can provide benefits in terms of engagement and relevance for the students. Many of the teachers I have talked to have this idea that gamification is too hard, or that you can only do it by purchasing an app or some other tool, which may or may not limit what you can do. However, this is simply not true. With the myriad of free tools at our disposal and a little creativity, you can create your own gamified world for little to no money. Gamification is about creating a game-like experience, not about creating an actual game.

Before we go any further, take a peek at my "Island of AdVENTURE", where our ultimate goal is to take over the world. That is the simple storyline for my classroom. The benefit of such a broad and vague topic is that it will never be "done", and gaming elements can easily be added as they are needed. I talked about the decision to adopt a single storyline for all my classes in a previous post. If interested, you can visit Gamification Year 2 - The quest continues.

So, what was needed to create the Islands of AdVENTURE experience?

Game Website:  

If you have been here before, you know that my go to place for this is WIX, because it allows for ultimate flexibility in item placing, allowing you to embed practically anything you may wish to add. WIX is free to use, and gives you one place to create as many web sites and subpages within a site  as you need. On the game website itself, I like to add links to my blog, class calendar, and all of our classroom policies, procedures and even the green sheet. This gives the students a central place to go for everything related to the gamified classroom, and completely eliminates any "but I didn't know..." moments. These different documents are added as tabs, or in the case of the classroom management stuff, an interactive Thinglink image that gives access to all documents with a simple click.


This is the only item in my gamification arsenal that I paid for: Profantasy Campaign Cartographer. I could have used art from other sources and/or even used maps from Google Mapmaker, but creating my own allowed me utmost flexibility to include what I wanted, down to shaping the islands to represent grade levels, and creating distinct homes for each class.

This was also where I began to Appsmash. The islands on the game website are linked to the grade level houses and leaderboard using "invisible" shapes that act as buttons. The quests inside the houses are linked using interactive Thinglink images. The reasoning for this is simple. I wanted the students to be able to quickly and easily identify the quests they have, without cluttering the images with a lot of text or buttons. By hovering over each icon, students can quickly access the quests they are undertaking without any instructions from me regarding the icon that was used to represent a specific assignment.

XP and Leaderboards:

In my class, students gain experience points (XP) by blogging consistently and by completing the different projects they work on. Whatever you choose for XP, I recommend that you do not tie it to behavior, but rather mastery of skills or concepts. Just like in games and real life, XP does not "go down". Once you gain experience, you never get experience taken away. 

To create the leaderboard(s), I use Google sheets. I previously shared how to create one for a single class. This year, I am adding a leaderboard that functions much the same way, but since I am working with a single storyline, I needed to create one that could rank all my students from different classes and give us a way to compare classes. The following video will show you how.


In my project based learning (PBL) environment we have two types of quests. The PBL Quests that culminate in a Boss Battle (i.e. the project product itself) and Mastery Quests. The PBL Quests are created using WIX for the bigger projects or Tackk for smaller assignments. Both allow embedding and manipulation of the color schemes, backgrounds, etc. giving you the opportunity to create a different aesthetic feel for each quest. The PBL Quests are embedded into the class game site and linked through Thinglink.

The Mastery Quests are the worksheets (level 1), quizzes (level 2) and tests (level 3) I use with students.  This simple renaming and leveling of the different types of work, tells the students how they need to prepare, and gets them excited about completing them. Don't you agree that it is much cooler to complete a Mastery Quest Level 3 than to take a test?

To create the first two types of Mastery Quests, I use the capabilities of Mastery Quests Level 1 usually have links, videos and/or simulations embedded (example) and Level 2 may still have some supports (example). For Level 3, you can still use if you wish to give access to articles or graphs that the students must analyze. For a more "traditional" level 3 Mastery Quest, however, I use Google forms.

I usually do not embed the Mastery Quests in the game website itself, but rather give access to them by posting the individual URLs for the different assignments on our Edmodo stream. Of course, they can be shared in Google classroom or whatever other way you currently have to distribute online work.

Class Currency:

The behavior rewards, if you would like to have them, can be handled in several ways. In the interest of Appsmashing, you could use Class Dojo, and have it embedded into your WIX page. However, that has never really worked for me. I find it cumbersome to walk around with a device and scrolling when I want to assign behavior points. For this I go old-school, and use my school's paper based currency (Patriot Bucks), giving them out as needed. Since they are physical objects, I do not have to create a way to manage them. The "store" is created again using a Thinglink  embedded into the WIX class game page so that students can simply hover over the different items, and check "prices". 

What do you think? Have you tried gamification in your class? Please share your experiences.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Simulations and the Gamified Classroom

The use of simulations in the classroom is a long-standing tradition. How else could we provide students with high end experiential learning, when our students seldom have access to anything other than basic scientific equipment, and in many cases not even that? If we want want our students to learn how to gather data, analyze it and come up with solutions grounded on evidence we need to provide them with the necessary tools, going beyond the simple inquiry that can be accomplished with household tools.

In the gamified science classroom, tech-based simulations are a handy tool to help us engage students in deep learning. Students can use simulations to develop and use models to predict outcomes. They provide them with data that is directly applicable and transferable to the gamified (and often real-life) scenarios that they are working in. Often, they have the advantage of already looking like a game, making it easy to assign them as part of your gamified experience.

The simulations best suited for a gamified classroom are interactive, animated, provide dynamic feedback, and allow for productive exploration. But, where do you find them?


PhET, created and maintained by the University of Colorado, Boulder, has hundreds of NGSS aligned simulations, complete with teaching resources. They have been working hard at converting all their sims to HTML, allowing access on any device. Not only that, they are constantly adding new sims.
PhET by NGSS for Middle School
PhET by NGSS for High School


Already completely gamified for you, Spongelab has  thousands of pieces of content that can be searched, organized and annotated. Take a look,  at their Energy Literacy collection as an example of how to integrate SpongeLab in your gamified classroom.

Glencoe Virtual Labs

VIRTUAL LABS offered by the Glencoe textbook company. These labs give the students the adventure of laboratory experimentation without costly supplies, worrisome environmental and safety issues, or time-consuming clean up. They are from all different areas of science: Biology, Physics, Genetics, Earth Science, Physical Science, and Chemistry.

Go-Lab is a EU-based site that allows science teachers access to online labs and inquiry learning applications. The students receive the opportunity to perform personalized scientific experiments with online labs with access to virtual labs, remote labs and data sets. 
Setting up is a little time consuming, but they have a very well done tutorial.


Gizmos is the only paid service on this list. This service provides hundreds of Science (and Math) simulations, aligned to NGSS and searchable by topic, grade level and/or standard. Gizmos allow for manipulation of variables and include graphing tools that help students compare the results of their experiments, creating opportunities to apply the concepts to a variety of scenarios,

Let's take advantage of our students tech skills and allow them to use simulated tools and experiments. Go ahead and incorporate simulations in your gamified classroom. Your students will thank you for the opportunity to use technology, work in groups using sims as a substitute for real-life experiences and develop the skills needed to excel in the 21-century. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Gamification Year 2; The Quest Continues

As I am preparing to say goodby to another year of gamifying, I feel the need to write down some of the things that are buzzing in my head, lest I forget them in the summer days ahead. This year completed my year 2 in the gamification arena, and as always some things went well, while others will need a complete rethinking.

Story Lines

This year I worked with four distinct story lines, one at each of the grade levels I teach. They were fun to create, and although the students liked that they each had different avenues, I have to admit that keeping them all working at the same time became rather difficult. I would get ranks and achievements mixed up, and sometimes even directed students to a different story.

As I begin to rethink  and prepare for next year I will be going back to one story line as my main effort, allowing me to also combine some of the other aspects of the gamification experience for my students.


The self-ranking leaderboards are in place and served to keep the kids motivated in continuing with the game throughout the year. At times they are still chore to keep updated, but the kids kept me accountable for doing this, as they did check them often, particularly towards the end of the school year as they were looking forward to achieve the highest rank and obtain lofy perk of "Blog Immunity".

This is also where I think having a single storyline will come into play. During this school year, each grade level had their own leaderboard, ranking system, etc. However, I also published for the students the cumulative class ranking. Students were particularly interested in seeing how each class stacked up against each other, and often asked which students were in the lead. In looking forward, I am considering having the individual leaderboards for each class, but also publishing a "top ten", which will be easier to achieve if all classes are working under the same story.


The structure of the game using the blogs as the primary way to get XP worked well, particularly for my upper graders. For the most part, kids blogged consistently about their learning, and we saw a couple of students reach 100 content-related blog post this year. Including the S&EP (as mentioned in my Gamifying the NGSS post) pushed the students to "think like scientists", and provided me with a tangible way to assess them in their progress towards mastery of the practices.

Although the blog points as XP has worked really well, I am re-considering not using their unit tests, performance tasks and projects within the XP structure. The XP has always been about progress towards mastery, and including them in the XP would allow me to encourage the students to perfect their work. It is an easy fix, but it will require a little work on the back end to make sure the playing field is even in regards to points, particularly since these are tied not only to rank but to privileges as well.

Gold Coins

The structure I had in place for obtaining gold coins this year did not work at all. Only three of my 240 students even attempted a cross-cutting "boss battle"(Gamifying the NGSS). When I asked why, the students reported that it was too hard to obtain gold coins, and although I modified the structure several times, by the time the changes came about the students had lost all interest in them. 

As I think about next year, I am considering reverting the gold coins back to simple participation points and displays of good citizenship or behavior, instead of tying them to the content. However, I need to figure out a way to keep the management simple. Walking around with an open app (like Class Dojo) or a spreadsheet has never worked for me. I guess I could create some tokens...

Other gamification things to explore

Escape Rooms: 
Recently I attended the Deeper Learning conference, and participated in an Escape Room experience. I think this has great potential for the gamified classroom, and I invite you to visit some of the things I've found regarding their use in education:

Choose your own adventure videos:
A year ago, my daughter showed me the Interlude tool and I remember thinking how well it could be integrated into a gamified classroom. This video creation tool allows you to design, create and publish an interactive video with relative ease, providing you with a way to enhance your gamified classroom with "choose your own adventure" videos. Unfortunately I forgot all about it until a couple of days ago, and I am sharing it here in case one of you gamifiers wishes take it on as a summer project.