February 14, 2015

Playing the Mystery Skype Game

Guest post by Tina Schmidt

Over the last 6 years I have become very passionate about “flattening my classroom walls” and reaching out to connect with others. One of the easiest ways to get started with that is doing a video conference using Skype. The only equipment needed is a computer with a webcam and microphone. If your current computer doesn’t have those, they are very inexpensive to purchase.

Next you’ll need to do a free download of the Skype software and set up an account which includes creating a Skype ID that you will share with others to make the calls. I have done Skypes with authors, experts in a certain field, and other classrooms. Our very favorite type is the Mystery Skype.

In a Mystery Skype, the children don’t know where the other students are located so they play a game to find out. The winner is the class that guesses the correct location first.

How to Play the Game
  1. Yes/No Questions – In this format the children can only ask Yes or No type questions to narrow down the location of the other class. The students ask questions such as: Does your state border a country? Are you located in the south? Do you border any bodies of water? Are you east of the Mississippi? Once the children narrow down the location, they can start guessing individual state names. In this type of Skype the children really need to think fast and pay attention to the clues they have gathered so far.
  2. Giving Clues – In this game the children give clues about their state to the other class to help them guess. Example clues: We border Lake Erie. Our state nickname is the Keystone State. Hershey Park is located here. Talyor Swift was born in our state. I tweaked this a bit and formulated 10 questions that each class can ask and answer instead of just giving random clues. The questions give enough information to guess without making it too easy. I like to make sure that each of my students get “screen time” so I have them work in pairs on the questions. One student asks the question and the other class answers and then the other class asks us the same question and my second student answers. The first 9 questions give info about weather, animals in the state, crops grown there, etc. Question number 10 gives school info (name, number of students, grade level) and is shared after we guess the state. Here is a free copy of those questions: Mystery Skype Questions
  3. Mystery Number Skype – A third version that I’ve played revolves around numbers instead of location. In this game, the children on each team think of a secret number. The players on the other team ask Yes/No questions to try to guess the other team’s number. Is your number higher than 50? Is it a multiple of 5? Is it even? Since this game only takes about 10 minutes to play, I usually split my class into 3 groups and we play 3 rounds against the other class. Each student should have a hundreds chart in front of them when playing this Skype game.

Finding Classrooms to Play Against
  1. Skype in the Classroom – Skype has their own connection resource page for a Mystery Skype under their Skype in the Classroom website. 
  2. Twitter – If you are a Twitter user you can just search the hashtag #MysterySkype to find other teachers interested. 
  3. Google Search – There are many other websites for making connections, and more keep cropping up every day. Just Google “Mystery Skype” to find some that might work for you. Some examples are the Mystery Skype Wikispace Group, the Catholic Schools Week Mystery Skype Group that was developed last year, or the Global Classroom Project which has a group you can join for either the Mystery Skype or the Mystery Number Skype.

Helpful Hints 
  1. Be sure to remove your location and time from your Skype profile so the students don’t notice that while they are waiting for your call. I’ve had savvy students who were able to figure out location clues from the time listed in the other teacher’s profile before the call even started. You might want to do a quick test call with the teacher ahead of time to make sure that all systems are working properly on both ends. 
  2. Make sure all or a few of your students have maps on hand while playing the game. I also always have 2 students at the board taking notes to help us keep track of what we know so far.
  3. Talk to the students ahead of time about how you expect them to behave during the game. Practice using the microphone and looking at the screen when you ask the questions. Some teachers assign different jobs during the Skype call to keep the students on task. Examples are question askers, question answerers, thinkers who come up with questions, note takers to keep track of what info they have learned, atlas mappers, photographers, videographers, etc. Pernille Ripp explains more about that in her post “Mystery Skype Jobs Create by My Students.” 
  4. If we have time at the end of a call, we always like to ask the other class some spontaneous questions i.e. books they like to read, after school clubs, pets, etc. My students keep a Skype copybook to journal about each new classroom we meet. It also includes a map in the front so the children can color in the state after we do the Skype. We try to talk to classrooms from as many different states/countries as we can each year.

Besides being a fun learning activity, video conferencing also give students practice with their speaking and listening skills and may even prepare them for a future job interview that could take place in this manner.

Tina Schmidt is a 3rd grade teacher at a Catholic school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She enjoys introducing her young students to global connections through video conferencing, blogging, and global projects. Check out her blog here.

February 9, 2015

Building a Bridge with Parent-Made Listening Centers

Guest post by Julie Smith

Hello Corkboard Connection followers! I am so excited to be guest posting today since Laura’s blog has been one of my FAVORITES to follow.

Today I want to share with you an idea for “building a bridge” between home and school.

It is quite simple! Many parents have Smartphones these days, and most phones have a voice-recording app built in. Parents, older siblings, or grandparents can use that app to record themselves reading picture books, magazine articles, poems, a chapter in a chapter book, etc. You can use these recordings to create a classroom listening center.

This idea isn't limited to just the younger grades! Hearing well-read, fluent readers is effective for any reading level. Plus, students become ten times more engaged when they can make a connection to the reader. You know how excited they get when one of their family members comes to school to read to the class. This tool will allow for more people to participate in your classroom!

Instructions for Recording Voice Memos
On the iPhone there is an app called Voice Memo that is already preinstalled. It is SUPER easy to use and parents can simply email you the .m4a (audio only) file after they finish the recording. Most mobile devices have some type of recording app, and any Voice Memo app can be used. Click the image below to take you to a FREE packet of resources that includes Voice Memo Directions to send home to parents. It explains exactly how to record a Voice Memo and how parents can send it to you to use in your classroom.  

How to Play the Audio Files
Once you receive the audio file, you have several options on how the students can listen to the texts based on the devices and access to certain programs you have in your classroom.

1. Listening with Computers/Laptops/ChromebooksThe files will play on any media (iTunes, Windows Media Player, QuickTime, etc.).

Option One for Computers: If you have a server at your school that students can easily access, drop these files into labeled folders. I would rename the file to be the book/chapter title so students can easily find what they are looking for. You could even have folders arranged by reading group.

Option Two for Computers: If you do not have a server that students can easily access then I would recommend putting the files in a shared folder in Google Drive (if you are a Google Apps school) or even Dropbox.

2. Listening with iPads/iPods/Tablets:
Download an app called Quick Voice or Voice Memos (there are many different ones that you can also use!) For Androids, download an app called Voice.

Option 1 for Mobile Devices: Open the files via email, Google Drive or Dropbox on your iPad. Our teachers cannot access email on our county's iPads so when you receive the files from parents they first have to upload them to Google Drive or Dropbox. Be sure to install the Drive App or Dropbox App if you are going to go that route. Once the files are accessed on your portable device, they will pull through and remain on the app (you will have to put them on each device). I wouldn't keep too many files on the app since they take up space. Just switch them out.

Option 2 for Mobile Devices: This works best for upper grades but you can train your little ones to do this too! Have your students access the audio files via Google Drive or Dropbox. They can either sign into their account or you can stay signed into your account for quick access. I would advise you to make up a gmail account to have for just uploading/file organization if you choose to keep the iPads signed into the same account for quick access. This way the kids can't get into your Drive and delete/mess with your files! If your students have their own accounts then you can put the audio files into a shared Google folder and they can access them at home on a computer or tablet!! Build that bridge between home and school. :)

You definitely don't have to keep up with this all year long. This is the time of year when you need to pull EVERY trick out of your toolbox to keep those kiddos engaged. Try this out with a few read alouds and change up that listening center. I promise, your students are going to L-O-V-E it!

Julie Smith has been teaching primary grades for 10 years, and is currently an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher at four different elementary schools. She is a certified Reading Specialist and received her National Board Certification in Early Childhood Literacy in 2011. Julie loves using educational technology that enhances collaboration, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, and research with the teachers she coaches. She is the author of the blog, The Techie Teacher.

February 4, 2015

Why No One Reads Your Classroom Newsletter

Guest post by Jennifer Gonzalez

As the parent of three elementary students, I get a lot of classroom newsletters. And every time I get one, I fully intend to read it. I know how important it is to keep track of school activities, to know what my kids are learning, and to support their teachers.

But I don’t always do it. I put the newsletter into a pile of important papers, and other papers pile on top of it, and far too often, I just don’t get to it.

My own disorganization can take some of the blame, but I’m sure my reading would be more consistent if the newsletters were designed differently. If you suspect parents aren’t really reading what you send home, see if your newsletter suffers from one of these five flaws.

Five Common Newsletter Flaws

1. It’s too wordy. 

People are really, really busy. So if your newsletter is comprised mostly of long paragraphs, parents are less likely to read through the whole thing.

A paragraph can be “long” in one of two ways: The first is that it simply contains too many words, too many sentences all pushed together. If you want parents to send kids to school with warmer coats, they might miss that request if it’s buried in a five-sentence paragraph about how cold it is. When you want a message to stand out, cut down on the chit-chat as much as possible. Breaking paragraphs into bullet points also helps.

The other meaning of “long” is more literal: Magazine designers know that long lines of type are harder to read, and they try to limit themselves to 9 to 12 words per line. If you want more parents to read your newsletter, format it in columns.

2. It’s too crowded.

If your newsletter has very little white space – the space on the page that contains no text or graphics – your readers will have a hard time getting through it. White space not only makes reading easier, it also helps important elements stand out.

Adding more white space to your newsletter can easily be achieved by increasing your page margins and the space around individual blocks of text or images. If you find you have too much text to add sufficient white space, reduce your font size a little bit. You’ll be amazed at what a difference it makes to move from 12-point to 11-point. And if you can say the same thing in fewer words? Even better. Think of it like a resume: If you can’t get it all on one page, start cutting words to make it fit.

3. It’s loaded with recycled content.

Some newsletters include the school mission statement, the class motto, the daily schedule, and a blurb about the class website in every issue. After a few newsletters, I don’t even see this stuff anymore; it’s just a lot of visual noise. Then there’s other content that changes only slightly each week: spelling lists, specials schedule, math topics. This information is important, and as a parent, I go straight to the newsletter if my son loses his spelling list or we don’t know if my daughter should wear sneakers the next day. But that’s the thing – I go to the newsletter when I need this information. The newsletter is not always interesting enough for me to read it for its own sake.

To draw parents’ attention to the truly new content – the announcement of an upcoming field trip, your enthusiastic report on students’ science projects – that content needs to stand out. Create a focal point in your newsletter for the most important, freshest story, and push the repeat information to less-prominent spots on the page.

4. It’s a cacophony of clip art. 

Clip art can be pretty irresistible. There’s so much adorable stuff out there, and adding it to your newsletter breaks up what would otherwise be a big, boring block of text.

But too many graphics make your newsletter a mess. And if you use the same exact clip art from week to week, the newsletters will be indistinguishable from one another. Take a “less is more” approach and include just a few pieces of art. Or consider using student or classroom photos instead: Remember, your readers are adults, so it’s possible they might be less drawn to adorable clip art than the kids are.

5. Parents don’t know what to do with the information. 

All advertisers are familiar with the term “call to action.” It’s the thing they ask you to do at the end of an ad – try their product, ask your doctor about a certain medicine, or visit the company website. By giving the recipient something to do, the call to action ensures that the relationship doesn’t end with the ad.

Although you’re not selling anything to parents, you probably want them to do something with the information you send home. But unless you tell them, they won’t always know what that is. Here’s where the newsletter can be a powerful instrument in the parent-teacher partnership: The next time you write your newsletter, consider what you ideally want parents to do as a direct result of reading it. Then include that information.
Putting together a classroom newsletter takes valuable time from your day, but by applying these lessons to your next issue, you’ll make sure it is time well spent. An effective newsletter will strengthen your partnership with parents and ensure your students keep learning well after they’ve left the school building.

Free Newsletter Templates
If you’d like some help with layout, try one of the clean, contemporary designs in my free Newsletter Templates pack, available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. It’s completely editable and customizable to fit your own style and taste. Whether you use my templates or create your own, remember to avoid these five common flaws to make sure your newsletter doesn’t end up at the bottom of the pile!

Jennifer Gonzalez is the creator of Cult of Pedagogy, an online magazine for teachers of any subject or grade level. In Jennifer's words, "Teaching is an art, a craft, and a science, and perfecting it is an ongoing, endless process." Visit Cult of Pedagogy to read more of her insightful posts!