Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Don't Memorize, Internalize - Studying For Final Exams

Source: Column Five Media
Our students are currently taking their final exams. During the past few weeks, we've wondered often about the distinctions between "studying," "reviewing," and "reminding" -- since theoretically, the students have already learned all of this information earlier in the year.

Truthfully, exam review week should be a springboard into the next academic year. It should provide a thematic culmination of the year's "big picture" ideas. It should give kids a few "ah ha!" moments to realize how much they've learned over the course of their semesters. Exam review should be an exercise in how to internalize information and produce new connections.

One of our favorite design firms, Column Five Media, has produced a motion infographic that addresses this exact notion. Entitled "How To Generate Good Ideas," this short, animated film recognizes that "the capacity to collect and organize information in new ways is built into the human brain." For students, this means identifying the best avenue toward personalized learning, while still combining external stimuli into a cohesive comprehension. As the clip asks, "how do we improve the chances that our [mental] prisms generate good ideas more often?"

How to Generate Good Ideas from Column Five on Vimeo.

The video pinpoints five ways to foster understanding:
  1. Consider the physical space, and place yourself in a
    pleasing and healthy environment
  2. Practice methods of retention to store information
    and reinforce associations
  3. Put ideas to the test by soliciting feedback from
    mentors of all cognitive types
  4. Continue the pursuit of knowledge and study, no matter
    how many times you fail
  5. When an idea or a goal becomes a reality, analyze
    what worked successfully
Source: Column Five Media
These study suggestions remind us of Steven Johnson's excellent work, Where Good Ideas Come From. His book is a fascinating survey of the factors that spark innovation and success. If you haven't yet read it, it's a great paperback for a summer reading list.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Visualization Of Current Events - Drone Attacks In Pakistan

Source: Out Of Sight, Out of Mind
Everyday there is a good deal of news about the use of drones for military, national, and local defenses. The pros and cons abound, from the protection against terrorism to the killing of innocent people to overall questions of privacy. Recently, two of our students worked on this topic for their iMovie documentary project. In helping them look for information, we stumbled across this amazing visualization on drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004.

Source: Out Of Sight, Out of Mind
The website called Out of Sight, Out of Mind tracks the number of attacks through an interactive timeline as it simultaneously counts the fatalities of children, civilians, and others. As you roll the mouse over each of the small, bright red, dark red and white lines below the timeline, a box pops up with the specific details of the attacks.

Source: Out Of Sight, Out of Mind
By clicking on the Victims link, the visualization can be expanded to view the data in a vertical timeline by calendar date for each month. It shows the attacks and fatalities, beginning with the most current date. The view also allows the user to scroll over the figures to get more precise details of the attacks. This interactive data display is worth an investigation, and its stark, clear presentation of the information is visually pointed. Click the News link for recent articles and reports on the topic of drones in the headlines.

For another view of what is often referred to as the "Drone War," take a look at the interactive map just published by Bloomberg Businessweek detailing the global picture of attacks in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Roll the mouse over each hexagon to see the details on the location, strikes, deaths, and year.
Source: Bloomberg Businessweek

Both of these resources would make for a healthy, current events discussion in any social studies or history class.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sketchnotes – Visual Note-taking In 3rd Grade

Source: 3rd Grade Sketchnotes, ASIDE, 2013
We’ve written a number of posts about sketchnotes, and this year we pushed to include them as part of the note-taking process on multiple grade levels. Most recently, our third graders practiced sketchnoting to visually map out their understanding of the rain forest.

As with other age levels, the first plunge into using this new way of note-taking needed some instruction to help them understand the process. Their initial reluctance soon gave way to enthusiasm as they realized they were free to make decisions as to how to arrange the information to best suit their ways of learning.

Source: 3rd Grade Sketchnotes, ASIDE, 2013
It was amazing to see how each student used a particular style and organization to portray his or her knowledge of the topic.
Source: ASIDE, 2013

We developed a quick guide for the students to introduce the basic shapes to drawing just about anything with a few simple lines or shapes. It also included four different ways to represent people. Instead of using simple stick figures, they learned to draw "I," "star," "A," or "bean" people. Like the sketchnotes done by our 2nd graders, we talked about the organization and layout of ideas to help make their understanding of the facts as clear as possible.

With personal note-taking, there is a lot of leeway in the selection of information that lends to the personalization of ideas and content. Unlike other forms of note-taking, sketchnotes are not scripted in a certain way. They are much more organic, personal and deliberate.

Source: 3rd Grade Sketchnotes, ASIDE, 2013
In the end, the students demonstrated a strong understanding of the facts, and they took equal care in how they wanted to portray their ideas.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Project-Based Learning: Entrepreneurship, Finance and Design

Source: PaperStopper, ASIDE, 2013
Our third fifth-grade Entrepreneur Fair just ended, and we could not be more thrilled with the diversity of ideas by these young minds. It came as no surprise that so many of them paid close attention to every detail of their companies. From their initial business plans to their final presentations, the students worked to bring their ideas to fruition.

These young entrepreneurs took on this project-based learning assignment with great enthusiasm. They worked through problems in the design process to come up with solutions, often revamping their prototypes again and again. Equally rewarding was watching the “ah-ha” moments when they realized they were on to something.

Source: Tree Bark Edibles, ASIDE, 2013
Perhaps the toughest part for them was figuring out how to finance their ideas. Francine Wisnewski, who is one of the lead teachers for this project, worked tirelessly on the financials with the students in math class. Many quickly realized that the cost to make their products exceeded what they could realistically charge to make a profit. Occasionally, too, some had to scrap their ideas and start afresh.

Source: Lights: Out, ASIDE, 2013

The final phase of the project was marketing their goods, complete with brand messaging, packaging, and display. It’s where we hoped all the lessons in media literacy they’ve learned through the years would come together. They did not disappoint us either. To help advertise their wares, they wrote jingles in English class with their teacher, Barbara Thomas, and recorded them in GarageBand with the technology teacher, Leslie Gulbransen.

Two of our most innovative ideas that tried to solve real problems were Lights Out and PaperStopper. Some displayed incredible handiwork in crafting their products, such as Spark Accessories and DnA Bows. Still others, such as Tree Bark Edibles, took a snack recipe and packaged it with an environmental note. Each entrepreneurial idea carefully thought out the packaging, logo design, and branding that showed a continuity worthy of any business. 

Source: DnA Bows, ASIDE, 2013
The pride in what they had accomplished was evident on the day of the fair. They were beaming with joy, and all the practice shined through in their customer service. As teachers, it was an emotional high for us to see it come together. These young entrepreneurs learned far more than they realized, but most importantly, they learned they could do anything if they put their minds to it.

Source: Spark Accessories, ASIDE, 2013
Project-based learning that brings together multiple disciplines allows students to work through ideas, encourages risk-taking, and engages kids on multiple levels. It integrates financial and media literacy into the process and challenges kids to think like designers. It’s more than just a project; it’s a life lesson. All of this is done with a network of dedicated teachers collaborating with one goal in mind, learning.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Make It Pop - What Is The Appropriate Project Pizzazz?

Source: Killer Infographics
One of biggest questions in utilizing technology is how much visual splash to incorporate into student projects. Judicious teachers want to maintain a PBL approach that is grounded in information and meaning. Students, however, often get giddy at the prospect of neon animations and swirling Prezis. The goal is to balance a love of color with an understanding of effective design.

The design firm Killer Infographics created the "Make it Pop!" motion graphic below to highlight the potential innovations of modern media but also the potential excesses of over-exuberant marketers. Their satire of lavish buzz-building hits all of the sweet spots in zinging hyper-aware advertisers.

For teachers, this clip is an ideal reminder of the importance of media literacy. Educators need to guide young children in recognizing the influence of flash over substance. It also offers a fun and gaudy crib sheet in creating projects that optimally blend all of the colors, images, typography, and music.

Essentially, any tech-preneur needs to understand balance. He or she needs to separate the visual wheat from the chaff. Media savvy students need to assess what is dynamic and what is distracting, so they can appreciate what is eye-catching branding verses what is fluffy overkill.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Creating Student Avatars - Balancing Project Design With "Safe For School"

Source: Dude Factory
As school projects migrate to laptops and tablets, student choice becomes a blessed corollary to any multimedia creation. Even the most scripted lesson, when executed via a web tool, can find a way to incorporate a small amount of customization. A lot of Internet resources feature dynamic themes or color choices that permit student individualization. At the very least, however, most blogs and social networks allow users to upload unique avatars to distinguish their profiles.

An avatar is a personalized online icon that represents a user's virtual self. Whether on open-ended web pages or straightforward Prezis, a signature avatar can give a child great pride in his or her masterpiece. There are a lot of quirky avatar generators available on the web. Many of them, though, require accounts. Even if free, these logins require email addresses and erect barriers to ease-of-use and effiency. Also, many of the cleverest avatar sites are not safe for school. For example, Dude Factory has great options, but it allows characters to hoist martinis.

The sites below are free, with neat and appropriate options in creating avatars. They also appeal to the wide range of tastes. By the way, we find it easiest to avoid the process of saving or downloading the finished products, and instead we use the screencap command to select a desired field.

Source: DoppelMe


DoppelMe offers an impressive range of colors, with upbeat and kid-friendly characters. The accessories and backgrounds provide cute choices for boys and girls. Users can select among basic clothing and expressions right away, but they can gain access to more free items by signing in.

Source: Unique


The Unique interface presents a Japanese comic book,  anime-style gallery. The cartoon characters have appealingly mischievous grins. The smooth application also presents one of the easiest visual tools of all the avatar sites.

Source: Reasonably Clever

Reasonably Clever

For Lego figures, Reasonably Clever is a terrific option for young learners. The web page and graphic interaction are not nearly as crisp and modern as other sites, but the end products are still winsome for projects and class blogs.

Source: BuiLD


Sponsored by the New York Zoos and Aquarium, BuiLD YouR WiLD SeLF combines essential avatar choices (eyes, clothing, etc.) with outlandish animal features to generate half-human, half-beast images. In an illustrative style, the drawings echo picture books in their artistry.

Source: Bitstrips


Bitstrips focuses more on the nuances of the face than other avatars. The comics-friendly site uses cartoony animation to offer a host of choices in designing just the right length of hair and just the right creases on the forehead. The final product, therefore, can actually resemble the user, if desired.

Source: Dream Avatar

Dream Avatar

For slightly older students, Dream Avatar is surprisingly sophisticated in its spectrum of creative elements. The icons evoke images from manga, and the accessories allow for a fully realized backstory to each character. Some teachers may not want children selecting among the more teenage options, but the good thing about the site is that it can appeal to any age of techie (including adults).

For other avatar generators, check out Picasso Head for older students or Square Face Icon for younger students. In addition, this Copyright Friendly wiki lists 30 - 40 possible avatar choices.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Design Of Project-Based Learning - Color Theory For Web 3.0

One of the promising truths about project-based learning (PBL) is that it's coming whether schools like it or not. Even in an age of race-to-the-top testing, children are slowly but surely doing more and more work via technology.

Even as some instructors fall back on "project-oriented" learning, rather than true PBL, the gradual spread of tablets and BYOD tasks will invariably shift classroom education toward a more hands-on model. The hope, therefore, is that personalized iPads and home tech assignments will encourage creative interactions and self-directed investigations.

Color Theory Infographic from Sean Ferguson on Vimeo.

One of the most basic choices in producing a technology project is the selection of color. Students in their iMovies, Keynotes, and Tumblrs can now pick from a palate of pixelated paints. All too often they get over-excited and click on a madcap miasma of mismatched hues. Knowing a little bit about color theory can go a long way toward designing an appealing and effective project in the open-source web 3.0 world.

Many of the modern concepts around the use of color, particularly in technology or multimedia formats, spring not from classes in oil painting but from theories of branding. Crafting an alluring logo or a unique web banner both draw from evolving notions of Internet marketing. These graphic schemes can relate effectively back to the classroom, as students pair fonts and tints in their Prezis or as they select background themes for their project blogs.

The motion infographic above by Sean Ferguson gives a crisp and helpful primer in fundamental color theory. It lays out the guidelines of partnered tones, in addition to other considerations of visual design.

Source: Feel Guide
For other resources about color theory, we recommend:
Choosing among styles of lettering, by the way, can often have the same positive impact on projects. Check out "A New Typography Of Language" for ideas on teaching students about fonts.
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