The Power of Symbols–What does the word ‘Turkey’ mean?

19 Nov

Last year, I did a poll on the meaning of the word ‘turkey’. This was to demonstrate how powerful symbols are to your students and do so with an authentic use of technology to support discussion on math, language standards, and the holidays. As a summation to your discussion with students on symbols, idiomatic expressions, geography, farms, or another topic, post this on your Smartscreen. The poll includes lots of definitions for the word ‘turkey’. Have each student come up some time during the day (or class) and make their choice.

Did your students come up with other definitions I didn’t list?

More on Thanksgiving:

18 Thanksgiving Sites For Your Students

A Holiday Flier in Publisher

16 Holiday Projects

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, CSG Master Teacher, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.


How NOT to Write a Book Review

17 Nov

14450840 Man writerI read a lot, on average three books a week (based on my Goodreads Reading Challenge numbers). I live the maxim that writers must be readers. Because I love writing, I review many of them for one of my three blogs. When Amazon asked me to be a Vine Voice, I was flattered and wanted to understand why my reviews caught their eye. I spent time reading a wide selection of reviews and came away with a framework of what all critics included:

  • a brief plot summary
  • an overview of characters
  • a discussion on the theme/plot/goal and whether it’s well-delivered
  • the reviewer’s evidence-based opinion
  • an appealing voice

Reviews I didn’t like often covered these critical areas, but got lost in the ‘personal history’ weeds.  Unless the reviewer is Michiko Kakutani or James Wood (both listed among the top ten most feared literary critics), I’m ambivalent to a reviewers’ personal opinions.

As a result, I’ve developed a template for what to avoid in my reviews. See if you agree:


Book reviews aren’t opinions; they’re factually-based summaries. Sure, many books include the author’s opinion. A reviewer’s job is not to disagree with the opinion, rather discuss how the author rolls it out. Do they provide evidence? Is their argument well-developed or gratuitous? Do readers find themselves nodding in agreement or fuming in anger? They should feel the reviewer is even-handed, neutral, and an arbiter of the discussion rather than a participant.

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Hour of Code–the Series

04 Nov

Coding–that mystical geeky subject that confounds students and teachers alike. Confess, when you think of coding, you see:


…when you should see


December 7-13, Computer Science Education will host the Hour Of Code–a one hour introduction to coding, programming, and why students should love it. It’s designed to demystify “code” and show that anyone can learn the basics to be a maker, a creator, and an innovator.

They provide a variety of self-guided tutorials that say “anybody can do this on a browser, tablet, or smartphone”. They even have unplugged tutorials for classrooms without computers. No experience needed.

Coding is a great tie-in to Common Core math Standards. Any time I can show students how to complete math skills without doing math, it’s a plus (because it surprises them. They don’t expect a discussion on problem solving or Minecraft to help them with math).

Over the next few weeks, I’ll share eight ideas that will energize your Hour of Code. They include (if the link doesn’t work, it’s because the article hasn’t posted yet):

  1. Hour of Code: Why Not?
  2. Hour of Code Suggestions by Grade Level
  3. Program with Alt Codes
  4. Programming Shortkeys
  5. Scratch Jr: Website Review
  6. Hour of Code: Minecraft
  7. Programming a Macro in five minutes
  8. Build a Website

Here are’s suggestions on teaching Hour of Code in your classroom. If you have a favorite tool, they likely will guide you in using it for this amazing week. Check out this list:

More Hour of Code resources

3D Tin website review

Hour of Code: Primo–Programming

20 K-8 General Programming Websites 

K-8 Lesson bundle of coding projects

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, CSG Master Teacher, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.


8 Websites on Financial Literacy

30 Oct

balanceWhen kids read that America’s $18 trillion+ debt is accepted by many experts as ‘business as usual’, I wonder how that news will affect their future personal finance decisions. Do they understand the consequences of unbalanced budgets? The quandary of infinite wants vs. finite dollars? Or do they think money grows on some fiscal tree that always blooms? The good news is: Half of the nation’s schools require a financial literacy course. The bad new is: Only half require a financial literacy course.

If your school doesn’t teach a course about personal economics, there are many online sites that address the topic as mini-lessons. Some are narrative; others games. Here are eight I like. See if one suits you:


Banzai is a personal finance curriculum that teaches high school and middle school students how to prioritize spending decisions through real-life scenarios and choose-your-own adventure (kind of) role playing. Students start the course with a pre-test to determine a baseline for their financial literacy. They then engage in 32 life-based interactive scenarios covering everything from balancing a budget to adjusting for unexpected bills like car trouble or health problems. Once they’ve completed these exercises, they pretend that they have just graduated from high school, have a job, and must save $2,000 to start college. They are constantly tempted to mis-spend their limited income and then must face the consequences of those actions, basing decisions on what they learned in the 32 scenarios. Along the way, students juggle rent, gas, groceries, taxes, car payments, and life’s ever-present emergencies. At the end, they take a post-test to measure improvement in their financial literacy.

The program is free, takes about eight hours (depending upon the student), and can include printed materials as well as digital.

Rich Kid, Smart Kid

Rich Kid Smart Kid is a collection of four games where three children–Ima, Jesse, and Reno–struggle with real-life scenarios such as running an ice cream stand, raising money for a personal goal, the importance of allocating earned money to varied needs, (such as charity, investments, and savings), and  the difference between good debt and bad debt. Games are leveled for age groups from Kindergarten to high school. They include thorough lesson plans, learning objectives, classroom activities, and discussion questions, as well as companion websites with more resources.

The program is free, online, and can be completed in four sessions–one for each game. There are also add-on low-tech options like board games.

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9 Reasons to Join NaNoWriMo and 8 Tips on How

29 Oct

nanowrimoNational Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a celebration of the belief that there’s a story inside each of us; we just need a way to share it. NaNoWriMo asks participants to pen (or type) 50,000 words during the month of November–the first draft of the novel they always promised to write. If they succeed, they get the enviable privilege of adding a badge to their blog’s sidebar attesting to the fact that they survived–or won–NaNoWriMo.

The event began in 1999. By 2014 (according to the NaNoWriMo website):

  • 325,142 participants, including 81,311 students and educators in the Young Writers Program, started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.
  • Over 250 NaNoWriMo novels had been traditionally published. They include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.See a full list of our published authors.

Lots of contestants fail, but swear they will try again. Why? To me, it’s like Hell’s tilt-a-wheel (thank you, Kristen Lamb, for that image). Clearly, ‘not finishing’ isn’t significant because every year, the number of participants grows.  Here are nine reasons why writers say they are glad they did NaNoWriMo and will do it again:

  • It kickstarts their novel.
  • It reboots their writing efforts.
  • It gets them through that rough period of writing a novel that starts with the first sentence and ends as the protagonist disappears into the sunset.
  • All efforts to avoid it will fail.
  • They enjoy living life with their hopes up.
  • The NaNoWriMo community gets them through writers block, insecurities, and laziness. They’re like a walking drumroll.
  • It supersedes any excuse for NOT writing–and friends and family understand that.4718494 commercial woman with a laptop
  • How else can you say that you wrote a novel in one month?
  • It established good writing habits. Every expert tells wanna-be authors to write daily. NaNoWriMo makes that happen for thirty days.

If you’re going to participate this year, read these eight tips from the NaNoWriMo Twitter trenches (with a few snide asides by me):

  • It’s never too late to start writing.
  • Don’t start unless you’re committed to the project. It’s demanding, exhausting, and relentless.
  • Don’t model your work after an author who committed suicide (who the heck was this person thinking of?)
  • Plan your novel in October and write like the dam broke behind you in November.
  • Don’t delete anything (OK, this’ll get you to 50,000 words, but really?)
  • Use music as inspiration.
  • Write your characters brilliant.
  • Including time-travel solves all those “but how would this person find out about that??” problems. Read the rest of this entry »

Lessons I Learned From a Computer

27 Oct

Life is hard, but help is all around us. The trick is to take your learning where you can find it. In my case, as a technology teacher, it‘s from computers. Here are ten lessons I learned from my computer. The first four, I’ve shared before. The last six I’ve experienced first hand over the past year. See which you relate to:

#1: Know when your RAM is full

illustration of a female worker sleepingRAM is Random Access Memory. In the computer world, it controls how much you can work on at any given moment. If you exceed your computer‘s RAM, it won’t be able to remember anything else (computer programs stall or stop). Humans have a mental workspace–like a desktop–that controls how much we keep in our thoughts before it is shuffled off to long- and short-term memory. For people with eidetic memories, it‘s very large. For most of us, size is controlled by:

  • how complicated the subject is
  • how many numbers there are
  • how many specific facts there are

I know my limits and I don‘t feel bad about grabbing a pencil to take notes or asking someone to slow the heck down. You shouldn‘t either. Figure out the limits of your RAM and accept it. Don‘t be afraid to say, My RAM is full! That‘s what computers do.

#2: You Can‘t Go Faster Than Your Processor SpeedCircuit Board

Everyone wants a computer with the fastest processor speed. That means we as the owner get more done in less time. The computer seems to understand what pace is best for its mother board and maintains that pace, no matter if we yell, scream, or kick its tires. Why? Because it can only work as fast as its parts allow it to.

This is also true of your personal processing speed. It is what it is. Your ability to think through problems and consider issues is determined by your mental and physical framework. No amount of lusting after those with a photographic memory will change your circumstances. Accept yourself for what you are. Revel in it. Own it. Enjoy your strong points and work around the weak ones.

Here‘s something you may not know. No one is perfect and everyone has weaknesses. Successful people re-form arguments and situations to accommodate their strengths and ignore their weaknesses. You can too. Who cares what your processing speed is if your hard drive is to die for?

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8 Tips for Horror Writers

22 Oct

horror storiesI don’t get horror stories. Who chooses to be scared stupid? Is that uplifting or do you learn to solve life’s problems better by doing it while your hair’s on fire? I’ll read chick lit over horror any day of the week.

But lots of people disagree with me. I went in search of why people subject themselves to a plot that destroys any sense of security that the world will continue to spin nicely on its axis and found one overwhelming reason: Because it’s there (thank you, Johnny Compton, for making this clear). The world is not a nice place. Bad things happen. Horrifying events are out there.

If you are one of those who aspires to write horror, here are tips to help you be the best at that:

  • start scared and stay scared throughout your story. If life calms down, fix it
  • everything’s scary. That includes the plot (of course), characters, setting, motivations, themes, subplots–you name it
  • put lots of people in danger, not just the main character
  • people like to be frightened. Give them what they like
  • flesh out your characters before you place them in a horrific circumstance. Or readers won’t care about their fate
  • constantly have readers asking, ‘What happens next?’
  • horror is about fear, tragedy, and whether the character can prevail. It is NOT about understanding the human condition, the meaning of life, saving the world, love found and lost and repeat. Sure those can be included, but they aren’t central to the plot
  • the subplot of every horror story is that bad things are coming. That drum beat starts softly, but gets louder the closer you get. It never goes away

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Let Students Learn From Failure

19 Oct

Too often, students–and teachers–believe learning comes from success when in truth, it’s as likely to be the product of failure. Knowing what doesn’t work is a powerful weapon as we struggle to think critically about the myriad issues along our path to college and/or career. As teachers, it’s important we reinforce the concept that learning has many faces.

Here are ten ways to teach through failure:

whats a mulliganUse the Mulligan Rule

What’s the Mulligan Rule? Any golfers? A mulligan in golf is a do-over. Blend that concept into your classroom. Common Core expect students to write-edit-resubmit. How often do you personally rewrite an email before sending? Or revise instructions before sharing? Or have ‘buyer’s remorse’ after a purchase and wish you could go back and make a change? Make that part of every lesson. After submittal, give students a set amount of time to redo and resubmit their work. Some won’t, but those who do will learn much more by the process.

Don’t define success as perfection

When you’re discussing a project or a lesson, don’t define it in terms of checkboxes or line items or 100% accuracy. Think about your favorite book. Is it the same as your best friend’s? How about the vacation you’re planning–would your sister pick that dream location? Education is no different. Many celebrated ‘successful’ people failed at school because they were unusual thinkers. Most famously: Bill Gates, who dropped out of college because he believed HabitsofMindhe could learn more from life than professors.

Education pedagogists categorize these sorts of ideas as higher-order thinking and Habits of Mind–traits that contribute to critical thinking, problem solving, and thriving. These are difficult to quantify on a report card, but critical to life-long success. Observe students as they work. Notice their risk-taking curiosity, how they color outside the lines. Anecdotally assess their daily efforts and let that count as much as a summative exam that judges a point in time.

Let students see you fail

One reason lots of teachers keep the same lesson plans year-to-year is they are vetted. The teacher won’t be surprised by a failure or a question they can’t answer. Honestly, this is a big reason why many eschew technology: Too often, it fails at just that critical moment.lesson plan

Revise your mindset. Don’t hide your failures from students. Don’t apologize. Don’t be embarrassed or defeated. Show them how you recover from failure. Model the steps you take to move to Plan B, C, even X. Show your teaching grit and students will understand that, too, is what they’re learning: How to recover from failure.

Share strategies for problem solving

Problems are inevitable. Everyone has them. What many people DON’T have is a strategy to address them. Share these with students. The Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice is a good starting point. Mostly, they boil down to these simple ideas:

  • Act out a problem9965429373_d1f7168616_b
  • Break problem into parts
  • Draw a diagram
  • Guess and check
  • Never say ‘can’t’
  • See patterns
  • Notice the forest and the trees
  • Think logically
  • Distinguish relevant from irrelevant info
  • Try, fail, try again
  • Use what has worked in the past

Post these on the classroom wall. When students have problems, suggest they try a strategy from this list, and then another, and another. Eventually, the problem will resolve, the result of a tenacious, gritty attack by an individual who refuses to give up.

Exult in problemsconcept crumpled paper light bulb metaphor for good idea

If you’re geeky, you love problems, puzzles, and the maze that leads from question to answer. It doesn’t intimidate or frighten you, it energizes you. Share that enthusiasm with students. They are as likely to meet failure as success in their lives; show them your authentic, granular approach to addressing that eventuality.

Assess grit

Success isn’t about right and wrong. More often, it’s about grit–tenacity, working through a process, and not giving up when failure seems imminent. Statistically, over half of people say they ‘succeeded’ (in whatever venture they tried) not by being the best in the field but because they were the last man standing.

Integrate that into your lessons. Assess student effort, their attention to detail, their ability to transfer knowledge from earlier lessons to this one, their enthusiasm for learning, how often they tried-failed-retried, and that they completed the project. Let students know they will be evaluated on those criteria more than the perfection of their work.

Let students teach each otherBusiness gender figure on maze background

There are many paths to success. Often, what works for one person is based on their perspective, personal history, and goals. This is at the core of differentiation: that we communicate in multiple ways–visually, orally, tactally–in an effort to reach all learning styles.

Even so, students may not understand. Our failure to speak in a language they understand will become their failure to learn the material. Don’t let that happen.  Let students be the teachers. They often pick a relationship or comparison you wouldn’t think of. Let students know that in your classroom, brainstorming and freedom of speech are problem solving strategies.

Don’t be afraid to move the goalposts

Even if it’s in the middle of a lesson. That happens all the time in life and no one apologizes, feels guilty, or accommodates your anger. When you teach a lesson, you constantly reassess based on student progress. Do the same with assessment.

But make it fair. Let students know the changes are rooted in your desire that they succeed. If you can’t make that argument, you probably shouldn’t make the change.

Success is as much serendipity as planningidea handwritten with white chalk on a blackboard

Think of Velcro and post-it notes–life-changing products resulting from errors. They surprised their creators and excited the world. Keep those possibilities available to students.

Don’t reward speed

Often, students who finish first are assigned the task of helping neighbors or playing time-filler games. Finishing early should not be rewarded. Or punished. Sometimes it means the student thoroughly understood the material. Sometimes it means they glossed over it. Students are too often taught finishing early is a badge of honor, a mark of their expertise. Remove that judgment and let it be what it is.

I leave you with five of my favorite quotes about failure. If you have one, please share it in comments:

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” –Henry Ford

“I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That’s why I succeed.” –Michael Jordan

“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” –Thomas Edison

“We learn from failure, not success.” –Bram Stoker

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to the next without loss of enthusiasm.” –Winston Churchill

More on problem solving:

How to Compare and Contrast Authentically

What to do when your Computers Don’t Work

How to Teach Students to Solve Problems

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, CSG Master Teacher, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.

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Posted in Musings


3 Organizational Apps to Start the School Year

14 Oct

Whether you teach science or PE, there are hundreds of apps to help you do it better. The response to this tidal wave of information has been confusion. As each teacher downloads their favorites, students spend as much time learning the app as applying it academically.

There’s a move afoot to pick five that are cross-curricular, train faculty, and then use them throughout the school year. This is the way it used to be when MS Office ruled the computer and everyone understood it. If this is your school, here are three apps to start the school year:


When looking for an app to curate classroom reading, consider these requirements:

  • works well with your current LMS
  • includes a wide variety of reading formats
  • displays books quickly, allowing you to open multiple books, add annotations, and take notes
  • displays class textbooks

Lots of apps do the first three; none the last. Why? Many class texts use formats that only display on the publisher website. What became apparent as I researched was that GoodReader was one of several considered Best in Class because of its broad-based ability to read, manage, organize, access, and annotate a wide variety of file formats. Where it has long been considered a leader in reading and annotating PDFs, new releases accommodate almost any type of file including .docx, mp3, jpeg, ppt, xlx, audio, and videos. With its tabbed interface, users can open multiple documents and click through them as needed.

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N* Football: USNA vs. ND

09 Oct

October 10th… Be ready with your blue and gold!

USNA does what’s called ‘Spirit Spots’ in support of their Big Games (Notre Dame, Army–that sort). These are quick videos that display their enthusiasm, commitment and fun-loving attitude. Here are some favorites for USNA vs. ND, Army, Air Force and others:


Here’s a whole playlist, in case you’re having a USNA vs. ND party: