Make your parent emails more meaningful with @adobespark

In this age of instant communication, the old paper newsletter that often ended up scrunched up at the bottom of the bag is a relic of the past.

Each week I send out a ‘warm fuzzy’ email where parents learn more about what’s going on in class as well as important dates coming up.  As the drafter of the emails, I had several needs not being met by email

  • No information on how many parents had read the email – Am I sending notices out into virtual void?
  • No ability to add a large number of photos or video to the email.
  • The emails didn’t look visually appealing – particularly if reading on a mobile device

Thinking from a parent’s perspective I knew that the parents wanted

  • Visually appealing information – no large blocks of text
  • Lots of photos
  • The ability to access readable content on multiple devices
  • A chance to show they’ve received the information without necessarily sending a reply

Enter Adobe Spark.

Adobe Spark is a free digital storytelling platform. Whether you’re viewing Adobe Spark Page on your phone on your computer, the results are beautifully designed and readable multi-media pages.

You can use Spark in a web-based browser or on iOS Apps. You do need a sign to access Adobe Spark, but you can use your Google Account. The bonus of the App feature is that you can create on the go, I often write my newsletters on the commute home from school. Being able to send out beautiful updates from school camp or out on field trips is another possibility.

What I love about Spark as a creator is the simplicity of the interface.

I use pages for my Newsletters.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 9.30.17 PM

You then build your content using a simple interface – the only things you must include is an image, headline, and sub heading.

The rest is up to you.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 9.25.13 PM


You can add text, links to videos, Photo Grids, a ‘Glide Show’ ( text is overlayed on a photo). Spark turns all your content into well-designed multimedia stories that you can then share via a link with your parents. Here’s an example of a recent newsletter from my class.

When you are finished hit the share button and you’ll get a notice like this.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 9.31.41 PM

You do need to select a category. Be careful to turn off the ‘get noticed’ if you don’t want your email to be promoted on the Adobe Site.

I then share the link out via email to my parents.

One of the great features of Spark is the ability of readers to acknowledge that they’ve read the newsletter through giving some love.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 9.37.46 PM

As a creator, I have access to the number of views and hearts each update received on the ‘My Projects’ page. This lets me know, at the very least, my messages are getting through but I also like seeing the hearts.

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I could see Adobe Spark being used for digital storytelling. In particular, I think it could be a great platform for digital portfolios for learners which is something I may trail with the learners next year.


What is the Big Idea (Friday)?

Over the last few years I evolved a tradition in my class called Big Idea Friday.

It started out from my own learning where I try to write a weekly blog post about something that I’ve been thinking about in my teaching practice. I found the process for processing the end of a busy week of teaching and refocusing my mind towards the week ahead. The tradition also kept me writing when I really wanted to give up blogging (though I’ll be the first to admit my reflections have been rather sparse of late).

As I was going through the process of reflecting each week I started tagging my reflections using the New Zealand Registered Teacher Criteria (RTC) – a set of standards which New Zealand teachers are judged against during our professional appraisal process.  Using the RTC gave my reflections a conceptual framework on which I could hang my ideas on teaching and learning. Tagging the posts was a way I could easily document shifts in my thinking and teaching practice over time.

The practice slowly but surely started seeping into my classroom. Over the week I’d watch the kids and think about conversations I’ve had with them. Quite often a picture or video from my twitter feed would show up that I could use as a provocation in class to get the kids reflecting on what I’ve noticed and thus Big Idea Friday became a classroom tradition.

If it’s been a bad week where lots of kids have made bad choices? There’s some lessons from crazy dancing guy on the power bystanders have in a group situation.

In the middle of classroom projects and wanting to give up? An advertisement from Apple to remind us that nothing worth doing is easy. 

Want to get kids excited about the week ahead? Let’s take a look at Caine and his arcade.

The crazy thing about Big Idea Friday is that I had no idea what ‘it’ was and why ‘it’ was important until I was sitting in a Kath Murdoch workshop back in May. There I learned about split screen teaching – the idea that alongside content and concepts teachers need to develop learning dispositions in children – and a little light bulb went off in my head. This wasn’t just some crazy tradition I’d stumbled upon through my own learning, someone important was giving the practice some legitimacy.

As I’ve become more familiar with the PYP, I’ve started to use media as a way for us to look at the PYP attitudes and learner profile to give the process a stronger conceptual framework. The key competencies from the New Zealand curriculum also lend themselves to this type of reflection. If I had a time machine, I’d have been more explicit in making links with the kids between Big Idea Friday and the key competencies.

Documenting Big Idea Friday has been easy –  I post the provocation on the class blog and the kids comment on the post. Using the class blog opens up the conversation to others in particular my students’ families who have commented on their own experiences which further enriches our learning.

I’ve also found blogging lends itself to documenting this type learning – the messy stuff that comes out of conversations with the kids rather than a long-term planner – through the label feature which enables me to tag posts with different elements of the learner profile or pyp attitudes. Over time the labels build up a picture of the classroom conversations which then informs planning for future learning engagements. This is what my class looks like towards the end of term 1.

labels The tag cloud will look different after after another few weeks.

Tagging is a brilliant way to be able to draw out non-linear learning. We might spend a few weeks talking about creativity and not touch the topic again for a few months. If the kids were documenting their reflections in a book or a google doc it would be hard to make links. However through tagging I can quickly draw up all the posts on creativity to spot shifts in the children’s thinking over time. Tagging an idea down to a few words ensures that the concept and provocation is purposeful and relevant to the classroom conversation.

Big Idea Friday might seem like the antithesis of true inquiry learning. After all isn’t reflection something we should be doing all the time? Of course. However my students and I find value in finding time to explore those dispositions that go beyond content knowledge and help the kids develop as people.

More often than not, Big Idea Friday is often accompanied by that eerie feeling of the noise being spontaneously sucked out of the classroom as the kids get lost in their thoughts.

Now that’s an idea worth spreading…

The art of sketchnoting #adesketchnotes

Sketchnoting by author

Sketchnoting by author

Confession time.

My handwriting is so messy I can barely write my name legibly.

Actually messy is an understatement.

A drunken chicken making its way across the page is a more accurate description of my penmanship.

It’s not for want if trying, more a lack of fine motor control and spatial awareness.

Unlike many primary teachers, I find creating visual arts a form of torture. My classroom wall displays have tended to be more about function than form. Pretty is for Pinterest. While I can appreciate art, creating it was for those fortunate souls who had the ability to see objects in parts that could be put together.

Thus I approached the idea of sketchnoting with trepidation.

For those who have not come across the term before, sketchnoting is creating a visual story in reaction to a speaker or reading a text. The art uses a form of visuals and words to convey key ideas and concepts.

Surely sketchnoting is just a twist on the time-honored tradition of doodling?

As a non-doodler I tend to think of sketchnoting as doodling with a purpose. Much how twitter forces the verbose amongst us to condense ideas down into 140 characters, sketchnoting forces the creator to be succinct in words and images to convey complex concepts. The creative constraints this time are time, space and, for people like me, artistic ability.

I had a play with using paper, a free app for the iPad during the Apple Distinguished Educator institute and was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

For the first time in my life I enjoyed drawing.

In the past my mistakes would have resulted in having to redo a work or messing up a page by using an eraser. With Paper I can use the erase tool without damaging my work or better yet rotate my two fingers and use it to rewind my actions.


However the biggest revelation has been the zoom tool. My sloppy hand movements are no longer a problem as I can simply zoom into an area I want to write or paint and continue to use larger strokes.


As a final bonus your creations no longer languish in a journal. They can be easily shared and imported into other apps.

While paper not turn me into Picasso anytime soon, I’ve enjoyed the process of sketchnoting and may yet become a doodler.

Tips for your Google Teacher Academy Application #GTASYD

Turns our golden tickets were actually white.

Turns out golden tickets were actually white.

It’s just over a week until applications close for the next Google Teacher Academy in Chicago.  For those not in the know, every few months Google puts on a PD session for 50 teachers at a Googleplex.

You can read more about the academy here.

I was very fortunate to be selected for the Google Teacher Academy in Sydney earlier this year and would definitely encourage anyone interested in applying to give it a go. You’ll learn tons, gain an awesome network of educators and make chocolate unicorns  Seriously my head is still in meltdown mode a month after the event.

The competition for places is tough but applying is one of the smartest things you’ll do today! The worst that could happen is they say no.

But what about the application you say?

The Google Teacher Academy application consists of two parts. This first is a form consisting of details about your teaching context and a series of written paragraphs. The next part is the video in which you only have 60 seconds to sell your application.  I would rate the video application as one of the most challenging assignments I have undertaken since my Honours dissertation. At the beginning of the process I didn’t know how I would fill the time, by the end I was frantically cutting content to keep to the time limit.

Draw on the wisdom of others
Fortunatey the types of teachers drawn to applying for the Google Teacher Academy are also the types to share their experiences online. Watch some application videos, read blog posts, go to any hangouts. Even unsuccessful applications have ideas that will be useful for your application. Make sure you get someone else to look at your application before submitting it. A critical eye can change something from being so-so to awesome.

Be the purple cow
In a sea of black and white cows, you need to be the one people notice. Instead of focusing of buzz words or flashy effects, make sure you tell your story. You’ve only got 60 seconds, make them count. My video application was a decidedly low-tech affair that talked about a student project (although I remain in awe of Matt’s ability to pack a punch in 60 seconds).

It’s not actually about you
Student learning needs to be at the forefront of your application. In fact a lot of the content that I used in my video was stuff that the kids or I had created for other purposes. Treat your  application as an oppourtunity to showcase what makes your classroom awesome (my students work is licenced under a Creative Commons licence) .

Product placement
Ok lets be honest. Google isn’t throwing this hard-core geeking out session for educators for the LOLz (although rest assured there will be plenty of LOLz). The company is interested in how you are using Google the classroom. Your class might have an awesome blog or have created a huge global network but you do need to give Google some snaps in your application.

You don’t need to have a huge number of devices to be awesome.
My class isn’t even close to having 1:1 devices. Officially I have 8 classroom netbooks, 3 iPod touches, an iPad and a teacher Macbook. Nevertheless I like to think that my class and I punch aboce our weight in what we do with the technology. To be sure being a Google Apps school helps in terms of drawing on experience using all things Google but as far as I’m aware it’s not a pre-requisite for getting in.  Forget about what you don’t have and focus on the awesome stuff you do.

Treat the application like a job interview
Getting into the Google Teacher Academy is not so much an award as an opportunity to gain knowledge and connections to make yourself a more awesome educator.

Please bear in mind that as a new Google Certified Teacher I have no idea why I was chosen as one of the 50 in Sydney. There are a lot of awesome and far more experienced teachers who missed out.

Which leaves one more thing.

If you don’t get in, try again. 

10 ways I use my iphone in the classroom

iPhone 4s Casemate "Barely There" Case

Image used under creative commons licence

Hello my name is Stephanie and I’m an iphone addict.

I use my iphone in conferences, in meetings and *gasp* even in the classroom but I’m not using it to play angry birds.

Here’s 10 ways I use my iphone to make my teaching more effective:

1. Video – capturing learning as it happens

The main reason I got an iphone was for the video capabilities  I’ll often walk around my classroom with my phone capturing student learning. Video can be used for students to check in on what they actually did versus what they really did. For instance, do students give each other time to talk or do they butt into conversations? I will frequently  use interviews as an alternative for pencil and paper tests making assessment far less intrusive on the student.  Moreover video is an effective way to put friends, family and sometimes even parliamentarians right into our classroom.  Using an iphone means footage can be edited on the spot and then shared potentially with the whole world in a few minutes.

2. Posting pictures to the cloud 

I’ve easily taken thousands of photos this year of my class. Some of them are the generic photos of kids at school events and on field trips but I also use the photo function as way to capture student learning and thinking. What makes the iphone awesome is that these photos can then be easily be shared even if I’m away on camp. I use flickr as my cloud storage of choice and will sometimes email stand-out pictures to students families.

3. Texting parents

You don’t need a fancy phone for sms and so this hardly seems worth mentioning. Nevertheless, I’ve found the best way to engage with my previously hard to reach parents, parents who don’t have email or might work odd hours, has been through text messaging. 160 characters keeps communication short and to the point. The asynchronous nature of text messaging also gives the parent time to think and then respond at a time  that suits them.

4. Professional learning

I’ve got twitter, feedly, diggo, facebook, pinterest all on my phone. I often use my commute in the morning or my lunchtimes to scan my social network feeds for readings and ideas in the classroom. Professional learning for me isn’t a once a week meeting, it pretty much happens from the minute the alarm goes off on my phone.

5. Timers and reminders

The phone has a handy stopwatch and timer available. I’ve used my phone to time students speeches and also a countdown for tidying things up at the end of the day.If you are a bit like me and are so engrossed in teaching that you forget that your student needs to go over to the teacher aide room or need a prompt to photocopy something for class when you arrive at school, the iphone will send you reminder at a certain time or place.

6. Kindle

Although I much prefer paperbooks to the electronic version. If I’m desperate for a book and New Zealand shops don’t stock it I’ll make a quick trip to Amazon and hey presto the book was there on my phone. Granted it’s a bit tough on the eyes and I wouldn’t recommend reading the entire of Moby Dick on your phone, but if a student is borrowing my ipad and I want to read a passage from a book, the  iphone is great second option.

7. Broadcasting

You are watching a news story with a reading group about kid’s school lunches. One of the students pipes up,” hey why don’t we see what things are like in our class?” The student takes photos of a quick survey, which is then posted to your blog and then let the journalist know via your class twitter account all from your iphone.  No more mucking around waiting for the computer to load and finding the right cords for the camera, the sharing is seamless and the ability of my classroom to connect with the outside word is so much simpler.

8. Anecdotal note taker

If you are conferencing with a student or group of students, instead of writing down the conversation or taking a bulky laptop, you can use your phone to quickly record that conversation. I use Evernote which is an easy way to sort each child into folders and the app also has a nifty audio feature. When I’m talking about a child’s reading progress with another teacher, that teacher can hear the child read. The  notes  I make on Evernote are easily accessible from any device I’ve got the programme installed.

9. What the heck is that?

When I was out on duty when a group of kids spotted a rather interesting looking spider. I had no idea what the said spider was so I whipped out my phone a quick google confirmed the species of the spider and that it wasn’t dangerous to even if poisonous spiders aren’t exactly a huge problem in New Zealand. Point is we can access the information right then and there

10. Augmented reality

One of the most awesome features of the phone is augmented reality. Apps like wikitude, skyview etc. give kids a heads up display of what they are seeing in front  of them. If you are on field trip you can learn point your phone in front of  a building or a landmark and get a detailed history from wikipedia. Better yet, get the kids to start entering details for their area or make artwork come alive with aursama.

No limits

In reality there are hundreds of ways to use your iphone in teaching. What I love about my phone is that I mostly use it for a specific job and then *gasp* put it down again. It is the quick functionality of the phone, the unobtrusive nature of recording, the  seamless sharing between channels and the fact it is small enough that I can put it back in my pocket when I am done which makes the iphone an indispensable teaching tool.

Moreover the ipod touch is the most common device students in my class own. Through using my phone, I better know how to help my kids learn effectively with the technology that in too many classrooms is at best sitting in a student’s pocket at worst outright banned from school.

So the next time you see a  teacher hunched over their iphone in the staffroom, ask them how they are using it in their teaching and learning.

Whoops I better go, my phone is ringing.

How do you use your mobile device as a teaching tool?

Setting up individual student blogs using blogger (part 1)

Design by author

Despite my well-documented loathing of blogger as a content management system over the last term I’ve set up 28 (!) individual student blogs using google’s platform. As a result, I thought I would do a write-up of the process for any teachers out there interested in going down this path.

First of all do you have a purpose to your blogging. Unless you can articulate this right now then stop. Setting up student blogs is a lot of work unless you know why you are doing it then there really is little point.For me blogging has come out of a desire to give my students a chance to interact with students outside of our community and also an authentic audience for their writing. Your whys might be different from me and that’s all right. Just know why you are blogging.

Next up get your kids commenting. In my opinion commenting is underutilized as a way to teach blogging to students. First of all, commenting offers a opportunity for others to model effective posting to students. The more posts the students read, the more exposure they have to blogging before the students start posting.  If you already have a class blog, get the kids to comment there but there are hundreds of fantastic blogs out there for kids to learn how to interact with others online.

But what if the kids say nasty stuff online?

Have you taught them how to comment? I firmly believe that just like any other classroom activity blogging requires active teaching by the teacher.  You’d never go out on a field trip without first talking through good behaviour with your students. The same is true with blogging, you need to model good behaviour and supervise your students. I read and respond to each of the students comments on my class blogs and am now monitoring all activity on the individual blogs. For ease of tracking, I’ll get the kids to fill in a form using google docs to show where they have commented when we are commenting on other schools blogs.

Early on the term the class and I co-constructed our class’s quality commenting checklist.  In retrospect the quality commenting checklist has also served as a document for my students and I to have an ongoing conversation about good online behaviour and netiqutte. I still have a little giggle every time my students pull each other up using text language or the importance of spelling as I know that came from the work we’ve done around quality commenting.

More importantly if there are comments where I feel a student might have said something that breaks our guidelines, I’ll have a conversation in private with them. My class also audited each others comments on a Monday morning using the checklist which gives an opportunity for peer review.  In short you want to have a heightened awareness by the kids that this isn’t facebook and there are higher expectations for them.

Ok so you are ready to take the plunge and start setting up blogs. My advice probably is only of use to google apps schools but imagine that some of my thinking is going to be applicable to other platforms.

First up you might want to decide on a system for both naming and addressing the student blogs. The name refers to the title of the blog which is seen on both the header and the tab at the top. The student’s first name is usually a good idea or you could add the school eg. “Stephanie @ University on the Hill.” The address refers to what you type into your browser so this blog’s url is

If you are using blogger, then using isn’t going to happen as the addresses are long since taken. For the student blogs I’ve used the acronym of the school the student’s first name the first letter of the last name and the year the blog started so it looks something like this: But have a fiddle around and decide on a system.

Now you are ready to create your blogs.

Wait for part 2 where I give the technical details.

Tips for surviving your first term of teaching*

bento box family of chickens

Lunch is calling. Image used under creative commons licence.

Ladies and Gentlemen who have started teaching 2012

If I could offer you only one tip for surviving your first term of teaching, remembering to eat lunch would be it. The long-term benefits of the daily déjeuner have been proven by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.

I will dispense this advice now.

Take time to get to know your students. All of them have a story and interests. Even the most challenging of students usually have things that they are interests and talents. Take time to find out what they are.

The monday morning jam
Avoid trying to attempt any photocopying of resources on Monday morning. Get you photocopying done on the weekend or Friday afternoon or really any time apart from Monday morning.

Use your Classroom Release Time wisely.
Classroom release time can easily be frittered away especially if you have the time spread over the week rather than one specific day. Get out of your classroom to avoid distractions and have a set of goals you want to accomplish during the time. Try and get into as many classes as possible to observe other teachers doing their thing.

A notebook of notes.
Get an exercise book with each students name written on it and hey presto you have your ‘notebook ‘which is great to refer back to if looking at patterns for attendance, lateness, missing PE etc.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ever.
In my experience, the easiest way to make small problems become big ones is by not asking for help. Teachers are in general incredibly generous with their knowledge and resources. Gobble up all advice and don’t be afraid to pinch resources. You’ll pay it forward eventually.

Have at least one school-free day a week. Go home early (i.e before 4.30) at least one day a week. Yes this term I haven’t followed this advice very well but particularly on weeks where you have late finishes make sure you schedule yourself at least one early finish.

January is a financially challenging month for beginning teachers. At the time of writing there are ways to wrangle money for registration costs. etc from WINZ if you are persistent. If you are moving cities, you qualify for removal expenses from the Ministry of Education and the unit in charge of relocation are friendly and helpful. On the other hand, the Ministry’s Salary Assessment Unit are hands-down the worst government agency I have ever had any interaction with. Communication with this agency is only conducted via post and you might not get paid correctly for a few weeks months.

Initial Registration
Teacher registration is fairly painless process. If you have lived overseas in the last 10 years, organize your overseas police certificates well in advance of your application to avoid stress. Teachers Council will send you an email confirming receipt of your application and then again once its confirmed before sending out a nice shiny registration card.

Teaching Observations
Having your teaching observed is a way for you learn and grow. Treat every observation as a chance to improve your teaching. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Don’t talk over the top of  students. Ever.
This is sometimes a hard one, but waiting for silence and stopping when students chatter is really important. By talking over kids you send out a message that you don’t expect to be listened to and in turn that you don’t expect your kids to listen to others.

Check kids have understood verbal instructions before starting a new activity.
In my class  I use hand signals to check the kids know what they are doing. 5 fingers up means ‘I’ve got it’ while no fingers means I have no idea. Anyone under a 3 being asked to stay back for another round of explaining or modelling.

And it all comes back to food…
Make up big batches of food in the weekend and freeze individual portions for later in the week. Having pre-frozen dinners on hand for the nights where I was too exhausted to do anything but watch old episodes of the West Wing saved not only my sanity but extra dollars and a few extra kilos.

*Shamelessly stolen from the sunscreen song.