Galaxy Tabs in the classroom

I’ve been neglecting my blog for quite some time. Part of the reason was that we have recently moved from Asia to Africa so we had been pretty busy transitioning. I’m now working as the Elementary Technology Integration Coach at AISJ. It’s a great move for me and my family and some exciting challenges ahead.

intro tablet

At my school, we have purchased about 120 Samsung Galaxy tablets to be used in Grades K-3. This has been a great learning experience for me as I have only used iPads. I have kept an open mind and wanted to see what their capabilities are compared to iPads. Although I do like iPads, Apple has presented a number of logistical challenges at schools (think VPP).

Here are my takeaways:

  • Love the S pen (aka Stylus)-This is a great built in feature in which all Galaxy Tabs come with. It has hundreds of pressure points and is very responsive to pressure and touch. It has an air pen feature which I haven’t really used and fits in nicely along the side. For kids, this opens up so many educational advantages (drawing, brainstorming, math activities, writing, etc). Although you can buy these for the iPad, they can be expensive and there is no built in storage on the iPad for them.
  • Apps-Just like the iTunes store, the Google Play store has an abundance of educational apps available. I could find pretty much every app that I used on the iPad for the Galaxy Tab. 
  • Camera- The quality of the camera is very similar to the camera on the iPad. 
  • S Note- This is one app that I think beats any default app that is on the iPad. It has a number of excellent features including drawing, graphs, sound, video, photo, annotations, clip art. Although the notes are a bit tricky to export (only as an image file), this is useful for 
  • Voice Recognition This is a fabulous feature that is built into the Galaxy tabs. By bringing up the keyboard feature, on the bottom is a little icon that has a voice recognition feature. This is extremely handy in situations where you need to differentiation or support students with learning needs. It is also surprisingly accurate!
  • gnote-keyboard-switch


I will post a few in-depth tutorials shortly.

Integrating technology by using the TPAC model

Many teachers new to integrating technology into their classroom come to me with the question, “I am really excited to use technology in the classroom, how can I do it?” Well, this in itself, is pretty general question so I usually respond, “tell me about what you are doing in your classroom”

There is no point in using technology for the sake of using technology. That would be equivalent to getting out a hammer and simply banging away at nails without a clear goal.   It must be used purposely and through an authentic context. In other words, start with the end in mind. What are the specific learning goals you would like students to reach? With this in mind, we can then think about selecting the appropriate tool.

The TPAC model is a nice way to combine content, pedagogy and technology. Here’s a great video that summarizes it:

So the main point is, you need to balance technology carefully with pedagogy and content to find the “sweet spot” in learning.

Minecraft-A new virtual tool for learning

I just read a great post from this blog on Minecraft and thought I would add my thoughts on the subject.

Whenever you mention the word “video game” to a parent, it often brings quite a few negative connotations. Usually the negative words associated with this are: blood, shooting, waste of time, and mindless.  As an adolescent, I remember trying to justify to my mother that hours of playing Nintendo’s Zelda were actually beneficial to me. I would say, “but it improves my hand eye coordination Mom!”  She would often let out a sigh, roll her eyes and give me another 15 minutes to try and complete another level.  At the time, improving hand eye coordination was really the only apparent benefit of playing video games at the apparent cost of so many.

As part of my graduate research,  I have recently been doing quite a bit of academic research on game-based learning. Typically, with any new type of technology, there is a bit of resistance and usually group of critics who often propagate myths without having done the research themselves. I have encountered similar resistance when we first started doing blogging in the classroom (how can blogging possibly improve academic skills?), ipads and mobile devices (they are a distraction and waste of time) and now games.

Fast forward 20 years and gaming is still a huge market.  Video games have evolved into highly sophisticated multiplayer games and strategy-based games that require much more than trying to rapidly tap A, A, B, B, select, start, up, down as fast as you can. Sure, those games certainly exist but new genres have hit the market that require higher-order thinking skills, complex communication, collaboration and problem-solving.  One of those genres, simulation games, is beginning to overlap with other fields such as medicine, military and education.

Watch this fantastic video that paints a nice picture of the role of simulation games in education:







So what are simulation-based games?

Simulation games are virtual games that simulate a real-world experience that are often difficult or dangerous to take part in real life. Some of them are life-based simulation games such as the Sims and others are more construction and strategy based games such as Civilization, SimCity World of Warcraft, and Minecraft.

Games (not just video games) have actually taken quite awhile to be taken seriously by educators.  Games, by themselves, are obviously highly engaging, fun and motivating. However, these reasons alone are not enough to use them educationally. For example, Uno is a fun and engaging game but this alone doesn’t mean that it should be used in the classroom. There needs to be careful planning, goals, integration into the curriculum and reflection built into any type of technology or innovative practice.

I have recently been using Minecraft in the classroom to help develop some important mathematical concepts as well as those higher-order thinkings skills. As a teacher and a bit of a gamer myself, I can clearly see the advantages of leveraging games for learning.

So what is Minecraft?


Minecraft is a virtual 3D simulation game in which players need to look for resources to use to craft and build just about anything. There is a one player survival mode where it is just you alone in the world and there are monsters out there so you need to survive. There is also a creative mode feature where you have access to all resources in the game.  There is also a multiplayer mode (my favorite) where you interact and collaborate with people in real-time. Creativity is absolutely endless and I have seen people build ancient pyramids, castles, and even whole cities!

So how can you use Minecraft for learning?

Math-Since Minecraft is in a 3D virtual world, it is very easy to link in geometry and measurement concepts. I had 5th grade students complete a series of challenges involving fractions and percents. I built some structure and students had to figure out what percentage of each material I used. Then, I had them build a house involving some specific percentages of blocks. It is very easy to explore concepts such as volume, area, perimeter, coordinates and measurement. I had 3rd grade students build a real construction of a garden project they did in which they had to use specific perimeter and areas of their garden (planned ahead of time). Then students actually got to grow their own crops in the garden! Video of my idea will be posted below:


Geography-Geography is an easy way to explore using Minecraft. Difficult concepts such as topography, mapping skills, types of maps are a natural part of Minecraft. I found a great video by a fellow teacher in which he explored contour maps show below. I am planning out a series of lessons shortly

Economics/Math-Minecraft has plenty of multiplayer servers. Recently, I joined one and I am absolutely amazed at the kind of learning that happens on this. One server has an economy built into it so players receive money from selling their items. People also begin opening up shops selling and trading items. This opens up a real life (sort of) context where students could learn the idea of supply, demand, market prices and how economies are built.

Science-I have been following a high school teacher in Australia who uses Minecraft to teach concepts in biology. For example, he has students construct 3D models of eukaryotic cells. He uses a multiplayer mod to explore how neurotransmitters work.






The Key to a Successful School


Think back to a school that you have worked in or visited that was truly outstanding. Imagine it clearly in your mind. Now, try and pinpoint exactly what it was that made that schools so great. Many people will say, academic achievement, amazing resources, excellent teachers/admin, great sports and activity programs, or parental involvement. All of these are things we all desire in a successful school but these do not actually make a successful school by themselves. These are all results of a successful school. So what actually causes these factors? In a word-community.

Community is what drives every good school to become great. It’s what drives good teachers to become excellent teachers. It’s what drives all learning, sports and arts programs. Community is what inspires people to go beyond the status quo. It is what fosters creativity, innovation and nurtures a caring environment. It is that intangible- can’t-put-your-finger-on-nice-vibe factor that makes people go that extra mile. Without it, you can have all the money and resources in the world, and it’s simply a concrete lifeless space where people just go about their business teaching standards and benchmarks. So what is community exactly and specifically what defines a positive school community that can be the tipping point from good schools to great schools?

For those of you who are classroom teachers, you know one of the most, if not the most important factor in creating a successful classroom is building a positive, caring and inclusive classroom. Putting in the effort early on pays huge long term benefits in the long-term since you spend less time dealing with classroom management issues and social problems. You know you have done it when the classroom essentially runs itself. The same can be said for schools. I am speaking from a teacher’s point of view of course but I have worked at a school that was extremely successful at doing this. As a school, administrators truly have to spend time creating a positive, inclusive school that is vibrant, democratic and a fun place to work at. This ultimately translates to the teachers and parents.

So how does a school achieve a positive school climate? Here are some of my tips for doing so:

  • At the beginning of the year, spend time creating faculty get-togethers, socials, team building exercises. Having that open communication and trust between faculty, solves so many problems later on
  • Create a culture of communication, transparency and openness. This begins at faculty meetings where teachers should have a voice and an agenda in which they are involved with creating. Set meaningful and realistic goals as a school and develop specific action plans to achieve them
  • Empower teachers. Give them responsibilities and entrust them in making decisions. Don’t sit in on team meetings in which you have given these responsibilities to Grade Level Leaders. Follow up with them but sitting in on meetings makes them feel like they are incompetent
  • Celebrate, celebrate and celebrate the little and big things that teachers and students do everyday. Teachers and students need to feel like what they are doing is purposeful and there is an audience. Have assemblies that celebrate learning for the sake of learning. Write blogs or quote specific projects that teachers in web pages and school articles.
  • Do something different and innovative. Create something unique and special about the school. That begins to make people feel special and important.
  • Get things done. Create a culture of action and following through on promises and decisions. Don’t let things get bogged down in paperwork.

Rethinking Teacher Evaluations


So it is that time of year again. That stressful time where you must demonstrate to the admin from a school that you are in fact a competent teacher and improve student learning. I have probably gone through the process a dozen times and also been on the other side of the coin in leadership roles where I was an evaluator as a team leader (more on that later). I still go through the hoops, get my observations done, schedule the meetings, do the paperwork and attend feedback post-observation meetings on one or two lessons that are planned to the minute detail so that everything runs smoothly. This seems like an awful lot of time and energy for a brief snapshot into a day and the life of my classroom. So the important questions remains, does all this actually improve my teaching practice? Perhaps, early on in my teaching career but at this stage, I would argue that very little of this actually improves teaching and learning. So why on Earth are administrators and teachers wasting all this time to begin with? Historically, research in this area has shown that the two main purposes for teacher evaluation are to:

1. Assure that teachers meet a minimum competency level

2. Promote the professional growth of teachers

So assuming a teacher achieves the minimum competency level, do formal evaluations by principals actually improve or encourage growth of teachers? I would argue no.

Much of my growth as a teacher has not been through these feedback sessions but through watching others teach through co-teaching or collaborative planning. I still remember my first year as a teacher when my principal observed me and I was barely learning the ropes. The feedback she gave me, although informative, did not lead to any direct change in my teaching practice. Only through experience and working with phenomenal teachers as role models, did I alter my practice.

At my last school, we actually had a very effective teacher evaluation/appraisal system. Administrators did no formal observations. Instead, they were done through grade level leaders who were often your friends or colleagues who often co-taught lessons with you. They did give written feedback but I also learned an incredible amount through watching them teach, planning with them and reflecting with them. We did meet with our administrators to discuss goals and identify professional development opportunities that supported these goals. This freed up time for administrators to actually do what they are paid to do, administrate. The assumption was that 99% of the teachers at the school, were extremely competent teachers (that’s why they were hired) so why waste valuable time having administrators confirm what they already knew? After all, teachers are truly the experts when it comes to teaching and learning.

Bill Gates had it right…almost.

On my travels through Cambodia this summer, I debated on whether to bring an expensive but incredible toy, my ipod touch. (A) because I thought I wouldn’t use it that much and (B) I didn’t want to get it stolen or lost. Well, at the last minute, I decided to take it just in case. It turns out that it was probably the most important item I brought save my passport and clean underwear. Why? Well, there were many hours I spent waiting and long bus rides with blaring Cambodian music and I could withdraw into my musical sanctum. Besides getting very addicted to the app Scrabble, I had some TED videos saved on there as well.

I watched the TED talk by Bill Gates on Mosquitos, Malaria and Education. Mr. Gates in addition to being a successful billionaire is also a philanthropist. I do respect him for this. Besides trying to find a cure for malaria, he is also deeply interested in improving America’s educational system. This is where it gets interesting (at least for me).

If you haven’t watched it and don’t have time to watch the beginning part about malaria, skip to the 7:55 mark where he talks about education.

Now, he is right about one thing. The american educational system is suffering. However, he rationalizes that the problem is that the US doesn’t have enough exceptional teachers. What does he use as his main supporting evidence for this claim? Test scores. I cringe every time I hear these two words. I am very thankful that I wasn’t brought up as a student in this environment nor do I have to teach in it. Now, this is where things get sticky. Well, standardized test scores have their place, they should NOT be the sole indicator for students achievement, a school’s achievement and especially not an indicator of the effectiveness of a teacher!

Here is my list of the 5 biggest problems with standardized tests:

1. They are typically culturally biased and ethnocentric-Many of these questions have reading passaged that are based on a north american’s culture. I remember giving a reading assessment on a passage about baseball to some of my korean students. The questions ask about homeruns and rules that would be much easier if she had of seen or played baseball before.

2. Performance-based tests can cause increase anxiety and stress-Imagine that for every unit of study, you would be asked to stand up on stage while a professor grills you about what you have learned. That’s how some students feel under these types of conditions.

3. Only measure one kind of learning modality-Standardized tests are usually in the form of multiple choice or short answer. This rewards students who are visual and logical learners and not those who learn through kinesthetic, auditory, intrapersonal, etc.

4. Only reward students for the “right answer” and not correct thinking– This is why Mathematics professors design tests which give points to students fo the correct thought process, even if they don’t get the right answer.

5. Does not measure attitudes and creative thinking– Standardized tests are usually one dimensional. What about students attitudes towards a subject area or original thinking?

So if all these inherent problems exist with standardized tests, why are we basing funding for schools on this alone? Why are we using these test scores to determine who is an “exceptional teacher” and who is not? While I will give Mr. Gates some points for actually asking a more important question, what qualities does an effective teacher exhibit? I think that many teachers do plateau in their teaching methodology unless challenged to learn from others.

Teaching is only one of the small factors in improving America’s educational system. I think more importantly, school’s need: smaller class sizes, more funding for resources, improved professional development, increased teacher support roles and improved facilities just to name a few. I believe Bill Gates whose heart is in the right place but his head just needs to be steered into the right direction.

The Power of Student Action in Inquiry-based Learning

It all started with a little caterpillar

Picture this, we are 4 weeks into a unit on Life Cycles and ordered over 200 caterpillars for our grade level for students to observe as it goes through each stage of the life cycle. Sounds like a great idea right? Unfortunately, 199 of the caterpillars went through only 2 stages of the life cycle..caterpillar and death. The other one somehow managed to go through a Darwinian miracle and ate all the leaves so none of the other caterpillars survived. Ironically, he ate himself to death. Not exactly a great start to the unit.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending (or this wouldn’t exactly be an exciting blog post).Last week, one of my Grade 2 students came rushing into class, practically bouncing off the walls with sheer excitement. She had managed to find 2 huge caterpillars in her backyard that were sitting on a tree. She carefully placed them in a see-through container (that was much better than our class one) and diligently picked the right leaves from the same tree as she remembered from class that caterpillars are particular about the type of leaves they can eat. She came running to my desk and said, “Mr. Marshall, Mr. Marshall, I think they are molting and getting ready to pupate” All the other kids gathered around and agree. I told her that I thought it was a great idea and we should put them on the display table to observe. Every morning, her and a few others would come in with new leaves and methodically clean the container, put a little bit of water and put them back in the container as if she was taking care of a baby. A few days later, some students excitedly discovered that they were now in a chrysalis. Sure enough, as I looked at them and they had created silk buds on the leaves and were now in the pupa stage. I got out my video camera and used iStopMotion to take a time lapse photo of it every 30 seconds so we could observe any changes. The news spread like wildfire and soon, other students from other classes came to observe these two caterpillars. This revitalized and infused a sense of excitement and curiosity into a unit that was quickly fizzling out. In a sense, the small action taken by this one child had created a huge impact on the learning of the rest of the Grade 2 community.

3 of my students with the caterpillars they found

So what does this mean?

We as teachers sometimes dismiss, neglect or acknowledge one of the most fundamental parts of the learner inquiry cycle– action. This is evident in the Primary Year’s Programme (PYP) from the IBO in this learner profile.

Learner Profile

As you can see from this diagram, action is put on the same level as concepts, skills, and attitudes. In fact, the IBO states this in the PYP Handbook, Making it Happen:

The PYP believes that international education must extend beyond intellectual attainment to include not only responsible attitudes but also thoughtful and appropriate action. International schools can and should meet the challenge of offering all learners the opportunity and the power to choose their actions, to act and to reflect on these actions in order to make a difference in and to the world. The PYP believes that every student, every year, has the right and the duty to be involved in such action. In order to make the action component of the curriculum as powerful as possible in terms of student learning the PYP advocates a cycle of involvement which provides students with opportunities to engage in meaningful action.

Here is a diagram of the action cycle:

The action component of the PYP involves service in the widest sense of the word: service to
fellow-students, to the staff and to the community. Through such service, students are able to grow both socially and personally, developing skills such as cooperation, problem solving, conflict resolution and creative and critical thinking. These actions are, moreover, ways in which the students exhibit their commitment to the attitudes that we seek to engender within the PYP classroom.

I always thought action had to be big service run projects like building schools or raising money for orangutan sanctuaries. However, after attending a workshop on Action and the PYP, I learned that action starts with small, student-driven, spontaneous connections to learning that is happening in the classroom. In fact, the PYP planner even has a space to record student actions that took place in the unit during the reflection stage. While working at WAB, it was always exciting to hear from other teachers about some of the action that students engaged. It would also show the level of interest from a students’ point of view and how well we engaged them. Here are some examples of student action that we recorded in our planners:

  • Bringing in books related to the unit of inquiry
  • Creating a poster about an issue
  • Discovering a website
  • Sending an email to an author
  • Creating a science experiment at home
  • And of course, bringing in caterpillars from home 😉

Guidelines for implementation of effective action (taken from PYP Making it Happen handbook):

  • should be voluntary and involve students in exercising their own initiative and in taking
  • responsibility for their actions
  • should be based on balanced understandings and not biased stereotypical thinking
  • usually begins in a small way and arises from genuine concern and commitment
  • is usually, for younger children, grounded in their own concrete experience
  • demands appropriate adult support in order to facilitate students’ efforts and to provide them
  • with alternatives and choices
  • is not always concerned with raising funds.

I recently had a parent meeting and he was telling me a story in which his child once brought in a learning puzzle connected to an animal unit they were studying. The teacher actually punished this child for bringing in toys from home! He said this affected her for months after and she was unengaged, disliked school and scared to bring in anything from home to school again. He was so happy and relieved to hear that I was actually promoting students bringing in games, objects and books from home.

Just Pay it Forward

We sometimes forget that some of the biggest changes we can have as educators often goes unnoticed. One of my favorite movies of all time is Pay it Forward (I challenge you to get through it without shedding a tear)in which Kevin Spacey plays a teacher who at the beginning of the year introduces this bonus assignment to his middle school students to come up with one idea to help change the world. Anyway, one student in his class takes this to heart and comes up with the idea of “Paying it forward” and does one good deed for someone and in return, they must do 3 good deeds to others. This is an example of action at its best. Perhaps idealistic but shouldn’t we be at least striving to foster these kinds of things from our students?

Although I am not working at a PYP school currently, much of pedagogy remains the same. I suppose the old cliche, “you can take me out of a PYP school but you can’t take the PYP out of me” applies here.

It’s not about “the stuff”, it’s about the learning


This the venue of the summit-Canadian International School. And yes, that is canadian timber imported from BC on the roof. They even served Canadian back-bacon for breakfast. Made me feel like I was home..

What the Conference was really about:

It’s taken me a week to finally get my head around the learning from the Hong Kong Apple Leadership Summit. In a word, it was inspiring. Many people asked me afterwards, “Hey, how was the conference?” and for whatever reason, it was difficult to summarize. Others commented, “Wow, with all those technology gurus, you must have learned some really  apps.” Surprisingly, I couldn’t recall a single application that I learned about that hadn’t already used. Then again, it wasn’t so much about learning about new tools (although there were some hands-on workshops), it was the how to use these tools to improve learning for students. This is exactly how it should be with our students. I truely believe that technology has turned a corner in their evolutionary path in education. Technology conferences used to be about everyone opening the same computer program and a supposed “expert” stand in the front of the room teach us non-digital natives how to do all the ins and outs of the program. It was mind-numbing and overwhelming. There was usually no context for the learning and a week later, we would forget everything we learned. Nowadays, we have gotten a little smarter and we know there are better ways to use technology in the classroom. Best practices integrating technology show that we must be teaching skills “just in time” so that skills are meaningful, appropriate and relevant. Just-in-Time (JIT) learning challenges the traditional educational model that assumes the information is tied to one source (usually the teacher or textbook). JIT learning happens because the learner is motivated to learn and they need to learn something in order to accomplish the task. There were so many of these types of moments during the conference.

A Conference-Web 2.0 style

So back to the conference. I really knew that this was going to be a dynamic and engaging conference when many of the participants were twittering #hksummit (this was the tagline of the conference) while the conference was going on. There were over 50 pages of tweets and it was the one of the top 5 “trending topics” on Twitter. Very exciting stuff.  In addition, there was a backchat channel where some of the most exciting conversations were happening in response to the speakers. People where streaming the conference live on their iPhone and then broadcasting it via ustream. There is also a Facebook group page that was created during the session. Imagine if we had this level of engagment in our schools..

Keynote Speakers:

  • Tom Kelley, author of Ten Faces of Innovation spoke about innovation and how vital they are for organizations to develop.
  • Stephen Heppell, a professor, a wealth of information and recipient of the first-ever “Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in ICT Education” award
  • Vivien Stewart, VP for Education at Asia Society
  • Marco Torres, a high school teacher, media coach, and education technology director for San Fernando High School. He is a professional filmmaker and photographer who uses his digital storytelling skills in education

Here is a great summary video of the conference that could probably summarize it better than I could.

Following the keynote speakers, there were fantastic break-out sessions led by Apple Distinguished Educators and other leaders about these topics:

  • Technology and Pedagogy in International Schools-An Introduction to iWork
  • 1:1 @ The Canadian International School of Hong Kong
  • Connecting with your Community: Podcasting for leadership
  • Proof of Effective Learning: A Case Study of Concordia International School, Shanghai
  • Social Studies Integration
  • Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow-Today! and Challenge-based Learning
  • Supporting Technology Infusion using Laptop Carts-A Case Study by Shanghai American School
  • Future IT: Confronting your Inner Control Freak
  • Connecting Classrooms Across Continents: Planning and Implementing Globally Collaborative Projects
  • Designing Technology Infused Lessons
  • Lights! Camera! Learn!
  • Infusing Technology into Language Studies
  • Developing the Global Student: Practical ways to Infuse 21st Century Literacy into the Classroom
  • Moving to a 1:1-A Model for Professional Development from Nanjing International School
  • Community Advocacy with Web 2.0
  • Behind the Red Door (Research Education Development)
  • Multi-platform integration-A Case Study of Renaissance College Hong Kong
  • Framing Acceptable Technology Use in a 21st Century Learning Environment
  • Rock Out (and learn) in Your Class
  • IBO/DP Oral Assessment with GarageBand
  • Models for Teaching Teachers Technology at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong
  • Get Connected! Video Conferencing in the Classroom
  • Creating Student Film Festivals
  • Setting Leadership Examples with the use of ICT
  • Reinventing Western Academy of Beijing
  • Korean International School 1:1 Lesson Learned

Unfortunately, I was only able to attend 2 break-out sessions because they were being held simultaneously. There were so many interesting sessions as well and if anyone had further links to these sessions, I would love to see the notes.

Odds and Ends:

Overall, it was a fantastic conference and really well run by Apple and superb venue by the Canadian International School of Hong Kong For me, it’s about connecting, whether it be learning, people or ideas. I think all three of them happened at the conference. It was great to finally meet some people face-to-face after only knowing them through a digital environment @mscofino @RobinThailand @IPittman and see some familiar faces and friends @debbiediaz1 @annabelhoward @transpac_canuck @sbradshaw

One thing that was interesting was that the evaluation forms by Apple were all in given to us in paper form. Sigh..well I guess there is always something to improve upon for next conference 😉

So many great links and videos shared. Really enjoyed this one and feel like it encapsulated the essence of the conference.

My Favorite Quotes:

“We look at technology as a tool, students look at technology as an environment” Stephen Heppell

“Attendance is compulsory and learning is optional” vs “Learning is compulsory and attendance is optional”-Stephen Heppell

“Technology is only technology to those before that tech was invented. To children it is the world they live in.”

“You don’t develop water safety by waiting until kids are 16 and then throwing them off the pier.” Stephen Heppel in response to AUPs and online safety