Back to School To-Do List #2: Plan Epic Icebreakers

I feel for my students on the first day of school. It’s an overwhelming experience for my 9th grade students who are navigating a new campus and acclimating to new classes and classmates. I like to plan fun icebreakers to help them get past their fear (most are terrified) and get to know their peers! Here are three of my favorite first day icebreakers

#1 Personality quiz 

Instead of calling roll, I ask students to put their new schedules in the corner of their desks. Then I provide them with two part personality quiz to complete as I walk around silently taking roll. This efficient way of handling roll on the first day is a welcome relief to most students who are tired of listening to a long list of names at the start of class.

You may be questioning, “why a personality test?” First, students love answering questions about themselves. Second, it helps me to design their collaborative seating assignments after that first day.

This year I’m using this fun 5 Minute Personality Quiz, which asks students to rate words in the order they describe their personalities. After determining whether they are a lion, otter, Golden Retriever or beaver, I ask them to go to the corner of the classroom with that animal posted. As a small group, they read through the description of their personality type and discuss how accurate they feel it is.

The backside of this more structured personality quiz, is a “Would you rather…” activity. I list a collection of statements, like “Would you rather vacation at the beach or at the snow?” and “Would you rather go without your phone or a car for a month?” These statements range from intriguing to absurd, but students love it. Plus, it provides fodder for additional icebreakers asking students to stand on the side of the room that matches their particular selections.

#2 Design a Class Scavenger Hunt

This year I put together a class scavenger hunt compiled of questions, like “Who worked at a summer job?” and “Who speaks three languages?” and “Who watched the final game of the World Cup?” Students have to fill in as many of the blanks as possible and can only use a student’s name twice.

This activity gets students out of their seats and out of their comfort zones. To answer the questions, they have to walk around the room meeting people and making conversation.

#3 Socrative Space Race Ice Breaker 

I love Socrative and use it for everything from quizzes to review games to icebreakers. On the first day of class, I put students in small groups of 4 and challenge them to compete in a space race. Each group only needs one devices to make this activity work.

Prior to that first day I design either a pop culture quiz or a name that movie line quiz. I try to keep the topic fairly accessible to the majority of students. Then the groups compete against each other to answer the questions correctly. Because I run this quiz as a space race, students can see their rockets zoom across the screen as they answer questions correctly, which adds to the competitive nature of the activity. Most students forget to be nervous they are having so much fun.

If you are looking for more icebreakers, check out this Google document I started and blasted out on Twitter inviting my PLN to add their favorite icebreaker activities. If you have a fun icebreaker you use, please add it to the document so it continues to grow!

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Back to School To-Do List #1: Sign up for Remind

August is right around the corner and, like most teachers, I have a TON to do before my students return in 3 weeks. In an effort to help teachers prepare for the first day of school, I wanted to share some of the items on my to-do list.

If you’ve never used Remind (previously Remind101), this is a quick and easy tool that allows you to send groups of students and parents text message reminders. I’ve recorded a screencast walking teachers though the simple process of signing up for an account. I’ve also highlighted some of my favorite features.

Not only can teachers send text message reminders to communicate with students and parents, they can also have fun with this tool. Check out the blog I wrote about using Remind for Shakespeare Trivia!


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5 Ways to Provide Parents a Window Into Your Classroom

When I attended my daughter’s kindergarden Back-to-School Night two years ago, I was delighted to see a video of the classroom playing on a television in the corner. As a parent, it was exciting to see my child in the context of the classroom. My daughter’s teacher had simply videotaped the children singing, working on projects, and progressing through their daily routine. The classroom was no longer a mystery. I left wanting to provide the parents of my 9th and 10th grade students with a similar experience.

Most parents of high school students probably have no idea how their children spend their days or what they are doing in their classes. This makes me sad as I will eventually be the parent of a high school student. As a result, I’ve tried to create windows into my own classroom.

Here are 5 strategies I’d suggest teachers consider:

1. Use a Twitter Hashtag or Create a Class FaceBook Page

You can post announcements, share pictures, and connect parents to resources and documents online.

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Tip: If you are using Twitter you do not need to follow your students’ parents, but you can add them to a list “Parents 2014-2015.” If you are using Facebook, you do not need to friend you parents for them to follow a Facebook page you’ve created for your class.

2. Create a Class Instagram Account

This makes it possible for parents to actually see what students are doing in the classroom. Post pictures that give parents a sense of what is happening each week.

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Tip: If you are using Instagram and plan to have a public account where you will post pictures of your students, you need your parents to sign a photo release form. Like Twitter and Facebook, you do no need to follow any parents or students with your class Instagram account.

3. Post Content Videos & Tutorials to a YouTube Channel

If you flip your classroom and provide video content online for students, parents can watch the videos too. This provides parents with the tools to support their students as they work on an assignment.

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Tip: Organize your videos into “playlists” so they are easier for your parents to navigate. For example, I have essay writing videos in their own playlist and vocabulary videos in another playlist.

4. Share Animoto Videos

Animoto is so easy to use I often take pictures of students working on projects or in their daily routine to share with parents via short videos. I play a video at Back-to-School Night and then post them to our class website for parents to view.


Tip: You can create a simple Animoto video just using your phone. Take pictures and video clips, then use the Animoto app to create a polished video in minutes!

5. Share a Master List of Student Blogs

All of my students started writing their own blogs this year. I encouraged them to blog about any topic they are passionate about. One strategy for getting more eyes on your students’ blogs is to encourage parents to check them out! Create a Google Document with the blog titles (no names) and hyperlink to each student’s blog. This encourages parents to click on blogs written about topics they are interested in, while also giving them a sense of what students are working on for your class.

Tip: Post a link to a “View only” Google Document from your website. This way both parents and students can check out the blogs any time.

If you are using different strategies to engage your parents or provide a window into your classroom, please post a comment or find me on Twitter! I’d love to learn from what other teachers are doing.

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Kids Will Be Kids: 8 Easy Strategies for Engaging Students

As an educator, speaker and blogger, people send me articles on a wide range of education topics. My husband’s grandmother sends me articles in the mail, my father-in-law forwards interesting NPR segments via email, and my neighbor down the street leaves newspaper clippings in my mailbox.  Last week when I met up with my parents in Avignon, France for a shared holiday Mom mom presented me with an article titled “The Drugging of the American Boy,” published by Esquire Magazine in April.

Not only do I teach teenage boys ranging from 14 to 16, but I also have a 5 year old son, so the topic was relevant to me as both an educator and parent. The article begins with the shocking statement that “if you have a son, you have a one-in-seven chance that he has been diagnosed with ADHD.” The article documents the dramatic increase in both the number of children being both diagnosed with and given prescription drugs to treat ADHD. In 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “released data revealing that 11 percent of American schoolchildren had been diagnosed with ADHD, which amounts to 6.4 million children between the ages of four and seventeen.”

As I read the article, which questions the causes of the 42% increase in ADHD diagnosis since 2003, I could not help but think about the traditional classroom setting and how “unnatural” it is for young children, particularly those who are high energy, to sit for long periods of time.

My own son transitions from his Montessori preschool to kindergarten this year. I am both excited and nervous for him. At his preschool, he is given the freedom to decide which “work” he will do in the classroom, and the kids are taken outside several times each day to play. He is often running hot laps in the yard with other little boys when I arrive to pick him up.

My son is active, energetic, and curious. These should all be wonderful qualities that are celebrated. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Too often teachers are working in overcrowded classrooms that don’t allow for much movement. Many teachers are also forced to teach without the necessary supplies to stimulate, engage, and challenge students. I face these same obstacles in my own classroom, which does not lend itself to movement or exploration.

For the last four years, I’ve focused on creating a student-centered classroom. I’ve tried hard to create a space that facilitates conversation, collaboration and creation. This is not easy to do with with fairly traditional desks and classes of 30+ students, yet I make it a point to get kids moving around the room during our 90 minute block period. There are several strategies I use to do this. I wanted to share them with other teachers who, like me, work in traditional settings but want to provide students with more opportunities to engage with their peers to enhance learning.

1. Four Corner Conversations

Every day I break students up into four discussion groups. I call it four corner conversations since each group sits in a circle in one of the four corners of our classroom to discuss the previous night’s reading or online discussion. As you can see in the picture below, there isn’t a ton of room, but we make it work. The conversations get students out of their chairs and are more intimate giving everyone a chance to share their ideas.

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2. Tea Party

I have no idea where this name came from as there is no tea served, but the idea is a fun one. Give every student a quote on a related topic. For example, during Fahrenheit 451 the quotes relate to conformity and nonconformity. When we read Lord of the Flies, the quotes are all about human nature. The students have to read their quote to as many classmates as they can in 5 minutes. Then we have a follow up conversation as a class about the quotes they found most interesting and powerful. Just the act of standing up and moving around makes this activity fun for students.

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3. Learn by Doing or Building

I wrote a blog about incorporating elements of the Maker Movement into my English class this year. For example, instead of telling my students everything I know about Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, I had them do research and build a replica of the Globe Theatre. It was incredible to watch them face challenges, problem solve, and create. Kids are incredibly creative if we give them time and space.

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4. Visit a Computer Lab

My school only has 2 computer labs for a campus of 1750 students, but I reserve a lab as often as possible so students can learn in a different setting. Since I have no actual technology in my classroom, save my students’ devices, I use these times in the lab to do synchronous editing or allow them to work in real time collaborating on projects using a range of web tools and Google apps.


5. Crowdsource Instead of Lecturing

It’s not fun for students to sit still, listen and take notes for a prolonged period of time. I’ve tried to replace some direct instruction with crowdsourcing. Instead of telling students about Shakespeare’s sonnets or life during the Great Depression, I allow them to work in groups with their devices to research information and share it with the class. The energy in the room is so different when students are asked to generate the information!

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6. Go Outside

Throughout the year, I ask students to go outside. I’ll ask them to go to the quad and leave me a voice message (using my Google Voice number) about their four corner conversations. When we are reading a Shakespeare play, they rehearse their lines outside before they perform in the classroom. Simply going outside gives them more room to move around and more space to make noise (away from other classrooms, of course).

Google Voice message17. Lights, Camera, Action!

Get students performing. Yes, teenagers can be shy, but they also have a flare for drama. Tapping into that can be thoroughly entertaining. During our Othello unit, my students don’t read Shakespeare’s play, they perform it! If you are thinking…but I teach science or history or math, how can I do this? If you teach science or math, have students create their own YouTube channels featuring cool demonstrations and funny commentary on science or math modeled after Veritasium, Vi Hart or Vsauce. If you teach history, have students perform and record reenactments or create short style documentaries.

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Yes, I gave that boy a sword!

Yes, I gave that boy a sword!

8. Storytime

Every week I ask students to sit on the floor for a children’s story. At first they think I am crazy, but they love this routine. Regardless of the subject you teach, there are awesome picture books on a related topic. I’d make time to read to your students.

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My efforts to encourage movement, conversation and collaboration have been incredibly rewarding. I don’t have classroom management issues and my students often comment on how quickly our 90 minute period flies by. I wonder…if more classrooms encouraged movement and embraced the chaos involved in creativity, would the number students being diagnosed with ADHD be so high?

Kids will be kids. I believe we will get more from our students if we remember that many of our students need to move to learn. If we want to cultivated excited life long learners, we need to create an environment that sparks curiosity and fosters creativity.

Posted in Learning | 22 Comments

My Favorite Mobile Apps #3 – Evernote

Are these a common sight in your classroom? How many of your students successfully organize their binders? How easy is it for them to access their notes, work, and resources?

Screen shot 2014-06-18 at 3.10.08 PMIf your students are anything like mine, they carry around enormous binders full of paper. Some of my students are more successful than others at keeping these binders organized so they can find their work.

At the end of the year, I was sad to see that many students just dumped entire binders worth of notes into the trashes around our campus. For them it’s cleansing and cathartic to throw their work away at the end of a school year. However, if each year is supposed to provide the foundation for the next, then it makes sense that students might want to reference their previous work.

My class is almost entirely paperless, so many of my students have begun to take notes on devices (phones and tablets) instead of on paper. Teaching them how to store and organize their information online is an important life skill. It’s part of the reason I love Evernote.

Evernote app

Ideas for using Evernote with students:

    • Create a digital notebook
    • Store resources for easy access
    • Brainstorm and save ideas
    • Capture and save photos for a project
    • Take a picture of white board with notes
    • Make a to-do list
    • Record voice reminders for assignments
    • Share files
    • Access files saved to desktop

Students can use Evernote on their devices in class and access their accounts from any computer. They can organize information into different notebooks and use tags to make finding information quick and easy.

Please share how you are using Evernote with your students!


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Creating a Google Apps Classroom

I had the pleasure of co-authoring the book Creating a Google Apps Classroom with Elizabeth Calhoon, Kyle Brumbaugh, Ramsey Musallam, and Robert Pronovost — a collection of incredibly talented and creative Google Certified Teachers and seasoned professional development facilitators. It was just published by Shell Education!

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Cook up amazing recipes with this engaging, resourceful Google™ cookbook! Great for both the beginning and seasoned Google-using teacher, this resource is the perfect tool to help guide teachers using, or preparing to use, Google Apps for Education™. Featuring Appetizer Recipes (warm-ups), Entrée Recipes (fresh take on an old standby lesson), Side Dish Recipes (used at any point in in lesson or unit), and Dessert Recipes (creative lessons to enjoy with your classroom), this resource will help you feel comfortable using Google Apps™ in no time. Helpful icons, easy-to-follow instructions, screen shots, and websites are also provided throughout for ease of use.”

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Some of my most popular blog posts have been about how I am using Google Apps in my classroom, so I hope this easy-to-use book will be a helpful resource for educators using Google Apps with students!

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Maya Angelou’s Words Are Worth The Fight

This morning the BBC played softly in the background as I shuttled my children to school. Most mornings they whine when I turned the radio to a news station, but this morning they were absorbed in their own worlds in the backseat.Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 3.36.44 PM

As the news anchor reviewed the day’s top stories, he announced “Maya Angelou has died at the age of 86.” I couldn’t process what I was hearing. I’ve revered Angelou my entire life. Her words, her voice, her insight, her honesty and her humor.

As a poet, she gave me gifts like “Phenomenal Woman” that taught me to see beauty in “the span of my hips, the stride of my step, the curl of my lips” and  “the arch of my back, the sun of my smile.” Her poem “Alone” reminded me that “nobody can make it out here alone,” and that life is, at its core, about human connection.

Ironically, this woman, who I never met, inspired me to fight the hardest battle of my professional career. The first year I taught her early autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, a small but vocal group of parents in my district bombarded me with abrasive phone calls and accusatory emails. They called her beautifully written story “pornography.” I was stunned. The attack on my decision to teach this book, and, subsequently, on me as a person was intense. I had to ask myself, why was I teaching this book?

The answer is simple. Hope. For all of the students who walk through my door carrying more than just their backpacks. For those students who carry sadness, pain, insecurities, self-loathing, and despair. For every child who comes to school hungry and is afraid to go home. For anyone who has ever felt they have no voice. This autobiography is a reminder that there is hope.

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Every time I read Angelou’s early autobiography, I am amazed that she was able to overcome life’s obstacles and blossom into the accomplished woman she was. She endured poverty, discrimination, sexual and physical violence, abandonment, and pregnancy all before she turned 18. Angelou’s story is one of resilience, tenacity and a love for life.

In life’s darkest moments, it is stories like Angelou’s that remind us we are not alone and that beyond the darkness there is light. I feel fortunate to have read her story as a teenager and to be able to share her words with my students.


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Prewriting: Why Should Students Go It Alone?

When asked, “What is the most challenging part of writing an essay?” Most of my students agree, “It’s just getting started that’s hard.” I remember feeling this same way as a student. The blank page was daunting. So, I decided to try a new strategy.

The first stage of our formal essay on Shakespeare’s play, Othello, was a prewriting activity designed to tap into the collective potential of the class. I wanted students working together to generate ideas and collect textual evidence.

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I pushed desks together and laid down a long sheet of yellow butcher paper. The essay prompt was written on the board:

Prompt: Identify and analyze three factors that led to the tragedy in William Shakespeare’s play, Othello.

I explained that I wanted them to work together to brainstorm and collect textual evidence in preparation for their essay. That was where my involvement ended. The rest of the activity was student directed.

One student wrote the word tragedy in the center of the paper. Then they had an interesting conversation about what the actual tragedy was. Was it Desdemona’s death? Was it Othello and Desdemona’s lost love? Was it the inherent lack of trust in human nature?

Then students brainstormed factors they believed led to the tragedy. They had conversations as they captured their ideas on the paper. They wrote words and phrases like lack of communication, Iago’s greed, Othello’s “otherness” and status as an outsider.

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Once they identified a dozen different factors, they began searching for textual evidence (with citations!) to support those factors. The energy in the room was palpable. Students were flipping through pages, referencing devices, writing on the paper, and discussing their ideas. It was so different from the individual prewriting sessions of the past.

After their prewriting was done, I took pictures of the paper and posted them to our class website for my students to reference. When they wrote their first body paragraph in class, I laid out their prewriting paper. As they wrote, students would pause, come to the paper and reference the factors and quotes generated the previous class.

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This strategy was fairly low tech since my classroom doesn’t have any actual technology save the devices my students bring into the room. If everyone had access to a device, I could have done this same activity using a web tool, like Padlet, to facilitate real time collaboration and capture their ideas.

The success of this activity was evident as I began to edit their drafts in progress. The quality of their ideas, strength of their quotes, and the depth of their analysis improved dramatically.

Too often the collective intelligence in a classroom is ignored. It’s so important that we give students more opportunities to learn from one another.


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After 12 Years of Teaching Writing…an Epiphany!

I’ve been teaching students how to write for 12 years, but this week I had a realization that made me question the purpose of writing in school.

When I was in high school and later in college, my English classes focused primarily on reading novels and writing papers to demonstrate a strong understanding of the literature we had read, annotated and discussed as a class. The purpose of writing was assessment. Did we understand what we read? Were we able to identify strong textual evidence and analyze it? Did we demonstrate higher-order thinking in our writing?

I took this same philosophy and applied it to my own work with students. Like so many teachers, my own practice is, in many ways, grounded in my past experiences as a student. Even though I strive to continually grow, learn and improve as an educator, I sometimes don’t think to question the assumptions that are at the heart of my craft.

Two years ago I began flipping my writing instruction. I created short videos to replace the “mini-lessons” I had traditionally presented in class. I saw value in allowing students the opportunity to control the pace of their learning. As a teacher, I love having a resource I can point a student to if they are continuing to struggle with the structure of an argument body paragraph or how to write a thesis statement. In the past, I had to repeatedly explain these concepts. Flipping my writing instruction also creates more time in the classroom to actually write.

Last year, I wrote a blog about synchronous editing. I described a class period when I took my students to the computer lab part way through their essays to provide them with formative feedback. I opened every document and left extensive comments. In that blog, I commented on how miraculous it is that technology has given me a vehicle to collaborate in real time, meet students where they are at, and provide support during their writing. I’ve continued to provide synchronous edits in the computer lab at least once each time students write a process paper. 

So what changed?

This week my students finished writing an essay on Shakespeare’s play, Othello. It is one of the most challenging pieces of reading we do all year. I knew my students would need support during the writing process. I planned time in class for them to write, so I could answer questions and lend support. Then I reserved the computer lab three days in a row and had students working on their papers as I synchronously edited them. I edited most of my studentsGoogle documents 2 or 3 times before they actually “submitted” their essays.

As I walked away from the last round of edits exhausted but satisfied with both my effort and theirs, it hit me. My 9th and 10th grade students are still learning how to write. Many of my students come into my class without a strong foundation in writing. Most don’t have the skills they need to tackle the meaty essay prompts I present without serious support. So, why am I so focused on the product when I should be focusing on the process? The time I spend helping my students to edit and refine their writing as they write is exponentially more valuable for them than the final comments I leave on their essays.

My big realization is that writing shouldn’t be used as simply an assessment tool. Assigning an essay to be completed at home and collected to grade is a missed opportunity for everyone. The student misses out on valuable feedback and support as they write, and teachers collect enormous stacks of paper that must be graded outside of the school day. This old model can be a frustrating and exhausting experience for everyone involved. 

Why not move writing back into the classroom? Doesn’t it make more sense to spend our time and energy providing feedback as students write, instead of waiting until papers are collected to spend hours editing them? We are fortunate enough to teach in a time when technology is making it easier than ever to collaborate on documents and provide instant feedback, so we can embrace the process!

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Maker Movement: Let Them Build it & They’ll Learn!

The Maker Movement happening in education right now is exciting. It makes so much sense to create “more opportunities for all young people to develop confidence, creativity, and interest in science, technology, engineering, math,  arts, and learning as a whole through making.” photo 3

Turning Students into Makers

The Maker Movement:

    • places students at the center of learning.
    • shifts students from consumers to producers.
    • is cross disciplinary.
    • requires critical thinking to solve problems and design solutions.
    • develops communication, collaboration and research skills.
    • yields a finished product that students can be proud of and share.

At first, I was not sure how to introduce elements of the Maker philosophy into my English classroom. Much of the conversation around this movement focuses on technology and STEM subjects, but I see value in getting students to design and create in all subject areas. Since I don’t have any actual technology in my classroom, I had to get creative in my approach.

We were reading (performing is more accurate) Shakespeare’s play, Othello. I usually do a mini-lesson on the Globe Theatre to introduce its design, layout, symbolic spaces, and genius construction. That’s when I had an idea! Why not ask students to build replicas of the Globe Theatre? To build a model of the Globe, they would have to complete research, get creative with their materials and work collaboratively in groups. I realized that through the act of making their replicas they would probably learn more and have more fun.

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Building a Replica of the Globe Theatre

I was struck by two things as I watched my students work. First, each group took a very different approach to building their models. It was a reminder that students are immensely creative when given the autonomy and freedom to decide on the path they want to take to complete a project. I simply provided an assortment of materials — construction paper, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, glue and tape. I left all the design and construction decisions up to the students.

The second thing that both surprised and amused me was how “hard” my students felt this task was. Because the assignment didn’t come with a clear set of instructions, they had to work together to make decisions. They found the process of trial and error frustrating.

Despite the challenges they faced and frustration they felt during the process, I could tell they were extremely proud of their finished products. By the end of our 90 minute class period, each group had a replica of the Globe Theatre and a stop motion movie of their work.

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Creating Stop Motion Videos of Their Work

Prior to beginning their work, I asked one member of each group to upload the iMotion HD app (free) to capture a stop motion film of their work. They propped up the phone and the iMotion HD app took one picture per second and strung them together into short stop motion movies showing their process. They enjoyed watching their work evolve in this short stop motion movie.

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