Thursday, April 27, 2017

Stereoscopes with Google Cardboard

I recently tagged along on a field trip with local students to the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village in Amherst, NY. The students were learning about New York State History, specifically the area around Western New York. This regional history gem is a sprawling campus that includes both indoor and outdoor exhibits, including real churches, schools, and homes where students and museum visitors can step back in time and see what life was like in the 1800s.

During the tour of one of the houses, the docent shared a device called a stereoscope.

Photo Apr 26, 10 45 23 AM-001.jpg

The students were very excited by this device, which was once one of America’s most popular forms of entertainment. Invented by Charles Wheatstone in 1832, with a patent in 1838, then upgraded in later years by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a stereoscope is basically a pair of glasses with uniques lenses and a platform for holding a special picture that takes advantage of human binocular vision so that two images side by side merge to form a single three dimensional image.

The docent let each student (and the adults who tagged along!) look through the stereoscope which depicted images of life in the 1800s. The kids were amazed, as was I, at the 3-D images we saw. It reminded of the ViewMasters we used to have when I was a kid. And then it reminded me of something even more modern: Virtual Reality.

When the students were done, I took pictures of the stereoscopic images with my phone. I wanted to see if they would work in Google Cardboard headset. I cropped the images to the edges of the stereoscopic picture, enlarged the picture to fit my phone’s screen, and horizontally placed it into the Google Cardboard headset. And what do you know, it totally worked!

I made a short movie that shows the stereoscopic images I photographed at the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village (used with permission) which you can access here:

Note: This is a stereoscopic movie, so plop it right into your own headset to view in 3-D!

So, cool as it is to be able to view stereoscopic images in Google Cardboard, it’s also cool that it opens up some cans of worms of what this discovery means in terms of learning and engagement.

  1. Students could search Google and/or Youtube for stereoscopic images and movies, particularly of historical importance that they can now use as a more dynamic image to analyze for details and draw conclusions from. This level of critical analysis likely already lives in the curriculum, but using the stereoscopic images may provide a new level of engagement that would cement the learning in a student’s brain!
  2. Students could create their own Stereoscopic images as a piece of media that can be viewed in Google Cardboard, or be part of a larger presentation like a movie, that shows not only the stereoscopic images they created, and also what they learned about the content related to the images they constructed. I created the stereoscopic image below using Google’s Picasa tool. I imported the picture of the inside of the one room school house from the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village tour. I cropped it to a square shape, lightened it up a bit, and changed the color to sepia tone. I saved the picture, then saved a copy. I selected both pictures and clicked the “Create” option in the file menu up top. I chose “Picture Collage” with the two pictures. Picasa loaded the two pictures, and I chose options for a Grid Setup, with No Spacing, and a formatted Aspect Ratio of 16:9 (HDTV). Then clicked on “Create Collage” and noted that the now Stereoscopic image lived in the Picasa Folder in My Pictures. I exported the image, via Dropbox, back to my phone and opened it to view in Google Cardboard. Totally worked. You can save the following image to your phone and try it out:


The caveat was a slightly grainy image, but that added to the historical look of it.

  1. This is a new opportunity for media-making with both images and movies, or as part of a larger presentation that includes voice-overs, live speaking, or virtual field trips. While the idea for this was spawned by my visit to the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village, this could really be done with any content, any place, in multiple ways. This is an invitation to something new to think about and hopefully spark some creative ideas by you or your students.

I’d like to thank the people at the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village for permission to use the Stereoscopic Images in their collection as well as their commitment to preserving local history in such an interesting way. If you ever find yourself in Western New York, the Heritage Village is a definite must-see! Perhaps you should bring your own Virtual Reality headsets--there might an opportunity to use them!

Mike Fisher
Ditch The Daily Lesson Plan, available now from ASCD
Upgrade Your Curriculum, available now from ASCD

Digital Learning Strategies, available now from ASCD

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Cell Phone Science

Observe→ Diagram→ Describe→ Question→ Research→ Explain→ Simulate.

As I work with schools that are adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, I’m often working actively to shift the perspective from the building of content knowledge through reading about it versus experiencing it. In order for Science learning to happen, science must be done, actively, so that through observation and discovery, students are able to explain their thinking and build conceptual knowledge. In the new science standards, there are engineering practices - skills - that students must demonstrate in their roles as students who think and work like scientists. When it comes time for students to demonstrate their understanding, these same verbs are part of the performance expectations. In many of those performance expectations, the words I started this blog post with are represented. I tried to come up with a catchy acronym for them but ODD Q. RES isn’t exactly ROY G. BIV.

While reading about science is still important, the real building of knowledge starts with what we notice, what we observe, rather than stoic reading about the same information with little or no interaction or context. In the new Science standards, there’s a lot of observation going on and from that observation, students are expected to diagram, describe, ask questions, define problems, analyze, model, research, explain, plan and carry out investigations, and argue a claim with evidence.

In reading through the new standards and the associated dimensions: Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas, it dawned on me that I had captured quite a bit of observable phenomena on my cell phone. I’m always taking pictures of interesting phenomena around me, both when I travel and in my own backyard. Many of these pictures are well suited to launching a scientific investigation using these new dimensions.

I made a folder on my phone to collect all of the science related images I had captured and I posted some examples on my website here:

I’m very interested in the notion of phenomenon-based teaching and using what’s around you as fodder for launching a research quest. With the proliferation of devices that students have access to, it just makes instructional sense to send them out into the world around them and create collections of their own local phenomena so that they can Observe→ Diagram→ Describe→ Question→ Research→ Explain→ Simulate.

Let’s look at the first picture on the Phenomena Website I shared, of the Luminescent Scorpion. That picture was taken at my colleague and friend Janet Hale’s house in Tucson, Arizona several years ago.

As a lifelong student, this observation launches my quest to discover why a Scorpion glows under a blacklight. There are many questions to ask, diagrams and descriptions to draw and write about what is happening, research to explain what’s going and perhaps creating a simulation or a game to test my claims.

On the phenomena website, I included a series of questions to launch the learning around the pictures I shared and/or the observations and images you or your students collect:

  • What questions could you ask about this image? (Good questions tend to lead to other questions that expand or refine the initial query.)
  • With whom could you share your questions or theories?
  • How could you use Social Media to evaluate and communicate information?
  • How could you explain what is happening in these pictures?
  • How could you model or simulate your descriptions and/or explanations?
  • How could you engage in an argument around a claim you could make about the phenomena in these pictures and the evidence that supports your claim?

Besides discovery level explorations for Science students, answering these questions leads to the added benefit of opportunities for developing content-area literacy: written descriptions of phenomena, written explanations, communication orally and in writing, reading supporting documentation, navigating and translating domain-specific language and vocabulary, etc.

If you’re interested in joining this conversation, specifically about modeling, descriptions, and explanations, please join me in a Curriculum Spark webinar on May 5th at 3:30 PM EST / 12:30 PM PST, courtesy of Rubicon Atlas.

Register for free here:

I’ll be talking more about capturing phenomena on your phone and using it in the classroom to launch discussions, quests, and research!

Mike Fisher
Ditch The Daily Lesson Plan, available now from ASCD
Upgrade Your Curriculum, available now from ASCD

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Pushing Boundaries: Renewing our Mission

Guest Post from Elizabeth Fisher, coordinator of Professional Development at Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Education Services in Buffalo, New York. On Twitter @elizabethfisher
Hanging on the walls of myriad schools and proudly displayed on district websites, mission statements form the basis of belief systems and goals for the communities of learners within them. These statements usually represent ambitious and exuberant objectives in academics, behaviors, and aspirational goals for being creative or accomplished or striving for excellence.
Curiously, none of them have statements such as:
  • We strive to do well on the state assessment!
  • We are creative insofar as it benefits the raising of test scores!
  • Our students go just above the state average!
In the current educational climate, you would have difficulty finding schools that still maintain their aspirations in the wake of barely understood new standards, over-analysis of data, and dehumanizing teacher evaluations. The system is working hard to stifle creative expression in its teachers, and by extension, its students. Something must be done. Something must be done quickly.
Our missions still matter--and we must rededicate ourselves to making sure that we are on the right track. To paraphrase Justin Timberlake, it’s time to “bring creativity and risk-taking back.” But how do we do it?
We need to establish a climate which includes doing what’s in the best interest of students as well as encouraging each other to become risk-takers. What I offer are three steps teachers can consider doing immediately to bring creativity and risk taking back into our schools so that our mission statements are truly a mission worth embarking on.

  1. NOT YET MENTALITY: No one is ever really wrong, they just may be exploring an idea that either leads to a dead end or opens the doors to new opportunities. If students aren’t understanding it, then they are “not yet” there. We need to provide opportunities which build, in the words of Carol Dweck, a Growth Mindset. We need to be talking with that mindset in mind; maybe adding the word, “yet” to the end of our statements (“I can’t do it, yet.”). Doug Lemov wrote an article called, Culture of Error. I highly recommend reading it and discussing what implications are drawn to improve our practice. What are we already doing that is working? What changes are needed to allow for this type of thinking?
  2. ITERATE: Practice makes progress. Students need time to improve - everyone does, for that matter. It’s impossible to become better at something if you don’t do it repeatedly and receive specific feedback about how to improve. If we want students who can think for themselves then we need to prioritize our practices. Students need time to try things, to revise them, to create. Our state assessments are given under “first draft conditions” - providing no time for process reading or writing. So, why do we operate that way so often in school?
  3. QUESTIONS MATTER: Encourage students to think divergently. One thing teachers can start doing immediately is teaching students how to ask questions. “Knowing the answers will help you in school. Knowing the questions will help you in life.” (Walter Berger, A More Beautiful Question). A new process called the Question Formulation Technique ( is being used in some classrooms to help develop this skill. In a nutshell, the process involves showing a stimulus (a picture or video), having students work in groups generating as many questions as they can, and then discussing the two types of questions (open/divergent and closed/convergent). Students discuss advantages and disadvantages of both types of questions and practice with changing open into closed and closed into open questions. If teachers are always the ones asking the questions then we are not allowing students to think divergently. We are in essence telling them how to think - convergently. This process helps students as they continue to dive deeply into conceptual and content knowledge.

We want students who are confident, independent, and creative. We want thinkers who can ask questions, make decisions, and feel comfortable in their own learning process. If that is what we want, then we need to revisit our mission statements often and reflect on whether what we are doing is in alignment with those statements or not. If not, then we embrace it with “not yet” thinking.
Ultimately, what we want is to give students roots but also to give them wings - we need them to be independent flyers; able to make decisions for themselves, knowing when they can take-off on their own or recognizing when they need the support of others (like birds flying in V-formation). We are responsible for moving our energies forward for the betterment of student engagement and deeper learning; it’s a risky undertaking but worth it. I’m ready to take the risk. Are you?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


Sssssalutations Ssssstudents and educator friendsssss. It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged but I’m back today with an exciting collaboration between Darlene Senick, a High School English teacher and Hobbyist Herpetologist at North Tonawanda High School in Western New York and students in Michael Thornton’s multi-age class at Agnor Hurt Elementary in Albemarle County, Virginia.

A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Thornton was asking another colleague on Twitter about her pet snake and I tweeted back to him that I knew a snake enthusiast...Ms. Senick. She agreed to share her knowledge and pets via Skype, so we set a date and started planning.

Ms. Senick is snake hobbyist and shared a lot of information about her snakes with Mr. Thornton’s Multi-Age group. The students in Mr. Thornton’s class collaboratively contributed to a Google Doc where they each asked a question that they wanted to know about snakes. These questions are the heart of the learning here. Some of the questions are what I would call DRIVING questions: questions developed by the student that may potentially grow with new content and experience. (Alcock, Fisher, Zmuda, in press) The students shared these potential driving questions:  

  • What is the most poisonous snake in Virginia?
  • How far can a snake strike?
  • What is the most venomous snake in the world?

These questions had very specific answers, though they might inspire additional similar questions to help focus the learning around content and concepts.

The students also shared what I would call PROBING questions: questions developed by students (or by teachers) to deepen understanding and make the thinking visible. (Alcock, Fisher, Zmuda, in press) Examples of these questions included:

  • Do snakes change their attitude throughout their life?
  • What inspired you to be a Herpetologist?
  • Did snakes evolve from other animals?

These questions require more than just a simple answer and would prompt additional questions and conversations.

Because the students created a collaborative Google Doc, Ms. Senick was able to both answer some of the questions during the Skype video call and answer individual student questions directly in the document after the video call was over.

The reason I’m excited about this entire scenario is that it incorporates the best of what we know about instructional practice with the contemporary capabilities we now have at our disposal. Let me break it down.

These students in Albemarle County, Virginia were being taught by a teacher more than 500 miles away. They were experiencing snakes in a way that a book could never offer and they were able to virtually interact with someone via social media who had knowledge and experience to share. This person had information that the students needed and they leveraged contemporary means to get to her. The teachers were dependent on the students for the creation of questions, which were used to guide the video chat and the students were able to experience the language of the discipline, the content and concepts associated with snakes and their adaptations, and have a memorable experience that they are likely to remember for a very long time. Hashtag #MentalVelcro

They learned about coloration, habitat, how and why snakes shed their skin, the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes, how they use their tongues, how they drink water, and what they eat. Check out the intact snake skin that Ms. Senick shared, complete with eyes and mouth! How cool is that?

This type of learning opportunity is one that I hope to get to participate in more and more. It was easy to setup, in fact, all of this resulted from two tweets, six or seven emails, and sharing Skype usernames. Social Media brought us together, the questions helped guide our instruction, and then the magic happened: real learning. Real, excited, engaged, enthusiastic, and passionate learning happened. And the teachers were as engaged and enthusiastic as the adults!

With opportunities like this, learning can (and should!) happen anywhere. We’re not bound by geographic barriers. We’re not bound by traditional school structures. We’re not limited to what is within the four walls of the classroom.

What this is, is amplified learning. It is learning that is inclusive of all learners wherever they may be. It is learning that happens when we push beyond traditional barriers and mindsets and seek to do extraordinary things.

Many, many thanks to Darlene Senick and Michael Thornton as well as their students for an awesome collaborative learning session. If you’d like more information about creating Skyportunities or connecting and collaborating with other classrooms around the world, check out these resources:

Read more about Contemporary Learning Opportunities here:

Follow Mike on Twitter: @fisher1000

Alcock, M., Fisher, M., & Zmuda, A. (2017). Designing the Quest. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
In Press

Friday, September 2, 2016

Giving the Gift of Reading is Beyond Valuable & Thanks to Our Libraries it’s Free!

Guest post this week from Kathy Kinney of

Even though my mother never finished high school she was a reader and she passed her love of it on to me - and I do so love to read. She took me to the library, and provided me with access to those books, and they became a big part of me. As a child if I loved a book I would re-read it once a year. Some of my yearly favorites were: Cheaper By the Dozenby Frank Gilbreth, Jr and his sister Ernestine Gilbreth Carey; Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein. It might seem like an odd combination of books - two biographies and a fantasy tale but what they had in common was living life in a fun, creative and adventurous way. That was the kind of life I wanted as a child and it is the kind of life I created for myself and lead now that I am grown. And that is what the library provided to me, a gift that stretched my imagination and developed a life long love of reading.
Contest image 2016   That’s why I created my Be-a-Famous Writer contest, to help stretch the imaginations of young students. This year the theme is Libraries! What could be a better word for K-4 students to write about?  Just look at the images of these libraries!  I can think of a lot of stories just by looking at these, and maybe your students will too!
                             Library           Library 2                Library1
I read everyday for entertainment, comfort and to keep my imagination toned and ever ready for my next adventure. Giving someone the gift of reading is beyond valuable and thanks to our libraries it's free. So why not share the gift of reading with every man, woman and child you know - and of course don't forget to gift yourself. Get a library card!
And if you are teacher, be sure to bookmark my writing contest. It is open for entries starting September 1st and run to November 15th.  It's free to enter. The winners of the writing contest get to build their own library, as their classroom is filled with books in every format from my amazing sponsors

Mackin title card.001   CantataLogo 3c     Tales2go new logo    Capstone_Logo      Powells

Here are some fun books about the library to use as inspiration to get your students excited about writing their own story!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Hacking Standardized Test Results

Hacking Standardized Test Results

The Problem:

Schools and parents are starting to see their standardized test results roll in. For individual teachers and students, the lauding or damning begins. It’s all about accountability, right? It’s all about systemic improvement, right?


The Hack:

If the test results are not specifically being used to improve student learning then they are more about policy and not teaching and learning. Any other purpose, including teacher evaluation, school ranking, teacher efficacy, etc. is about those policy decisions and not necessarily supportive of improving student learning. If we can partition the data itself from the ways in which it is being used unrelated to learning, then we can analyze what is worth analyzing for the sake of instructional programs and real student impact.

This partitioning must also include any biases we might have about the assessment. A standardized test is only good for what it was designed to do and usually that design takes into account a large population of potential test takers. It doesn’t mean the data are useless, nor does it mean that other assessments will be useful in determining student proficiencies.

Specifically, we can drill into data reports and look for trends that will enhance our curriculum data (units, lessons, etc.). Schools need both curriculum data and assessment data in alignment  in order to have what Bena Kallick and Jeff Colosimo call a “Data Informed Culture.”

What You Can Do Tomorrow:

Analyze the standard.
Look at your students’ performance on missed questions. Pour over any documents released by your state or test designers in order to better understand what each question is asking. Were the answers close to correct? Test designers will often provide distractor analysis. Did students misinterpret what the question was asking? Use released test maps and documentation to compare the assessed standard to your taught standards to make sure all of the discrete skills are being taught. Standards are checkpoints. Some of them are made up of multiple skills a student must demonstrate proficiency for. The assessment may be a telling reminder that some skills are definitely engaged and that others might need more attention. This is especially true for teachers who did not design their own curriculum but instead rely on a vendor/purchased/downloaded curriculum that they do not subtract from or add to based on their knowledge of their students.

Limit your action plan.
If your state or test designer didn’t publicly release test maps, work with your district data leaders to track them down. Look for versions of data reports that tell you how often a standard has been assessed over several years. If the current year’s assessment is the only time that a particular standard has been addressed over the last few years, then it is not necessarily a priority in your action plan for this coming year’s planning. Your priority is with standards that are addressed in the assessment every year or most years. Your energy is better spent on those standards that are assessed often.

Look for thinking.
I’m asking you to think back to college days here. Go back to Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge levels. All standards, Common Core or otherwise, can be boiled down to one basic throughline: increase thinking. When you look at your assessment(s), standardized and benchmark/quarterly/summative, what do you notice about multiple levels of thinking? This might be evident through questions that assessed the same standard, particularly if there are different question types. There may be anomalies that suggest that students do well on lower level questions but not on higher level questions.  If students are being asked to demonstrate high levels of thinking, particularly across multiple assessments, then those same high levels of thinking should be represented in instruction and resources used for instruction. If there is a mismatch in thinking levels between instruction and assessment, then there will be a mismatch in performance. If students have to evaluate on the assessment but the instruction only addressed description, then the assessment data will likely show the disparity.

Intervene logically.
Make sure students TRULY need scaffolds and interventions related to the data. If the standardized test is the only metric to determine extra help or interventions, be careful. Think about all variables involved. Look for other data to inform the decision: benchmark or quarterly assessments, formative data, past years’ performance, and intuition. If the assessment design includes questions that students faltered on but contained questionable distractors or multi-step constructed responses, consider how close the student's’ score was to whatever the proficient cutoff is. If it’s statistically insignificant (read: close), then it is likely that no intervention is necessary. If a student’s score is very low and it’s hard to determine where their specific improvement areas lie, then additional assessments, metrics, and data will be useful in targeting a specific improvement plan. Focus on student deficits the way doctors focus on symptoms. One symptom doesn’t give much information for a diagnosis. Multiple symptoms taken together paint a picture of what the action plan will be.

Analyze other assessment data.
Check your summative/benchmark/quarterly assessments for their alignment to both the standards featured in the standardized test as well as the ones you are responsible for. If you want to map out an assessment for the purpose of comparative analysis, you could use THIS TOOL for doing so. Mapping an assessment for question type, standards alignment, and thinking level is a worthwhile experience for discovering the degree of parallelism between assessments, i.e. how closely they align to each other in scope, coverage, and knowledge demands. This is an important step in aligning curriculum data and assessment data. If we truly want to reach the goal of a data-informed culture, then it’s worth our time to consider how deeply aligned our assessments are.

Doubledown on reading.
I can’t repeat this enough. Runners need to run to improve. Readers need to read to improve. The most important thing we can do to improve overall student performance is to give them ample time to read at their instructional level during the school day. The more they read, the more they know. The more they know, the more access they have to difficult texts or multi-step math equations. The more access they have, the higher the probability that they will be able to successfully solve problems / answer questions. Independent reading is a gift. Give them that gift at school.

Continued Data Meetings
To maintain high levels of alignment between curriculum data and assessment data, continue to discuss it throughout the year where the conversation can be about current assessments rather than just the summative standardized one. Continue to look for trends in the data both as a class and in terms of individual student performance and look for links back to the documented curriculum. Look to grade level standards below and above the grade you teach to inform your knowledge of how proficient a student is with skills that get more sophisticated over time. Look at questions all students did poorly on, is there an easy fix or misconception that can be addressed in follow up instruction? Do students falter on specific question types such as constructed response questions? (Which are also a higher thinking level question as students are asked to “put it all together” for a proficient response.) In short, don’t let data be a once a year conversation directed toward performance on one test.

Questions or comments? Contribute below or contact Mike on Twitter at @fisher1000
For more on Hacking Standards and the Common Core specifically, visit Amazon for Hacking the Common Core.

*Note: Information contained in this blog post is an amalgamated remix of work I’ve read about, experienced, provided professional development for, and had professional conversations about over the last few years of Common Core implementation. To discover more about how to use data to improve student learning,  inform instruction, and align curricular goals, consider the following:

  • Using Curriculum Mapping and Assessment Data to Improve Student Learning by Bena Kallick and Jeff Colosimo
  • Driven by Data by Paul Bambrick Santoyo
  • Protocols for Professional Practice by Lois Brown Easton
  • The Data-Driven Classroom by Craig Mertler

Photo credit: user SHHO (2010) under Content License