April 18, 2014

Maple Spring: The sapping of a digital life

Filed under: about me,creativity,deep thoughts — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:04 am

The best thing about working digitally is that I can occasionally slip into playing digitally. This week the TeachersFirst servers went down for much more than a hiccup, forcing me to work on other things. I have long to-do lists, but I chose to spend 15 minutes on Twitter, feeds, and the various bookmarks strewn on my desktop. I was seeking inspiration and an excuse to digress. I turned on the Spigot to feel this confluence into my creative buckethead:

Ingredient 1: This video from Eddie Wright about 29 Ways to Stay Creative. Especially ponderable: #4: Stay Away from the Computer (Ironically, I excitedly bookmarked the entire blog to be sure to come BACK to it on the computer!)

Ingredient 2: This post from George Couros, which made me ponder whether living and working digitally “humanizes” or dehumanizes ME — and what impact it has on the creativity conversation in Ingredient 1.

syrupbucket So often I reach the end of my workday exhausted and devoid of any remaining creative impulse. While that is not so bad for the people I work with or for the TeachersFirst audience, it does take a personal toll. The irony is that the same screen that has filled my eyes and sucked everything from my brain throughout the day also offers the connections and inspirations to restart the drip-drip-drip of creative juices.

I am maple sap in the spring.
At night, I drip
a constant tap-tap-tap into that bucket,
ready by morning to be hauled to the sugar shack and boiled for hours.
I am grade A amber, ready to add flavor. I am never Fancy.
I am the ever-boiling pot that needs new sap.
I am the storage space where this season’s syrup rests, ready to curl the tongue in sweet surprise
months from now.

The web exhausts, collaborates, invigorates, and I am grateful.

April 11, 2014

Citizenship “Special”?

Filed under: deep thoughts,education,Teaching and Learning — Candace Hackett Shively @ 1:46 pm

Since when is  Social Studies a “special”?

For those unfamiliar with elementary school lingo, a “special” is the rather ironic term for a subject that kids have once a week or once in a six day cycle. “Specials” typically include Art. Music, Library, and PE. In some schools, Computer is a special. Kids love specials for the change of pace — and probably because they see a different part of the building and a different teacher face. You would think “special” would mean important, but in this case, it means “extra.”shutterstock_109755791

In researching elementary schools this week for a friend who is considering a move, I was stunned to see social studies listed among the “specials” in the elementary curriculum, a class that kids have once a week. Thinking this was a fluke, I poked to find the same thing in a neighboring district. What I feared a few years ago — with the advent of No Child Left Behind — has come true. Science was saved from NCLB purgatory by the current emphasis on U.S. competitiveness in STEM and the inclusion of the NextGen Science Standards as part of Common Core, but even the gr 6-12 Social Studies Literacy aspects of Common Core have not been enough to save Social Studies from becoming “special.”

Why? ” If you test it, they will come. If you don’t, it is a “special.” (I could insert a long discussion about this, but it’s not my point here.)

Robert Frost ended a favorite poem with this oft quoted line:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I fear that this time we have taken the wrong road, and THAT is going to make all the wrong difference. Where does this path lead us, this path where kids rarely see and hear discussion about what it means to make the tough decisions of government, to learn from our past and to plan for a society that fits our ideals? If social studies is a special, it drops to the bare facts and skills that can fit into one class per week: know the national symbols, the basics of your state’s history, the names of the three branches of government. But elementary kids need to talk about how people and governments make decisions, not just how they pass bills. They need to be aware of how varied cultures are around the world and even around their city. They need to understand why people’s opinions differ on upcoming elections or social issues. While they are young, they need to learn to be citizens of a broader world. They will not simply “pick up” a deep sense of citizenship, history,  cultural richness, and personal involvement when social studies suddenly becomes a (non-special) subject in middle school.

I am certain no policy maker has planned a study to find out whether loss of social studies experiences and discussions in elementary school has an effect on whether kids later become involved voters or savvy global citizens. I offer a strong hypothesis that these kids won’t care as much about why people are slipping through society’s cracks, why people from different cultural backgrounds may have a different approach from their own, and how to make the tough decisions about what a national budget should keep or cut. If  learning about these decisions doesn’t count before they were 11, why will it when they are 21 or 31 or 41?

Kids tell me they love “specials.”  Kids look forward to them, but their parents may not emphasize specials like art or music as anything other than an outside interest or hobby kids will enjoy during leisure time in adult life. I hope by making social studies a special, we have not made citizenship a hobby for a generation to take up in their spare time.

PS On a note to Art, Music, PE and other “special” teachers, I personally believe every one of these subjects is as important as breathing.  I was fortunate enough to attend a school that had art and music every day!  We had no “specials.” I am painfully aware, however,  of the culture of school and of our society in designating certain subjects as  ”specials, ” i.e. almost expendables in elementary school. But that could be another post entirely.

April 4, 2014

Poetry in the Black: Adding (meaning) by subtracting

Filed under: creativity,teaching,writing — Candace Hackett Shively @ 11:46 am

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 10.22.12 AMIn honor of Poetry Month, I offer another “poetic” post to follow up on the pocket poems.

You have seen them: blackout poems created just the way it sounds, by blacking out large portions of text on a page and leaving carefully selected words behind to form a “poem.” You can see many more and learn more about them in this great resource.

At first glance, blackout poems are a strikingly creative exercise, plucking words offered by serendipity to generate a poem entirely separate and new. Depending on the original passage, blackout poems can discover the power of even the smallest words, becoming a Hemingway of meaning or an e.e. cummings without capitals or punctuation. If you ask kids to try it, they may complain bitterly that the one word they want is not there, “Can I just add it?” By saying “no” you force a whole new level of creativity and awareness about words. There must be some other word there to suggest a thought that works. Poems suggest, allude, entice, but never tell.

At a much richer level, blackout poems can teach many things. Common Core asks us to teach close reading of informational texts, to help your students see how authors lay their evidence amid all the words, the bricks of evidence that support the structure of ideas and opinions. When you consider blackout poems, you are delving directly into those bricks, deciding which to keep and which to remove, while still trying to support a structure of your own ideas to become the message(s) of the new poem. I am not sure whether it is harder to maintain the message of  the original passage in the new poem or to create an entirely new one, but blackout poems could do either. A passage about trees can become a poem about climate change or pollution. A passage about the characteristics of great teachers (see “Passion and Awareness: What Great Teachers Have in Common” by Bill Smoot) can be distilled into a poem that suggests a similar message refracted through the poet’s lens. Here is a sample based on the great teacher article as a “test” of doing close reading via blackout poetry:

the noteworthy passion

a calling to feed their souls

chose me

for it serves humility in knowing

a purpose larger

give the ability to be better

to mind the words


the passion investigates     studies   writes

that math is beautiful

expertise completes it

excellence is never far away

create an atmosphere

detached awareness

a therapist

to listen to


themselves      and in their students

the witness seat

the art to instill

a goal of learning

tempered by


Now imagine sharing any article for reading, in fifth grade or twelfth, and talking just a bit about what it means, what its important ideas are, and how the author tells us what is important. Don’t answer all the questions… just start to ask. Now have kids work together with that text to first highlight JUST enough words to suggest the message. Then they simply reverse out the highlighted words so they are the ONLY ones that show, blacking out the rest. Have them try taking away as many as they can to suggest, allude, entice a message. At the same time, you are teaching poetry. (Science teachers have permission to pass out now.) Granted, it is not the kind of poetry that rhymes or has meter. It is sophisticated blank verse and lacks the conventions of writing we work so hard to instill! But in comparing the new poems with the original passages, and comparing the different poems that groups create, you have the perfect experience with close reading integrated with writing AND curriculum content:

Does the poem match the passage in meaning? How do you know? Can your group “prove” it? Do these two poems have the same meaning or does one slant it differently? How do you know? Is one a better match to the original passage than the other? But which one has a message you prefer? What words make it your favorite? Are there any “loaded”  (i.e. biased, slanted, or powerful) words in that poem?

The best thing about this activity is that it can happen in history class, reading a passage about the causes of the Civil War or the economic influence of China. It can also happen in science, reading about the importance of biodiversity. The original passages can come from the web or a textbook (bo-ring!). If they are on the web, a simple copy/paste gives students the raw material to read, subtract, and add meaning. It also gives students a new way to master required terms. Creating blackout poems is  group oriented, creative, and loaded with very high-level thinking.

Here are just a few other ideas for blackout poems during this, National Poetry Month:

1. Coming to terms: Make blackout poems from articles kids locate using Google, subtracting words to give meaning to new terms they are learning.

2. Loaded words: Make blackout poems to call out bias or opinions in letters to the editor (online or print).

3. Pass the backout: Have one student blackout a passage and pass the words to another who must create a poem from them. (This one allows reordering the words and adding a certain number of your own).  If in a content class, the message should have something to do with concepts they are learning, such as explaining weather phenomena.

4. Pass the Backout II: Pass around several different articles, challenging each student to blackout one sentence or less then pass it on. Each receiving “poet” must continue the blackout process, trying to do it so there is a logical continuation of the poem. (Very creative, but best suited for students who have some experience making blackout poems!)

4. Blackout mixup: Combine two passages into a single blackout poem, alternating words from the two articles to form a poem. This is REALLY challenging!!

5. Pluck the figures: Have students do the blackouts in small groups, treasure hunting for words that will become figures of speech. Of course the poems that include these figures of speech must make sense, too!

6. Earth Day Blackout: Find a web or print article from which you can blackout a poem titled “A requiem for the environment”  or some other Earth Day theme. (You can ADD the title so you don’t need to have those words in the original text!) Note: this is the ultimate “recycling” — of words — for Earth Day!

7. Blackout poem, the multimedia version:  BLACKOUT large portions of videos or news clips from YouTube to create a multimedia blackout poem. Try a tool like DragonTape. This is for the adventurous techie types and your gifted kiddos who always want to do something different! Make sure they give you the text transcript of the resulting  “poem” to show that they actually thought about it and did not just throw together something to be funny.

March 28, 2014

Be Ready: Pack a poem in your pocket

Filed under: learning,writing — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:05 am

Name (or recite) your favorite poem. No, you cannot run away or close this tab.poempocket

I hear you now…

  • I don’t have one.
  • I can’t remember, but I’ll Google one.
  • I had once once, but that was in 5th grade.
  • Insert something from Shel Silverstein that you read to your kids last night or to your classroom today.
  • Who cares about poetry?
  • Common Core says we don’t teach poetry anymore.
  • I don’t teach English. Ask the English teacher.
  • Yeah, right. Like I have time for poetry with all the other stuff they lay on us.

Try this: For one week beginning April 1 (the first week of National Poetry Month), carry your favorite poem in your pocket or — even better — on your smart phone. Be ready. You could be asked by anyone, anytime to produce and recite it. Pack poetry in your pocket with tech. Create a QR code that directs to:

  • a YouTube video or SchoolTube video of someone reading your favorite poem
  • a music video of a song with lyrics you LOVE– yes, that’s poetry!
  • a web page with a favorite poem (or limerick?) that makes you laugh or cry
  • a recording of yourself  reading a favorite poem or reciting the lyrics from a favorite song (or singing it!)
  • a synthesized voice reading a poem you have pasted in
  • a web page montage you create of the poem and the images it generates in your mind
  • a video of YOU reciting a poem YOU wrote (posted on YouTube or any online video service)

When asked,”What is your favorite poem?” hold up the QR code (saved on your camera roll) so others  can scan the QR code to listen or read. As you ask others, collect their online offerings in your Diigo or post the QR codes from students on your class wiki or web page as a scannable “treasury” for others to explore.

Not ready for such high tech stuff? Find a special piece of paper to transcribe your favorite poem and flamboyantly unfurl it when asked. Maybe a scroll or a cleverly folded booklet?

Why bother? Elena Aguilar offers Five Reasons Why We Need Poetry in Schools, and I am sure there are many more. As stressed, overworked teachers, perhaps the most compelling for us to write our own poems may be her Reason #5:

Poetry builds resilience in kids and adults

Surely, a poem penned by a teacher– included at the end of this article – may resonate with other teachers seeking resilience.

Pack a poem in your pocket. Ask your students to do the same, whether you teach physics or first grade. Simply the act of valuing the power of poetry to express, visualize, and revitalize is reason enough.  You might even find yourself humming a song or bellowing its lyrics in the car on your way home.

For more ideas for National Poetry Month, including loads of tools and prompts to write and share poetry, see this collection.

March 21, 2014

Weeds in the (em)beds? Mulch, spray kill, or pave over?

Filed under: creativity,digital citizenship,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 11:25 am

Our students can create and embed their creative projects from thousands of tools into a blog, wiki, or other social network. They love making Prezis, Glogs, and maps to share what they know. They love finding YouTube videos or making Powtoons or Vokis. If one student in your class knows how to copy/paste embed code, they all will within 15 minutes. Your class wiki becomes a veritable treasury of student projects from all over the web.

We want kids to be able to share visually — using embeds. Simply including a link to their projects does not have the “ta-da” factor they deserve after working hard to synthesize what they have learned. The “ta-da” is a fitting tribute to their ownership and pride in what they have done.

A cloud has crept into my love of embeds, however.  A friendly code-jockey I work with raised a concern as we were talking about enabling embed codes in the social stream we are creating. His concern is simple:

1. Savvy Kid creates project (glog, Voicethread, Voki, screencast, annotated image, etc)

2. Savvy Kid uses embed code to include the project on your class blog or wiki (or in a stream such as Edmodo).

3. Teacher approves said project. Kid gets accolades from classmates, etc.

4. Somewhere in the darker moments of adolescent experimentation and “cleverness,” Savvy Kid returns to the tool that hosts the glog, Voicethead, etc. and  changes the project to include an obscenity. Perhaps s/he simply puts in an additional placemarker with an obscenity or amends the Voki to utter a rude comment. Since the project is embedded on the class wiki, “pulling” from another place on the web, the wiki instantly displays the obscenity or other student “cleverness” smackdab ON your class wiki. Parents can see it, other students can see it, the WORLD can see it (and your principal can see it!).

A nasty weed has popped up in the (em)bed. As with real flower beds, there are several options to deal
with weeds.

  1. We can simply pave over the entire bed, removing the capability to embed anything. Our growing wiki becomes as visually exciting as asphalt, and the kids probably feel as much pride as they would in viewing a pothole patch.
  2. weedsWe can spray weed killer– sort of techie RoundUp–  thus killing targeted weeds while leaving other plants unharmed. Delete Savvy Kid’s embed, but leave the others.
  3. We can use preventative mulch, establishing an environment that is simply not friendly for weeds to grow. If we talk about the negative impact a weed could have and talk about the message an obscenity sends about ownership and pride in our work, the overall class attitude toward such “cleverness” might become so unfavorable as to prevent it from cropping up (sorry, could not resist the pun). I’d like to think so, anyway.  This is simply part of good digital citizenship, and we all need to talk about it — a lot. Any gardener will tell you that you must add and arrange new mulch on a regular basis to maintain healthy (em)beds where learning can grow.

If you have dealt with students abusing embed codes to grow “weeds” in class (em)beds, please comment here about what you did — and plan to do in the future — to solve the problem.

March 14, 2014

A playground moment: How to eliminate teacher meetings

Filed under: about me,edtech coaching,education,iste14,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 12:05 pm

What role do you play when you meet with other teachers (or ed tech coaches)? Do you chime in with ideas but pray they don’t ask you to take on too much responsibility? As busy teachers, we all know that temptation. This week I had the pleasure to witness the positive power of educators to move the boulder forward — and quickly — simply by leveraging a little tech.

I am part of a dynamic duo(?)  leading a powerpack of ed tech coaching superheroes. Together we are planning a ”playground” event* at ISTE 2014. About eight of us met on a conference call, preceded by an email with a link to a shared Google doc. Before the call, the doc was pretty much an empty shell. No more than 3 minutes into the call, I watched a little flag typing across the doc, adding the ideas as they began to flow from our conversation. Kim McMonagle was keeping a running record of our ideas as they flew by.  She didn’t say anything. She just did it.  We ended our call with a bunch of work DONE, not just planned-to-be-done. 

How often do you simply take up a tool to help the cause during a meeting? Imagine the power of such simple modeling in front of your teacher-colleagues, especially the hesitant ones who always say they don’t have time for tech. It isn’t hard. It’s not a big deal. You don’t even need to say anything. Just give them the link to use it when the meeting ends.

Of course, a hesitant teacher will say he/she does not know how to do Google docs or prefers to use paper or prefers to just sit and listen, but (s)he really cannot ignore the leverage of one Google doc against the boulders we teachers must move. Maybe if (s)he noticed the power of one doc without being threatened or “taught,” and the doc were perceived as useful, (s)he’d try it in the secrecy of his/her classroom.

This nearly invisible moment made me stop — and wonder that would happen if teachers took up a tool to move the boulders forward during every meeting we had (or had to attend).  No “we’ll write this up and send it out” or “we will be sending you a form,” or “will” anything. It gets done while you are there, in front of your eyes. We can all take the next steps without waiting for a report, an email, or some other “afterward.” It’s a “duh” thing that too many teachers neither notice nor initiate.

We’d probably have far fewer meetings. Wouldn’t that be a shame?

 *The Ed Tech Coaching “Playground” will be held June 30, 9:30- 1:00 at ISTE Atlanta. Playgrounds offer a couple of small group demonstration areas with casual seating and multiple walk-up stations for smaller demos/conversations, all in an open area that screams, “Come on in!” Conference attendees happen by or make deliberate plans to see big-name presenters in this up-close-and-personal opportunity, all focused on a common theme, in this case Ed Tech Coaching. My experience with playgrounds is that the presenters are approachable, and the learning is immediate. In these venues, there is no doubt that learning is play and play is learning. If you’re coming to ISTE, I hope you will join us.

March 7, 2014

To a web tool dying young

Filed under: edtech — Candace Hackett Shively @ 12:07 pm

From the moment you peaked over the horizon, you glimmered.

From your footer flashed fresh faces telling us About you: A founder, several funders, a dreamer, and a coder.

You celebrated yourself in a blog as attentive as a teenage boy with good intentions but…

You tried to grow up healthy. Your founder and funders fed you according to best practices.

Edsurge and Mashable sang your jingle.

You nourished yourself with beta members and captured the sunlight of freebie accounts, a power grid to emit your own bright light.

You had friends, and they talked about you. The edtech coaches brought teachers and students to meet you. Some of them remembered your name.

Your Tweets hit like snap-caps on the sidewalk at the feet of followers.

The smell of promise lingered

as the fumes faded

and the followers walked on to window shop.

You started to show symptoms. The doctors circled round. The entrepreneurs ordered tests. It was serious.

Your blog announced changes in your terms. The entrepreneurs ordered tests.

Your freebies shrank. Not five but three. Not three but one. The entrepreneurs ordered tests.

The teachers and edtech coaches who lingered out on the sidewalk, browsing among all the shops and occasionally stepping inside one to buy, did not see the signs around your eyes.

Your speech slurred a bit. You moved a little slowly and did not always respond.

Your freebies, sick and pale,  hid behind a log-in. No more clear glass to see inside.

They moved you to the hospital of backup servers.

Your early adopter friends did not visit, somehow afraid of contagion. It felt more comfortable to visit the newborns than to comfort the chronically ill.

They left old flowers for you, the projects of last year or last class or last week.

Your light grew very dim, your blog posts dated seven, ten months ago.

The entrepreneurs signed your DNR. You lingered long breathing barely, but rarely allowing a login to work or a project to save.


We do not know when you left us. Edsurge and Mashable do not have obituaries.

Your only marker is a domain name seller.

We miss you — a little. Now we have to revise our plans and find other examples, but there are others like you venturing over the horizon every day.  The first time it hurt. Now we know not to care too deeply.

Rest in peace, but know that you took part of my students with you.

February 28, 2014

Looking inside on a cold, cold wet day

Filed under: deep thoughts,education,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 8:57 am

The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
all that cold, cold wet day.

In honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday coming up, I reread the book I could once recite as a child — and later as a young mom. It is a tale of fun, surprise, fear, mischief, skepticism, and guilt. That fish speaks in the back of our minds throughout our lives, warning us not to allow the Cat or Thing One and Thing Two into our house for fear they will upset everything.  

Tell that Cat in the Hat
You do NOT want to play.
He should not be here.
He should not be about.
He should not be here
When your mother is out!”

(Photo credit: Joe Gauder, http://www.flickr.com/photos/joegauder/5493563278/)

In less than a coincidence, I learned today about a teacher who was offered a grant to provide consistent, in-school Internet access to students involved in a national research pilot of an innovative (and free) program for learning science in a safe social network.  The grant would mean that the teacher — and her students– would have the solid, reliable connection they need to connect with a world outside their very small, rural community. Their world, much like the Seuss kids inside on a cold, cold, wet day, would be open to allow outsiders in.

But the worrier fish in this real life story had a greater say than the one in the book.  The Cat in the Hat — and Thing 1 and Thing 2 — did not get past the door to bring the reliable Internet connection to the kids in that classroom. For whatever reason, the school administration did not feel comfortable allowing an outside funder/stranger to bring in such disruption(?). And so the grant was politely but officially declined. Sally and her classmates simply stay inside, watching out the window and connecting perhaps during the few classroom hours when “mom” is home and the Internet works?

Every teacher faces different barriers, stressors, and challenges. And the fish in this tale probably has a very good (or legally protective) reason to refuse to allow the Cat into the classroom.

The message to me is that none of us really understands what others face inside their teaching houses on cold, cold wet days.  We may be risk takers and have school administrations that allow more open doors (and permit the mess caused by Thing 1 – the Internet and Thing 2- social learning). We may worry about how to clean up after the fun our students have when it gets a little messy. Or we may face much more basic challenges like just being allowed to open the door. Don’t assume you know every tale. You might even try rereading The Cat in the Hat through the lens of adult experience. It adds a new layer of meaning to Read Across America.

February 21, 2014

Be a (teaching) Olympian

Filed under: deep thoughts,edtech,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:05 am

medalI know nothing of the Olympics except what the television networks feed me. They have taught me that Olympians are specialists in many things I never thought about — or knew existed. Olympic skiers know the details of ski materials, edges, turns, and lines on a course. They know what wax technicians do and all about different characteristics of snow. They adapt their skiing strategy for every nuance, and they also push the envelope in hopes of hitting just the right combination of risk and experience to feel a medal ’round their neck. They measure themselves by their finishes and their cumulative racing success. As they grew from novice skiers, their support teams grew with their success until they reach the Olympic pinnacle. They are specialists, and they know where they stand.

Teachers are specialists but without the support team, medals, or media. (We are thrilled to find free donuts in the lounge!) Since we do not “compete,” it is much harder to measure our success or earn sponsors, but we quietly build as strong a repertoire as an Olympic skier. (And our bodies don’t give out as soon!) We know the edges of different approaches to learning. We see different lines to take on a course, and we seek a balance of risk and experience every day. We speak a specialized language that unfortunately mystifies parents but makes sense among our team of colleagues. So how do we measure our own success and needs for growth?

I was part of a panel this week with James Welsh from FCIT, home of the Technology Integration Matrix. As he shared the matrix, a tool for self-evaluation or administrative evaluation of how a teacher integrates technology,  and I shared about apps in the classroom, I thought about just how specialized we really are and how tough it is for us to see our own accomplishments. The non-teachers in the audience made me realize we are the Olympic skiers talking about edges and lines and wax and snow.  So how do we know how to grow? I have more questions than answers for teacher-specialists right now. Obviously, edtech or instructional coaches can play a role in this, but what role do you want to take yourself?

  • How do you measure yourself as a specialist?
  • Do others ask you for teaching ideas? (Should they?)
  • Do you use a self-evaluation or rating scale like the TIMS? Would you like to? Do you compare yourself to exemplar videos? Would you voluntarily watch a video of another teacher?
  • Do you let an administrator label your “level”?
  • Have you ever tried to explain your chain of decision-making to someone who is not a teacher?
  • Have you ever watched the same event/class/student and shared what you observe vs. what a nonspecialist might see?
  • Do you realize how much you know — and how much you have to learn?

Be an Olympian. Take the risk of measuring your accomplishments.



February 14, 2014

STEM Cracker Jack: The prizes inside

Filed under: about me,edtech,Teaching and Learning — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:05 am

I loved Crackerjack when I was little. The caramel corn was OK, the peanuts were better, and the prizes were the best! I would beg my parents for Cracker Jack when we were out shopping, and I usually won. Years later, I  think of Cracker Jack as a good analogy for edtech today. I think of the wonderful tech snack foods we find in apps and on the web and wonder if, instead of asking teachers and kids to  ”think outside the box” (an overused phrase at best), we should be looking for the unexpected prize inside each box — like Cracker Jack.

Here are some STEM or math-related Cracker Jack boxes I have explored recently — and the serendipitous surprises at the bottom of each box:

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 2.05.50 PMPrimitives Application This one intrigues me. I look at this graphical representations of numbers, and I want to solve its secret code. Actually, I want to show it to a few kids and ask them what is going on. I don’t think I’d even tell them these were numbers initially. I’d ask them to figure out what the site is doing. They’d spot the numbers at the bottom and the changing graphics and eventually figure out that each number has a representative “graphic.” The surprise in the box? Change the settings so it jumps ahead. Predict the next graphic. Even better, create your own system of graphics for numbers. You could scribble them in crayon or get really clever with digital shapes, etc. The candy-coated popcorn is figuring it out. The prize inside the box is creating  your own. 

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 2.11.45 PMBrainy box Yes, I love visual toys, and this one is a BOX in itself. I can put whatever I want on the outside: YouTube videos, images, text, etc. The candy coated popcorn is being able to make a box. The prize inside is that what I put on the outside can be a mystery about what is inside. So in chemistry class, I can put hints about the mystery element  hidden inside my Brainy Box. My prize is making YOUR prize a secret that you must solve.


Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 2.16.54 PMCym@th This Cracker Jack box looks like a black and white boxed, generic product. Don’t be deceived. There is Cracker Jack in here for sure!  Try entering an algebraic expression and telling it to factor for you! Remember all the hours you spent trying various combinations of  (x+2) (3x-7) until you found the right combination? No more! The candy coated popcorn is a problem-solver for almost any mathematical expression.  (Uh oh! This is an instant homework cheat…) But wait! The prize? Have the kiddos make screencasts where they EXPLAIN what the tool is showing them. If they have to narrate it beyond what it is print, they’ll have to understand it. So the prize is hidden understanding accompanying the “answer” it gives. Remember, if you don’t ask for the prize, you’ll have nothing but popcorn,

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 2.47.21 PMComposite Number Tree If you like making popcorn balls or chains, this Cracker Jack number tool provides just the number project. See how composite numbers form a tree. I taste the caramel corn as I watch the tree “grow” to 99. Then it stops. The prize? Draw the tree of 100-999 or 1999- 2099 or any other number series you choose. Make an entire orchard of composite number trees. 


Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 3.03.14 PMBuild With Chrome  This Lego collection has infinite blocks. Enjoy the treat of tutorial building challenges as you crunch your way through the box. The prize is being able to think up a building challenge like “Design an ideal home for a giraffe.” or “Design a new bobsled run for the Olympics,” and then let kids go to it. They can even challenge each other. No messy Lego buckets, no pointy little blocks embedded in your bare feet, no COST, nothing but building fun! By the way, it works in CHROME only.

Hope you found some learning snacks that appeal to you and — especially — some prizes.