September 26, 2014

Language Limits: Captioning the pictures of learning

Filed under: about me,learning,myscilife,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 8:53 am

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 11.30.22 AMHow do you explain what you know and do every day as a teacher? Would anyone other than another teacher understand you?

I gave a tour of MySciLife to some non-educators this week. After decades as an educator, it is hard to explain anything about teaching or learning without slipping into the language I use among teachers. I use terms like differentiate, ESL/ELL, prompt, scaffold, and digital citizenship. Like most teachers, I do not even realize when my audience is thinking:


Differentiate… means to delineate the differences between two things. What is she telling the differences between?

ESL… or did she say easel? Is this for Art?

prompt… what does this have to do with being on time?

scaffold… are they painting her classroom?

digital citizenship … is that something about online voting?

When I use an education-specific term in a parent conference,  I make sure to circle back and define it in context. I do the same with unfamiliar terms I use with students:

Today you are going to work in small groups on an issue related to digital citizenship. When we talk about citizenship in social studies class, we are talking about the way we read, listen, and evaluate what our government does. We especially focus on how citizens participate in that government. Learning to do this responsibly is what makes us good citizens. So talking about digital citizenship…

This is easy when I am in teacher mode with kids. Sharing the intricacies of teaching and learning, especially  a form of learning unfamiliar to most adults over 30, however, is a real challenge. There is such richness in student-centered, social-media based learning that giving an introduction to MySciLife requires circling back over and over — risking listener dizziness.  The intelligent adults who are listening would never expect me to understand the intricacies of what they do every day in their professional roles. But any adult touring MySciLife carries along their own school experience. It is hard for them to understand MySciLife without comparing/contrasting with that experience.

Teacher to teacher, I would say that MySciLife is:

  • a safe, online learning space where your students can learn local science curriculum through student-driven learning and interaction with peers across the U.S.
  • a social learning community where students take on and maintain a role of a science identity, such as Mighty Mitochondria or Gregarious Gravity (they choose the name but concepts are determined by curriculum)
  • student-centered, meeting today’s digital learners in a familiar digital space while respecting and directing their use of the digital tools they know so well for productive purposes in social-media based science learning (now that is a mouthful!)
  • a learning community designed in accordance with specifications and experiences of our teacher-ambassadors throughout over 2 years of research pilot
  • designed to offer scaffolding and opportunities for differentiation for ESL/ELL, gifted, and learning support students
  • well-suited to the needs, strengths, and interests of emerging adolescents
  • a whole new experience in teaching… that gets easier and better with each unit
  • engaging to ALL students, promoting participation and interaction among peers. No passive learners here!
  • aligned to best practices in process writing (drafting, feedback, response, publishing, response…) and centered on experiences with digital writing and informational texts a la Common Core
  • infused with models of good digital citizenship
  • creative, open-ended, and focused on deeper learning
  • in short… amazing. It changes your whole view of what science learning can be.

I can talk to teachers about MySciLife for hours. I have not, however,  perfected an introduction to MySciLife that connects with non-teaching adults’ prior knowledge of school, redefining what it means to teach and learn using safe social media. I can give them a gallery of mental pictures, but captions for those pictures rely on my educator-specific language. I ‘ll keep working on ways to make the captions circle back.

August 29, 2014

A labor of love: My(insertadjectivehere)Life

Filed under: about me,deep thoughts,Digital media and learning competition,edtech,myscilife — Candace Hackett Shively @ 8:26 am

MSL logoSince April, I have been involved in a project that has stretched my thinking, my imagination, and — at times– my patience. After over three years of looking, The Source for Learning (SFL), the non-profit parent company where I work and direct TeachersFirst, has found a developer to help us create a customized platform for MySciLife®. Perhaps I should offer some background…

You remember MySciLife, the project I led to finalist status in the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Competition 2010? I have occasionally written about it here. Three of us (Ollie Dreon, Louise Maine, and I) cooked up the idea one wintry afternoon in an online meeting. We hustled to become finalists. Then we did not get funded.  Since 2010,  SFL has managed sufficient funding to launch MySciLife, and we are now beginning our third year of a research pilot with teachers and students across the U.S.. For the first two years, we used a well-accepted, safe social learning platform as the “home” for MySciLife. This “home,” however, was a candidate for a full Property Brothers makeover to really suit our needs. Unfortunately, the platform was NOT designed for the kind of student roles (we call them “identities”) and interschool interactions that happen in MySciLife. Our tech-savvy teachers and their clever students were troopers at devising work-arounds to accomplish MySciLife tasks. The research came back showing that MySciLife works — and kids LOVE it.

The gist of MySciLife is that students LIVE as a science concept, creating their identities in a safe, social learning environment using status updates, interactions, and a full range of digital media within the MySciLife platform. MySciLife is personal, dynamic science learning, interaction, and assessment. Imagine living your life as a cell…(think Facebook).

We shared about MySciLife at ISTE 2013, thanks to our curriculum experts, MySciLife creative collaborators, teachers, a student, and a parent. Later that summer I ran across a relatively new tool called Mashplant Studio, the third or fourth tool I had encountered that showed promise to possibly be adapted for MySciLife. After MONTHS of discussion and negotiation… we had a deal.

Fast forward to spring and summer, 2014. Code writers are building the new platform as I write this. We have used a very messy version of it (dubbed MyMashedUpLife) for our summer Boot Camp and have 23 teachers AND their middle school science students from across the U.S. starting the school year in MySciLife right now.  We are literally laying the track in front of the train to make all the features work THIS school year instead of waiting until 2015-16.

So what have I/we learned so far? (This may have to be part 1 of many…)

  • Teachers need time for Boot Camp style PD and even more time to absorb and collaborate when they are radically changing the way they teach.
  • Students need far less time!
  • Developers/code folks re-order lists to their view of what comes first. Users have a different view, and ed tech coaches yet another. Add the visual designer, and you have cacophony!
  • No level of list making can keep track of a project perfectly.
  • Bugs reproduce.
  • Online meetings only work after you get to know the “sound” of your collaborators’ true feelings.
  • Timelines sound great, but imagination and innovation resist such limits.
  • More details and to-do items rear their ugly heads between 3 and 4 a.m. than at any other time of day or night.
  • Creating a new learning “space” is just like lesson planning. You will never get it “just right.”

Stay tuned for further updates in My(insertadjectivehere)Life. Happy Labor Day!


November 8, 2013

Super Bowl #eduwin

Filed under: Digital media and learning competition,edtech,learning,myscilife,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:47 am

When learning works, it feels like a Super Bowl victory to a teacher. Unlike the Super Bowl, we receive no media hype, give no interviews, wear no ring, never have a sexy half time show, and certainly don’t make a profit on clever commercials. But we celebrate as best we can, and it feels GOOD. We WON! #eduwin!

Today I celebrate a BIG victory: MySciLife WORKS! And now we can share the report that proves it. Both the documented learning and the act of publishing the report are victories. Believe me, I am celebrating!Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 12.41.08 PM

Key findings in the report:

  • When asked to compare MySciLife to their experience with traditional methods of science instruction, most students replied that MySciLife helped them understand content, that they enjoyed the social interaction, and that MySciLife was fun and creative.
  • Three out of four groups using MySciLife showed a statistically significant increase in students’ science content knowledge as compared to the control groups using traditional instruction.

The background:

Almost four years ago, three creative teachers got together and dreamed up MySciLife, an entry in the 2010 MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning competition. A few months later, we were finalists. Then we “lost.” We did not receive the funding. I blogged throughout the process and have shared more as the project moved ahead in new venues. Fast forward to 2012, and we had enough funding to conduct a limited research pilot of MySciLife with middle school science teachers, collecting data throughout the 2012-13 school year. We watched the dream unfold and shared it at the ISTE conference 2013.

Unlike the Super Bowl, the learning game does not end. As MySciLife moves well into its second year and a much-expanded control group study, the players are going without a huddle, eager to engage with each other inside MySciLife. The teachers meet for monthly collaboration where learning also happens. Unlike the Super Bowl, the “coaches” cooperate and share strategies. Unlike a football game, there are no losers. We share the triumph as we watch learning unfold.

Today feels like a Super Bowl victory for social media-based learning, and we won unopposed. Here’s to us!

August 9, 2013

Social learning and student writing: A delicate teaching dance

Filed under: myscilife,teaching,writing — Candace Hackett Shively @ 11:19 am


As teachers, we all work to balance high expectations while differentiating for various abilities and needs. When we set “requirements” in a digital, social learning community, it is indeed a delicate dance.

Example: You set a high bar for all students in your science class for written expression students in a shared learning community with other schools like MySciLifePosts must use complete sentences and correct conventions of written English.  The powerful tools of authentic, social learning today: online learning communities, blogs, wikis, and collaborative projects, all motivate kids to show their best writing. Alas, one student’s “best” may invite embarrassment, comparison,  or — and this is the worst — digital muting by his peers. Kids simply ignore posts they cannot understand or that they deem “dumb.”  They even exclaim,” Hey! This kid didn’t use complete sentences, and you said we had to!” Either way, the struggling poster’s voice goes unheard.

Students who struggle with writing — for whatever reason — need more scaffolding and support outside the social stream. Few content area teachers are familiar with strategies for writing help, and many do not realize how much they may hurt. Dealing with a student’s writing is like doing surgery on his larynx. You are dealing with a voice here!

Struggling students want to be heard and to join in the  online conversations — and they should, but they need time to build to a level of competence that does not invite criticism or giggles.  As teachers, we dance delicately. We can suggest offline drafts (think Google docs or even — gasp– paper?) so the struggling student  can improve his/her writing before he posts. We can encourage him to have a peer read it back to him aloud to be sure it “sounds right.” Offer some sentence starters in a Word doc,  diminishing this support over time. Even use his own sentence starters derived from his previous posts. We can focus on major conventions, but we also need to focus on the science content. Offer some words he can drag and drop to form sentences, including required science terms.

Remember that larynx! We do not want to mute his voice by over moderating, rewriting, or constantly disapproving his posts. He needs the posting and social learning experience even more than others. So we eventually allow him to post in the stream and hope that others will be kind. Our delicate teaching dance includes promoting digital citizenship so other students do not demean or digitally “mute” those who struggle. Encourage kids to reply to posts who have received no comments. Reply to a post with a thoughtful question that will help you learn more from that person. Give bonus points for interactions that go above and beyond by asking questions that help another student explain more clearly.

Writing is tough. Writing is personal. Remember the larynx and tread carefully as you tiptoe the delicate dance!

May 24, 2013

What happens when we pull the plug

Filed under: edtech,myscilife,Teaching and Learning — Candace Hackett Shively @ 1:38 pm

There is another kind of digital divide: when kids go from a “connected” learning environment back to a traditional classroom. Yesterday I visited a sixth grade classroom filled with students about to make an uncertain (and possibly sad) transition. Their current class is connected. They know the experience of collaborating and learning with students from schools across the country. For the past year, they have lived their roles in MySciLife (more info here).  They know how to approach a question,  look for information both digitally and in print, learn, then reshape what they have learned into a creative and personal connection. They talk about the challenge of taking a set of knowledge and an unlikely prompt that forces them to look at things from within a different role: as a force of nature, an obscure animal, or a weather phenomenon. They talk about how these creative challenges, nestled into an online community, have helped them learn from what other students have said and by asking about or commenting on others’ ideas. They flow smoothly from online tool to tool with the help of self-taught student “experts” within their class or by “teching it out” on their own. They stop and think about which tool best suits the task. These kids are connected at so many levels.


One of the students began talking about next year (a favorite topic among kids about to graduate into a new building). He was talking about what he would do in MySciLife next year. I did not have the heart to tell him that he won’t be in MySciLife next year. Why? First, because MySciLife is a limited pilot for now. More disturbingly, who knows whether he will have a science teacher who is as comfortable with breaking out of the usual teaching patterns and putting students in charge of their learning (helped by technology, of course).  Teachers operate at such widely varying  levels of technology comfort and availability that — even within the same district — a student may move back and forth from connected to disconnected and back again during the same school day or from year to year. The digital faultlines could cause a learning earthquake for anyone.

I wonder how long it will be before kids can expect a minimal level of “connectednesss” no matter where they are learning. I wonder how long it will take the slowly moving plates to stop dangerously rubbing against each other and settle to support learning without the divides. Kids are resilient and adjust to many teaching and learning approaches, but we owe them greater consistency. Think about the kids who suffer when we pull the plug. Then ask yourself how you can help a tech-timid colleague.


February 7, 2013

Real and Permanent Good: A teacher’s mission

Filed under: iste13,myscilife,Teaching and Learning — Candace Hackett Shively @ 3:30 pm

mysciLifelogo-portraitRI often hear NPR underwriting messages about The Carnegie Foundation and their mission to do “real and permanent good.” Isn’t that why we became teachers, to do real and permanent good? How do we know whether we are accomplishing our mission? How do we assess real and permanent good?

Surveys ask businesses what they seek in their employees, and policy makers try to respond with accountability measures such as NCLB and Common Core. Every teaching professional organization has standards of its own, from the NSTA to ISTE. These standards are all efforts to define what comprises success in educating our students.

The frustration that I hear from many teaching colleagues comes when an individual teacher tries to assess success, to feel that he/she is doing real and permanent good. Evidence of real and permanent is elusive. A test score might show real progress, but test score improvements can easily feel impermanent or even unreal. Teachers feel we know real and permanent good when we see it, but often we do not have time to watch for it. And we certainly have trouble defining it. So I offer one example of real and permanent good  in teaching and learning.

MySciLife® offers learning that is real and, our research shows, permanent. MySciLife uses a social media platform for students to live science roles as they learn science. Watch the student/parent video to see how MySciLife works (and it’s free, I might add). We have just completed the first semester pilot of MySciLife with six middle school teachers in four states, and the research results show real and permanent good. Our first semester research asked both an outcome and a process question:

Outcome Question:  What effect does social media-based learning have on middle level science performance?

Process Question:  How does social media-based learning affect student attitudes and perceptions about learning science?

Roughly speaking, I see the outcome question as the real, and the process question question is the permanent.  The real knowledge is something middle level students take with them from MySciLife and apply to their understanding of the world around them. The two classes in the research study showed 20 to 40% greater understanding of the science compared to what they knew before “living” a MySciLife identity. We are researching further during the current semester to compare real learning using a larger sample and controlled study.

The permanent question about attitudes toward science is the one I find most exciting. Fully 86% of the students responded that they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “MySciLife was more interesting as compared to how I typically learn science.” Science is INTERESTING to them when they learn this way(!) That’s permanent good.

There are further results from the pilot, and we are busy formatting the downloadable version of the first semester research to share. I will also be sharing the results along with MySciLife participant panel at the ISTE conference in San Antonio in June. I have to admit, though, that the words real and permanent good resound differently inside my head these days thanks to MySciLife. 

What buoys your sense that you are doing real and permanent good as a teacher?



August 17, 2012

Digital citizenship as “community awareness”

Filed under: education,myscilife,Teaching and Learning — Candace Hackett Shively @ 1:53 pm

We are social beings, so why not use that to frame digital citizenship in the context of community?

This time of year, teachers are establishing the ground rules for their classrooms: what is expected, how students should behave during activities and transitions, and even what kind of language we use to interact. This is when we establish the standards for our classroom community. We tell, they listen — and we hope they do it.

I have noticed different kinds of communities lately and how each has a set of community standards
that develops and is shared with new members. One  such community is Facebook. Each member chooses the boundaries of our Facebook community by connecting to certain friends and adjusting settings for what shows in our newsfeed. Two of my own friends have recently cut others out of their feed (or blocked or unfriended them) because the offending “friend” did not adhere to unstated community standards. One complained about racist remarks a “friend” had shared (bye, bye!) while another bristled at a “friend’s” annoying political campaigning (see you after November!). As adults, we know that we both infer and establish community standards wherever we participate.

But back to our classrooms… Shouldn’t we be talking with our kids about community awareness and how to develop the skills to both read inferences of a community and to guide that community by our contributions? In elementary grades, typical social studies curriculum includes the concept of community in the very concrete sense: the place with a fire house, shops and roads, a town hall, a police department, local government, and our school, of course. Separately we teach about staying safe online, avoiding cyberbullying, and perhaps how to write comments on a blog or compose an email. Instead of treating digital citizenship as a separate entity, we need to help our students see the online world as just another community (or collection of communities) they belong to. They need to read the unstated rules of any community they enter, whether it is a workplace, a classroom, or an online social network.

Last week, I had the pleasure of working with students from across the U.S. in the pilot Boot Camp for MySciLife. This small group of students and teachers came from six different schools with six very different student bodies, six sets of school rules and policies, and surrounded by six varied, real communities. But in MySciLife, we formed a new virtual community. As the community grew rapidly (over 800 posts in 5 days!), students developed de facto community standards of behavior. Yes, we teachers nudged them a bit on digital citizenship in citing images, but they did what kids do. They watched the way their peers spoke (or wrote) and adjusted their language and the thoughtfulness of their posts accordingly.

Before we add yet another mandated chunk to K-12 curriculum, teaching digital citizenship, we should look at how easily this concept fits into our social nature and take advantage of that social impulse. Talk about how we figure out a group. Talk about the role of “citizen” in real and virtual communities. Talk about how the choices we make by voting, friending, commenting, and participating. Communities flow continually between real and virtual today. Citizenship is one extended discussion and lesson, not  separate curricula in technology or social studies. And we all teach it every day.

August 9, 2012

Bringing science to life — finally!

Filed under: myscilife,Teaching and Learning — Candace Hackett Shively @ 12:56 pm

Bringing science to life.

If you’d like to see what happens when middle level students are turned loose to learn in a social learning environment for science,  peek into MySciLife.

Finally, after two years of work, scheming, and dreaming, we have launched the MySciLife science learning experience that began as a brainstorm between Ollie Dreon, Louise Maine, and me one snowy day in early 2010.  Our  proposal became a finalist in the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition 2010 but unfortunately was not funded. You can see the full description of our dream here. (Since the original proposal, we have shifted away from the online tool we thought might work and have instead adopted Edmodo as our platform — at least for our pilot.)

Enough history.

This week has been amazing. The kids in our pilot “Boot Camp” went crazy with MySciLife. Browse through the public stream (scroll down to the bottom via “see more”  to see the beginning of the modules as students introduce themselves) of all their identities throughout the week. Here are some intriguing or creative excerpts of their work/play as they take on and “live” science identities in a safe social learning environment:

A “Rock Band” video from one of our California groups.

A rock tour from the kids in Wisconsin.

We have seen metacognition, curiosity, student-generated learning activities, constructive and constructionist suggestions, humor, creativity, deep thinking, and some marvelous social interactions between students in 5 locations throughout the U.S. To paraphrase a popular Tshirt, MySciLife is good.

PS: One of many learning moments for all the teachers:

Even though we TOLD students to give image credits, it was not until we demonstrated it and made them go back to add the credits that they grasped what we meant. We therefore were not able to share some of their posts in the “public” stream because they have not completed the citations yet.



May 20, 2010

Conclusion and Epilogue from Forwardthink

This is the final episode in a long fable, and perhaps the start of another. Unravel the previous chapters here.

The town of Forwardthink has completely changed. At the stroke of midnight  (about 1 pm Pacific Time) on May 12, the doors of the Town Hall opened, and an arm tacked one final message on the door. From inside, the sounds of music and dancing and jingling keys of gold echoed across the near-empty square. Outside, the few remaining Innovators rushed to read the message.

It was a vaguely familiar sheet of paper with a scrap pasted at the end– pasted onto the same message that had been posted for others in mid-March. The scrap bore a few new words explaining that the winners were already inside the Town Hall, apparently ushered in by a secret passageway several days before.  As the handful of remaining, bedraggled and tired Innovators huddled to read and re-read, a small voice from among them sighed,

“The Elders did not even take the time to cross out the old version of the “go away” message and start a fresh piece of paper to tell us they did not want us. They have simply pasted a scrap of a sentence at the end of an old message. I guess we were not worthy enough to see the Elders or hear their actual words.”

“But look! We can see the Winners through the windows!” cried another as he jumped up and down to see over the high sill and beyond the newly opened blinds.

They took turns for a minute or two, boosting one another by the foot so each could see the party of Winning Innovators. But their energy for jumping drained quickly. The MySciLife Innovators drew away from the window and stepped to the sidewalk together.

“I was SURE you would be among the winners,” came a voice from a passerby. Others who passed hummed in agreement.


Although the Elders of Forwardthink have not invited the MySciLife Innovators  to join the Winners inside the Town Hall, these Innovators did not simply pack their knapsacks. As the small gathering around the Town Hall dispersed, careful ears caught the MySciLifers words, “I heard there may be a different kind of Elders in other villages who may be willing to help. Let’s look at our maps, then set out for the unknown territories. If we stick together, we will find our own key of gold somewhere.”



In a tug of war between the wisdom of the crowd and competition, who wins?

[In the spirit of crowdly wisdom, insert your moral here]

April 16, 2010

Marveling at Matryoshka dolls/boxes

There is a stir  in Forwardthink.  MySciLife, our finalist entry in the Digital Media and Learning Competition, is complete, including this video.  One of these days I’ll upgrade our version of WordPress so we can simply embed it here. But for now…go take a look.

The town of Forwardthink is abuzz during these final days before the deadline for videos and proposed budgets.  Who will “win”? Who knows!?  But the process of imagining, thinking through, and visually explaining a whole new way of learning using digital media has Innovators twisting every digital knob, mashing together different types of files,  converting, combining, and clickety-clacking mice or smooth, glassy touchpads in their excitement. And we are the”old people” who are trying to give the real students a chance to learn this way. What a wonderful, nesting Matryoshka doll/box of learning: we learn how to show our ideas so real students can say it even better outside our dolls.jpgcarefully crafted box. Their box of learning is actually the larger one that envelopes our vision and grows yet another and another layer.  We “innovators” have carved a small but beautiful vision, the smallest inner seedling of a doll/box. The best thing that can happen is for students to encase it in their own, more artful ideas.

Back in Forwardthink, we Innovators are busy marveling at how pretty our starter Matryoshka doll/boxes are. We hover about the Town Hall doors. The Elders have not even told us when to expcet The Announcement. The Wise Crowds are still busy sharing their insights. And we wait to learn:

In a tug of war between the wisdom of the crowd and competition, who wins?

 I think it’s the  Matryoshka dolls of learning who ultimately win. We are just part of the process.