Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Design Process: From Blueprints to Finished Product

I was fortunate enough to attend a Minecraft: Education Edition training seminar this past October. I spent three days learning the ins and outs of teaching educators the best ways to implement Minecraft in their classroom. It was during this training that I had an idea. Our school had just passed a referendum that renovate our school. This would be the first major renovation to our school in almost 25 years. This renovation includes a new parking lot, new playground, new main entrance, Main Office, Media Center, Computer Lab, and the addition of a STEAM Lab. I thought it would be amazing to put our students to work re-creating our school in Minecraft.

I have seen many videos on Youtube about students creating their current school in Minecraft. I wanted to take it a step further and have our students create what our school will look like once the renovation of our school is complete. I
partnered up with a Trish Evans, a teacher 6th grade teacher in our school, and we got to work.

At first, I wasn't sure just what I was allowed to share. Students worked off drawings I had of the building that were projected onto a board at the front of the room. It was difficult to keep it from being seen at the door by other teachers so that didn't last very long. One of the difficulties we faced early on was that I only had measurements from the architect for sections of the building that were being renovated. This meant that for two of the three floors of our interior and 90% of the exterior had to be measured manually. We sent students out in small groups for months to measure every inch of the school. Whenever someone asked the students would just respond that they were working on a geometry project. Luckily after about a month, I met with the architects and explained what we were doing. We were able to then use the plans and share them in class with students. This made (the renovated spaces) MUCH easier to work on.

If you aren't familiar with Minecraft, each block in game is 1 meter cubed. This meant that every single measurement we had of the school would need to be converted from imperial to metric. This led to a number of challenges that I'll get into later. Before students were able to even get in-game, they had to work on their section converting the measurements. All measurements were checked and re-checked by Mrs. Evans, their teacher.


  1. One of the first challenges that students faced was converting all the measurements from Imperial to Metric. As mentioned before all blocks in the game are 1 m3. Once students learned that 1 meter equals approximately 3.28 feet, they got to work. This conversion then introduced a new challenge.
  2. Conversions didn’t always line up correctly within the real world to Minecraft. There were many instances where an office or other part of the building would look MUCH smaller in Minecraft than in the real world due to the differences in measurements. There were a few instances where we took artistic license in order to make a space look more like its real world counterpart. These instances were very few though. This balance between the “look” of the real world in conjunction with the measurements within the game led to our next big challenge.
  3. We decided to start with the exterior of the building, however we quickly learned that in order to keep the measurements as close in Minecraft as they were in the real world we decided the interior wouldn’t fit. If the measurements wound up being a few inches or even a foot smaller/larger in game than they were in the real world it was ok. When looking at a small section of the building, a few feet or inches wouldn’t visually throw things off too much. However, when you expand that small section to the entirety of the building then those individual instances of measurement inconsistencies started to add up. What I have seen others do for something like this is to scale up. Things in the game would be much larger but taken as a whole everything looked normal. “You” the character are 2m in height or just over 6.5’ tall. When you scale things up, it’d look like walking around the giant's house in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ but overall the scale was proportionate. For our project we wanted everything to be as 1:1 as possible. We decided to do TWO buildings. One of the exterior, and one of the interior. These two buildings are contained within the same world, but in different places. This led to another challenge.
  4. How would a person taking a tour of the school walk from the outside to the inside? Fortunately for us the answer finally came on 5/22. Just two days before we were set to unveil this massive project to our school. The latest update to Minecraft: EE allowed the use of command blocks. Through command blocks, I was able to script a way that once you set foot on a certain block you would instantly be teleported to the other section of the building. It was as seamless a transition as we could have hoped.
  5. The other major challenge we faced was keeping the secret of the project. We really wanted this project to blow people away so we kept the secret of what we were working on for 6 months! Only three staff members in our building knew what we were doing. Myself, Mrs. Evans (the teacher of the class doing the project), and our building supervisor. Having him on board early was extremely helpful. He was able to get us measurements that weren’t on the blueprints such as heights of ceilings that would have been too dangerous for students to measure. Our own administrators including our Principal and Superintendent had no idea until we showed the entire school. I commend the students for being able to keep a secret like this from their own peers for so long. Minecraft: EE works only on Windows 10 or MacOS 10.11+ devices. Our school is a Google Suite for Education school, so students have Chromebooks. This led to us having to work entirely on this project in our Mac computer lab. Since we were using the computer lab, Mrs. Evans had to book a LOT of time in the lab which could have raised many suspicions. Lucky for her she decided to not only work on this project but another history project that she decided to utilize Minecraft for. When anyone walked into the lab, students had to flip Minecraft over to a different world and hide architectural blueprints. Unfortunately interruptions like this led to a few delays.
  6. Each session we worked, I would export the Minecraft world in order to have a running list of backups. So if there were ever issues we could roll back to the prior day and start again without too much loss of work. However, two days before the project was to be finished students worked for two hours finishing a large portion of the exterior and I thought I had saved it, but unfortunately did not. When I exported the world and started to work on the teleportation system, I loaded the wrong world and overwrote what had been done earlier that day. I felt horrible, but the students gave me a good ribbing for it.



I couldn't be prouder for what our students accomplished. Some of them had never used Minecraft before! What they were able to build, and more importantly accurately depict was nothing short of amazing. I had students wanting to stay before school, during lunch, and during recess to keep working. I would also like to thank Mrs. Evans for allowing her class to even attempt this project. Once I asked for volunteers, she was the first to raise her hand. The amount of planning she put in was astounding. Below is our finished product, and also some side by side comparison shots.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Christmas Traditions through Skype

Last year, I had the idea of having our school do a Christmas card exchange via Skype with other classes around the world. Unfortunately, I started the program too close to Christmas and it was not successful. This year, I started the registrations in late October. I was blown away by the response to my lesson that was posted on the Microsoft Educator Community. I had almost 100 classes register to participate from all over the world!

Since I had more time to develop the lesson, I included a more rounded experience for all. What started as a project for our students grew too large from such an overwhelming response, that I opened it up to other schools in the US. I created a form that allowed me to pair up classes in similar grades (one from the US and the partner from a non-US school). Classes were tasked with creating physical Christmas cards and then sent to their partner school. Once the classes received the cards, they would have a Skype call to discuss what Christmas traditions they have in their respective countries. I had no idea what to expect from this project but thought it worthwhile for our students (and subsequently) and other students to learn about how the rest of the world celebrates Christmas or even another end of the year holiday. Below are some of the wonderful social media reactions from some of our participants.

I am delighted that not only did students learn about holiday traditions but some have formed long term partnerships due to this lesson. Please follow the hashtag #skypetraditions to see more exchanges with students.

A video posted by Tuckerton Elementary School (@tes_nj) on

A video posted by Tuckerton Elementary School (@tes_nj) on

Monday, June 13, 2016

RIP iPad 2 and 3

The WWDC just wrapped and the one topic I was interested in most to see was the unveiling of iOS 10. I was not so much interested in what features would be added (and there are a few good ones), but more so for what devices would be supported. I'm sure a lot of schools are in the same situation we are with regards to the iPad craze a few years ago. We jumped on board with these amazing learning devices but now those of us who were able to get in somewhat early will now be forced to refresh sooner than expected. Announced today, the iPad 2 and 3 are no longer supported. Obviously this doesn't mean our devices simply stop working but we will start to see app updates diminish as developers require iOS 10.

Photo courtesy of @jake_k

I had anticipated the iPad 2 being phased out for support but was shocked the 3rd generation iPad is also on the chopping block. This now eliminates all the iPads we have in our building. Understandable decision by Apple but costly for us.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Littlest PC That Could

While I was over in London at the Bett conference, I started looking at the devices in the Microsoft booth. I noticed a very small device that was about half the thickness of a paperback book. It was running Windows 10. It's called the Kangaroo and is manufactured by InFocus. At first I thought it was running a stripped down version of Windows 10 but after using the device found it was running the full Windows 10 Home version. The same you'd find on any home desktop. I also noticed the insane price of just $99 USD for the device! So what are these devices, what can they do, and what do they come with? Full disclosure: The Kangaroo and Kangaroo Pro were purchased by my school. The Kangaraoo+ was supplied by Kangaroo for review. Now let's take a look.

Kangaroo (basic hardware)

The Kangaroo comes with 2GB RAM and 32GB EMMC internal storage. It also comes pre-loaded with Windows 10 Home edition. After booting up the device you'll find that with a little bloat you're left with 8-9 GB of free storage. If you plan on using this system as a kiosk or web only device you needn't worry about the internal storage. If you find you need more internal storage you can use one of the USB ports along with flash memory and set Windows to use that as the default save location. The hardware comes with a microSD card reader, microUSB port, 2 USB ports (1 2.0 and 1 3.0 port), HDMI port, as well as a fingerprint reader. We had no use for the fingerprint reader or the microSD port so I have not tested their functionality. Lastly, the unit includes 802.11AC wireless and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity.

Kangaroo also includes an interesting feature that allows you to control the PC from your iPad. You must download the OSLinx app from the app store then connect the iPad to the Kangaroo via the iPad's USB cable. You can either use tap to select or show the mouse cursor. I tested via USB on my iPad 3 and found the performance to be slow. I was able to open programs and display just as I would on a PC albeit slower. The app is free but if you want wifi capabilities or bluetooth keyboard support you'll need to do an in-app purchase of $3.99 for each feature. I find that the free app Teamviewer does a much better job and also performs much smoother than OSLinx.

Windows 10 on my iPad!

At our school I decided to use the base unit as part of our staff check-in system. The Kangaroo was set up along with a USB barcode reader to scan staff badges as they enter or exit the building. Since our system is web based, I only needed a browser and nothing else. This system was perfect for this task and the cost was very affordable to allow us to do it. We did not need to spend a few hundred dollars on a tablet to do the same web-only work.


  • Low starting price
  • Windows 10 Home included
  • Fantastic for web-only work


  • 2 USB ports
  • Ports are too close together

Kangaroo+ (mid-range use)

The Kangaroo+ is a step up from the Kangaroo base model in terms of RAM and internal storage. Both have been doubled in this case you get 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. This bump in hardware specs was just enough to allow me to deploy this unit as a computer connected to our Promethean Board in the media center. Before placing this unit in the media center, we had to make a laptop available to hook to the mobile board. This meant utilizing someone else's machine and not allowing them to work. We usually have presentations, Skype sessions, or instruction in this space and the Kangaroo+ is plenty capable to do all of this with ease. I again ran into the issue of not enough USB ports however. We have a wireless kb/mouse combo and the USB cable for the Promethean board. This left us with no open ports if a presenter comes in with a presentation on a USB thumb drive. I used a non-powered USB hub to address this issue. Still, a side USB port would be a great option. One of the great features of the Kangaroo+ is how light weight it is. I was able to velcro the unit to the back of our Promethean board. This allowed me to keep the wires neat and also secure to the board without falling.

Our Kangaroo+ mounted on our mobile Promethean board.


  • Increased RAM (4GB)
  • Increased internal storage (64GB)
  • No pre-installed O/S allows for customization


  • If you want Windows you'll need to purchase a license adding another $120 to the price

Kangaroo Pro (power users)

The Kangaroo Pro addresses the lack of ports issue by adding a secondary dock that the hardware slips right into. This beefs up the usage considerably since it adds a network port, VGA connection, annother USB port, as well as a headphone jack. The main functionality of the dock is to allow the installation of a 2.5" HDD/SSD to really maximize your internal storage needs. The ability to add massive amounts of internal storage by way of an SSD or HDD allows this Kangaroo variant to be used nicely as a media center or a networked computer where a network user's documents are copied locally.

The main problem with the Kangaroo Pro, is that it includes the basic Kangaroo unit with the dock. This means you're back to having just 2GB RAM and 32GB of internal storage. The included dock allows you to easily address the internal storage issue, but the low amount of RAM is an issue that cannot be remedied. I would have liked to have seen the Kangaroo+ hardware included with the Pro dock.

Kangaroo inside the Pro dock. A 128GB SSD is installed inside the dock.

A better look at the added ports on the Kangaroo Pro dock.


  • Addition of a VGA, network, and USB port
  • Dock offers the ability to add a Solid State Drive
  • Windows 10 Home Included


  • The Kangaroo PC included is the base hardware not the upgraded + model.
  • Limited RAM

Even with some of the limitations, I would recommend these units for classroom or school usage. As I stated, I would like to see at least one more USB port on the base unit and the more robust Kangaroo+ hardware included with the Pro dock. I also encountered HDMI issues on each variant where the screen would not display but a reboot took care of that. These units are plenty powerful enough for light usage and work well within a classroom setting. The most amazing part of these units is their portability. There is a rechargeable battery included within the unit which makes this PC able to go anywhere. Kangaroo states a 4 hour battery life with casual usage. Things are just getting started for Kangaroo and I'm excited to see what they have planned for the future.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Social Skills with Maria

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to attend a pre-ISTE workshop with fellow Skype Master Teachers. Towards the end of this workshop, Mike Soskil (a SMT from Pennsylvania) and Dyane Smokorowski (a SMT from Kansas) introduced us to their friend Maria. When the Skype call was connected and I heard this little girl's voice, I was confused as to what was going on. Up on the screen a small animated girl waved hello to us. I just thought "oh wow" this is kind of neat. However, then she started to talk to us and call us by our names. I was VERY intrigued at this point. We started to talk about different topics as if we were talking to a real 1st grader. It was truly amazing. Then at the end of the call she had us all participating in a game of "Maria Says." Every person in the room (all adults) were laughing and enjoying themselves a lot!

Maria is from Wondergrove, and is a learning platform for preschoolers through second grade. The site includes hundreds of videos and lessons on social and life skills. Some of the topics covered include: Safety, health and science, nutrition, and school readiness. There are a lot more topics that are covered and each topic has videos with the characters from Wondergrove in them. These characters are around the same age as your students and really help put the content lessons on their level. These videos show the student characters interacting amongst each other in a fictional classroom setting.

Once I saw Maria in action, I had to get this tool for my own teachers. I immediately e-mailed my K-2 teachers to show them the link. I had a discussion with our principal about getting each teacher in those grades a subscription for the classroom. Once he saw the content of the videos, lesson plans available, offered in Spanish and English, plus each lesson is common core aligned it was a no-brainer.

My first demo of the product was at our back to school faculty meeting before the students came back. I gave little bits of information to Wondergrove about my staff. Once we started talking, she was picking out certain teachers and asking them about their summer with all the details I had supplied. They were surprised and also loved it. Our teachers have been using Wondergrove now for the last two months and it has been an overwhelming success. Students are engaged with the lessons and Maria will even Skype into the classroom to talk to the students! Recently I visited our preschool classroom to watch a Skype call with actual students for the first time. This call was right before Halloween and included safety tips.

The staff at Wondergrove have been a joy to work with and they truly care about their product and our feedback. It has been a great relationship so far and we look forward to using it for the rest of the school year. Our preschool teacher Mrs. Cirulli had this to say about it after the first few months, "My students love Maria and her friends!! The lessons are short and to the point but hold my students attention. This learning platform is one of the best!! I have been able to utilize the videos and Skype calls to effectively teach different content to my students in a manner that they enjoy and look forward to. My students enjoy listening to Maria and her friends explain different concepts about health, social rules, holidays etc."

If you'd like to test out the service sign up for their Thanksgiving lesson which includes a chat with Maria, plus a two week trial of the service.

Friday, July 3, 2015

ISTE 2015 Reflections

This was now my 5th time at ISTE and it still does not disappoint. It's also fitting that this year's ISTE was back in Philadelphia, not only is it just an hour from my home but this is where it all started for me in 2011.

Chance Encounter
In 2011, I was working at a local University and did not have much direction in my career. At the time, I was working as a telephone operator. A job I had taken just to get my "foot in the door" and also to start getting health benefits. An e-mail went out to all staff letting us know about a conference called ISTE. I had never heard of it, but it intrigued me. I knew I wanted to go into a computer support field, so the thought of checking out what was going on in the realm of educational technology sounded interesting. I signed up not knowing what I was getting into. After sitting in the Newbie Lounge (we need to bring that back) after a long first day, I happened to see William King who I was following on Twitter. We started the conversation as many do at ISTE, "Hey I follow you on Twitter." Not long after we started to talk, Paula Naugle joined us. I had never met Paula but it was her tutelage about Twitter during that meeting that changed my career. From that time on, no longer was I just stalking celebrities on Twitter and not engaging my community. I was able to see what educators were sharing and all the wonderful buzz that was created during that conference. It was infectious, and after that I started tweeting "professionally". From those first connections, other connections started to emerge and four years later I was back in Philly at ISTE although this time I was finishing my second year as an Elementary Technology Coordinator and my 5th semester as an adjunct professor. What a difference a few years can make!

Twitter Chats:
I left my house at 6 am to arrive in Philly just after 7. I wanted to participate in #satchat with Billy Krakower, Scott Rocco, and Brad Currie. That day, they had a special guest in Jerry Blumengarten. Immediate following #satchat, I setup to co-moderate #nt2t chat which is a wonderful Twitter chat that helps teachers who are new to twitter get started and make new connections. Normally there is no video feed but this being ISTE, I setup a live video stream in addition to our normal Twitter-based chat. It gets a little hectic but was a lot of fun. Billy stayed on after satchat and we were also joined by Susan Bearden. You can find our video stream here. The rest of my day was spent with my wonderful Skype Classroom colleagues in training. I learned of a wonderful tool called Wondergrove, that I think all Pre-K - 2nd grade teachers should take a look at. We were able to see a live demo and it had every teacher in that room smiling from ear to ear. Susan Bearden and I did a session the final day of ISTE on how to leverage Twitter chats for professional development.

Sunday was my big day. For the past several years, I have been running TeachMeetNJ. After learning about TeachMeets from Will King back in 2011, I decided to bring the format to South Jersey. After collaborating with Matt Esterman (TeachMeet Sydney) Allen Martin (TeachMeet Kentucky), and Will King (TeachMeet Kentucky) we decided to do TeachMeet ISTE. This was a large undertaking as most in the US have never heard of a TeachMeet (they are huge over in the UK and Australia). This was a free event prior to the start of ISTE, and we filled registration in just a few weeks! Sessions were a mix of the US version (20 minutes) and the traditional UK/AU format (2 and 7 minutes). During the day we had over 100 people attend and almost 1k tweets on our #tmiste15 hashtag. It was a huge success and we really look forward to doing it again next year.

Right after finishing up with TeachMeet ISTE, I was approached by Wesley Fryer for an interview. It was very impromptu but great to get the word out. Immediately after that was the opening keynote with featured speaker Soledad O'Brien. I was not going to attend the keynote at first since I was exhausted but decided at the very last minute to join some colleagues. Boy am I glad I did! With just a few minutes left in her speech, she called a few volunteers on stage to don Google Cardboard and demonstrate to the audience what it was like. I bolted to the stage for a prime spot!

I wasn't able to make it to too many sessions but the one I enjoyed the most was Shane Asselstine's "
Building a Learning Community with Minecraft." You can find his complete presentation here. I setup a Minecraft server in our school and have used it for a few lessons this year but his presentation on using Minecraft to form a community for your students was truly inspiring. I'm glad I was finally able to meet Shane in person. We have communicated off and on throughout the school year via Twitter. I always enjoy meeting my PLN face to face for the first time.

A few times at ISTE, I represented Skype in the Classroom and volunteered in the Microsoft booth. It's something I love doing and also sharing the power of Skype with other teachers. I'm also very fortunate to be surrounded by a collection of amazing educators who are also in the Skype Master Teacher program with me. During our Saturday training, one of our teachers could not attend due to an unfortunate visa issue. We were still able to have him join us via Skype to share in our celebration of what he has accomplished with his students. 

The last morning of ISTE, I was honored to be chosen to give a short talk about education in an interview from the Microsoft booth. I loved sharing all that I've learned these past four years.

I always try and make it to the vendor hall. You'd think we've seen it all at this point but each year I'm amazed by something. This year it was the 3Doodler. This is complete 3D printing in a pen for under $100USD! 

Each year after I come back from ISTE, I have not only a wealth of new tools but also great new connections. I feel that new connections can be one of the most important takeaways from ISTE. Your PLN can be there to help guide, nurture, and challenge you for years to come. I feel as though ISTE is a family reunion. Coming together each year to share the joys and pains you've all had over the last year and how to break through any walls you may have. I value my PLN and their collected wisdom. Had a great time catching up with Geri Coats, Cathleen Petty, Rodney Turner, Michelle Baldwin, Robyn Hrivnatz, Darcy Grimes, Jennifer Regruth, Karen Winsper, Lisa Butler, and Teresa Finegan

I was able to wrap up ISTE with both a wonderful dinner with some Aussie friends and my annual Straggler's Breakfast for those who are still around the morning after ISTE. Good times, great company, and more learning!


One of the things that bummed me the most about this week was not being able to share it with my wife. She is also an amazing educator but stayed home with our newborn twin daughters. 

Finally, I was able to share this week with a special ISTE "newbie." Lou Appalucci is a former student of mine, and was in my undergraduate course. One of the major components of my course is teaching students how to form a PLN before they graduate. He told me a few times during the week about how when he first heard we were going to be using Twitter in class, he thought it was a waste of time. He is now finishing his first year teaching Algebra. Of course he now tells the opposite story, and is now "drinking the Kool-Aid" with the rest of us. He mentioned numerous times this week about how he now sees the power and importance of a PLN and has even offered to speak to my upcoming class about it. This was his first ISTE, and I don't think he'll soon forget it.

See you all next year in Denver!!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Using video games to enhance learning

Last week our 6th grade students were learning about Gettysburg in anticipation of their trip this week. Each year since 2002, our 6th grade takes an all-day trip to this historic battlefield to learn about that bloody day.

I'll admit that I have always had an interest in both the Civil War and WWII. I'm also an avid gamer. A few weeks ago, I came across a game called Ultimate General. This game started as a mod for the Total War game series and was so popular it evolved into a full fledged game of its own. I knew this would be a perfect learning tool for our students.

I purchased the game on Steam then loaded it up on my Surface Pro 3. The Surface Pro works well with this lesson using the pen. Armed with the game and clips from the movie Gettysburg, I entered both sixth grade classes that week. As soon as students saw I had a Steam shortcut on my desktop they were immediately interested. "Woah! You have Steam?" Immediately, I had their attention. I then loaded up the game. I had chosen two specific skirmishes at Gettysburg to show them, Little Round Top which involved the 20th Maine and Pickett's Charge. It is one thing to see the battlefield in person, but when students are shown clips of professional or Hollywood reenactments it puts it into better perspective. For instance, when most students stand on top of LIttle Round Top, they'll just see a "hill." However, when I show them the clips of the Confederates trying to run UP that steep hill with full gear and bullets flying by them, it puts things into perspective. I wanted to add to that perspective by showing them this game.
I loaded up the mission for the skirmish at Little Round Top first. The one aspect I really love about this game is its visual style. The entire "battlefield" is actually a paper map. The edges of the map in the game show actual edges of a map and the table it sits on. The other MAJOR visual significance to this game is the wonderfully detailed maps with labels of locations overlaid. So now when I zoom around the map to show students different areas of engagement, they can clearly see which section of the battle this is taking place.

As soon as the mission started and troops began firing at each other, the students were "oohing and ahhing." Being from NJ, I chose the Union side. Now, I didn't just load this up to show them little digital soldiers firing each other. I started up the mission and let it play out for a few minutes, and students watched as brigades started to move into formation and the Confederates started to advance. While the troops on screen moved around, myself and the primary teacher were explaining what was happening and why. We started to ask students questions about the terrain and troop movements. "Why would the Round Tops be important?" "Why would advancing your entire brigade here be a good or bad idea?" Another great feature of this game is by hitting the M key on the keyboard, I can turn on the elevation display. This allows students to see that the battlefield was not all flat and how difficult it was to move from one area of town to the other quickly.

We also discussed tactics of troops and why they would want to move to certain areas, and what would happen. Another unique feature of this game which actually lends itself nicely to the touch feature of the Surface is movement. In most RTS games, you need to move units in a straight line however we all know that is not how war is fought nor how troops move in real life. Ultimate General is the first game (to my knowledge) that lets you draw how you'd like your troops to move. So now for the first time you can truly flank an enemy. When clicking on individual brigades, you can also see their "line of sight", shown below by the dark and light patches on the map. As you click on different brigades sections of the map will darken based on what those troops can actually physically see.

This game truly immersed our students and I was told by the teachers who took the students on the trip that they were more engaged while there and could answer more questions than ever before. The game and movie clips only played a small part in that increased immersiveness but I believe that any increase is definitely worth exploring.

This game is also available for the iPad and is currently 50% off for PC and Mac via Steam.