Cool Tools for School: Final Reflection

What did you learn? I learned some great new tools and some new ways to old tools in the library. I didn’t expand my personal network as much as I’d hoped-every year I’ve done this I say I’m going to try harder to checkout more of the work done by other participants and I never seem to get to as much as I want to. If this is offered again next year I’ll have to find a way to make it more of a priority to do that. The biggest challenge is always time and trying not get too far behind (which, as you can see by the way I’m barely making it in by my SLS deadline, I struggled with again this year). My biggest success was finding so many ways to incorporate my goal of going back to learning centers and flipped classroom style learning into our library again thanks to the ideas I got working through the Cool Tools. The kids have been loving them-and library classes have been just flying by with all the fun we’ve been having!

What’s next? I can’t wait to keep creating new centers and trying more and more flipped style activities in our library! I also hope to keep up with blogging in general-it’s been fun to be able to think through what I’m working on this way and I love being able to look back on the year and be reminded of all I’ve accomplished and everything we’ve done. I also like the idea that maybe somewhere, there’s a librarian or teacher who will stumble on some of my posts and find them helpful!

I also hope to find time to tackle some things I was inspired by but ran out of time for, like creating a personal manifesto and/or mission statement for the library. I love the style of the ones included in the final reflection directions.

Finally, since I ran out of time to engage with the participants posts as much as I’d planned this year, I’d love to read some of them now that I’ve finished up my Cool Tools for the year. I’m sure there are plenty of great ideas out there I can still try out in my library this year.

Did you like learning this way? I love having a whole school year to explore, experiment and, learn at my own pace! I also love the freedom of being able to pick up and drop tools at my own discretion. It’s also great to be able to take advantage of someone else’s hard work and just get straight to the fun of exploring and trying out ideas. I’ve done Cool Tools every year since becoming an elementary school librarian and I’ll surely do it again if Polly’s willing to keep hosting it!


Cool Tools for Schools, You Pick: Google Data Studio!

For the last several years, inspired by a Cool Tool topic I had worked on, I have been creating monthly library reports for my principal. I’ve been using Piktochart and have loved it-I was able to customize my report template just the way I wanted and reuse it month after month. My principal loved getting them as well. Unfortunately, I received an email that Piktochart was going to making some changes and my free account was about to be a lot less awesome. I will be limited to 5 visuals as of May and that’s just not enough for someone who likes to make (and save) monthly reports! As such, I’ve been on the hunt for something new to use for the last few weeks. Recently, a colleague went to a training where they learned about making reading dashboards and when they sent out there sample to the rest of us, I was delighted to discover there is a Google product I’ve never heard of called Data Studio. I couldn’t wait to try it out and see if it could be my Piktochart replacement!

One of my past Piktochart library reports

Things I liked:

  • Step by step getting started tutorial (almost too in-depth)
  • We’re already a GAFE school so it blends seamlessly with other products I already use on a daily basis
  • Template gallery so you don’t have to start completely from scratch
  • Maybe it will inspire me to log more traditional data

Things I didn’t like:

  • Template gallery isn’t very large
  • Templates provided by others weren’t searchable
  • Community templates aren’t all available to make your own copies from
  • Doesn’t have Google Images built in like other Google products (I had to find, save and, upload my own images when I wanted to add or change them)
My first attempt at using Google Data…

There’s definitely a learning curve to work with and it doesn’t completely operate like other Google products I’ve used but, I think I’m going to stick with it. I think the more I use it the better at it I’ll get and I don’t feel like I’ll have to worry about it suddenly becoming a paid feature like the other products I’ve used in the past. I’ve included the template I made for the April library report using Data Studio as well as the a past report using Piktochart. My latest version lacks some of the pizzazz of the past ones but, my first few attempts with Piktochart weren’t exactly top notch either! I’m sure like Piktochart, I’ll just keep tinkering and getting better. And I’m looking forward to getting more creative with some data I can add as well. I’m thinking I’ll tinker with the data I can download from circulation and see what I can do with that for our end of year report…and if anyone else does library reports (monthly, quarterly, whatever) I’d love to hear what you include!

Cool Tools for Schools, Thing x: Flash Cards, Quiz Games and More

In addition to library centers, I currently have graphic novels and Free Comic book day on the brain. One of the things that came up at the PD I took on teaching with graphic novels and comics was that we don’t often take the time to teach kids how to read comics like we do other kinds of writing. The PD I attended had some great handouts and information on doing just that, including key vocabulary to know. With that work done for me, I thought it would a good idea to find some snazzy ways to present the vocabulary and this seemed like just the (Cool) Tool for the job!

What I looked at: I looked at three flashcard creation tools. I went with flashcard creators for a couple of reasons. I’m already familiar with things like Kahoot! and Quizizz plus, flashcards and vocabulary just seem to go together. I also liked that some of the flashcard creators had the capability to create additional games with the learning content. As always, each thing I looked at had pluses and minuses.

Click Here to check out my flashcards:


  • Liked
    • Easy to use
    • Could add pictures from their gallery of images or upload own  
    • Could share directly to Google Classroom, a class folder on Quizlet site, or via link
    • Variety of learning activities that can also be used with the flashcard content
    • Students don’t have to log in with an account to access the flashcards and other content via the link
  • Disliked
    • Limited amount of pictures available via their gallery

Study Stack

  • Liked
    • Fast and easy to set up and use
    • Even more varieties of games than Quizlett
    • Can embed the games right to a webpage
  • Disliked
    • Not as easy to add images
    • No teacher dashboard available like in Quizlett
    • Not as “flashy” looking
    • No way to share via simple link like with Quizlett
Click here to check out my flashcards:


  • Liked
    • Fast and easy to set up
    • Easy to share via a link
    • Flashcards automatically mixed up to include things like multiple choice and fill in the blank
    • Cards scaffold to help you when you get something wrong
    • No predetermined amount of cards you do, if you keep getting something wrong, it keeps coming back up in a variety of ways (often with helpers) until you get it correct
    • Could add own images
  • Disliked
    • Inability to add other games and activities automatically
    • Have to type in the fill in the blanks exactly as they appear on the card or it is wrong
    • Images were sometimes difficult to size on the cards

What I’d like to do: For the comics and graphic novels mini unit, I think I’ll use a variety of activities from each of the creation tools I tried out in library centers. I think together, they offer some great activities and ways to really get students interacting with the vocabulary without it seeming like traditional, boring memorization. In the future I can see myself using these combinations of tools do similar center based activities when we are learning new vocabulary words. I especially like that they can all be done via an iPad or a desktop computer.

What I’d like students to do with them: While I’m not sure I’ll do it with the upcoming mini unit, I can see giving students the ability to create their own accounts and make their own flashcards at the end of a unit. I like the idea of having older kids create the flashcard sets for the younger kids when we do our beginning and end of the year review units.

This tool was way easier and way more fun than I had anticipated! I’m glad I took the time to try out some flashcard creators and can’t wait to see what my students think!

Cool Tools for Schools, Thing 6: Digital Storytelling

Once upon a time, we used Bitstrips for Education several times a year in the library for projects across multiple grade levels. Every since it went away, so have those great projects we did with it. Recently, I attended a great workshop through my local BOCES on Free Comic Book day and using comics in the classroom. Since then, I’ve been inspired to do a mini unit on comics with my classes leading up to Free Comic Book day. And what better way to celebrate comics than to make some of our own! With that unit in mind, I set out to see what online comic creators were available to us and would *fingers crossed* work in the classroom.

What I looked at: I explored the two comic makers I saw on the list, Toon Doo and Make Beliefs Comix. There were things I liked and disliked about each of them.

Toon Doo

  • Likes:
    • Loads of choices-from layout design to backgrounds to characters to props and more, Toon Doo had lots of options to choose from when creating a comic
    • Ability to create own Characters-hands down, one of the kids favorite things about using Bitstrips Edu was making their own characters to use in their comic strips and Toon Doo brings that option back
    • Control-Toon Doo allows you to clone objects for faster comic creations as well as control exactly how the speech bubbles appear and even search for exactly what you are looking for rather than searching through all the options
    • Book Creator-Toon Doo also offers more than just comics, they have a book creator as well
  • Dislikes:
    • Students would have to create own accounts in free version
    • Not safe, secure or private-since I work in an elementary school, this is always a concern
    • Teacher version (Toon Doo Spaces) not free-the safe, secure and private option for classroom use is not free and wasn’t economically priced for how often I would use it in a given school year

Make Beliefs Comix

  • Likes:
    • Tons of school friendly extras-Make Beliefs Comix offers printables, a greeting card maker, writing prompts, lesson plans, suggestions for home use, options for using with ELLs or students with special needs and of course, comic creation
    • ALA approved-they made the ALA list of great websites to use with kids
    • Easy to use-less robust than Toon Doo, it was relatively fast and easy to learn how to use
  • Dislikes:
    • Less control/options-there just isn’t as much here as with Toon Doo
    • Less diversity-along with fewer choices comes less diversity of characters which is a always bummer
    • Students would have to create their own accounts, no teacher/school account available

Ultimately, if I was going to go with a free version, I decided to go with the one that made the ALA list of best websites to use with kids (as well as Parent Choice Recommendation). And since I started this journey looking for ways to teach kids about Free Comic book day, that’s what I made my practice comic about!

What I’d like to do with them: In addition to the above comic, which I plan to use to introduce our comics unit, I’d like to create some additional comics about basic library expectations and use them to teach students about the parts of a comic strip, basic comic vocabulary and, how to read a comic.

What I’d like students to do with them: When the unit is done, it would be great to have students demonstrate what they learned about comics by creating their own comic strips explaining key terms and vocabulary. I think it could also be fun to have them create their own comics promoting Free Comic Book Day that we could hang up in the hallways.

I’m not sure I found a tool that will make me stop longing for Bistrips Edu but, I did find an acceptable option that we can use for our upcoming unit and our celebration of Free Comic Book Day!

Cool Tools for Schools, Tool 13: Augmented and Virtual Reality

If there’s a theme to my Cool Tools year, besides library centers, it seems to be revisiting things I haven’t done in years. This tool was no exception, to either of those themes!

Years ago, I did a class on flipped classrooms and I used Aurasma to create Augmented Reality centers for poetry month (I made videos explaining the center directions/poetry terms and they scanned a poster at the table to activate the video with Aurasma). But, it has been years since I’ve used Aurasma (so long that I forgot it was now HP Reveal until I tried to login to my Aurasma account and was redirected to the other site), so now seemed like a good time to get reacquainted with the process!

What I looked at: For this tool, I spent the majority of my exploration time familiarizing myself with the app again, how to use it and, making sure the app was still on our school iPads.

What I would like to do with it: I am beyond excited about this idea I saw on another’s librarian’s Instagram a few months ago! They did biography reports and turned them into a AR gallery walk!! I’ve talked to my 4th grade team and they seem excited to try this project with me as well.

As far as I can tell, it would involve the following steps:

  1. Students research a person for their biography report
  2. Students use this site to create an avatar for their person (bummer, you have to do it in one shot, no save option)
  3. Students use their printed avatar to create a ChatterPix recording of their person listing their accomplishments/highlights of their life
  4. Students use HP Reveal to turn their avatar picture into the trigger that will launch their ChatterPix video

Did I mention how much I love this idea!!! A colleague of mine also did biography projects this year but she had the kids use the green screen to create their informative video. The 4th grade team and I were thinking we could give our students the option of either using ChatterPix or the green screen to create their informative video. This way, they still have something to create their AR experience with and students who are less comfortable being on camera will have an alternative that can be used for the AR gallery walk.

Additional ideas for AR:

  • Of course, using it to create AR centers again like I use to do
  • Creating interactive expectation posters for library orientations
  • Creating interactive genre posters
  • I’ve always wanted to try using Google Street view/360 photos to make an interactive tour of the library but, I don’t think there’s a way to do that without making the photos all public on Google Street View and I’m not sure that’s a great idea? Seems like it could be a safety issue. Does anyone know if there’s a way to create something like that but control who can see it, like we do with Google Docs etc?

And oh yeah, that awesome librarian’s Instagram account? It’s chrystalburkes- definitely check her out sometime!

Cool Tools for Schools, Thing 4: Twitter, Facebook & Personal Learning Networks

I feel like almost every year I’ve done Cool Tools, I’ve also done a Twitter related option. You’d think I’d either a) have run out of things to explore by now or b) finally have gotten “good” at this Twitter thing but alas, neither of those things seem to have happened so here I am: another year, another go at tackling Twitter via Cool Tools suggestions!

What I currently do: I have gotten better at checking in on Twitter more regularly but still sometimes go too long without opening the app and looking at it. A fact I almost always instantly regret when I finally check back in because I instantly find like, 3 new ideas and a few fascinating articles to look at! Moving my Twitter app to my main screen, right next to the Instagram app has helped me remember to check in more often. For awhile, I had instituted a rule that I couldn’t look at Instagram until I checked Twitter and I might have to renew that proclamation to get back into a more regular habit again…

What I looked at: Something I’ve wanted to do more often is participate in Twitter chats. So, I Googled around and found some articles on recommended Twitter chats for educators. I found ISTE’s round up the most useful and pulled several chats from it to explore further. Then, I dusted off my old friend TweetDeck and spent a few minutes working through those hashtags to see what there was to see. In the end, I was left with the following hashtags/Twitter Chats that I thought would be most useful for me to checkout.

  • #edchat (Thursdays, 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET)

One of the first education chats, this popular chat has nine moderators and covers a broad range of topics. Find upcoming topics and read archived chats at

  • #digcit (Wednesdays, 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET)

Focuses on digital citizenship. Read the chat archives on the #digcit website.

For those interested in the flipped classroom model.

  • #Read4fun (Every other Sunday, 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET)

Connects passionate educators with books, and with each other.

I also found this website that catalogs all sorts of education related Twitter Chats and tells you when they happen. I think that will be fun when I’m looking for chats and/or hashtags related to specific issues or topics.

What I’d like to do with them: Well, to begin with, I’d like to set a goal of participating in a Twitter Chat at least once a month. As you can see, I could participate in a few each week but that seems a little nuts…especially for someone who can’t seem to make it to one well, ever. I’d like to work up to regularly participating in one a week but for now, once a month seems like an attainable goal. To help facilitate that goal, I’ve gone into my phone calendar and added each of these Twitter Chats into both my iPhone’s calendar and my school Google Calendar. I’ve also set recurring reminders for each of these chats as well. Hopefully, this will help me make it into at least one of them a month…

Additionally, I noticed when I was looking at the website that catalogs the educational Twitter Chats that there wasn’t any listed for librarians in New York State. I’d love to someday get to the point in my Twitter chatting experience where I felt comfortable helping facilitate one for the school librarians of, if not the entire state of NY, than at least the ones in Central New York. Maybe by this time next year?

I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like I’ve “mastered” Twitter but I certainly love trying! I’m excited to spend some of my break trying out a chat or two and doing some Spring cleaning of my Twitter accounts. Since I was recently granted permission to create a Twitter account for my school library as well (@FPSLibratorium if you’re interested), I’m looking forward to not only applying this year’s goals to my personal Twitter account, I’m also looking forward to using some of the tips and tricks I learned in past years (lists, Tweet scheduling etc) to get my professional account in tip top shape as well. In the meantime, hopefully, you’ll be seeing a lot more of me out there on Twitter and happy Tweeting!

Cool Tools for Schools, Thing 19: Screencasting and Screen Sharing

I’m not a stranger to screencasting (I’ve done a few here and there over the years) but I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve on something I use and/or get new ideas for ways to use it in the classroom.

What I currently do: Right now, I primarily use screencasting for technology directions when I’m going to be out and have a sub. That way, the sub’s level of expertise on a given technology doesn’t make or break the lesson. I’ve wanted to pre-make instructional videos for commonly used tools in the library or questions we get asked often (how do I find X on the library website?) but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’ve also used the Apple TV in my library to share my iPad screen on the smartboard so I can demo apps to students before they use them.

What I looked at: I spent some time on the Shaking Up Learning website and looked at posts on How to Insert Super Cool GIFs in Google Docs and Slides and How to Create Screencast GIFs amongst others. I have to admit, it had never occured to me to try to insert a GIF into a Google slide instead of a static image! I had mixed results with the Gyazo GIF

Chrome extension mentioned in the 2nd link. It worked great at home but seems to be blocked at school. I could add the Chrome extension to my browser and I can launch it but, it just gets stuck at that point if I’m at work. Then, after a few weeks of experimenting with it at home, it stopped working because my laptop didn’t have the latest version of something or other.

I also loved this suggestion I found:

“when Google Slides (or any other slide software) – Take screenshots of what you want to explain. Annotate them as needed. Pop them into a Google Slides document (or powerpoint or other slides program). Put the your Slides program in Present mode and turn on your screencasting app to record your audio as you go through the slides.”

Again, it had never occured to me to do a screen cast this way! Brilliant!

What I’d like to do with them: I’d love to use the GIF creator and the tip about Google Slides to make my instructional videos for my subs even more fun and engaging (but also easier on myself)! I’d also love to create some of those quick instructional videos I mentioned earlier. Since Gyazo Gif got my hooked then quit on me, I searched around for an alternative. I found some thing called Nimbus Screenshot and Screen Video Recorder. It’s an extension you can get for Chrome and there’s a free version and a Pro version. There are a few options with the Pro version, including a one time purchase of $14.99 for an individual account. I ended up going with that option since it gave me the ability to not only turn my screen recordings into GIFs but also gives you the ability to save your videos and gifs right to Google Drive or Google Classroom!

Here’s one I made for teachers wondering how to sign up for technology using the library website (something new we started this year):

As you can see from the “How Do I…?” page, I’d still like to tutorials for:

  • Using the library’s OPAC to find books
  • Locating and using the SEARCH page to find databases
  • Finding our streaming media service

I’d also like to eventually add tutorials for:

  • Logging into Google Classroom
  • Creating classes/assignments in Google Classroom
  • Reviewing/grading assignments in Google Classroom
  • Using Google Slides
  • Logging into Typing Club

What I’d like students to do with them: Still thinking about those library centers of mine, I think it would be fun to give students a task where they use an app like Seesaw to annotate a picture and explain something. Like, label the parts of the book in this picture and tell me one piece of information you can get from each part.

Older kids could do a quick screen cast of them performing a skill and submit it as a Google Classroom assignment before moving on to the next step. For example, I recently taught my 5th graders how to use the Explore icon in Google Slides to insert a picture, rather than going directly to Google Images. How cool would it have been to have shown them that skill and then sent them to the computers to record a quick screencast of themselves showing me they knew how to do it themselves, submitting it as a Google assignment and, only being allowed to earn their “inserting images badge” and being allowed to add pictures to their slides after I graded it and they “passed”???

I’ve loved using screencasting to make my subs lives easier and now I can’t wait to add that same level of independence and ease to my teachers and students lives with all these fun new screencasting tools in my arsenal!

Cool Tools for School, Thing 28: Anything Goes Google

This is another Cool Tool topic that never disappoints! I don’t know how Google keeps coming up with new things but they do and they do it faster than I can keep up with them-thank goodness Polly does this fabulous round up every year!

What I looked at:

What I’d like to do with them:

The Primarily Google blog and website were chockful of ideas! I love their post about embedding YouTube videos into Google Forms to both avoid the YouTube website and the various issues that can come with it and, for gathering feedback and information from your students when they are done watching the video. I’m so blown away about the ideas they presented I’m seriously considering signing up for their self paced class. It’s a little pricey but I think it could be worth it…

The Control Alt Achieve blog was full I can’t wait to share with my teachers! They basically gave me enough awesome ideas to fill the “Technology Tips” section of the monthly e-newsletter I send teachers for the rest of the school year (and maybe even into next school year!). That is, if I can hold off sharing for that long-that’s how exciting I found things like:

Sidenote: I loved the idea of the Google Spell Up game but can not seem to get to work. Every link I find for it (even through the Chrome Store) just takes me back to the regular Google homepage. If you know how to get it to work, please, please share the secret with me!

In keeping with my obsession with Library Centers, I was very excited to read on the Ditch That Textbook site about YouTube Editor and being able to edit and customize other videos to better fit our needs but, that appears to no longer be an available option. However, I did learn about a fun Google Experiment I think our music teacher might enjoy using with students: A.I. Duet!

What I’d like students to try with them:

I’d love to incorporate the Primarily Google blog’s YouTube/Google Form idea into our Awards Season centers. Currently, we’re watching videos of this year’s 3 Apples books and our mock Caldecott contenders in our center rotations. I think this could be a great way to have kids think about things they liked and didn’t like about the 3 Apples books and/or the contenders in our Mock Caldecott. They could even review their responses before casting their final votes.

So I know I said I wanted to share the ideas I found on the The Control Alt Achieve blog with my teachers but I do have some ideas on how they (and I) could use them in the classroom with students. Perhaps in the future we’ll add some of these games/ideas to our library centers.  

  • Land Lines-I think it would be interesting for primary students who are just learning shapes to see how those shapes can be found in real life, in both manmade and natural forms. Plus, it would give them a chance to practice mouse control while also practicing drawing the shapes.
  • Smarty Pins-A great way to practice geography skills and work in some basic research skills as well (like identifying key words, best places to find the answer etc).
  • Google Maps-Space & Access Mars-Our 5th graders do a planet research project every year and these would make great extension activities for students who finish up early or, a fun way to drum up excitement and interest before the project starts.
  • Mystery Animal-I think this could be a fun treat when a class has a few random minutes in their day or at the end of library class. But beyond being fun, it’s also a great way to fine tune their questioning skills, deductive reasoning skills and, work on their listening comprehension.

I had so much fun working on this Cool Tool topic. It really gave me that energized, excited feeling you get when you attend a great session at a conference and you’re just buzzing with ideas. Which is nice because our state conference is still months away and this stretch between February break and April break can be just a tad…draining. But now I’ve got some fun ideas to work on and experiment with in the meantime!

Cool Tools for School, Thing 29: App-palooza!

Recently, I’ve been inspired to start bringing back library centers and more flipped classroom style learning in the library. I did library centers and more flipped classroom instructional videos earlier in my career but that style of learning in the library kind of fell off my radar when we lost our library clerks a few years ago. Now that I have a clerk again, we’re through the bulk of her training and, have settled into a smooth working routine together, it’s felt like a great time to start bringing back those centers and flipped classroom instructions again. With those goals fresh in my mind, a few apps stood out to me during this Cool Tool exploration.

What I tried:

Apple Clips

Somehow, I had never heard of Apple Clips before this tool! I love that it has just enough options to make a video look splashy but doesn’t have all the bells and whistles and options to distract and overwhelm me. It’s also simple enough that I think students could quickly get a handle on it and make short videos of their own but again, it won’t overwhelm them or give them so many choices they keep tinkering and struggle to finish their project. Another thing I loved about Apple Clips was the option to have captions display what you are saying when you record a video of yourself. This is a great, easy way to sneak in reading comprehension skills since it gives students the chance to hear and see the words at the same time! I tested it out during a few practice videos and it was surprisingly accurate!

Shadow Puppet

We already have this app on our school iPads but I had yet to use it myself. Like Apple Clips, I like that it has enough to make a video look slick and cool but not so much that it’s difficult to use or time consuming to learns the ins and outs of creating with it. I love the ability to not only do voice overs for selected images but also zoom in and out of them and add extra effects.

What I’d like to do with them:  

I’d love to app smash these two apps together! I’d love to take pictures of a book and record myself reading it with the Shadow Puppet app and then, upload that video to Apple Clips and use that app to add in a cool introduction and closing. As part of our unit on the 3 Apples Award, I’ve wanted to break the kids into groups and have one center where they watch/listen to the books on the iPads. I normally use YouTube videos for this because there are so many wonderfully produced ones out there that remind me of my Reading Rainbow days but, YouTube can be a sticky wicket. Every now and then you have a student who says they aren’t allowed to watch YouTube. It also opens up the possibility that some of the students will migrate away from the video they are suppose to be watching and find other things to watch instead. And of course, there are the issues of inappropriate content in videos aimed at children that seem to pop up every few months. Most of the YouTube issues can be circumnavigated by closely monitoring the students but, one of the things I like about doing centers is it gives me a chance to work intensively with a smaller group of students while the other two groups do a relatively self-guided lesson on their own. Having to intently monitor the YouTube viewing center takes away my chance to work hands on with the other groups. I think app smashing with these two apps will give me the ability to make my own snazzy, Reading Rainbow style videos for my students and upload them to the library websites via Google Drive and thus, cut down on the temptations to go elsewhere on YouTube! I’d also like to make some short, videos explaining library vocabulary like author, illustrator, and the parts of a book to work into library centers for next year!

What I’d like students to try with them:

Instead of using our trusty old paper grading rubric when we study the Caldecott award and do our mock Caldecott, I think it would be great to have them use Shadow Puppet to take pics of certain pages of the book and record themselves explaining things they liked and didn’t like about the illustrations. Apple Clips could be used as an assessment tool during some of our centers. Students could record themselves identifying the parts of a book or explaining what an author does (and so much more!).

I always love this Cool Tool-it’s so fun to explore new to me apps as well as find fresh, fun ideas for apps we’ve been using for years. I’m particularly excited to have found not one but two easy to use apps for myself and my students to use as we start doing more and more center based library instruction!

Cool Tools for School: Thing 15, BreakoutEDU

While I have participated in a few Breakouts at trainings, workshops and conferences, I hadn’t been brave enough to try creating my own and/or doing a pre-made one with my students. Part of the problem was that I was overwhelmed by the idea of how much work I imagined it would be-and while creating one certainly took some careful planning, I’m happy to report it wasn’t nearly as cumbersome and challenging as I had pictured!

In late January, one of my 6th grade teachers approached me about doing something fun with her students to go along with their Ancient Egypt unit prior to them going on February break. With this Cool Tool topic in mind (and our district’s recent purchase of six breakout kits), I suggest we try doing a Breakout with them!

Since our district also purchased full platform access to the BreakoutEDU site, I immediately checked out the website to see what they already had for ancient Egypt. While the two games available looked fun, I wasn’t sure how they matched up with what the students had been learning in the classroom. Instead, the teacher and I looked at the Ancient Egypt centers and activities students would be doing leading up to the Breakout so I could understand their learning goals and the teacher left me with my own copy of the packet for further brainstorming.

Ultimately, I decided that the pre-made games would be fun if the purpose of the Breakout was to introduce students to their ancient Egypt unit but, if students were going to be using the Breakout to review their unit before a test (the teacher’s stated goal), I would need to design my own Breakout based on their center activities.

Using the game design worksheet available on the BreakoutEDU site, I started brainstorming puzzles that could be created using their center activities from the week before. At first glance, the length of the game design worksheet looks overwhelming but, it was incredibly helpful when it came to organizing my thoughts and making sure the puzzles were coming together in a way that would be solvable (and make sense) to the students. It also proved to be a handy cheat sheet for my library clerk and the classroom teacher on the day of the breakout. If students needed help and wanted to use one of their hint cards the other adults in the room had all the information they needed to guide students through their roadblock without everyone having to come to me, the main puzzle designer.

Some things we did that seemed to help the day go smoothly:

  • Color coded the clue sets- I made 6 identical puzzle sets (we have 6 Breakout kits in our district) and made sure that each clue in each set had the same colored dot on the back. That way, if things got messy and crazy, we could quickly sort the clues and make sure that each set was complete again.
  • Setup cheats- in addition to the color coding, each puzzle piece also had a small letter on the back, either an “H”, “B” or “T”. Clues with an “H” on the back needed to be hidden in the Breakout area. Clues with a “B” on the back needed to go in the Breakout puzzle box and clues with a “T” on the back were meant to be handed over by a teacher after a team successfully accomplished certain steps in the Breakout. This made setting up the puzzles between 6th grade rotations much quicker and meant that someone besides me could help with setup as well.
  • Clearly defined work zones-We used colorful tape to mark out on the library rug separate, distinct areas for each team. Teams knew they were not to leave their area and that all clues and puzzles they needed to unlock their boxes were located in their area. This helped teams focus their search efforts and kept teams from accidentally grabbing the wrong clues and getting their puzzle sets all mixed up.
  • A fun video introduction!-To introduce the setup for the Breakouts, I brought back a character our 6th graders meet earlier in the year, famed archeologist Professor Nordlaw. The kids loved seeing Professor Nordlaw again and the big twist (she realizes midway through the video that they’ve mistranslated the hieroglyphics and instead of sending us lucky gold that gets luckie the faster they solve the puzzles, she’s sent us cursed gold and if we don’t solve the puzzles in time we’ll be locked in school forever) definitely got them excited to get started on the puzzles!

One thing I’d do different:

  • Give them a checklist-The Breakouts were set up with half the clues and puzzles locked in their Breakout box and half hidden throughout their work area. To successfully open the Breakout box and get the rest of their clues, they needed to find all the hidden clues/tools and figure out which clues worked together to open the first Breakout box. In hindsight, it would have been helpful to give them a checklist of clues/items they needed to locate in their zone so they would know when they were done searching and could focus on solving their first puzzle/riddle.

Overall, this was such an amazing and fun day! The kids loved it and they really blew us away with how well they worked together. Plus, it was great to see their faces light up when they were able to access their prior learning to solve the puzzles and put it all together. I would definitely do this one again next year and will absolutely be making more of my own Breakouts to use in the future.