Saturday, May 18, 2013

Holy Comics, Batman! Pixton for Fun and Pixton for Schools

My students have been busily working over the past month to research energy sources and write persuasive essays explaining whether or not the continued use of the sources is beneficial or detremential to our environment. After having worked so hard, I thought they deserved a treat.  I decided to have them create comics as their summative project, and we began this week using the online comic generator Pixton. Watch this quick information video to get a sense of the power of Pixton.

We started off by using a template of a comic on paper so that students could map out their panels ahead of time. I checked in with them to be sure that they had the right content (quality and quantity) delivered in a way that made sense for a comic. After a few revisions, the students were ready to create in Pixton. 

Many of my students are reluctant drawers, or do not see themselves as artistic. Their faces lit up when I explained that the paper copy was a "rough draft" of sorts, and that they needed to only write the words "polar bear" as a place marker - Pixton would supply the image. Suddenly, the mood in the room changed and the fun began!

Pixton offers a one-month trial to all teachers, for up to 50 students. I contacted them and asked for an extension in time (by a week) and the ability to have trial accounts for 51 students. They replied very quickly and agreed to allow me the exceptions.

I was able to set up my student accounts with their usernames and passwords using an excel spreadsheet. The process went very quickly. You can also have your students use an activation code, which allows them to select their own user information. I like to keep control over these details to ensure privacy and safety, but that may not be necessary with older students. I also like the fact that Pixton for Schools is self-contained and private and need not be shared out with the public. You can determine whether or not you want students to be able to comment on each other's work, and there are other settings that you can set - for example, whether or not images from the internet can be imported.

On to the fun stuff!

The website, found here: Pixton for Schools has many videos that show you how to use the comic generator. It also has an exhaustive help section that can be accessed with one click. And, it's searchable. I found it very helpful to use, and so did many of my students.

Pixton has many stock characters, backgrounds and props (images that can be placed seamlessly in the comic). Students can click on a panel and gain quick access to all of these features. I found the ease with which all students used this product to be impressive.

Character clothing color and style can easily be changed with a click. The panel size and shape as well as border are also easily edited with a few clicks. Don't like a character's size, stance or even position of arms and legs? No worries - click, drag, click... you've made a whole new pose.

Want to change the color of a prop? Click and select on a palette of colors. The possibilities of what you can customize and edit are seemingly endless.

I overheard many students commenting to each other on how much fun this was, and they were all engaged working hard to create amazing work. What they didn't know was that they were not only having fun - they were honing their story grammar skills, exercising their abilities to create meaningful dialogue (even if without quotation marks), planning settings, and working on perspective and visual spatial reasoning while they placed the props and characters. The amount of embedded taught skills are enough to please any teacher!

Here's an example of one of the comics created by a student in my homeroom:

You can sign up for a free, for fun account that allows individual access to many of the characters and backgrounds. If you are a teacher, you can also obtain a one month, free trial, for up to 50 students. Subscription prices for the school year are very reasonably priced. Students can print their comics on completion, share them on the internet, or embed them into a blog, like I've done above. 

Pixton, the web 2.0 comic generator. Give it a try! You'll be happy you did.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Ralph Masiello - Illustrator

Ralph Masiello recently visited the elementary school where I teach and met with all of the students. I really enjoyed his presentation, especially the way that he connected with the kids. Not only is he an amazing illustrator, he's a great storyteller. I was fixated on his every word and so were my students.

The real treat came when he started illustrating for us: owls, dolphins, dragons, Sphinxes, and more. Bam, one done! KaPOW another! He made it look so easy. Each of the classrooms got to keep one of his signed drawings that he created for us. Our class received a dolphin leaping out of the water.

My students were so impressed and really raved about the time they spent with Ralph. He left autographed bookmarks with owls on them for each of the students. I smile as I pass my students' desks and see them peeking out of their books.

If you have never experienced Mr. Masiello's work, you are in for a treat. He recently collaborated with his wife to create the start of what I believe will be a series of books, The Mystic Phyles. This book would appeal to mid-late elementary readers who are interested in mythology, cryptology, etc. and who like graphic novels or those which are heavy on illustration.  

Abigail Thaddeus lives with her grandparents in an old, spooky, ramshackle mansion. While her life is certainly unusual, Abigail finds it just plain boring. That is, until she receives an anonymous letter that sends her on a quest to research mythical creatures. With her best friend Charley's help, Abigail learns about beasts familiar (e.g. the unicorn) and unfamiliar (e.g. the bonnacon) and is shocked to discover that they may be more real than she had thought. When a threatening letter from the mysterious Board of Mystical Management arrives, Abigail has to decide whether to pursue knowledge at all costs or choose a safer path. Abigail's adventure is told through her journal entries, sketches, and beast research pages, using a scrapbook style. 

Not only is the book visually stunning, it's made of high quality page stock and the cover is solid too. It will withstand the many, many readings that it will endure as it is passed around a classroom or checked out from the library.

Masiello has also long been known for his work as one of the illustrators for Jerry Pallotta's alphabet books.

from the Icky Reptile book

Not only is Mr. Masiello an amazing illustrator for picture books, he's written a superb set of books to help children (and adults!) learn his tricks of the trade. I borrowed some of these from my local library, and my students and my own children are in the process of creating their own robots, dragons, and other creatures. The drawing lessons in these books may be bit challenging for younger children, but they are perfect for mid-upper elementary and middle school for sure. 

From the Robot Drawing Book

In an age of high-tech overload, it's refreshing to see children engaged in creating with paper, pencil, and marker or pastel. Visit your local library or bookstore and start with one of these wonderful books. Sit down with your children and draw, read and learn. You'll have more fun than you may imagine! If you have favorite "learn to draw" books or other illustrators whose work you admire, leave a comment and share the titles with us.

If you are interested in having Mr. Masiello visit your school or group, you can contact him through his website:

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Think Fun! continued...

After I blogged about how wonderful the Think Fun! games are, I found even more reasons to celebrate. First off, did you know that they will replace lost or broken parts for FREE? Yes, FREE! They even pay shipping! And, the turnaround time is amazing. We lost a piece to the Chocolate Fix game this week. I sent an email to the company with their attached request form on Wednesday. I opened the mail today, Saturday, and voila! They had included an entire set of pieces, not just the one missing chocolate. 

They also included a few sample cards from their newest game - Word Around - along with a 20% off coupon to be used on their site. Word Around looks like a lot of fun. I was challenged with the few cards they sent, but not impossibly so. I think kids would really love this game.

Basically it's a word puzzle. You have to look at one of the bands of color (determined by the color of the card back that came previously in the stack) and find the word that is spelled around that band. The key is knowing which letter you need to start with, then it just flows. No need to unscramble. Sounds easy, right? Not so fast! You're competing with others to get the answer.

Some of the words are a bit tricky and may not be known by younger children (e.g. astonish, delicate, trauma) yet, others are readily identifiable: cinnamon, driven, before. This is an excellent game for children who need practice with visual discrimination, tuning out excess stimulus, and maintaining focus. 

It also provides a great opportunity to learn vocabulary without feeling hit over the head with it. Once you've solved a word it's only natural that kids will want to know what it means. 

It's also a great way for children to build problem solving stamina and strategies. Many players will quickly begin to understand that one needs to choose a start letter or look for a common letter pattern to try to form a word, and continuously move along using this strategy. Children who struggle with tasks like this tend to take in the detail or the whole picture, but are not able to chunk their thinking, or look for patterns.

It may seem like the game has limited play value given that there are only so many solutions, but the beauty of its design is that you will only use 1/3 of each card's possible answers in any given game. That, combined with the fact that there are over 300 words, and a game only takes about 10 minutes, means that you can play for quite some time before you've mastered all the words. 

The fun thing is that you'd also be able to easily replicate this game and make your own cards on card stock. That would be a great way for kids to learn new vocabulary and try to come up with words that will trick others.

What a wonderful company to work with. They make excellent products, provide amazing customer support, and know how to get you coming back for more!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Think Fun Games

I've always been a big fan of Think Fun games. I remember when my kids would sit for an hour (okay, 10 minutes... :) and play Zingo! years ago. They LOVED that game, and I did too! Our bookshelf is stocked with many of the Think Fun products, and I thought I'd share our favorites with you.

First off, Rush Hour has been getting lots of play at our house this week.  You can purchase a Jr. version, a deluxe version, or a regular version. They all look something like this:

The differences between them are basically the types of vehicles that you will receive in the package and the level of difficulty of the problem solving cards (although each set does have an easy-medium-difficult variant). We own the Jr. version, and I think we're almost ready to graduate to the regular version (rated 8 and above). And, when I say we're almost ready, I'm including myself! Some of these scenarios are challenging! 

For those who may not be familiar, the game is a "gridlock puzzle" which requires the player to make repeated strategic moves to free one particular vehicle up to move off the 6 x 6 playing board. In the case of the Jr. version, that vehicle happens to be an ice-cream truck. How fun!

Each of the 40 scenarios presented has a solution on the back. The nice thing about the solution set is that it's a bit cryptic, which prevents impulsive cheating. 

While this game is a fun challenge for all, I'd also like to point out the benefits for those who may be parenting children with special needs. I see so much potential for practice for children who:

  • have difficulty persevering with tasks
  • present with executive functioning challenges (i.e. planning and coordinating thinking)
  • struggle with visual spatial awareness (having to line up the cars initially is a great way to practice reading positions on a grid, then having to coordinate moves to free the cars requires lots of thinking about which portions of the grid need to be freed up)

If you purchase the standard/adult version, there are reasonably priced ($6-9) expansion packs of cards you can purchase that also come with bonus vehicles.
I read reviews on Amazon that suggested the Deluxe version wasn't really "deluxe" so you may want to read some of the feedback before you purchase.

I highly recommend this puzzle / game if you have a child who presents with the challenges I mentioned, and I also endorse it for those who just want to see their kids/students working hard to problem solve something that's not a video game.

The next Think Fun game that may be of interest is Distraction (rated 8 to adult). And, it lives up to its name for sure. You can strengthen your memory by taking turns drawing number cards and remembering an increasing sequence of digits. Draw a distraction card and you must answer a quirky question before reciting the numbers in order. If you repeat the sequence incorrectly, and get caught, you collect all of the cards. The first player to run out of cards wins.  

This game initially caused some frustration for a few members in our family. If your child has a weak digit span (i.e. ability to remember a sequence of numbers and a common measure of short term memory in neuro-physcological testing), or is diagnosed with ADHD  or dyslexia he or she is likely to be very challenged by this game. That said, you shouldn't shy away from introducing it. You should encourage its use in a non-threatening way. You can modify it to make it inclusive by allowing pencil and paper recording of the numbers for a few rounds until your child learns the rules and becomes accustomed to the game play. Then you can remove and fade the supports. You could also play in teams and pair your child with a "stronger" opponent. You could also bend the rules a bit, and program in the distraction cards at intervals that match with your child's digit span in order to build success. This game is a great tool in developing digit span, and it happens to be fun too!

Next up, Chocolate Fix (also rated 8 and up), the sweet logic game. It's like Sodoku without numbers. Like Rush Hour, it has 40 scenario cards that come with the game.

This is a game of logic and deductive reasoning, and a very inviting way to begin to explore the logic used in Sodoku puzzles without laying math on top. Unfortunately, this game doesn't have any extension packs, but the 40 challenges in the game box make it worth the $15 price tag.

If you don't already own Think Fun! games, consider checking them out. If you do own some of them, comment with your favorites. All of these games are on our shelf and have been well-loved and enjoyed. Let me know if you enjoy them too!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Remembering all that is good about Boston

I'm shocked and saddened that the city I love, Boston, and so many of her citizens and visitors, were victims of such a tragic event yesterday. Let's try to remember all that is good about Boston. It's all we have right now. May the days ahead bring answers and healing for those who are suffering. May the spirit of Boston rise up and conquer, as it has done so many times in the past.

Monday, April 15, 2013


I used 101qs with my students as a warm-up activity this week. 101qs is the brain-child of Dan Meyer. It's basically a website where people upload videos and images which others view to determine whether or not they are complex or perplexing. By asking questions and submitting them, people help the individual images/videos gain popularity, or not. If you don't like an image, just click on the "I'm bored" button and go to the next. If you have a question, submit it and see what others asked about the same image or video.

Here's a sample of what popped up today:

My first question is, "When is 150 years from now?" followed up by, "How much money would one need to retire 150 years from now?" and lastly, "Is this a true statistic?" Some of these are "solvable" and others are what I would call "wonder-able" or "guess-able". What questions does this image create for you?

You may be tempted to see these as merely mathematical problems (which they absolutely are), but they really lend themselves to perspective taking, inferencing, context clues, language development, critical thinking (e.g. what may be missing to actually be able to solve a problem), and how to formulate questions. It's a great opportunity for teachers (and parents) to introduce the idea of "thick vs. thin" questions (i.e. those that garner a yes or no answer, versus those that actually require a thoughtful response). The list of applications is really infinite.

The site is fully searchable, by grade level or keyword, and some of the images and videos even have common core lessons attached to them.

You need not be a teacher to use this site, and in fact, I encourage parents to do so. You may be amazed at the discussions that it can generate between you and your child or teen. I was blown away by some of the questions that my students asked this week about this image:

Can you imagine what some of them may have been?

Visit 101qs today. It isn't just for kids! Also, don't forget about Wonderopolis, a site I first mentioned a few weeks ago. Combine the two, and you'll have an interesting way to spend time chatting about things you never imagined!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Look Up: Birdwatching in Your Own Backyard"

In the Northeast US, signs of spring are finally starting to surface, albeit slowly! I love the sprouting flowers, longer days with sun shining, and the smell of freshly thawed soil. Corny, I know, but true! I especially enjoy the return of the birds. 

Just yesterday I watched a busy robin plucking out tasty worms from the wet grass in our backyard while an industrious chipmunk was by her side washing his cute little face. It got me thinking about birdwatching. I've done a bit here and there; my friends and family will remember my fascination -bordering on obsession - with the hummingbirds at my feeder last year. I've never really been a birdwatcher per se (assuming Angry Birds doesn't count).

I did a quick search at the library today, and online, and came up with an impressive selection of books, journals and games that you can use with your families (or your students) if you want to venture out to look for and listen to birds this spring. I'm not a pro, but I'd imagine you'll need some binoculars and a birding hat, just to make it official!

This picture book, by Annette LeBlanc Cate is wonderfully written, and creatively illustrated. I knew I'd enjoy it when I saw the funny text bubbles on each page. It appears that even birds ask their moms to remove the crusts from their bread! But don't be fooled, this isn't just a lighthearted look at birds. Cate consulted with Jim Barton, a veteran birder associated with the Boston office of the Audubon Society. The result is a kid-friendly look at bird identification/classification, migration, shapes, colors, feathers, habitats and more. 

Although "An Egg is Quiet" also contains illustrations of insect eggs as well as birds, it's definitely worth reviewing as part of your birding adventure. We have this book on our shelf at home. If you aren't familiar with Dianna Hutts Aston / Syliva Long's collaborations, you need to be. These books are lyrically written and provide some of the most detailed nature drawings I've seen in children's picture books. 

It can also be fun to identify the nests, as well as the birds and the eggs. This "Take-along-guide" is a perfect resource for just that!

Let us not forget the "fathers" of birdwatching! As many of you know, we have Audubon and Peterson to thank for their efforts in drawing and cataloging birds. These two picture books provide excellent, child-friendly introductions to their work and legacies.

Once you're out on the hunt for birds, you'll want to record your findings, and these two journals would  be perfect for children to keep track of the variety of birds they see.

Bingo anyone? This game looks like fun! I've not actually seen it, so I cannot comment on its quality. It did receive high reviews on Amazon.

And, last but not least... One of the things that I think would make birdwatching especially fun would be having an app that can identify birdsongs - like having a birdcall version of Shazam! (the song ID app). It appears that this technology isn't too far off, but not yet available this spring. Here's a link to an article that I found on the topic:

If you decide to birdwatch, leave a comment and let me know what types of birds are common in your area. If you're an avid birdwatcher, suggest additional resources that may be of interest.