Thursday, April 27, 2017

Stereoscopes with Google Cardboard

I recently tagged along on a field trip with local students to the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village in Amherst, NY. The students were learning about New York State History, specifically the area around Western New York. This regional history gem is a sprawling campus that includes both indoor and outdoor exhibits, including real churches, schools, and homes where students and museum visitors can step back in time and see what life was like in the 1800s.

During the tour of one of the houses, the docent shared a device called a stereoscope.

Photo Apr 26, 10 45 23 AM-001.jpg

The students were very excited by this device, which was once one of America’s most popular forms of entertainment. Invented by Charles Wheatstone in 1832, with a patent in 1838, then upgraded in later years by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a stereoscope is basically a pair of glasses with uniques lenses and a platform for holding a special picture that takes advantage of human binocular vision so that two images side by side merge to form a single three dimensional image.

The docent let each student (and the adults who tagged along!) look through the stereoscope which depicted images of life in the 1800s. The kids were amazed, as was I, at the 3-D images we saw. It reminded of the ViewMasters we used to have when I was a kid. And then it reminded me of something even more modern: Virtual Reality.

When the students were done, I took pictures of the stereoscopic images with my phone. I wanted to see if they would work in Google Cardboard headset. I cropped the images to the edges of the stereoscopic picture, enlarged the picture to fit my phone’s screen, and horizontally placed it into the Google Cardboard headset. And what do you know, it totally worked!

I made a short movie that shows the stereoscopic images I photographed at the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village (used with permission) which you can access here:

Note: This is a stereoscopic movie, so plop it right into your own headset to view in 3-D!

So, cool as it is to be able to view stereoscopic images in Google Cardboard, it’s also cool that it opens up some cans of worms of what this discovery means in terms of learning and engagement.

  1. Students could search Google and/or Youtube for stereoscopic images and movies, particularly of historical importance that they can now use as a more dynamic image to analyze for details and draw conclusions from. This level of critical analysis likely already lives in the curriculum, but using the stereoscopic images may provide a new level of engagement that would cement the learning in a student’s brain!
  2. Students could create their own Stereoscopic images as a piece of media that can be viewed in Google Cardboard, or be part of a larger presentation like a movie, that shows not only the stereoscopic images they created, and also what they learned about the content related to the images they constructed. I created the stereoscopic image below using Google’s Picasa tool. I imported the picture of the inside of the one room school house from the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village tour. I cropped it to a square shape, lightened it up a bit, and changed the color to sepia tone. I saved the picture, then saved a copy. I selected both pictures and clicked the “Create” option in the file menu up top. I chose “Picture Collage” with the two pictures. Picasa loaded the two pictures, and I chose options for a Grid Setup, with No Spacing, and a formatted Aspect Ratio of 16:9 (HDTV). Then clicked on “Create Collage” and noted that the now Stereoscopic image lived in the Picasa Folder in My Pictures. I exported the image, via Dropbox, back to my phone and opened it to view in Google Cardboard. Totally worked. You can save the following image to your phone and try it out:


The caveat was a slightly grainy image, but that added to the historical look of it.

  1. This is a new opportunity for media-making with both images and movies, or as part of a larger presentation that includes voice-overs, live speaking, or virtual field trips. While the idea for this was spawned by my visit to the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village, this could really be done with any content, any place, in multiple ways. This is an invitation to something new to think about and hopefully spark some creative ideas by you or your students.

I’d like to thank the people at the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village for permission to use the Stereoscopic Images in their collection as well as their commitment to preserving local history in such an interesting way. If you ever find yourself in Western New York, the Heritage Village is a definite must-see! Perhaps you should bring your own Virtual Reality headsets--there might an opportunity to use them!

Mike Fisher
Ditch The Daily Lesson Plan, available now from ASCD
Upgrade Your Curriculum, available now from ASCD

Digital Learning Strategies, available now from ASCD

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Cell Phone Science

Observe→ Diagram→ Describe→ Question→ Research→ Explain→ Simulate.

As I work with schools that are adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, I’m often working actively to shift the perspective from the building of content knowledge through reading about it versus experiencing it. In order for Science learning to happen, science must be done, actively, so that through observation and discovery, students are able to explain their thinking and build conceptual knowledge. In the new science standards, there are engineering practices - skills - that students must demonstrate in their roles as students who think and work like scientists. When it comes time for students to demonstrate their understanding, these same verbs are part of the performance expectations. In many of those performance expectations, the words I started this blog post with are represented. I tried to come up with a catchy acronym for them but ODD Q. RES isn’t exactly ROY G. BIV.

While reading about science is still important, the real building of knowledge starts with what we notice, what we observe, rather than stoic reading about the same information with little or no interaction or context. In the new Science standards, there’s a lot of observation going on and from that observation, students are expected to diagram, describe, ask questions, define problems, analyze, model, research, explain, plan and carry out investigations, and argue a claim with evidence.

In reading through the new standards and the associated dimensions: Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas, it dawned on me that I had captured quite a bit of observable phenomena on my cell phone. I’m always taking pictures of interesting phenomena around me, both when I travel and in my own backyard. Many of these pictures are well suited to launching a scientific investigation using these new dimensions.

I made a folder on my phone to collect all of the science related images I had captured and I posted some examples on my website here:

I’m very interested in the notion of phenomenon-based teaching and using what’s around you as fodder for launching a research quest. With the proliferation of devices that students have access to, it just makes instructional sense to send them out into the world around them and create collections of their own local phenomena so that they can Observe→ Diagram→ Describe→ Question→ Research→ Explain→ Simulate.

Let’s look at the first picture on the Phenomena Website I shared, of the Luminescent Scorpion. That picture was taken at my colleague and friend Janet Hale’s house in Tucson, Arizona several years ago.

As a lifelong student, this observation launches my quest to discover why a Scorpion glows under a blacklight. There are many questions to ask, diagrams and descriptions to draw and write about what is happening, research to explain what’s going and perhaps creating a simulation or a game to test my claims.

On the phenomena website, I included a series of questions to launch the learning around the pictures I shared and/or the observations and images you or your students collect:

  • What questions could you ask about this image? (Good questions tend to lead to other questions that expand or refine the initial query.)
  • With whom could you share your questions or theories?
  • How could you use Social Media to evaluate and communicate information?
  • How could you explain what is happening in these pictures?
  • How could you model or simulate your descriptions and/or explanations?
  • How could you engage in an argument around a claim you could make about the phenomena in these pictures and the evidence that supports your claim?

Besides discovery level explorations for Science students, answering these questions leads to the added benefit of opportunities for developing content-area literacy: written descriptions of phenomena, written explanations, communication orally and in writing, reading supporting documentation, navigating and translating domain-specific language and vocabulary, etc.

If you’re interested in joining this conversation, specifically about modeling, descriptions, and explanations, please join me in a Curriculum Spark webinar on May 5th at 3:30 PM EST / 12:30 PM PST, courtesy of Rubicon Atlas.

Register for free here:

I’ll be talking more about capturing phenomena on your phone and using it in the classroom to launch discussions, quests, and research!

Mike Fisher
Ditch The Daily Lesson Plan, available now from ASCD
Upgrade Your Curriculum, available now from ASCD

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Pushing Boundaries: Renewing our Mission

Guest Post from Elizabeth Fisher, coordinator of Professional Development at Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Education Services in Buffalo, New York. On Twitter @elizabethfisher
Hanging on the walls of myriad schools and proudly displayed on district websites, mission statements form the basis of belief systems and goals for the communities of learners within them. These statements usually represent ambitious and exuberant objectives in academics, behaviors, and aspirational goals for being creative or accomplished or striving for excellence.
Curiously, none of them have statements such as:
  • We strive to do well on the state assessment!
  • We are creative insofar as it benefits the raising of test scores!
  • Our students go just above the state average!
In the current educational climate, you would have difficulty finding schools that still maintain their aspirations in the wake of barely understood new standards, over-analysis of data, and dehumanizing teacher evaluations. The system is working hard to stifle creative expression in its teachers, and by extension, its students. Something must be done. Something must be done quickly.
Our missions still matter--and we must rededicate ourselves to making sure that we are on the right track. To paraphrase Justin Timberlake, it’s time to “bring creativity and risk-taking back.” But how do we do it?
We need to establish a climate which includes doing what’s in the best interest of students as well as encouraging each other to become risk-takers. What I offer are three steps teachers can consider doing immediately to bring creativity and risk taking back into our schools so that our mission statements are truly a mission worth embarking on.

  1. NOT YET MENTALITY: No one is ever really wrong, they just may be exploring an idea that either leads to a dead end or opens the doors to new opportunities. If students aren’t understanding it, then they are “not yet” there. We need to provide opportunities which build, in the words of Carol Dweck, a Growth Mindset. We need to be talking with that mindset in mind; maybe adding the word, “yet” to the end of our statements (“I can’t do it, yet.”). Doug Lemov wrote an article called, Culture of Error. I highly recommend reading it and discussing what implications are drawn to improve our practice. What are we already doing that is working? What changes are needed to allow for this type of thinking?
  2. ITERATE: Practice makes progress. Students need time to improve - everyone does, for that matter. It’s impossible to become better at something if you don’t do it repeatedly and receive specific feedback about how to improve. If we want students who can think for themselves then we need to prioritize our practices. Students need time to try things, to revise them, to create. Our state assessments are given under “first draft conditions” - providing no time for process reading or writing. So, why do we operate that way so often in school?
  3. QUESTIONS MATTER: Encourage students to think divergently. One thing teachers can start doing immediately is teaching students how to ask questions. “Knowing the answers will help you in school. Knowing the questions will help you in life.” (Walter Berger, A More Beautiful Question). A new process called the Question Formulation Technique ( is being used in some classrooms to help develop this skill. In a nutshell, the process involves showing a stimulus (a picture or video), having students work in groups generating as many questions as they can, and then discussing the two types of questions (open/divergent and closed/convergent). Students discuss advantages and disadvantages of both types of questions and practice with changing open into closed and closed into open questions. If teachers are always the ones asking the questions then we are not allowing students to think divergently. We are in essence telling them how to think - convergently. This process helps students as they continue to dive deeply into conceptual and content knowledge.

We want students who are confident, independent, and creative. We want thinkers who can ask questions, make decisions, and feel comfortable in their own learning process. If that is what we want, then we need to revisit our mission statements often and reflect on whether what we are doing is in alignment with those statements or not. If not, then we embrace it with “not yet” thinking.
Ultimately, what we want is to give students roots but also to give them wings - we need them to be independent flyers; able to make decisions for themselves, knowing when they can take-off on their own or recognizing when they need the support of others (like birds flying in V-formation). We are responsible for moving our energies forward for the betterment of student engagement and deeper learning; it’s a risky undertaking but worth it. I’m ready to take the risk. Are you?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


Sssssalutations Ssssstudents and educator friendsssss. It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged but I’m back today with an exciting collaboration between Darlene Senick, a High School English teacher and Hobbyist Herpetologist at North Tonawanda High School in Western New York and students in Michael Thornton’s multi-age class at Agnor Hurt Elementary in Albemarle County, Virginia.

A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Thornton was asking another colleague on Twitter about her pet snake and I tweeted back to him that I knew a snake enthusiast...Ms. Senick. She agreed to share her knowledge and pets via Skype, so we set a date and started planning.

Ms. Senick is snake hobbyist and shared a lot of information about her snakes with Mr. Thornton’s Multi-Age group. The students in Mr. Thornton’s class collaboratively contributed to a Google Doc where they each asked a question that they wanted to know about snakes. These questions are the heart of the learning here. Some of the questions are what I would call DRIVING questions: questions developed by the student that may potentially grow with new content and experience. (Alcock, Fisher, Zmuda, in press) The students shared these potential driving questions:  

  • What is the most poisonous snake in Virginia?
  • How far can a snake strike?
  • What is the most venomous snake in the world?

These questions had very specific answers, though they might inspire additional similar questions to help focus the learning around content and concepts.

The students also shared what I would call PROBING questions: questions developed by students (or by teachers) to deepen understanding and make the thinking visible. (Alcock, Fisher, Zmuda, in press) Examples of these questions included:

  • Do snakes change their attitude throughout their life?
  • What inspired you to be a Herpetologist?
  • Did snakes evolve from other animals?

These questions require more than just a simple answer and would prompt additional questions and conversations.

Because the students created a collaborative Google Doc, Ms. Senick was able to both answer some of the questions during the Skype video call and answer individual student questions directly in the document after the video call was over.

The reason I’m excited about this entire scenario is that it incorporates the best of what we know about instructional practice with the contemporary capabilities we now have at our disposal. Let me break it down.

These students in Albemarle County, Virginia were being taught by a teacher more than 500 miles away. They were experiencing snakes in a way that a book could never offer and they were able to virtually interact with someone via social media who had knowledge and experience to share. This person had information that the students needed and they leveraged contemporary means to get to her. The teachers were dependent on the students for the creation of questions, which were used to guide the video chat and the students were able to experience the language of the discipline, the content and concepts associated with snakes and their adaptations, and have a memorable experience that they are likely to remember for a very long time. Hashtag #MentalVelcro

They learned about coloration, habitat, how and why snakes shed their skin, the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes, how they use their tongues, how they drink water, and what they eat. Check out the intact snake skin that Ms. Senick shared, complete with eyes and mouth! How cool is that?

This type of learning opportunity is one that I hope to get to participate in more and more. It was easy to setup, in fact, all of this resulted from two tweets, six or seven emails, and sharing Skype usernames. Social Media brought us together, the questions helped guide our instruction, and then the magic happened: real learning. Real, excited, engaged, enthusiastic, and passionate learning happened. And the teachers were as engaged and enthusiastic as the adults!

With opportunities like this, learning can (and should!) happen anywhere. We’re not bound by geographic barriers. We’re not bound by traditional school structures. We’re not limited to what is within the four walls of the classroom.

What this is, is amplified learning. It is learning that is inclusive of all learners wherever they may be. It is learning that happens when we push beyond traditional barriers and mindsets and seek to do extraordinary things.

Many, many thanks to Darlene Senick and Michael Thornton as well as their students for an awesome collaborative learning session. If you’d like more information about creating Skyportunities or connecting and collaborating with other classrooms around the world, check out these resources:

Read more about Contemporary Learning Opportunities here:

Follow Mike on Twitter: @fisher1000

Alcock, M., Fisher, M., & Zmuda, A. (2017). Designing the Quest. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
In Press