Breathe Some Humor into Your Drab Routine with Pixton Comics for Education

Pixton comics has been around for only a few years now and it’s no surprise that they have won many ed-techy awards in their short lifespan. But it took just a half an hour before I  became instantly hooked.

Pixton allows students and teachers can create their own highly-customizable comic strips with unlimited options, scenes, characters, poses, props, and backgrounds. The uses for these strips are manifold, but Pixton does a great job of making them user-friendly and purposeful. They provide a community where users can submit their comics to showcase learning, comment on , and remix other strips.

Teachers can make their own (as seen below) and assign students projects based on the strip. Students can remix them, or make their own. They can add panels, re-edit an already published strip, work collaboratively, and get approval from their teacher once their project is complete.  Teachers can also monitor student progress and manage their classes, assignments and grades.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Pixton also allows users to print, download and (thankfully) embed their creations. For ELL’s the potential here is truly exciting. Students in groups or individually can add appropriate dialogue, even record their own audio tracks to correspond to each panel, or type content into speech bubbles to illustrate real-life scenarios, for example.  Ideas like these keep bubbling  like effervescent bursts of inspiration when one plays with Pixton.  Give it a shot here for a trial period.

Yeah, the downside is that it costs money. But It’s not out of this world, and one teacher could afford to make one account that allows up to four users. These could be set up as teams of students. The above strip will be part of a CELDT practice module that will soon be available for download.



“…80 percent correlation between being two years behind in reading at the 4th grade mark and dropping out of high school later.”

Holy what are we going to do if we can’t read, Batman?!

Well, according to this alarming statistic, 17% of African-American, 14 % of Hispanic,  and 25% of affluent students will drop out of high school 8 out of 10 times.   Not only that, but most of us also know that “they” also use this same statistic, 4th grade reading, to project funding for prisons.  It doesn’t take a fourth grade teacher to point out those context clues and draw a conclusion.

Luckily,  The Digital Teachers Corps: Closing America’s Literacy Gap policy brief moves on to explain that to combat this impending doom we should create a super teacher work-force that utilizes all forms of technology at our disposal.  Research shows that technology, used strategically, certainly gives students the authentic opportunities needed to develop language, hence, thinking, proficiency.  This could be huge for English Language Learners as well as Academic English Language Learners.  Have a by-gone perusal of the brief (only a nice 7 pages).

I guess I can lay my head down to sleep and know that folks are creating solutions at the public policy level that don’t have to do with replacing me by RoboTeach.

Biblioteca Digital: An Indispensable (and Contemporary) Source of Spanish Language Texts

Mexico’s Biblioteca Digita ILCE has been around for many years now, and has undergone many face-lifts over the years. It’s newest form is no different and still constitutes one of the greatest portals for Spanish Language quality texts available on-line.

It not only features curated sites for the study of humanities, sciences, art and more, it also has an impressive children’s library containing dozens of high-quality, illustrated books that will students reconnect with their Mexican heritage as well as learn content area material ranging from science to social studies, ecology, and more.

The site is perfect for anyone who either teaches Spanish as a second language or in a primary language Spanish-bilingual classroom.

I’ve used their materials over the years throughout the elementary grades. The format tends to vary, as the materials comes from various authors and illustrators, but the content is available in most cases on mobile devices, making it an indispensable tool for the Spanish or bilingual classroom, or those wishing  to stay connected to Mexican and other Latin American cultures.


ILCE which stands for the Latin American Institute for Educational Communication, is the organ that put together this great project. They have been around for 55 years and these days they are dedicated to setting up all kinds of collaborations between countries and making Spanish language educational materials available online through various partnerships.


When My Dictionary Doesn’t Help try YourDictionary

How many times have you assigned work out of some dictionary–even reputable online dictionaries–and end up with a definition that is equally baffling to a student. A student in this situation will usually do what she or he is  told and copy said definition in their notebooks. Then  they will attempt to write a mangled sentence with no sense of context and meaning, suggesting that the whole activity might just have been a huge waste of time. 

This aforementioned scenario takes place in countless classrooms around the world and millions of students who are supposed to be learning new vocabulary are in fact engaged in a senseless practice of copying from a reference book and practicing their handwriting and patience, but little else.

Dictionaries are useful tools that can help a reader find the meaning of a persistently hard-to-pin-down word when all other recourses fail. They should not be used unless context clues and word analysis don’t help.

That said, I recently came across, a site specifically developed for learners of English who struggle with the oblique and comprehension-unfriendly language often found in most dictionaries.

It works very similarly to a or the Websters online dictionary. The user enters a word into a field, and as long as it’s spelled correctly it will reveal the definition. The difference is that in YourDictionary the results actually make sense.

Let’s compare:

Here is the entry for “manifest”





readily perceived by the eye or the understanding; evident;obvious; apparent; plain: a manifest error.

Psychoanalysis. of or pertaining to conscious feelings, ideas,and impulses that contain repressed psychic material: themanifest content of a dream as opposed to the latent contentthat it conceals.
verb (used with object)


to make clear or evident to the eye or the understanding;show plainly: He manifested his approval with a hearty laugh.

to prove; put beyond doubt or question: The evidencemanifests the guilt of the defendant.

to record in a ship’s manifest.

a list of the cargo carried by a ship, made for the use ofvarious agents and officials at the ports of destination.

a list or invoice of goods transported by truck or train.

a list of the cargo or passengers carried on an airplane.

And here is the YD version…


Manifest describes something that is clear to see or understand.(adjective)

An example of manifest is someone knowing that something is true.

Manifest means to prove or make something clear. (verb)

An example of manifest is showing someone the facts about something.

As you can see, the latter is much clearer and easy to understand. It goes without saying that the previous definition is more comprehensive and more reliable in terms of finding out the specific use in all the possible contexts, however the YD version has the advantage of purging out the language that is an obstruction to understanding, and only presents the most common uses of the word.

Another advantage to YourDictionary, at least as it pertains to English Learners, is that it offers sample sentences, probably fished out of the internet by some algorithm, but that nonetheless offer a student many different ways they might encounter a word, or many real life ways that a sentence can be constructed with it.

But it doesn’t stop there. Besides providing word definitions and examples in sentences,  offers ESL and Education pages specifically designed to help teachers and students of ESL make better use of their vocabulary development time. There are lesson ideas on how to use and other resources to help with comprehension whether you are learning English in Harbin, China, or in Phoenix Arizona. You can even use your mobile device so you can get results on the go.

There are also pretty simple printable worksheets on vocabulary, commonly confused words, GRE or SAT practice, essay writing tips, grammar help for kids and more, earning this site the title of “indispensable” for any bilingual or ESL classroom.

So next time you think of throwing  a brick at your students, send them to YD instead, and you will hear more students exclaim, “Aha” instead of “huh?”

Brain Nook Combines Best of Gaming, Learning Worlds

On recent list of top edtech startups (Wired Academic)  one noteworthy company stood out for its potential for making a big impact in the  learning of English and Math skills at the elementary grades.

Brain Nook, as it’s called,  is an “all-inclusive” learning resort for the students from Kinder to 5th grade.  Featuring more than a hundred engaging games it is a robust and entertaining way for students to practice their academic skills.

But what seems truly remarkable is Brain Nook’s ability to put together the best “brain-rewarding” (see previous post)  elements of the gaming universe and package them into a learning site that will be the envy of many start-ups and “been-ups” alike.

The premise for the game is a story: You, an alien cosmonaut, crash-land on earth. Stranded, you have to buy and collect badges, stars, unlock levels and ultimately find all the spaceship parts needed to get back to your home planet.  Avoiding  immigration does not seem to be an issue for the alien players who travel around the world challenging others to games, or accomplishing solo missions by practicing skills ranging from recognizing long and short vowels to counting money.

What makes the game so engaging is not only the fact that students can customize avatars and “purchase” additional items to decorate themselves and their rooms, but also because they can progress at their own pace and choose from a variety of games and lands.


The mission aspect of the game is reminiscent of what made Cyberchase such a popular game.  Quests seem to add a whole new level to learning that engages students beyond the ability to solve a problem in isolation. The progress bar is an excellent motivator in this regard. When a student sees their progress moving up, never down, they immediately realize that it is within their power to move up, albeit at their own rate.


At first this seemed a bit confusing. The games after all, are adaptive, meaning they increase in difficulty if the user makes progress, so a student might feel like they lost, but in the end they still get to walk away with enough stars to add to their point total. They are thus motivated to continue playing, once they feel like the have a handle on a particular skill.

Another winning  aspect of the game is the social component. Students can walk around and chat, challenge each other and become “friends”.   When you add other people to a game, as any gamer knows, it adds another level of engagement. You are not just playing a game for yourself, but in front of a set of “game peers” united in your quest to get out of Earth. The dynamics of this and why its motivational has to do with neuroscience and we won’t get into that here, but the effect on a learner is remarkable.

It is also a great game for English Language Learners beyond the 5th grade. In fact that is the main reason zapaTECHISTA looked into this site.  It is often the job of the late elementary teacher and beyond to fill the skill gaps of students whose first language is not English. Brain Nook offers students who have not had success focusing on class lectures, or who have missed school in earlier grades (here I’m thinking of a student from El Salvador who did not attend school from 2nd to 4th grade) or who need to work on skills below their grade level to feel successful at their own pace.

The only drawback so far is that Brain Nook only works on a flash-enabled device. Sorry iPad folks. I’m sure the developers are quickly working on an app version, or a lite version like BrianPOPs iPhone app. Also, some of the text moves off-screen too quickly for the youngest readers to keep up, especially the instructions to the games.

We’ll keep an eye out for this one and wish it well.


Prezi Kicks the @#$% out of the Traditional PowerPoint


Prezi has been around for a a few years now, and with its simplicity, elegance and sheer wow factor it’s a wonder why we are still forced to sit through endless PowerPoint presentations in this day and age. Simply put, there is no comparison between the PowerPoint, or any traditional slide presentation software (including SlideRocket, Keynote, Google Presentations) and what Prezi can offer in terms of user interface and final product: a kick-ass, zoomable eye-catching experience.

Judge for yourself. The presentation above was created “in class” as the Vocabulary words for Lois Lowry’s The Giver Chapter 2 or 3, I think. The students wrote them down, and while they looked for the definitions in dictionaries and online, I simply added the words. It’s as simple as clicking the screen and typing. You can quickly add images, YouTube videos, free-drawn scribbles, arrows, frames, and more by clicking the tool bar (which is no bar at all, but a spinning selection tool that should be a model for all future tool bars).

Then when you are done adding and embedding content on the fly, you can add “paths” by clicking in order from object to object. Prezi will then play and zoom, rotate, slide around the screen displaying the content you created in the order you want.

Change your mind? Want to add something in the “timeline”? Just pluck at a path and drag it to the new object, and immediately all the other objects are reordered.

By the second day, the students get to watch a movie with the vocabulary words. I can change the order of the presentation from definitions first to the word itself, or maybe give them picture clues first, then the definition, and finally the word.

English Learners can benefit just as much as anyone by creating an ongoing collection of new words, including pictures, sentences, videos, etc that bring the word into new contexts.

It works great for student projects, too.  How bored are students with making PowerPoints these days? With Prezi they can have a whole new  experience, and they can learn in minutes. Much faster than MS PPTs for that matter with all their useless bells and whistles.

Last year the student’s end of the year project was a team presentation about Greek Civilization. The results were mixed, but not because of Prezi, but because the content was not as developed as I would have liked. It’s important that if you let your students try it (and its free for educational uses) that they brainstorm and get feedback on what they want to add before they actually build it.  But once they start they won’t want to make any more slide shows.

They look great on interactive Smartboards, too if your school has the goods.

And beyond the classroom, a Prezi can help you stand above other job applicants, or can be a novel way of sending a message to a loved one (if that applies to you) or to simply peddle your wares.

Have fun!

Here is one more:

BBC’s Bitesize Offers Banquet of Online Learning

It’s rare to come across an engaging, all-inclusive digital learning portal like I did this week when I came upon the BBC’s Bitesize education websites. I was actually looking at an old site, Skillwise, which is still good and recommended, but its nothing like what the blokes at the BBC have been working on lately. Here in the United States you would expect to pay a few hundred bucks, or at least a good thousand bucks for access to this kind of learning (think BrainPOP and IXL Math), but the folks in the UK still believe in the government’s role in funding public education, and they are doing a much better job of bringing technology to their students for free .

A full review of Bitesize  is still in the works, and with so many lessons, games and activities it will take a while to truly explore all of the content. But here is a rough synopsis and links to some great starter content:

Bitesize is divided into 3 main areas, KS1 for the youngest kids, KS2 for those 7-11 year-old students, KS3 for the 11-14 crowd and then another level, GCSE for the upper secondary. Each site includes classroom-ready tools that are guaranteed to engage students. Take Questionaut, for example. It is simply put, one of the finest, most beautifully designed flash games I have ever seen. Students have to use their Maths, Language and Science skills to navigate through different tiny worlds where the user has to answer multiple choice questions, but the engaging part is in the actual game activation. The questions do not appear automatically, but have to be figured out from the items in the planet’s environment. Today my students and I played all 8 levels and they stayed glued to their seats, while maintaining an impressive eyeball-to-screen ration the whole time. It is geared towards the 11-14 age group, so it was perfect for my 6th graders.

KS2 offers some great material on Reading, Spelling, and Grammar, which will be very useful to those struggling to learn the basics. Even KS1 might be useful to those who are completely new to the English language, and the games are not too childish to turn off older students. KS3 offers a more mature sense of humor in its lessons. For example the lesson on clauses and types of sentences features a HAL-like computer teaching the lesson using sentences that talk about first kisses that are sure to hold any newly minted teen engaged in what would normally be a boring English lesson.

But it’s not all about games. The lessons are standards-based, and take a learner trough all the requirements of instruction, including learning through reading and direct teaching of concepts, followed by a flash activity, and finally an assessment of the standard. Here is where I think this site stands above all others. The quality and scope of the content are without match in free sites.  There are simply so many activities and lessons that it will be hard to get through them all. And if you are worried about standards correlating to your local standards, I guarantee you will find that the UK’s standards are not that different. Every lesson has some discrepancy to US English, but these hardly detracts from the overall success of this site.

The lessons and content lend themselves well to both single-presentation arrangements, or for use in a multimedia/computer lab. My students all participated in the direct lesson on the LCD and this Friday they will have a chance to explore the site further on their own, with some guidance of course, as it will be easy for them to get lost in all of that amazing content.

Teachers can also access the suggested lesson plans and students can chat in a social-networking forum to share ideas and ask for help in revision (the British term for Reviewing).

More posts on this subject should be forthcoming, so keep reading. I haven’t even tried the High School material yet, which includes many more subject areas than just English, Maths and Science. They also include a few very high-quality games like the foreign language mystery Destination Death.

Maybe a review of each game is in order and perhaps, if  a form is created, students could be involved in separating the good from the great.