Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wordle for All!

Wordle is one of those cool applications that is so simple that at first glance you might not think it has much use in your classroom beyond making something interesting looking. I'll admit that it's a tool I've kept on the back burner since last year, only using it a few times. Every time I get into it and toy with it I wish I was spending more time with it in class - it has so many possibilities! It's definitely one of the simplest, yet most versatile tools available on the web right now.

Here is a Wordle I made by pasting in the Lewis Carroll poem "Jabberwocky".

What is Wordle? Wordle is simply a word "cloud" tool - you copy text into it and it arranges the words into a cloud - usually prioritizing by frequency of text if applicable. It then creates a beautiful word cloud that is visually interesting - and telling - depending on what you are looking for!

I've used Wordle several times in my French class, and find it to be a nice tool for working with new vocabulary.

Last year when I was teaching 3rd grade I used to put my spelling lists on a Wordle each week and print out several copies. I'd hang them around the room for the kids to find - they enjoyed seeing their word lists in this interesting display, and used it as a kind of puzzle to find their words.

Here is an example of a Wordle I made with a 3rd grade weekly vocabulary list.

So, there have been a lot of other ideas I'd like to try with Wordle, and as I write this post I've got a few new things churning around in my brain!

Using Wordle: One thing I do know for a fact is that Wordle couldn't be easier to use. At the Wordle home page, hit "create". Then you just type or paste in your text into the box and hit "go". It gives a pretty immediate result - and if it's not quite what you're looking for, or you just want to play around a little, just keep hitting the "randomize" button at the bottom to get different styles of "clouds". Or you can edit it yourself for font, layout, and color.

Tons of Wordle Ideas for K-12: What I'm going to give you now is a couple of links, each with a bonanza of great ideas other educators have put together for Wordle. Hope you find something you can use - quite a few of these are very appealing to me! These resources will give any k-12 teacher an idea for using Wordle in their classroom!

Forty-Three Interesting Ways to Use Wordle in the Classroom

Wordle Ideas

Looking for some quick and easy projects before Christmas? Wordle makes fantastic Christmas cards! Have your students write a holiday poem, jot down their favorite holiday memory, or just make a list of everything they associate with the season - paste them in to Wordle and ...ta da! - festive card or decoration!

Can you guess what famous Christmas poem I've "Wordled" here?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Student Blogging - starting discussions

My lucky middle school students! Even though they are new bloggers this year, they have had the good luck of some early (and timely) traffic to their blogs!

For those of you who may not know, I use Twitter, and every once in awhile I put out a "tweet" asking other educators who follow me to check out my student blogs and give me some feedback (my students also like to see the dots pop up on their ClustrMaps). This has generated a lot of good discussion for me - I have had several teachers contact me to ask questions about my students' blogs, and also make comments and suggestions about them.

Recently, I have had several emails from educators in the U.S. and Australia wondering why there were so few comments on my students' blogs. Excellent question, and one I have been wrangling with for awhile now.

Up until recently, most of my work with the student blogs has been technical in nature - I want the kids to learn how to embed videos, upload pictures, copy code, etc.

After that, I want to give them varieties of applications to know better - that way they can make choices about which kind of application (video, slideshow, animation, mock interview, virtual tour, etc) would be the most effective at getting across their information with the style and voice they are trying to project.

But the teachers giving me feedback are absolutely right, and their questions couldn't be more timely for me AND my students. Time to start commenting!

When I explain the purpose of blogs to my students I use the example of a nice poster with pasted on pictures and information about the Mughal Empire hung up on my bulletin board. I ask them if it looks good - they agree it does. I ask them if they have looked at it closely or read it - they admit they have not. I ask them if they have any comments or questions about it - no, not really. I ask who will see this poster - easy, everyone in this classroom. I ask who will give feedback on the poster - also easy, just me. I ask them what will happen to this poster after the unit is over - they know it will come down and never be seen again - we are done looking at it and any possibilities of talking about it are definitely over. I ask them if they would like to have some kind of discussion if there were any new or interesting information on the poster - they think maybe they would. I ask them how that discussion would take place - not sure.

Then I remind them, that with a blog, the answers to these questions are much much different. They know that from their own experiences with blogs this year. The questions we need to focus on now are the questions about feedback and discussion. Because a good blog can be a conversation starter.

To that end, the students are now beginning to practice commenting. We are starting in what I call a "forced" situation - they are required to comment on two other student blogs each week. Comments must be somewhat substantive and related to the post. They can be observations or questions about the content itself, or the technical aspect of the post. There was a little groaning initially. I feel their pain on that - I really hate taking a class where a requirement is a forced posting on a blog or ning. I don't feel like it's authentic conversation - not at all like when I read a blog that inspires me to comment or join in the discussion. However, we all have to start somewhere. I have a feeling that students will begin to enjoy seeing the comments about their work from their peers.

When they become a little more used to putting it "out there", we'll begin reading other blogs and entering into those conversations. As I said at the beginning of the post, one real piece of luck my students have had is getting an immediate audience, and knowing it. Although the excitement has worn off, that awareness of audience has not - it gives them confidence, and helps them to self-assess their posted work very critically. I think the commenting aspect will take that a few steps further.

What do you think? For those of you who run student blogs, how do you move students from a strictly presentation mode to a more participatory conversation mode?

If you have time, check out the posts and comments on my students' blogs (the links to them are on the right side of my class blog). What do you think? Are they moving in the right direction?
For those of you thinking about beginning student blogs - this is a bridge you will eventually have to cross - some planning ahead would be useful!

Thoughts and ideas about student blogging and commenting are most welcome!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Internet4Classrooms is a wealth of resources

There may have been a few of you who have already happened across this fabulous site. Internet4Classrooms is definitely worth your time to check out! You can choose your grade level, choose your subject area, and even choose your focus of study and you will find a mind boggling amount of great resources.

What makes the resources on Internet4Classrooms great? One - it is easy to narrow down your choices to find what you want. Two - all of the resources listed are usually visual and interactive in nature - you won't just find some web page full of text. There are web quests, explorations, and all kinds of interactive activities for all grade levels to let students really explore a particular strand of content. Their symbols tell you quickly what kind of resource link you're looking at.

Just take a second to go to Internet4Classrooms and see what they've got!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Class Blog or Class Wiki?

For people who are just deciding to get something set up for their classes, a big question seems to be blog or wiki? And of course my answer is - "depends"!

I'll try to give you some points to think about that may narrow your decision making process so that you can get something that will work for you. So, here are some questions to consider...

1. Who is your primary audience for this site? I will say that if your primary audience is parents - my opinion is that a blog is the way to go. They read just like a newsletter, they are easy to navigate, and the posts show in dated order, with the most recent at the top. People can easily navigate back to earlier posts, and the information never goes away, it is just archived. Blogs can host links, pictures, videos, and other embedded programs, and they are very easy to use. You can also have "guest bloggers" (like students) to get a little student voice. Side bars are handy for helpful links and other widgets like polls.

If your primary audience is students, then next question...

2. Will the site be used for news updates for students? If the site will just be used for news updates, like a "scrapbook" showing highlights of student work (articles, student pieces, videos, pictures, etc.) then I still think a blog is probably the way to go - same reasons as for question #1.

If you do not want to run a general student "bulletin board", then next quesion...

Will the site be used for regularly posted class information? Do you just want a place to post the homework assignment? Your lesson plan? One or two important links students will need for an activity? If this is the case, a basic blog will still do the trick. Daily small doses of information in the form of text or links would work nicely in a blog. Students could easily navigate back to previous days, or access assignment or class information when they are absent.

4. Do you want to host a class (or classes) online - posting assignments, project outlines, class calendars, syllabus, links, places to categorize units of study, classes, and student work? Definitely go wiki. Wikis are great in their versatility. They can work like a blog, but work great as a way to categorize and add to a growing body of information for your students. You can give your students access to certain parts of a wiki too if you want - then they can post information as well.

Of course my answers are not the RIGHT answers - many other people have some pretty creative ideas for ways to use these. I would suggest that if you are just beginning with this (and you are a middle or high school teacher) that you pick one class to start with and go through the decision making process I have just outlined. As your comfort level grows, expand your class, or add more classes.

I personally use a combination of blogs and wikis for each of my 6 classes. I use a blog as my "portal". This is a central place that all of my students in all of my classes go. The blog serves as a general newsletter - mostly for students, but parents may enjoy the "lite" news on there as well. I try to get lots of pictures of the kids on there - students and parents like to see that. I use the side bar on that page for links to each of my class wikis (I host a wiki page for each of my 6 classes). I also use the sidebar of the blog to post links to all of the student blog pages. The blog is a central page where all of my students can get to anything they need.

Each of my class wikis is like a growing online "textbook" for that particular course. I have a main introduction page, then a page for the class calendar, and different categories - an assignment page, and different pages for different units of study.

That works for me - I would definitely suggest you use the guiding questions I have posted above to find your starting point and go from there.

You've made the decision - now what?
Two good free and easy blogging platforms I could suggest are Blogger and WordPress. I have used both, although I am more familiar with Blogger (this blog is hosted by Blogger).

I highly recommend Wikispaces for a super-easy wiki. They are simple to set up and very easy and versatile. I have found them to be a very dependable wiki host.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Using Timelines

Teaching kids the proper way to make time lines is like a rite of passage for history teachers. Choosing what increments of time you'll use, how those will be represented (inches? centimeters?) and the trial and error. Sometimes it seems like the whole point of the lesson - to see when events occurred relative to other events, to create a custom time line, or to analyze events - gets lost in what you never intended to be a weak math/art activity. And let's face it - when they're done, they are not too exciting.

Internet to the rescue! Thankfully there are now some easy time line tools that are very accessible on the web, easy for kids to use, and you get what you want - the results for kids to look at, compare, and analyze. Best of all, kids can really bring some creativity to the table with these time lines. They have the opportunity to make sense of historical events in ways they can see, hear, and explain to others. If they made some new connections, or have some new theories, these tools are the ultimate way for them to express this new learning.

But where will they put these beautiful new time lines? Who will see them? Easy - more and more of you are building class blogs and wikis (haven't done this yet? Ask me how and I can help you set one up in less than 5 minutes), so that's where these beauties will go. If your students have their own blogs, they can go right there. One thing you will NOT end up with is a whole bunch of same-same generic time lines. All of them will be unique interpretations of a particular student's understanding and connections of that time.

Here is a time line tool called TimeRime. TimeRime is a nice "starter" time line, in that it looks a lot like what we expect time lines to look like - a line with spaced out increments. BUT TimeRime brings more to the table, like the ability to add pictures and pop-out information. Here's an example of a time line made on TimeRime about the history of immigration (scroll along the bottom)...

Xtimeline is another fun time line tool that is similar to TimeRime - kids can incorporate images and more pop-up information into their time line. A cool feature of xtimeline is viewing it as a scrolling time line by moving the cursor along the bottom - when you click on an event a slide can pop up with more information and pictures. This is an xtimeline of the history of Coca Cola (scroll along the bottom)...

Finally, the rock star of online time line tools - Capzles! Capzles is by far the most creative of the 3 tools presented in this post. Students can choose a background for their time line, build the time line with information, pictures, and NARRATION! Yes - that's what I said - students can record music, text, or their very own voices to guide and narrate this slideshow/timeline. Here's a great one about Paul Revere - it is the history of events in Boston involving Paul Revere. The background is an old map of the area, and the time line pictures and events are guided by a voice narration reading of "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere". Soooooo many possibilities with this! (Click HERE to see this one).

So let's change up those old boring time lines - make them what we always intended them to be - a learning tool created by students that presents their unique point of view of a history.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A real teleprompter - just like they use on the news!

How much do you hate to have students do quick skits, role plays, mock interviews, etc. (live or filmed) when your only options are to have them memorize the script, or read it from a piece of paper? I hate it A LOT! It takes all the hard work that has gone into the research and creativity and made it look chintzy, not well thought out, and unprepared.

Cue Prompter is a nice little web application where students can quite easily type scripts into the prompter (no registration necessary, just go and start using). They can set the size of the script, the speed at which it scrolls, and even the color - white print, black background or vice versa. It turns their computer into a professional teleprompter machine! It is great for programs and presentations, but I have been using the heck out of it for all things we video.

My geography class recently filmed some mock interviews about social issues in Canada. A lot of research and planning had to go into these, as well as careful script writing. Piling on a requirement to memorize the interview would have added an unnecessary difficulty. The students used Cue Prompter and had some very smooth looking interviews! They are starting to post these on their class blogs - check out some of the 8th grade blogs (right side of the page, scroll down a little) to see these "professional" interviews.

Any time you are having students present short monologues, presentations, mock interviews, or any other video projects, Cue Prompter erases a lot of speaking stress for students!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Professional Development - A "How To" manual for leaner meaner times

Many teachers long for the "good old days" when Alaska school districts were flush with cash. They were truly good old days - no one had to fund raise for anything, teachers had thousands to spend on classroom supplies without spending a dime of their own money, and there were plenty of perks too.

One of those perks that many long for was "the conference". Every year, Alaska districts would send teams of teachers to lots of conferences - all expenses paid - and we could do fun things like listen to textbook companies show us fun kits and manipulatives, or get training in an exciting new classroom strategy that we were under absolutely no obligation to use or even tell anyone about once we got back to our home districts and classrooms.

And now, those days are long gone.

Now, conferences are not often "offered". Those that are (Dept. of Ed.) don't even remotely resemble those of the past - sessions on RTI, state standards, SBA's, GLE's, accountability systems, data-driven instruction, and curriculum alignment have replaced most of the "fun" stuff.

Now, much of our traditional professional development takes place in-district during our required inservice days, often utilizing the expertise of "in house" employees - which goes over like a lead balloon with some because everyone knows that no one is an expert at anything until they are 50 miles from home, and if it takes place at home it is somehow not worthwhile.

But there is hope - if you truly want to develop as a professional and improve your practice, and you want that training to come somewhere other than in-house - there are more alternatives and opportunities than ever before, even in these leaner meaner times. First however, you will have to let go of the notion that "good training" can only take place on a fully funded district junket.

Let's take a look at the standard conferences that are offered each year, such as the State Literacy Conference, or various smaller conferences held by the Science Consortium, the Writing Consortium, or the Math Consortium. The easiest way to become apprised of what these organizations have to offer is to join them. Some require a membership fee - usually nominal, and almost all would like you to attend their monthly meetings via teleconference. If you are willing to put in the effort on that front, you are usually well aware when they have conferences coming up, and you know what they have to offer. Almost all of these organizations provide some kinds of opportunities for you to attend their conferences at their expense if you attend a series of their workshops, write a series of lesson plans, participate in grant work, or are willing to work on some of their other in-house development projects.

Let's talk about membership in outside professional organizations. Whatever your area of specialty, certification, content or interest, I guarantee that there is a professional educational organization out there dedicated to your interests. Step 1 - join them. Yes - there is often a yearly membership fee required which pays for their publications and their professional development offerings, which is what you really want. These organizations always have national conferences, which are usually out of our reach unless we pay our own way. However, many of them also have state affiliates, which you can easily take part in and offer a variety opportunities for you to attend conferences in state which they will fully or partially pay for. Step 2 - take advantage of what they offer you, no matter what form it comes in.

A professional development delivery that many state, national and international ed. organizations are adopting is webinars. Webinars are cheaper and easier for organizations to present, and they can easily adapt to the needs of more members this way than by hosting only a few big expensive conferences. Webinars are widely available, and you often don't have to be a member of the presenting organization to attend. If you are a member, the webinars are usually available to you at a reduced cost or free. If you are not a member, they may cost a little money. They are often hosted by recognized experts in the field, and attended by a cohort of teachers with your same interests across the nation. You often have the opportunity to interact live with the presenters and other teachers participating. I have attended several excellent professional development webinars delivered by NCTE, ASDN, and ASCD.

Last of all, if your vision of "Professional Development" only narrowly includes a conference (complete with a keynote speaker and a nice buffet lunch) in another town during the school year, then perhaps it is time to widen your perspective, or rethink what you really mean when you say "I want professional development". Professional development is something teachers must be empowered to get for themselves when they need it. This can include the traditional conference, but these days it more realistically will include professional memberships, teleconferences, webinars, professional reading (books, magazines, online publications), reading groups, online networking with others through established ed. networks, educational blogs, Twitter, etc., and even what you can learn from collaborating with the person right next door to you.

Here is a short list (I'm leaving out a lot) of professional organizations and links - some right here in our state, some national, some international - all excellent sources of professional development in many forms.

Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development - ASCD
Alaska ASCD (the state affiliate)
Phi Delta Kappan - PDK
Alaska Math Consortium
Alaska Science Consortium
Alaska Statewide Writing Consortium
Alaska State Literacy Association
National Council of Teachers of English - NCTE
International Reading Association - IRA
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics - NCTM
National Science Teachers Association - NSTA
National Council for the Social Studies
Alaska Staff Development Network - ASDN
Alaska Society for Technology in Education - ASTE

Again, this list is SHORT - my apologies for not including more, but I could literally spend hours listing the possible educational organizations to which a teacher can belong and/or seek professional development opportunities. Although you may not be aware of it, many of your colleagues probably have some association with these organizations or others, and have taken advantage of their professional development opportunities. This is a potentially great database of information for teachers to share with each other!

Another great source of information for professional development is professional publications - many of the above associations also publish their own materials and distribute them to members, but there are plenty of other educational publications you can subscribe to in print form or online (usually free). Again, probably more of your colleagues than you might guess probably subscribe to a few - ask!

There really is no shortage of resources if you really want good professional development - it may not come in the package you prefer, and may not be delivered to you unasked for with a ribbon on it, but you have to ask yourself what it is you really want, and then go get it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Jeopardy Labs - make the boring stuff fun!

I've blogged about this particular site before, but today I dug out Jeopardy Labs again. There are always times when we need to build some basic background information about something, and let's face it - that's not always exciting - but it's no reason it can't be fun!

My 8th grade World Geography students are studying issues about immigration and will be soon be looking specifically at Canada's long and interesting relationship with immigrants, and how that has shaped their country. That's all fine and good, but before I can get near these larger issues, I first want to be sure my students have some basic knowledge about Canada - provinces, regions, population distributions - that kind of thing.

Jeopardy Labs
is one great and easy tool to liven these kinds of studies up. I've included a short two minute video below so that you can see how this worked out.

I wanted to make sure they knew how Jeopardy was played, so I showed a short clip from a Teen Jeopardy show on YouTube - you could also just explain it pretty easily.

I divided the class up into two groups (I had a small class today - if I had a larger class I would have done three or even 4 groups). The groups then used their info from the links and created their own Canada Geography Jeopardy game using Jeopardy Labs. We used an overhead to project the game board. Here's how it went...

As you can see - a basic review exercise was turned on its head! I also posted some highlight clips on my class blog for the students to enjoy.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Shakespearean focus in moviemaking

I had to hold back tears today from laughing in my 7th grade history class! My students have been experimenting with an online text-to-speech movie making program called xtranormal. This is a gem of a little program - and it's real genius lies in its simplicity.

Xtranormal has some limitations, which are precisely what make it so great. Here are the main points of xtranormal;
1. You can only make a movie with two characters.
2. You can select only from a limited number of "sets" and your movie must take place in just one.
3. Because you type your script, and it is later converted to speech, you must spell everything correctly and not use slang, or the characters just spew gibberish.
4. There are several basic animations and expressions you can use, but there are many actions you cannot incorporate, like running or "big" action - it's mostly talking and small gestures and expressions.

What's so great about all these limitations? They lend themselves to a production that is very Shakespearean in nature. Big action and death must take place off stage - the dialogue has to accomplish the effect. It's limitations force a focus of subject and dialogue - you can't jump from scene to scene, and you can't have a bunch of characters crowding up and confusing the storyline. The limitation of scenes make for a very metaphorical (thus Shakespearean) interpretation of roles or scenarios that are being enacted.

End result? PERFECT for students!

My 7th grade history students have been studying about the cultures of the Ancient Americas - specifically the Aztecs and the Mayans.

After we had done some brainstorming, we came up with some specific scenarios that could have happened historically within those particular cultures. In order to act out these scenarios, students would have to incorporate some specific information they have learned during our studies, and also "get into the heads" of people back in history.

The students then took a scenario and, using xtranormal, wrote a short screenplay in one act in which that scenario was acted out.

I wasn't laughing because they were all so humorous, although some really were. I was mostly just over the top at the range of creative ideas these kids had made into a reality using this technology. Xtranormal is very simple - no student had difficulties with it technically. And although I anticipated students having trouble with the idea of taking the scenario and making it into a worthwhile enactment, there was no problem there either.

As of this afternoon, only two of my 7th graders had embedded these in their blogs, but during the next couple of days the rest will (all of a sudden they have become perfectionists!). Just go to my class blog, and the student blogs are on the right side of the page (for 7th grade just scroll down a little).

Xtranormal is truly a tool for the treasurebox - sooo many possibilities! I will pull this winner out again and again!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Why I love online slide shows for students

In this day and age when most of us think of slide shows we usually think of PowerPoint. Now PowerPoint has gotten a bad rap lately, and I partly understand why.

Usually when we see a PowerPoint used by adults, it is to show us a very boring bulleted list of information that they READ TO US - even though it's right up there for us to see. They also usually give us handouts of the exact slides we are looking at. Why why why? I don't know, but because of this horrendous abuse of PowerPoint by adults, most of us don't get too excited when we walk into a meeting or a workshop and see that projector set up with a stack of stapled handouts sitting next to it.

Perversely, some of us may THINK that it's a good idea to assign PowerPoint presentations to students because it's a nice alternative to a paper or a report. However, we often don't spend time considering how much time it will take for all students to present these slide show presentations to the class. Worse, if a student has not met the expectations or requirements for their presentation, it can be even worse than sitting through an adult PowerPoint.

I don't mind slide shows as a supplement to a wider project - but there is still the problem of taking up class time with an audience that is less than receptive.

Online slide shows can be a great alternative for students who are presenting information with visuals, text and audio. The really great part about online shows, is that they can be posted to a student's blog. This increases motivation for students to do a better job - as their audience is instantly bigger than just their class. Also, I have found that one thing students love to do is check out their fellow students blogs. This means that for students presenting all types of different information, there is a better chance of it being seen and heard.

Two online tools I use frequently in my classes for online slide shows are SlideShare, and VoiceThread.

With SlideShare, students can use the familiar PowerPoint, then make an MP3 file (a simple podcast) on GarageBand. They upload both to SlideShare and can easily synchronize the audio with the slides. When they are done, they "publish" the show and get an embed code to put the show on their blogs. It's quick and simple.

With VoiceThread, they just need to upload their images from a computer, the internet, or even a thumb drive, and can add the audio right online. VoiceThread has a lot of other capabilities too, but it works quite well as a basic online slide show, and is super simple for students.

On my Weisz Teacher's Blog I have links to my students' blogs on the right side of the page. Most of these blogs are pretty new, but many of the 8th grade blogs and the French class blogs have VoiceThread or SlideShare presentations on them - check them out to see how easily students can share info!

Last year, my 3rd grade class used VoiceThread to make a collaborative slide show of inherited traits that we posted on their class blog. If we had made this just on PowerPoint it would have been viewed exactly one time - by who I don't even know. However, once we put it on the class blog, the students watched it many times as they loved seeing the pictures we took in class and hearing themselves and their classmates narrate it. They remembered the information a lot better after viewing it so many times.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Breaking out of the confines of school - part 1

One intriguing aspect of using technology in education for me, is how we can use it to break down the walls - so to speak.  By this I mean to go beyond the confines of the brick and mortar building -  it's 8:30 start time and 2:45 finish time, and it's 50 minute classes.

To me, these confines have always smacked down strict limits on not only what our kids learn, but when and where they learn it.  If you really think about it, it seems ludicrous to think that a 7th grader will be at the optimal moment to learn history between 12N and 12:49pm, and that they will actually learn all that is planned in the lesson within that exact time limit, and in that precise place. 

That is what I love about technology - the possibilities it opens up for time, space, content, and use.  Technology is one way that can provide for students the opportunity to learn at any time, and on their own time.  They are not restricted to trying to learn it within a 50 minute class period, and only with the specific textbook they are issued by the school, and only by reading that textbook, or listening to the teacher talk about what's in the textbook. 

So to that end, I'm going to spend more time on this blog discussing the idea of breaking out of our brick and mortar confines.  One way I'm making a purposeful effort to do this during this school year is with the student Gmail accounts and GoogleChat.  As I've blogged about previously, I've set up all of our middle school students in our 1:1 program with Gmail and added the requirement that they check it every day.  So for my part, I have made it a point to send them email every day.  I usually do this in the form of a group email to the classes where I remind them about an upcoming quiz, or there have been a couple of times when I have sent out some questions like, "What do you think of our seating arrangement in class?" I want to get them used to the idea that we can have learning discussions outside the physical confines they are used to - to the idea that learning can take place any time and anywhere.

I often send emails to individual students initiating discussion on what to do about improving a grade, finding more resources for a project, or what they are further interested in studying in class.  These emails have generated a lot of good conversation.  Initially, a few were a little hesitant about communicating with me this way, but I was pleasantly surprised to find how many of them were just bursting to talk outside of class!  And they actually wanted to talk about things we we are doing in class!

Another tool I've made available is GoogleChat.  All of these tools come with the caveat that they must be used for school related communications, and that if it is abused, it will have to go away.  I'm hoping they keep up their end of the bargain on this, because already GoogleChat is proving to be an even more exciting tool than Gmail!  Since I've introduced it, not an evening has gone by in which I haven't spent time chatting with students about classes - questions they have, critical discussion about something we are studying, or even social issues they are dealing with at school.  Remember, I'm not talking about high school seniors here - I'm talking about 6th, 7th, and 8th graders - and from my perspective, it's not much of a stretch to imagine this scenario with 4th and 5th graders either! 

Now some people might look at the evening stuff as a downside.  Teachers have to have a life right?  Well I thought about that too, and decided that it was worth the time to really find out what kind of value this communication would have.  I've been straightforward with them at the times when I've cut off the chat because I'm spending time with my family, eating dinner, or busy with other things.  None have seemed offended by this, and it seems I am right back on chat with them the next evening anyway! 

I don't really look at these evening communications as "work" - so far they have been very enjoyable!  If I've got the computer open in the evening I'm either doing work - in which case what does it matter if it's chatting with a student or planning a lesson?  Or I'm just cruising Facebook or Twitter - and again - chatting with students can be equally as engaging, often times more so when all I'm seeing is how my friends on Facebook are scoring on Farmville or Mafia Wars.

We'll see where this goes, but I'm extremely interested to see what impact this will have on their performance and attitude within the brick-and-mortar confines.  Will they really realize that it is only a small part of the picture in their learning?  That everything is open to them?  I hope so. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Listen to your blog!

It has occurred to me plenty of times that there are certain students in my classes who may struggle a little to read or understand some of the information I put on my news blog and my class wiki pages. Since my students depend so much on those sites, I've been looking for ways to help them out, just in case the reading is a barrier to their understanding. Of course we discuss much of our content and ideas in class, but when a student is working with the material outside of my class, the material should still be accessible to them.

So to that end I've been looking through a lot of different text-to-speech players to see what I can use on my main blog and on my individual class wikis. Earlier this week I came up with two solutions.

Solution #1. For the main class blog page, I've installed Odiogo. Odiogo is a "media-shifting" technology that transforms the text on my blog into a high quality, almost human sounding voice that reads the text of my posts to the students. This couldn't have been easier to install - all I had to do was put the url address of my class blog on the site and viola! When parents or students go to my class blog they can just click the "listen now" button and a very nice human-like voice reads my blog post!

Solution #2. Odiogo is a beautiful technology for blogs, but it doesn't work on wikis, so I had to find another alternative. I ended up using a little text-to-speech editor I found last year and posted about called itcansay. Itcansay is very simple text-to-speech technology which was originally created for ESL students. Simply copy and paste the text you want read into the box on the page, click "read it" and you hear a very computer-sounding voice (not as nice as Odiogo) read the text that was pasted in. There are several other good text-to-speech sites, but what I liked about itcansay is that there are not a lot of bells, whistles, or distractions for my middle school students.

*note - although the note on their site says conversion may take a few minutes, I have not found this to be true - conversion takes only a few seconds at most.

So all I did was put itcansay on each of my class wikipages as a link that will open in another window. I showed the students how it worked by having them copy and paste things into it like some directions I wrote, some text from another link I put on the wiki, and even a question I wrote into a Googleform on their assignment. Now they can always have itcansay open in another tab, ready and available should they need to listen to some text as they are studying.

Text-to-speech in class can be a little distracting, so we have invested in $2/pair earbuds for each class. I put each set of earbuds in a baggie with the students names on them, and keep a basket for each class at the back of my room. The kids get them at the beginning of class if they wish and keep one earbud in to "hear" text if they need to and one earbud out so they can hear me.

Right now about 1/3 of the students in my classes regularly use the earbuds and the text-to-speech tools, which is enough to make me glad I installed them!