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!

Monday, September 21, 2009

iGoogle, You Google, We All Google!

Today marked the final day of setting up iGoogle pages for the middle school students! All of the students now have Gmail accounts (we have the passwords) which of course gives them access to one of the most powerful free web tools available.

In our school we have a 1:1 program for our middle school students, but setting up an iGoogle page is a pretty handy thing even for students who don't tote around their own laptops all the time. If you have some "resident" computers in your classroom that the students can access, it's still pretty worthwhile to have students create their own iGoogle pages.

I consider iGoogle pages to be the equivalent of a digital locker. Students can pick their own theme (and change it about a million times before that gets old). They can also pick their gadgets that suit their fancy. So far this year, I've seen the total sports page with a sports theme and plenty of sports feed gadgets and sports related game gadgets. I've also seen the "monster lover's page" with some relatively weird theme (they have to be appropriate), strange quotes feeds, and "monster of the day" images! This is the great thing about the iGoogle page and the reasons why students LOVE them. They are totally personal - finding their identity is a big part of a teenager's life, so an iGoogle page can say a lot about who they are, which is great for them as they are constantly looking for an outlet for this!

What's in it for teachers you ask? Well, it's a good opportunity for us to get our own interests in. I have several gadgets I require students to have. One is a gadget that links to my class blog page and our class wiki sites. Another is their gmail gadget so they can always see their inbox. Right now I have had them all put a to-do list gadget on the page as well. Coming very soon, they will also be required to have a Delicious (bookmarking) gadget, and a gadget for their Google Calendar. All of the gadgets I (and their other teachers) require MUST be above the fold so that students can see and access them easily.

Our 1:1 students set these iGoogle pages as their homepages. I do have one class of students not in 1:1. They also have iGoogle pages, and like them very much as they can access their "homepage" from any computer with an internet connection. Even at home, they can access this page and all of their important gadgets.

If you want to get a better idea about how these pages work, try setting one up for yourself first. You just need a Gmail account (easy to set up). Then go to iGoogle and set up your page. It's that easy. I use mine as my homepage too!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Have students create their own descriptive maps

I have been playing with Scribble Maps off and on throughout the summer with my original plan being that I would somehow use it for map quizzes. Well I haven't been able to do that yet because it always gives the names of places, BUT - I have found a lot of other uses for it in class.

Scribble Maps is a mashup - that just means it's one big application - in this case Google Earth - that is "mashed up" with something else to make another specialized application. I have blogged about these before.

So here is what I am doing with Scribble Maps right now - my 8th grade World Geography students are doing a small project to learn more about economic indicators. After they learned about a few indicators and gathered some data, one of the steps in the project was to represent their data on a map.

Scribble Maps has been great for this - the students use different colors for different countries, they circle a particular country and then use the text box to make buttons for the different economic indicators. They also use the pinpoints to label centers of industry and government within the country, as well as points of recent conflict. It's unbelievably easy to use and there's no registration or sign up for the site.

Their Scribble Maps are just one part of the project - they can then use these maps in an online slide show they are putting together that they will narrate and explain the status of several chosen countries using the economic indicator data they have gathered and illustrated.

Scribble Maps can be saved and emailed, printed, or embedded into a wiki or blog.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Less paper = more time

I had to bear with paperwork at the beginning of this school year for about 3 weeks longer than I wanted to. It took a week or two for the laptops to get set up, and I didn't want to throw the kids into too much stuff all at once, especially since they were adjusting to the laptops, new classes, new teachers, and a new schedule. So I have held back on making my life easier - but this week I took the first steps with my middle school students by using Google Docs for a few assignments.

Within Google Docs is a little item called "forms". It is a pretty easy way to just make a form (i.e. assignment). I embed my forms into my class wiki pages so the students can work on them there, but you can also easily email them to students as well (all high school students and many middle school students have emails - get their addresses!).

All you need to make a Google Doc is a Gmail address - if you have that you have a Google account. Just go to the menu up top and look for Documents. Once there, just click the "new" menu.

Choose "form" from there and begin to create yours (I always make my first question "Type your name here".) You can make fill in the blank, short answer, short essay response, and multiple choice forms quite easily. I can also pick a theme so the form isn't just a boring black and white screen.

I made the first assignment one that would be easy on my students, since this is the first time using an online form for most of them. I made a pretty straightforward vocabulary assignment and embedded it into the wikis for my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English classes.

Today I introduced them to their new word lists like always, and then I took them to the assignments page and walked them through the basics of this form. I was very happy that unlike the paper/pencil assignments, they seemed pretty engaged in this - they were more focused on using their other tools like Visuwords to match up and try out their new vocabulary, and getting the correct responses typed into the form. Again - this was a pretty simple, straightforward type of assignment - but after using Google Docs daily, it won't be long before these kids are comfortable with anything!

Here is the best part for me - instead of a stack of notebook papers or worksheets wrinkled up, torn, and covered with scribbles and sometimes indecipherable middle school writing, and often put into the wrong inbox, I just get to see this lovely spreadsheet:

Isn't that a thing of beauty? Sure there are misspelled words - but I can read them! I can also compare them to others in the class and at a glance be able to see problems that students seemed to struggle with. Tomorrow in class, I will focus on those particular items, and not waste time on others that the students seem comfortable with.

The second a student hits the submit button at the bottom of the form, I get it in a spreadsheet with a timestamp! Isn't that cool? As I sit here at home tonight I can tab over to my Google Docs and see who has finished their homework tonight and how they've done on it!

Google Docs and forms makes formative assessment quick, simple, and pretty accurate. I know how to adjust and differentiate my instruction immediately from the feedback!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Use podcasts to make student assignments superfast!

I think I have blogged about this before, but I think this one's worth a repeat because it is such a huge time saver, not to mention a great way to differentiate instruction for your students. It's...podcasting! Contrary to popular belief, podcasts are not the domain of super-fancy special projects - they're everyday stuff. Making them is so so easy - easier than you can imagine, and believe it or not - faster than the way you are making your assignments right now!

First I'll tell you how I use it as a time-saver, and to differentiate, then I'll tell you how to do it.

Using podcasts as a time-saver:
A big way I use podcasts is instead of worksheets, plain and simple. If I want my students to answer questions about something, respond in a certain way, do a simple activity with a partner within the assignment, etc. a podcast is a quick and easy way to do this. I simply create a quick podcast then load it onto an iPod or 2 or 3. Making assignments this way is almost the equivalent of me sitting one-on-one with a student, and talking them through a series of activities. Sure you could do the same thing on a work sheet but that's soooo much typing, and for students that's soooo much reading - a major barrier for some.

Sure there are ways to make fabulous, glamorous podcasts - but what I'm talking about is simple, music-less, down and dirty, one-take kind of stuff. Students can easily make up a missed assignment without you having to repeat or recopy. Very easily adaptable for younger and older students, and a great way to introduce very young students to working independently. You can also easily read a children's book into a podcast and ta-da! You've created a listening center podcast for students to read with. Students can create them too!

Using podcasts to differentiate instruction:
I can make different podcasts for students quite easily - after all, I'm not typing up worksheets, I'm just talking for about 3 minutes per assignment. Students can respond to the activities on my podcast any way I direct them to - through writing, completing some kind of project, doing an activity or discussion with a partner, anything! Best of all, they can pause me and replay me as many times as they need. I can even lecture a little bit!

Quick! Create a podcast in 8 simple steps:
1. Open GarageBand, click "Create New Podcast Episode",

2. Name your project/assignment with an identifier you'll remember or recognize.

3. Once in your podcast screen don't be confused by all the bells and whistles - you won't need them. Just click on the head of "male voice" or "female voice" whichever applies to you.

4. Then click the round red button and start talking.

You don't have to be perfect, but have some idea of what order you are going to do things in. Make sure you state things clearly and pause a little. Make sure you say item numbers so students know when you are moving on to a new activity or problem. Pause for a second or two so they have a chance to pause the iPod.

5. Click the red button again when you're done.

6. Go up to the Share menu and click "send song to iTunes."

7. Name your playlist appropriately so you can save more than one thing to it in the future.

8. Once you've done this your podcast is on your iTunes. Simply go there and the next step is to just sync your "playlist" with your iPod like you normally would. That's it - done! Wasn't that easy?

Where to get iPods? I have saved a couple of my older ones - I use an old iPod Mini,
my last Nano I had before I got my iPhone,

and a 4G Nano I bought on ebay last year for $40.

Any old working iPod will do. How do I let more than one kid listen? I use Belkin splitters I picked up at Fred's for $20 each. They split to five inputs - so 3 iPods become 15!

Once you do this you will see how easy it is . It is so much faster than making worksheets or typing up assignments, and so much more versatile.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Starting the year with class blogs and wikis

For my class set up this year I have decided to use a combination of a "home" blog (using Blogger), and then linked wikis for each class. The home blog can have frequent general messages to students and parents about what's going on with the 1to1 laptops, and maybe some general info about my classes and expectations. That's where I also post the links to my class wikis in the sidebars. Over time, I'll add more widgets to the sidebar but for right now I'll start slow so that the kids and their parents can get used to the idea.

I've set up some simple wikis using Wikispaces for each class. Again, I'm taking this in baby steps - I haven't invited the kids to be "members" of the wikis yet - they are basically being used as web pages right now as I continue to add content. The kids simply go to those places for some class links, info, and assignments. The only pages I've added to those are a calendar page (Google Calendar), page for our current unit of study that has links, news, and assignments, and on some of them just some extra activity pages.

I foresee these becoming more dynamic and interactive as time goes on, but for now we'll just do one or two things at a time.

If you are interested in checking out what I've done so far, go to my class home blog and click the links on the right to see the classes. When you get to the class wikis, the menus are on the left to see other things besides the class home page.

I'd be interested to hear about other types of set-ups people are using for their classes with free open source stuff like Google and Wikispaces.