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.