Wednesday, January 29, 2014

From Blogger to Kidblog to G+ and now...back to Blogger

Blogging serves an important purpose in my has for the last five years or so, and I've written quite a bit about it.  At first, I had my students use Blogger because I wanted them on a real, public blog. I wanted the to be able to feel the same sort of experience that I have with composing my ideas to the world.  But two years ago, this changed. I made the switch for my students over to Kidblog. Blogger was great, but Kidblog afforded me something that I couldn't get with blogger: a stream of student posts as they were published that all students were able to see, as well as the complete ability to moderate students posts, drafts, and comments.  I tried to make the shared visibility piece work with Blogger through teaching my students how to use Google Reader and to follow each other's blogs, but considering the death of Google Reader (and the limited success I had with teaching students to use it) I gave in, adopted the Kidblog platform, and haven't looked back.
In tinkering with Google+ in my classes this year, though, I've made a few discoveries that have got me contemplating the move for my students back over to Blogger.
Tinkering with Google +
At first this year, Google+ was an experiment. My students and I are involved in a collaboration with a couple other schools and this work would require the creation and sharing of all sorts of media...text, images, videos. A private G+ community was the space that we all planned on using to make that sharing and connecting possible.
Google + worked well for this purpose. Really well, actually. Here are a few of the high points I noted about using it:
  • Upload speeds were super quick, if not immediate.
  • Students were able to include text with the content they posted. So, for example , they could post an image of their project and type in commentary about image in their post.
  • The display of the content feed allowed students to quickly browse through and view the work of their classmates without having to open individual links.
  • Viewers can comment on posts as well as +1 them, giving authors two ways to receive feedback on their content posted.
  • Notifications. Love this feature because of how well it keeps users connected to related activity in our digital space.  Someone posts in the community, students receive a notification. Someone leaves a comment or +1, the poster gets a notification. Someone gets mentioned in another post or comment, the person mentioned receives a notification.  Notifications allow a tighter community to happen in a vast digital world.
Of course there are also some drawbacks. Even though we operate in closed communities that I have the ability to moderate, G+ is an open social network with all sorts of activities happening on it. Because of this I have to be real clear with students about my expectations for use and monitor them closely as they use it.  This makes for a little more work on my end.  I have had to have a few individual conversations already with students about appropriate use of the site in school, and I’ve had to be more active in teaching safe and responsible social media use. This is something schools should be teaching anyway, though, and what better teaching context for these skills is there than a real-world social network.  This is the same truth that drove me (initially) to use Blogger.  It is what causes me to feel a little bit bad about switching my students over to Kidblog, and it’s part of what’s causing me now to consider having them switch back.
Rethinking Blogger
In addition to the needs that G+ is already meeting for my class, I think it may also provide a solution to one of the main reasons I veered from Blogger in the first place. This being making student posts readily accessible to classmates as they get published.  Both Blogger and G+ are Google products, and Blogger makes it easy to share a post on Google+ as soon as the publish button is pressed.
If G+ works for other types of media sharing in my class, why not also integrate student blogs?  Students can publish their posts on Blogger, and select the option to share on G+ in the community I’ve created for my classes. Doing so puts their published writing in a place where it can easily be read by students in the class, and because of how the two sites are connected activity on the posts (+1, comments) on one platform is visible in the other.
This, I’m hoping, would give students real experience and skills with using real tools for composing, connecting, and learning in the types of social environments that people use in the real world...not just in a closed school community.  I’m looking forward to piloting this move to Blogger and G+ sharing with my first period class next week. 

The experience will surely give me plenty to reflect on in my next post here….

Monday, January 27, 2014

Tired and Inspired: Reflections from a classroom makerspace

I spent one week making with my students in October for our second make cycle. At the end of every day, I tried to do a little written reflection on the experience. Towards the middle of the week, I came to some important realizations that I captured in this reflection. The following post is one I adapted from the reflection I wrote after the third day of making with my students.  

I was going to post on day two, but to be honest, I just didn't have the writing in me at days end. I don't think that I have it in my today either, but the inspiration I’m feeling from the events of today is driving this post on.  Something special happened...something that wasn’t there on the first or second day...or at least not to the same extent.  There was widespread flow...that space where the subject and the object had come together and it becomes difficult to tell where the artist ends and where his or her art begins.  The kids were into it….the completely-lose-track-of-time-and-space sort of into it, and what they were making was no longer a set of boxes and pipe cleaners, papers and paint.  Kids had direction and purpose. There was still tinkering, yes, but there existed a sense of ownership that before today was only apparent in limited amounts. Today was awesome.

I was talking with other teachers before today...talking about the concern I had that the requirements that I had set forth for the project...about it being connected to students histories, future career interest, and science...were sort of falling to the wayside.  Kids were making cool stuff, but it really didn’t seem like what they were doing was considering these elements. And their makes sure as hell didn’t look like they fit anywayshapeorform into our broader Cycle theme of mapping.

But this disconnect seemed to shift today. Once students had an idea of exactly what there make was to be, they seemed to move forward with it with a greater consideration on these requirements that I had given them. This observation is important for the making classroom and teacher. This idea of “backwards planning” (or in our case backwards making), or making with the end object in mind, is closely tied to the common approach to teaching.  There is an objective, a lesson gets designed around teaching that objective, and in the end students are measured on how well they mastered that objective that was clearly understood by all involved beforehand. Yes, I do see some faults in the model (because learning is a complex thing based on more variables than can possibly be considered, and regardless how clear the objective is or how well the instructor designs the lesson, no two students are going to see something exactly the same...let alone the objective as the instructor sees it), but still, I’d be lying to say that I didn’t adhere to it a little….the fact that I was frustrated and confused when I saw that the requirements weren’t shaping students' make is a testament to my holding this belief.  

This school model, though, runs counter to the making (and learning) process.  The learner does have some vision, yes, but as the composition as formed that vision is revised and revised based on the makers' experiences, struggles, and new learning.

So, coming back to this topic of requirements.  I don’t think that they were a bad thing.  I’m just seeing now that students’ not adhering closely to them in the first days of the project was perfectly fine. I didn’t beat the requirements into them when I noticed they weren’t being considered...and I’m seeing now that was a good thing. Requirement beating wasn’t necessary. Space, encouragement, and freedom to make was. Before students fully understood exactly what it is that they were making, they weren’t yet ready to consider the requirements.  Now, with direction in place, I’m seeing all sorts of deep thinking happening on the parts of students about just how those requirements (and even how the idea of mapping) applies to their make, and this thinking is shaping the final vision...or revision, about what they are composing.

So my take away….requirements are OK, so long as they do not become restrictions. It’s fine to plant the requirement seed in the beginning, but give it space for it to grow.  It’s not possible for students to develop a close connection and vision of their make if they are making it to meet a focused objective. Let the connection happen and the make become personal. Forget the vision of what it should, or even could, look like.  Let them discover it for themselves and then figure out how the requirements should apply.
And oh, here are a few other things that I noticed.

  • space for collaboration is valuable...because of it, students draw on each other for their skills, experience, and expertise. Partnership form between individual makes already started, forming new, more complex integration of ideas.
  •’s messy, but seeing it in the hands of students makes me even more sad that art was cut.  It allows for more than just a creative outlet, it brings about really deep and complicated Maria’s Pink Floyd album-looking painting that speaks to the disconnect between humans and machines when it comes to her knowledge of the medical field...or Sebaistians' black box that connects his knowledge of minecraft to his future in computer engineering.
  • Time. An hour a day for five days is hardly enough. I worried about this before we started, but I was thinking we’d have too much. Nope, not at all.
  • Cardboard is the ultimate making material.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Excited about Subtext

Seems like I change my lesson plans every year. If I don't scrap the previous years' content, I usually at least do some heavy duty modifying. The process keeps me fresh, and there isn't a lot in my classroom that is the same year to read the Tell Tale Heart is an exception, though.  About 6 years ago I came across this interactive website where students can read and listen to Poe's story, while they also add their own annotations to specific parts of the text.  The annotations we then save and use for class discussion on subsequent days. It is always an engaging and productive where students' literacy is concerned.

But this year technology forced me to change up this lesson.  The website uses flash, our iPads don't.  In searching for a solution, a replacement for this website that I liked so much, I came across an app that met the same needs for the interactive reading piece of the lesson, and even opened up some new possibilities for interactivity and social interaction.

With Subtext, I was able to create a group for each of my classes and having students join them was a breeze.  They just signed into to Subtext with their Google account (a great recent update) and entered the group by typing in the code that the app assigned to each class. I uploaded and shared a pdf version of the Tell Tale Heart, that students in each class were then able to access.

The lesson that I planned had students re-read the text (we had read it the previous day, before I started experimenting with Subtext), and insert their own questions and reactions directly into the text of the story. These annotations could be seen by the rest of the class as students entered them, and during and after students' rereading of the text, they took time to read and respond to the questions posted by their classmates.

While the asynchronous online discussions that transpired in response to these questions lacked the energy and flow of our face to face discussions (which we still had the later part of class), I really liked how this feature of Subtext facilitated conversation that was closely connected to the text and enabled students to move between questions, revisit the text as needed, and respond at a pace that best worked for them. Often during the f2f conversations, some voices get left out and the flow of the conversation keeps students from being able to revisit and/or dig further into ideas. 

I played a little with the feature that let me create, distribute assignments connected to the text.  I made one where students had to select and tag lines that contributed to the mood of the story, then explain how the author's word choice in those lines contributed to the overall mood.  This was also awesome, but I didn't like how that since this was a premium feature, I had to distribute and redistribute student licences every class period because Subtext only provided me with 30 for free. That was about the only complaint I had. I'm a big fan of free.

Overall, I'm way excited about how Subtext met the need I had for finding technology that allowed for an interactive reading of the text. It's on my list of keepers for our class, and I'm looking forward to trying it out for other texts and purposes in the months ahead. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Transitioning to an iPad classroom

It's been two weeks since iPads have been in the hands of the students in my class, and the focus of the work we have been doing can be summed up in one word: transition.  Much of the work of my class has been carried out through various free web tools accessed via netbooks, so for my students and I, moving from pc to Mac and one device to another, we have focused on becoming acclimated by using it for processes and tasks that were already familiar.  Here's a quick recap of what we did and how it went:

Writing spaces

We use Google Docs regularly for drafting and collaborating, and Kidblog for our blogging platform. While both of these tools can be accessed from the web browser, they both also have apps for the iPad.  Overall it seemed that students had very little trouble at all moving from using these cloud-based tools on the netbook to the equivalent iPad app. Though the apps did not look the same as the interface students were used to, they were simple and user friendly so students didn't have much trouble making the change. 

The Kidblog app was a little buggy, as a couple of students lost posts that they had started writing, but the Drive app worked smootly, was reliable, and eventually most studnet who were using their blogs to draft theri writing switched to Drive, then copied and pasted in their blog to publish.  The Drive app was missing some features available on the desktop version that my students had come to love (like the ability to chat and post comments), but the writing we were working on this week didn't necessitate collaboration, so this didn't come up as an issue. I'm interested to see what happens when students do come back to writing collaboratively.  I asked one class if they were concerned about loosing this feature, to which they replied that they would find a way to make it work.  I'm sure they will.

Browsers and Bookmarking

Recently our school had made Chrome available as an option for internet browsing.  The experience of using it in my classroom has been a huge success. It was faster than the version of IE we were using, worked seamlessly with all of the Google apps, and had a Diigo extension that was awesome for bookmarking.

The mobile version of Chrome, while a great app to have, doesn't have near the features of the full version.  I do like that with Chrome you can view bookmarks and history across browsers, but not having that Diigo extension available was a huge drawback for the research that we were getting into.  My students were familiar with Diigo, and while bookmarking in Chrome is fairly simple, it doesn't offer the handy annotation features of Diigo, features that we've built our research process around.

The solution: installing the Diigo web highlighter on the iPad Safari browsers.  To do this, I had one of my classes go through the steps of installing it as directed by the app.  Of course, what I thought would be a five minute process ended up being about 30.  I eventually figured out that I could save one iPad, whose browser I already set up, as the back-up in Configurator, then when I applied this back-up to all devices the web highlighter would show up in Safari.  I've got to remember that for next time.

Students didn't seem to have much difficulty using the iPad web highlighter to bookmark and annotate, though with the touch screen it did seem to take them a bit longer to select the text on the webpage they wanted to highlight.  And as for the actual Diigo app, I ended up deleting it from the students' iPads.  About the only thing that the app was useful for was making the process of installing the web highlighter a bit easier.  The web-based version of students Diigo libraries seemed be fully functional and more user friendly.

Learning the basics of iPad navigation

I assumed that since the iPad was fairly easy to use students wouldn't have a whole lot of trouble figuring out how to use it.  And for the most part, that has been the case. iPads don't have the same ability to multi-task, but students seem like they are figuring out how to use the gestures features to swipe between different apps they are using.  For example, when when created annotated bibliographies, students had to move in and out of their Diigo library, the Bibme site, and their blog, while also occasionally referring back to model and requirements that I had posted for them on my website.  This was a bit more time consuming than what they were used to, but it was also a good exercise in learning the multitouch gesture feature, and most students when I asked them didn't seem to mind.

Next steps....

The transition from working in spaces where we had already been has thus far gone pretty smooth.  What I'm most excited about is venturing into tasks that take advantage of capabilities that are specific to the iPad.  As I'm finishing up this post, I've got some of my students in a reading class experimenting with using the apps Flipboard and Zite to create personalized magazines around topics of their choice.  In class we are also working on creating documentaries with iMovie and Explain Everything.  I'm also getting acclimated with Apple TV.  It's been a pretty awesome experience, and I look forward to writing and thinking more about it in my next post. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

In preparation for a class set of iPads...

I was excited last week when I opened an email from my technology director, letting me know that I would soon be getting a class set of iPads. A huge part of what makes this news so awesome is that I have spent the last two years engaged in an iPad pilot set up through a professor at a local university. With a single iPad, I explored the potential benefits and limitations of the device, which was in both my and my students' hands daily.

Since my students were already immersed in a technology-rich environment (most days I had my students use net-books--  researching, collaborating, and composing), the direction of my inquiry took shape around both comparing the two technologies and examining how the iPad could be integrated into our existing (PC-based) digital writing workshop.

Though the greatest limiting factor was that I only had a single iPad to work with, I learned quite a bit, and it will be this learning that I will build from when my class set arrives. But now, before that day gets here, I'd like to use this post as a space to share some of the conclusions and realizations I've made over the last couple of years about the use of iPads in my 8th grade ELA classroom. These are points that I've discussed with colleagues, shared in professional development, and presented at conferences. I'm not sure why I'm only now posting them here, but I know that I need to.  This will likely be the first of many iPad related posts.

What I've taken from the single iPad pilot: 
  • One of the greatest strengths of the iPad was its physical properties...long battery life, portability, and quick boot time. It can easily be moved from student to student, and I did not have to plan around the time that would take to turn on and be ready to use, as I do with my net-books   Since there were no moving parts, I also feel like the device will undergo less wear and tear from everyday use. 
  • Since my starting place was the tasks my students carried out on their net-books  many of the apps I first searched for were those that could carry out equivalent tasks to what my students were doing on websites accessed through the net-books. Many of the web tools I had my students use were not accessible to on the iPad or could be accessed on a limited basis. So, for example, since a student couldn't use the Piclits website on the iPad, I had to download an app like Instant Poetry to carry out a similar task. I discovered that most apps I found were inferior to the equivalent free PC web tool that the rest of the students were using. 
  • What I am most interested in learning more about are apps that allow students to carry out tasks not possible on a PC.  This is an area where I feel lies the greatest potential for understanding how best to integrate the tablet into teaching. And also, as it true with the web-based tools I have learned to integrate, I am interesting in learning more about how different apps and functions can work together in particular learning situations. 
  • The iPad was great for web browsing, media consuming. As for producing, it's great for taking quick photos and videos, and editing with iLife package apps, like iMovie and iPhoto.  
  • Most of my students initially claimed that they didn't mind typing on the iPad for writing pieces of longer lengths. Almost every student who made this claim changed their minds after a couple of days of typing on an iPad during writing workshop time; touchscreen typing was slower and more labor intensive. Students who wrote on the iPad, while they were able to use Google Docs as a drafting space with the Drive app, were not able carry out digital conferences through using the chat and comments features not available on mobile devices.  These are functions of Docs that many of my students have come to appreciate.  Not having this access is what I have come to believe will be the greatest constraining factor when integrating iPads into my class, at where our digital writing workshop is concerned.  *And by the way, I shared my concern with the students today, and they assured me that they would find a way to make it work out...and I am sure they will. 
So, I guess if I were to sum up what I had discovered through the last couple of years with toying with an iPad would fit into my classroom, I have learned that:

  1.  An iPad is not a laptop
  2. Thinking about iPads from netbook/laptop paradigm hinders their learning potential. 
I'll more easily transition to this new iParadigm after I have a class set of these devices up an running, and I am looking forward to getting that process started.  I think that ideally, though, the best learning environment for students is one where they will have access to multiple types of technology. Where students are able to use iPads for some tasks and laptops for others.  I know that this is what it's like for me in my own daily use of technology   Since I began using mobile devices in my personal and professional life, I have been in a continuous process of experimenting with which device is most ideal for particular situations.  I'm still figuring this balance out, but it seems to me that finding this balance  deciding which tool to use and when, is an important skill that we ought to give students the chance to develop in school.  I hope to explore this area is well.

I can't wait to get started...

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The literacy of the image search

The last several classes I have had my students spend quite a bit of time searching the web and learning, doing informal web research to find out just what is out there about a topic they may know little about.  In our case the subjects of our googling have in some way connected to the context of Night, by Elie Wiesel  a novel that we'll soon start reading together.  Last week we inquired into the Holocaust and World War II.  Today our lesson focused on trying to learn a little more about how the concepts of Jewish Mysticism mentioned in the first three pages of Night connected to each other, so that we could better understand Wiesel's childhood and background.

I have used this time to teach students a little about how to search the web and also a little about website evaluation. Actually, I imagined that I would be writing this post today as a way of reflecting on the process of how these mini-lessons on digital skills have gone. I'll have to hang on to that idea for another time, though, because I noticed something today that I'm feeling needs more thought.  I noticed how many of my students, while searching for information on the internet, do an image search.  It's a habit that I'm seeing become more common among my students, and I'm wanting to think more about value of it.

My first reaction as a teacher is to say, "Hey, were doing research (even as light-weight as these mini-research assignments have been)! Those pictures aren't going to give you the information that you need.  Stop being lazy and read some complex text or else you wont be college and career ready." But I don't feel like that's the right reaction.  Partially because I do the same thing sometimes....actually a lot of times.  I am reading or watching television and something sparks my interest.  I go to the web, and depending on the topic, I usually end up at some point doing an image search. Having those pages and pages of images from the web help me "see" the concept I'm trying to know in a way that searching blogs or news articles don't.  Of course, there are other times when I specifically search for blogs, journal articles, news articles, or even tweets.  Usually I'll end up meandering through several of different genres of web text, and at some point stumble across something that gets me thinking about something that makes me feel like I need to do an image search to better understand what I want to know.

By the last class of my day today, after I had the first three classes to observe and wonder about students internet searching habits and the value of image searching, I was a little more conciseness of my students' internet search habits.  I noticed that most of my students didn't begin with searching for images.  I noticed that at some point most students at some term that they searched in images. They were basically doing the same thing that I did when I sat on the couch at home and wanted to learn about something.

Both my students and I understand that there is value in having a visual reference to a concept that we want to know more about, especially one about which we are unfamiliar. Image searches are worthwhile, I don't doubt that, but I'm wondering about the place the practice has in the context of literacy instruction in my classroom.  Should I incorporate lessons that guide students in doing image searches, and what would such lessons focus on? I'm not sure exactly what the guidelines are for being an effective image searcher.  Maybe we could create some. It could also be interesting to "read" pages of images, examining the story they collectively tell, and looking at this story critically. Maybe even looking at the results as augmentative texts.  Perhaps even students' findings of image searches could work their way into the more formal research papers that we'll write later in the year....

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Caught by suprise by Kidblog

I found my self in a bit of a bind this week as my school's process for issuing students their school email addresses has been hung up.  I was planning by now to have all students set up blogs in Blogger and begin composing and publishing there.  Any account that students make online through my classroom is supposed to be created with a school email, so without them, I had to put the plans for the Blogger and Google setup on hold. 

I decided that as a temporary solution I would have students create blogs using Kidblog.  They are excited about the writing that's been happening (right now we are creating narratives), and I felt that making sure they had the space to share and respond would be important for both students' sense of audience and also for the community that we are building.  Today is my second day with using the platform, and I've got to be honest, I'm starting to reconsider just how temporary this Kidblog fix is going to be.  It seems to be working pretty well for all of us.

The set up was a breeze.  I decided to create a separate class for each of my classes, and all I had to do was share the codes that the site generated for each class, along with these simple instructions, with students.  Within minutes they had created user names and passwords, and were part of the class. On that first day, I gave students very little background about the site or it's purpose other than telling them we would be using it to compose and share our writing.  I gave a overview of how to get around the dashboard, and within 10 minutes, all of my students were writing from daybooks into their first blog posts.

Between our workshop time yesterday and today, we have had very few problems, and yea, I'm impressed. Here are a few reason's why:
  • Kidblog's user-friendly interface makes it incredibly easy for students to navigate.  It's lay-out is logical and includes the most important components that bloggers need to compose.
  • The administrative controlls makes it easy to adjust student accounts.  The number of forgotten passwords when kids logged on today was on par with what I usually see (a handful in each class), but the fix took very little class time.  I opened their profile on my iPad, let them type in their new password, and the student instantaneously was able to sign in on the netbook at their desk.
  • I could see student drafts as they were automatically saved while they typed.  As students worked I would flip through the posts they were writing and then approach individuals for a conferences as I saw appropriate. In the past (when not writing on Google Docs that they shared with me), I accomplished this by reading over students' shoulders as they wrote for a bit then initiating a conference.  The conference process today was one of smoothest I've experienced.
  • On the same note as the point above, being able to open the most updated version of their draft from my device didn't require the student and I to share a screen, a task not possible in Blogger unless a student had published the post.
  • Students could see the posts of their classmates as they were published without having to take the additional step of following each others' blog or learning to use RSS and a feed reader. Kidblog combined the benefits of a class blog while still letting students have individual blogs.
  • I was able to see comments as students posted them. Actually, I was surprised to see that students were even posting comments, since our commenting day wasn't until tomorrow. But, as I pointed out with the point above, students know immediately when a blog gets published.
I'm excited about Kidblog, and I wasn't expecting to be.  It's not new.  I've played around with it before.  I've introduced it to other teachers in my building, and led pd sessions for teachers using it in other schools.  I knew the site and its capacities well, but I made the decision last year to have my students use Blogger.  I wanted them to use the same site that real bloggers use.  To have the freedom to customize, not feel policed, and develop a sense of ownership of their digital composing spaces. I wanted them to feel like their words were on the same playing field with others in the global blogosphere.  And I thought that using a "big-kid" (not made specifically for school) blogging site, I would then have more possibilities for teaching students the real-world lessons in digital literacy. 

I still believe in the value of all of these initial reasons I had for using Blogger, but my two days with Kidblog as got me thinking if, when, and how I'm going have students make the transition to Blogger when students' emails become available.  I'll have to keep thinking and writing about that.  But in the meantime, feel free to check out what my students have been posting and leave them some feedback. I'm sure they'd love it!

  My student's blogs by class:
    Block 1
    Block 2
    Block 5
    Block 6