Friday, November 21, 2014

The Chromebook learning curve

Initially, my students' response to the Chromebooks was mixed.  Some were excited about the opportunity to use new and unfamiliar technology.  Others wanted nothing more than to have their iPads back in their hands.

But after two days of using Chromebooks, just about all of my students are team on Team Chromebook.  That's not so say that novelty or peer influence isn't a significant variable affecting students' present attitudes.  I'm sure that it is.  This transition, and pretty much universal shift in opinion, is significant though.  That's what this post is about.

The Chromebook is different than anything my students have seen before.  It's not a tablet or mobile device.  It's not a laptop or netbook.  There is no server or locally stored files and programs.   The touchpad and keyboard navigation isn't completely foreign, but it's different enough to be just a bit confusing and a little bit weird.

Initially, I thought that I would just allow students to figure out how to navigate their Cromebooks as they used them...sort of like I did when we started out with iPads. But, in a last minute decision, I decided against that approach.  Not all the features of the device are easily learned through tinkering and intuition, and students would also want to play around with this new technology.  I decided to postpone the lesson I had planned (which involved students using the devices for some web research), and have students do an activity that would give them the opportunity to learn how to use their Chromebooks.

That Chromebook 101 activity was a scavenger hunt that I modified from this one I found on the web.  I tweaked the original to better fit with how I envisioned using the device with my class.  I'd like to shake the hand of whoever made it because it's awesome.  It introduces students to the navigational features of the Chromebook, the capacities of Google Drive, and...importantly, it guides students in playing around with the one feature they are most interested in using: tweaking their profile picture and background.

When I completed the activity, it took me about 20 minutes.  I figured an hour for my students, since they were completely new to Chromebooks and they could work in groups.  It ended up taking two hours, but it was two hours very well spent because it enabled both the students and I to quickly work through the initial learning curve and gain a sense of control over these new devices as well as a sense of the cool stuff that can be accomplished through them.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Two years ago, when I learned that I would be receiving a set of iPads, my classroom use of and personal learning about technology underwent a paradigm shift.  It was a process that, from the beginning, I was exited about.  It led me down the pathway where I was able to learn about iStuff (before this, my experience was limited to the pc/andriod realm), teaching with mobile devices, and composition across platforms and apps.

Now, I'm finding myself an another (really, really, really exciting) spot where I'm going to be able to figure out how to make Chromebooks fit into teaching and learning, as I was recently told that my class was selected to pilot a class set of them for the district.

Before I begin writing about what is sure to be my next edtech paradigm shift, there is a secret that I need to share.  One that I have never before told anyone...

Back when I was told that I would be receiving a set of iPads, part of me was a little sad. I was at a place where I could have a set of netbooks in my room on most days.  I was excited about how well different Google apps were working in my teaching, and I was feeling like I had a great handle on making technology work really well in my classroom.  I felt like I found excellent balance of different Google apps,  a host of web tools, and a whole lot of writing.  I had also just began using the Chrome browser more purposefully in my class, teaching students how to make different Chrome extensions work for them.

With the iPads, the typing required for large scale writing assignments would become arduous, and since most the web tools I had been using didn't work (or at least not as well) on the mobile device, I would have to go out and find free apps that would sort of do the same thing.  The iPad was new and shiny, I definitely would have liked them in my students hands for some tasks, but I was worried that if they were the sole device my students could use then the pace and quality of students learning (and my teaching) with technology would slow way down.

Around the time when I found out that I was receiving iPads, I heard about these devices that had just hit the market called Chromebooks.  They cost way less then iPads, were purposed around the Chrome browser and Google apps, and would seamlessly fit into the system I had going in my class.  I secretly wished that it was these devices that my students would be receiving instead.  This is something  which I have never told a soul, because as any teacher knows: you just don't complain about getting a class set of iPads. You just don't.


Of course, as I learned about the capabilities of iPads, my attitude towards these mobile devices changed. There was plenty that they could do that a netbook couldn't (or just couldn't do as well), and I was really starting to like the way that these features were reshaping my class.

It was about the time that I was feeling pretty glad about not telling anyone about my initial doubts about iPads, that I got an email from my district's tech person that I would be receiving a class set of Chromebooks as part of a pilot, and that the iPads I had been using would be relocated to another classroom.

Part of me wants to keep in my initial feelings (a lesson I found valuable in the anecdote above). But a bigger part of me knows that I should write them down, because I think that it would have been really valuable of me do more of this the last time.

I'm not going to get into all the particular details about what I'm thinking about doing with the Chromebooks. Those will have to go in their own post later.  My initial feelings, I think, are what I want to get down here. So yea,  I'm a little sad to no longer have the set of iPads in my classroom.  That my students won't be using all these cool creation apps and smashing them together to compose, and I won't be continuing to read and write into an educators' conversation that I feel like I'm just getting to know and find a place in.

So now that that's said, documented, and out of the way, I also need to say that the other 80 percent of my initial feelings are pure excitement.  I'm excited that my students get to pilot new technology for the school, That I can re-immerse myself in the thinking I was doing about the Chrome browser. My students can access the full version of Google Apps and type on a full keyboard (which, by the way, almost all of my students swear up and down that the prefer to type on a touch screen...having watched them do this for a couple of years, I'm really interested in seeing how they write with physical keys).

Lastly, and most importantly, I'm excited because I know that there is so much I don't know about Chromebooks in the middle school ELA classroom, and that is soon about to change.

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.