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.