Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Multimedia Lesson #2

First, I want to say that the new iPad update to Google Blogger is making it SOOO much easier to write this post, right now, than what I was trying to do a week ago. Honestly, I liked the look of the site when I was done, but the awkwardness of the interface pre-update for typing on the iPad was frustrating (I'm typing on a Zagg iPad bluetooth portfolio/keyboard). It was easier to just do it on the laptop. I don't need my iPad to be everything, but when it is, it makes me smile. I'm smiling now.

OK - pretty simple post here, but more amazing iPad usage coupled with good old-fashioned real paper text and using Edmodo. We booked most of our 6th graders for a field trip to downtown Portland to watch the Tears Of Joy Puppet Theater production of the Greek myth Perseus. It will tie in with our social studies curriculum later this year, and honestly, a good lesson in hero archetypes is always welcome, no? So to get the kids ready - and to address the CCSS Reading Standard 6.RL.7 - comparing the experience of reading a story with watching a presentation of the story - we read a couple versions of the Perseus myth in class. Now here's where Edmodo and the multimedia part comes in. I posted copies of the story on Edmodo, along with a version we had not read in class. I also posted PDF Venn diagram that students could fill in comparing and contrasting two versions of the story and submit for credit. AND I posted links to Youtube cartoon versions of the Perseus story because I had a couple students who were unable to attend the play. AND I posted an Edmodo poll asking students whether seeing the play had deepened their understanding of the Perseus story, Yes/No. All of this was pretty simple to put together - I'm really liking Edmodo - and most students were able to access it very easily.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Common Core State Standards, Pt. 2

One of the ways that I've worked hard to incorporate technology in my class is by acquiring eReaders for my students and the other 6th grade Language Arts classrooms. And it has been work. It's unfortunate, but the nature of public education funding is such that most of us gave up asking for money for classroom supplies years ago. I can remember the day when I used to have a whole $250 budget to use on whatever supplies my classroom needed as the year progressed. It wasn't a lot, but compared to today it was everything.

And of course education technology isn't cheap. $250 would buy a lot of paperbacks, but it won't get you far in acquiring the technology resources our classrooms need if we're going to create a learning environment that's anything like the "real world" we're hopefully getting our students ready for. So I've faced the challenge with some creative fundraising. One thing works in our favor when it comes to seeking funds; people generally like schools, realize times are hard, and want to help out kids and classrooms. Therefore, getting the eReaders for my school has been a matter of finding out where the money is and communicating the need and the expected benefits. I'm never too proud to beg, and a firm believer in the Theory of the Squeaky Wheel. You won't get anything if you don't ask, and never take the first "no" as the final word; it often just means you haven't communicated clearly enough.

Through a combination of funding from and our local school parent group, we now have 25 Nook eReaders for our 6th graders. I won't go into all the benefits here, but there are many, and after rolling out the first five eReaders last spring, I'm starting to see the increased engagement among my struggling readers that I had hoped for. I'm also seeing more willingness to read appropriate-level texts among my lower level readers who don't have to worry about other students seeing the cover of their "little-kid" books.

One of the foundations to the Common Core Reading Standards, embedded in the College and Career  Readiness standards, is the expectation that students are not only reading contempory literature, but also "...seminal U.S. documents" and classic literature. In this area the eReaders are an excellent resource. I've found the Barnes and Noble Nooks to be durable, user friendly, and - unlike the Amazon Kindle - easy to set up so that students can't go online and "one-click" order a bunch of books (or other stuff) on my dime. But both B&N and Amazon have extensive libraries of free books that can be loaded on their eReaders. And Project Gutenburg has made available for free an extensive library of books that can be downloaded easily to most eReaders, thanks to the fact that the copyright has expired on books written before 1923, so they are considered public domain.

Of course, at the 6th grade level, it will take a lot of extensive reading work for many of our students to get to the point where they can confidently tackle Moby Dick or Huck Finn with any hope of deep comprehension - and that's a topic for another post - but with proper support, many of our students can and are accessing these "old" texts using our "new" technology.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Black Friday and the Digital Classroom

Several weeks ago I was fortunate to receive a requested PTA grant for $600 to purchase additional eReaders and eBooks to add to the 5 Nook Simple Touch eReaders we're using in my class. The check hasn't been cut yet, so I've had some time to think about whether I want to continue with the Nooks - which I like aesthetically and functionally - or whether to try some of the basic Kindles, with maybe a Kindle Fire thrown in just for the sake of having a classroom tablet.

Last year I received a Kindle Keyboard for Christmas - my first experience with an eReader - thanks to the great Black Friday sale Target had on these devices ($85). I wanted to play around with the WiFi and experimental free 3G included with this model, and it's been a good, solid, unflashy device - a good eReader that can access the web and send email in a very basic way, anywhere I have a phone signal, for free.

So I've been keeping an eye out for what kind of deals would pop up this Black Friday that would allow me to get the most bang for my buck. This week the ads "leaked" and there's a couple good ones I'll probably try to access. The best for my classroom is Target, who will have the Nook Simple Touch - the same device I already have in my class - for $49. They are also offering a $60 gift card for iPad purchases (NOT on the mini, unfortunately). As per usual, it doesn't look - at this point - like Apple will allow discounts on the iPad. But Walmart is also offering a gift card ($75) on 2nd gen iPad purchases. Take the card and cash it in for an iTunes card - that's a lot of bonus apps/music/movies.

If I decide to go with a Kindle Fire, it doesn't look like that will be discounted anywhere either, but OfficeMax is offering a $25 gift card with a purchase, so if I decide to go that route I'll do that. Unless Amazon offers a better deal, which is possible.

A couple other things I found. Best Buy will offer the Zagg Bluetooth Carbon Fiber iPad portfolio case for $69. I payed $99 for mine and it was worth every penny. They will also have the Rocketfish Stylus for $7.99.

Finally, I just got a tip from a friend that Groupon is offering a deal on the Nook Color for $75. This device was originally released 2 years ago, November 2010, for $249 and was well-reviewed. It was later reduced to $169. Last month it went to $139. Walmart will offer it Black Friday for $99. It's a tablet that runs an early version of Android. It does NOT have a camera, and is not Bluetooth-enabled. But apparently has Bluetooth capability on its WiFi chip - disabled by B&N. But there's a way to turn it on, which would be great for classroom use, enabling it to be used with a bluetooth keyboard and Google Drive as a mini-laptop. This Groupon is only available for the next couple of days, so if you're interested, get on it!

Digital School Communication, Part 1

My district has one of the ugliest and least user-friendly web-based communication tools I have ever seen. It's called Web Fusion, or something like that, and looks like it was really cheap and designed to  keep teachers from using it. Which, if you're the district tech department, probably means less work for you if people just avoid using your product. After all, it's not like we're trying to make a buck here or anything. I can't even open up the site or work on it from my iPad, which tells you something. I've posted a couple of times this year so far, and maybe 4 or 5 all of last year. But it's just too painful and ugly to spend much time with it. Still,  it's what we have, so when I have a message I need to get out and leave there (as opposed to just sending on Gmail) I will use it. Grudgingly.

Last week I stood on the edge of the high dive and took the plunge, partially blindfolded, with my students, into the Edmodo waters. Wow - now THIS is how to do student-parent-school communication. Talk about a tool for flipped instruction!

If you are not familiar with Edmodo, it's kind of a combination of Facebook and Moodle. It's a private, invite only, teacher moderated networking site. I set my Edmodo account up the way I think most other teachers probably set theirs up. I created a separate "group" on the Mr. Mann Edmodo site for each of my classes. Each student enters a private group code to enroll in a class. They can access their account anywhere they access the internet. Thay also have the option - encouraged - to put their email into their Edmodo account. That way, whenever I post an assignment or whatever - let's say on a Friday night, they receive a notice by emal. As a Google Apps For Education district, all our students have their own email account and can use this. But if they have their own email they check more often, they can use that if they want.

As an example, here's what I've done in the past week or so. Twice I've posted an independent reading "bonus" assignment. Read for one hour on the Budget Reduction Day (BRD)/Veterans Day AND get a parent signature for the reading on your reading log, and there will be a treat for you in class (my kids leftover Halloween candy.) Basically reinforcing the benefit of checking the Edmodo account over the weekend - wink. I also posted an assignment asking students to comment on the Perseus play they saw on the field trip last week (I wasn't there - I was attending the AMSA conference) They could write their impressions as a response to my post. As soon as I get their response I can grade it right there on Edmodo and the student can see their grade as soon as I post it. I also posted a "poll" asking students to comment yes or no on whether seeing the play deepened their understanding of the Perseus story. Students can watch the poll to see how their answer compares with the rest of the class.

It's also easy in Edmodo to post links and attachments. I created an assignment that included reading an attached story, viewing a YouTube link, and filling in a Venn Diagram PDF comparing the two. It was simple to create, simple to post, and relatively simple for kids with a little digital skill to complete and send in.

Edmodo had sort of been on my radar, but like so much that's hyped as the latest thing, I didn't take the time to investigate. Now I'm glad I did. Part of creating an Edmodo account is joining the online Edmodo community. Basically, anything I want to learn to do with Edmodo and my students I can get help with from teachers all over the world who are using it every day. And it's fun - for me and my kids - to learn how to use this technology.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Teacher Record Keeping, Part 1

In my 8 weeks with my iPad I'm finding it an indispensable tool for my personal and classroom life. Really, its kinda like this magical little multi-purpose batman-style utility belt, but cooler. When the iPad first came out a couple years ago, I just didn't see the point. Tablet? Touch-screen? so it's kinda like a big iPod touch that you can't put in your pocket, but you can watch movies (that you buy from Apple) on it? Whatever.

Now I'm discovering it's far more than a toy. To tell the truth, I have yet to play a single game on my iPad, or watch a single movie beyond short YouTube clips for my class. Side note: today I was poking around the Reading and Writing Project list of social studies text sets, and noticed in the Ancient Rome category they had a short clip from Gladiator - one of my favorite movies (Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe/Historical Fiction). I watched it. Wouldn't show it to 6th graders, probably, but effective. YouTube is very handy in small doses.

I've found several good record keeping applications for the iPad. One, of course, is the ability to simply use the iPad for taking notes and organizing them. Evernote has been a great app for taking notes in staff meetings, data team meetings, right in the classroom, at conferences, etc. It's super easy to use, to organize, and to find what I've written. It's a "must-have" for me now.

Another super-useful record keeping app has been Good Reader. I've talked this up with a lot of people. I didn't realize I needed a PDF reader app until I started using it. Good Reader is powerful - it organizes your PDF files, and allows you to annotate them. It opens files in an eBook format, allowing for finger scrolling and easy-on-the-eyes reading. I open a lot of PDF's, save a lot of articles I read as PDF's and Good Reader makes that task much easier.

A final record keeping app I've been using a lot is the Pocket app. Pocket is a deceptively simple but super-handy tool. If you're like me, you're constantly finding online articles you want to read "later." With Pocket, you simply "clip" the article, which is saved in the app on your iPad, so you can read it at your convenience, even if you don't have a wireless hookup. A great feature is that Pocket cleans up all that extraneous clutter online articles frequently have, but keeps the illustrations that are part of the article, making for a very clean reading experience. With Pocket, it's possible to create a "save to pocket" bookmark, but it takes a little work. Follow the steps they give and you'll have a very handy article clipper for your iPad.

I just saw that they have released a Mac version of Pocket since I originally downloaded it, so it may be easier to set up now - I haven't tried it yet.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Classroom Organization, Pt. 1

One of the mantras my students learn to chant early in the year is "Successful Students Are Organized Students." (This comes right after "School Should Not Be A Place Where Young People Come To Watch Old People Work.") You wouldn't know it from looking at my desk, but I try to practice what I preach by modeling my own organization strategies in class. I have tendencies towards being a collector, but I discovered when I left Clear Creek after 12 years the great value of dumping the "collection" and starting fresh. So now I try to keep my classroom and my organization more streamlined. And with only seven years or so left in my career, I find little need to keep files of past lessons unless it's what I'm currently teaching; I've never done the same thing twice anyway, so there's not much use in keeping anything that didn't work well or that I don't plan to improve upon.

But I've also got a huge classroom library of books that, while much appreciated by my students, regularly threatens to take over the class like some literary Kudzu. I shamelessly push Scholastic book clubs every month, handing out Jolly Ranchers to kids who order and cashing in bonus points to add to the library. But it's led to a collection that is so big I really have no idea what books I have, and that's not helpful to the students as they look to me to help them find "just right" books. I used to have the time to put shelf paper on the covers to protect the books, but those days are long gone, and I've decided after I had a backlog of a couple hundred books that it's more important to just get the books out there for the students. But I've still probably got 500+ books in boxes just because I haven't had the time to label them and put them on the shelves or in bins.

I've tried a couple check-out systems for students, and once I started really implementing Readers Workshop, I decided I didn't want to take any of my time during workshop to be the class librarian and check-in or check-out books. Currently, my students use a checkout binder that has individual alphabetized student book check-out sheets. They fill out the title, author, level, and checkout date when they take a book. And when they return it they put a sticky note on the cover with their name and drop it in a return box which I empty after school every couple of days, checking the books off in the binder and re-shelving them.

Recently I've downloaded the Classroom Organizer app, and have begun experimenting with using it to  create a classroom book inventory and to check books out to students. The app is designed to sync with the program, which is a free download, but means you can't just have an iPad to set it up (not a problem for me.) From what I can tell, it just organizes books alphabetically by title, but for simplicity that's fine too. entering books into the system can be done manually, or by importing an Excel spreadsheet, which I haven't tried yet because my spreadsheet is horribly out of date by at least a couple of years (not so organized - don't tell my students!) But it's easiest to use the iPad camera to scan the barcode and enter the book that way. That's also how to check-in and check-out books.

So far I think this has the potential to be an efficient classroom organization tool, and a time saver. But I have discovered a couple of problems (for me.) I entered my students manually. Taking the time to figure out how to re-format my Excel student spreadsheets for import would have taken more time than the manual entry. I know that once I had it figured out, it would be beneficial in other apps as well, but my time was too valuable. Maybe this summer...Also, I've discovered that A LOT of the books I try to scan into the app create a "not a valid barcode" message. Maybe older books, or maybe not currently in the Booksource catalog (the creators of the app.) so if I want those books in the program I have to - you guessed it - enter the book manually. My biggest problem, however, is the thousands of books - literally - that I need to enter into the program. Even scanning would be a full weekend of work. And for the first time I can see the advantage an iPhone would have over an iPad - the hand-held size of the iPhone makes it easier to use as a scanner if you don't want to move the books in stacks away from the shelves to create the inventory. Maybe I can get my wife to come in with her iPhone and do this for me. Hah!

This seems to be the issue I face with these kind of classroom organization apps - the time that needs to be spent on the front end in set up if there's a lot of data that needs to be entered in order to use the app effectively. It's hard to make the switch from what is sort of working to what might work better when the switch takes a lot of time to get started. I know my classroom would be better organized if I had my library all entered into an up-to-date database, but getting there is daunting.