Monday, July 30, 2012

There's an App for That

It seems like there is an app for everything. If there's not an app, then there's a download. If there's not a download, then there's a website.

Need an organization tool? Need a way to record audio? Need a way to hi-light web text? Need a way to record or video chat? Need a place to store and share files, pictures, and other info?

There's a frickin app for that.

Now, I know I sound a little pessimistic. It's actually kind of amazing how easy it is to find a technological tool to fit your needs. That being said, I'm still slightly overwhelmed.

Allow me to explain.

Recently I learned about the educational uses of Skype, Evernote, Diigo, and Dropbox.

Skype is pretty much the best way to get a guest speaker/expert to virtually drop in on your classroom and give a lecture. It can also be used for group work, especially if the students are unable to meet physically. And it's helpful for getting in touch with those parents who always miss their parent-teacher conferences.

Evernote is my own personal organizer. I use it everyday to organize my class schedule and keep track of all the things I have to do. I can plug dates and tasks into a table and check off each completed task with check boxes, which are my favorite feature. I can also toggle from doc to doc within a notebook so I don't have to have a million word windows open at once. It's also very easy to add pictures or audio recordings to a note (and there's a handy little Evernote icon built into my task bar that will download something directly from the internet into Evernote).

I was not as impressed with Diigo. Yes, it's really handy if you're doing research. It allows you to keep a meta list of bookmarks (online, not in your web browser so you can access them anywhere). It allows you to hi-light, but only html text. You still can't hi-light pdf's (a huge downfall in my opinion). And it allows you to make notes. All in all this is pretty cool. But, to me, it seems like a lot of extra work when I could just print the article and hi-light it, or copy and paste the content I need into another document. With Diigo I have to log into another website. I don't know, maybe it would suit me more if it was on my desktop.

The last piece of technology I learned about was dropbox. This is a site like Cloud or Carbonite that allows you to store data online. You can also share documents with other people etc. I think this is useful, but I don't know how often I will use it, especially since I use google to share docs and that's easier to access because it's connected to my email. Yes, I think it's important to back up all your files. But, if you're like me, I have a lot of files and I've already reached my limit on dropbox. I find myself less inclined to use it now that I have to pay for more storage space or refer 25 friends to get the space I need. 

Now, it's true, these last two pieces of technology are totally useful. But, for me at least, I find that I really only have room for a few tools in my toolbox. I like to have a hammer and screwdriver handy. These are tools I know and with which I'm familiar, but give me a full case of tools, drawers and drawers, and not only do I not know what to use, I just avoid the drawer completely because there are too many items from which to choose. My life is complicated enough without constantly worrying about what internet program I should use or wondering where I stored a particular piece of information. Figuring out where I put the info and accessing it sometimes takes longer than just putting the info in a word doc or in Evernote or just writing it down. Paper is still useful!

I think that's why I like Evernote so much. It's kind of a one-stop shop for all my organizational/educational/instructional needs. I can't handle all the other tools. There are just too many. I have so much going on that basic, non-complex technology is what I crave. I am a simple girl. I like paper and lists and technological tools that mimic such items. I'm just not adept at organizing all my organizational tools. 

Although, I'm sure there's an app for that.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Angry Birds and Twitter: How to Use Tech as a Teacher

How do I use technology in my classroom? And what does it actually look like in practice?

Last Friday there was a guest speaker in my Teaching with Technology class. For the life of me I can't remember his name (I tried to find the info, but to no avail). So, we'll just call him John. Who knows, this might actually be his name.

John is a math teacher. This year, he was teaching his students how to solve parametric functions and equations. I'm not really a math person, so I had to look up what parametric means. According to wikipedia, a "parametric equation is a method of defining a relation using parameters. A simple kinematic example is when one uses a time parameter to determine the position, velocity, and other information about a body in motion."

Now, he did what any good math teacher would do. He taught his students formulas, he gave them problems, and he made them practice. But, for good measure, and quite possibly good fun, he also let them play a game that uses parametric functions.

"What game would that be?" you might ask. And I would reply "Didn't you know Angry Birds is a perfect example of parametric functions in play?"

So, he made his class fun and interactive by having the students study and learn how parametric functions work and then required them to use their knowledge to play Angry Birds, a game most of them were already familiar with and enjoy.

This part of his class was a success. 

And it made me think about how I might use something interactive like this in my own classroom. So, I did something that "John" suggested I do as a teacher. I went on twitter and I started following some of the teachers in my field, English, to see if they had any suggestions for how to use technology in an English classroom. 

What I found was a wonderful source of teaching tools, plans, and general information (most of the tweeters aka "Tech-Savvy English Teachers" suggest technology to use, or suggest resources that are found through a technological medium such as a website, dropbox, blog etc.). 

Here is what I found: 

A new website. (Wow, seriously, what a resource for lesson plans and ideas. Search for a piece of literature or browse the lesson plans. They've got objectives, detailed lesson plans, resources and extra resources. It's kind of beautiful)

A handy worksheet located in dropbox (which can be found here) on how to get students to figure out what a word means using context.

And a series of free video lectures (please go here) on how to use the ipad to improve/meliorate your teaching.

So what have I learned? Technology can be pretty darn helpful for teaching. I mean, look at all the resources I found and I was only trolling twitter for a matter of 15 minutes. Granted, it took me about an hour to suss through all the resources and pick out the relevant ones, but in the scheme of things that really isn't too long to spend.

What else? Technology can open up communities and discourse. Seeing John discuss how he used technology in his own classroom was inspiring, but not too helpful since I, as an English teacher, will never touch the subject of parametric functions. 

However, his suggestion for using Twitter as a knowledge base is something I will continue to use to find resources and suggestions for teaching. It's the whole give a man a fish versus teach a man to fish argument. 

Albeit, in my case, it's show a girl how to use angry birds versus teach a girl how to tweet and find tweets. 

I suppose, however, any way you look at it I'm being shown the bird. :)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How Do I Make My Classroom Like The Legend of Zelda?

In James Paul Gee's article "Good Video Game and Good Learning," Gee discusses how teachers can create a better classroom environment if they emulate the world of video games.

He points out that gamers and games exhibit several qualities needed for the classroom.

One such quality is interaction. When you talk or interact with a game, it talks back. The environment and characters react to your actions and questions.

Wouldn't it be wonderful, Gee asks, if your classroom was just as interactive as a video game? Wouldn't it be lovely if your teacher provided you with constant "feedback and new problems"?

Another quality Gee discusses is risk-taking. When gamers play a game, taking risks is part of the process. There are no overwhelming consequences if you do something wrong the first time. If anything, failing is how you learn. Once you've failed once, twice, three times etc. you can restart the game and try again. This time, use what you know about what doesn't work to your advantage.

If only students could develop this kind of attitude toward school. Wouldn't it be super if they didn't care what their classmates thought? Wouldn't it be awesome if they didn't care about failing and cared instead about learning and advancing to the next stage (or perhaps level)?

Gee also talks about well-ordered problems. The games don't have you fighting the boss right away. They start easy and slowly advance through varying levels of difficulty until you're ready to face the big bad.

In teaching, we call this scaffolding. Wouldn't it be amazing if all teachers layered concept on top of concept until the students were ready to deal with the larger issue? Wouldn't it be fantastic if you learned how to swim before being tossed into the deep end? Gaming shows us it's better to take small steps first.

I could go on and on about Gee but I think you get the point.

Jane McGonigal (not to be mistaken for our favorite transfiguration professor), is a game developer who also sees the value in gaming. For her, if we can emulate the qualities exhibited by gamers, we can change the world.

She says in her TED talks video, "Gamers are super-empowered, hopeful individuals. These are people who believe they are individually capable of changing the world."

Gamers, for McGonigal, are defined by their Four Virtues. The first is Urgent Optimism. This is the "desire to act immediately, to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable chance of success."Gamers have a profound faith in themselves. They believe that they will succeed in their play. If we all could show that kind of optimism who knows what we could achieve?

The second virtue she mentions is Social Fabric. Mcgonigal says "playing a game with someone requires trust, bonds, and cooperation." Gaming, she says, teaches us how to work together, especially through games such as World of Warcraft which is a multi-player gaming format. If we could better cooperate... well, you know what would happen.

The third virtue McGonigal discusses is Blissful Productivity. She says "We are happier working hard than we are relaxing or hanging out." We, as people, need challenges. We need to work hard to maintain a level of happiness and satisfaction. We should use people's natural inclination toward hard work and success and use it to solve problems.

And the fourth virtue she mentions is Epic Meaning. "Gamers," she says, "love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions." We want to know that our actions have meaning. We want that story, that tale of adventure, and we want to accomplish something great, something epic. It's engrained. By giving people the chance to prove themselves, perhaps they can create, enact, or facilitate a change of epic proportions.

"The only problem," McGonigal points out, "is they [the gamers] only believe they can change the virtual world... [they're] using games to escape real world tragedy." Her solution? We make the real world more like a game.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Revised Soda Ban Lesson: Question Everything

After class last Friday I rethought how I might use Mayor Bloomberg's proposed soda ban as a basis for a lesson. Originally, my idea was to have the students do a pseudo 60 Minutes piece on the ban, using multiple characters and perspectives to make the video well-rounded, informational, and enlightening.

But after working in a group, during which time we all contributed information and ideas, my lesson plan has been considerably fleshed out. Seriously, it's almost like a real boy now (See Pinocchio).

We decided we wanted the students to examine bias. We would assign them a character, someone who would actually be affected by the soda ban, and they would be required to do research and write an opinion editorial. This Op Ed would be completely biased in their character's favor. The students would be required to misconstrue the facts from their research in order to "support" their opinions.

After finishing their Op Ed, they would present their findings to the class. Then, as a class, we would discuss bias and propaganda and how it can be used to skew the facts. We would then show them famous examples of propaganda in history, such as the famous video the Nazis created doing WWII which depicted Jews as rats as a way to establish racial bias and hatred.

When we are finished looking at these examples we will then discuss the far-reaching effects of bias. How can bias change an idea, a people, a nation?

The main point of the lesson will be to encourage the students to question everything.

As consumers of information our students must become filters, not sponges (thank you Stephen Chbosky). They must examine and question all they see. Even if all includes what their parents, teachers, friends, and religions say.

This point, and this lesson, is so much more involved, much more important and far-reaching than the lesson I originally planned. I realize, after this experience, the importance of collaboration. I understand how helpful it be can to see things from other perspectives.

I too should question my own motives, my own lessons, my own ideas in order to make my teaching as effective as possible.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Soda Ban: Merely Fizzy Fodder? Or an Opportunity for a Carbonated Colloquium?

Last May, NYC's Mayor Bloomberg proposed a ban on soda. The basis for his proposal is "sugary drinks make people fat, therefore restuarants and the like must reign in their super-sized soda pops."

This is my quote, not his, but I think it gets the point across.

I'm not going to offer an opinion on what I think of the ban (boring, I know). Rather, I'm going to talk about how I would use this piece of news as the focal point for a lesson plan.

Since it's news I figured I would stick with a newsy theme (Not to be confused with the full-length movie musical, The Newsies, although if the kids want to warble and tap dance while they do the news that's fine by me).

The students will split into groups and film their own expose (please excuse the lack of accent over the last "e" in expose, apparently blogger does not support pronunciation indications). This is like their version of 60 Minutes (Minus the trepid-inducing ticking watch, because I hate that part) based on the soda ban.

This expose will include roles for each student. Students can choose to be an interviewer, a legal expert, an economist, a restaurant or business owner, a soda industry representative, a voice over or narrator, and/or a civilian who is effected/has an opinion on the ban. How many characters they use is up to them. They can play one or more roles. This doesn't matter. What does matter is accomplishing the aims of the assignment.

The students can be for or against the ban. Heck, they can even be responsible journalists and report on both sides. If they want to insert quirky commercials or break for the weather that's fine by me, as long as they hit the four central themes: What are the financial implications of the ban? What are the social implications of the ban? What are the legal implications of the ban? And what are the moral implications of the ban?

Financial implications should look at how the ban affects local businesses and corporations. Will they experience more profits or not? Why or why not?

Social implications should look at how the ban affects society. Does the ban affect any social groups? Why or why not? Are these effects good, bad, non-existent?

Legal implications should look at the legal aspects of the ban. Is the ban legal? Why or why not? What other kinds of laws might pass because of the ban? What precedent will it create?

And finally moral implications. Is the ban morally correct or not? If you think it's morally correct do you still think it should be passed? (Just because you think something's right does not mean you want it legalized) What about if it's immoral? If you'd rather not pass moral judgement please explain why.

The purpose of the assignment is not to determine the students' opinions on these issues, but to get them to think metacognitively. I want them to imagine what other people might be thinking, how other people might act or react, and I want them to comprehend why people are thinking and acting in this manner. Using technology to film their exposes makes these questions, opinions and actions visual. It  conveys the group's understanding to the rest of the class in a very explicit way.

If they want to convey something more than understanding, for example, if they want to demonstrate explicit hilarity, they will conduct every interview, every dialogue while holding a diet pop and/or impersonating Michael Bloomberg.

Why? Because it's funny, at least to me.

But, you may say, you can't force students to be funny. That's cruel and unusual (pretty much abberant). You're supposed to be a teacher with ethics . . . and stuff.

And I would tend to agree with you. I can't force them to be funny.

I can, however, ask for entertainment in exchange for extra credit.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Books vs. Technology: Let the Old Friends Meet the New

I always thought I was a by-the-book learner. I don't mean that I learned the way "I should learn," or perhaps how "the teacher wanted me to learn," whatever those things mean. No I mean, quite literally, that I learned by reading books.

Reading was, for the most part, a good learning method for me. I liked reading. I owned several books. Books were a familiar and trust-worthy medium.

To put it bluntly, books were my friends.

Yes, that's right, friends. When I moved to Michigan ten months ago and stuffed my chevy impala with my life's posessions I ended up with a 1:2:2:10 box ratio. One box of pictures and mementos, two boxes of clothes, two boxes of kitchen ware, and ten boxes of books. You might well imagine the argument that ensued when my fiancé begged me to leave a few boxes behind (because, after all, he needed to fit his possessions in the car too). In the end I looked at him with tear-filled eyes and said, "I can't leave them. These are the items that will make me feel at home. These are my friends."

Now, at this point you might be saying a number of things to yourself: A) "This girl is crazy." B) "How in the world did she fit all those books in her car?" and C) "What does her obsession, or rather personification of inanimate objects, have to do with learning?" To which I would answer: A) "Well yes, but just a little." B) "Several of the boxes went on top of the car, not inside." And C) "Let me explain."

Because I had always primarily learned by reading books, the idea that I might learn and especially teach using other methods, such as technology, was a revelation. It was also slightly horrifying.

I found myself thinking, as I sat in my Teaching with Technology course, things like "That's ridiculous!" and "What kinds of shenanigans will they suggest next?" and "Don't they know books are sacred?"

And it's true, books are absolutely lovely. And it's also true that technology is sometimes horrifying. There's a wealth of information out there, not all of it good, and most of it not private.

But technology can also be beautiful. Especially if it's used for good. Especially if it's used to reach and teach children in new and interesting ways.

In Bill Sheskey's article "Creating Learning Connections for Today's Tech-Saavy Student,"he gives an example of how technology can be used for the good of the students. Sheskey brings a digital camera to class and starts taking pictures of his students as they are working on their science projects. At the end of the class he shows the students the pictures. What happens is amazing. The students start critiquing, analyzing and asking questions. They are able to see what they did wrong, what they did right, and what they can do to improve. This is visual learning at it's finest.

And it started me thinking "What are some ways I can incorporate technology into my classroom?" Yes, I'm an English teacher. Books will always be my primary focus. But understanding is acquired in many ways and through many mediums. Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could use technology to make books more accessible? Or use technology to relate the texts I'm teaching to other issues and ideas?

I could let my students watch a TedTalks on how schools can promote, rather than destroy, creativity. I could let them listen to the radio version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or War of the Worlds. I could have them record their own version of Macbeth for the class to watch. I could have them perform a radio play or podcast play of the court scene in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Suddenly, the possibilities are exciting and many. Suddenly, technology does not seem quite so scary. Suddenly, I have new friends and new tools to better help my students.

Now, I know what you are wondering. You're asking, "Did you discuss this new relationship with your other friends? Do the books know?" And even if you weren't wondering I'll tell you anyway.

Yes, I spoke to them. Every good relationship needs honesty. And I was. I was very honest. The books were quiet at first. Contemplative. Wary. But, eventually they came around to the idea of using technology in order to help students better understand texts. After all I was doing it for them, wasn't I? I planned to use technology only as a means to help students "get" what they're reading.

So they agreed. But on one condition:

They get full ownership of the book shelves.