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The Digital Farm

15 Nov

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 1.24.35 PMI grew up in the Midwest of the United States, so many people (not from the Midwest) assume I grew up on a farm. Far from it. We Neals are not the handiest or hardiest of folks. We didn’t fare well in the fields and quickly found white-collar work. I grew up around farmers, though, and I understand, though admittedly secondhand, the combination of intelligence, dedication, creativity, sacrifice, and hard work required of those in agriculture. I know I would be utter rubbish at it. Yet, the metaphor of a farm has helped me change the way I am teaching some of my English classes. My students and I have been using a digital farm concept to structure our study.

I first heard of the digital farm idea from Alan November. Quick plug: if you ever get the chance to attend November Learning’s Building Learning Communities Conference held each summer in Boston, go. My BLC experiences have been some of the most practical, rewarding, and provocative professional development I have ever had.

In my experiments with a digital farm, every student is given a chore (or two). Over the course of a predetermined time period (I find students need about two weeks to try out ideas and make multiple attempts), each student must make a meaningful contribution to everyone’s learning in his or her assigned role. Students may contribute in any way and at any time, too. If they are, for instance, designated a Feedback Provider they could still make a contribution as a Big Thinker. Also, depending on the size and personality of the class, I assign multiple students the same role. Students may work with partners or alone to fulfill their task. Students must also communicate with me in a timely fashion so that I can plan our lessons around their contributions.

At the end of each chore cycle, students complete a journal reflection and their work. I give one-to-one feedback, and then assign new chores for the next cycle.

Visit our Digital Farm wiki for a complete set of jobs. Some jobs are not assigned but come up in a rotating fashion. Discussion Leaders and Student Scribes work this way, and I will make a future post on the Student Scribes concept I learned from Darren Kuropatwa.

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Animoto Tips and Tricks

3 Nov

AnimotoAnimoto makes you look good…really good. Their simple interface makes creating professional quality slideshows soooooooo easy. If you don’t know about this site, go there now. You can get started making videos of up to 30 seconds in length without paying anything.

Even better, if you’re a teacher, the good folks at Animoto will give you a free, full-access educator’s account that gives you (and your students) six months of full service. When your six months are up, just contact them, and they will keep hooking you up with new codes and more service. Some of the themes and features require a professional account (another paid level), but the choices connected with free educator accounts are vast.

I was recently playing around on my phone and made this video in less than 30 minutes. The mobile app is quite elegant and user friendly. That short video inspired me to offer Animoto to all the grade 10 students at Frankfurt International School.

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Looking Good: Better Visual Aids

16 Mar

Visual AidsI prefer Goldilocks-sized conferences—not too big, not too small. I always meet energized, creative teachers and leave with ready-to-use ideas, as well as broader pedagogical questions to ponder. Earlier this year I attended the ELMLE 2014 conference in Berlin. One of the highlights was a session with Joyce Valenza, librarian extraordinaire whose human-centered, practical use of technology was very inspirational. The wiki she created for the session is filled with so many wonderful tools and ideas, I find myself needing to curate her curation in order to focus in on what really matters to me. I’ll write several posts condensing this session, but in this post I want to focus on some sites and tools Joyce shared that can improve the visual aids we use in our teaching and learning. Continue reading

Putting It Out There: Take the Time to Publish

5 Dec

commaJust a short anecdote from an English 9 class that gives me a boost and reminds me why it is worth our time to make the extra effort to publish online. I have written before about how I use macros and AutoText to save time when giving feedback on writing. In a recent essay, one of my students was making a chronic comma error, one that I dub The Most Common Comma Error in the World. My AutoText comment to her was, “Remember our quick lesson on the most common comma error in the world? You make it time and time again, but it’s easy to fix.  Hint: the comma in that last sentence is a clue as to what mistake you’re making.” One problem. I never taught her class anything about this topic. Obviously, I thought I had.

Yet, it was not really a problem. She just Googled the phrase “The Most Common Comma Error in the World” and watched the video I had posted on this same topic years earlier. She viewed the video and made her changes.

It was a microscopic moment of flipped teaching, but it was one that reminds why I take the extra effort to share my work online: Continue reading

Wikis as Textbooks

7 Apr
Is it just me? Every time I hear WIKIS I think about wookies.

Is it just me? Every time I hear WIKIS I think about wookies.

Let’s be honest. Wikis are ugly. At least the wikis I make are not sleek and arresting in a visual sense. Yet, I use wikis in a variety of ways that I find elegant and interesting. Think of them as a ten-year-old Toyota Corolla. They usually won’t turn heads, but they run beautifully and always do what they should.

Wikis as Textbooks

This past fall, I taught a brand spankin’ new public speaking course based on TED talks. I had never taught public speaking, so in preparation, I searched for the perfect textbook. I have never used a textbook in any class, but my own insecurities where sending me looking for some solid backup. Well, I didn’t find the perfect textbook (because they don’t exist). Instead, I decided to have the students create their own textbook using a class wiki:

Public Speaking Class Textbook

The experience reinforced my belief in constructivism. While far from perfect, our self-constructed textbook served our purposes perfectly. After giving their first speeches, I asked the students, “O.K. Now that you’ve given one speech, what do you think you need to learn?” Their answers became our chapters.

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Interactive Video (Part Two): Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker

16 Mar

Mozilla Popcorn MakerTo my shock and horror, my students claimed to have never seen a PopUp Video. They were vaguely aware of VH1 and suspected that some old people still watch it? If it even exists?

We were brainstorming uses of Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker, and I was sharing that a colleague had a great idea of using the free online tool to make a PopUp video of a presidential debate. As candidates make their claims, viewers could fact-check or point out rhetorical techniques, completely changing the viewer’s experience. A quick search and fifteen seconds of the Ghostbusters’ Theme Popup had them back on track. (They actually knew what I was talking about after all.)

Recently, I have been exploring how to make online videos more interactive for the viewer. In Interactive Video (Part One), I reviewed TED-ed’s Flipped Video Interface. In this post I will examine Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker, an easy way to take most anything that exists on the Internet and “lay it” over a video or audio track.

For my first experiment, I took the same video I flipped at TED-ed and used it to explore Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker. I have about two hours invested in this current version, and after a colleague gave me some time saving tips, I found the interface to be simple and intuitive. I suggested the tool to some students, as well, and they picked it up without any instruction on my part. In addition, some of my colleagues and I brainstormed uses for Popcorn Maker during a recent  in-house professional development session. Feel free to add your own ideas to this list! As I collect examples of the various ways we use the tool, I will share them.

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Crash Course on YouTube: Pure Gold

10 Mar

I have always liked the way Hobbits celebrate their birthdays. Instead of receiving gifts, they give a small gift to their friends and loved ones. In this way, nearly every single day of the year, a hobbit receives a small present. What a wonderful way to go through life.

Today is my birthday, so let me give you this small gift: subscribe to the Crash Course channel on YouTube. One of my star students (and the guy’s last name actually is Starr!) recently showed me John Green‘s analysis of The Great Gatsby, and I just had to pass it along:
(Also, there are a few more gifts in the other links I provided.)

Interactive Video (Part One): Flipping at TED-Ed

9 Mar

TEDedYou, like me, have spent a fair amount of time watching on-line videos. Who can blame us? When we need a break from grading, routines, or vacuuming, lovely owls, talking dogs, or five people playing one guitar are irresistible draws. Of course, video can be a powerful teaching tool, too. You surely are amazed by my obvious commentary. No? Well, let me try to impress you, then.

Two free online tools—Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker and TED-ed’s Flipped Interface–can make online videos more interactive. I am still in the early stages of experimentation with both, and my students are using the tools, so my opinions are still very much developing. Yet, at this nascent stage, I am intrigued (and harbor some reservations). In this post I will focus on the TED-ed channel’s “flip” interface.

You have probably already been to TED-ed. If not, stop reading this. Go there now. I’ll see you in a few hours.

TED-ed is a valuable resource for classroom teachers, a nicely edited platform with many visually arresting videos on a variety of topics. The “flipped” videos already have comprehension questions and supplemental resources built in.

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A “Typical” Day in a 1:1 Classroom (Part Two)

6 Feb
Beaver Country Day School

Robin working with his students

I love to know when my posts are “landing” or not, so please comment if you find this line of reflection helpful. When I sat down to record my thoughts on how teaching in a 1:1 classroom influenced one school day, I was not prepared for how many thoughts came out. This post is a continuation of  A “Typical Day” in a 1:1 Classroom: Part One, so read that first if you have not already done so:

 

Rhetoric 11

Membean Vocabulary Quiz / Discuss the class novel / Honors lessons / Revise literary analysis mini-essay

I see my classes five hours per week, with an optional sixth hour available for additional one-on-one help. This means three days a week I have a one hour block, one day a week I have a two-hour block, and one day per week I hold optional office hours during an “x-block.” This schedule has had the biggest positive impact on learning of any schedule I have ever encountered in my teaching career.

As in my sophomore classes, I began this class with a vocabulary quiz via Membean (explained in part one post):

Additional advantages of each student having a personal laptop:

  • While students take the vocabulary quiz, I run a report of their Membean activity for the week [see below]. I require students to log at least 50 minutes per week and encourage them to complete short sessions (5-10 minutes) every day. Through the report I can tell who has completed the work in a timely manner. I can even tell if students have just left the program open for 50 minutes but not used it continuously during that time. (Unfortunately, I…like you…have some students who cut such corners.) After the quiz I quickly check in with each student, addressing issues of incomplete work.
Membean Post

A weekly Membean report

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A Typical Day in a 1:1 Classroom (PART ONE)

2 Feb

Of course, a typical day in any classroom does not really exist. Our routines, systems, and practices serve our students, so when dealing with the individuals in our care, each day takes its own unique shape.

Yet, there is some use in examining a “typical” day in my English classrooms. For the past four years I’ve been lucky to work in a 1:1 school. I have found the advantages of having students “wired in” far outweigh the disadvantages.

For those who have not lived in a 1:1 laptop classroom, the very idea of it can seem Orwellian—students jacked-in to ear buds, mesmerized by a glowing blue screen instead of the far more interesting human beings around them. I have found, however, the reality of a 1:1 room is quite different. Every day I am convinced instant access to customizable technology can be a crucial component in making learning more efficient and dynamic.

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