Wednesday, 4 November 2015

5 Awesome Google Chrome Extensions

We recently started exploring the use of Google in our classrooms -- Google Chrome, Google Classroom, Google Chromebooks. There are literally hundreds of awesome things you can use to improve education in the Google environment, and it can be seriously overwhelming at first. Fortunately, there's an easy place to start: by having your students add some extensions to their Chrome browsers.

What Are Extensions?

Extensions run inside the Chrome browser. If you set Chrome up to sync, your extensions will load no matter where or how you log into Chrome. They are different than apps, which are basically websites preloaded into your browser. Extensions improve the functionality of Chrome, and subsequently of everything you do online.

How Do I Install Them?

You can install extensions through the Chrome Web Store, even if your organization does not usually allow you to download and install programs (for example, .exe files). 

Which Ones Should I Get?

Too many extensions will slow down your browser speed, so try not to get too excited and install a thousand at once! Here are the first five extensions I would have students install.

1. Google Dictionary

This simple extension creates a dictionary icon in your browser bar. Students can click it to get instant dictionary access, or highlight a word on a website and click the dictionary to see the definition. 

2. Adblock Plus

We've all gone to great websites with inappropriate ads. With Adblock Plus, that won't happen anymore: it's an extension that blocks advertisements. This is particularly useful with kids, who have a tendency to either stumble across the single most inappropriate ad on the internet, or get confused between ads and content.

3. Beeline Reader

Beeline Reader creates a colored gradient in blocks of text on a website, improving readability for many people. It eliminates end of line confusion, because your eyes automatically track to the next line. Students can even take a reading test on the website to see if Beeline Reader will help them.

4. Show Apps in New Tab

This is a ridiculously simple program: all it does is make it so that when students open a new tab, instead of seeing the Google search page, they see all their apps. This can be really helpful for students who have trouble locating their apps, or type very slowly. It's also just convenient.

5. One Tab

If you have students who tend to have a lot of tabs open in one window -- or if that's a problem you suffer from -- you'll love One Tab. With the click of a button, it condenses every open tab into a single window, giving you a list of links you can click on to reopen your tabs. This is a handy way to clean things up at the end of a class.

These are the first five extensions I had students install, but I'm sure there will be many others we discover throughout the year!

Question of the Day:
What Chrome extensions do you find valuable? 

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Thursday, 22 October 2015

Keeping Classroom Technology Organized: Tips

With more technology come more headaches. With every piece of tech that comes into your classroom, you need to worry about who's doing what with it, who left what unplugged, who stuffed that iPad under a couch cushion... it can become a logistical nightmare.

Fortunately there are a few tips and tricks I've picked up along the way -- many from my colleagues and how they keep technology organized -- that can be really helpful when it comes to organizing classroom technology.

Tips for Organizing Classroom Technology

1. Label everything

If students in your school share technology, it's extremely important that they know where to return it to. If something CAN get mixed up, it WILL get mixed up. All of my classroom technology is labeled as 6S - 1 (in ascending order). All of our school technology is labeled with numbers corresponding to their shelves on the carts where they live.

2. Know who is using what

Assign your students a number, and have them always use that number in technology. I also have a sign up chart in my classroom on the whiteboard, and when students take a piece of technology, they must write their name beside what they took. That way when the recess bell rings and I find Chromebook 6S-4 lying on the floor, I know exactly who left it there.

3. Label the cords, too

You don't necessarily need numbers, but if you have more than one kind of technology in your class (for example, I have a mix of Chromebooks and laptops) with similar cords, it's very helpful to mark them with some bright tape so students know at a glance what plugs in where.

4. Organize the electrical outlets

These seems silly, but it's super easy to get a mess of tangled cords under the counter. Organize the plugs as much as possible so that they're easy to access and plug in. Otherwise, students will just not bother, and you'll wind up with a bunch of doornail dead pieces of tech.

5. A place for everything...

I am not the most organized of teachers. I try, but it's an area where I fall down. But even I know that if the technology isn't always in the same place, it's going to be inaccessible. Have a specific storage spot for tech in your classroom and in your school. Bulky carts need a place where the fire department won't start screaming about them and kids won't trip over them. 

With these simple tips, you can keep your technology from becoming an unmanageable mess!

Question of the Day:
How do you keep technology organized at your school?

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Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Why Aren't There More Language Arts Games?

Why is it so hard to find good language arts games?

You want to play and learn math? No problem. We can hook you up with a dozen different games, all spectacular in their own way, that teach the concepts you need, provide great practice, and keep students interested and occupied.

Looking for ways to learn through games in social studies? Check out Games for Change, or SimCity, or even Minecraft. Again, tons of awesome, fun games kids can use to explore the social studies curriculum.

Science? Ditto. Roleplaying games, activities, all kinds of excellent resources for science games online.

But when it comes to language arts, there’s just so much less. If you’re teaching kindergarten through grade one, there are a few decent phonics games out there, although even those are a bit spotty. Division one students (K-3) have some good options in terms of things like Raz Kids which, though not a game, is a great site for reading practice with some gamified elements.

But when it comes to teaching English Language Arts past the grade 3 level, your options plummet into virtually nothing.

There are just so few games you can use for teaching grammar, writing, and reading skills at an advanced level, and I never understand why. The few games I have seen at the higher level are mediocre at best. The few good ones (iCivics, for example, has a really good game for teaching persuasion and arguments which would lend itself well to teaching persuasive writing) are so heavily American in focus as to render them virtually useless to anyone outside of the United States. Other games have loose English applications – for example, Scratch, which teaches programming but can definitely extend to lots of Language Arts applications. But it does not teach the actual concepts.
There are definitely reasons for this. It’s not hard to create a game that targets specific practice elements – for example, multiplication facts or grammatical concepts like blends and vowel sounds. 

Once you move to higher level concepts, you can’t make those simple, practice oriented games anymore. You have to create games like SimCity that apply concepts at a higher level.
And that said, ELA concepts don’t lend themselves as easily to games as a concept like “understanding local government.” So it’s not easy to make a great language arts game at higher levels.

That said, there are some great opportunities here for educational gamemakers. Text adventure games are one example of a way students can incorporate reading and writing directly into a gaming experience. There have to be other ways to create interesting and engaging language arts experiences through gaming.

Question of the Day:
Are there any good Language Arts games for older students?

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

What About the Introverts?

Our district's PD group recently linked an article called When Schools Overlook Introverts. You can read it by clicking here, but the gist of the article is that the new group centered, collaborative approach to learning is very difficult for introverts to work with, and that many students find it easier to learn (and that they do better academically) in more traditional settings; quiet classrooms, seated in rows, with independent work.

This article struck home to me because, as a pretty serious introvert myself, I often find the field of education difficult. I love collaborating with others in certain situations, but I also find it easiest to get things done when I work by myself. I also find extended collaborative sessions somewhat exhausting, and find I get stressed at meetings and in groups.

Fortunately, education provides many opportunities for both introverts and extroverts to excel. Although a certain amount of collaborative work is beneficial, expected, and encouraged, I do have lots of time to come up with ideas on my own.

So what about our students?

Creating Realistic Classrooms that Cater to As Many As Possible

I've always been quite aware of this dichotomy, and of the need to structure classrooms to appeal to as broad a range as possible. Like many classrooms (and like the ones censored to a certain degree in the article), I've done away with separate desks, and my students sit at communal tables. If I had my way, I would do away with the tables, too, and have couches or bean bag chairs and clipboards.

That said, though, I always make it clear to students that they do not have to stay at those tables unless we are specifically doing group work. There are noise canceling headphones in abundance in my room, so students who do not want to work in groups can always find a quiet corner, slap on some headphones, and work on their own.

Some projects definitely have to be done as groups. Some certainly have to be done alone. It's not really possible to structure a classroom so introverts can ALWAYS work on their own and extroverts can ALWAYS work in teams. But finding a balance and providing as much choice as possible is the best possible compromise. For example, I very often provide options (work on this as a partner, in a group of three, or on your own). I think that striving for that balance is the best way to suit all students -- and it's important to keep in mind that even introverts can be social, and even extroverts benefit from time spent independently.

Question of the Day:
How do you structure your classroom for introverts AND extroverts?

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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Three Awesome Ted Talks About Video Games in Education

We hear it all the time: video games are bad for kids. They're making us fat, stupid, and slow. They stunt our vision, ruin us for social interactions, and take time away from valuable pursuits like physical activities and homework.

These ideas have become so pervasive that I even have students in my class proudly inform me that they "don't play video games because they would rather be doing stuff than staring at a screen." And that's a perfectly valid perspective -- ANYTHING in excess is problematic, and video games are certainly not an exception. Kids absolutely should be reading books, playing with their friends, and engaging in physical activity.

But that doesn't mean video games are the monsters society sometimes crafts them to be. I've been watching a lot of videos on the subject lately, and here are three that just might help you convince people that video games are not only acceptable, but possibly even -- gasp! -- beneficial.

1. Your Brain on Action Games by Daphne Bavelier

Daphne Bavelier meticulously lays out the scientific evidence for playing action based video games: action games, she argues, improve vision, result in increased ability to multitask, and make us more perceptive and aware. It's hard to argue with science based results like these!

2. James Paul Gee on Learning With Video Games

This one's not actually a TED Talk, just games based learning guru James Paul Gee on some of the reasons video games are awesome learning tools. James Paul Gee is responsible for one of the more compelling arguments I've ever heard about how we learn: he compares trying to read a video game manual before playing a game to reading it after, and points out that what seems an incomprehensible jumble before makes perfect sense after. Could a textbook, he suggests, be the same?

3. School Mods: Gaming the Educational System by Jonathan Schenker

Finally, here's a great opportunity to hear from a young person, a student himself, about why video games are excellent supplements -- or indeed, even core materials -- for teaching the curriculum. Schenker's points are not particularly revolutionary, but hearing them from the perspective of a student making his way through high school is a powerful experience!

Question of the Day:
Why do you use video games in your classroom -- or, if you don't, why not?

For me, I use video games for a multitude of purposes. They increase engagement, they allow students to work at their own pace, they eliminate the penalty of failure, and they often do a better job of illustrating a concept than I ever could, just to name a few!

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Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Five Reasons to Use Technology In Schools

Recently a colleague mentioned several studies suggesting that educational technology does not help students learn better or improve test scores. I don't think this was a shock to anyone -- technology on its own doesn't do much at all, just like a textbook or a pencil, without appropriate instruction, doesn't do anything. If technology could replace good teaching, we could all retire.

Some studies have actually shown that technology decreases learning, providing distractions from education. This is undoubtedly true, in the same way that reading books or solving puzzles can distract from other subjects if used inappropriately. That doesn't mean that anyone would say kids shouldn't read or do puzzles, though, and it doesn't mean that we shouldn't use technology. It just means we should be using edtech appropriately and with proper instruction. In that way, I really do believe technology is a massive asset to education, and here are five reasons why.

1. It prepares students for life after school

We have to face facts: technology is a major facet of most people's lives, and it's not going away anytime soon. Students need to be prepared for this part of modern life. Sending them into the world with no notion of how to use basic technology -- illiterate, as it were -- and without coaching on the ups and downs of social media is setting them up for disaster. School provides a safe place to explore these concepts.

2. It's a Godsend to the organizationally challenged

I have a confession: I am that person. You know the one: running around frantically searching for the piece of paper I had just a minute ago, and oh my goodness, where did I put the remote control when I started looking for the paper? For me, technology has prevented me from losing important documents, from leaving sensitive information in insensitive places, and allowed me to become much more organized. I know it does the same for many of my students.

3. It allows greater flexibility in accessing information and completing assignments

There are so many things students can do with technology. They can write blogs, they can pursue creative endeavors with things like Glogster or animation apps, they can watch videos their teachers have prepared so that the learning moves at their own pace... None of these things on their own will create greater learning, but used effectively by a tech savvy teacher, they definitely have the potential to help it along.

4. It extends community

This one's ironic, because it seems like someone is always worried about how technology cuts us off from one another. And there can be truth to that. But on the other hand, technology like Edmodo allows students who might not interact outside the classroom to communicate. It gives students the tools to answer their own questions for each other without contacting the teacher and eliminates the excuse of "I didn't know what was for homework." It allows parents to see what their children are working on regularly, rather than relying on students to fill them in. And it provides greater and more immediate communication between teachers, students, and parents. All of these are positive extensions of the classroom learning community!

5. It motivates students to work

Technology by itself may not result in fantastic learning, but if it convinces a student who has a tendency to give up to give things another try, so much the better. Everyone learns differently, and while some students will do better with a pencil and paper -- and that option should never be eliminated -- many will find a new motivation to write, research, and learn if they have a digital project to work with.

Question of the Day:
What's the most powerful use of technology in your classroom?

One of my favorite tech applications is still Edmodo. It's a great way for parents, students, and teachers to keep in touch.

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Friday, 11 September 2015

A Few More Great Apps

Welcome back to another exciting year of games based learning. I once again took the summer off blogging after the madness that was ISTE 2015, so now that I'm back, I want to take a moment to talk about some really great apps for education I was introduced to in my sessions.

If you're at all interested in flipped classroom learning, Touchcast is about to become your new best friend! With Touchcast you can do all sorts of things: create professionally looking videos, call up a whiteboard to provide explanations, take students to websites. The app calls itself a professional TV studio in your pocket, and that's a pretty accurate description. 

Puffin does exactly one thing, and it does it well: it allows you to view flash based sites on an iPad. It won't become your regular browser because it's ad based, but it's a lifesaver when you suddenly realize a site uses flash and all that's available is a stack of iPads. 

Hakitzu is an introduction to coding that uses robot combat to teach basic coding concepts (what more do you need to know, really?). It doesn't go particularly in depth and won't stand alone to teach programming, but as an introduction or hour of code activity, it's a fantastic way to engage and motivate young programmers. 

There was a lot of great info on display at ISTE, and I'll send it out over the next few weeks. But these were three apps that really stood out to me -- I spent a lot of time playing with and exploring them!

Question of the Day:
What's your favorite educational app?

My favorite app varies, but I'm a huge fan of both Wuzzit Trouble and Remind, both of which are incredibly useful to have around.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

ISTE 2015: The Final Countdown

Today I finally got to a Minecraft session. Hooray! I spent 90 minutes in a session on using Minecraft to code. The session suffered from the same problem as many ISTE sessions: too much talk and not enough practical, with much of the talk being somewhat patronizing (did you know teachers need methods of getting students' attention?). Also, the session said it was for Minecraft advanced users, but the first half hour was spent learning to play, which was frustrating.

That said, most of the session was okay. We did a lot with red stone, which allows you to create circuits, and physics experiments. There was a very small amount of coding, which was rather disappointing given that the session title was actually about code. In the last few seconds of the presentation they mentioned Learn to Mod, so I may check that out. It was fun to explore a bit more in Minecraft, but I didn't get out of the session what I hoped I would. 

We finished ISTE at a BYOD session on digital learning and badges (and wow, had the crowds thinned out by then). The session had some good points about recognizing informal learning and using badges. I particularly liked how she talked about how badges shift from "what do you know?" To "what do you value?" And "what did you do?" But to be honest you could just feel the energy in the room draining. It was the last session of ISTE, and I think people were tired and hungry and ready to sit back and process information.

Overall thoughts on ISTE:

-I would have liked more time spent on practical advice, less on telling us that we should be using technology in our classrooms

-There are amazing teachers around the world who are doing some incredible things with technology

-The exhibitors scanning us got creepy and weird. And they were really offended when we didn't allow it. 

-ISTE's reputation is well deserved. There was something here for everyone, and it was well organized and structured. 

-There are a lot of cool things I want to buy, and it's a good thing I'm not in charge of our school budget. 

-I have so much stuff to sort through, you guys. SO MUCH. 

And... That's pretty much it for me. I'll be blogging sporadically throughout the summer and will return to weekly updates in September. So find me on Twitter, and I'll see you once I've sorted through 




Tuesday, 30 June 2015

ISTE 2015, Day 2 Retrospective

Today started out with a session on using iPads to create media across the curriculum. There were some good points in this session. Technology is not new -- people have always argued against new technology (went on to suggest that if the printing press was invented now, people would argue about how it was destroying oral skills). The 21st century marks a dramatic change from media CONSUMERS to media PRODUCERS -- with kids leading the charge. Some of the types of media production we looked at:
  • Time Lapse Photography using an app called Animate, although there were several free ones we found on the app store as well
  • Stories and personal essays created through using personal drawings or cut outs with photographs in iMovie
  • PSAs and assessments of visual mediums like physics using videos created in apps like iMovie
  • Working with green screens to do various things, in this case weather reports. You can download apps specifically for green screen or just use iMovie.
There were some interesting ideas here, and it definitely inspired me to use more video in my classroom.

We made our way through the poster sessions and, once again, were totally overwhelmed by the resources and activities available. I will sort through them at some point and pass on the ones worth exploring, but suffice to say there are some incredible educators here doing amazing things with their students.

We continued on to a presentation called App Smashing Your Digital Story. App Smashing is the process of using multiple apps to compile a story, video, or presentation. By this point the spotty wifi access was starting to get on everyone’s nerves. It's understandable, given the 20 000 attendees, but frustrating at a technology conference. 

This all came to a head when, fifteen minutes into the presentation, we still had not begun due to technical difficulties. The frustrated presenter struggled with his technology while several assistants gathered around and the packed crowd played on devices. It took 22 of the 60 minutes to get the projector working, which was unfortunate. However, once we got going, it was an interesting session on using diverse apps chosen by students to create digital stories. Here's an example of what he did:

-Start with Explain Everything and create a video
-Export to camera roll
-Import to tilt shift video, which lets you speed things up
-Export to camera roll and open in iMovie to add voice overs to fast video 

When choosing apps for smashing, look for any app that you can save to the camera roll, because then you can import it in iMovie and the like. Unknowingly, I did this exact same thing with my 1 Second Everyday video this year, pulling it into iMovie to add music and flash for the kids.

More posters, more information... was starting to get overwhelming at this point. We tried to get into a few more sessions and they were all full, so we strolled into something called Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse, which was instantly different from the other sessions we'd attended, if only because of the Carl Hooker's grotesque zombie makeup.

He was really great and worth listening to, and talked about how to survive the craziness of our digital world, especially for kids.

Some of the key points he covered...

1. Balance: having time for everything

2. Location: using your technology at appropriate times and places

3. Time of day: not using your tech to the extent of sleep deprivation. They also mentioned that bright light at night can reset your internal clock, making it harder to sleep.

4. Aloneness: being able to sit alone and not freak out, and having time to reflect and think.

5. Interruption: being interrupted by alerts in the middle of a conversation.

"It's not about the device; it's about who's holding the device and how they're using it." I love the idea that tech is really just another tool in the classroom. It's not the only or primary means of learning, but it's a great way to provide another tool.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the learner playgrounds, which was great fun. I connected with a lot of people from the Metagame Book Club and Games MOOC. This has been the coolest thing for me about ISTE: getting to meet in person all the people I've met online. 

Monday, 29 June 2015

ISTE 2015: Day One In Review

Now REwriting this entire post because my iPad crashed and deleted everything I had written... May be a more condensed version as a result. Grrrs. This was originally supposed to be part one, but not much happened in the rest of the day -- I started feeling nauseous and the last session was looking to be dull, so we checked out an hour early. I'll be back later today for day two!

So we started our day in the labyrinth that is the Philadelphia Convention Center (note American spelling... I can conform!). The area stretches over several buildings but room numbers have little way to distinguish which building you're in, and it's kind of a gong show. Still, we found our way to our first session on coding with all ages. 

Although there were some great examples of projects students had done and a few suggestions of apps and programs, they were mostly suggestions easily found in a quick google search, such as Scratch and (both great programs by the way). The majority of this presentation focused on why we should teach coding and programming. We're already here -- we're on board! I was hoping for more practical advice about teaching coding to students -- actual activities we could try in these programs. 

Disappointed, we moved on to the Exhibitor Hall, an Orwellian nightmare of people trying to scan your name tag, which contains all of your personal info, so they can market to you later. Eventually I ripped off the scannable part of my name tag and put an end to that noise, at which point I was free to enjoy playing with robots and exploring exhibits, and meeting the cool people from Graphite face to face!

My next session was on using commercial games and was fantastic. Paul Davarsi, Peggy Sheehy, Steve Isaacs, and Justin Eames did a great job of showcasing the cool ways they use games like Minecraft, Portal, and Gone Home. Their use of games based learning seriously puts me to shame, so if you're at all interested, please check them out. 

Next up (after twenty minutes hyperventilating in a corner to recover from crowd anxiety), I headed to a workshop on Chrome apps... With my iPad. Yeah, poor planning on my part. Nonetheless. The session opened by berating teachers for using technology as digital worksheets, which made me nervous, but there were some great apps presented. In addition to obvious ones like Google Drive and AdBlock, they suggested:

-Extensity, which allows you to easily manage apps and extensions
-Data Saver, which compresses pages to save bandwidth
-One Tab, which compresses all open tabs into one open page for easy access

There were also some excellent subject specific apps:


-Readability, which works on any browser. This cleans up all the extraneous info and just gives you the text of the document you want kids to read. You can also share or download the page as an ePub file. 

-Google Dictionary, which let's you highlight a word and pull up a dictionary.

-Beeline Reader, which creates a coloured gradient that makes text much easier to follow. It also allows you to set pages to open dyslexic font. 

-EasyBib, which collects citations to help kids create a bibliography. 

-Padlet Mini, which gives you a quick way to add things to Padlet (I love Padlet), a resource board you can use independently pr collaboratively. 

-Webpage Sticky Notes, which lets you put stickies on websites (permanently). 

Assistive Technology Tools:

-Read and Write for Google, which is similar to Read and Write Gold. This extension pops up in your address bar and lets you highlight, read text out loud, and the like. This one is paid, but free to teachers. This works closely with...

-Snapverter, which takes a picture you've uploaded to Google drive and allows Read and Write to treat it as text. 


They also pointed out that you should always, always explore the options on apps and extensions, which seems like sound advice. 

ISTE in a word so far... Overwhelming! If I could add a few more, though, I'd say fun, interesting, and inspiring. More to come, internet friends. Signing off for now to find ice cream, because summer.