Thursday, 23 February 2012

Readers Adapt Their Strategies for Reading Online

At UWCSEA East, we have been implementing Reading Workshop (also known as Reader's Workshop) to help our students develop into fluent, capable and effective readers. Our Literacy Coach Michelle Goodison has been supporting teachers in this framework, and a lot of professional development has occurred to help teachers introduce the strategies that help students best learn to read.

Increasingly, much of our reading is done online, but there is little research out there to help teachers transfer strategies from offline to online reading. Making Sense of Online Text (Educational Leadership, October 2005, Volume 63, no 2, pages 30-35) is one of the better articles I have read on the subject, but even that was written in 2005!

So what to do while the world catches up with this 'new' way of reading? Adapt our existing strategies for reading online as best we can.

We are lucky to have Mac computers at our school which have a lot of in-built features that support reading online.

We introduced three to Anne Marie's 5th Grade class, taking care to connect them to strategies they already use offline.

The three strategies we introduced were:

Avoiding distractions
Click image to download the original
We teach our students to find a comfortable place which is well-suited to reading. Online, we can easily get distracted by the visual noise of a website - the advertising, the animated gifs, the links to other pages.

Using Safari, many articles have a button called 'Reader' in the address bar. Clicking this button strips the distracting information from around the main text of the page, leaving you a clean interface to focus on.

Solve Challenging Words
Just as students collect and solve challenging words in their offline reading, we can easily define words from within Safari using the built-in dictionary. Select a word, right-click (either a two finger tap or conrol + click), and the dictionary appears with the definition, right in the web browser.

Students need to be reminded to look for the definition that most makes sense given the context of the word, as we would expect offline.

Organize Thinking
Taking notes on the main idea and supporting details in a piece of writing is also important as we read. Choosing Print, then Open PDF in Preview from the print menu, and finally clicking on the pencil icon, allows students to highlight and annotate text.

For teachers, this is particularly interesting, as the PDF can be saved together with the student's annotations, meaning you can see the effectiveness of their note-taking. This is useful in showing the progression of researching online, taking notes, and finally writing in their own words.

While we introduced these strategies to Anne Marie's class, I flipped open my laptop and captured some video of the process. I hope this helps others introduce their students to some tools that can help them read effectively online.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

More Minecraft Musings

Want to know what our kids are capable of achieving in just over a week? Here are some photos to show you some parts of our world! 

An aerial view of our world
I believe this is a Spleef Arena (but will need to clarify!)
Rain on our plane
A flotilla of boats
Our Minecraft ECA met on Monday, and it was great to check in with what happened over the week. Top on my agenda was to get a list of all the students together with their usernames - I found it hard to remember who was who!

We refined some of our guidelines based on student feedback, including: 
- If you've built something, put a sign with your name on it, so we know who made it. 
- Ask if you're not sure about how/where to build something - someone will help.

A group of students worked on developing a training area, so newbies like me would have a place to learn without accidentally smashing things (yeah, sorry about that Rogan). I look forward to learning the ropes soon!

One of the younger students asked if it was ok to copy something that someone had built. The general consensus among players was that it was fine. Then Liam added, "As long as you acknowledge it," and Mohit said, "You've got to modify it a little bit though - remix is ok." I then gave an example of the hot air balloons (in the first photo). Rogan made the first one (with the colours of the Union Jack on it), and Kenneth made his own one, changing the colours to those of the Irish Flag.

I'm not sure if they realised it, but they now have firsthand experience with Creative Commons - they know what it feels like to be a creator and have your work used. Tacit permission has been given to the group to adapt and remix, as long as attribution occurs.

I check in to the server every night to see what's being built, who is on, how the conversation is going etc. The students have been super impressive. I'm really proud of their efforts.

So where to next? I plan to contact Redstone Host to see if we can get a second server, which we will run in Survival mode. The G7 Moderators are already planning to go in early to prepare a training area for Survival, as it's quite a different style of game play.

I wonder what the kids will have created when I next log into the server...

(cross-posted at Tip of the Iceberg)

Friday, 17 February 2012

Massively Misunderstood Minecraft

Overheard in the lab: "My Mum says she can't believe UWC is offering a Minecraft activity. She says it's a waste of time."

Me: <breathe>

DM from @jplaman:


Me: <breathe>

I guess it's time!

This blog post is proving hard to write. I have rewritten this paragraph about 14 times, mostly because I am trying not to sound embittered! I am saddened that the educational potential in games has once again been overlooked. 

As Katie Salen, professor of design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design so eloquently put is:
There is a long history of understanding games as sort of leisure activities, as a kind of waste of time. And that when we see kids playing games that maybe our first reaction is to say, "Oh well they're just playing, they're just kind of wasting time." There isn't a sense of even sitting down with the child and asking them... "What's going on in your head right now?" Because if you sit down and talk to a game player about what they're doing, an incredible narrative will come out of their mouth about the complex problem they're working on.  [see the full video here]
I was lucky enough to spend time with Rob Newberry and members of his Minecraft activity who visited our school to show our Techxperts activity the basics of Minecraft. It was very clear to me that Rob was onto something pretty spectacular, and we had to get involved! [Rob is a fantastic resource on setting up an ECA for Minecraft, and Minecraft in general. Without his help I wouldn't have been able to try!]

 Without further ado, I started a Minecraft activity at school which met for the first time on Monday. It was absolute chaos. We were setting up accounts and running around madly trying to get everyone into the school's Minecraft Server (thank you Redstone Host!). Thankfully I had some of our UWCSEA Techxperts there to help me out.

Anyway, at the end of the first session, I wasn't sure how things were going to work out. I'm convinced Minecraft has spectacular educational value, but this activity is my own qualitative research experiment.

I decided to log in to the server at home and see what - if anything - had happened since school finished.


As soon as I had logged in, I realised I had completely forgotten ALL commands, including, crucially, how to move and how to talk! By guessing that if I pressed 't' it might let me talk, I managed to chat to the few kids that were logged in and were already excitedly talking away (hopefully unaware of how utterly useless their teacher was at that moment). I asked them how to move - they told me to double-click the space bar, and up I flew.

 Flying high above our world, I saw that it was a hive of industry. Houses had been built. A mountain top swimming pool was constructed. People were creating.

 One of the students, Kenneth (G3) wanted to show me his house, so I began to follow him. Unfortunately, night was falling in our little world, so I could no longer see where he was going. I could still chat, so typed, "I can't see where I'm going! Where are you?"

[Advance notice: I think this is AWESOME!] Kenneth solved the problem by putting down a series of glow blocks, which emitted enough light so I could see where he was going - a modern day Hansel & Gretel breadcrumb trail. Genius!

Mohit, Liam, Victoria & Aguistin's Pirate Ship 
My next obstacle came when I wanted to take some screenshots of a pool built at the top of a mountain. Every time I pressed shift+command+4, I started to sink (as the command for going down is shift). 

I complained in the chat that I kept sinking when trying to take a screenshot, and once again, Kenneth came to my rescue. He suggested building a block beneath me, so I wouldn't fall. Makes a lot of sense eh?! The solution was there, but I certainly didn't see it. I love the creative thinking that Kenneth and other players have demonstrated in the short time I've been involved. 

Rogan's Soup Kitchen
Day 2 of our server being open showed remarkable progress. Evidence of collaboration was everywhere. One student suggested a walkway (which several of the students pitched in to help with, complete with glow blocks for night time use), signs with directions appeared, pirate ships emerged along with 5* hotels. A soup kitchen was built. Organisation was appearing amidst the chaos. 

So what learning have I seen to date? How long have you got? 

Collaboration & Team work - A culture of collaboration appears to have existed from the beginning. According so some of the players, some people log in and say, "Who needs some help?" and away they go. I have been particularly pleased to see that Grade 7 students have been working alongside Grade 2/3 students on particular projects. This isn't something I directed them to do (though I am certainly fostering it now), it's just something that happened. 

Now we're starting to get players come up with creative ideas which require a slew of people to assist them. Generally speaking it seems to be a very open culture where suggestions are more often than not accepted and enhanced by the involvement of each new member. A sense of pride in their accomplishments show they understand the value of hard work, and how it feels to have completed something they have put effort into achieving.
Rogan's Hot Air Balloon
Creativity & Innovation - James Paul Gee states in his video for Edutopia, "Kids want to produce, they don't just want to consume."  It's pretty clear that the students in our Minecraft activity are incredibly creative. Day 3 (today) brought the addition of a theme park, more boats, more hot air balloons and a castle. They have organised their world to make it more efficient and more aesthetically pleasing. It's quite literally a privilege to watch. 

Mathematical Understanding - spacial awareness, area, construction, volume... Interaction with Minecraft can only serve to enhance a student's comprehension of mathematical skills and concepts. Imagine if we teachers took Minecraft into the classroom to help students learn these concepts. Engagement would be through the roof, I'm sure. [Students, I'm working on it! Give me time!

Collaboratively Constructed Walkway by Mohit,
Rogan & Victoria
I could go on, to talk more about problem solving, communication & social skills (no doubt I will, in a later post!), however as usual, it's better for me to stop talking for the kids and let them explain their learning in their own words. Victoria says,
Minecraft is a combination of frustration, excitement, and pure adrenaline. It widens your mind and you can get inspired very easily from other people's creations. You can also learn various tips from more experienced players and most of all you just have fun.
What Victoria so eloquently described was a culture of remix and amplification. Taking someone's ideas and adding your own personal spin on it.. It's a new way of learning (think YouTube videos that go viral and spawn thousands of remixes) in which everyone has something to contribute, something to add, something with which to inspire others. Marius says,
Playing Minecraft makes us think about what we can do to build up a "city". Through this, we enhance our creativity and art skills. We also have to use our logic and physics skills, in a sense where we know where the water (or lava) will flow and where we need to build things to make our constructions work.
Leadership and peer-learning opportunities - Games level the playing field. Tom Chatfield notes that, "A virtual world is a tremendous leveller in terms of wealth, age, appearance, ethnicity and such like..." It means a child can be an expert, a student can be the most knowledgeable source of information. What a powerful concept for a young person  - I have something of value to offer my peers and teachers.

This, to me, is vertical interaction on a horizontal playing field. We are combining people of all ages to work together using the same resources to create something special.
Victoria sold Kenneth chickens from her Pet Shop
As Joseph Joubert, the French essayist famously said, "To teach is to learn twice." In the context of Minecraft, the students are a very supportive community, keen to help newcomers (such as myself) develop their understanding of the game. This fits in beautifully with  Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger's Communities of Practice theory of learning, where,
"It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally."
Face-to-face friendships develop through similar online  interests, and this is becoming evident as we continue to play. I have enjoyed the opportunity to reconnect with students I taught previously, as well as learn more about the ones I teach now.

James Paul Gee speaks of these communities of practice as "passion communities" constructed via social networking, where members are usually held to quite rigorous standards in their area of passion. To the novice, feedback is given, support is provided, but standards are not be lowered.

George's Lava
I hope every parent of a student playing Minecraft takes the time to sit next to their child and really ask them what they're doing, why it's important to them, how/why they create things, and what they're learning. I'm sure they'd be gobsmacked at the responses. How many actually take that time I wonder?

I'd like to thank the members of the inaugural UWCSEA Minecraft Activity for their supreme awesomeness, their willingness to help me learn and share their burgeoning world, which is the product of hard work and fun, all rolled into one.

I'm tired. I've been dipping in and out of this post for far too many days. There's so much more to say, but it's 9:24pm. The server closes in 6 minutes and I want to see how my kids are going. Goodnight!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Getting Connected - the Why and How

Screenshot via
The question of why connect is an important one for us to consider. Of course, being connected can lead you to lots of great resources and ideas for lessons, but what we are really talking about here is connecting with people. It is through these personal connections that you can build a network of professionals who are not only filtering and curating information for you, but also becoming "go to" people you can get to know and have professional conversations with.

The reason why we do this is best summarized by David Weinberger:
“As knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it. It’s not that the network is becoming a conscious super-brain. Rather, knowledge is becoming inextricable from—literally unthinkable without—the network that enables it. Our task is to learn how to build smart rooms—that is, how to build networks that make us smarter, especially since, when done badly, networks can make us distressingly stupider.”
-- David Weinberger
author of Too Big To Know
As a school, we are very focused on articulating our individual and team goals with the goals of the college so in one sense, there might not seem like there's a lot of room for a teacher to get creative. However, there is room for creativity and differentiation in our approach and how we teach.

Best practices are already being shared between individuals on the same "team" in many cases, but we should also be cognizant of broadening our scope, stepping outside of our metaphorical "boxes" to learn from each other. If you're a Math teacher in this school, how many things do you know about that are going on in the English classes? If you teach in our Infant School, what approaches to guided inquiry are they using at Dover, Tanglin, Yokahama, or UWC Maastricht?

All this matters not because we feel like we're behind other schools or need to "keep up." The reason it matters is partly due to how our students learn and how they will continue to learn in their future.

 The world's information is networked, but so are an increasing number of its people. The network allows us access to fellow practitioners, people who've done what we're trying to do and are maybe just one small step ahead of where we are.

It allows us access to experts in various fields. They are gathering places for passion-based communities that drive each other forward.

By connecting with people online we can gain access to their ideas. We can also gain access to them allowing us see how they think, what they're passionate about, and how they're learning.

Who do you connect with online? How do you connect?
What "rooms" are you in and how do they make you smarter?

Mizuko Ito and her team at the MacArthur Foundation’s program in Digital Media and Learning refer to three very different types of networked learning behaviors:

Hanging out
"Hanging out is not simply relaxing and taking it easy, it is immersing yourself in a new context and understanding how that context shapes and creates meaning. Those skills are going to be increasingly important for the 21st century, so I think we need to be careful not to underestimate the importance of hanging out in the way we talk about it."

                                                          - John Seely Brown
                                       author of A New Culture of Learning                                        interview with Forbes magazine 
Hanging out means following closely for the purposes that are mainly social.  You are in the room trying to find out who the people are, what they're interested in, and how the interact with one another.

Messing around

Messing around occurs once you understand the "rules", norms and people in a space and is characterized by a more intense interaction with the digital media.  Participation in the community begins to emerge as you begin to try things.  Interacting in this way help you deepen your understanding of the way the group functions and how to get the most use out of it.

Geeking out
"This genre primarily refers to an intense commitment or engagement with media or technology, often one particular media property, genre, or a type of technology."
                                                                                                                                                               -Mizuko Ito
                                                                              HANGING OUT, MESSING AROUND, AND GEEKING OUT
                                                                                                             Kids Living and Learning with New Media  
                                                                                                                                               2010 MIT Press p. 65

You're in this level of participation when you become deeply immersed in the network and the tools surrounding it. There is an intensity about your use and interest in the project and the technology or media with which you are working. Immersion in a personal learning network (PLN) definitely fits the description of "geek out" participation.

Here are some ways to become engaged in an online PLN:

Talk to an expert - it is always nice to learn from someone who is passionate about a tool, so search out someone you know who is walking the walk. (Your friendly Digital Literacy Coaches - @jplaman, @klbeasley and @louisephinney are three good starters for 10!)

Twitter for Teachers - This blog post has some good suggestions for teachers new to Twitter. You'll find tips, explanations to common misconceptions, and some great suggestions to get you started.

UWCSEA Twitter List - follow your UWCSEA colleagues on Twitter

UWCPD Hashtag - check out the #uwcpd hashtag for links to interesting resources, quotes, ideas and more.

Google Reader
Talk to an expert - Deb Gordon is using Google Reader with her Grade 3 students, Katie Day subscribes to all sorts of interesting things, and Annabel Howard gets a lot of new ideas from the blogs she follows. Follow up with these three, or learn from someone else you know using Google Reader to make them smarter.

RSS in Plain English - Lee LeFever explains how RSS (Really Simple Syndication) works.

Talk to an expert - we have many superusers of Diigo at UWCSEA East. Sit with Dave Caleb, Katie Day, Mary van der Heijden, Miles Beasley or the DLCs and get them to show you what they know.

Social Bookmarking in Plain English - a video by Lee LeFever explaining how social bookmarking works, using Delicious. Delicious is very similar to Diigo, so the same things apply, albeit with slight differences in interface.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Dealing with distraction, 5 tools to help you get things done

We have chosen to give our students in grade six upwards their own Macbook. This has obvious benefits to their learning allowing them to create, collaborate and communicate with digital tools that they always have at their disposal.  However, as Spiderman said:
There's no question that digital tools can be tremendously distracting. Our students have told us that, typically, they will go through a period of "experimentation" when they first get a new tool, join a new network, or find a new game. This stage (hopefully quickly) reaches a peak followed by students discovering strategies to help themselves deal with the distractions. Interestingly, they told us that what they really need is a consequence, like a bad grade, to make them realize just how much this is impacting them before they take steps to regain control.

Here are five tools that you can use to help deal with the digital distractions:

1) iProcrastinate is one of the most popular applications for our students.  It lets you create "subjects" that can match your school subjects and then create "tasks" for those subjects.  You select the "due date" and can set them up for repeat if needed.
For example, you might create a subject like "Activities" and set up a repeating alert for "Paws for a Cause" that meets every Monday at lunch. iProcrastinate lives in your menu bar at the top of your Mac and you can easily pop it open to see what you've got coming up.

As a bonus, unlike simply using calendar notifications, you can create "steps" to complete each task and even associate files that are relevant to the task.
This is a great program to use if you find yourself forgetting assignments or meetings and to organize all the bits and pieces that go along with them.

2) SelfControl is an application that you can configure to block certain web domains to help you not be distracted by the Internet. You can configure the app to prevent incoming email, block Facebook, web-based games, or any web domain or IP address.
Once you start SelfControl, you move the slider to block your listed sites for a set amount of time. The best part is that you can't undo it once you've started, not even by restarting your machine!

This is good for those times when you have a couple of "culprit" sites that suck away your hours (I'm looking at you Facebook). 

3) OMMWRITER is a funky text authoring tool that you can fire up when all you really want to do is write. It is a full screen app so blocks the view of everything else with a simple, zen-like background.

OMMWRITER would be a great addition for anybody who finds themselves distracted during the writing process by the temptation to try every font, color, style and layout found in full-featured word processing apps.

4) Pomodori puts a timer with a tomato (italian - Pomodoro) icon on your Mac. You can use it to set a specific amount of time for yourself to focus on one task. The idea is based on the Pomodoro Technique  of setting the timer manually which gives you a physical cue that now is the time to focus on work for a 25 minute period. As a way to motivate yourself, and prove that you're actually on task to your parents, you can tally up the Pomodoros as you complete them.

5) Set up a "Study Buddy" account with Parental Controls if you find yourself unable to resist the urge to open Skype just for a little chat while you study. Note: students do quite often use Facebook, Skype, and Twitter for homework help. But, if you think the balance might need adjusting, one approach you could take is to create a restricted account on your Mac.
Basically, what this means is that you can still maintain your regular account with normal access to everything (and everything that could pull you off task) and you create one or more accounts that you manage with Parental Controls.

Then, when you want to work in an environment with less distraction, simply log in to the "Study Buddy" account and away you go.  Check out the guide to 1) setting up the account and 2) configuring folder sharing so that you can access folders from the Study Buddy account.

What apps do you use to help you avoid distraction and stay on task?

*in collaboration with Katie Day

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

doing more with diigo

Diigo is a great way to keep track of all of your bookmarks in the cloud so that they can be readily pulled up on any device connected to the Internet. Yes, and...  there's a whole lot more that it can do.

Diigo works best when it's tools are integrated right in to your browser.  You can install the tools for any modern browser and enjoy the convenience of bookmarking, highlighting and annotating without interrupting your work flow.

Try this:

  • Use the Highlight button to highlight text on a web page.  Your highlights stay and are visible to you when you come back to the page.
  • Open a web page with an image and "right click" on that image...  you can save the image directly to you diigo account.
  • Create a Smart Folder for a praticular tag.
  • Join a Group and explore the sharing aspects of the group.  (UWC Teachers)
Using diigo with a class.

 You can create a group for your class(es).  Check with your Digital Literacy Coach to see if student accounts have already been made.  The best way to get them into your group is to choose option 3 - invite by email.
Establishing a Tag Dictionary for your group allows you to better organize your information and eliminate similar words that mean the same thing (i.e. Math, Maths, Mathematics).
You and your students can save things you bookmark to your group along with your annotations. As an added bonus, you can embed a widget that displays the group's links in your website, course page or blog.

What interesting uses of diigo will you try with your class?

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Hello Diigo

Your tasks for today will be to:

- sign up (with an educational account)
- create a bookmark
- think about using effective tags
- join the UWC Teacher Group

So what is Diigo?
Diigo is a social bookmarking tool that allows us to organize, store, manage, and search online resources. Diigo allows us to also highlight and tag these bookmarks. And the other great feature is that your bookmarks are not housed on a particular device so you can access them any place any time.  

And what can Diigo do for me?
So what can Diigo do for you? One thing it can do is bring great resources right to you. Here are a few samples of some recent Diigo bookmarks:

Sample Diigo Bookmarks
Things that I recently bookmarked and shared

Bookmarks from Miles, Jeff and Mary in the UWC teacher list:

Bookmarks from a group I follow - Literacy with ICT

Other Diigo Resources:
Diigo help page
A video on how to annotate, archive and and organize 
Students using Diigo

Date Night - Top Apps for Global Travelers

The following Apps are my pics for Best Travel Apps Ever, and ones I will be putting to good use this summer when I travel to Europe.

TripIt - One of the easiest & most useful travel apps is TripIt. You simply forward your flight confirmations and/or hotel bookings, and TripIt will put together a wonderful itinerary for you, complete with essential booking references, confirmation numbers and maps of surrounding areas. Best of all, it's FREE! This is my number 1 travel app of all time.

Packing Pro - If you're anything like me, you have a tendency to overpack for trips, meaning I often lug around unnecessary items. I also manage to forget at least one key item every time I travel. Well, no more! This app can give you pre-prepared lists for various types of trips, or you can customize your own lists, meaning you will be well-organised for your next trip.

Travel App Box - This provides several useful travel apps in one, including offline maps, currency converter, tip calculator, basic phrases, pictionary, emergency call numbers, travel games and more. The offline maps in particular, I think will be extremely useful for those between-wifi moments.

Google Translate - When traveling, instant translation can be your best friend. Google translate can even 'say' the words in the language you desire.

Dropbox - Putting key documentation in Dropbox when traveling can be extremely useful. I have photocopies of my passport and green card in my Dropbox, just in case.

Pocket First Aid & CPR - This app not only has great first aid information, but is a place you can store important medical information about your family, e.g. Medical insurance numbers, blood type etc. Very easy to use and handy to have in your back pocket.

Kayak - Flights, hotels, rental cars, travel planner - this free app is a great place to start planning your next vacation. This won the people's choice award at the 2011 Webby Awards.

XE Currency - A straightforward currency exchange app from the popular site with the same name.

Foursquare - Checking in to new places can give you excellent tips from other Foursquare users. I have used Foursquare to get recommendations about what to order at restaurants, and find out recommended activities in the area.

Lonely Planet (e.g. Paris) - Lonely Planet is a wonderful source of information for tourists, and they have guides for all of the major cities.

Local MRT (e.g. Paris Metro) - When traveling to a new place, I always download apps for public transport, as you never know when they might come in handy. Most are free, however some, like Paris Metro, have added value and therefore charge a fee.

Weather+ Free - Anticipating the weather in the countries you visit is always essential.

World Clock - Time Zones - Knowing what time to call home is important when traveling - no one wants to be woken at 3am, even if you are calling from Germany. This app shows the current time in a range of destinations, so there are no more excuses!

Camera360 - This amazing FREE app has a range of different features that will help you take great photos wherever you are. Each effect has a range of sub-effects, meaning the possible combinations are endless. (**if you are using the Singaporean App store, the app description will turn up in Chinese. Don't panic, the app will be in English once it's downloaded**)

TripAdvisor - The popular website is now available in app form. Search for hotels and more, and read user reviews about your upcoming travel destinations.

I hope you find these apps useful. Leave a comment with your favorite recommendations - we're always on the lookout for new apps.