10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

I actually look forward to “Top 10” lists that sum up educational trends of the year. They always have new things I’ve missed or resources I need to investigate further. They’re much better than those stupid year-end predictions that never seem to come true, like “This will be the year of…(fill in the flavor-of-the-moment resource)!!”

This year I decided to create my own list. There’s no empirical research behind it; no data to prove their popularity. These are just a few digital resources for teachers that I’ve observed in classrooms across the country. This year I truly made it “coast-to-cast” by working in districts from Pawley’s Island on the coast of South Carolina, to Redlands, California—just shy of the Pacific—and many in-between. These are resources I see teachers using or ones that teachers have introduced to me presented in no particular order. It was hard to keep it to 10, so I didn’t.

  1. Socrative. If I had the data, I bet Socrative would be the most popular digital resource I’ve seen in schools this year. It showed up a few years ago as a polling tool, but the updated version and new data reporting tools make it even more useful. I know some teachers like Today’s Meet, but Socrative is far more powerful. Whether used as a quick formative assessment or for actual quizzes or tests, Socrative provides teachers with a range of data—some that can be represented visually on the fly—that can confidentially be tied to individual student records for monitoring purposes. I’d be really surprised if someone in your school isn’t already using Socrative.
  1. Blendspace. This media-blending tool seemed to find a larger audience this year, probably due to the addition of assessment and data monitoring functions. I’ve used Blendspace in the past because it’s just so easy to find and link resources, but the additional functionality takes this resource beyond just a fun curation site to a powerful classroom tool.
Performance task presented in Blendspace

Performance task presented in Blendspace

  1. Kahoot! is really a hoot! O.K., it’s just a quiz game, but kids love it. I thought the gaming nature would only appeal to younger students, but I’ve seen Kahoot! even enjoyed by high school students. The concept is simple, but the graphics and music seem to make forced-choice quiz review or actual quizzing more engaging. Turn it around and have your kids come up with the questions to raise the cognitive demand.
  1. WeVideo. It’s about time video editing was free, easy, and online so we can get to our files from anywhere. There are others out there, but I have probably seen teachers and students using WeVideo more often this year than other video-editing tools, even MovieMaker and iMovie. With WeVideo, platform doesn’t matter, and you can use what you know from these older video tools to create your own videos for flipping your lessons, or have your kids create video-based digital stories, lab reports, documentaries, and on and on.
  1. Tackk. No one’s had to use HTML to create web pages for a while now, and sites like Weebly and Google Sites have made it easy for students and teachers to create attractive sites for assignments and projects. Tackk is a new entry in this market and shines above most others simply because it’s just so darn easy! Kids can focus on the content and quickly get an attractive web page up to share their work. Commenting and chat are built in, so the usual monitoring of social networking components is necessary, but we teachers should be already doing that with our students instead of avoiding these powerful tools.
  1. Thinglink. How quickly things change. Yes, we can all easily create, edit, and post video from devices like our phones—something that used to take expensive tools and software. Thanks to Thinglink, we can also now annotate videos and images with the click of a button. How cool is that? I’ve seen some interesting biographies and book reports using Thinglink, but there are many possibilities. Think of the exploration of primary source documents in multiple formats—very interesting possibilities. There’s a public and an education version.

Seven through 10 are some Google Tools you may or may not know about. I find a mixed bag of teachers who do or don’t know about these free, powerful tools that can add to their classroom. Very often, I seem to be in districts where teachers don’t realize the district has their own Google Apps for Education (GAFE) domain. This alone provides a wide range of security and functionality if your GAFE administrator sets it up correctly, so I’ll focus on some things you can use within your own GAFE domain or externally. I’m saving Google Class, possibly for next year. It’s still a little new to make the Top 10.

  1. Usage rights. Let your kids search the Web for images and what do they do? Almost every kid I see goes to Google Image search and copies and pastes directly from the found set—no concern for attribution or whether the image is even legally available for use. Most don’t even visit the site where the image is actually located. I even see watermarks and copyright symbols printed on images in student projects. Google’s made it easy to find images students can use in their projects through their Search Tools. Complete the image search as you usually would, then select Search Tools, and pick one of the Usage Rights. I suggest “Labeled for noncommercial reuse with modification” to get the maximum number of options, unless kids are just going to copy and paste, in which case they can use “Labeled for noncommercial reuse,” which implies no modification. You choose what’s best for your purpose.
Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

  1. Research Tools. Open any Google doc or presentation, select the Tools menu and click on Research: Up pops the research pane that allows you or your students to do a full search of text, images, or other from within your document—including filtering by usage rights (see #7). You can add links to primary sources on the Web directly in your document, and auto-generate a list of citations following MLA, APA, or Chicago style. Why isn’t every teacher using this?
Using Google Research Tools

Using Google Research Tools

  1. Google is connecting everything, even people. Google Hangouts are basically multi-point videoconferences that can be supported by computers, tablets, or phones. There’s no need for expensive web- or videoconferencing services. Google does it for free. And just like email (or Gmail), Twitter, or other social tools, you can share images, text, and links.
  1. I personally haven’t used Moderator, but since I work in several districts with GAFE, teachers report to me it’s an easy way to support a class discussion if you’re not using a learning management system (e.g., Edmodo, Canvas, or even Google Class). It’s a discussion forum. Simple. Easy.

And the +! It really was hard to narrow down the choices. In addition to my top 10, this year I’m going to spend more time with two presentation tools that teachers tell me are easy to use and highly engaging. eMaze was described to me by a teacher as a cross between PowerPoint and Prezi but easier to use. It sure looks it. Powerpoint is so abused in classrooms and Prezis often make me queasy, so I’m interested to see how eMaze stacks up. PowToon is another presentation tool that I’ve heard of for a couple of years but I haven’t really seen any students using it in the schools I visit. It looks like it might take the place of xtranormal (not sure what’s going on there!) that was popular several years ago. The learning curves looks a little steeper for PowToon than eMaze, but I’m old and kids will probably figure it out far faster than me.

There you have it. Just a smattering of fun and helpful resources I see in classrooms across the country. I know there are plenty more, but many teaches often tell me, “I don’t need to know everything. Just give me 1 or 2 good tools that work.” Pick one and let me know how it goes.

Bringing the World to Your Language Classroom: The ePals Global Community

ePals logoLanguage teachers have long had a variety of technology-based resources available to support their instruction. Language labs with audio and video recordings, texts and workbooks, and other supporting materials go well back in to the era of analog media, and the digital revolution has only increased the number and type of interesting and helpful resources available to support language acquisition in today’s classroom. When I ask language teachers what needs still remain, many respond that it’s difficult for them to find native or fluent language speakers that their students can interact with. Most have access to a wide range of print materials and recordings they can use with their students, but finding a way for students to really engage with fluent language speakers remains a challenge.

In researching options over the past year to determine how language teachers might use technology to address this need, my paths kept crossing with Dr. Rita Oates, vice president of education markets for ePals. I’ve known about ePals for years, but there was some sort of synchronicity with our crossings, from her presentations in this world at the national ISTE technology conference in Denver last summer to my attending a session she presented in Second Life last fall. When we both appeared on the roster of an online learning Ning this Spring, I thought it was a sign I couldn’t resist and asked her to share some information about ePals and how educators from across the world are using ePals’ services to connect schools, classes, and students, especially in support of language acquisition.

More than a Pen Pal

In the textbook I co-authored and in workshops I present, I use ePals as one example that I encourage teachers of all disciplines to investigate, because the global connections it provides support multiple content areas and learning goals. In fact, ePals may best be known for successfully connecting classrooms from across the world so students (and teachers) can learn from each other and gain a better understanding the nuances of culture, society, politics, and exploring everything from what kids in other countries do for fun, have for lunch, and learn about in school. In fact, to date, ePals has connected more than 600,000 classrooms (that’s just classrooms, not people) in more than 200 countries or territories—for free! They have more than 2500 new schools sign up for their services every month.

Students from Sarah LaComb's French class in New York meeting their ePals form Arras, FranceStudents from Sarah LaComb’s French class in New York meeting their ePals from Arras, France

That all sounds good for some kind of classroom sharing, but in communicating with Rita, I wanted to know if ePals offered specific services that could help meet that one big need—providing access to native or fluent language speakers. She responded that this is one of the two main reasons teachers sign their classrooms up for ePals, the other being English as a second language teachers in countries where English is not the primary language looking for English practice for their students. If you think about it, it’s the same reason, really, with interaction with native language speakers being the ultimate goal. Need…meet solution.

Example of a French class in Spain seeking ePalsExample of a French class in Spain seeking ePals

The Menu: Taste or Feast

ePals offers a variety of services for educators, many for free, with new services developed and offered based on input from the educators that participate in its programs. One of the most common starting points for new members is the ePals Global Community, which is the traditional classroom connection that many people associate with a pen pal connection. But, of course, it has a 21st Century twist.

The ePals Global Community was built by educators for educators, so the sharing has learning outcomes in mind. The primary resource for sharing is e-mail, which might be common in American schools but not so in all participating countries. ePals provides a secure, filtered e-mail environment to support communication that includes several levels of protection for students. They hold TRUSTe certification, an especially rigorous data security certification, that makes them well suited to work with children of all ages, including those younger than 13. (According to the Children’s Internet Protection Act, parents must provide consent for children under 13 to enter data to an online service, which is why sites like Facebook do not allow these younger people to participate.)

Teachers can choose to moderate all, some, or no messages before they are sent, and can request to receive notification of all or just questionable communications. ePals also offers the option of an online translation solution that supports 58 languages, and that number keeps growing. Many classes go beyond exchanging short e-mail messages and share everything from poems, stories, multimedia presentations, to video. Others have incorporated videoconferencing for real-time interaction, which obviously requires some coordination depending on time zones and school calendars. You can view a short video presentation by students with emerging Spanish skills from Darlington Community High School in Wisconsin at http://www.epals.com/media/p/236857.aspx.

 

The Teacher View of ePals Message Center

The Teacher View of ePals Message Center

There are also student forums that are organized by topic and a Student Media Gallery, which provides a safe and secure place for teachers to post student work. Students can communicate with other students from across the globe on a range of topics that they find interesting, from the impression of Justin Bieber’s hairstyle to the impact cheating has on schoolwork. The forums are moderated by real people and nothing gets posted without review. Oates notes that music and sports are some of the most popular topics, however, the single most popular social issue based on student responses is “Do glasses make you a nerd?” So while the teacher-moderated communications in the ePals Global Community may be more formal and stress the use of academic language, the student forums provide a level of engagement through social interaction with other students with similar interests.

Teachers can choose the purpose and intensity of interaction, from once a month, once a week, or several times a week. It just depends on what they work out with the teachers they collaborate with. For example, one teacher required her students to compose three sentences twice a week to share with students in their ePals collaborating class in Italy. Oates recounted that the response from Italian students would often incorporate cognates that were familiar to them but not so much to the American students, who often had to look them up in order to reply—emphasizing the difference between academic and social language use and building connections between the two languages. (As an interesting aside to that particular story, the scores for the American students on their tests of English writing improved so much after the experience that the teacher was investigated by the state to ensure that the students hadn’t cheated!)

Teacher request for connecting via languageTeacher request for connecting via language

How to Get Started

One of the best ways to get started is to visit the ePals website at www.epals.com. The home page scrolls the news ePals classrooms so you can see where the classes are located and view a profile with the age and grade level and number of students in each class and the type of interaction the teachers are looking for. A search feature allows you to find additional classrooms from the hundreds of thousands that are registered in the system based on location, grade, interest, and other parameters. You can also sign up your class on the ePals website but all new members are reviewed and must be approved before their requests are posted or they are able to participate in any activities.

If you’re not sure how you’d like to interact with another classroom, ePals has some suggestions and offers other products and services that could serve as a focus of a project. For example, in2books is a curriculum for grades three through five that incorporates eMentoring, and the ePals LearningSpace is an online collaborative environment that encourages the sharing of curriculum and supports common Web 2.0 tools, like blogs, wikis, and forums. New services are developed and delivered based on input from ePals uses, so you can have a say on what additional services might be helpful.

One of the many projects ePals offers participantsOne of the many projects ePals offers participants

If you need more information, it’s likely you’ll run across Rita or one of the ePals team members at a conference, but in case you don’t, you can attend a free webinar to learn more about ePals. Rita actually presented the webinar I attended. To sign up for the ePals 101 webinar, sign up at http://epals.101.sgizmo.com. Get other questions about ePals answered at support@corp.epals.com.

There are other electronic pen pal services that you can investigate, so compare and find the solution that is best for you. I do want to thank Dr. Rita Oates, however, for working with me and sharing information about the technology-based solutions ePals provides that language teachers may want to use to address the critical need of student interaction with native or fluent speakers. It was nice to move from an awareness of the program to a better understanding of how teachers are using these services in their classroom. If you’ve used ePals or a similar program, I’d enjoying hearing about your experiences, as well.

All A-Buzz: The 21st Century Language Classroom

Last Fall I visited some schools in Henrico County, Virginia, which is on the outskirts of the Commonwealth’s capital, Richmond. During those visits I had the great fortune to observe a fantastic 21st Century lesson delivered by Spanish teacher, Patrick Wininger. Patrick teaches Spanish to seventh grade students and works in a district that has a one-to-one laptop initiative. While that may be a plus for technology integration, his lesson was an excellent example of varied and seamless technology use that not only supported skills often referred to as 21st Century skills, but repeatedly gave students practice in the critical areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking Spanish. It was also one that could be accomplished in classrooms without the laptops, but maybe just not as efficiently. Patrick graciously agreed to a follow-up interview and has some great tips to share for incorporating technology in language acquisition instruction.

Focus on the Student

While I was invited to visit showcase lessons for 21st Century skills, you could tell this was pretty much just another day for Wininger—a day brimming with excited and active students very much engaged in the business of learning language. In fact, the class was so full it was almost bursting at the seams, with some students squeezed into corners to accommodate the visitors. The noise, at times, rose to a pleasant roar of excited students clearly engaged in learning, collaborating, and communicating with and without their laptops. I love that sound.

When you visit a classroom, it’s usually pretty obvious when what you are watching is SOP—standard operating procedure. Students know what to expect, what to do, and are familiar with the transitions from one activity to the next. Wininger was a great conductor, but the students were truly the stars. He confirmed with me, later, that he really tries to give the students what they want. “Foreign languages, especially Spanish,” he told me, “are growing in popularity and students really want to be able to use it to speak with others who speak Spanish.” These may be other students who go to their schools, play on their sports teams, or others they meet in their communities. “Many people,” he says, “now see Spanish as useful in day-to-day life. It changes the reason why students take a language.” So he capitalizes on that.

In fact, Wininger is a career switcher who came to language instruction from corporate training and communications. In the business world, you focus on the customer, which is also what Wininger does in his classroom. He focuses on what the students want and uses the available technologies to engage them and help them learn language. “It has to be useful. If teachers can’t explain why this matters, they shouldn’t be teaching it.” He notes that students are becoming more consumer-oriented, and if what you are offering doesn’t have value, they won’t buy it.

Freedom to Learn

Wininger notes that “It’s more about how you teach than the tools you use.” Yes, his students have laptops, but in many places increased access to different technologies is blurring what one can do in the classroom and at home. He incorporates a textbook series with many digital resources, including handouts, recordings, presentations, and even a website where students can go online and listen to native speakers. The district has a web-based student information system, so students don’t even have to turn in homework at school. In fact, it’s probably better if they don’t because then his instruction can focus more on active language acquisition than checking homework.

During the 45 minutes I was in the classroom, the students quickly moved through a logical sequence of instruction that was building to an assignment they’d complete for homework. Students focused on action verbs and vocabulary and worked through writing, listening, and speaking (and reading, of course) supported by digital handouts, presentation software, digital recordings and lots and lots of interaction. The digital resources served as a basis, but all activities were customized and required students to create their own examples, to relate it to their own lives, and to speak with others. They spoke with each other, they spoke with Wininger, and they responded to the digital voice that hovered over the room, with reminders all the way through—by Wininger—of where they were headed, why they were doing this, and constant reminders about the connection between reading, writing, listening and speaking. And what were they going to do? Students had to build on the sentences they wrote during class to post a blog response related to a favorite hobby or pastime. It was practical, relevant, and used tools the students enjoyed.

Wininger notes that foreign language classrooms have always had tools, like language labs, it’s just that the tools are different now and can all be in one place. “It’s not about what you have, it’s about being skilled at what you have.” Technology empowers students. Many of them are using it outside of school already, whether it’s texting on their smartphone, mastering multi-player games, or chatting with friends online. His students just use technology to learn a new language in ways that feel comfortable.

Wininger says his students are like sponges. They love to try new things, especially with technology. He said he’s never had a student not want to participate when technology was included. He says, “Whatever I’ve tried with technology, they’ve been willing to try it, too.” Even if it’s something new they don’t know how to use. Once they begin to use it, even in small ways, they feel empowered. One example was when the young girl next to me had a problem with her document, before Wininger could get to her, she had several classmates at her computer who overcame the issue in a few seconds. He notes that the more students interface with technology, they build a repertoire of skills they can use elsewhere.

The Tips

So, what are some of the activities Wininger and his students participate in during class—and beyond? I’ve already described what could have been a very traditional worksheet-based lesson that was put into overdrive and ended up being a blog post. Following are some additional technology ideas Wininger shared.

Create games to play in class or online. Many applications have multiple functions, like the ubiquitous Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. With these, you can manipulate text, images, video, and include hyperlinks that connect information together. You can create a presentation to use during class, or add buttons and links that branch to different parts of the presentation.

Bring in the world. Most teachers have Internet access, and so Wininger uses it to go beyond the walls of his classroom to engage his students with cultural artifacts as a subject for language acquisition. One example involved a painting by the artist Frida Kahlo. He provided background information through a lecture supported by presentation software, and the students read a section about the picture in their text. But then Wininger “visited” the Smithsonian where the students not only got to see the image projected larger than life in class but explored more information about it. Students followed up by writing a reaction paper, which could be in Spanish for more advanced students.

Build a website. There are many different tools that you and your students can use to create a website, it’s how you frame those activities that matters. Wininger has had his students participate in the traditional travelogue activity in which students plan a trip to another country where Spanish is spoken, but he also requires students to create budgets and build a website based on their trip that includes a daily blog that they keep while they are “traveling.”

In another web-based project Wininger identifies 20 contemporary Spanish songs that students select. They learn the song, of course, but they also learn about the performer and partner with another student to develop a fan website. Some of the students didn’t want to stop, and even during the class I visited I could hear students singing along to some of the Spanish pop songs that played in the background during one activity.

Shoot a video. Again, you don’t have to have access to an expensive videocamera and suite of editing software to incorporate video into your instruction. Wininger’s students researched, wrote, and produced daily weather reports in Spanish…for Spanish-speaking countries. They searched the Internet for real-time data and presented the whole project in Spanish on video, even using green-screen technology so it could look like they were “on location.” He said the students were not only engaged, but motivated to do a good job and to deliver the reports convincingly.

Make it interactive. Wininger admitted he was a little reluctant to get a video beam projector, not wanting to give up his trusty overhead projector. But now that he has one he absolutely loves it. It projects large, clear images that the students find engaging and focuses their attention unlike everyone staring at their textbook, and is useful for a variety of video resources, as well. He’d like to have an interactive whiteboard, because he feels it would make it that much easier to move images and objects around and he’d like to get his students up and interacting with the content—highlighting, summarizing, matching, ordering…there are many possibilities. While he doesn’t have one currently, he suggested—my favorite tip—you can create your own interactive whiteboard out of a Wii game remote and an infrared pointer for about $40. Honest! There are dozens of videos on YouTube that show you how, so go check it out.

Practice What You Preach

Wininger does more than have his students do all the work; he has modeled 21st century communications for his students, friends, and teachers. He participated in a Fulbright-Hays Study Abroad seminar in 2009 that took him to Mexico with 15 other teachers, and to keep everyone informed he kept up a daily blog (http://patrick-wininger.blogspot.com/). A blog alone can be a lot of work, a daily blog even more so, but while traveling?!?

However, “the experience was really valuable,” says Wininger, as he was not only able to communicate with friends and colleagues back home, but it really helped him understand the potential of this form of communication. His blog entries include reflections, new learnings, and incorporate images and even videos. Some of the images make it into his instruction, as do some of the things he learned, like how the textbook he uses inaccurately described the Sun Stone in the Aztec room in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The textbook describes the stone as a calendar, but that’s not what the museum reports. Wininger can now not only describe its real purposes to his students but show them pictures he’s taken of the stone. His excitement on his blog is palpable, “…now I get to teach my students the RIGHT thing instead of the wrong.” The 21st Century has already emphasized the shift from receiving information to creating information, a key characteristic of Web 2.0 and social networking technologies. Wininger’s blog is a great example of creating information that is available not only for his students but with anyone with a web browser.

No, not those Natives vs. Immigrants again!

I get a little tired of people telling me I’m not a “digital native,” Marc Prensky’s famous description of students who grow up with digital technologies. And, no, I didn’t. I’m comfortable not being a digital native, because I think I do pretty well. I work in educational technologies, after all, and I work with others to try to help them figure out how to use them to support teaching and learning. I have never been one to think it matters much. But Wininger may have changed my mind…may have.

He notes that it’s not the digital natives that we have to be concerned about right now, it’s us digital immigrants. He agrees that 21st Century skills that promote communication and collaboration, solving complex real-world problems, and being creative and innovative are valuable. The issue is that most digital immigrants have never been shown how to teach them. He said they’re very different teaching skills, and since they haven’t really been valued so much in education until recently, teaching digital natives is a bigger challenge than being one.

I’d like to thank Henrico County Schools and especially Patrick Wininger for allowing me not only to visit but to follow-up with my many questions. Patrick may not be a digital native either, but his students don’t care. They’re learning, and having a great time while they’re doing it, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re an immigrant or not when you make that happen.

Voices from the Field: Stephanie Krajicek

Stephanie KrajicekLast summer I attended the ISTE conference (formerly called NECC) in Denver, Colorado. ISTE is sponsored by the International Society for Technology in Education and is one of the largest educational technology conferences. While I was there, I tried to attend as many sessions possible related to technology and language acquisition, which is where I met Stephanie Krajicek, whose enthusiasm drew people like a magnet to her poster session. Her presentation focused on Technology Integration for English Language Learners (ELLs) and was a colorful and engaging amalgamation of ideas she has used in her classroom and with other teachers. Now a graduate student at Purdue, Stephanie continues to provide training to teachers on using technology matched to the needs they have for working with ELLs. I was able to catch up with her after the conference by phone and she provided some great practical tips.

Focus on the Learning

Stephanie’s poster was brimming with colorful screenshots of student work using many different technologies, especially social-networking applications—those that encourage students to communicate and collaborate with each other. She notes that the problem is not having access to interesting and engaging tools, but finding the right one.

“Many students,” she reports, “may or may not have had access to technology, so you have that extra level of language teaching.” An example she gave was that a common standard is to compare and contrast main characters in a story, which can be difficult concepts for ELLs to begin with, but adding technology means you may have to teach them what it means to log on, what a mouse is, when to right-click vs. left-click. She cautions that you have to be able to determine how much content knowledge they are going to get out of a technology that is complex.

With the teachers she works with now, she starts with a specific project, challenge, or need they have in their classrooms, and then she finds tools to help them meet those needs. She focuses on what they have access to—right now—and how it can be used to meet their needs. She’s done her homework, too, and has amassed a list of many different tools that can be applied in different situations for students at varied age and language levels. You can find some of the examples she’s identified, presentations, and helpful tips on her blog at http://eyeontransformation.blogspot.com/.

A Short List

So what are some of Stephanie’s favorite tools? Below are a few we talked about.

Storybird. Storybird is a collaborative site this is intended for families with younger children. One of the best aspects, according to Stephanie, is that the interface is really simple to use so you can get kids writing and creating short books literally by “clicking on the page and typing.”

The focus is on telling stories, but a benefit is that it allows ELLs to not only tell their stories but to share them. “Too often,” Stephanie admits, “teachers forget that final critical step of the writing process—publishing.” Storyboard allows them to publish their stories for each other, their teachers, and their families. Since the stories “go beyond the teacher’s desk” they carry greater weight, they have greater consequence. Students can also collaborate on stories and share them with each other during the writing process.

I visited the site and noticed that it is in “Public Beta,” which means that it’s free for now, but probably until they can figure out a reasonable business model. There is drag-and-drop art of many different styles students can incorporate into their work, and they can put text anywhere they want to with a click of a button. Storybird automatically creates covers, for those that might need that help, but they are also customizable. Your account tracks the storybirds you are working on, those you’ve published, and those you want to read, so you could actually create reading lists for students.

Webbing tools (concept maps). Stephanie notes that when teachers get caught up in teaching content they might overlook the need to help ELLs use higher-order thinking skills in the target language. Content requirements, especially in the higher grades, often include abstract terms, like compare and contrast, analyze, organize and others. Webbing tools provide visual supports for students to master skills like these using language and images that can visually be organized, linked, or highlighted. She likes to use them for prewriting, as well.

Many teachers have access to the popular Inspiration and Kidspiration software (Kidspiration is designed for younger students), but Stephanie has been using the web-based version of Inspiration’s concept-mapping software called Webspiration. Like Storybird, Webspiration is in free Public Beta but the plan is that it will eventually be offered as a subscription service, hopefully with a break for schools and following acceptable guidelines for secure use by younger students.

Webspiration is similar to its offline versions, and you can even upload or download files from Inspiration. But Webspiration adds the component of collaboration. You can collaborate synchronously or asynchronously, but Inspiration recommends you not collaborate with more than 25 people synchronously. In most settings, more than 3 or 4 might get confusing, anyway. There’s also chat functionality for additional real-time interaction. Collaborators do need an account, so you should follow acceptable use for setting up accounts for students.

Comic strip makers. There are several free and for-fee online and offline tools that allow students to make comic strips or cartoon-like presentations. The benefit for ELLs is that they are highly visual and give them an opportunity to practice English skills with simpler language. Plus, they’re fun and engaging. A short list follows (an Internet search will find many more):

  • Chogger. Create comics with drawing tools or by uploading your own images.
  • Comic Creator from readwritethink. Free online tool from the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English with templates for short black-and-white comics.
  • Comic Strip Maker. Create one-page, three-panel dialog-based comics using one of six character templates.
  • Make Beliefs Comix. Make three-panel comics you can print or e-mail using characters you can manipulate with simple click-driven commands.

Feed aggregators. Aggregators pull in information from different kinds of websites, such as news sites, blogs, and others. Google Reader is an example, but many e-mail programs also serve as aggregators. (You may find helpful the comparison of dozens of different aggregators found on Wikipedia.) The idea is that you can pull in information you are interested in from your favorite sites, or even set up searches for specific content that shows up in your mailbox—or reader—every day.

Stephanie notes that after time of constant English use, ELLs can bog down and tune out. It’s just tiring to process all that information in a new language. Feed aggregators allow you to provide access to background knowledge in their native language to keep the learning going. Some of the things she suggests you try are:

  • Give students access to current events, those that parallel what you’re doing in your instruction, in their native language.
  • Provide extension activities for students who need enrichment.
  • Teach research and writing skills by having students bookmark and annotate websites, perhaps using a social-bookmarking tool like Diigo covered last month, and monitor their work. You can make sure they are finding relevant information, highlighting the most pertinent information, summarizing correctly, and making sure they’re not plagiarizing.

Walk the Walk

Stephanie had more great tips, both at ISTE and on the phone, so maybe we’ll hear from her again. When I asked her what higher education faculty could do to better help their teacher candidates learn about and use technology effectively, she emphasized modeling. She says that most of the technology experiences for many teacher candidates coming to her workshops is using Blackboard (or other learning management systems), but that’s not technology integration. That’s information management.

Since space is limited, Stephanie recommended—in a very 21st Century skills sort of way—that you might want to follow some higher education faculty that are modeling what they want teachers to do through social networking. One of her favorites is the English Companion Ning. She’d like to see something comparable for ELLs. A short list of sites she follows is below. Maybe we can all follow her lead and set up a feed aggregator to follow them. Thanks, Stephanie!

Getting More from What You Have: Making Powerful Points

I spent a good deal of my time this past month preparing for and presenting workshops for two different groups of educators I have been working with, one of which is a cadre of language coaches who work with teachers to address the needs of English language learners. We’ve been exploring different technologies to support teaching and learning, and I focused much of our work on the process of creating digital stories using presentation software as a means to learn about using multimedia in the classroom. In others words, we used Microsoft PowerPoint to support teaching and learning. Even though it wasn’t designed for educators, it’s a really powerful tool that has the potential to support a variety of teaching needs. It’s also an application most teachers and students have access to, so I thought I’d share some of those ideas with you as a continuation of my series on using what you have.

Before we get started, let me say that I use both Windows and Macintosh Operating Systems and am familiar with PowerPoint, Keynote, and OpenOffice. You can accomplish most of the tasks I’ll present here on any of these applications, but perhaps because PowerPoint is so widely accepted in the business world, there are a few additional things you can do with it that you can’t do with the others, yet. I’m a big believer in the idea that if a technology feature is popular in one application, you’ll soon find it on others. I am also not going to include step-by-step instructions, but will try to guide you towards key menu items or functions to look for. The steps can change, even over subsequent versions of the same software. When in doubt, try two things: 1) right-click on an object to see what options you have, or 2) search the help menu.

Learning from Stories

I use digital storytelling as a framework for helping teachers learn about multimedia because it’s easy for people to relate to. Teachers often use or tell stories in their teaching. As a young teacher, I had to learn to tell fewer stories, or so my students would probably tell you. But you don’t necessarily have to follow a formal digital storytelling process to use the techniques associated with it (Leah, perhaps you can link to my previous article on Digital Storytelling from March). You might consider keeping a journal, a digital portfolio, or even a lab journal in science as storytelling. Following are just a few ways you can use presentation software to support teaching and learning based on skills you can learn from creating digital stories.

Conduct research and organize information. When I’m wearing my instructional designer hat, I use presentation software to create storyboards that present and organize information. I can keep notes, including pertinent research, either on a slide or in the notes field with a more formal reference list on the last screen. And by displaying the slides in the “sorter” view, I can reorganize my information easily. For long projects, I will color-code the slide backgrounds so I know which slides correspond to which topics. I put major concepts on the slide and the detail in the notes. After my research is over, I finalize the text and images on my slides for my formal presentation.

Revision and reorganization are common to many research projects, and presentation software makes it very easy. You can provide templates to students to support a project, either a formal research project or a more personalized story, and they can keep all of their information in one place. Presentation software will support images they’ve found or have created with a camera or scanner, notes from primary resources, URLs for pertinent websites, and even audio and video clips.

Create or edit graphics and images to augment written or spoken text. There are several standalone photo and image editors and design tools available, but the learning curve for some of these can be steep. Most teachers and students are already familiar with presentation software, and can use it to quickly create custom graphics. You can insert an image or clip-art graphic to a slide usually through a simple Insert command. Graphics that support learning often include labels or guides to focus the learner. You can add arrows, highlighting, shapes, or text to a graphic easily. You can also usually change the style, color, or opacity of an image to make text or other information stand out. (See example 1)

URL image + Student at Computer +
Student at Computer 2 + MP3 Player =
Image edited in PowerPoint

Example 1. Images from MorgueFile.com combined and edited in PowerPoint

It’s easy to find images online, but make sure you are following copyright or licensing requirements. Two websites to visit for images you and your students are likely to be able to use for free are Wikimedia Commons and Compfight.com. You can search Wikimedia Commons and each picture on the site will include a statement about how it can be used, such as whether you need to provide attribution or whether you can edit it or not. Comfight.com searches all of Flickr, the popular photo-sharing site, for images based on keywords you enter. In your search, select the “Creative Commons: ON” setting to find images you are most likely to be able to use. No matter where you find your images, make sure you check the copyright or licensing rights.

Presentation software, like PowerPoint, often comes with several different clip-art galleries installed, but there are many others you can download for free from the Microsoft website. Clip art is actually a combination of drawn elements (lines, shapes, and fills) that you can actually ungroup and edit (this function can often be found in the Arrange or Grouping menus). You can delete sections of a clip art graphic, recolor it, or combine elements from one clip art graphic with another (see example 2). Clip art also usually resizes better than photos, including enlarging, with very little loss of fidelity. I won’t go into the reason here.

Clip Art Example 1 + Clip Art Example 2 =
Combined Clip Art Image

Example 2. Clip-Art from Microsoft edited and combined in PowerPoint

After you’re done designing your graphic, you can export your slides as images (either one at a time or all of them at once) that you can use in other applications, such as on a class website, a presentation on an interactive whiteboard, or inserted into a document. They can also be used for more “video-like” digital stories created in PhotoStory, MovieMaker, or iMovie. And the export process tends to reduce the file size of your image, making it more practical for use online. In PowerPoint, you can export a single slide by first grouping all of the elements on the slide, right-clicking on your slide, and select “Save as Picture.” Of course, you can also export your entire presentation as shows that cannot be edited, but these may not be able to be shown online, especially since they may be quite large files depending on how much media you’ve inserted.

Address multiple forms of language representation. Obviously, presentation software supports written language. You or your students can create text elements on the slide or in the notes area that can be read individually or in group settings. But you or your students can include audio to provide support for listening and speaking or to augment the written text onscreen.

Some presentation software allows you to record directly into a presentation, either on a slide-by-slide basis or as a narration across slides. Narrations are harder to pull off, as you usually have to go back to the beginning of a narration if you make a mistake. Inserting sound by slide is easier to control and edit. At the very least, you’ll have a shorter section to re-record if you make a mistake. You can have your recorded sounds play automatically or force the viewer to click on something (look for an “automatic” vs. “on-click” setting) to hear them.

You or your students can also record or edit pre-recorded audio clips in an external application, which gives you more flexibility in terms of editing and the quality of the recording. The free application Audacity by SoundForge is very easy to use and is cross-platform. You’ll want to export your Audacity files into something your presentation software can use, such as a .WAV or .MP3 file. GarageBand is a free application on the Mac OS that allows you to create sound files that you can import into iTunes and then can be pulled into KeyNote or exported for use in PowerPoint. The best advice I can offer is use a microphone you plug into your computer, not the internal microphone.

If you record your audio in an external program, you can actually insert multiple audio files on the same slide in a presentation that you can trigger by different actions. You can create multiple buttons (by adding a shape) and link a different sound file to each (the sound is usually considered an “animation”). That means you can record a soundtrack in multiple languages, or have audio clips from different people to demonstrate different dialects or accents, and your users can pick the most pertinent one. Students can even record themselves speaking and use different presentation files they’ve created over time as a digital portfolio of their growth in language development.

Differentiate learning by providing scaffolding. The idea of providing optional audio is one aspect of scaffolding learning for different levels of ability. You can record examples or create an audio glossary for critical vocabulary within a presentation that students can access only if they need to. Having audio tracks both in English and a student’s native language can support English language learners or those learning a foreign language.

Presentation software also supports hyperlinking of objects and text. You can embed a link to a URL of related website to a text or a picture in your presentation that will open on your computer’s browser. You can also link to other screens in the presentation, or even different documents, so that students have greater control over their learning. You can link students to an assessment after completing a presentation, or have supplementary or enrichment material for those students who need them. Students who have already mastered concepts in one part of a presentation can follow a link to a later part of the presentation, or others may want to return to previous information for additional practice. If you’re creating a set of linked information, make sure to keep them all in the same folder or relative location when you distribute them. Otherwise you might break the links and your presentation won’t be able to find the appropriate document.

And don’t discount the value of your students creating their own multimedia presentations to differentiate their learning needs, whether they create reports about a country of study, personal stories they create on their own, or support for oral presentations. Based on your students’ ability levels—both language and technology skills—you can allow them all to address the same content standards but to do so with great flexibility in terms of student products.

Focus on Your Outcomes

In closing, I need to offer you the same caveat you might want to share with your students. Playing with these features can be a lot of fun, but can become time consuming. You can really get caught up in the technology. Stay focused on your teaching or learning outcomes, and don’t let the technology take precedence. Only use what is necessary to get your point across, but do have some fun along the way.

I hope you try some of these ideas to support teaching and learning in your classroom. If you’d like to see a short digital story I put together for these workshops, you can view it at http://teachlearntech.com/blog/?page_id=87. The example was created in PowerPoint and Audacity first, imported into MovieMaker, and exported for display on the web. Please feel free to contact me and let me know if you’ve used these or other ideas with presentation software. I enjoy getting feedback from you and will try to respond to additional requests for information through e-mail or future editions of this TechTips article.

Resources for more information

Audacity by SoundForge
Free, cross-platform sound editor
http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

Compfight.com
Search tool for Flickr. Make sure you select the “Creative Commons: ON” setting.
http://compfight.com/

Morguefile.com
Free images.
http://morguefile.com/

Wikimedia Commons
Media in a variety of formats that you may be able to use. Files use Creative Commons licensing.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Microsoft Clip-Art Galleries
Free images for school use
http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/

Getting More from What You Have: Productivity Tools

We’ve All Got ‘Em

Productivity tools are those software applications developed for the business world and so called because they make us more productive. They are also very prevalent in schools today. They include applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and presentation software. Along with some Internet applications like e-mail and web browsers, these are the applications that most teachers and students will be familiar with outside of the classroom, but not necessarily to support teaching and learning beyond their basic functionality.

But these are the workhorse applications that many students use to create products and projects throughout their school career. Unless we help teachers understand otherwise, they may use them simply for document creation, classroom management, and record-keeping tasks rather than using them as powerful supports for learning.

While productivity tools were once designed primarily for a single task (i.e., word-processing software is used to create text-based documents, presentation software creates presentations that can be displayed to a group, databases store data that can be searched, etc.), commonalities exist across these applications. In fact, the extended functionality of many of these applications means that some of them can be used for multiple purposes. A document created with word-processing software, for example, can contain images or movies, links to web sites on the Internet, data tables and graphs drawn from spreadsheets, and many other functions. When used creatively, these tools support functions far beyond their original intention and can be powerful learning tools.

Supporting Learning

Obviously, productivity software can be used by students to create documents or presentations, but they can also scaffold learning for students, helping them to do more than had they tackled a task on their own. When used in this way, productivity software can be considered mindtools, tools that help document and scaffold thinking. Consider the following common functions in productivity software.

Supports for language. Unless students are required to demonstrate their knowledge of grammar or spelling, the spelling and grammar check functionality of most productivity tools can be implemented purposefully to scaffold student learning. I know this sounds like taboo—to have the computer suggest the correct spelling or identify errors—but many times the objectives teachers have to address are not focused on spelling or grammar. These tools can be turned on as students create documents in classes that require the use of academic language to learn subject-specific content (i.e., science, social studies, etc.) or students can evaluate their own documents after they are completed to determine correct spelling, punctuation, and even word choice. Debating the word choice options can also be a valuable learning exercise.

Reference tools. Many students are encouraged to look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary or to use a thesaurus when writing or learning new vocabulary. These common reference tools are already built in to many productivity tools, are available online, and can even be found on phones and other handheld devices. I use the dictionary on my Kindle (digital book reader) often to look up words I’m unfamiliar with. No longer do I have to get up and go find a dictionary, which I rarely did, anyway. Now, with the click of a button, I’ve got the definition right there, and I know it increases my comprehension of whatever I’m reading.

Word processing software may also include dictionaries in multiple languages as well as translation tools. As long as students know when to use these tools and when they are not to be used, they can provide substantial support. This functionality can be added to applications, such as web browsers. One of my favorites is the powerful Hyperwords plug-in that conducts Google searches, provides access to reference tools, or translates text on a web page with the click of a button. I encourage you to try it out.

Text-to-speech. There are several applications you can download or purchase that read text aloud in a document or web page, but many productivity tools—including word processing software—have this functionality built-in. The quality of the voices, cadence, and pronunciation in these applications continues to improve. In writing this article using Microsoft Word, I had the application read this paragraph back to me as a reality check, and the quality of the reading was better than I remembered.

Struggling readers can have passages read to them that they can follow along or re-read. These tools may also include visual cues through the highlighting of the text as it is read or simply the display of each word. Text-to-speech is easy to use in Microsoft Word, Adobe PDF files, or may be used more comprehensively across multiple applications by accessing the Universal Access controls of your operating system. To access this feature on your computer, search the Help menu in your word-processing or PDF software for the term “text to speech.”

Commenting. If you’ve used the Reviewing Toolbar in Microsoft Word when editing documents with other people, you’ve used the commenting features. These functions include the ability to create notes or to track changes—each change being attributed to the individual (actually, the computer) that made them. Comments and changes are noted by color and name. I’ve experienced some resistance by people to use the commenting features. Some people choose to highlight or change the color of text, but comments and tracked changes can be found much more quickly through the use of the “Next” and “Previous” comment icons on the reviewing toolbar.

If you’re not ready to try out the reviewing features, simply highlighting text or changing the font color are strategies that students can use to organize their thinking, to indicate areas of confusion or that need further work, or to identify areas where help is needed. I was writing a book with a friend who taught me to color code text as it is generated. The color can help you keep strands of thoughts together, because sometimes, those thoughts just don’t come out in order.

Comments are not automated—meaning they are not suggested by the application as spelling and grammar are—but are input by peers or teachers. That means these comments can be used to track progress of drafts over time, to support peer review or a writer’s workshop forum, or for conversations between a student and teacher or between students. Toolbars that provide additional commenting functionality, such as a toolbar for indicating common errors in student compositions, are also available.

Incorporating These Features in Practice

We call these applications productivity tools because increasing productivity is central to business and industry. But as with most technologies, educators don’t always use technologies the way they were originally intended. Our productivity is measured in terms of student learning, and these tools can support powerful learning. Maybe “power tools” is a better term for them.

One of the best reasons to learn these features and how they can support learning is that productivity tools are ubiquitous. You can find them on just about any computer. There are also free, open-source versions of common productivity tools available that have some of these features. GoogleDocs are free, shared productivity tools online that offer additional supports for collaboration, such as through document sharing and group creation. Many of these tools are also available on common portable devices, such as smart phones or other handheld devices.

If you are considering using these functions in your own teaching, do acknowledge that many people know the basic functions of productivity tools, but most may require some explicit training to learn some of these more advanced features. Reluctance to use new things, as I mentioned, can also be a concern. Start slowly and have your students build their skills in using these features. Success breeds success. And, yes, students have to be taught when to use these functions and when they are not appropriate. But that knowledge and experience using them appropriately will go much farther than simply prohibiting their use at all times.

These are just a few of the features that exist on your computer right now that can significantly change the way you provide learning supports to students. There are other features that you may use that I didn’t address. I’d like to hear about how you use them to support learning, so please feel free to contact me about them. In the mean time, if you have not tried these, consider exploring one or two of these features and incorporating them into your own instruction. Design a lesson that incorporates one of them and get feedback from your students on how well it worked. After you’ve mastered a couple, move on to another one. Determine what works for you and your students and keep the best.

Resources for more information

Microsoft product and technology tutorials
If it’s from Microsoft, you can learn about it here, and this list is specific to educational uses.
www.microsoft.com/education/tutorials.mspx

Cyber-Grading Your Students’ Papers: Saving Trees & Much, Much More
Workshop from Randall Rightmire, UC Santa Barbara, with links to an ESL toolbar and an editing toolbar for English composition by Daniel Kies.
www.esl.ucsb.edu/people/rightmire/workshops/cybergrading/cybergrading.html

Hyperwords
Plug-in to the Firefox browser that gives students one-click access to references, Google searches, and translation on the page.
www.hyperwords.net

Annotate for Word
A toolbar that can be added to Word for easy editing of student compositions.
www.11trees.com/annotate-for-word.html

T.A. Toolbar
Toolbar plug-in that identifies common errors in student compositions through the use of one-click buttons.
http://tatoolbar.com/about-2/

Note: Cross-posted to the June issue of the newsletter for the National Capital Language Resource Center.