Sunday, March 22, 2015

The "Aha Moment" - Also known as, "Stevie Doesn't Like Tomotoes"


You know it - that moment, the exact point in time when the light bulb turns on.  That moment when a student "gets it." You see an expression of enlightenment, satisfaction, understanding - you may even see a smile.  This is the moment every teacher lives for. It's when you feel like you've finally broken through, you've reached the summit, you've made a difference. You've succeeded in imparting knowledge on this day. THIS is why we teach.

As a technology coach, I don't often get to experience that "AHA" moment for myself. I most often work with teachers, either one on one or in a workshop setting. I've also been known to hover in the back of the classroom, upon request, to provide that "just in case" support. Yes, it IS satisfying when a teacher "gets it," especially when they integrate that idea/tool/pedagogy into their lessons. It's even better when, at a follow-up meeting, I'm told, "I wish I had learned about this sooner - this makes instruction/assessment/homework so much easier!" This is the moment when I feel I've succeeded at my job. And then, there are the times when I'm asked to push into a class to help with instruction. These are special opportunities when we tech coaches have the chance to make a difference.

This week, I was asked to introduce Read and Write for Google to a group of fourth graders in a resource room. Like most youngsters, this young group of boys prefer to write using computers (that is, if they HAVE to write at all.)  Just like many resource room students, these kiddos have a variety of different learning needs: some have fine motor issues, some have trouble with spelling, a few others just have difficulty sitting. Having a guest teacher gave them a chance to do something different - learn something new. I explained that we were going to learn about a new tool that may help them with their new research project (the usual grumbling ensued.) I further explained that it could help them to read through the websites they would be using as their sources and that this tool could also help with their writing. They were intrigued and followed along patiently as we went through the steps of activating the Read and Write tools.

Once we were finally done with the nuts and bolts aspect of activating the toolbar, I showed them how Read and Write could read their websites aloud. They were impressed and seemed relieved that they wouldn't have to struggle through reading long articles on their own. However, it wasn't until the last step that they really understood what a powerful tool technology could be. I asked each of them to open a new Google Doc, which they handled with ease. (As a GAFE district, our 4th graders are pretty well versed in Google Docs.) Then I asked them to click on the Read and Write tab allowing them to see the tools. When I explained how text to speech could help them with their writing and proofreading, they were anxious to try it. I asked them to really think hard and formulate a full sentence in their minds before typing. They sat for a minute thinking about what they would write and then tentatively started typing. Finally, out of the silence, one of the computers loudly exclaimed, "Stevie doesn't like tomatoes!" The whole room burst into laughter. This was followed by the usual, "That's so cool!" and "Wait, listen to MY sentence now!" For the next 5 minutes, the boys typed feverishly so that their sentences could be spoken aloud. 

Now, I know such tools aren't the be all/end all solution to remediating poor readers or motivating reluctant writers. Would this change how they felt about writing? Maybe, or maybe not. Should we expect computers to be the ultimate motivator for students? No. No more than a pencil encourages a student to write. But, if we could provide the tools to help shift the focus to content and composition and lessen the struggle with the mechanics of writing, then we've made progress. We've made the task a little less daunting.  On this day, to be honest, I was just happy to see that they were using proper punctuation and capitalization - not to mention they were writing in complete sentences. Score!

...the Aha moment. The lightbulb turned on. Well done Stevie. Keep on writing. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Using Google Apps with Young Writers:  Please DON'T Curb their Enthusiasm!

Last week I had the pleasure of introducing Google Apps to an eager class of 3rd graders. After getting past the minutia of practicing the log in process, we were ready and raring to go.  The students were excited to discover what we could do with this new tool and were thrilled to find out that we could all share the same document. As we typed on a shared file at the same time, we learned a new vocabulary word: "collaboration."

While describing what it means to collaborate and share documents, one of the students exclaimed, "You mean we can all be writing at the same time on the same screen?? And we can see each others' letters and words?!" Another student shouted out, "You mean, if I have a friend who's an expert about the same thing as me, we can both write together but on our own computers?!"  You could practically SEE the lightbulbs going on in their heads as they presented us with question after question. While their teacher and I knew we had to settle them down in order to focus on the project at hand, the last thing we wanted to was to curb their enthusiasm.

After a brief discussion, we decided on a project; we would write a digital book about "Our Class" using a Google Presentation. I quickly created a new presentation, chose a theme and shared the project with the class. Each student then navigated to the area of their Google Drive marked "Shared with Me," opened the presentation and then added a single slide to the project. They then proceeded to write a short paragraph about themselves. The room was buzzing with excitement as the students wrote and edited their mini autobiographies. They were chuckling aloud as they bounced from slide to slide, reading each others' brief stories.

Was the class chatty and a bit loud? Yes. Were the students unruly? NO. They were engaged, on task and excited about writing. Yes, EXCITED ABOUT WRITING. Why is writing with Google Apps any different than using pencil and paper? Here are my thoughts:

1)  There's a larger audience who will appreciate your work. Kids have so much to say but what's the point of talking when no one is really listening? In the same vein, what's the point of writing if only the teacher is going to read your work? Writing is much more exciting when you know several people will take them time to appreciate what you have to say. Students have more reason to take pride in their writing when they know their thoughts will be seen by many.  They'll want to make sure that the content is organized,  their spelling is correct and that they're using proper grammar.

2)  Collaborative work often lends itself to greater creativity. When students can share thoughts and words, their writing becomes more interesting and more elaborate. They have the opportunity to build on each others' thoughts and expand upon their experiences. This adds excitement, detail and meaning to the process.

3)  Partner collaboration allows for differentiation.When pairing students for partnered writing, teachers have the opportunity to partner students with similar writing abilities. This can help to avoid embarrassment or awkwardness that often happens when students realize that they're writing isn't up to par with their partner's abilities.

4)  Peer editing using rubrics improves personal writing skills. When students have the ability to review and comment on their peers' work according to a rubric, it often results in improvement of their own writing in the long run. Repeated use of rubrics for peer review helps students to keep writing guidelines in mind while they compose their own writing. There are times when students will scrutinize each others' writing even more critically than the teacher. (Make sure all criticism is constructive!)

5) Proofreading is always easier with a partner.  Another set of eyes can be invaluable. No need to elaborate here.

We should all know by now that collaborative writing using technology is an anchor standard within the Common Core.  Incorporating Google Apps into the collaborative writing process with youngsters not only meets the standard, it's also a great way to generate enthusiasm for writing at an early age. As I close, allow me to share one more thought. I later found out that many of the students who participated in this class went home that evening, logged into their Google Drive and continued to tweak their writing on their own.  They were thrilled to see many of their classmates online doing the same thing at the same time and continued to collaborate as they wrote. Now, how's that for enthusiasm?



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Will These Snow Days Ever End?? Your LMS to the Rescue!

Teachers all over the east coast are struggling with school cancellations, early dismissals and delayed openings. Many of us are feeling that we may be going to school till July while others are concerned that Saturday make-up days may be in our near future. Precious instructional time is at a premium and the winter is far from over. How can we pack so much instruction into shortened days and weeks?

Answer:  YOUR LMS.  We have had so many snow days this winter that even the KIDS are bored sitting home. Wouldn't it be great if we could keep their minds stimulated even a little bit while they sit home and watch the snow fall?  If your school is using a learning management system such as Edmodo, Schoology, Gaggle, Moodle or one of the many others available these days, you can encourage your students to stay "plugged into learning" even during snow days. Using an LMS can help you stay connected with students by creating a blended learning environment between school and home. How connected?  Well, many LMS's provide a shared library area where you can post links to online resources that students could go to at any time. Wouldn't it be better to spend some of that downtime playing online learning games instead of the usual XBox or PS3 games? This is just one example of how you can keep your students thinking . Here are a few others: (some of which help to reinforce the Common Core standards.)

  • Post a link to an activity or instructional video via one of your many online curriculum tools or use Khan Academy,  NextVista, or YouTube to support learning about a particular topic. 
  • After watching a video, have students write a reflection essay or complete a homework assignment related to that topic. Homework can be done as a paperless assignment to be completed online. Students can also reply/discuss/comment on the video through an online discussion.  
  • Have students CREATE an instructional video, explaining how to: solve a certain type of math problem, describe a concept in science, explain a certain event in history or prewrite a personal narrative by describing a personal experience. 
  • Ask students to create a documentary about their day off. Have them describe "The Perfect Snow Day" or make an instructional video about snowboarding, sledding or building the perfect snowman. Have them video their activities and narrate the story. Have students post up their video to share with the class. 
  • Allow students to choose a short story from the many free ebook sites and retell the story to their classmates. Or, have students react to a book chapter they are reading as a class or give an opinion about an event they are studying in history.
  • Create a KWL page in a shared document and have your students list 2-3 items they've learned about a particular topic or topics. This can then become the class study guide.
  • Assign students to small writing groups. Give each group a story starter and have them write a collaborative story, taking turns to add their own sentences. Once finished, the students can publish their stories to a class blog.


These are just a few ideas to keep your students thinking and working while they're away from school. Minds left idle during those long snow days can make it difficult for kids to get back on track when they return to school. Why not give them something fun to share and discuss upon their return?


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Where do I find good apps?

Parents and teachers are always asking, "where can I go to find good, teacher-tested, high quality apps?

We all know there are tons of great apps out there - some good, some not so good. Just because an app isn't free, it doesn't mean it's worth paying for. At the same time, some of the best free apps really are, well, the best. How do you know? Wouldn't it be great if there was an app preview service? After all, once you buy an app, you can't return it if it doesn't meet your expectations. There's also no 30 day trial option for apps.

For that reason, I wanted to provide teachers, therapists and parents with a sampling of the many sites out there that trial educational apps and give an overview of each from a teacher or parent's perspective. Many of these sites will categorize apps not only by subject but by age group/grade level, ability and skill focus. There's quite a bit of overlap of course but these sites may provide that kind of detailed information. For example, an app that focuses on letter identification and formation may be great for a pre-school teacher but it could also be very valuable to an occupational therapist who is working on pencil (stylus) grip and fine motor control.

The next time you are looking for a specific type of app, check out these sites:

APPitic: a directory of apps listed by Apple's Distinguished Educators This site includes apps for students of varying grade levels and subjects as well as apps for students with special needs. Reviews are thorough and include detailed information about target audience, theme, features, activities and price. It also includes multiple screenshots.

Best Apps for Kids: This site is run by a group of parents and grandparents who see the iPad as an invaluable educational tool. The site includes a searchable database with video previews of apps. You'll find valuable information such as required in-app purchases and the possibility of inappropriate ads but you won't find prices or ratings.

KinderTown: A listing of high quality, tested and previewed apps for children aged 3-8 yrs.

Teachers With Apps: A pair of teachers have teamed up to provide reviews of apps appropriate for students by level; baby/toddler, pre-k, elementary, intermediate and high school. There is also a category for related services and special needs.

Apps for Children for Special Needs: True to its name, this site provides information and video reviews of apps focused on special needs. Their community has started a non-profit organization providing over 140 iPads for special needs kids. The site provides a space for developers to advertise their apps however, only  apps that meet high quality standards and expectations are listed. I highly recommend this site.

Bridging Apps: Another great site with all apps previewed by either clinicians or teachers and trialed with students with special needs. The site is provided as a service by the Easter Seals of Greater Houston.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

ATIA: a gathering of "helpers"

I recently attended the assistive technology industry conference in Orlando, Florida called ATIA. This is the 5th time I've been to this conference and each time I participate, whether as a vendor or participant, I am floored by the warmth and openness of the folks who attend. I know, it's a given; most of the folks who work in the A.T. field are there because they enjoy helping others, especially those with special needs. But the reality is, even if you don't have special needs, even if you are a perfect stranger, most folks involved with A.T. will go above and beyond in order to help. What's more, there are no strings attached - no assumptions, no preconceived notions and no condescension. We are all there to share, discuss, encourage and learn from each other.

 I've often said that ATIA attendees receive a semester's worth of graduate course material in 3 short days (pre-conference sessions, not withstanding.) Although the sessions are excellent and offer a variety of strands and levels of expertise, there's much learning yet to be had in the exhibit hall, the lunch tent, and during dinner. Folks from the QIAT listserv enjoyed the opportunity to see each other face to face and the #ATCHAT (twitter) group even met over drinks one night to tweet and chat in person.

 So, you ask, what were the highlights? What new products were showcased or, did you get any ideas for strategies to be used in the classroom? A few come to mind:
  • As usual, the app smackdown was a huge hit - especially for those of us who oversee the use of iPads in our schools. Two of my favorites: MyScript Calculator app which allows you to hand write an equation on your tablet and the app calculator solves the equation (free) and the VoiceDream Reader app which offers text to speech of e-pub, pdf, Word and text files, copied into the app. It allows for integration with Dropbox, Instapaper, Gutenberg and Bookshare and students can adjust the masking of text, make annotations and choose from multiple languages and voices. 
  • There were multiple sessions that touched on the issues many schools are facing surrounding BYOT and a student's need for A.T. 
  • The folks at AssistiveWare offered booth sessions to help those of us needing to become better experts at Proloquo2Go and Pictello.  In the new Proloquo2Go, I particularly like the feature that allows for primary and secondary vocabulary in folders as well as the placing vocabulary words to be added later, in a hidden storage tray.
  • There was quite a bit of buzz about a new AAC app called AutisMate that allows for scene-based communication using personal photos and programmable hotspots.
  • The folks at Komodo Openlab have done a great job of providing switch access to the iPad through an individual's wheel chair switches using the Tecla Sheild. Their new Tecla Access App provides an on-screen scanning interface for Android devices that is very impressive.
These are just a few highlights that I found to be of interest. Truly, there are too many to share.
...until we meet again ATIA folks. Until then, keep finding solutions to help those with special needs!