Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Let's Celebrate My Rockstars!!

Yes, it's true, I've been sorely neglecting my blogging duties.  It is certainly not a result of turning away from technology in the classroom, au contraire!  The thrilling reality is that I've been blessed to be able to teach in a 1:1 setting virtually the entire school year to this point, and due to some restrictions that I can't solve quite yet, building and grading portfolios takes a bit more of my time than I'd like.

Today, however, I am posting to celebrate two of my rockstar 8th graders that impressed me so much I just had to share!

I have thrown quite a lot of technology at my eighth graders this year, and I must say, there is a noticeable gap between their willingness to use new technology, experiment, and exist in a mostly paperless environment and that of my sophomores.  Maybe it's simply a product of personality, but I am amazed at the reluctance of students just two years older to embrace technology in a way their middle school counterparts can and do.

But back to my rockstars.  A little background on some of the tech they've used in my class:  We've used Voki to record their voices introducing themselves in French.  We used Blabberize when they described celebrities.  Partway through the Blabberize project, a number of my students began having trouble recording via the website, so we switched to Audacity, and uploaded the files into Blabberize.

Fast-forward to the weather forecasting project.  This was to be step 2 in an ongoing project where students learn about a French-speaking country (step 1 -- make a flag, and record yourself describing what the colors stand for -- using Audacity).  My rockstars used Google Images to download maps of their countries.  They added "stickers" representing weather conditions using Picnik (undoubtedly this will be a future post).  The final step was supposed  to be (at least in my narrow little teacher mind) to take a screencast of the map with a voice-over by the students giving the weather forecast, using Screencast-o-matic. (yes, I realize how far behind I am!!).

The students were already familiar with Screencast-o-matic from using it to record themselves taking listening assessments, but apparently the rockstars couldn't wait for me to explain exactly how I wanted the weather forecasts done, so by the time I got to checking on them (during "free" time they had to explore what their classmates had been doing on their portfolios) they informed me that they had completed their forecasts using Audacity and Blabberize.  Knock me over with a feather and color me stunned!  They knew what the end product was that I expected, and found a more than acceptable solution all on their own, by thinking outside a box I was all set to build for them.

So what did you learn from YOUR students today??

Here's one of the "Weather Blabbers":

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Goalbook is one of my new favorite sites -- not least of all because their customer service is OUTSTANDING!!  If you are a reader of my Changing My Realm of Control blog, then you may have already read my parallel post there (more theory, less techie).  You probably also know that I have gone from dabbling to diving headfirst into personalizing instruction for my eighth grade French students (and I'm having the time of my life!)

Here's how my journey began.  Faced with the highest percentage of students with special needs I have ever taught, I simply could not bring myself to "teach the curriculum" knowing that some, perhaps many, would be left in the dust while I moved forward with the students who learn at the prescribed pace.  I just couldn't do it again.  So without even consciously deciding to do it, although I had certainly mulled over different scenarios and strategies, I found my classes separating themselves into flexible groupings based on topics students were working on at the moment.  Believe it or not, it just sort of happened.  The kids responded VERY positively, and it was far more manageable (if you like chaos) than I had imagined it could be.

So the question became, as each class divided into more and more groups based on student pacing, how do I make sure each student knows what they are "supposed to be" doing during a given class period?  My initial solution was Evernote.  I created a note for each day of the week. Each day I would grade the assessments that came in (not too overwhelming at first, since there was never a full class set of assessments to grade at any one time, due to self-pacing, and assessments were very short, due to beginning language limitations), and then assign each student to review, progress, or assess in a list in that day's note.

Don't get me wrong, I love Evernote, and will dedicate a future post to it's glory, but I knew from the beginning that my system was flawed, and that students needed to take more of a role in planning for themselves.  I just didn't know where to begin.

I first encountered Goalbook via a blog called Beta Classroom.  I backburnered it, because I just had too many other pots on the stove.  I revisited it this week, and the magical CLICK happened.  Part of my hesitation was the thought of  adding yet another piece of daily-use tech to the kids plates (some of them are really resistant to new accounts, and have extreme difficulty remembering passwords), but the more I researched and let the idea percolate, the more sure I became that this was an essential piece that would reap benefits far outweighing the whines.

When I began setting up the account...Tuesday evening, a chatbox popped up and a tech support person offered their unsolicited help.  When I regained consciousness and came out of shock I thanked him...in French.  He responded....in French!  Although I correctly guessed Google Translator was involved (students, if you're reading this, yes, you will get caught!!) the effort was appreciated almost as much as his sense of humor when I called him on it.  How refreshing!

My initial thought was to have all of the students use my login information so they didn't have to remember new information of their own.  But within a couple of hours of students creating their initial goals yesterday (I kid you not) the happy chatbox reappeared offering to solve all my problems -- and the offer was sincere, because they adjusted my account to allow for students to create subaccounts under my domain before the end of the day yesterday. (Shortly after 4PM for the sake of accuracy).  Unbelievable!! 

Yes, we are still working through some very minor glitches (Suzy is unhappy with her green alien avatar and can't seem to change it to a purple sparkly unicorn) but when I say WE are working through it, I really feel that is true, and if that's not a 21st Century skill we are teaching -- to be able to give your customers that feeling -- then it should be.

Read my parallel post if you want to know more about how I feel about setting goals with students, but if you're ready to jump in and give it a try, Goalbook is a great place to start.

What do you think?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Grading Student Writing Drafts Part 2: Jing

This is not something I discovered on my own, and there are several other teachers that I know of who use Jing for this purpose (names are escaping me)

My use of Jing is an extension of my use of Awsome Screenshot.  As long as I have been grading papers, I have been talking to myself while I grade -- a habit that drives everyone around me nuts, except for those of my colleagues who do the same.  And truth be told, I'm really not talking to myself, I'm talking to the student whose paper I'm grading, except my words float uselessly unheard into the atmosphere, never to help develop anyone's writing at all.

Enter Jing.  Jing is (the basic version) a free offering by Tech Smith (makers of Camtasia).  Jing allows me to record, in five minute video segments, the annotation process with a vocal background track -- me giving an explanation for each annotation.  To be clear, I am not telling students how specifically to correct their papers, but I can cram 20-30 mini grammar lessons (reminders of things we've already gone over) in about five minutes.  As for my own learning style, after recording a class of videos on a particular assignment, I know what points need to be revisited in class due to common errors.  No going back through papers tracking common errors.  If I've had to verbally re-explain something four or five times for a recording, trust me, it's memorable.  I also let the students know on the recording that theirs is the umpteenth "paper" where I've seen the same error, which seems to take some of the pressure off when we revisit the concept in class.

So far, my students really seem to like the correction videos, and they are effective.  However, I cannot tell a lie.  The are time consuming.  I range from 5-15 minutes per student per assignment.  It's a lot, but I feel it's worth it.  What it has also done for me is to limit the number of graded writing assignments I give -- that is not to say that my students are writing less -- on the contrary, in fact -- but I've set their blogging and commenting on each others' blogs apart from the graded writing, so it serves a different purpose.

Here's a sample in an eportfolio.

What do you think?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Grading Drafts of Student Written Work Part 1: Awesome Screenshot for Google Chrome

Long title, but worth it!  The grading process I go through for student written work has evolved quite a lot over my fifteen year teaching career.  Some of the keepers have been:

1.  Insisting on a draft

I think it is crucial for early learners of a foreign language to recognize that mistakes are expected.  Even more than that, they are a necessary part of the learning process.  I used to grade the first draft, and make revision optional, updating the grade as students made corrections to their writing, but so few students were motivated to correct their work, that I felt a change was necessary  I began requiring a draft.  I graded the draft on content, rather than grammatical errors.  I would make note of errors so students could correct them in the final draft.

2.  Providing a key to my notations.

This I figured out very early on.  I always explained my notations, and they were (to my mind) fairly straightforwardd -- voc = vocabulary error, vb conj = verb conjugation error, etc.  but having a key for reference made things much easier for my students.  This key is always a work in progress, as their questions and errors never cease to surprise

Key to editing abbreviations

3.  Awesome Screenshot

Last year I began my journey into electronic portfolios.  With students doing their writing online it made no sense to create (read:  waste) paper just to note areas needing correction, which they would then correct back on the computer.  I knew there had to be a way to keep it all online.  Enter Awesome Screenshot.  I use it as an add-on to Google Chrome.  It appears as a button on the Chrome toolbar.  When I open a student's portfolio page in the Chrome browser and click the Awesome Screenshot button, it offers three choices -- capture the visible part of the page, a region of the page, or the whole page.  Awesome Screenshot creates an image file of your choice, and opens it (within Chrome) with a toolbar for annotation.  I am thereby able to make basically the same notations I used to make with my pen, now with the mousepad on my laptop, and my horrible handwriting is no longer an issue for my students (neither is theirs for me).  I then save the annotated copy as a new image file, and embed it into the student's electronic portfolio above the original draft.  That done the student has the annotated image to refer to while correcting the draft.

Here is a sample :

What do you think?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Music and Learning in the FL Classroom -- Part 2: Camtasia

More Disclaimers:  Camtasia breaks both of my cardinal rules -- 1.  it is not free 2.  it requires a download.  Again, I make the case that I do not have students use it, and that is why I make the exception here.  It is simply too powerful a tool to pass up!

In my last post I discussed how I use the tunes of children's songs with rewritten lyrics to help my students learn various vocabulary and grammar concepts.  This year, I decided to "kick it up a notch" and create music videos to add a visual dimension.  So far, it has been very effective.

Camtasia is a video editing program, that, in addition to allowing you to edit already created videos, has a screencast feature to allow you to take video of whatever is happening on your computer screen.  There are two free screencasting apps available in the cloud -- screenr and  screencast-o-matic, and Jing, which is free, but requires a download.  I prefer Camtasia because of its editing capabilities.

So, allow me to guide you through the birth of a music video...

Step 1:  Create the video portion.  I use empressr, a free, cloud-based tool for creating presentations similar to Powerpoint or Mac's Keynote.

Step 2:  Run through the slideshow while running Camtasia, to take a screenshot of the slideshow beginning to end.

Step 3:  upload the sound file

Step 4:  use Camtasia's editing features to adjust the timing so the video and music are synchronized

Step 5:  Publish!  I use youtube for no other reason than my students are familiar with it.  It has recently been unblocked at my school (for teachers), so that is not an issue.

So far I am finding that the visual aspect is very helpful to students, even more so than simply having a copy of the lyrics -- the next best thing to "follow the bouncing ball"

Here's an example of the one I made to help them with the verb être:

(Please note:  the song/chant is not an original, it was posted to MFLResources on yahoo.  The "singers"  are my students from several years ago.)

What do you think?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Music and Learning in the FL Classroom -- Part 1: Audacity

Disclaimer 1:  I am a Mac girl from way back.  My true preference of tool for this purpose is GarageBand, but my district moved from the Mac platform a number of years ago, so I adapt....until I get home.  Also, Audacity is free, therefore that is what I will blog about.

Disclaimer 2:  Audacity breaks the second of my rules about tools I blog about -- it requires a download.  I am making this exception because I rarely use Audacity with students, but more as a tool for myself to prepare lesson materials for them.


3/1/12 -- I just found a way to run a web-based version Audacity.  Sadly it is only available for Windows machines, but one step at a time!!

With that out of the way, I don't remember the first time I used music with my students, but it was about three years ago that I really kicked it into high gear and began researching, collecting (special thanks to Deb Blaz), writing, and enlisting students to write songs to help my students learn vocabulary and grammar concepts.  The majority of the songs I use are under a minute long, some under thirty seconds.  The tunes are familiar -- almost all children's songs -- so the melody and rhythm do not have to be taught.  Many of the songs are just plain corny.  My students frequently tell me they get "stuck in their heads", to which I respond with a victory dance.  The songs are rarely forgotten.  When students ask questions during the writing process, I break into song, rather than offering a dry grammar explanation.  Does it work for all students?  Of course not, but what does?  It gets to the point where if I introduce an irregular verb, they ask for a song, and get all over my case if I don't happen to have one.

So....from pedagogy to technology.  I found most of the background music I use by doing Google searches for midi files of children's songs.  I import these into Audacity, and then record the vocal track with a headset mic.  Audacity allows you to export the completed product in a variety of formats, although I usually use mp3 files.  I make the songs and lyrics available to students via our school website, and (believe it or not) some students have been known to put the songs on their ipods.

As an example, I'm posting my favorite original -- The Passé Composé Song (obviously I didn't spend any time coming up with the song titles).

What do you think?

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Simple Hardware Trick

I blogged previously about my favorite vocabulary review website memrise.com.  At the second BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) workshop I took this summer, Teacher Re-Boot Camp, presenter Nancy Schmidt mentioned the idea of using a wireless keyboard with elementary students to increase involvement in activities.  The design of memrise with its percentages and rankings already engaged students competitively.  When they are actively passing a wireless keyboard and mouse from student to student, racing against the memrise timer, they are physically involved, and the intensity and engagement is definitely kicked up.

I paid about $40 at Staples for my wireless keyboard/mouse set.  I then (of course) spotted a set at Big Lots for about $10.  Sigh.  The point is, this hardware can be found for a relatively minimal investment, and can add a lot to your class.

What do you think?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Voki v. Blabberize in the Fl Classroom

Whew!  It feels good to be back!  I know it hasn't been that long, but so much has been happening with school back in session, that I'm feeling very out of touch with my blogging!  So...where to begin?

I took a workshop this summer at my local BOCES (Boards of Cooperational Education Services) called "To the Cloud".  It was a great opportunity to spend some time exploring (read:  playing with) web 2.0 tools for education.   Two of the tools we looked at were Voki, which I had previously used with students, and Blabberize, which I had not.

The advantage to both tools for the FL classroom, is that they allow students to record their voices and have an avatar (Voki) or image (Blabberize) speak it.  The beauty of the workshop I took (kudos to Rob Leo who facilitated) was the portion where participants blogged about each tool -- ideas, frustrations, etc.  It was a great opportunity for professionals to learn from one another.  To summarize the reactions to these tools, most of us preferred one over the other, for various reasons.  My preference, at the time, was Voki, because I like the idea of students creating their own avatar. Blabberize, I felt, would be more useful in a social studies or English class where students could express the point of view of an actual historical or literary figure.  My latest FAIL (First Attempt In Learning) with my planned use of Voki changed my mind.

Laptop carts.  They're what you use when you can't secure lab time.  Know that things will not go smoothly.  Always have a Plan B.  ( Is there an echo in here?)

Problem 1:  All of the recording volume settings were set to zero, and had to be manually reset (by me) before students could record.

Problem 2:  Each time a student logs off, the volume settings default back to zero.  See problem 1.

Problem 3:  Voki only worked on about half of the laptops.  Thank you again, Rob Leo, because if Blabberie hadn't been on my mind so recently , and if I hadn't had the time to explore (play with) it, I never would have been able to pull it off.

So...all students whose laptops did not support Voki, used Blabberize.  Since the objective of the lesson was for students to record an introduction (in French) for their electronic portfolios, the tool was irrelevant.  To put it another way, if it had been a written assessment and some students used pen, while others used pencil, the tool would not affect the objective.

My one criticism/caveat of using Blabberize -- if a student does not complete the Blabber (including recording) before saving, Blabberize does not allow a saved project to be edited, where Voki does.

So in the future...I think I will offer students the choice -- Blabberize or Voki.  They seemed to enjoy them both, and met the lesson objective equally well.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

If Technology Hurdles Provided Real Exercise...

Day 2.  Issue 1.

New technology in a new building...well there are bound to be some bugs, but we can work through them.  I'm not ready to give up just yet!

I have previously blogged about BYOD. I am a tireless cheerleader for the cause.  I had great success last year at the high school. However, being back in the middle school for most of the day, I realized that it was quite possibly built as a bomb shelter, because there are very few places where wireless signals can penetrate.  Another sigh.

I am not sure yet how I will resolve this issue.  Today, we texted (even though some did not work) just to practice using polleverywhere and then when there were reception issues, students shared their responses aloud.  I also got feedback from one student that she preferred raising her hand and answering orally -- who'da thunk it?  That actually make me think that perhaps the polling activity in some situations might be better done given student choice of how to respond -- with or without tech, at least when I'm looking for background knowledge like I was today.  I definitely still have some thinking to do on this.

Issue 2

Gmail.  I referenced this issue yesterday, and I figured out the problem with students setting up their accounts in school. In order to avoid creation of spam email addresses, Google restricts the number of gmail accounts that can be created from one location.  So, when my entire class tried to create accounts simultaneously from the same location, we had no success.  Unfortunately, after I created a certain number from home (not nearly enough) I encountered the same issue.  Google Apps is not a possibility because I do not own my own domain, and it is not supported at my school.  I am not willing to make waves on that at this point, because I just got an OK to get Evernote on all of the computers, and I am so thrilled that I don't dare ask for anything else for at LEAST a week.  :)

OK, so this one isn't really too crucial.  My students really can create their own gmail accounts from home, and it will be OK, really it will, this one is just a personal letdown because I had wanted things to go smoothly, and planned, and tested it, and.....time for plan....C

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

When Technology Fails (or Why Flexibility is One of the Two Most Important Words in Education)


That was my relationship with technology today.  The first day of school.  Sigh.

The sad part is how long I spent prepping today's lessons.  And to be fair to myself (which I really don't feel like doing at this moment in time) my four classes at the middle school went fine.  My embedded Prezi apparently no longer exists, but it was on the Prezi website, so it was all good.  (Always have a plan B.)

Then I went to the High School.  I had reserved the laptop cart; I had my wireless keyboard and mouse set up and tested; I was good to go!  Or so I thought.  The students couldn't log on.  I checked everything (I thought), and then (mercifully) my sophomores had to go to an opening day assembly, so I called for tech support.  Our Goddess of Technology (Cyndee Brazill) came down to my classroom, did a recheck, and (with a smile) pointed out that my ethernet cable wasn't plugged in.

FAIL!!  Did I say my sophomores were out of the classroom?  They were, but I have two freshmen and a senior who were there to bear witness to my moment of stupidity.  Oh, it gets better.  One of the freshmen is my darling daughter, so you KNOW when I'll hear the end of THAT one...just as soon as her sister stops reminding me that the toaster won't work unless it's plugged in...but I digress...

So we were all plugged in, ready to go, waiting for the sophomores, trying to log in...and...FAIL

The almighty Ms. Brazill returned (nope, no chasm opened into the earth for me to disappear), but as it turned out THIS time, it wasn't my fault!!  The new laptops hadn't been properly configured.  Brief relief, but still no tech.  SuperCyndee invited us to the computer lab.

Step 1:  students set up gmail accounts....FAIL due to....I'm not really sure, but it works on my home computer, so something at school is blocking it.  OK, move on...I can set up the accounts myself later....

Step 2:  BREATHE...

The rest of the lesson went along quite smoothly all things considered....if you don't mind a large shadow in the middle of the projector screen, but I think I have proven my adaptability, and I wasn't going to let a shadow get me down at that point!!

Here is my point:  technology can be a friend or a foe.  There will always be those FAIL moments.  If the lab hadn't been open?  I would have punted, and done something else.  It bears repeating:


Even those of us who use technology in our classes will have moments where we just go dim (really, you have to plug it in) or when technology fails us -- even the experts, and I am far from one of those.  Don't be afraid to try.  This is what we ask of our students every day -- especially in foreign language classrooms.  We ask them to sound silly -- in front of their friends, and generally take major social risks.  We need to be willing to do the same, and laugh at ourselves when we fail.  And at the risk of sounding corny, this has been tweeted repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, and I just love it:


It's all part of the process, so don't be afraid.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

More on the Student PLN

OK, so if you follow my other blog then this video should look familiar from my last post.  It's Adam Grant's TED Talk about gratitude, teacher burnout, and why you should always wear a dark suit.

Soooo....how does this connect to student PLNs?  Two things came to mind:

1.  Grant talks about connecting with alumni.  Social media makes that much easier than in the past.  My thought is to contact former students -- particularly those who have continued with the language -- and invite them to contribute to the #parlons Twitter hashtag.  It gives students another dimension to their PLN, extra support when they are struggling, and perhaps inspiration to continue in the language.

2.  I love the idea of gratitude.  I think it's something that doesn't necessarily come naturally to teens, and I think, particularly in a "professional" capacity, that it is a skill we should develop in our students.  To that end, I propose incorporating #jvvr (je voudrais vous remercier) into #parlons.  I am not entirely comfortable with using #FF, because students suggesting follows is a little bit too far outside of my comfort zone, and I like the direct "thank you" of #jvvr.  I do like the idea of designating one day a week for this, perhaps Friday for the sake of consistency.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Why I'm not sold on IWBs

In the numerous #edchat and #langchat sessions I have participated in where technology has been a topic, there are always several people (often myself included) who address the fact that pedagogy must come before technology.  In last week's #langchat, a newbie (identified by her egg) asked how to tell whether you were using technology just for the sake of using technology.  My response to her was to teach the same lesson high-tech and low-tech, and then reflect on what (if anything) was gained (or lost) by using technology.  The bottom line is that every lesson should be planned around learning objectives -- EDU 101.

So this brings me to my current dilemma.  I just took two three-hour workshops on using the Promethean Board and ActivInspire.  My school district has spent thousands and thousands of dollars equipping almost every classroom with an IWB.  Here's my problem:  unless I'm missing something (which I freely admit, I may well be), there's not a whole lot an IWB can do for me that I can't do using free web 2.0 tools more easily, and my students can access everything from home with an internet connection -- no downloads.  I am also struck by the fact that many of the suggested IWB activities seem to be centered around lower-level thinking skills.

Another problem I have, is that while two students can be interacting with the IWB (only two pens), with an unconnected dry-erase white board or personal whiteboards, I can have the entire class actively engaged.

Here is the rest of my disclaimer:  I have taken two workshops, and as yet I have absolutely no hands-on experience with an IWB.  Maybe I am missing something.  That is actually part of my reason for this post -- if I am wrong PLEASE comment and show me the light, because while I am always looking for more effective ways to do things, what I do not want is to find myself using technology simply because it is there.

What do you think?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Globalize your Classroom

Every other Thursday at 7PM EST Jo and Phil Hart present their Serendipity "unwebinar".  Attendees bring topics of interest, all attendees are polled, and the evening's topic is chosen.  Last Thursday's topic -- Projects for Classes and Global Sharing -- was somewhat of a hybrid, since there were many suggestions, and no clear poll winner.  It was a great topic, very applicable to Foreign Language teachers, and may ideas were discussed on the whiteboard, over the mic,  and in the chatbox.  In this post, I'm going to focus and expand on some of the ideas I'd love to see developed among FL teachers on a global level (any takers??)

1.  This idea immediately brought to mind the film short "The Red Balloon" which is a suggestion that comes up without fail as a possible movie for FL week.  The film might serve as a great lead-off to this collaborative storytelling activity.  The idea is to tell the story of a balloon that floats from school to school (in different countries around the world) to seek adventures and learn new things.  So here's my (rough) take on this idea:  using a cloud app like empressr.com have each class create a slide telling their balloon adventure, in their language, including a photo of themselves with a red helium-filled balloon.  Subtitles could be added to the finished product so all slides are in all languages.  

This one has me so excited, I think I'm going to run with it.  I think I can swing classes from France, Australia and Mali, so I'll be looking for other interested balloon adventurers!

2.  The Lunchbox Project is a collaborative wiki project including photos and podcasts designed to compare school lunches around the world.  So far there are 11 participating countries.  Join the wiki if you are interested!

3.  Two ideas that came up were sharing pictures of your favorite local food, and creating a wiki with favorite recipes.  I have drawn up plans for a similar research project for my classes, and I would love to make it more collaborative!  Here is the link to my gdoc Check it out, and let me know if you are interested in participating in some way (perhaps the Google Map)

4.  The Global Student Blogging Challenge is a very cool idea that could be undertaken as a class with a class blog, or by individual students with their own blogs.  What a great way to have students publish their work to a global audience and get authentic feedback!

On a final note, if you've never attended one of Jo & Phil's sessions, you're truly missing out.  Stop in Thursday (7PM EST) to talk about e-toys.

I'd love to hear your ideas about globalizing your classroom!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Word Clouds in the FL Classroom

Tonight's #langchat topic (boy was it good to be back!) was web 2.0 tools in the FL classroom.  A tool that came up was word clouds.  I checked my trusty "idea wiki" and found a number of possible applications for word clouds that I hadn't yet explored, so I thought a blog post was in order.

Word clouds are something that I really didn't understand -- even up to the first time I used them with my students. My first application was to have students choose 20 words (about a francophone country they were researching), enter them into the text box, and create their word cloud.  Not very clever at all -- especially given what I have learned since then!

So I'm going to start with the suggestions from #langchat.  The first one (courtesy of Katie Aebersold @klafrench) stunned me with its simplicity.  I doubt there are very many FL teachers out there who are not familiar with the flyswatter game.  Project a word cloud onto a whiteboard, and swat away!  Love it!

The next idea (courtesy of Sara Cottrell @SECottrell) is to select vocabulary from an authentic text, show it to students via word cloud prior to having them approach the text itself, and have them hypothesize about the topic.

The last (courtesy of Don Doehla @dr_dmd) is to post select vocabulary in a word cloud, and use the word cloud as a writing prompt.  There was some concern that this idea lacked authenticity, but in my opinion, it could be an effective bellringer activity, activating the vocabulary for students at the start of class.

Moving on from the #langchat discussion, the next idea is original, but the rest originated from 101 ways to use tagxedo (Hardy Leung).  I will offer these ideas, but "tweaked" a bit for the FL classroom.

I see word clouds as a way for beginning students to build circumlocution skills.  Students could be assigned a vocabulary word, and create a word cloud of related words.  Classmates would need to identify the source word from the word cloud.

Students could create a self-portrait word cloud using tagxedo (which allows customized shapes created from your pictures).  The words could come from a paragraph in the target language that students write introducing themselves.  This word cloud could then be used as a SM avatar.

I really like the next one for reviewing and expanding adjective vocabulary:

  • Make a list of 100 values or personality traits

  • Each person give a score for each value (0-100)
    • Love:100 Coolness:50 Control:20 Flexibility:70

  • Feed the data to Tagxedo
    • Use the "Deja Vu" option, show maximum 50 words

  • Normalize Frequency - forcing a ranking

  • Make Tagxedoes and compare

  • The next one Leung calls "Collective Wisdom".  It involves asking a question, and soliciting short answers.  The responses are then collected and used to form the cloud.  This idea immediately makes me think of a website called VYou.  Students could each come up with their own question, and record a video of themselves asking the question, and send it to their classmates, who would respond to either all classmates' questions, or a specific number of classmates' questions.  This would incorporate oral work, listening, and writing.

    The last idea comes from 64 Interesting Ideas for Class Blog Posts, and combines another web 2.0 tool with word clouds.  It's a brainstorming activity involving http://answergarden.ch/.  Answergarden is another sort of polling tool, but the responses can be exported into wordle.  Sadly, it appears that answers must be typed in via computer, and cannot be texted, but it could be a neat homework assignment that would set up into a future lesson.

    One of the great things about blogging, is that it helps me to process so many of the ideas that percolate through this imperfect brain of mine.  If you have underestimated the usefulness of word clouds like I have, I hope this has been helpful.

    What do you think?

    Friday, August 12, 2011

    Building Student PLNs

    PLN -- Professional....Personal...Passionate...choose your adjective....Learning Network.  I have been actively building my PLN for about five months, and as I have repeatedly twittered, it has changed my professional life!  I have learned more than I can even put into words from the amazing educational minds I encounter in the twittosphere.  That said, I have been trying to figure out a way to bring the power of Twitter to my students next year, and help them build their own PLNs.  I created a page on my "brainstorming wiki" that I use to park all of my ideas in progress, but hadn't really come up with a whole lot after several weeks.
    Lucky me!!  the 8/2 noon #edchat topic was regarding SM and student PLNs.  Sadly, I could only participate for about 10 minutes before having to rush my DDs off to band camp...which is why archives and summaries are such a blessing!
    Lucky me again!!  Last night's #langchat touched on the topic as well....as I noted in the summary since I missed the actual chat (end of band camp....FINALLY!!)

    All that said, here are my thoughts going forward:

    1.  The most appropriate starting point is to connect students with their classmates.  It seems to be a no-brainer for students who forget to write down homework, or who are struggling with something and may be able to connect outside of school.  They do this anyway, why not encourage it!  By having them create twitter accounts for class, they will also have access to classmates they may not normally socialize with, but from whom they may be able to learn.

    2.  The PLN should be expanded to included students from other classes -- including other levels.  This provides an opportunity for students in upper levels to informally tutor/mentor students in lower levels, in a flexible way and a format that is comfortable for students.

    3,  The next step might be to try to connect with classes outside your district.  For example, my students will be collaborating with classes in Paris.  We will be doing formal activities in class, but I hope to encourage them to continue their relationships on their own, choosing to focus their communication on students with interests common to theirs.

    4.  The #langchat summary provided me with this gem -- the #parlons hashtag (#charlando for Spanish). Other French teachers will have their students tweeting here in French, and hopefully students will make their own connections, further expanding their PLN.

    I think the overriding theme here, is that we guide students in the initial establishment of their PLN, but as it grows and develops, they need to own it, and control who they choose to learn from, in the same way we do -- personal, and passionate.

    Stay tuned for updates as the year begins!


    Google + is  one of the most frequently brought up SM tools for PLNs.  I am not leaving it out for any reason other than I'm just not comfortable enough with it myself at this point, to introduce it to students.

    Sunday, August 7, 2011

    Technology: more than just flashy and cool

    Leave it to Scott Adams to illustrate one of the main reasons why we need  to integrate technology in our classrooms NOW:


    I have heard the arguments that technology as motivational tool is not an acceptable reason to embrace it, because the newest tools will lose their novelty for students long before the teachers (in some cases) have even begun to understand how to use them.  We should not look to technology as a shiny new toy that students will ooh and ahh over and miraculously want to learn the same dull stuff we taught them last year.  That is missing the point.

    The point is this:  technology is where our students live.  It is what they choose to do the moment they leave our classrooms.  They text, they facebook, they blog, they tweet.  They learn new things without being "taught".  They seek out knowledge because it is part of THEIR culture to do so.  My school district bought Robyn Jackson to speak for a PD session at the start of the last school year, and one of her primary themes was about currency.  "Currency is a medium of exchange. Any behavior that students use to acquire the knowledge and skills important to your class functions as currency."  This quote comes from Ms. Jackson's article Meeting Students Where They Are  The behavior that our students are choosing to use to acquire the knowledge and skills that are important to THEM is clearly cell phones, ipods, tablets, TECHNOLOGY.  We need to harness the power of what they already know.  Activation of prior knowledge is a pedagogic necessity that precedes even the TRS-80s that I was using when I was in 6th grade.  Why should this be limited to content?  We need to activate students prior knowledge of information curation, digital communication and creation and direct this power toward the content we want them to learn.

    If we meet them where they are, perhaps they will WANT to come along with us where we want to take them.

    Thursday, August 4, 2011

    Education Reform and the Current Model

    I recently watched this video "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Stephen Johnson

    It really hit home for me.  I'm the type of person who always has numerous unfinished projects that I am working on, some of which I finish promptly, some of which I abandon before completion, and others that I revisit periodically, mull over, change, and adapt...sometimes over a period of years before they are implemented.  In the last few months since I started building my PLN on Twitter, I have literally been bombarded with a constant stream of ideas from some amazing educators -- information overload!  But themes are replayed and rewoven among other themes, and the best of these end up taking root, and ultimately blossom into a blog post (like this one) or something less philosophical and more concrete that I can apply in the classroom.

    I've been saying for years that our educational system needs to be razed and rebuilt from ground zero, but until recently, only had the vaguest beginnings of ideas of what the new system should look like.  Last week I did the summary for the #edchat topic "In light of education reform, what will a teacher look like and be doing in 10 years?" (note:  if you think participating in an #edchat is informative, try writing a summary -- reading and rereading the posts really solidifies things!)  Josh Stumpenhorst (@stumpteacher) pointed out that it's more important to focus on what education will look like in 10 minutes, presumably since we will be there first, and while that's certainly a valid point, I think the question that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later, is what should teaching look like?  Don't get me wrong, imagining the future is a great exercise in creativity, but if we want to make real change happen, we need to be the directors of change rather than mere reactors to the change that happens to us.

    I'm going to start with some quotes and conversations I've been involved with from administrators and colleagues throughout my career that provide me, at least, with some clear starting points for where I'd like to see change.

    1.  "That's education!"

    That was an administrator's response to a push by myself and several of my colleagues to change the structure of our foreign language program to allow students to repeat a course they had failed, rather than be systematically pushed to the next level of study with little hope for success.  I have come to realize the tragic truth in that administrator's statement of frustration intended to shut down our request.  That is education in a very broad sense.  The arbitrary grouping of students by age and the too common practice of social promotion ensures that many students will arrive at the next level of instruction in at least one subject area without having sufficiently mastered the material from the previous level.  What happens to a house build on a faulty foundation?  How about when a hurricane hits?  The same thing that happens to a child's education that is build on a foundation with significant learning gaps, especially when that child hits an emotional hurricane like parents divorcing, moving, change in economic situation, or simply the emotional storm we call puberty.  So why do we continue to try to reform a system that is so fundamentally flawed?  Meaningful reform cannot take place as long as we connect academic progress to a student's age.

    2.  "She doesn't have the necessary work ethic to move to the next level"

    An ironic contradiction to the above example, but our program while moving unprepared students along from level 1 to level 2, "weeded students out" before level 3.  This quote is from a conversation with a colleague and our department leader at that time in regard to one of my students who scored in the 90s on her final exam, but whose overall grades for the course were failing. Myron Dueck covered this issue quite well in his June blog post She met the learning outcomes, but she doesn't deserve to pass. My questions are these:  are we really assessing what we should be? or even what we want to be?  Is success based on learning or compliance?  Why do we hold back students who have mastered the material?  Where's the logic?  What in the world would motivate this student to repeat a course in which she passed the final exam, do the "work" for a course whose content she has already clearly mastered?

    3.  Although I don't remember the exact quote, the gist of a conversation with an administrator and my former department leader was that I needed to stop focusing on student comprehension, and move more quickly so that I "covered the curriculum".  I know I didn't misunderstand, because I incredulously asked for clarification.  Again, where's the logic?  But this is an educational model that is enforced by standardized tests, the message to teachers being "Don't teach to the test, just make sure everybody passes".  The reform that is being pressed upon us now does nothing more than punctuate the initial message with a resounding "or else".

    So here is what I propose to turn this broken system on its head and start making real change that can lead to real learning:

    1.  We need to recognize the difference between having high standards and standardizing.  Standardizing makes the assumption that all students are the same.  Having taught for a year in a school whose population was 85% children from military families who had lived in Alaska, Germany, Korea, and many places in between, while the remaining 15% were children from the farming community many of whom had never been more than 10 miles from home, I can tell you firsthand that children are not all the same. Their life experiences are different, and their talents and abilities certainly are varied.  With standardization, if the bar is too high for Suzy, she shuts down in frustration and falls short.  Johnny, on the other hand, is capable of surpassing the standard, but slacks off when the standard is met because he has no motivation to achieve more.  The reality is that if our standards are tailored to each student, everyone achieves higher.  Standardization fits no one.  Individualized instruction plans need to become the norm

    2.  The Space-Time Continuum

    We continue to hang on to the 10 month agriculturally-based calendar that no longer has any functional purpose, and inevitably results in significant loss of learning during the summer months.  Technology (you knew it was coming) makes the classroom walls at best irrelevant, at worst confining and inhibiting to learning.  We need to mobilize and globalize our students' learning experiences.  Students need no longer be restricted to classroom connections.  Students should be texting, tweeting, skyping, blogging, communicating and collaborating with their peers around the world -- not just during class time, but "just in time" so that learning becomes a continuous passionate process that students want to continue on their "own" time.

    Even locally, communities should be directly involved in student learning, so the lines become blurred between school and the "real world".  Authentic experience should be embedded into the curriculum.  Bring the "real world" into the classroom, and take the classroom out into the real world.  Hillary Clinton used the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" in her 1996 book title.  If that is truly the case, then it takes at least that to educate our children.

    These changes I suggest may seem radical, but who can deny that radical change is needed to solve the crises plaguing our educational system as it currently exists.  How do we get there?  The best each of us can do as professionals in our own learning communities is to effect change in our realm of control.  It starts in our own learning spaces, and it starts today.  If not us, then who?

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    Memrise for Vocabulary Development in the FL Classroom

    Well, I just found this empty title saved in my drafts, and I think it's time to bring it to the light of day.  Memrise.com is a vocabulary building site that I discovered several months ago. I absolutely fell in love with it, as did my students, although for different reasons. I love the fact that I can build my own vocab lists, and they are collaborative. By that I mean that I can start a vocab list on, for example, food words, and I can invite my students to add words that they are interested in learning that I left off my list. I also love the fact that sound files can be added along with each word, so students can hear the pronunciations as they study: a step up from your average flashcard. Memrise also has the capability for me (or preferably my students) to add "mems"to each word.

    What's a mem? A mem is basically a mnemonic device: a short, often silly cue that student create to help them remember the word.  Something along the line of Every Good Boy Does Fine for music students to remember the names of the line notes, or "I before e..." to help remember a spelling rule. I tell my students the sillier the better, and I much prefer if the mems come from them, although I do have a few in my bag of tricks.

    The last reason I really love this site is the way practice is structured. Each word is introduced along with its accompanying sound file and/or mem. Then a multiple choice question is asked to practice the word and its definition. A second word is introduced, more multiple choice, then more words, multiple choice becomes interspersed with short answer questions requiring students to type in the target language vocabulary word, and missed words are reintroduced and repeated more frequently.  Progress is tracked, and students who sign up for an account receive periodic emails reminding them to refresh their learning before their memories "die".

    Now for the reasons my students love memrise:  learning takes place in a somewhat game-based environment.  Difficulty increases as students make progress.  Students are ranked and reranked based on the number of words they view and the amount of correct responses, so it is competitive.  Too much time away from memrise, and your ranking starts to drop.

    I am very excited to use this tool more with my students next year!

    What do you think?

    Tuesday, July 5, 2011

    To Grade or Not to Grade...But Is That Really the Question?

    Tuesday night's #edchat was really hopping with opinions about how to make grading more meaningful, and in many cases how to abolish grading altogether.  I have long been of the opinion that our current system of educating our children is at best largely irrelevant to a good percentage of the population, and at worst outright damaging.  I think, however, that "to grade or not to grade" needs to be looked at in terms of the bigger picture.  Given the system as it stands, the current push is to grade teachers based on how their students scores look.  That said, for many of us, grading is a matter of self-preservation.  I am all for pushing the limits and thinking outside the box, but at the end of the day, I still need my job to support my family, so I need to remain somewhat within the boundaries set by the powers that be.

    Philosophically, I guess I fall somewhere in the middle of "to grade or not to grade".  Evaluation is a part of life.  It's something our students will deal with in varying degrees throughout their working lives, and so should not be totally absent from their educational experience.  Ultimately, students will leave high school, and need to have met certain benchmarks, to have mastered certain skills/concepts in order to receive a diploma.  Colleges won't necessarily change how they do business simply because some high schools stop giving grades.  Employers will continue to evaluate employees based on the quality of work, in many cases independent of effort, and part of what we do is prepare our students to be productive citizens in the "real world", so grades maybe aren't such a horrible thing on face.

    More concerning to me than grades, though, is the fact of the arbitrariness of the 13 year quest to earn this all-important diploma.  Certainly there are students who "graduate early" and there are "super seniors" who return for an extra semester or year, but those are outside the norm.  Why do we expect that our students will all learn at the same pace?  Why do we expect that all 5th grade students will master the 5th grade skills/concepts in a wide range of content areas in the same amount of time -- one year?  This has never made sense to me.  Perhaps, (and here is where I climb onto my techie soapbox) this is where the flipped classroom, differentiated instruction, and mobile learning can make the most difference.  If each student is treated as an individual, beginning each school year with an individualized learning plan, mastering skills/concepts at his/her own pace, what would that do to the concept of grading?  Grade levels would cease to exist, curricula would be fluid, Suzy might be 10 mastery levels ahead of Johnny in math, but 3 behind him in reading, and at the same level in science, and they would both be learning "just in time" to meet their needs.  Report cards would be issued "as needed" for each content area at a logical point, rather than tailoring units to fit an (again arbitrary) 10 week time period.  Learning is continuous -- a journey with checkpoints along the way. These are things that could be possible if school systems -- yes, it will take more than a teacher revolution -- are willing to build flexibility into their programs, allow students to bring their own devices and learn in ways unique to each of them.  This is the glimmer of the ideal school that I see for the future.

    And then I wake up and remember that I still have to give a number grade every 10 weeks based on homework, quizzes, tests and classwork.  But when I identify a student that is learning at a significantly higher rate than his peers, I fight to have him appropriately placed -- even if it's off grade level.  If I have a student with a particular interest but no time in her schedule, I fight to be able to offer an independent study that will meet her needs.  And my grades are never final until the ink is dry (and sometimes not even then) because if the goal is mastery, then we need to be flexible with our time limits because our students ARE individuals, and mastery just might not come in exactly 10 weeks.

    What do you think?

    Saturday, July 2, 2011


    I have to admit that prior to finding this Teacher challenge, I had already used glogster with my students. They loved it!  I had them create campaign posters for a mock election for French class president.  Students were required to include a "photo" (real or otherwise), a French music clip, a logo, 10 campaign promises (using the conditional tense) and 2 (made-up) statistics defending their promises.  They then presented their glogs to the class, who voted to narrow the field to 2 candidates.  The feedback I got from students was positive, with the exception of the music, which quite a few had difficulty embedding.

    In accordance with this challenge, I created my own glog on a topic that has been in my tweetstream for the last several days -- American Stereotypes of the French.  I'm happy to have a forum in particular for the "Cliché" video, which is a tad too risqué for me to put on my class blog.

    What do you think?

    Friday, July 1, 2011


    Soooo...Free Tools challenge #6:  DoInk.  After using Bitstrips for comics and Goanimate for animations, I wondered if DoInk could offer me anything new, different, and/or better.  The answer is no, DoInk has nothing to offer ME.  That is not a deficiency on the part of DoInk, however, but a complete and utter dearth of artistic talent on my part.  I tried, and I tried, but the effort it required for me to create something resembling ANYTHING...well...I'm embarrassed to even admit it. I have no doubt that I have students who would take to DoInk like ducks to water, and create beautiful, sophisticated graphics and animations that would make me proud.  I also know, however, that there are a fair number of students who, while they certainly have more artistic talent than I do, might be intimidated by this tool in conjunction with their own lacking confidence.  So given these variables, I'll be sticking to apps that are a bit less DIY and a bit more "use what we have to offer and make it your own".

    Here's my test animation (try not to look directly at it -- you might go blind!)

    my pathetic attempt by mmebrady, made at DoInk.com

    Edmodo, Wikispaces, Collaborize Classroom

    This is not intended by any means to be a comprehensive review of these platforms.

    I'm really liking this challenge, because it fits right in with one of my goals, which is to find a way to  accomplish what I want to accomplish using as few different platforms as possible.  I am currently using 5 different platforms at different depth levels (2 of them are required by my school district; Edmodo is not one of them), and would ideally like to reduce that to 3.

    That I will continue to use the school website (through SchoolWorld) to disseminate information to students and parents is a given, so at the very least that will remain a platform that I use.  Our district uses schooltool for management of internal data, including grades.  This includes a student/parent portal feature which allows ongoing access to information about assignments and grades.

    Aside from the platforms used district-wide, I have also embraced wikispaces.  I like that students can collaborate with one another via messages, and can edit one another's work.  I LOVE that all changes to any page are forwarded to me via email, and a history is available.  This was particularly useful when a well-meaning student accidentally deleted the home page for his class, and it was an unbelievably simple fix for me -- I don't even think he ever knew what he had done. 

    I also love the capability of wikispaces to be used as an eportfolio for digital student work.  It supports embedding many different types of work (goanimate, voki, wallwisher -- although due to repeated "glitches" I have switched to linoit for an online blackboard, glogster, slideshare, bitstrips, and screencastomatic, to name the ones I have used).  I have had issues with certain cloud apps:  empressr and sketchcast, but I have posted links to the student work, so it is still a worthwhile option in my opinion.  Image files are also very easily embeddable.

    Collaborize Classroom is another platform I have dabbled with.  It's format seems to be more or less a directed class blog.  What I like about it is the capability to create class polls, and get ongoing data.  For example, with a French 3 class working on the future tense, I put forth several specific questions about what life will be like in 25 years (will people be vacationing on the moon? etc.) and students voted whether they thought it was impossible, unlikely, possible, or definite, then we discussed the results in class.  For the same poll questions, they had to post longer comments giving reasons why they voted the way they did.  However, with blogpolls, I will be able to do the same thing in wikispaces. Also, student feedback on Collaborize Classroom was that many had difficulty logging in, even though I had sent invitations.  So, bottom line, I will likely not be using this platform in the future.

    Which brings me to Edmodo.  It's a great site for teachers whose districts have not made the leap to digital information storage, but for me, it just seems to be redundant.  I do like the community aspect, and as I did sign up for an account, I will check that periodically if for no other reason than to continue building my PLN, but beyond that, probably not.

    Sunday, June 19, 2011

    Am I Flipping Out?

    This story begins about five years ago in the dojang where my 2 DDs began to study Tae Kwon Do.  I would periodically hang around through the lesson to observe.  In a single class were white belt students (absolute beginners), black belt students, and every level in between.  During a one hour class, I would see the class working as a whole unit led by an adult instructor (this is typically how class would begin and end).  The middle of the class had students divided into small groups based on belt color, led by "senior belt" students -- students working at a higher level than the group they led. There does exist a TKD "textbook" containing all the material students need to have mastered before they take their "benchmark" test (the test to move to a higher colored belt).  The text is not "covered" by instructors, rather students learn the material on their own with help from instructors and student leaders. Testing is offered on a monthly basis, and when students are deemed ready to test (by the adult instructors) they are permitted to sign up to test.  To my knowledge, there are no unsuccessful students after testing, because the "formative assessment" has already indicated readiness.

    At that time, I was intrigued, and tried to imagine a way to make something similar work in my own classroom -- facilitating student leaders to work with struggling students, all students gaining mastery in their own time.  I unfortunately was unable at that time to conceive of something I was comfortable enough with to try on a large scale.

    Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago.  I am a newcomer (about 2 months) to Twitter, and began hearing buzz about "flipped classrooms".  From what I could figure, the basic concept was for students to watch lecture video at home, and do homework in the classroom where there is teacher guidance.  I was initially quite skeptical.  Let's face it, a fair number of students just plain won't do homework, however it is packaged, so if the actual LESSON, the presentation of information is left in the hands of the students, and they drop the ball, where does the blame truly lie?  Wouldn't it be shirking professional responsibility to allow this to happen?  Don't get me wrong.  Philosophically, I certainly think that students should be taking responsibility for their own learning.  I believe that should always be the ultimate goal.  But philosophy and reality don't always coincide.

    On a Twitter #edchat I connected with John Bernia (@mrbernia), a Middle School Assistant Principal in Michigan.  He challenged my skepticism, and encouraged me to continue looking further into the flipped classroom concept.  And so began the research.  Initially, I didn't find much to alleviate my concerns, and most of what I was reading barely scratched the surface.  Then I attended a 1 hour webinar hosted by Scott McLeod from Iowa State University.  The webinar featured a Who's Who of flipped classroom experts:  Jonathan Bergmann, Karl Fisch, Jerrid Kruse, Jonathan Martin, Sylvia Martinez, Pam Moran, Frank Noschese, and David Truss.  Given the fact that not all of these speakers were pro-flipping, I left the session just about as confused as I was before it started.  I did, however, find that I agreed most with what Jonathan Bergmann had to say, so that gave me some focus for my research.

    That led me to Bergmann's video on Flipped Mastery


    from here, I really started to get excited.  I started to find some answers to my first burning question -- what if they don't watch the vodcasts?  There are some teachers who use note guides that students must fill out to get "homework credit".  Others use random notebook checks.  Others use a warmup/bellringer activity that must be completed first thing, that will show that students have viewed the necessary material.  I also found Brian Bennett's post dealing with how he calculated his students' grades.  It all started to become very much more concrete to me. 

    Perhaps the most important and recurring piece of advice I found, was to ease into the flip slowly, rather than to try a complete overnight transformation.  No one anywhere has said that this is less work for a teacher, in fact, creating quality vodcasts will surely be a time sucker that I am glad to have a long summer ahead of me to begin.  I do, however, look forward to making some positive changes in the way I "do business" both in and out of my classroom.  Look for future posts on this topic as I start to get my feet wet.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011

    Leaping into the 21st Century with BYOD

    Bring Your Own Device, in my humblest of opinions, is going to forever change the face of education.  I know, I know, we've heard it all before...filmstrips....overhead projectors....Xerox machines...the internet, but I really think that moving toward a 1:1 classroom by having students bring their own cell phones to use as learning tools could have a far greater impact than anything we've seen yet.

    *note:  the tools described below do not require a "smart" phone

    Tonight's Twitter #edchat topic was "Which emerging technologies will have the greatest impact on K-12 education in the next 5 years".  One of the recurring themes (partly due to my persistence in bringing it up over and over) was BYOD.  I began dabbling with using student-owned cell phones as learning tools during the last month of classes this year.  I began with http://www.polleverywhere.com/.  It's an easy (and free) polling tool that works via SMS.  I prepped my polls in advance, and students texted responses which were projected onto the large screen.  There is the option for multiple choice questions (with instant graphing of results) or short answer.  If this sounds familiar, basically the students' own cell phones served as "clickers".  Cost to the district:  $0 Value of student response:  Priceless

    The second tool I tried was Google Voice.  As a French teacher, speaking is a large part of what students need to be able to do in order to be proficient.  In the past, review would consist of practice conversations in pairs, with as much feedback as I could manage by circulating around the classroom, or practice conversations between myself and a single student, where students would critique the performance, but were otherwise minimally engaged.  With Google Voice, I set up conversation parameters, and began the conversation as I would in a testing situation.  Each student then dialed my Google Voice number (a randomly generated phone number -- it is connected to my cell phone number, but by setting the preferences to "Do Not Disturb", my personal phone is out of the loop) and left a voice mail for me with their response to my conversation starter.  I then played back each response, giving feedback.  Each student was able to speak, and receive feedback in a single class period, and they learned from each others' mistakes.  I also used Google Voice in conjunction with Voki to allow speaking practice outside class.  I created a Voki which asked students questions on a topic.  Students responded to the questions in a voice mail.

    Due to budgetary restraints, my school district isn't going to be able to provide 1:1 devices (apart from a few semi-functional laptop carts shared throughout the building) for my class anytime soon.  I also am one of the few teachers without an IWB.  Cell phones were my way of accomplishing my goals without.

    So my plan for next year, is to dive in headfirst, and acclimate the students to using their cell phones as a routine part of the learning experience in my classroom.  To that end, in response to the administration's request that school supplies be posted on all department websites before we leave for the summer, I added a request (yes, request, not requirement) that students who already have cell phones, bring them to class.  I believe this to be key:  public schools cannot require students/parents to purchase cell phones/data plans for their children.  This seemed to be the biggest hurdle for most of the #edchat tweeters this evening when it came to the idea of BYOD.  The solutions I used were simple, and quite effective:  students with cell phones shared with students who had none.  This is the same solution I use when:

    • students do not have a writing utensil
    • students do not have paper
    • students do not have their textbook with them
    Sharing was relatively seamless, and for those who fear that students will lose the ability to interact face-to-face, sharing requires such interaction.

    I also allow students to use my personal device (I confess...it's a "dumb" phone) which adds one more device to the mix.

    With Google Voice, the classroom land line is also an option.

    Yes, indeed, I did have one negative experience with the cell phones.  While students were supposed to be recording voice mails, I had a couple of girls texting some inappropriate messages.  But in the days before cell phones, might they not have simply passed notes?  And, let's face it, you can't stab someone with a cell phone like you can with a pencil.  If we ban the tools, the students will never learn to be responsible users, and isn't that part of 21st Century Learning?

    Credit where credit is due:  At the end of the chat, Jackie Gerstein suggested that I blog about my request for students to bring cell phones to class next year, so thank you Jackie.  There will surely be much follow-up when the school year begins.

    Sunday, May 22, 2011


    Ok, so I had planned to do the next challenge -- Edmodo.  I even have the beginnings of a post saved to drafts.  The bottom line for me is that much of Edmodo is redundant, because my district has adopted schooltool to move most student data online.

    That said, in my twavels this weekend, I discovered overstream.com.  It's a free online tool that allows you to create subtitles for existing youtube videos.

    I started googling for something to accomplish this, after seeing this video by EF:

    (the video was posted on #langchat, but I can't remember who originally posted it, because I tabbed it while doing something else, not having any idea it would become a blog post!)

    My thought after watching it, was that there were some really great scenes, just enough vocab interspersed in the EF titles, and no dialogue, so students could write their own.  I tried it out myself (very quickly) and came up with this:

    I found it to be quite user friendly.  This activity could easily be adapted to multiple levels by changing the number of titles required and/or specifying structures you want the students to be practicing.  What do you think?

    Friday, May 20, 2011


    Warning:  this post is quite long!

    OK, so as I'm feeling very far behind, I'm going to jump right on the next challenge!  #4 is Classtools.net.  I had perused it ever so briefly several weeks ago, so this is a good opportunity to revisit and rethink.  I'm going to briefly review template by template.  Please keep in mind that I will do so through the lens of a high school French teacher, so where I find something useful or not, may be completely different in your subject area.  My overall opinion of the tools here is that for the most part there are other tools that do the same job either more simply, more effectively, or more professionally, and in some cases I think low-tech is best.  Below is a brief commentary of each of the 23 tools (whew!).  My personal favorite (Random Name Picker) is in bold.

    1.  Fakebook -- I truly love the idea of this!  Our school continues to block Facebook (although just about every student knows how to get around the filters even if we teachers don't) and I think it could be a great tool to get students using the target language in an authentic setting.  Here are my criticisms -- first of all, I wish the template were available in French (as the real Facebook is) second of all, even though it acts as a social media tool, students would be using it exclusively for class assignments, which takes away some of the authenticity.  Personally, I would prefer to be able to find a way (convince the powers that be) to use "the real Facebook" as a classroom tool.

    2.  Arcade Game Generator -- Gotta admit, I'm not a fan.  The graphics are almost as prehistoric as Pong, but not in a way than makes me nostalgic for anything.  It seems as though the games require more effort to learn how to play the game than to learn the information.  Not my cup of tea

    3. Random Name Picker -- a really simple but really cool tool.  How often are we doing a class activity when the same kids volunteer every time, they've been organized alphabetically since kindergarten, so that gets old, and we just need a way to even out the chances and -- just be random!  Really simple, and I really like it.  I used the kids' nicknames, so I felt OK embedding the tool into the class website for easy access.

    4.  Twister -- Last night's Twitter #langchat dealt with authentic assessment, and what qualifies as "authentic" .  On that note, Twister could not be considered "authentic", because it is not real.  For that reason, I would much prefer to use "the real thing" with my students, creating a class hashtag for discussion.  However, sometimes we have to use what we have at hand, and Twitter is not functional with our school's filters, so this could be a good substitute.

    5.  Keyword Checker -- Less applicable to my content area as far as I can see, as my writing assignments typically don't require use of keywords.

    6.  Plagiarism Checker -- see above.  In FL our main concern is misuse of online translation devices, for which this tool would not be useful

    7.  Dustbin Game -- could be useful for reviewing picky grammar points.  The game I created (and then promptly lost because I played before I saved) was to review the partitive article.  My 4 dustbins were de, de la, de l', and des.  Different food words were dragged into the dustbins based on gender, number, and starting letter.  Might be a cute way for students to practice on their own, but I don't know as it would be an effective use of class time in a HS FL classroom.

    8.  Telescopic Topic -- seems like....much ado about nothing?  Or am I missing something??

    9.  Post-it -- again, I think there might be more effort required to mess with the lines and boxes than needed to learn the language.  I would do this with real, hands-on paper Post-it notes.  Sometimes low-tech is the way to go.

    10.  Diamond 9 -- Looks like a pretty neat tool, but probably more involved than a begginning-intermediate FL class warrants.

    11.  Fishbone -- see comments for Diamond 9

    12.  Venn Diagram -- Now we're talking!  I have always been a huge fan of the Venn diagram when comparing a target culture to American culture.  This version is very easy, interactive, and I would replace my paper version with this in a heartbeat!

    13.  Animated book -- See comments for Telescopic Topic

    14.  Timeline -- seems relatively simple...as a FL teacher I don't frequently use timelines with my students, and I think there are some better tools out there for timeline creation, but not a bad tool for the sake of simplicity

    15.  Lights Out -- I just don't get the point.  :(

    16.  Target Diagram -- Could be a useful mindmapping tool, but I'm not sure there aren't better ones out there that are more versatile (Mindomo comes to mind)

    17.  Burger Diagram -- I have seen similar graphic organizers in B & W, and I think I prefer them simply because the colors are very distracting to me.

    18.  Living Graph -- I am not a math person.  I am not a graph person.  Data makes my head spin.  That said, I am not the best person to judge this tool.  I really like what collaborizeclassroom does for me regarding data from student polls taken in the target language -- it makes me nice, simple little pie charts that I can understand!  :)

    19.  Learning Cycle -- A bit too complicated for what I think it's supposed to do...then again, maybe I'm not understanding it.

    20.  Jigsaw Diagram -- see comment for Dustbin Game

    21.  Priority Chart -- see comment for Target Diagram

    22.  Source Analyser -- I can see this being a very useful tool for teaching students how to do research, and how to evaluate research materials.  More in depth than what I do as a FL teacher, but I think English and Social Studies teachers could easily incorporate this.

    23.  Countdown Timer -- I can definitely see this as a useful tool -- for someone who functions well in structure.  I am not that person, so this is not for me.

    Thursday, May 19, 2011

    Bitstrips in the FL Classroom

    So it's May 19, and I'm still on Free Tools Challenge #3 lol.  When I saw this challenge, I knew I'd fall behind, because I needed to find the right objective, and that's not always easy at this time of year.  In fact, I'm still thinking maybe I didn't choose the right one, but I did get to try a new tool, and my kids are having a blast.
    So I'm using it (present tense because we're finishing up in the lab tomorrow) with a level 1 French class to get them writing about leisure activities.  Their task is to create a 10 frame comic strip about a weekend (theirs, or the character(s) they create) and the activities taking place.
    The tool was a fantastic success. The students are taking to it like ducks to water, needing very little guidance, although none of them had been on the site prior to this morning.  They were easily able to create characters, find premade characters that interested them, change scenes from frame to frame, add props, control the positions of characters, etc.  Adding text with thought bubbles is very easy, although the drawback as a foreign language teacher, is that students need to know keyboard shortcuts for diacritical marks, or they cannot put them in the text.
    The drawback for me, is that students for the most part seem to be spending more time creating their "artwork" than using the language.  This is not altogether surprising, and I'm pretty sure I won't use this tool again for this particular assignment, but I will definitely keep it in my arsenal for future use, perhaps in a level 2 or 3 class.
    What do you all think?

    Addendum to this post:  here are a couple of student work samples:

    Monday, May 16, 2011

    Poll Everywhere!

    So, I'm one of the few teachers left in my district without a Smartboard or Promethean board.  I'm a techie at heart, so I have to admit, I've been kind of bummed out about the situation.  I tried to make myself feel better by listening to my colleagues complaints that they're not all they're cracked up to be.  Since the beginning of the school year somewhat, but really intensely over the last month and a half or so, I've been  diving headfirst into alternative ways to change up what I do in the classroom and make it more meaningful to my students, while broadening their knowledge of technology.  As foreign language teachers, we are really skill-based in what we teach and in what we expect the students to do:  they need to read, write, speak, and listen.  When I started looking at the ways I asked them to do that, and looked around at the tools that are available, the creative juices started to flow, and now I'm just trying to keep them from drowning me!  My latest discovery came from and it is polleverywhere.com.  Polleverywhere is a web-based app that allows you to create open-ended or multiple choice polls that your students can answer using their cell phones.  I discovered this gem of a website via a link from a post on Edudemic   Clickers?  Who needs clickers????  Imagine the looks of delight in the eyes of my students when my first direction to them was (in French of course) take out your cell phones!  The excitement was palpable.  The motivation piece was clearly present and accounted for, as evidenced by my final multiple choice poll question asking for their opinion on the activity -- all but one student expressed a favorable opinion (and that student later said he hadn't understood the choices).  Now critics of technology will certainly point out that fun does not an objective accomplish, so I go back to my goals for that day's class.  We have been recycling food vocabulary, and had just introduced expressions of quantity (bag, box, can, bottle, pound, litre, etc.)  Most of my questions were open-ended and consisted of questions like "What can be purchased in a jar?" The answers were varied, students could immediately see what their classmates had posted, and evaluate the correctness of the responses for themselves.  This particular polling app is anonymous, which has good and bad points.  On the positive, there is no issue of a student being unwilling to "put him/herself out there" if they are unsure of an answer, because when I point out errors, no one knows whose answer I am correcting.  On the negative, we do deal with teenagers, and there were some mildly inappropriate posts, but once I reexplained that the alternative was pen and paper, those disappeared.  For this trial run, I used my whole 40 class period -- I had prepared more than enough questions.  Students were engaged during the entire class, however, my ideas for future implementation run more toward quick bellringer activities that can be answered upon students entering the room, and discussed as class begins. 

    Check it out!  Let me know what you think!