Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thinking about voicethread

I have starting reading books on the D.C.F. list in the past week. (For more information on this statewide book award for grades 4-8, visit the official site at

During the year, I will probably read one or more of the books on this list to my class during read aloud, but many of my students will be reading these books independently, at their own pace throughout the year. I don't know much about using, but this is a tool I have been wanting to learn about. I am thinking about having students use the iPad to create voice recordings and post them to a DCF voicethread I set up for the class. This may be another way to get dialogue going about the books they will be reading.

Voice thread requires Flash Player 7.0 or higher, but Flash Player is not available for the iPad. Gee, that stinks! Here I was all set with what I hoped was a great idea, but it looks like no dice. (Raise your hand if you knew I was going to hit this snag when you read the previous paragraph. I am sure my two personal tech gurus have their hands up and are probably chuckling at my ignorance right about now.)

Could we create a podcast instead? I have a lot to learn...

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Wonderful Awful Idea

“Then he got an idea! An awful idea! THE GRINCH GOT A WONDERFUL, AWFUL IDEA!” - Dr. Seuss

Yesterday I went to my district iPad training. Most of my colleagues who attended had not yet received their iPads, so the event had a Christmas morning type of feel to it, that buzz of excitement as twenty five or thirty people exclaimed to one another as they fiddled with and explored the devices. For the most part, the training covered the basic nuts and bolts of working with an iPad, a mix of new and familiar territory for me. Our facilitator made some wise suggestions about organizing the apps so the ones the students will have access to are on the first page and gave us some tips about features that might have escaped me: how to bookmark a website and add it to the homescreen, or how to enable toggle voice over so that the iPad reads highlighted selections of anything on the screen to the user. Classroom teachers and special educators alike oohed and ahhed as they worked with the iPads' two cameras, microphone, touch screen and easy accessibility to thousands of apps.

I have been thinking about my reaction to the iPad and how it has differed from my colleagues'. I think in part I am hesitant to get too attached to this nifty machine because I know that ultimately it will be a tool that is shared throughout my school and I may not retain primary possession of it in my room. When our school received grant funded laptops many years back, that clunky hp became “mine” until it wore out and I bought my own MacBook. I don't want to get too dependent on a new piece of technology if I can help it, and frankly I am still more comfortable working on my laptop, so the iPad feels like an add on instead of as essential. Technologically speaking, my life has been going on quite fine without the iPad so its arrival on the scene hasn't felt earth shattering, hasn't made me wonder, “How did I ever live without this??”

That being said, there is a dizzying amount of technology packed into this small apparatus, and when I think about the development of technology in my lifetime, I realize once again that we are living in the middle of a technology revolution that will be studied as part of world history long after we are all gone. I am overwhelmed to realize that my job as a teacher is shifting sand, changing right underneath my feet. How can I possibly prepare my students for what the world is becoming in the midst of this revolution?

Our facilitator has worked with the first generation of iPads in his school district during this past school year, and was able to recommend several apps that have educational potential. My homework in the coming weeks will be to check out these sites and others and think about how they will enhance learning in my classroom in the coming year. One thing I noticed, sitting amidst as many special educators as classroom teachers, is that there seems to be a more immediate, obvious understanding of how the iPad can be used in a 1:1 situation than in a classroom situation where there is one iPad and eighteen or twenty students. Knowing I have one student who is not on a special education IEP but does have some distinct individualized needs, I am planning on trying out the free Dragon dictation app with him in the fall. It is amazingly simple to email the text you have dictated. This student could compose his writing via dictation and then rework the draft in Google docs (already used by fifth and sixth graders at my school) when the rest of the class is typing their writing in our school tech lab. I am not sure how Dragon works when there is the background noise of a classroom, so this is one kink that may need to be worked out.

One other app to mention right now: the top free education app this week is the National Science Foundation's Science 360 for iPad. Using a “unique 360 view” users can choose from hundreds of science video and images. The following exchange got me thinking about the Grinch.

Classroom teacher (not me): How can you search for specific topics?

Facilitator: You can't.*

CT: That's awful!

F: No, it's wonderful.

I see both sides of this short dialogue. It's amazing and wonderful to have so many high quality, engaging videos at ones disposal. The whole world, accessed through the iPad.

But it's awful, too. As a parent (and teacher), I have to be so diligent making sure my children are not spending too much time in front of a screen. At my house, screen time is like a sugary treat, doled out carefully and leaving my children always wanting more. I can imagine how easy it would be to say to myself, “Well, these are educational videos, so it's ok if my five and nine year old watch these.” But for my parenting style, it is so much more important that they get outside, play kickball with the boy who lives down the street, explore the stream out back with their father, go on a bike ride with me. Maybe that's because I know how easy it is to fall down the rabbit hole and spend hours on the internet, chatting with friends on facebook, reading the dozen blogs I follow, catching up on email. As amazing as those science 360 videos are, I can see how easy it would be to get lost in their visual dazzle; there will be few situations when I set up a student with the iPad and let them loose on that app, just to see what's out there. It feels very grinchy to have this reaction to such a cool app, but that's how it feels to me; I was glad to hear another teacher see past some of the ooh and ahh in consideration of practical classroom applications.

*And now for the happy ending/postscript on Science 360: you can do a two finger tap and get to a menu that allows you to search the videos by tags. So a teacher could search for videos about amphibians, decibels, or hydrogen bonds. Or any of the other alphabetically arranged tags. This gives me hope for its usefulness in the classroom.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Absolute Board

One of the free apps I found in the top charts under the Education category is called Absolute Board. It's meant to be used to "sketch and take notes about anything in your mind."

I found this app easy to use. There's an exclamation mark icon and if you forget what the other icons do, choosing this one shows all the labels for the other icons. Then it fades out and you can continue drawing, writing, etc.

I liked being able to choose the colors and line size. The eraser function is quick and easy, and you can zoom in and out in addition to changing the line size. You can also save your board screens and send a snapshot via email. I sent some snapshots to myself and found it easy to add a .jpg extension so I could open it in preview. From there you could save it as a .pdf, insert it into a document (or blog post...) and so on.

It seems like a very flexible app that has many potential uses but I haven't figured out what they might be in a classroom setting. Any ideas?? Please post and share if you have thoughts about applications for this app.

Monday, June 13, 2011


My first week with an iPad surprised me. I thought I was going to pick it up and never want to put it down. Instead, the few hours I have worked with it have raised more questions than it has answered.

The first day, I fiddled around with it. I have used an iPod touch so I am comfortable with the touch screen and knew how to do basic navigation from one app to another. I was excited to look through the app store to see what is out there in educational apps. For right now, I can only download the free ones because my limited budget for purchasing apps won't kick in until after July 1. There is a dizzying selection of apps out there, even when you limit yourself to the free ones. I'm a little freaked out wondering how I will keep up with an array of apps that will continue to increase at a steady pace.

I started with the top free Apps in education. But before I get into what I found, I probably need to share the mental categories I have for iPad uses.

Category one - Gaming: The touch screen brings a whole new dimension to gaming. I will admit that I have downloaded a basic Euchre app because I had heard about it from a friend and have fond memories of endless rounds of Euchre when I worked as a summer camp counselor in Michigan. Euchre seems to be primarily a mid-West phenomenon (see rules at I was excited to find a way to play this game again. My experience playing the game, which lasted for less than half an hour, can best be summed up by saying it just wasn't the same. The banter, the trash talk, the subtle communication between my partner across the table – all of that was missing. And this is my issue with gaming in the digital world: the interaction is primarily with a screen, even if you are playing a game in real time with someone else, somewhere else.

But that is is neither here nor there. This iPad is meant to be for educational purposes, so let's move on to my other mental categories.

Category two – Replacing other resources: The iPad is a wonder of efficiencies. There is a camera, video recording, internet access, music storage, a calendar, maps, a notepad and more – all in one sleek gadget. I can see the value in having one machine do the job of several, but at the same time I know that my classroom already has a camera, a laptop with internet access, maps, paper and pencil for writing down ideas, a CD player, etc. I know a big part of the coming year will be figuring out how to use this new resource effectively, and how to find out how it can do the above stated functions for me better than the technology and resources I already have.

Category three – Transforming my teaching: This is the category I am more interested in. How can an iPad enhance what I am already doing as a teacher and create new and better opportunities for my students? I hope readers will post any suggestions they have to get me started.

Now that you understand more about my thinking, you may not be surprised at my reaction in the app store. Many of the top education apps seem to be variations on material or resources you can already access online or in print. An app that gives me access to TED videos? I can find those videos on the internet just as easily. A world map app? I have atlases of all kinds in my classroom. Leafsnap sounds like some amazing technology, using visual recognition software to allow users to identify tree species from photos of their leaves. But then the little voice in me, relic of my environmental educator past, whispers, “Wouldn't it be better to teach kids how to use field guides?”

I hate to sound like a tech-skeptic, but this first week has me realizing that I am approaching this new opportunity with some high standards. There will only be one iPad in my classroom, and I wonder if it will be more of a tool for me, or a tool for my students. How will they share it? Which apps will work well with which projects? Personally I am more comfortable working on my laptop. And truth be told, it's getting harder and harder to think about what my classroom will look like in September when summer vacation is so close...

I am looking forward to a district training session next week, where I hope to get some direction on how to best use this new tool with students. More after that session.

Friday, June 10, 2011

In which I enter the world of blogging

What is the point of an iPad??

This was my reaction when was first introduced to iPad technology last year. I just didn't get it.

I quizzed my husband, way more in tune to new technology than I am. “So it's just an oversized iPod? What's the big deal?” He has an iPod; I don't. The idea of paying hundreds of dollars for a bigger one made no sense to me.

Over the course of the past year, we have continued to talk about possible uses for an iPad. I am in no way tech-phobic or anti-technology, but at the same time I see how techno-crazed our society has become, observing as an anthropologist might. I have been simultaneously amazed and distressed to see how cell phones have become a compulsive toy many people can't put down or set aside, but rather fiddle with, a constant and nervous twitch. I worry about how my children gravitate toward any available computer screen, regardless of whether it's displaying a Electric Sheep or the dinner recipe I am preparing. I question my own evening routine that is not complete without scrolling through my facebook newsfeed. The iPad craze seems like one more gadget in the great tech toybox of the twenty first century.

Which is not to say that I don't see the potential for an iPad to be useful. If, for instance, I were planning a long trip overseas, the iPad would be an excellent traveling companion: giving me access to email, internet and Skype; allowing me to capture my trip with photos and video; acting as a repository for music and video I would bring with me. And when I got bored on a long train ride, I could play a few levels of Angry Birdies. I get it.

But Apple is claiming the iPad is much, much more. One commerical begins, "If you ask a parent, they might call it the teacher, it's the future.” Whoa. I am a teacher. Is this my future? And what does that mean?

My school district has begun to explore that question. They have made a modest purchase of iPads, enough to put a single iPad in each school for the coming school year. I have been selected to be the teacher in my school that is trained to use the iPad and test it out in her classroom. I will attend the training later this month, but have already been granted access to the iPad itself.

I am being encouraged by my building technology guru to take notes on thoughts, uses, reactions, etc. Actually, he suggested I use the Evernote App to jot down my thoughts. As as writer, I need an audience, or at least the potential for one. Thus was born the idea to take notes, and use them for blog fodder.

This entry was typed on my laptop with all ten fingers, but I do intend to learn how to post to a blog directly from the iPad. (I'm almost positive this is possible.) My next entry will be about my first week with the iPad and how I (mostly) didn't play any games on it. But my primary intent for this blog is to document how I use the iPad with my students in the coming school year and what applications are transformative to how I teach and how they learn. I have the whole summer to get ready...I hope some of you will join me on this journey!