Recently I had the opportunity to be a guest on the EdReach Mobile Podcast. Regulars Chad Kafka and Tammy Lind grilled me like rack of ribs on how I have used my classroom set of iPod Touches, how I’ve set them up, and what types of tips and tricks I’ve found on my path to iTouch enlightenment.
Schools never have enough money. Or so they say. So walk through the wardrobe with me for just a second and let’s pretend we’re in a land where someone wants to give you money. Essentially, a blank check. Now, what do you do with it?
For me, I’d use it to fund an educational technology initiative. But what exactly? Would I just buy hardware like iPads? More computers? eReaders like the Nook or Kindle? Digital Cameras? Money can get spent pretty quickly if you’re buying hardware, not to mention the ancillary equipment also needed.
Sometimes, it’s easy to get swept up in purchasing as many new and flashy gadgets as we can in the hopes that will improve education. The best way to improve education, to me, is better teaching. So while a teacher may have access to better classroom technologies, if they don’t know how to use it (or use it effectively) it becomes a waste of time and money. Lately I’ve been thinking that it might be time to throttle back on consuming hardware, and start thinking about increasing staff support and the proper teaching of even basic skills to students. So many students lack in basic computing skills and knowledge, does it really benefit them to use an app they might only use once? Beats me. I guess this is a content vs. skills question at its core. In some cases (in a perfect world) you could do both easily. Although I love iPad’s, I struggle to see a future where one of my student’s ability to get into college or get a job will hinge on whether or not they know how to operate an app.
So….back to the original question: someone gives you a bunch of money at your school. What do you use it for?
It’s been a while. I haven’t written a post in a coon’s age, so forgive me if I forget how to do this.
Currently in my 8th grade U.S. history class, I’m teaching students about the Oregon Trail. To tell the story of the Oregon trail, I have found that it works best to tell it as a story (and for that matter, history is always best conveyed as a story, but I digress). In the past (ironic) we’ve taken turns reading journal entries from people who were actually on the OR Trail. True story accounts of the hardships people faced as they made the long and arduous journey west in search of land and opportunity and, yes, guided by the tenants of Manifest Destiny. While we read through the journal entries, I show pictures from the trail from that time period. The goal is to make students understand the experiences pioneers went through while on their journey. A sound objective, but one that has been feeling a bit stale. Typically, a few students love to read the stories while others students zone out. The engagement level can drop.
So, in an effort to regain my student’s attention and focus, place a higher priority on individual participation, and be more efficient with the overall lesson, I decided to change the way I do this lesson and make audible recordings of the journal entries and have students listen to them on our classroom iTouches. This grabs their attention a lot more (especially when Mr. Freeburg does his “voices” of road weary travelers). I used Gold Wave to record the twelve or so different journal entries and then transferred the MP3 files to iTunes. When students finish listening to the stories from the trail and they take some notes, I had students pretend as if they were actually on the OR Trail themselves and create a digital postcard they would send back east. To do this, I used the Bill Atkinson PhotoCard Lite App, which allows you to make digital postcards on an iTouch. I preloaded the iTouches with about 34 pictures from the OR Trail. Students self selected which photo they wanted to use, filled out requisite information using a rubric I had given them. These were then posted to Picasa (using our district’s Google Apps account), and I linked a Picasa album onto my Moodle page.
The end result? Students were far more engaged with this particular assignment then they had ever been in the past. The product they created for me to assess their understanding of the trail was more dynamic and richer than what we had done in the past as well. Student’s loved it, and I had a blast grading their postcards.
To take the to another level, I wish I was able to find an 8th grade U.S. History teacher in Oregon who I could connect with and have their students comment on the postcards my students made and vice versa. Oh well, maybe next time…..
Commenter Nathan makes a great point. I should have allowed them to play The Oregon Trail game. Well….I did, I totally forgot about that part of the day. And, unsurprisingly, the students loved playing it. There’s not enough time to play it in it’s entirety during one class period, but they still love it. What’s more, there is an astonishing amount of real historical facts in the iTouch game.
At the beginning of Dec. (’09) I attended the Google Teacher Academy in Washington D.C. My intent on going was to: A) learn more about the offerings of Google and gain a better understanding of how I could use Google apps in my 8th grade U.S. history class, and, B) pick the brains of fellow educators from around the country who are also doing great things with technology in their classrooms.
The entire experience was the best professional workshop I’ve attended. Ever. Unlike a lot of workshop/conferences I’ve been to, GTADC equipped me with tools I can use in my classroom today, and it allowed me the creativity to think about how I could implement these skills into my curriculum.
Some of the highlights:
I teach 8th grade U.S. history, so the implementation of Google Maps AND Earth was phenomenal. The point is not to just show students places on the earth, but to interact with them and expand them. A presentation on Google Lit Trips sealed the deal for me. Instead of just showing where battles of the Civil War were, I plan on having students add details into Earth about the surrounding areas and putting the battles in chronological order.
Speaking of the Civil War, how cool would it be to see a 3D modeling of Antietam, Gettysburg, or any other battle site of the Civil War? SketchUp would allow me (or the students) to create one of these and bring the battlefield to them.
In past years I’ve set up a wiki from PBworks for a collaborative project where students research different events that followed the writing of the Constitution. This year, I’m determined to use Google Sites. My students already have Google Accounts, so there’s really no point in using a new service where they’d have to remember a brand new login and password they may use only once. Plus, since their login will work with Google Maps, Docs, etc., there’s near limitless possibilities for embedding these existing tools into their own site page.
Since I don’t teach math, I’ve stayed away from using Google spreadsheets a lot because well, math is icky. Really, it is…. After having a grand tour of it however, I’m ready to sing its praises. While I’m not too interested in plotting and graphing points along an X and Y axis or managing different mathematical formulas (icky, like I said), I am interested in seeing different statistics from different countries over time. Life expectancies, GDP, literacy rates, etc., are all different things one could graph into a Google Spreadsheet. AND THEN, you can insert a gadget into that spreadsheet to make it look really cool and give it some animation over time. AND THEN, you can insert that spreadsheet into a site or have multiple students collaborate on it. Really cool stuff (and not icky at all).
Because of a generous grant in our district, I will soon be receiving a classroom set of iPod Touches. In between guest speakers and breaks at GTADC, I spent a lot of timing picking the brains of teachers (like him and him) who know what they’re talking about and teachers who can help me make this leap. Although it wasn’t sponsored by Google, networking with so many fellow educators from other points on the map was really encouraging and inspiring.
I could go on and on about the awesome things I experienced, but sooner or later I’d run out of bullet-points.
The last thing I’ll say, is that before attending, I was skeptical. And perhaps maybe even a little cynical, and I know I’m not the only educator out there who’s ever had this sentiment. Even though I wanted to go and applied to go, I was leery of drinking the Google Kool-Aid and having them use me as a conduit to hook my young and impressionable students into using their free products for life. After I got there and went through the process, it became evident to me that I should really use these Google Apps for Education for what they are: products (FREE products mind you) to help students become engaged and learn. What’s wrong with that? Why is the outcry not as loud for text book publishers who have been price gouging school districts for decades? Microsoft has been doing this for years, and even Apple fanboys have to admit that Apple’s expansive play into education is rooted in turning a profit first and providing an educational experience second (seriously, if nobody made any money in it, no company would ever bother with us plebes in the lowly public sector). So, if Google is going to offer me and my students something for free to make their learning experience that much better, I’ll take it.
After all, when I was in high school we only had Coke machines, and now I prefer Pepsi. Turns out I can make decisions for myself. Who knew?