Friday, October 23, 2009

Wordle, Voki, Etherpad, and other normal labels!

This week I had some fun working with a few Web 2.0 tools that I think have real value in the classroom especially when it comes to expressing creativity. In light of all the talk about our society placing such great value on left brain or L-Directed Thinking, we need some outlets in our classrooms that encourage students to think from the right hemisphere that explores the arts, language, individuality, colour, and design. Technology has made it possible for students to express themselves in ways I would never have imagined possible when I was a student in elementary school. Our world has come a long ways from slate boards and Crayons.

The first tool I tried out was Wordle. What a fun tool! I love language and words. Wordle is a tool that generates “word clouds” from text that you provide. The collection of words are given greater prominence based upon the frequency of the text or words used. You can change the design by using different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. You can randomize the layout so hundreds of other designs are produced with the same highlighted words. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends.Very cool. Let me demonstrate by grabbing the text from last week's blog. I used one word more frequently, so it is displayed more prominently. Can you tell which word I used? I will also display a couple of different random images of the same words.

These are just two examples of what Wordle can do. Imagine the fun students can have writing a topical paragraph and then copying and pasting the paragraph into Wordle and creating beautiful expressions of their writing. Then the student can share this Wordle with their peers and have then guess or decode the message found in the image.

The second tool was Voki. I've embedded a Voki, which is a blend of voice and avatar. This year, our theme for our students is "Be the change you want to see." This is a quote from Gandhi. So I found a Gandhi talking head and recorded a message for viewers, such as yourself. I tried to find an actual mp3 of Gandhi's voice saying these words, but was unsuccessful.

But you can upload mp3 files and the avatar will mouth the words for you. The beauty of a tool like this is how it gives students a voice when many lack the confidence to video themselves. Students can choose from a wide array of avatars, dress them up, add backgrounds, and more. Once again this Web 2.0 tool can be a way of students expressing themselves for presentations that the teacher plays on a digital projector for the class, or embed in a website or wikispace, or place in a PowerPoint presentation. There are so many options available with this little tool. Great way to encourage to students to speak out.

The final tool I was introduced this week was EtherPad. Most of us have used Google Docs and shared out files with peers or colleagues. But EtherPad gives you the opportunity to edit documents live in real-time with another colleague. When multiple people edit the same document simultaneously, any changes are instantly reflected on everyone's screen. This is a great way to collaborate on text documents, and extremely useful for meeting notes, drafting sessions, education, team programming, and more. Students can use this in global projects or collaborate with other schools in the same division, or across the globe. When a number of the staff were looking at this tool in a PD session we had today, many of the responses were, "Wow." This is a group of staff that have seen a lot of web resources since they teach online. When a tool like EtherPad gets "wows" it must be pretty impressive. The only drawback is that there is cost associated with it if you have more than three people wanting to edit at the same time. Despite this, I see a lot of uses for it. I just might have to be creative!

I've embedded a demo of EtherPad. Check it out!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Be the Change...

Recently, a friend of mine, who just started blogging I might add, posted a poll asking readers if they thought that Manitoba is a welfare state. The results of his small but significant sample was that 93% of respondents agreed that Manitoba was a welfare state. Now I generally leave the controversial topics to my friend, but it left me asking the question, "What's wrong with our economic, political, social, or educational system that we are seeing a dependency on social assistance?" I remember back some years ago when my students turned 18 years old, they would leave school at 3:30 and immediately lined up at the band office to collect their cheque for $122.50 twice a month.

This week, I sat down with an Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) official, who explained the new Active Measures program targeting 15-30 year old First Nations youth living on-reserve. I didn't know this, but things have changed with regard to welfare. Once you turn 18 years old, you don't automatically qualify for Social Assistance (SA). You have to sit down with the SA worker and develop a plan that includes, finishing your education and getting training. There has to be a plan for getting the 18 yr old or older off SA and entering the workforce. So things are changing, and this is a good thing for our youth. They need to stay in school and finish their education. They need to have a plan for their life and what they want to do, or what career they want to enter. It is time for our First Nations youth to be as Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." Yes, we have had it rough sometimes in the past living on the Rez. I've been there and done that, too. But we can choose to live like there is no hope, and feeling stuck, or we can be the change we want to see. We want change on the Rez, then it can start with each one of us living on the Rez. We want to see businesses develop and employment opportunities, then we need to be the change and make it happen. It is time for change.

I watched this video from Tedtalk yesterday about a young name in Malawi, who grew up on a poor farm. He dropped out of school to help his father farm, but then a famine hit, and they had nothing. No SA from the government. No outside aid from relief agencies. So one day he went to the village library and read a Physics book about how to create a windmill for pumping water and creating electricity. It's an amazing story of innovation and hope. It's about a young man, who decided to be the change and make a difference. Great story! William Kamkwamba: How I harnessed the wind

I realize that not everyone is as creative as William, but I believe that all of our eStudents Credenda have potential to express creativity in a variety of ways and better their lives with education. We just celebrated Thanksgiving in Canada, and yet what did we give thanks for? We could live in Malawi, or another third world country racked with poverty, civil war, disease, and suffering. But many of us live in great wealth, and have to wear the latest LuluLemon outfit, or drive the fanciest car to be happy. And yet sadly, many times I find myself and others grumbling and complaining. I need to be the change as well. It's not just our kids; it's us as adults as well. I want to possess the drive like young William to bring change, positive change to my life and the lives of others. Together, we can do this. Are you in?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Playing Games is More Than Having Fun

I know one of my kids favourite pastimes is playing board games or card games during the holidays, and especially "Stratego". That's usually the only time we can get together as a family. But do they love to play games. I guess my kids learned to love playing games from my mother. She is fierce competitor when it comes to games. Thankfully, I was able to tame any extreme "game playing" behaviours in my children, before they morphed into my mother. :) (She knows it, so I'm not telling any family secrets!) However, I truly acknowledge my mother's love for playing games in her senior years. Sadly, the older we get, I think we get crotchety and forget how to have fun and play. There is something appealing about a child's desire for play that I wish for myself. I'm not sure why I been so reflective in my blogs lately.

Dr. Stuart Brown makes some really good points at TedTalks about the importance of play being more than fun(you must know now how much I like TedTalks), so I've embedded the video here:

Back to the subject at hand; there is a place for play in the classroom. It is not to be confined to the playground, the monkey bars, the jungle gyms, or the lighter or easier subject areas either. I really believe that we need to develop youth as multifaceted, whole beings. As much as we develop their intellect, we need to balance it off with the laughter and fun. That's as much an intellectual pursuit as the more serious minded stuff of academia. Just like we balance between critical and creative thinking with application and doing, we need to introduce games and play to balance the serious quest for knowledge and understanding.

When I first started teaching, we played a lot of games in the classroom. I was a trained high school teacher completely out of his element teaching grade 2/3. It was my first teaching job, and I flew by the seat of my pants most of the time. My daybook was mostly filled with scribbles of what I changed on the fly, because what I had planned was often a complete failure. The students I inherited from the previous grade were left unable to read and write, because the teacher spent most of her time behind the desk doing beadwork. So I read, and read, and read to these students. I acted out scenes, changed my voice, entertained mostly! But the students had fun, and one by one, lights went on as they began to associate letters and groupings of letter with words and sounds. So much of this was accomplished with play. We made games of childrens books. We did the same with math, science, social studies, and health. Everything was an object lesson.

If I was to reflect back and think about what the students got out playing games, I would say it was these four things: connection, exploration, engagement, and application.

Connection: I found students connecting game activities with math concepts that we were covering. Connection is big in my books. That's when you see lights going on for students and you see that "I get it" look in their eyes. This is where the learning moved from the passive to the active.

Exploration: Students were able to explore math concepts we were learning in the classroom and see that they were not just numbers, fractions, or formulas, but they had real world relevance. They could explore how these concepts might be found in practical everyday life. It opened their minds to see beyond the pages.

Engagement: Some of the research I read about games suggest that games are a great motivator (Phelps, Egert, & Bayliss: 2009). Well, I come from a philosophical perspective that believes that motivation not only should be intrinsic, but is intrinsic and not extrinsic. While rewards and punishment have been considered extrinsic, the motivation is still internal within the individual, whether it is desire for reward, or fear of punishment. I believe I cannot motivate a child, I can inspire a child. I cannot make them want to do work or play a game. However, I digress! From my experience, I found that games not only help students explore concepts more fully, but gave them an place to engage on a level of desire and enjoyment. As a teacher, it was my role to inspire the students with wonder and fun by joining along with them in the games and not be a bystander.

Application: I also firmly believe that games encourage students to apply a number of skills to real life situations. It gets them trying things for themselves and learning from that experience, in addition to developing some very important teamwork and collaboration skills. Students learn to play and play fair. They learn to share. They learn how to be competitive, yet caring for the others playing. Research also shows this as well. (Vondracek & Pittman: 2002)

These are just a few of the ways, I found games worked in my classroom. Now my challenge is how to translate some of these traditional style game concepts into an online world, and not look cheesy, when students are so used to Wii, PlayStation 3, and more. Games have advanced tremendously from the Commodore 64 Paddle game. I'm not saying it can't be done, but I think the challenge is greater to connect and engage students with low budget games that can't compare to the multi-billion dollar gaming industry that produces such high quality graphical games. I guess that's our challenge.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Importance and Value of Committed Staff!!!

For the past four years, I have been slogging away at trying to get Credenda to a place where it could run without me. I mean this really. For the first four years, if I had walked away from it, it would have died. I'm not saying I was so central to Credenda's success. No rather, the challenge was we were so limited in resources and funding, we couldn’t afford additional help. We operated with a very small, but extremely dedicated staff that did their job plus two others at the same time.

But finally things have changes, and we have better funding in place, new staff, and great results. The team has gotten bigger and better. What an amazing group of staff we have this year. It is has been fantastic to sit back and watch this staff interact with each other. Just last Friday, we had an online PD session, and it was great. The ideas were flying around the virtual room, and the exchanges between staff were lighthearted, yet engaging. I came away from the session feeling tired from the level of discussion, but challenged intellectually. What a treat!

Tired is, unfortunately, something I feel a lot more of these days. It's been a long four and a half years from creating Credenda to today, where Credenda is thriving and bubbling with activity and hope. I just hope that I'm not too worn out to enjoy it. Hopefully, I can ride on the virtual coattails of our new staff's enthusiasm for awhile and catch my breath with a fresh new breeze of life and rejuvenation. Today, we have 28 staff working for Credenda, a huge increase from the 5 of us who started in 2005. Today, we have 268 eStudents in high school; 203 first time eStudents, and 65 returning eStudents. 168 of those new eStudents are First Nation from all across the province. We have 150 college eStudents as well. These are exciting numbers for us.

But it's the staff that make all of this work. Let me give you an example of just today how the staff make the difference, and why I believe we are as successful as we are today:

October 1, 2009: The principal - southern campus emailed me today suggesting we start a Credenda Leadership Camp that takes eStudents out of their home situations for a week during the summer. Great idea, and great commitment.

At the end of a long exhausting day, the principal - northern campus gets up from his laptop and says, “I just emailed all of the perfect attender students and thanked them for their commitment to coming to school.” Isn't that fantastic? How do you think those kids felt getting that email?

We've been working on developing on a new template for our course developers to use with clearly delineated themes and branding. Two of the course developers have spent countless, stressful hours working on this project outside of their already full duties. This afternoon, they presented this template to the other developers for them to use. Huge team effort!

At 7:40 AM, I received an email from our Science eTeacher sharing a PowerPoint presentation with me that an eStudent submitted. It was brilliant, and the new eTeacher was in awe! That felt good!

At 3:30 PM, I received a call from our Guidance Counselor, who drove four hours one way to visit and encourage 11 Leadership eStudents. That's real love and commitment for youth.

And you know what? That wasn't the half of what happened today. So much more went on and peoples lives were touched by caring and respectful staff. Do we have a great team? Absolutely! Credenda is way bigger than any one of us, because it's made up of all of us.

I am finally feeling like I am not shouldering this challenge alone. The team has gotten bigger and they are rallying around each other, and it feels good. It really is great to have good staff!