Sunday, December 28, 2008

Is Photo Story the New PowerPoint?

Last year I took a class an introductory course on Microsoft's Photo Story 3 for Windows and brainstormed various ways that this new technology could be used in our classrooms. The first project that we designed for our students was in Mr. Stein's Participation in Government classes (Grade 12). The topic of the assignment was Humanitarian Organizations. Students were assigned with the creation of a Public Service Announcement (PSA) promoting the missions and methods for six prominent non-profit organizations. We defined a PSA as a non-commercial advertisement broadcast for the public good. The main idea of our PSAs were to modify public attitudes by raising awareness about specific issues. Once each student was assigned to a group and given an organization to profile this project had 6 steps outlined below. Once each phase was completed students were required to report their progress to the “Project Managers” (teacher/librarian).

This project was a great fit for Photo Story. The classroom teacher and I worked collaboratively to create a meaningful assignment that worked with this technology. We didn't take a square peg and try to fit it into a round hole. I think it is important for teachers and school librarians to remember that Photo Story is NOT PowerPoint. They should not rework all of their previous PowerPoint projects and convert them to Photo Story projects simply because this is the latest technology fad. The technology should complement and be appropriate to the assignment, not the other way around. Photo Story should be used for digital storytelling. Please see image above (created using Wordle) for inspiring Photo Story classroom applications. PowerPoint should be used for creating dynamic and high-impact presentations. These tools can be used to teach our students different and equally important 21st century skills. If used correctly, Photo Story can be used as an instrument to enable our students to improve their writing skills. The purpose of using Photo Story is to tell a story, so by using this technology our students gain practice scripting a narrative. PowerPoint should be used as a visual aid when presenting information orally to an audience. Since studies show that the audience will only remember three messages, our students need to decide what information is important to communicate. The most important skill when using PowerPoint is to practice/rehearse the presentation, as most students fear public speaking. Photo Story and PowerPoint are both technologies that can enhance project-based learning, but they serve different purposes and should be used fittingly.

These are the PSAs created by Mr. Stein's classes. Below are simplified instructions of the project, along with the organizations our students profiled.

Step 1: Research: Use the materials provided in the library and on the Internet to learn about the organization.
Step 2: Brainstorm: Generate strategies for explaining your organization in a way that will get others to take action.
Step 3: Write Treatment: A Treatment is a written description of what you intend to show and accomplish in your finished piece. Treatments must be approved by the teacher.
Step 4: Write a Script: Even if you do not intend to use any dialogue at all you’ll need a script describing the images and the associated sounds the viewer will see and hear.

Step 5: Produce Podcast: Using still images, narration and music in Photo Story create a podcast/netcast.
Step 6: Present: Finally students will present their video and post it to the class blog explaining why we should support their organization.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Rules of the Information Superhighway

The thing about goofy analogies and sayings is that they are all too often frighteningly accurate. The Internet today is an information super highway and while there might not be any stop signs or traffic lights there are plenty of pot holes, construction zones, and nowhere near enough state troopers to regulate the flow of traffic. The Internet is the modern day wild wild west and anyone who has watched a John Wayne movie knows the wild wild west was no place for a classroom. So the question is, "How do we safely take a classroom to the proverbial 'OK Corral?'"

Since I became a "techie" (four years now and counting) through trial and error (and the look of sheer terror on my chairperson's face when I toss out some of my more outlandish ideas), I've created a set of guidelines for myself when it comes to incorporating the Internet and creating Web 2.0 tools for my classes.

#1 Create worthwhile projects: Back in the day you could close the door to your classroom and no one would know what you were saying or doing; this is not so on the Internet. By creating Web 2.0 projects your students will be creating a lasting record of your classroom activities. Make sure that they are worthwhile! You do not want parents, administrators, and colleagues chuckling at the work created by your students. Check grammar and spelling before they post (even if it's a Math class). If your students are posting podcasts, review them before you post them. Look for inappropriate images, mispronunciations, and copyright violations. Once posted to the Internet they will live forever in cyberspace. In an age where corporations are reviewing Facebook pages along with resumes for potential hires, you only want to post content that puts you and your students in the best possible light.

#2 Limit your student's Internet footprint: In the post Lori Drew world, parents and administrators are increasingly wary of what their children do on the Internet. As teachers we have a responsibility to protect our student’s identity online. There are simple things we can do to this end. Create private blogs and wikis. Do not post student’s last names. Do not post images of your students unless you get written parental consent (most districts have publicity policies, but unless you're posting directly to the district's Website you are not protected by the district policy -or their lawyers!). Of course 99.99% of the things you want to post are completely benign and actually beneficial for your students, but then again who ever thought a Mom would create a fake Facebook page to tease a thirteen year old girl who would eventually kill herself! We live in a strange world. Take the necessary steps to protect yourself and your students.

#3 Check your sources: The instant nature of the Internet is great; you can have a running dialogue with a guy in Bangladesh about the effects of global warming in real time, but do you really know that he's a guy in Bangladesh? There is plenty of stuff on the Internet that is at best factually dubious. (Did you know Jamie Lee Curtis is man? Oh yeah, and I read that the next President of the United States is a secret Muslim, etc. etc.) Luckily, there are plenty of ways to check the veracity of information posted on the Internet. Do not blindly send your students on Webquests without knowing what they are going to find and who put it there. The twenty first century is quickly becoming an age where "truth and facts" are quickly being replaced by "believable fiction". Teach your students to find the former and to be skeptical of the latter.

#4 Moderate Comments: Question: What do you do if little Timmy raises his hand in class and announces that Janie Higgenbothom who sits in the front row is a fat smelly frog kisser (Timmy may in fact use different words, but this is a family-friendly Website). For anyone with more than six minutes of experience in a classroom this is a no-brainer. You reprimand Timmy, call the dean, call Timmy's parents and have Timmy apologize to Janie. Now what do you do when the same thing occurs on your class blog at 2:30 in the morning? Hopefully you've set up a private blog so that only your students have access, you've given your students unique password protected accounts so you know who is posting, and you've set the site to moderate comments. Now when Timmy makes his electronic pronouncement of Janie's amphibious odor, you are the only one that knows. You can pull Timmy aside the next day, show him the post, and explain that it is unacceptable. When Timmy protests that "it wasn't me, one of my friends must have stolen my password!" you can reset Timmy's password and advise Timmy to protect his personal information better. No matter who actually sent the offending message a lesson has been learned and we've spared the feeling of a little girl who may or may not live too close to the swamp. (This rule applies to wikis as well. Although on a wiki you can't always moderate comments you can use the history feature to see who has posted appropriate and inappropriate materials).

#5 Don't use technology for the sake of using technology: Make sure that there is a reason to use Web 2.0. Don't just use it cause it is "cool." I was one of the first teachers in my building to use the SMART board when it arrived two years ago. I spent about a week setting up the lesson and the kids were amazed and astounded and I could not wait to use the board again. The next day I used the board for no reason other than the fact that I could. At first the kids were once again amazed, but they began to see through the fact that I wasn't really doing anything with the board. A few minutes later the school reset their clocks (for daylight savings time) and the minute hand went backwards on the clock and my entire class of 10th graders was amazed that the clock was going backwards. Lesson learned! Do not use technology to "wow" the kids. Use technology because it fits into your lesson. Teachers all across Long Island are going "Web 2.0" while the schools are still preparing for Y2K. There just aren’t enough resources for everyone that wants to do Web 2.0 projects. Make sure you're doing something because it is good, not just because the "kids like computers."

#6 Be wary of copyright laws: Right now it is an absolute copyright free for all on the Internet. You can take what you want, post what you want practically at will, but just because you can does not mean it is right. America's copyright laws and their exceptions for classroom use are almost as poorly worded and conceived as the Second Amendment. Basically you cannot post the copy written work of others without their permission. This includes music, photos, video and words (in other words all the things you'd want to post). This is true even if you are not deriving any income from the posting or if the posting will benefit society. Even if Abraham Lincoln wanted to use an Aerosmith song to help free the slaves, he couldn't post it on the Internet without first getting permission from the band or the rights holders (that is assuming the Internet existed in Lincoln's day and that he would've been an Aerosmith fan). Making life more complicated, the copyright exceptions for the classroom are not the same as the exceptions for educational use on the Web. Right now it is true that the technology does not exist to catch copyright scofflaws, but it won't always be this way. We can now catch crooks with a stray hair and a lipstick smudge on a coffee cup. Big brother is catching up and everyday technology is being developed to catch copyright violations. Do you really want to pay the price for borrowing a video clip or for your students posting a video with a soundtrack written by Miley Cyrus? Will you feel guilty when one of your former students is fined $10,000 for using the skills he learned doing your podcasting project to create a music video with stolen images and music that he posts to YouTube? Copyright laws are Byzantine, decades behind the times, and they desperately need to be amended to keep pace with the changes in technology, but until they do it is incumbent on us to know the rules and to make sure we enforce them with our students.

#7 Use your district provided tools as much as possible: As a general rule the technology tools provided by the district are a few years behind the times and they are never a efficient as some of the tools available on the open market, however they do come with one very useful feature... protection. Use your district provided e-mail. If you are using district maintained tools there is an electronic trail that you can use to demonstrate that your intentions and actions have been pure. School districts have legal advisors that worry constantly about liability and lawsuits, you do not. Do you really want to have to explain to investigators why a student was sending e-mails to your private account? You might have the simplest, purest benign explanation; still it is not a conversation that you want to be having.


Remember the Internet today is the wild wild west. It is up to you to protect yourself and your students on the World Wide Web. You may just be their "classroom" teacher, but if you put your classroom up on the Internet your responsibility toward your students does not end when the bell rings.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

We Heart Google!

They say once you've gone Google you’ll never go back. Well, they don't really say it... but I will. Recently, I had the good fortune to attend the Google Teacher Academy in New York City. What is the Google Teacher Academy? According to their Website, the Google Teacher Academy is “a FREE professional development experience designed to help K-12 educators get the most from innovative technologies.” Well, I can say that I got way more than my monies worth! The Academy is “an intensive, one-day event where participants get hands-on experience with Google's free products and other technologies, learn about innovative instructional strategies, and receive resources to share with colleagues.”

The best part of the day was that I learned my district is considered a Google Apps School. What is a Google Apps School? Our district has invested in giving our students all custom email accounts that are powered by Google, which means that we have access to Google applications for communication and collaboration within our classrooms. What are Google Applications? Google Applications include Google Docs, Google Sites, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Video, and so, so, so much more!

What is the advantage to being a Google Apps School? For one thing, it eliminates the need for our students to create gmail accounts when we use Google Applications in the classroom.

What can you do with Google Apps? These Google Apps are available to our students anytime, anywhere there is an Internet accessible computer. Our students can work seamlessly and easily to create projects that once were confined to a classroom. Students can use Google Apps to make presentations and collaborate with classmates. For example, I recently worked with a 9th grade English teacher to create netcasts/podcasts on the Holocaust as an introduction to the book, Night by Elie Wiesel. These students worked in pairs to create a video using Microsoft’s Photo Story with still images, voice narration, and music. Upon completion, the videos where uploaded to a class blog (using Blogger). The videos are actually hosted on Google Videos so they don’t take up any space on our school servers. After the videos are posted, the students watch each other’s netcasts remotely for homework and then are required to answer a couple of reflective questions on the blog regarding the evaluation of their project. They are also required to answer the polls on the blog. These questions can help the instructors to assess learning or tweak their assignment based upon the feedback from students. All comments on the blog are moderated, which means the instructor can view the comments from each student and make the decision whether or not to post them to the Web. This ensures that vandalism and cyber bullying do not take place in this online classroom.

There are several advantages to posting these videos to the Web instead of presenting them in class. First of all you don’t waste two days of classroom time watching presentations that only half the students in the class (and I am being very generous here) are actually paying attention to and secondly, other students in your school, district, State, and world can watch and learn from them. For example, these videos will now be viewed by 10th grade social studies students in our school when they discuss WWII and the holocaust. It can also be used to help review for the Regents Exam. So how to do you get started on a project like this? Just follow the simple steps below.

#1 Research the subject.
#2 Brainstorm ideas.
#3 Write a script.
#4 Create a storyboard.
#5 Produce a netcast/podcast. You can use any digital storytelling software, like Photo Story or Movie Maker.
#6 Present/Post to Web. I use Blogger, but any blogging site would work, like WordPress or edublogs.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Blogging for Summaries

If I had a dollar for every time the bell rang as I was just getting into my lesson summary I'd have fourteen thousand three hundred and nine dollars (I keep very accurate notes.) The longer I've taught the better I get at "beating the bell" but I could always use a few more minutes for class discussion and so that I can really know if everyone in the class is going home with the meaning of the days lesson emblazoned on their brains. As much as I'd like adding four more minutes to the period or standing in front of the door with a whip and a chair so that I can elicit one more meaningful response from my students before they stampede forth into the hall way, we all know that the school is not going to adjust the bell schedule for me. This is where the class blog earns its stripes.
Blogs aren't the latest rage on the Internet anymore. These days we switch back and forth seamlessly between Websites and blogs without even knowing the difference. (If you're still not 100% sure of the difference, here is a video that will explain far easier than I ever could). The question of the day is how do you take a Web 2.0 tool that is designed to bring people together from far flung places and use it in a classroom community that meets face to face everyday. Complicating matters are the restrictions of living in a K-12 environment in an era when parents are increasingly concerned about their children's Internet footprint and the posting of personal information on the Web.
My solution to these issues was to create a private blog for my classes here on blogger (the image is a screen shot as opposed to a full link because the blog is set to "private"). The advantage of using a private blog as opposed to a public one is that I can limit who has access to the page to only my students. By limiting access to the blog I can help calm the concerns of nervous parents that ner-do-wells will be following their children's every comment on the blog. Next I had my students create free Google accounts to access the site. The advantage of giving them Google accounts is that it identifies them when they post. Now they are directly accountable for the things that are posted to the site under their name. This makes monitoring of the blog easy and will help calm the nerves of anxious administrators who have a hard enough time policing the halls of the school, the neighboring streets and the one thousand three hundred and thirty six Facebook and Myspace pages specifically dedicated to trashing your school.

Now that the nuts and bolts were done it was time to get creative with the blog. I've always believed that technology for the sake of technology is counter productive. Technology needs to enhance the product, not become the product. The blog in this case became the place to check for understanding and seek out those meaningful responses. In the course of all our lessons we ask numerous questions (in the language of eduspeak those would be transition questions, summary questions, essential questions, content questions, unit questions, etc. I call them all questions). Each day I take two of those questions and post them on my class blog and I require the students to answer them as part of their homework. I have the blog set to "moderate comments" so that the students answers are not instantly viewable. This accomplishes two goals, 1) students can't have inappropriate comments instantly posted (you always need to be on guard for this) and 2) The students can't simply copy the previous students entry.
In the morning before school I sift through the previous days comments and publish the 10 best or most unique answers. Students are required to have 10 comments published over the course of the semester ensuring that they will all continue to comment until they reach that threshold (and obviously once a student reaches published comment #9 I will not publish #10 unless he or comes up with the cure for cancer and even then I might not, until the final days of the marking period.)
By doing this my students will have created a collaborative online notebook that they all have access to. The blog entries can be used by one and all as a study resource prior to unit tests, midterms and the dreaded Regents Exam at the end of the year.

#1 Create a blog account. (Obviously I recommend using blogger, but there are others Wordpress for example or edublogs are both good free blog sites)
#2 Set up your account settings. For a classroom environment, I recommend making the blog private and limiting the readers to only people that you invite (your students). I also highly recommend that you use the setting for moderating comments. This will keep students from posting comments without you first seeing what is being posted.)
#3 Create your first post (it's as simple as writing an e-mail).
#4 Invite your students to join the blog (this is done either by sending them an e-mail from your blog inviting them to join or by manually creating blog accounts for them.
#5 Give students an assignment to answer a question on the blog. Most students will adapt to this very quickly, but for some it will take time to adjust. Be sure to have a good ole' fashioned pen and paper version of the assignment ready as an alternative for those kids who have trouble accessing the blog or understanding what is expected of them.
#6 Happy blogging!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Wiki is Not a Dirty Word

Use the word wiki in a faculty room and you can count the dirty looks. For most of us our only exposure to the world of wiki's is that most famous of wiki's - wikipedia. All too many teachers have had students turn in an essay chalk full of those little blue hyperlinks that they were not savvy enough to remove. For most teachers a wiki is a place where students go to plagiarize or a short cut to research that may or may not be accurate. Don't let this experience with the wiki jade you and turn you off to this powerful educational tool.

The word wiki comes from the Hawaiian word wikiwiki which means quick quick. Its primary use is for collaborating on a group project (hence wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia). In brief what a wiki allows users to do is to collaboratively plan and create. There's a great video called Wiki's in Plain English that does far better job of explaining this than I ever could. The applications of this in a classroom are endless once you begin to see some of the possibilities. (Especially if you teach in a student-centered project-oriented classroom - obligatory eduspeak buzzwords).

My 10th grade regents level Global History students just completed a wiki writing assignment. The students used a wiki to collectively write and edit an essay from home. The benefit of this project was that the students got the opportunity to see how their peers approached the writing process. All too often students work in their own little bubbles missing golden opportunities to learn from the kid that sits at the desk next to them. The benefit of using the wiki was that there was no need to coordinate meeting times for the groups. Students could be paired with the kid at the desk next to them, a kid from a different period or even with a kid from a different school in a different country. These collaborative groups never met face to face, instead they logged onto the wiki site at their own convenience and read what their peers had done, made their own changes and then logged off. It was an interesting experience to watch the essays take shape over the course of the week. Students would regularly check in, see what had been added or changed and then make their own additions.

For this project they were divided into groups based on the frequency with which they turned in written assignments. By dividing the students this way they were working in groups with a shared work ethic, this way no one got a "free ride" as often happens with heterogeneous groupings. The groups started out with a poorly written essay that would've received a score of 2 out of 5 according to NYS Regents Standards. Each student was assigned a color to add their text in so that users could easily identify who had contributed what piece of writing.

The groups were required to complete an outline before they could make changes to the essay. Now this is a requirement that many teachers include on a written assignment, but it is a requirement that is all too often impossible to enforce. For years I've had students submit their outline along with their essay and for years I've received hastily drawn up outlines that were completed AFTER the student wrote the essay. The nice thing about the wiki is that I can lock the essay writing page until the outline has been completed to my satisfaction. The students were also given a notes page where they could plan out their approach without making changes to the actual essay. For this project I gave the students one week to complete the outline and the essay. By the end of the assignment each group was writing above the level at which they started. Some of the groups had great success while others were not as successful. An additional benefit for me was that instead of having 80+ essays to grade I only had to read 22! I made myself a member of each group and placed my comments at the bottom of each essay allowing all members of the class to benefit by reading the comments for all of the groups. I found this to be a great use of the wiki and a great way to expose students to writing styles outside their own.

For this project I used the wiki site Wetpaint. I chose Wetpaint for a number of reasons. Primarily I found it easy to use. There are a number of other wiki sites (pbwiki, Wikidot
etc.) to choose from and they all come with the same basic features. The key features that appealed to me was that anyone could join the wiki site to read it (other students, parents, administrators, etc.) but only the people I gave permission could make edits. Second, the history feature (located at the bottom of each page) allowed me to track the changes on each individual page. This is especially useful if you're worried about vandalism or negative comments being posted. The ability to lock pages is a really nice feature located under the "More Tools" tab. Using this feature allowed me to keep students from editing their essays before they had completed their outlines and it allowed me to lock the pages at the end of the week to prevent students from making alterations after the fact. Finally the "What's New" tab at the top of the page gave me a very quick look at recent changes without having to search each page.

There was a considerable amount of pre-planning that took place.
#1 Select a site and sign up for a wiki account.
#2 Create your own wiki site and assignment page.
#3 I created 22 unique group pages with 3 pages each (1 essay, 1, outline and 1 notes) and then I locked each of them until the day before the assignment (this was the most time consuming portion of the project).
#4 I wrote 6 unique poorly worded essays that answered the task question and then randomly placed them on the essay pages (I did this randomly to discourage students from simply copying another groups essay).
#5 I e-mailed out invitations from Wetpaint to all the members of my classes asking them to create an account and join Wetpaint.
#6 I divided the groups based upon frequency of completing assignments and then by mixing the ability levels.
#7 I assigned the project in class and monitored the changes made to the wikis.
#8 At the end of the week I locked all the pages, read the essays, and made my comments.