Maximize Learning, Not Technology

One constant that teachers have in schools today is time. We cannot control whether our students had a good night’s sleep, or if they have the right amount of support at home, or if they are able to have quality time with family on a regular basis. We get around 180 days a year and approximately 6.5 hours each day with them. This estimate doesn’t account for standardized testing, fire drills, and all of the other outside factors that as a principal I do my best to minimize but still have to address.

So when we have our students, what do you believe is the best way to spend this time? I believe it’s the student-to-student, student-to-teacher, and student-with-self experiences that are the priority. Digital tools have a place, but it should not be the focus. If technology is the form, then pedagogy is the function. We need to ask ourselves why we want to use technology with a learning initiative, instead of what the technology is or how it can be used. This post is not to put down the role of technology in education, but to offer a different perspective – my own, as a frequent observer of teaching and learning in my role as an elementary principal.

When Technology Is Necessary

We implemented mobile technology into our school when a dozen teachers agreed to incorporate one iPad into their classroom as a pilot. They attended a number of after school trainings and shared what was going well and what wasn’t. This worked for us. It was context-specific and on a timeline people were comfortable with, myself included. There was no pressure to “upgrade” our instruction. Just try it and apply it.

This technology proved itself to be necessary as the year progressed. For example, primary teachers were recording student performance assessments, such as book talks and oral reports, using the iPad and then posting it online for parents to see. Intermediate students were introduced to digital word processing and blogging. They dove into high-interest literacy activities, such as collaborative story writing and providing feedback using what the web had to offer. We explored new ways to make literacy and learning go live.

Reports of these early successes spread. Even before this pilot was completed, other teachers were asking when they were going to get an iPad too. Fastforward to today: Each classroom has 5-6 tablets at the K-3 level. There is an iPad cart and a Chromebook cart available for our 4th and 5th grade classrooms. Just today, a 4th grade teacher was telling me how her students were going to culminate their personal narrative writing unit by creating a visual version of their stories using Explain Everything, and then posting them in FreshGrade, our digital portfolio tool, so families could see and hear their published work.

You may have noticed that we are not a one device to one student school. I am not sure we ever will be. This stated fact is not to suggest that this set up is not effective in other contexts. Not to repeat myself, but it’s what works for us. Our students get enough screen time at home. We are a Title I school, with two of our every three students living in poverty. Plus, kids come to school to be with their friends. Plugging them in may only serve to create distance between their important relationships. This leads into my own experience as a classroom observer who tried to maximize technology in my own practice without giving much thought to the pedagogy.

When Technology is Nice

I have been conducting instructional walks for a number of years now. These short and informal observations serve to provide feedback and affirmation for teachers and their current instruction.  In the past, I would bring in my iPad and a stylus, open up a note taking app such as Notability or Noteshelf, write what I observed on the tablet, and then save my notes in Evernote. As I left the classroom I would also email the teacher a copy of my digital notes.

After many conversations with teachers and taking time to reflect on the process, I realized that the technology cart was leading the instructional horse. Form was not following function. For instance, my time maneuvering the iPad and applications caused me to be distracted during the instructional walks. It distracted the students, too. Also, I wasn’t providing a tangible artifact for the teacher after a visit. Yes, they could print out my observational notes from what I shared with them via email. But that was one more step they had to take in an already busy schedule.

So I have dialed down technology during my instructional walks this year. I replaced my tablet and stylus with a notebook and pen. Technology did not totally disappear: I still use my smartphone to scan in my observational notes into Evernote. I’ve also explored using a Livescribe pen and companion smartphone app. While I write, the pen “talks” to the application via Bluetooth and transcribes what I write into a digital file. Both seem to work well. At this time, I’ve completed 50 instructional walks in classrooms. Last year, when my instructional walks were completed with an iPad, I did a total of 75.

Again, I don’t want to blame technology for my experiences. In different circumstances, a stylus and note taking app might serve a user really well. What mattered for me is the purpose of my visits: To observe daily instruction and serve as a collaborator and colleague with our teachers in this process. Technology was getting in the way, so I got it out of the way.

Schools have arrived at a point where access to online/digital learning is no longer the main issue. Instead, how access is thoughtfully and smartly utilized by educators will make the difference in students’ learning lives going forward.


This is a sponsored blog post. Thank you to Omninox for supporting this site. Omninox aims to “reduce teachers’ grading time and assignment creation time by up to 85%”. Click on the image below to visit their website, or click here to contribute to their Kickstarter campaign.

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Excellent iPad Apps for Demonstrating Learning for Students

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Reflector is software our school purchased a couple years ago for every teacher’s work station. Reflector allows the user to mirror the iPad screen to a computer, which can then be projected onto the smartboard. Anything happening on the iPad, including animation and sound, is played on the computer screen as well. Now untethered from the computer, the teacher is free to place himself or herself strategically in the classroom.

Here are three recommended apps that would work well for using the iPad for modeling and shared demonstration:

1. Math Board ($5): Teach students how to work problems for the four basic operations.

From the App Store description:

“More than just standard drills, MathBoard encourages students to actually solve problems, and not just guess at answers. This is done by providing multiple answer styles, as well as a scratchboard area where problems can be worked out by hand. Students can also turn to MathBoard’s Problem Solver for further help. This powerful teaching feature walks students through the steps required to solve addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division equations.”

There is also Math Board Fractions and Math Board Challenge, a head-to-head game where two students compete to see who can complete the problems faster.

2. Notability ($6): This handwriting and drawing tool is considered an “Essential” by Apple. Using a stylus, a teacher can model how to closely read text on a PDF or screenshot, demonstrate with students a genre of writing, and show students how to organize data for a science activity. Pictures and audio recording of your explanations can be embedded into the document. Hand off the iPad to another students when they are ready to share their own work.

3. Popplet ($5): This app allows you to create idea webs, especially helpful when brainstorming ideas for writing or for pre-assessing background knowledge on a topic.

From the App Store Description:

“Popplet is the simplest tool to capture and organize your ideas. With Popplet you can quick jot down your ideas and sort them visually. Popplet is great for school and for learning in the classroom and at home. Students use Popplet to think and learn visually. By capturing facts, thoughts, and images, students learn to create relationships between them and generate new ideas. ”

Which app(s) do you find useful for modeling and demonstrating with students on the iPad? Please share in the comments.

Beyond the Screen: Osmo for the iPad 

We checked this iPad accessory out at our local library. The company describes their product as “a kid’s technology system that brings the physical and digital worlds together.” The kit comes with an iPad stand, reflector, tans, and letter tiles. 

My kids tried out the Words app first. It would display an image and a blank set of letter spaces. You place a tile and it will “speak” with the iPad app. They had to first determine what the item was (lizard, iguana?), and then try to spell it. 

 

Blank spaces on the top were for incorrect letter guesses. They would take turns offering letters to the front of the iPad, with a little guidance from their dad :-). The game was a digital cross between hangman and Wheel of Fortune. Possible literacy center?

Next, my son started Masterpiece, an app that reflects your drawing on paper to the outline on the screen. Whatever he drew, a virtual hand and pencil drew a line on the app. 


He also enjoyed Newton. This creativity game requires you to draw or create borders in order to get the dropping spheres to hit the targets. They used pencils, drawn lines, and the edge of the paper to complete the levels.


The final of the four Osmo apps is Tangram. It works like the materials you might see in a math kit, except the app provides guidance on shape placement by reflecting what you have created so far. For example, a hand pops up and models for you how to flip or rotate the tan to match the image. Tangram uses math terms accurately.

I looked online and found the Osmo kit for $80. The apps are free. This is definitely technology to consider for primary literacy and numeracy centers in a classroom, as well as for any learner wanting to enhance their drawing and creativity skills.

Five-Tool Literacy Apps for the iPad

If you are a baseball fan, you know what a five-tool player is. They can run, throw, play defense, hit, and hit for power. All-Stars such as Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, and Alex Rodriguez would be considered five-tool players.

So what are five-tool apps for the classroom iPad? They address the following five areas of literacy:

~ Reading ~ Writing ~ Conventions ~ Speaking ~ Listening ~

Here are five of my favorite five-tool literacy apps for the iPad in the elementary classroom, in order of complexity.


Toontastic by Launchpad Toys

This is an excellent primary-level app for learning about narrative elements. Students can set up scenes and act out the story. They control the character’s movements with their fingers and add dialogue by recording their voice. Their final products can be uploaded online so anyone can view their learning.


Drawing and Storytelling HD by Duck Duck Moose

In this three app bundle, you get Draw and Tell, Superhero Comic Book Maker, and Princess Fairy Tale Maker. Students can create scenes with a wide variety of characters, settings, and even onomatopoeias. These are words that suggest the sounds they make, such as “Whizz!” and “Ka-pow!”, which are commonplace in many comics. Even better, when you click on them, they make the sound. Learners can record their voice with each scene.


Educreations

This simple-to-use whiteboard and screencast app is perfect for introducing students to the concept of the flipped classroom. Their motto is “Teach anything to anyone from anywhere.” Using the drawing, audio recording and image capturing tools, learner can summarize a math lesson or create a book trailer. While the website boasts its use at the secondary level, I have seen it integrated in classrooms as young as 1st grade.


Book Creator by Red Jumper Studios

Students become authors with this app. After inserting images, text, drawings, and audio recordings, they can print their final products out as PDFs. Also, students can save their eBooks in the iBooks app. They stand alongside any other professionally published text. Classrooms can create digital libraries on their iPads for literacy centers. As well, teachers can upload students’ work to YouTube so anyone can see and listen to what they created. Check out my son’s eBook on how he deals with asthma.


Explain Everything by MorrisCooke

The best way to describe this app is a more complex version of Educreations. You can embed video, images, files from Dropbox or Google Drive, and put everything together into one coherent presentation. A student can also use a laser pointer to call attention to a specific slide during their instruction. The final product is then exported to a variety of locations, from the aforementioned servers as well as Evernote and iBooks. Definitely for the older crowd. Here is a screencast I created with Explain Everything for my book Digital Student Portfolios:

Recommended iPad App: Keynote

Recommended iPad App: Keynote

Keynote is PowerPoint for the iPad. It is better than PowerPoint, in my opinion, because of its simplicity, design, and usefulness. Because it is tablet-friendly, you can embed photos and video that you have already taken or recorded into the presentation. One of my favorite parts about Keynote is it shows a clock when you are mirroring the screen to the whiteboard via Reflector. This tells you how many minutes have passed so you know if your audience needs a quick break to turn and talk. I also like how you can share out the finished product as a PowerPoint or PDF.

How could this work in classrooms? Here are two suggestions:

1. Take photos of different but connected items that are related to a concept you are teaching, and then put them in a slideshow. Present the slideshow in the beginning of the lesson and ask kids to think about what the images have in common. Example: If you are studying Communities, find and share several images of kids working together and completing jobs.

2. Near the end of the lesson, ask a few kids who are already completed with their work to take the iPad. They can take pictures of their work, or other items that represent their learning. Then they can create a quick Keynote and share it with their peers as a way to provide closure to the lesson and reflect. Upload the slides to your webpage/blog for parents to see.

Apps for a 2nd Grade Teacher’s iPad

My wife just rejoined the teaching ranks. Upon her induction, she received an iPad. She promptly asked me if I would add any apps to it that I thought a 2nd grade teacher might use. Um…sure!

Here are screenshots of the apps that I downloaded for her. They are mostly in alphabetical order. My wife already gave a thumbs up to Mo Willem’s Pigeon app, which she used with her students during a transition.

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imageimage-1image-1Would you have downloaded any additional apps on this iPad?

Making a Case for iPads

Within the next month or so, I along with two other administrators may be going to our board of education with a proposal to purchase iPads for our K-5 buildings. Specifically, we would be looking at four iPads per K-2 classroom and a mobile cart of 30 at grades 3-5

Here is our argument for “Why iPads” in contrast to laptops or desktops.

Continue reading “Making a Case for iPads”