Sentence writing with pictures

October 17, 2009

In the last few weeks I have been discussing IEP targets with children in my class (Year 4). A number of them have targets relating to writing simple sentences, and had been set targets last year to have regular practice writing sentences to go with pictures they were given. This struck me as a good idea, and is something I have done before with my year 2 class on the advice of my fantastic PGCE tutor Kate Glavina.

However, I had an interesting conversation with one of the more streetwise boys when I suggested this. He took offense at the suggestion he couldn’t write ‘simple’ sentences, and when I suggested the picture writing his response was along the lines of “Not again, that’s baby’s work writing about those pictures of girls!”. I asked him what he liked, and he replied immediately ‘Cars! Hummers, Porche’s and Lambourghini’s!”. Therefore, much to his amazement, we made the deal that if I found him some cool pictures of cars, then he would write me some cool (not simple) sentences.

Due to the fact  other things got in the way, we didn’t get round to making this happen for a week or so. Throughout that time he was asking me when he was going to do his ‘car work’, and soon some other children were asking me as well…

Last week I put together the pictures. I am a big fan of Compfight.com, a search engine that lets you search for high quality images which are creative commons licensed. It was obvious from our conversation that these pictures needed to be exciting and engaging, so I used compfight to find a set of pictures which I hoped would genuinely engage him and the rest of my reluctant writers. I feel strongly that you need to have high production values for things you make for the classroom, so I used Apple’s Pages to put together a sheet that would complement these exciting pictures.

Last week we began, and the results have been fantastic! There was great excitement when I revealed the full colour pictures I had printed for them, and a genuine scramble for children to get the ones that grabbed their interest (some had chosen to go for wildlife rather than cars as their subject). The best part is that in two short sessions several of the pupils who were making no attempt to organize their ideas into sentences have started to do so. We still have a lot of work to do, but they are really starting to try to improve their writing as they want to do their best at this activity. Our last session ended with them all imploring me to let them take them home, something which really surprised me coming from these children. “My Mum will work on it with me because she loves cars too and she will remind me to do my car work.”

Just a simple idea, but one I thought was worth sharing. It just shows how taking some time to listen to children’s interests can reap rewards in terms of their engagement and effort. Hopefully, as this is something they have engaged with well, they will be willing to return to it to try to edit and improve their sentences.


1:1- Using twitter to get a young class to the right resources

October 11, 2009

One of the fundamental issues in a 1:1 primary classroom is getting the children to the websites they are meant to be using as quickly and painlessly as possible. In a conventional classroom you can just hand out copies of worksheets and resources to different groups, but when working with web based tools this is much harder to organise. My class of 8 year olds find copying exact URLs very difficult, due to their still developing typing and reading skills.There is no way there are going to copy ‘http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/ks1bitesize/numeracy/numbers/index.shtml’ just to get to a quick maths game, and a google search could land them anywhere on the net.

Therefore I had to find a way to get them all on the same page (or differentiated pages) quickly before we could get anything done.

Edmodo
In the summer I thought Edmodo would be the answer to this. This service provides a private, walled, twitter like service which you can restrict to your classroom. I had visions of using this to send out links to the class, but in practice it didn’t work for the stage we are at. My class are still learning about logins and remembering passwords, and the process of having to log into something before they could find where they needed to go (and possibly log in to that service as well) took some considerable time. Edmodo also lets them communicate with the class by sending out short messages, and they soon discovered this and my own messages to links I wanted them to visit were drowned in a timeline of noisy classroom discussion!

Twitter
Therefore, I decided to have a re-think, and use something more static and more easily accessible. Basically I decided to set up a twitter account (@4oqlinks), so that I could tweet out links and they would immediately be accessible to the pupils. Now, when I want pupils to go to a certain site I just tweet out a link to it, it updates our twitter feed instantly, and pupils can be on that site in moments by visiting  www.twitter.com/4oqlinks, without needing a login. This is really powerful, as if one student finds a better source of information for what you are working on, you can just tweet it out and the whole class can access it straight away, allowing you to take the lesson in any direction very quickly and easily. This is actually faster and more straightforward than handing out resources on paper!

If you are in a 1:1 environment I would hugely recommend setting up a system like this. It gives you a really quick way to get pupils where you want them to be, and is only as difficult as registering for twitter and making a big sign with the address of your account to put on the wall for the pupils to visit. You can keep the twitter page open on your computer and send out links to your whole class in an instant: much quicker than having them try to copy them from the board!

Now to complicate it: Implementing this in a class home page
However, I was not happy about pupils accessing the twitter page directly because it just wasn’t slick enough! I also wanted to have multiple feeds on the same site, so pupils could see our class news, blog, and links for lessons all on the same page. Therefore, I decided to create a class home page with the feed from twitter as part of it.

I had already bought www.4oq.co.uk so that I could set up google docs accounts for my class, so I set up a google site as the home page for that domain, and embedded a twitter gadget to display the feed on that site, which I could also use for class news and links to regularly used tools. Unfortunately I could not find a way to get any gadgets to open the links in a new page, so users always got their page opening in an unusableframe within the site:
Picture 1
After much experimentation I decided to ditch google sites and go for a website made in Apple’s iWeb. I have always liked iWeb for very quickly putting together slick looking websites, but previous versions have always fallen down when it came to wanting to extend your page beyond a basic, static site. Thankfully in iWeb ’09 Apple have included a great widget called ‘HTML snippet’. If you drop one of these into your site you can past HTML into it to achieve anything you cannot do with the program, but can with HTML or javascript.
Picture 3

I played around with a number of third party widgets, but found all of them to be slow to load, overly flashy, and still with the same problem that links would load in a frame. I therefore decided to go back to basics, and mashed together some code to access the twitter api directly and render the feed as text. Even if you are not that technical, you can use the code below to drop into the HTML snippet box in iWeb, or into the HTML of your website to render a twitter feed as a column as it is on our home page. Just copy it in, and change the text that reads ‘YOUR_TWITTER_USERNAME’ for the username of your twitter links feed. If you are doing this in iWeb the frame will go a bit mad for a few seconds, but wait for it to settle down and it will be fine.

<style rel=”stylesheet” id=”mainStyle” type=”text/css”>
html {background-color:#FFFFFF}
body {background-color:#FFFFFF; font-family:Tahoma,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif; font-size:14px;
margin-left:1%; margin-right:1%; border:3px groove darkred; padding:15px}
h1 {text-align:right; font-size:1.5em; font-weight:bold}
h2 {text-align:left; font-size:1.1em; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:underline}
.buttons {margin-top:10px}
</style>
<div id=”twitter_update_list”>
</div>
<script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://twitter.com/javascripts/blogger.js”&gt;
</script>
<script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://twitter.com/statuses/user_timeline/YOUR_TWITTER_USERNAME.json?callback=twitterCallback2&count=10″&gt;
</script>

The only problem I have found is that you sometimes have to refresh the page a few times for the feed to render, but I have just told my class to press f5 a few times until it does. In the rare cases that it doesn’t I put a hyperlink to the twitter page right above it.

And the result:
Picture 2

Now I just have to tell my class to ‘Go to 4oq.co.uk’, and I can get them anywhere on the internet in seconds.

Hopefully this is useful to some of you in getting children to the right page as quickly as possible so the learning can begin!


School Radio: Initial efforts

October 4, 2009
Click here for the class blog post

Click here for the class blog post

The week before last, with our new studio now installed, I took the first steps towards staring our school radio station at Robin Hood. With pressure of time bearing down on me in the first weeks of my NQT year, I decided to do this as one of our ‘Learning agreement projects’, where a group spends the first hour of each day working on a negotiated project.

At the moment we are working on helping the pupils to build up their concept of what a project could be, and the planning of both how they will manage their time, what the end outcome of the project will be, and what they will learn through doing it.

Having ‘negotiated’ the title of the project (after seeing the studio my group could think of no other projects!), myself and a group of six children set about planning the project. We decided that they would produce a short radio show to put on our class blog. They split themselves into two and decided to do features on jokes, school news, a weather report, and an introduction. After discussing with me the various styles of presentation they could go for, they decided they would like to write scripts for their parts to read, so that they knew what to say and could make sure they had interesting content, and were not just ‘chatting’.

Over the next few days, whilst they were researching using their new netbooks, I gave a pair at a time an introduction to the studio equipment. We covered the mixing desk, the computer, the special keyboard, the microphones, and the headphones; talking about what each thing did, and having a play with them. We also talked about how radio presenters sound, and they highlighted the need to be confident with their delivery.

They found the concepts behind the computer playout system, Myriad, quite straightforward, easily recognizing the ‘carts’ of songs and jingles, and the audio players. They also enjoyed having a go at talking over the start of records, as Myriad provides them with a countdown to when the vocals kick in in songs. With a little direction, and some evaluation of ‘practice runs’, they found the mic technique fairly straightforward, helped by the fact we have some nice microphones with a wide area in which they pick up sound. However, they found the mixing desk quite hard to understand. I did not explain that you could pre-cue songs before you played them, but just gave them a chance to mix two songs together. Most of them could start a second song playing at a good time, but several ended up playin g two songs at once, and found it hard to get their head round the fact songs needed to be controlled in three places at once: on the computer, they keyboard, and the faders on the desk. We might take a while before they are confident self-op DJs, but I was impressed with them as presenters.

I really had very little input into their scripts, and they recorded their pieces on the Friday in a single take, ‘as-live’. They presented confidently, especially as they are not that used to hearing their own voices as they speak in headphones, and it was interesting how much of the language they had already such as ‘now over to my friend…’. I did not explain the editing capability of the system to them, but two of the girls immediatly asked if I could cut out the ‘umms’, so I showed them the audio editor and how I would do that. I then took the recordings away and added the music, as we had by this point run out of time.

This project was a bit of an experiment really. I was interested to see where they would take it, what areas they would be confident with, and what they would find difficult. Overall I was impressed by their ‘media saviness’, and the confidence with which they selected content and presented this material. This experience was very useful for me in getting a benchmark of how pupils might work in our school radio station, and with some reflection will influence how I begin to implement the radio station in more of a school-wide way.

You can hear the finished radio show on our class blog.


1:1: Starting Google Docs

October 4, 2009

Last week, with our wifi internet now working more reliably, I introduced my class to google docs.

I had originally wanted to set up google apps for education across our school domain, but as this is something we have to apply for, and possibly negotiate with the local authority about, I took the plunge and installed the free version across the domain I bought for our class website. This was a fairly straightforward process, and anyone who is technically capable of buying a domain and setting up a website should find it easy, and there are plenty of tutorials around.

Once this was done I logged in and set up a user name for every child in my class. I was going to do this for the whole of year 4, but the standard edition of google apps only allows for 50 users. Therefore, I am going to trial it and possibly set up another domain for the other class at a later date. Google make it easy to set up usernames, as you can make a spreadsheet of all the pupils names, desired usernames and passwords, and upload it as a csv file. Instructions and a video here.

I put a link to our google docs on our class website, so the pupils can just click through, log in and have access to their documents from anywhere.Picture 3

First Session

In this session I had planned to get the class to log in to google docs, and complete some straightforward history work to get them used to using it.I began by introducing google docs to them and explaining they would all be given their own account. Having seen me using google docs for most of my work, including shared writing with the class on the board, some of them recognised it and were excited to have the chance to use something I obviously relied on.

As it happened, getting them all in was more difficult than I had imagined. The first problem we had was that they are not used to the exact nature of usernames, and despite me impressing upon them exactly how their usernames were formed, and the need for lowercase and no spaces, lots of them didn’t grasp this at first.

The next was passwords. Using the csv file I had set all their passwords to ‘password’, and in the google control panel I had specified that they must change their password at first login. The difficulties here were that many of them took ages to decide on a password, and then had great difficulty completing both the ‘password’ and ‘confirm’ boxes so they actually matched! In hindsight I think it would have been better to have had a previous lesson in which we discussed how to think of a password, and then collected their chosen passwords in a more low tech way (paper). I could then have input these passwords in the control panel, and much time and frustration would have been saved during the lesson.

This issue was further compounded by the need to complete two ‘captcha‘ tests. Probably shortsighted of me, but I hadn’t anticipated how difficult an 8 year old reader with limited typing skills would find these!Picture 4

Eventually we got there, but with not enough time to attempt the work I had planned, so I asked them to write a short passage about anything they were interested in, and showed them how to ‘hand it in’ using the ‘sharing’ tab to share it with me. I showed them how to do this once, in a hurried way, before they went to assembly, but 21 out of the 28 present managed to share it straight away. The class are very good at following procedures on the computer!I was also able to see in realtime who had managed to hand in my work by opening our docs page on my iPhone, and quickly address any issues with those who had not.

What I found interesting was that I explained this process in terms of ‘handing in’ the work, but noticed that two of the girls had immediately decided to share their writing with each other. Looking at what they had written this was not a mistake, as they had both completed ‘My best friend’ passages about each other.Picture 5

That whole process took us most of an afternoon (partly due to the ongoing battle with wifi connectivity), but I think it was worth it to get them set up with such a powerful tool. For some reason a couple of our laptops are refusing to load the google docs page, but I am hoping a reinstall of firefox will solve that. Any ideas as to why this is happening would be much appreciated.

Second session

The following day I decided to do a session on the history work I had previously planned. I set up a google doc with some instructions, and a number of facts I had copied from websites about Henry VIII. We are working on interpreting internet sources, and not just copying text they do not understand, so to see how they would get on with docs I just asked them to write these passages out in their own words, choosing the facts they thought were most important.

To get this out to them I shared the document so it could be viewed (but not edited) by anyone on the domain. I then tweeted out a link to it on our ‘4oqlinks’ twitter account, which is then fed to our class homepage (my normal method of distributing links). Picture 2

I then showed the class how to click on the link to go to the doc, and save their own copy of the file to work on. Again they were proficient at this, the only problem I found was the confusion between the ‘file’ menu in firefox, and the one in docs itself. Picture 6Using this method I could easily distribute differentiated work, just by tweeting different links with the name of the table group I want to access that work.

The class then completed the work, and again shared it with me. We had a few accidents where they managed to highlight and delete the examples and questions in the doc, but with a bit more experience I think they will be proficient enough for this not to happen.

The weekend

One of the great advantages of google docs, as well as the easy sharing and collaboration, is the fact the class can access their documents from anywhere. I did not expect this to happen so soon, but on Saturday morning I received notifications that three members of my class had logged in and completed some completely undirected work on what they knew about Henry VIII (our current history topic). I was really pleased with this, as it shows this tool is allowing us to achieve our aim of inspiring children to take responsibility for their own learning, and follow their own interests in their school work.

In conclusion I am very pleased with what we have achieved in just two afternoons of using google docs. I can’t wait to get the children used to using this as one of their regular tools, and especially the potential for collaboration it affords. I really think it is going to be a useful tool in achieving our school aim of a negotiated curriculum.

Just waiting for google wave to be activated on our domain….