Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Silent Classroom: 14 Tools for Loud Silence

Laptop 012 - Jeff Whipple
(Creative Commons license)
"The classroom is the one place where we are supposed to notice things," writes Douglas Rushkoff in an interesting recent post (Computers in the Classroom: A Mindful Lens on Technology).  He goes on to remind educators that face-to-face time is lost when technology runs a lesson. He warns educators that transparent integration of technology is still using technology in place of people.  Students and teachers alike need to be aware of the role that digital media is playing in the learning experience.

Thank you.

Add to this the research implications of research studies of learning environments reported in Classrooms as cages vs. classrooms as everywhere.  Jason Flom wonders if our technology rich classrooms do not cage our children more than ever, despite our intentions.

There is to me nothing more unsettling and oxymoronic than a room of students, each deeply and silently engaged in a digital learning experience.  The silent classroom.

In fact, it has always struck me as bizarre that teachers would want to use digital communication tools within a classroom, within a class period.  It is quicker, easier, often more fluent, more flexible, and much less expensive to use speech.  It strikes me as odd that educators would want students to make a "group drawing" in digital space when poster paper and markers are quicker and serve just as well (and the product is quickly displayed for all to see).  It makes little sense to me that a goal of education is to have students create a credible Google stream or identity, or to value others for these streams (read What are YOU doing to make sure that your students are "well-Googled" - I hope this is tongue in cheek). That, it seems to me, is a path to future intellectual mediocrity.

Nonetheless, there are tools for digital communication that lend themselves to classroom use in a loud silence sort of way. That is to say, they require more than passive clicking through options, they can be monitored in some way to guarantee involvement by individual students, and multiple digital voices are heard in each conversation (or else, why use any tool?). In addition, each of these tools encourages thought and reflection before a student responds.

Here are my top 10 picks, in reverse order, with suggestions for using each sensibly in the ELA classroom.

  1. Doceri is an app + desktop application (PC or Mac) that makes it possible to control and annotate the desktop display from the iPad, very handy in a classroom with AirPlay or other projection - review - This would be a great tool for modeling, saving file transfer time, especially when used with eBooks and archived test anchor papers.  It is a teacher-centered tool, by and large, at best a student-input tool.  Not the top of my list, but a type of digital classroom interface that is getting a great deal of press.  Pricing is unclear to me - $30 sounds awfully high.
  2. Learnist - "Learnist is like a collaborative, multimedia and interactive ebook from the future." - which is to say, it is a Pinterest-type or Scoop.It-type space (deceptively called a Learnboard) for collecting and (maybe) curating content - new for education is the ability to create a group for a class or several groups within a class, making this a safe private space OR a space supporting long-distance collaboration, rather than a space in which anyone can post anything related to a topic (eg. a teacher can curate student Learnboards) - review of an earlier version - I am not a supporter of do-it-yourself, random learning paths, nor am I a supporter of students using student-created materials.  So I can not in all honesty say I would ever use Learnist.  For those who believe that simply locating resources is a path to learning for the learner, however, I might say give this a try. Create LearningBoards for poetry study, for example, focusing on a single poet, a theme, or a movement. There will be many more apps like Learnist in the future, which is to say that one direction "textbooks" are going is internet media collection.  At least it is a step above filling the desktop or Home screen with funny kittens.
  3. Kickoff is a promising new tool for teamwork - available in beta (as a Mac only app) at this time  - an app for iPhone/iPad will soon be available - there will be a 1-time purchase fee - has the advantage of enabling small teams (think 3 students) to upload files and for teams to work both synchronously and asynchronously - includes todo lists and shared notebooks, making it function much like NoteShare, which I found to be invaluable in my classroom - review of 2011 release - This is an app for projects.  As one review notes, all of what Kickoff does can be done in Google Drive, but this fast, all-in-one-place app makes sense for the MS or HS 1:1 classroom.  I used similar tools for reading groups to plan projects, which generally took the form of performances or video.  Kickoff could be the tool that makes it possible for the teacher to easily monitor contributions of group members, progress toward task, etc.  See similar tools for web-based brainstorming reviewed by Richard Byrne.
  4. TogetherTalks is a free iPad (only) app designed for shared viewing/responding to TED talks, but it is more than that - "powered by Spin" means that the tool can be used for much more online content, and the TogetherLearn app (iPad) expands the tool beyond TED - read about it . The app plays upon the concept of the Gathering, which is nothing more than individual users (with Spin ID's) who are viewing the same thing at the same time. What is refreshing and exciting is that the Gathering members can be anywhere, making this a great tool for inter-class learning. Further features include the viewers' ability to pause content (think a video of Macbeth), to annotate, and to control the video.  Facebook accounts are helpful, but not required.  
  5. Socrative is a free and easy student response system - students need internet access (desktop, laptop, smartphone, iPad), but do NOT have to be in the same room to take part in a lesson, quiz, assessment, etc.  Best used in ELA for checks of understanding. For example, to quiz a key literary term or vocabulary word at the end of class period.  The teacher can create the exercise/question while students are engaged in the last part of the lesson itself.  Other interesting uses: assign scores to writing samples (for discussion), student "fill-in" responses to blanks left in displayed writing (from single words to complex sentences), opinion surveys pre and post persuasive writing exercises, "Do you predict..." questions for all-class reading (upper elementary especially).
  6. [review quoted from 5 iPad Apps to Help Students and Teachers Collaborate] "Subtext – Ok, so what if you wanted to collaborate and share a story or longer piece of text? Take a look at Subtext. It allows you to search Google Books for free or paid books, and the teacher can create small study groups for students working on a given book. Students, and teachers, can highlight sections, leave comments, and create conversations about the text. You can link out to the web and provide additional online content to add to the narrative or put things in a better context. It also integrates well with Edmodo and will import all your groups if you use your Edmodo login. Subtext will even let you share any ePub documents you have, or have converted to that format. Subtext is free and well worth checking out."
  7. Nearpod - much more complex than Socrative, this app (Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod) can be used for an in-class flipped-style lesson - in a class, students view a lesson as presentation, responding directly onto slides in a method and at a pace dictated by the teacher - student-created Nearpods are possible too (with Nearpod Teacher) - review - commentary with video.  I would use this in an ELA classroom for close analysis lessons.  There are times when thoughtful silence is important, and using this tool would support that, as well as ensuring that every student responds.  It could be used in this way as soon as students are able to read and write independently (or with read-aloud support). 
  8. Thinglink is one of those tools that makes kids say WOW - begin with an image and add (tag) links (they appear as dots on the image) to annotated web-based content - since this is web-hosted, students can access and comment upon each other's images - free - review - interesting sample: Avatar Adventures - a Digital Citizenship lesson in a ThingLink (upper elementary, middle).   I recommend viewing the ThingLinkTookkit and samples at ThingLink's page. I can see applications for ELA in elementary and middle grades: using an image to support setting in novel study, figurative language in poetry or fiction study, creative writing (using a student's own photo), using a central thematic or setting image to frame essential quotations from a text.  Think of this as a tool for those "reflect and gather" times, to be followed by sharing (digital, in this case). Not an essential tool, however.  
  9. Chatzy - a web-based, free, chatroom - options for teachers include hosted private rooms (chats can be ongoing here) and embedding chats into a webpage - student groups can also have more-or-less instant chats (registration is not required for use) - reviewI used NoteShare in a similar way in my classroom.  Projecting an all-class chat onto a board is a good way to encourage fruitful posts as well as energetic discussions.  Chats that are passage-based can be assigned and transcripts distributed to all students.  Caution: setting benchmarks for sentencing, grammar, spelling, etc. increases the value of the chat.  I graded chats 1,2,3 (0 not being an option) with a simple rubric that included only appropriate content and mechanics.
  10. Scoop.It is a web-based tool with support for mobile browsers - I use this to "scoop" web pages in the learning categories that interest me (see the right sidebar) - has the powerful feature of allowing page annotation both in the description field and in a Comment field, inviting student conversation about web-based content.  In ELA, this is a tool for compare and contrast (video v. text, poems, criticisms, oral readings) and for any tightly controlled analytical task. Scoop, for example, a theme-based poetry anthology or discussion of the n-word in TKM or Huck Finn.  Students can "share" and friend their scoops. The app will suggest related sites (many search criteria possible) based upon keywords.  
  11. Twitter - you know about Twitter - bookmark A Great Twitter Cheatsheat for Teachers - Have some fun in ELA by creating tweet streams around vocabulary, film v. text criticism, writing 6 - 50 word stories, writing 1st and last sentences for model paragraphs...  
  12. VoiceThread remains one of my favorites - creates an audio or text conversation around a collection of artifacts (image, text, video) - check out this Wall of Samples for education - I recommend a school account
  13. Blogs and Wikis - of course you use them, but do you use them well?  In MS, students need practice and guidance in using them well, in HS, they can hold student-created curriculum
  14. Google Drive and Google's cloud will do all of the above in some way, with the added advantage of being private.  Here is a very little something to get you interested: 6 Powerful Google Docs Features... 
email remains the best way to communicate silently - archived, easily monitored (see note about this below), asynchronous, no limit to length, document attachments, platform and tool independent, easily organized.  Don't ignore its value for any aspect of ELA.  I know business leaders who ONLY use email, despite advances in other digital communication platforms.
If you jump in to silence:
  • Also check out the apps posted in 5 iPad Apps to Help Students and Teachers Collaborate - I have recommended only one of them until I have a chance to review them.
  • Remember that most school networks are conservative in terms of allowed social media. You may need to unblock.
  • Many of these apps and tools integrate with Facebook and Twitter, several encouraging users to use an existing login (which means that work leaves the classroom space).  I recommend against allowing this.
  • Generally, email is required for use. Please, please think about Google for Education email accounts!
  • Media-rich student conversations take time, especially if you set a high standard (which you should).  Allow twice what you think they will take, especially if students are learning the tool.
  • In fact, the more teachers using these tools the better. Talk them up with teaching peers in other grade levels and content areas.
  • Access to the technology is a must.  Not all students have access outside of the classroom. Can you provide for this?

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