Monday, 30 January 2012

Working on the Web with Kids (2) - We Love Blogging!

My 5th graders started working with their wiki back in September. As I reported in the first post in this series, it’s been useful for them to engage with extra activities, have their work displayed digitally and discuss things. However, we have been limited to an extent by the restrictions put in place by the school - kids can only comment on pages, not edit or add content and no comments are allowed from anyone who is not a 5th grade English teacher or student at the school.

That’s unlikely to change and, even if we got permission to let the kids do more than just comment, pbworks isn’t exactly the most child-friendly site to get to grips with and I don’t really fancy teaching ten year-olds how to use it in a classroom with only one computer! So, I thought why not have this site for extra activities and displaying work and another site that allows the students to take a bit more control. After much persuasion and insistence on my part, the school finally gave the thumbs up to trial blogging with one class.


Image by tarop

We settled on the class that had been most active on the wiki so far and offered to set up a blog for them using Kidblog. I stressed to the kids that this was not compulsory and gave them the option of not taking part in the project if they didn’t want to. Only 2 out of 28 kids declined the offer and everyone else was very excited about what they deemed as ‘their own website’.

I had lots of ideas about introductory activities, both in class and using the blog itself, but in the end, I decided not to interfere too much. I wanted this to be a pressure-free place where they could write as and when they wanted too rather than feeling obliged to do it, which would quickly lead to them seeing it as just another form of writing task.

Instead, we just looked at some examples, such as Greta Sandler’s classes in Argentina, and talked about what the blog could be used for. We also talked about comments and how to use those to respond to posts meaningfully and ask questions (on the wiki, many exchanges of ‘hello everyone - how are you?’ - ‘fine & how are you?’ repeated several times had started to appear so I was keen to avoid that).

Once they started blogging, the first thing to strike me was that the posts were very short, often just a couple of sentences (“Hello world! I love basketball. I think it’s a great sport.” for example). My initial reaction was to go over these in class, point out ways the posts could be made longer and more informative… but, no, I reminded myself that this was their space and they needed time to get used to this new form of writing. Instead, I posed questions through the comments to try and get them to reveal more (“Do you play basketball? What’s your favourite NBA team? and so on). I also started making use of #comments4kids on Twitter to get some outside comments in.

My students loved getting comments from around the world and they were thrilled when I showed them a map on the class computer with all the countries we’d received comments from highlighted (unfortunately, kidblog doesn’t seem to allow users to embed things like Clustrmaps). That helped establish a purpose for using the blog (although they did still need some gentle encouragement to start replying to these ‘strangers’).

As always, there are unexpected results from doing these things with kids. One side effect of my attempt to get them to write more by posing questions was that they started to write posts consisting entirely of questions posed to their ‘international friends’!

Now, this class has been blogging for three months or so and I’m starting to see some positive effects. Some of them are using the blog to share stories they wrote in class, others are sharing accounts of things they did at the weekend or special events. Many of them are still using the blog even though they are now on holiday, which has been a pleasant surprise! Alas, some are not using the blog at all but, as I said earlier, I don’t want them to be pressured into using it.

The only complaint my little bloggers have had so far is a lack of comments from other kids. One kid asked me just before the holiday “why do only adults comment on our blog?” They were very happy when we got a few visitors from Dina Dobrou’s class in Greece but I know they would like more interaction with kids their own age from around the world.

So, if you have a class who blog or know any kids who would like to leave comments for us, please direct them to:

And also share details of your class blogs in the comments box. Perhaps we can set up some kind of ‘virtual comment exchange’. Smile

MA Reflections - Writing Assignments

I did the course. I read the articles. I chose a topic to focus on. I discussed it with the tutor. I read around the subject. I kept notes of useful references. I swapped ideas with my course mates. I planned in detail. And still I spent an estimated 20+ hours just writing the damn thing!!


Focus on your education! Image by cityyear

Writing an assignment is hard work, no doubt about it. It can be very rewarding or it can be punishing and torturous - extended moments spend starting at the flicking cursor on the screen, rewriting a sentence several times until it sounds vaguely academic, your shoulders and neck aching from being sat at the computer too long…. and still 2,000 words to go!

So how can we avoid the above and make it more rewarding? My experience over the last couple of years has taught me the following (again, some of which I have done, some of which I learned the hard way that I should have done):

  • Set yourself a deadline before the deadline

Julian Edge, the now retired and very much missed tutor on my first course, offered a sage piece of advice as my course mates and I approached that first assignment date: “Don’t work to the submission deadline - tell yourself it is 2 weeks earlier and work to that deadline.” Two weeks might be a bit much but I believe it is important to aim to be finished with a few days to spare. That gives you time to check things in a much more relaxed manner and means those “I wish I had written that” moments instead become “ooh - I can still write that” moments. Besides, you never know what’s going to happen - some unexpected event (like suddenly being told you have to write report cards for each of your 180 students) may rob you of precious time right before the deadline. Better to be done or nearly done before that happens.

  • Read and re-read as you go

One eye-opener from doing a course like this after a decade of teaching is how the things I advise my students to do when writing absolutely do not come naturally to me! One thing I had to train myself to do, despite the fact that I always go on at my students about it, was to read what I had written and think about how it sounded and whether it could be improved or reworded. Doing this as you go (after each section or few paragraphs for example) can really help with clarifying things that perhaps came out in a muddle. I find it my constant self-editing usually helps keep me within the word limit as well.

  • Space your writing time out

Writing can actually take a lot longer than you expect. Many times, after more than an hour at the keyboard, I have looked back at what I’ve written and discovered that it amounts to just two or three hundred words. I find it’s better to plan for a ‘little and often’ approach - better to write 500 words per session over the course of a week than attempt 3,500 words in one weekend! Typing for an extended period of time is hard - it can give you headaches, a stiff neck and an ever-growing sense of despair. Writing a few hundred words each day, even if you have to force yourself to do it after a long and tiring day at work with another to come the next day, will ultimately cause you less stress than doing it all in one go.

  • Check your references carefully

One thing to be very careful about when editing - you may add a reference to an article that was not in your original list or you may delete one that was originally there. Make sure you check your references list at the end of the assignment several times - you may end up forgetting to list an article you referred very briefly or leaving in an article reference that you ended up deleting from the assignment otherwise! I also find it useful to do the reference list while writing the assignment - it can be a time-consuming task to rush through at the end if you are not careful!

  • Back everything up!

Keep your assignment Word file on a flash disk or external hard drive and maybe even online via a service like Dropbox. Do the same with any pdf articles and course notes you will or even might need as well. Back them up daily. Don’t let a virus, a malfunctioning hard drive, a wayward cup of coffee or a curious two-year old make your nightmares come true! If anything, just do it for peace of mind.

  • Leave a little time to relax

You need time to write an assignment but it should be quality time. Better to spend an hour working in a relaxed state than 3 or 4 hours when you feel tired, stressed and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So, by all means make you assignment your priority but make a little time each day to do something for yourself as well - read a book, watch a favourite TV show, exercise, bake a cake (for me Winking smile) - if you make sure you don’t leave everything to the last minute, it should be easy.

  • Print it out and read it one last time

You’ve typed the concluding sentence of the concluding paragraph, checked the word count, ran the spell-checker and completed the reference list - ah, the relief! After weeks or worrying about it and hour upon hour sat at the computer typing, you’re all done, right?


Image by Gerard Stolk

What do you always tell your students? Read the whole thing again and check that it all makes sense! The best way to do this (or so I have found) is to print the whole thing out and read it away from the screen. Somehow, certain errors that the spell/grammar checker may not pick up or certain awkwardly phrased sentences stand out more when I read them from paper. It’s good to have enough time to wait a day or two before finishing and doing this final check as well - leave some space….

Of course, the next time I deal with any of the above, I’ll be doing it on a much larger dissertation scale. I’ll let you know how that goes but in the meantime please share your tips for tackling MA assignments and extended essays. I for one would love to get some different pointers!

Sunday, 29 January 2012

MA Reflections - Preparing for Assignments

This blog has been on the backburner recently while I tried to drag myself from the hell that is writing an assignment. For someone (like me) who embarks on an MA course after a long break from formal study, being asked to write assignments again can be a bit of a shock to the system. All that reading and getting your head round what you want to say can easily lead to thoughts of “Why am I doing this?” (or to put it another way, #whyamIdoingthis). Thankfully, I (just about!) got it all finished ahead of last Monday’s deadline but, after such an intense bout of writing, decided to take a break from the keyboard and leave the blog waiting for a few more days.


Almost burned out… Image by stonelucifer

So what better way to return than to share a few words of advice about preparing for MA assignments. Of course, this comes a little too late for those of you who were working to similar deadlines to me but it will hopefully come in handy for future reference. The list includes some things I did to make the process easier and some things I should have done - I’ll leave you to work out which is which!

  • Find out what your assignment is as soon as possible

“Well, duh!” you might think but this is an easy one to overlook. Some of my course tutors have been kind enough to include details of the assignment with the introductory materials of a course but others have not provided this information until later. The sooner you know the better as it allows your study to be more focused and gives you plenty of time to raise questions about any part of it you are not clear on, which neatly brings me to the next point…

  • Make sure you are aware of exactly what the assignment entails

We may often equate ‘assignment’ with ‘extended essay’ but that’s not always the case, especially if there is a practical application element to the course. There’s nothing worse than suddenly finding out (as I did part-way through a course in my first year) that you have to create a fully-functioning website which will be assessed together with your written work or that you have to design materials to be used for a computer lab or online lesson. Also, the written part of the assignment may ask you to focus on an aspect of your teaching, or provide a rationale for choosing a certain web tool or research method, or to reflect on your experiences during the course - all of which require a very different approach.

  • Start to look for inspiration everywhere

Once you know what your assignment is and exactly what you need to do, it’s best to never keep it far from your thoughts. An idea for how to approach the task may come while reading the literature, or it may come while your reading a blog post, or while you are in class, or while you are in the middle of watching a Quentin Tarantino film in the cinema (why Inglorious Basterds made me think of investigating how 9 year-olds engage in self-assessment, I’ll never know!) Make sure you have some way of noting it down as well.

  • Be prepared to change your mind and start over

Having said all that about getting a head start, it’s important not to commit yourself to one avenue without exploring other paths as well. Just as a moment of inspiration may come at any time, another better one may come later. The key thing is to have no fear of changing your mind. Last year as part of a course on Teacher Development, I spent a long time looking into action research in the language classroom with the assignment very much in mind only to abandon that and decide to investigate using a blog for self-development instead. Nearly a year on, that change of heart has had a heavy bearing on the direction my dissertation will take so it’s a good thing I was ready to try another path.

  • Make a note of useful articles (including page numbers!)

There’s nothing worse than thinking that you read something a while ago that would make a useful quote or be a useful reference for your article but then being unable to remember which article it was. Or maybe you will locate the article or book chapter only then to realise it is over 50 pages long and that little piece of insight that you’re looking for is buried in it somewhere. That’s why I always keep a note of articles, book chapters and page numbers that might be useful when it comes to assignment time as I read them (something like Evernote is great for this). In the end, many of them may be discarded when you actually come round to planning and writing but it saves a lot of time to have all those references to hand rather than be frantically searching for them and wondering whether you actually read or it was all a dream….

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help

In my experience of distance learning, both as a student actually taking an online course and as a student learning about effectively leading one, it has surprised me how many learners seem shy about asking for help. Some people, it would seem, prefer to stay quiet rather than ask something that may seem like a basic question (the same is true for the classroom I suppose!) Don’t be. Ask your questions and state your worries either in the online forum or directly to your tutor by email. I’ve found the tutors at the University of Manchester are always happy to help and offer advice. Even better, if you ask on the online discussion boards, you often get great help from your course mates as well.

  • Plan on paper!

I don’t have a problem reading from the computer screen or from my iPad and, as I mentioned above, I make use of online discussion boards and Evernote to develop and keep track of my ideas. However, when it comes to planning an assignment, paper just works better for me. I think it’s the fact that I can spread it out on the table or floor and see how it is taking shape… It’s also nice to take a break from sitting at the computer for a while as well. Also, when you get to the writing up stage, referring to a piece of paper in your hand is easier than clicking between windows of different Word files, pdfs, the online forum and Evernote!

Of course, saying those things is easy but remembering to do all of them is not! You may be thinking that I have left something out and, you’re right, I have. There’s hardly any mention of actually writing the darn thing but that’s another story for another post… Winking smile

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Making an Impact in the Classroom… Literally!

One of the (many) curiosities of teaching kids is the fact that for a short period of time you are one of the people they see and interact with in their daily lives but, once the school year is over, they may hardly ever see you again, except for the odd moment here and there in the corridor (if that). We learn to live with that fact and content ourselves with the thought that we have in some way made an impact on the learning of those children and maybe even on their lives. After all, that’s what being a teacher is all about, isn’t it?

A couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch during one of my trips up to the middle school when a girl from the 8th grade approached me.

“Teacher?” she said. “Do you remember me?”

It took a second or two to place her face and recall her name (no mean feat considering that she was 8 years old when in my class and I have taught over 300 other kids since!) but it soon all came back to me. I remembered that she was a good but quiet student who always worked hard. She seemed surprised that I remembered so much (my memory always seems to store names, faces, places and times well - a useful trick for any teacher!) and then said “my friends and I always talk about your lesson…”

“Ah,” I thought to myself, ignoring the minor error of ‘lesson’ instead of ‘lessons’. “No doubt they remember those breakthrough moments, the projects we did, the songs, the games and all the fun of our positive learning journey together.”

“….the lesson when the projection screen fell on your head!”


Image by Dell’s Pics

“Erm… what?!?” I said before another memory came back of one day when I pulled the projection screen down a bit too fast and the whole thing came of the wall whacking me over the top of the head in the process.

“When it happened, everybody went quiet but then you appeared from under the screen and said ‘ow!’ It was very funny!” Emergent teacher rather than emergent language then?

Anyway, we finished our chat and went back to our respective classes and I thought nothing more of it.

Until last Friday that is when I was in one of my classes in primary school. While the students were quietly reading a chapter of their book (yes, reading quietly - another off my ‘off the wall’ ideas that draws equal responses of derision and suspicion!), a pair of students called me over. “Do you know a boy called Berk?” they asked. That is the equivalent of asking somebody in an English speaking country if they know somebody called Steve so I asked for clarification.

“He says he was in your class… maybe 5 years ago,” they explained.

“Did he say which class?” I asked.

“He didn’t say the class,” came the reply “but he told us in one of your lessons the projector screen fell on your head! Is it true?”

Seriously? A year’s hard and productive work but all I remain known for is an accident involving a classroom fitting!!

Being philosophical, I suppose it is better to be remembered for something than not being remembered at all… even if it isn’t quite the impact I had hoped to make!

And at least I’m not alone - a quick look at Twitter last night revealed this little excerpt from a chat between Mike Harrison and one of my favourite new blog discoveries Phil Wade:


Well Mike and Phil, I can assure you that your students will remember you for a long time as a result!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Digital Storytelling with Voicethread (and How to Do It Offline)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I love doing things in class that are simple yet productive and full of student-generated content. It might be something like a drawing activity that leads into a whole series of other tasks, a couple of everyday items as the basis of discussion, or, as featured on my recent guest post on Teaching Village, a basic digital camcorder and some very creative young minds.

Another simple but effective web 2.0 tool I really like using is Voicethread. I love the interactivity it offers with different people able to leave messages on the same presentation slide as well as the option to combine images or text with audio or video comments. At the start of the school year, I was asked at work if I knew of any ways to make the activities we do for the school wiki more interactive and Voicethread was the first thing that came to mind. A crowd-sourced demo from my PLN and the suggestion that it could be used as practice for part of the Cambridge YLE Test speaking section was all it took to sell the idea.

“Great - do it” they said.

“Sure,” I replied. “Just get me some microphones, a webcam and user rights to upload from my class computer and we’re all set.”


“Isn’t there a way to do it without all that?” they asked….

Luckily for them, I’m a resourceful guy and I found a way to make Voicethreads offline.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Cambridge YLE tests, one part of the speaking section is a sequence of 4 or 5 pictures. The examiner starts the story off and the student has to finish it off, following the sequence of the pictures. The problem with preparing for this in class is that you have to do it in pairs or small groups, it’s impossible to monitor everyone and they just don’t listen to each other (ok, so that’s three problems!) They have a lot to learn from listening to each other but one of the hardest things about working with kids is getting them to see that.

So, my idea was to record each group narrating their own version of the same picture story and add them all to a Voicethread. First of all, recording them in class leaves the other groups with no choice but to listen and secondly, we then have a nice collaborative record of work to put onto the wiki for kids and parents alike to listen to at home:

How did I do it with a so slow it’s almost dial-up class internet connection and no microphone? Simple really - I used the AudioBoo app on my iPad to make recordings offline in class. Later, I uploaded them then downloaded them to my laptop via iTunes and it was then just a matter of going to the Voicethread website and putting it all together. As I have an educator account, I used different ‘identities’ to group each class’s stories together and that was that.

Now it’s on the school wiki, they have the chance to listen to each other’s stories. The next step, now that I have introduced it in class, is to put up a Voicethread with just the pictures and get them to record their own stories from home! (Hmm, just had a thought - maybe I haven’t done myself any favours here. Had I said “there’s no way I can do it”, would the school have finally agreed to upgrade the class computers and the internet connection? …..)

Anyway, once again the presence of recording equipment and the promise of being showcased online worked wonders for motivating my students to produce some very creative stories (like the boys who decided the person who jumped out of the snowman in the second story was not the kids’ dad playing a joke but was in fact a hunter who wanted to kill them!)


A Quick Plug for the Digital Storytelling for YLs EVO Session

If that has given you an idea or two for storytelling in the classroom, why not join me and a super group of EFL educators (namely Shelly Terrell, Barbara Sakamoto, Özge Karaoğlu, Esra Girgin, Jennifer Verschoor, Michelle Worgan, and Sabrina De Vita - I really did mean super group!!) for our EVO 2012 session entitled Digital Storytelling for Young Learners? We’ll be covering not only Voicethread but also many other simple but exciting and meaningful ways you can bring storytelling into your classroom via a variety of web 2.0 tools.

Registration is still open (but not for much longer!) - just join our Yahoo Group. You can also find out more information about our syllabus on our pbworks page and see some of the early introductions on our Posterous Space. Hope to see you there!