Future Perfect

In his free e-book ‘Stop Stealing Dreams‘ Seth Godin talks about how the toy manufacturer Lego tried to save their brand. From the box of little plastic blocks, they created specialised boxes so that children could create a Fire Engine, a Star Wars character, a car park. He makes the point that this, in some ways, is exactly what is wrong with our education system. Instead of the chaotic adventure of creating something from a bunch of bricks, using imagination to develop crazy looking things, we now need a map to get to somewhere and we already know what it looks like. A bit depressing , isn’t it?

There is a better way though. It just takes a bit of imagination and the will to change, the will to believe that change is possible.

What would happen if we created a series of online resources which kids could access from home and watch again and again? What would happen if we created a series of online lectures which the kids could access again and again? The technology exists in YouTube, TED, Khan Academy but we can create our own through ‘Explain Everything’, ‘Show Me’ and others. We could flip the classroom in a way which could change school forever. We could switch on a generation of learners to REALLY prepare them for the real world.

But there is a problem isn’t there? Access. There is already a class divide between the kids who still don’t have online access at home and those who do; a divide between those who can and those who,  because of negative experiences at school due to things being blocked – phones being banned, hardware being out of date –  link online learning to school and that’s always been a bad thing. Even when we try to create something new for them online – Glow, Edmodo, Class Dojo, whatever – they often have such trouble accessing it that they don’t see the point. Instant access to information means exactly that. If they can’t access it as quickly as they can on their phones then to is a joke to them. So the students who do have access don’t use it for school.

As an English teacher I am already imagining in a world where I do more of this:

Holden’s Desperate Quest

As I create more of these for every point I want to teach in the novel,  I am creating a permanent, online series of mini-lectures which my students can watch as many times as it takes until they get it. I can save myself a hell of a lot of time repeating myself by using them every year – no more wasting time over resources creation- and I can create a real homework scenario where students can prepare for a class where we can focus on skills and real life learning instead of listening to me lecture.

This is not a ridiculous pipe dream. The technology not only already exists but it is already being used in an effective way. Check out udacity.com  and Khan Academy. If our governments are serious about improving our education system, if our Governments want our children to develop those skills which ‘business’ says they lack  – and for which they castigate teachers – then universal broadband with tablets for every student must be the aim. Let’s make levelling the playing field our number one priority.  Sure, some may abuse that but teaching responsibility both online and off must be a key aim in a child’s education. We cannot keep holding everyone back because of the bad behaviour of the few. We have the resources to change our world forever. We have the resources to change all of our children’s futures forever. But do our political masters have the will?

Six months on… Has the iPad Changed My Life?

By the end of this week I will have owned an iPad 2 for six months. It was a bit of a jump for me. Never had an iPhone, always been a Microsoft man; but I took the plunge, sold on the sleek design and potential for real classroom development and change in my practice. A brave new world and all that. Six months later and you’ll be expecting a blog post full of inspiration and invention. Well, not quite.

There are many things which have changed in my classroom because of my iPad but there have also been frustrations. Could I have achieved these changes anyway, without fancy technology and greater willpower? Perhaps. Six months seems like a good time to reflect on the changes.

First of all, the apps that I use.  In class, I make most use of the ‘Kindle’ app to present pages from books I’ve been working on very easily to the class. We worked on pages of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’  and the iPad allows me to display important sections and annotate very quickly. I’m sure I could have achieved this with other technology but the iPad allows me to quickly connect to a projector if there is any confusion in the class without having to set up things beforehand. Very handy indeed. I also used the ‘Shakespeare’ app for similar purposes.

Perhaps the most useful app for me, however, has been ‘Essaygrader’. This app allows me to cut down on hours of marking by using a checklist of comments, which I can adapt to my own classes if I don’t want to use the existing generic ones. My students have all said that they find the comments much more helpful. They say that the advice is much more focused and I can use the saved time to concentrate on more evaluative advice. Not a replacement for hard work just a readjustment. I no longer feel that my written comments are often ignored. Highly recommended

More recently though, after reading a marvellous blogpost by Laura Knight I have returned to ‘Evernote’ with vigour. Following in Laura’s shadow, I now plan all of my lessons on this. The simple format allows me to plan much further in advance than I would have done. Or at all. Formal planning has never been a strong point for me. With ‘Evernote’ I can jot down ideas and resources every night and have them handy on my iPad during the school day.

I can attach weblinks, photos or simple reminders which will be there forever. No ground breaker but one which suits me and has helped me improve immensely in this area. Essential.

‘Tomorrow HD’ has been a wonderful list making app which has allowed me to ditch the post-its. I can add tasks all day long and it allows me to score them out as I go, anything undone can be easily transferred to tomorrow. I never forget anything now which, believe me, was often a problem. I’ve even started numbering tasks in order to prioritise. A life saver.

There have been others, less successfully implemented. I briefly flirted with ‘LessonPlans’ and ‘Teachers Pet’ but found that both need more input time than they would actually save me so I dumped them. ‘Machinarium’. I need say no more other than see previous post. 

I love my iPad. In many ways it has completely taken over the planning and organisation of my working day – sometimes even beyond. I do all of my writing on the ‘Pages’ App, catch up with the newspapers and Twitter. I am more organised, more productive, certainly more effective because of that. However, I am aware that many of these tasks could also be achieved through others means, mostly time and planning.

I could finish this post by mentioning that I’m fiddling about with this new device when the kids in front of me are not even allowed to turn on their phones. It’s a hugely relevant point but perhaps I’ll leave that for another post.

Engaging the Disengaged – Digital Literacy Really Works

Long before the dizzy heights of, sometimes, twelve views per day on my Blog, when I started blogging in January, I was about to undertake a project which would completely rejuvenate my classroom and my approach to teaching. Inanimate Alice grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and shook me about a little bit. It did indeed turn out to be storytelling but not as we know it. I like to think I’ve never looked back. Making this blog post somewhat redundant, you might think. What I learned from the experience was that there is another way. I have never come across a resource which fires up the reluctant learner more than the digital storytelling power of Inanimate Alice. Perhaps until now.

Digital literacy has its critics, however,  and I’m not sure I would recommend it for all ability groups. I became an English Teacher because I was inspired by books, poems, and plays and wanted to share that love of language with others. I still get a thrill when they ‘get’ ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Lord of the Flies’, ‘November’ or ‘Out, out-‘ ; but there are kids who will never get it, whatever ‘it’ may be, will never belong to that world. We need to do something about that.

My class of demotivated learners – the same class who undertook the Sugata Mitra/ Carol Dweck lesson earlier in the year – have been working on Machinarium. If you haven’t heard of it yet it’s a puzzle point-and-click adventure game developed by Amanita Design (thank you Wikipedia) and, as a stimulus for lots of quality writing, it is simply wonderful. There is a free three level demo which my class have been working on but the downloaded paid version has thirty levels. I gave my lot a handful of lap tops and left them to it.

It doesn’t fit the mould of the usual ‘shooty gun’ games they are used to and challenges them to work out problems and think of strategies and sequences. I ensured that they got a taste of their own medicine as I replied, ‘I don’t know’ to every question, but the initial confusion was quickly overcome as one pair, then another, then everyone began to manoeuvre through the stages. Their sense of achievement as they moved on was something they have struggled to find this year. The classroom was buzzing.

The wonderful graphics are ripe for descriptive work on setting, which will, hopefully, lead to some great imaginative work; they want to create an advertising campaign to publicise the game; and they are currently working on a functional help guide. Not bad for a class who would not write, never mind could not- not well anyway. They are now blogging on GLOW and producing pieces of writing of a far more sophisticated standard.

What I’ve learned from dipping my toe into the world of digital literacy this year is that it may not be a panacea for all but in my never-ending quest to engage the disengaged it has been amazing.  It is not and should never be a replacement for reading quality literature – I still feel it is my duty to open this world up to them – but as an aid to writing I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

Don’t dismiss digital literacy as a modern fad. It doesn’t mean you have to ditch the classics; but Machinarium may just be the answer to some of your prayers.