Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Google Docs on the iPad

My school district uses Google Docs but I haven't really tried it out on the iPad yet as I still automatically turn to my laptop for tasks like word-processing or creating spreadsheets. I was very happy to discover that John over at The Electric Educator has written a helpful comparison of the mobile versus the desktop versions of Google docs.

The mobile version of Google apps apparently comes up short in many areas - it doesn't allow you to insert tables or images into a word-processing document for example. However, Google Docs is very much still evolving and this may change over time. John encourages you to add notes and comments to his spreadsheet.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"There may not be an app for that . . ."

I just read a great article entitled "There May Not Be an App for That" written by Helen Erickson, a teacher of English Language learners at a secondary school in British Columbia. She talks of her 'aha!' moment when she realized that when she first began working with iPads in the classroom, she was making the "classic error of trying to find apps to teach with." She comments: "There may not be an app that will teach what you want students to learn, but there is most likely an app that will support and enhance students' learning."

Although she mentions a few specific apps that she uses, the article is more about her general philosophy and the benefits she has found in using iPads in the classroom. I second her comments about teachers needing as many tools in our toolboxes as possible and how motivating technology can be for students. Her observation that "when the students were playing games or completing drills, they were often using inefficient or incorrect strategies" is spot on! Just because the kids really like using iPads and find them motivating does not mean that they are always the best choice of activity. As I said in my MATSOL conference presentation earlier this month, we have to be sure that students are working on the skill we really want them to be working on. 'iPad time' is not time for teachers to sit back and relax - they still need to be paying attention to what their students are doing. Students often need both initial and continued direction so that they understand what the goal is and that this is not 'play time'.

Of course, this is true no matter what kind of activity we are asking them to do, but I have seen too many teachers think that giving the kids an app to work on is going to guarantee some kind of improvement in skill or understanding. When you let students use an iPad you need to be clear about what they are going to get out of it. Just like baby-proofing a room, you have to look at the app from the student's point of view. Is there a way to get a high score without truly understanding the assignment?  Have you played the game all the way through as a student will? How often are there 'rewards'? How long can the student spend on the rewards as opposed to the academic task? A fun game that includes some math may be motivating, but our time in school with kids is limited and if the percentage of time on task is not high enough then maybe that game needs to be relegated to being one recommended for use on personal iPads.

Even if you don't teach English language learners, I highly recommend Helen's article.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Choosing apps for English Language Learners

Some thoughts on choosing apps for English language learners, put together for the MATSOL conference, May 3, 2012.

If you want a more formal way of comparing and reviewing apps, there is a great app review rubric over at Edudemic.com. Kathy Schrock has two different downloadable rubrics on her fantastic  iPads in the Classroom page - one for for a content iPad/iPod app and one for a creation iPad/iPod app.

Here is my (work-in-progress) list of apps for English language learners. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

National Archives DocsTeach

The National Archives website docsteach.org is a great source of material for teachers, especially teacher of history and social studies. It features thousands of primary sources and learning activities. Register for a free account and you can borrow from and modify an ever-expanding collection of activities, plus create unique ones using online templates. Any activities you create are automatically shared with other Docsteach users to use or modify.

The recently released free app Docsteach app designed to work with the site allows iPad users to:
  • "Choose a historical era or topic to find an activity based on primary source documents such as the US Constitution, the canceled check for the purchase of Alaska, and Thomas Edison’s patent drawing for the light bulb.
  • Participate in DocsTeach activities made with the Focusing on Details, Making Connections, Finding a Sequence, Mapping History, Weighing the Evidence, or Seeing the Big Picture tools.
  • Zoom and inspect individual pages of documents, drawings, maps, and photographs using the controls in the document viewing window."
Because teachers register to use the site, activities they create can be tagged with “Classroom Codes” so that students can find activities specifically assigned by their own teachers. Alternatively, students can browse to look for activities on a particular topic. A wifi connection is recommended for using this app.

Read more about Docsteach and the new app at the United States National Archive blog.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


StoryLines is a free app that lets you play a game that's a cross between the old whispering game of telephone and the drawing game Pictionary. It could be an interesting way of reviewing vocabulary.

The game is played with 3, 5, 7 or 9 players. The first player picks a word or phrase. The second illustrates it. The third writes the phrase that they think is being illustrated. If you're playing with more than 3 players, the players then alternate between writing the phrase they think is being illustrated and drawing a new illustration. At the end of the game you see the whole chain of text and drawings played out.

StoryLines can be played against your friends online, with moves being shared on Facebook. StoryLines for Schools however, is specifically designed with no Internet element to the game (other than emailing the finished StoryLine to someone once you have finished) and can only be played in what the developers call  Pass-n-Play mode. It also includes some suggestions for vocabulary or phrases to use as a game starters. The suggested vocabulary is too hard (even at the 'elementary' level) for elementary-level students, or elementary-level English language learners. If I were using the game in class, I think I would take the first move myself and provide the phrase or vocabulary item, or I would require students to choose from a vocabulary list. I'd like to see a feature where the teacher could create a list of vocabulary in the app. I think this would be a fun game to play after teaching some idioms! I have a set of cards already to play a matchup game with idioms and pictures, so the cards with the words on them would be a good way to have the students choose the phrase to start the game.

I liked the fact that the drawing part of the game was originally deliberately kept very simple with no colors or different kind of artist's tools available. It's like doing a quick doodle with a pen. There is now an in-app purchase to add colors that I can see could be useful, but in-app purchases are a pain to deal with in school.

Here's a link to a short, 3 person, StoryLine that was created on an iPad and then shared via email. (You will need Safari or Chrome to see it - it's not compatible with Firefox.) The email you send to share your story contains a link to the page where the StoryLine has been uploaded. It would be nice if you could scroll back to the start of the StoryLine once it's finished 'playing'. I think that would be especially important if you have more than 3 people contributing to the StoryLine. In the school where I work, groups for 'center activities' almost always seem to have 4 kids in them, but you could play this game with 4 kids by choosing the 5 player version and having the teacher select the word or phrase that starts the game.

As a free app, this is certainly worth downloading, even if you only use it once a year!

(Updated 5 April 2013)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Apps for English Language Learners

I've created a list of apps that I think could be useful when working with English language learners. As with the other lists I've created, it's most definitely a work in progress!

At this point there are over 200 apps included. Most tend to be for elementary-age students, but there are some that are appropriate for older students too. A few, but not many overall, are specifically for students to work on grammar and sentence structure. Some are one-trick ponies - they do one thing only, do it quite well, but you might only ask your students to use it once a year. Some of these apps are appropriate for students to use on their own, but many (especially those originally designed for use by speech and language therapists) are intended to be used one on one or with a very small group of students.

I've listed the prices (in US$) as of when I added the app to my list, but app prices do change regularly, so check before you buy. Prices in parentheses are the price through the volume purchase program for 20 or more copies of the same app.

If you have any corrections or additions to make, please leave a comment on this post. Equally, if there is information you wish I had included, please let me know. I'd like to make this as useful a resource as possible! 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Storytelling apps compared - update

I've updated my spreadsheet comparing storytelling apps.

The following apps are included:
  • Book Creator for iPad
  • My Story - Book Maker for Kids
  • Our Story 1.0
  • Pictello 1.2.1
  • Scribble Press 1.1
  • SodaSnap Postcards 2.4
  • SodaSnap+ Postcards 1.4
  • SonicPics 1.4.1 (SonicPics Lite - no longer available)
  • StoryKit 1.1
  • StoryPatch 1.21
  • StoryRobe 1.0
  • StoryMaker 1.1
  • StoryPages 2.1
  • StoryPages HD 3.01
(Highlighted items are new additions since the last version.) 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Grammar - parts of speech

As an ESL teacher, I obviously have to spend a good portion of my teaching time working with my students on their grammar. I want my students to be able to communicate effectively and incorrect grammar often gets in the way of that communication. It is obviously helpful when you are trying to help students improve their writing if you have a shared vocabulary. If they don't know what a adjective or an adverb is, it doesn't help to tell them "You used an adverb here instead of an adjective." Mainstream students need to know this vocabulary too - especially because it does turn up on standardized tests - "Which of the words in this sentence is a noun?" (I'm not even going to get started though on whether we should even be doing all the standardized testing that we do  - that's a whole 'nuther blog!)

So, someone was asking me the other day if I've found any apps to help kids with their grammar. If you want them to be able to identify the parts of speech, yes there is an app (or two!) for that!

 Grammar Dragon is a free app that asks you to identify what part of speech specific words in a sentence are. There is no instruction as to what the parts of speech are. The 'game' is essentially a multiple choice worksheet with some animation added, though it is sufficiently game-like to keep kids interested for a while. The grammar dragon has captured all of your friends from the castle. You must rescue a different person on each level by correctly identifying various parts of speech. Grammar terms used in the game include: adjective, pronoun, conjunction, preposition, noun, interjection, verb.

This is intended as a one person game, but I could see two students working on it together. It can be a tricky game for ESL students if they don't know all the vocabulary  - sometimes they can mistakes simply because they don't understand the vocabulary. On the other hand, if they have a good sense of sentence structure and the vocabulary required for the game, it is possible for them to get the answer right without actually understanding the sentence they are reading.

The traditional Mad Libs games are also good for students to learn the basic parts of speech. There are several of them available, and there are even some that are free. Watch for the advertising on the free ones though, and for the in-app purchase options that allow you to buy more stories. (Remember you can turn off the ability to make in-app purchases in the settings, and it is also a good idea to always change your payment method back to  'None' after you've made a purchase, in addition to remembering to log out of the app store.)

Mad Libs (free) - the traditional Mad Libs game. The name Mad Libs is owned by the Penguin publishing company who put out the books and now the app. They have a free version of Mad Libs available for download but, of course, what they want you to do is to purchase more so it only includes 4 stories. A $3.99 in-app purchase gets you another 20 stories. There are 2 different in-app purchases available, for a total of 40 stories. The game does not always specifically ask for a part of speech - sometimes it asks for something like "a kind of liquid." It asks for adjectives and adverbs, and specifies plural or singular when it is asking for a noun.

WordVenture! (Free, some advertising)  - Although per story this works out more expensive than Mad Libs if you buy the additional stories, I like the fact that this app gives definitions and examples of the kind of words as it asks for them. Grammar terms used in WordVenture! include adverb, verb, past tense verb, noun, exclamation, verb ending with "ing", adverb, adjective, noun, plural noun. It comes with 3 stories - 30 more are available at 3 for $0.99. The three free stories could serve as a good introduction to the concept of the game as this app offers some support, and then students can move on to one of the other apps.

Silly Stories Lite (free, some advertising),  Silly Stories ($1.99) and Silly Stories - iPad edition ($1.99). More Mad Libs-type stories. The full version of Silly Stories lets you share your completed stories online, and I would hope it has no advertising. Stories that are posted online are associated with the account that posted them. The company does have a policy of not posting stories automatically - they are reviewed for appropriateness first.  (The company needs to do some editing of their site though - they spell inappropriate as 'inapproperate' and currently the site says "Additionally, all Silly Stories are reviewed before they are allowed to be made pubically available." Hmmm . . . I hope their stories are better edited!) Once a story has been uploaded and approved, it cannot be deleted from the website, but the company says they can disassociate it from the account that uploaded it. Grammar terms used in Silly Stories include: verb, past tense, adverb, adjective, plural.

SparkleFish is a MadLibs-type app that doesn't involve any typing.  Record the words it asks for and they are then included in a story that you listen to rather than read. SparkleFish is free, with in-app purchases for additional stories, ($0.99 for each story pack of 5 stories.) Grammar terms used in the free stories provided in SparkleFish include adverb, singular noun, plural noun, verb past tense, verb ending in 'ing', adjective, verb. Other terms include singular body part, beverage, liquid, number, ordinal number.

With all of the Mad Libs-type stories, (just as with the books) the students will have more fun if they are not working on them alone. Students could work on a story with a partner and read it aloud (and giggle) together. If you have more than one iDevice, two students could both work on the same story on their own and then share their different versions once they've added all the words. Once they've played the apps a few times, rather than buy new stories, the stronger students could then write their own stories. If you have computers available where the stories could be saved as templates, you could then build up a selection of student-generated stories that could either be used on the computer, or printed out for completion.

(Originally posted July 2011, updated March 2012)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Storytelling with Scribble Press

Scribble Press is another storytelling app. It is currently free and is for iPad only. In some ways it is very similar to StoryKit.

Scribble Press has 50 built-in story templates that you can use as starting points for a story, or you can choose to start with a blank book. I like the fact that even if you start with a template story you can add to the text or edit it once it is on the pages of your book. You can also add more pages if you want to. Like StoryKit, there are no choices of font or font size.

There are plenty of options for illustrating your story. There is a vast array of 'markers' in many colors - enough to provide plenty of options, but not an infinite color palette that would make it difficult to match a color if you wanted to. If you prefer, you can add a photo to a page by taking one with the iPad 2 camera or choosing one from your own photo gallery on your iPad. There are also some 'stickers' included that allow you to quickly add some images to your story.

Finished stories can be read in the app itself by tapping on the front cover of the book to open it. Stories can also be saved from the app as an ePub file that can be added to iBooks to build a library of student-created books on the iPad. Unlike some other ePub books, you cannot change the font size in the book when you are reading it in iBooks.

Stories can also be shared by choosing "Email a link" which uploads them to the Scribble Press website and sends an email with the address of the story to anyone you send the email message to. Your iPad must be set up to send email to do this! Sharing a story this way does not include it in Scribble Press/ public library of books - only people who have the address can access the story. You could choose to email the link directly to people you'd like to have read the stories, or if you have a website you could link directly to your Scribble Press story from a webpage. (For some reason my school Gmail account dropped the message from Scribble Press into the spam folder - so if you send the link via email and it does not seem to show up, check your spam folder!) When visitors follow the link they can browse the story online or they can download the story as an ePub file for viewing on their own mobile device. They can choose three different formats, including for iOS and Nook. Kindle readers will need to convert the file - search for how to open an ePub file on a Kindle and you'll find lots of advice.

By choosing "Publish in Gallery" you can also choose to submit your story to be included in Scribble Press' public library of stories. All books that are to be shared publically are held for 24 hours so Scribble Press can make sure all the content is kid-friendly! Once a story has been uploaded to Scribble Press it is available for anyone to read and download.

The app is practical to use on a shared iPad because a story in progress can simply be saved. The book is saved to the 'My Books' shelf and when you open it up again instead of tapping on it to read it, you can choose Edit from the menu underneath the front cover.

The 'Order' button offers the option of paying to have stories printed. I don't see schools particularly wanting to take advantage of this option but families might. Scribble Press says single page stories can be printed on a clipboard, puzzle, notebook, or greeting card - but in reality this means the artwork from a single page story can be published as the text is removed for these products!

There are a couple of improvements I would like to see in this app. I would like to see the option of being able to add students' voices to their stories because as a language teacher I see my kids getting enormous value out of recording their stories in StoryKit or GarageBand. I would also like to be able to move the text area on a page, as I can in StoryKit, so that it is not always at the bottom of the page. Nonetheless, as a free app it is definitely worth downloading! I can see students and teachers getting lots of use out of it.

The developer says:
Scribble Press for iPad includes:
- 50 story templates
- over 500 drawing tools, including markers and stamps in a vast array of colors
- a unique sticker collection
- your own photo library
- an easy and fun to use book layout tool
- shopping cart so you can order printed copies of your book and other cool stuff
- sharing tools that make it easy to show the world – or just your family and friends – your great creation PLUS, you can use Scribble Press for iPad to read books created by other kids, from all around the world!
Here's a video tour of Scribble Press from the developer: 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Puppet Pals, the iRig microphone and digital storytelling projects

Since I first posted about it back in March 2011, I haven't actually used Puppet Pals again with my students at school. On 19 January, 2012, Wes Fryer posted on his blog "Moving at the Speed of Creativity" about his experience of using Puppet Pals with an afterschool program at his church. He has some good suggestions for making the process work smoothly. One interesting detail in his post is the fact that he has uploaded 3 student-made videos. One of them was recorded using an iRig microphone. The others used the microphone in the iPad. Clearly there was background noise going on in all three videos, but the one recorded with the iRig microphone is noticeably a MUCH better recording! I have the luxury of working with small groups of students and a small, quiet, space to work in most of the time but after seeing/hearing these videos on Wes' blog I think I'd like an iRig microphone anyway - and for working in a regular classroom where several groups might be working at the same time I would DEFINITELY want a good microphone. I will certainly be recommending to the classroom teachers I work with that they try to get one. At $59.99 apiece maybe DonorsChoose can help!

Wes also commented on the need to get the students to plan their play. I agree with him 100% when he says:
"With just about any multimedia project, getting students to plan, get organized, and in some cases WRITE is the hardest part of the entire experience. It’s also the most important, however, because it contributes the most to the eventual success and quality of the project."
Lisa Johnson, blogging at techchef4u, has written a very helpful article on using Puppet Pals with students. Her suggestions for topics to use with Puppet Pals would work equally well with many of the other storytelling apps.

If you are looking to sell the idea of more technology to your school/school district, storytelling projects like this clearly show the students using important skills for academic success - planning, writing, organizing . . . And yet, despite the work that goes into a project like this, most students will still perceive the project as being fun.