Monday, August 29, 2005

Is Moodle the Answer?

Tomorrow I officially start my new teaching job. I'm back in the district I taught in before heading to Kuala Lumpur to work as a computer specialist in an international school. My new job is as a grade five classroom teacher. I enjoy fifth graders and look forward to having my own homeroom again. However, I am dearly missing the technology opportunities from my overseas job, which is why instead of reading curriculum manuals, I'm thinking about how to use technology to give my students more voice and choice in the curriculum. (Or more likely, it is BECAUSE I've been reading manuals that I'm looking for other options.)

Towards that end, I listened to another great podcast from Bud the Teacher. As usual, he challenged me to think further outside the box. This time he discussed Moodle. I've been staring at the Moodle web site and thinking it would meet my needs. It is an object-oriented environment with great components, such discussion groups, places to share documents, Hot Potato quizzes and other Good Things. Now I need to figure out where to host it and how to install it.

To host it, I have a .Mac account, web space at my ISP (TIES), or possibly our school web server. I don't know if the data transfer limit on the .Mac account would be a problem, or if the ISP space or school space are true options. TIES hasn't replied to the questions I emailed to them, and I don't know enough about what is involved to ask intelligent questions of someone in the district tech department. Ideally, this would be something the building tech aide and I can do on our own, because the overworked district tech department doesn't have the time to help me with this.

Once I find a place to host it, I can't tell if this is something I can realistically do myself. From the Moodle website it looks like I need to install SQL, but I have so little knowledge I can't tell if I need an SQL server (is there such a best?) or if SQL installs onto a server with a different OS, such as Linux. And since I have no knowledge of SQL, I don't know if I can realistically install and manage the software. I'd love to learn SQL-- it is on my to-do list for next summer. Until then, I need to focus on new job and on unpacking more of the mountains of boxes in the garage and the basement etc..

I did spend time playing around in Nicenet again. It is still and option. I could make each student their own course within my Nicenet account. That would allow for private conferences between the students and myself. We could also have a class space where they could talk with each other. I haven't gotten my brain around that latter option, but I know it has potential. However, I suspect my new principal would rather I get back to reading manuals rather than indulging in this lovely mental field trip, so I must get back to work.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Looking for Private Messaging System

I've been at district inservices and am feeling lucky that our Staff development people are so skilled. However, skilled or not, I'm a bit overwhelmed as I walk into so many curriculums that are new to me. Part of the overwhelmed feeling comes from seeing so little space for children's voice and choice within these mandated, packaged programs. Every moment of the day is involved in preselected activities. No chance to choose their own books or discuss what interested them; there's only time for what the publishers say they should be discussing to ensure they develop the six comprehension strategies and 500 skills assigned to grade five).

In any case, student blogs are feeling all the more essential to me, and all the more out of reach. I'm a strong proponent of Anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly (rather than not at all). So this waiting until I have it all figured out, all presented to district admin, and all approved, is frustrating. I'd so much rather be working on that than figuring out how to use the 18 different manuals and worksheet books that go with the new language arts series.

I'm wishing for an in-between solution. I want a secure way to correspond with my students, hear their thoughts and ideas. I don't want to be slogging around notebooks and hand writing responses. I don't want them to need to make it perfectly edited because there is an outside audience. I do want a real reason for them to be writing, forming their ideas, expressing their thoughts. I think that at least initially, getting to know the new teacher would be motivation enough.

Email would be a good solution if students had accounts, but in our district, they do not.

One option might be Moodle. They have a large web site with lots of information, but none of it makes clear if it would work well for this and if I truly could get it to work on my .Mac space or my TIES web space (TIES is my ISP). I contacted the TIES helpfulness with the info from Moodle, but TIES has not yet replied, and I'm not sure they will. In any case, this fall is NOT a good time for me to dive into my first SQL experiences.

I could use Nicenet, but they could reach each other's posts, which might get in the way of students speaking their minds. I seem to remember we could send private notes within Nicenet. I'll check that out.

In the mean time, I'd love to hear of other ways to fill this gap. Please share them with me.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Which Software?

Clarence Fisher over at Remote Access is gearing up for his new year and pushing himself to pursue new goals, one of which involves getting started with student blogging right from the start of the year. I was interest to see he is in the process of deciding whether to use Blogger, Blogmeister or; I am trying to make that very decision. I finally was able to turn on my classroom computer, a Mac cube. I discovered it is running OS 9.2. I'm hoping that alone doesn't limit my choices. I am eager to read what Clarence chooses.

As far as I can tell, no one was blogging with students at the elementary level in my district last year, so there is no precedent for me to follow. I want to do this right so that blogging can flourish and enrich the curriculum. My fear is that I won't present it well enough, or parents will be too worried or a bad comment will cause the district to possibly ban all blogging. Not sure I feel worthy of this charge.

As mentioned before, I plan to start with a class blog, but I don't know if I get to start it day one. I discovered all the classrooms have a T.V. with a VCR and a DVD player attached to the wall. The classroom computer has the driver to run a device that should let me connect the Mac to the TV, which would be great for getting the class blog started. I've added questions about that to the long list of questions I have for our school media specialist when I meet her.

I tried to contact Ms. Sanborn, a grade 5 teacher at Willowdale Elementary because she has just the type of blog I am hoping to create. Unfortunately, the email address on her site did not work. Just as at the start of this very blog, I feel in the need of mentors.

I hope that later in the year, students will have their own blogs. I am chaffing at the bit to start them, but I am too new to this curriculum and this team to dive in with that right off the bat. As mentioned above, I need to do this right.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Living with Boxes, But Thinking About Blogs

Finally sort of settled despite the mounds of unpacked boxes. We have a broadband connection and access to a computer, so naturally my thoughts are turning to blogging.

In the forefront is whether or not I will be able to blog with my students this year. I've had tantalizing invitations from teachers in Canada, Malaysia and Singapore to connect into their student blogging projects. I want to leap in and say, "Yes!" to all of them, but first I need to find out what this district's policy is on student blogs-- and I need to figure out how to ask in a way that doesn't create roadblocks.

I also need to find out much more about my team's curriculum. From what my new team mate sent to me via e-mail, my almost entire day is spent teaming, and none of the groups are the same kids. That means my math group is a different collection of kids from my language arts group, and then the science group is probably in home rooms. Possibly I can tie it in with one of the departmentalized classes I will be teaching if there is access to the computer lab during that time slot. With the NCLB testing now being computerized, I've heard that there will be less access to the labs this year.

At this point, since I hate the thought of no blogging at all, and realistically individual student blogs probably couldn't take place until much later in the year, I may try to have a daily class blog much like Ms. Sanborn's class blog at Willowdale Elementary. The purposes would include the following
  • to introduce the students (and the building?) to blogging
  • to build in a reflective component into each day
  • to provide timely information to families
  • to help us to document our year together
  • to inform absent students about what they missed
I need to start thinking about what this would entail. I'd love to hear words of advice from other bloggers who've done this type of blogging with elementary students. I dearly wish I could buy a digital camera for class use with the blog. Maybe someday my money from Malaysia will finally arrive so I can do that!