Sunday, April 30, 2006

A Surprising Lack of Sophistication

Friday found my science classes in the good computer lab to take the pretest for our nutrition unit. With the remaining time, I had them play the My Pyramid BlastOff! game as a lead in to learning about the new food pyramid. It is one of the many resources available at the website.

The game challenges students to fuel a rocket ship by planning a day's worth of balanced nutrition and physical activity. I expected that my video game savvy fifth graders would see right through it and easily blast off to the planet. I was wrong! They were fueling the rocket with the cookies, sugary cereals and soda that they normally drink, and they were all losing the game. That made me like the game all the more.

One strength is that the initial screen gives them a few quick guidelines. It wasn't much reading, but a number of students blew right past it anyway. Next, like any good video game, it doesn't tell you everything. For example, the food pyramid that dominates the screen has a fuel gauge on each of the food groups. The directions don't mention that you have a balanced diet when all the fuel gauges are at full. After a few losses, my students started figuring that out.

When your rocket ship goes up in a cloud of smoke, you get a screen that shows which parts of your diet were balanced and which weren't. After losing the game, I noticed students actually stopping to pour over that page.

What I liked the most was that I couldn't get students to quit playing to go to lunch, and a number of them asked if I would give them credit for beating the game if they finished it at home and printed out the certificate. The one student who did successfully complete the game admitted that she had been on my SchoolNotes page earlier in the week. She'd seen the link and had played the game at home a few times. Gotta love that!

In any case, I think it was a good anticipatory set and with the carrot of getting to play the game at the end of the unit, I think their studies will seem more purposeful and be more focused. Not a bad payoff for 20 minutes at a website.

How Do They Do That?

Okay, maybe someone out there can explain this to me. It seems that almost any time I mention an online app or service in this blog, I receive a helpful comment from someone associated with the company. I love their responsiveness. I've often learned timely, helpful information from these commenters. My only question is, how do they know I wrote about them?

I know there are things like Trackback, but I thought the poster had to do something to invoke it. Are they Googling their name? Is Technorati that quick to pick up hits? To test that, I went to Technorati and typed in eMates, since that was something I posted on recently. However, it didn't pull up my post. I tried it with a few other terms and still no luck, so that isn't how it works.

If anyone does know how this works, let me know. I'm intrigued.

[Upate: I think I figured it out. I went to Google's blog search and entered the same terms and they pulled my blog up in the first few hits. Not surprising since my blog is at Blogger which is owned by Google. Smart strategy on the part of start-ups!]

Thursday, April 27, 2006

An Update

Arranging for my move to Singapore and keeping afloat at work are consuming every waking moment, which is why I've been posting so rarely. Here's an update.

For the past two weeks, when we weren't taking state tests, our time in the computer lab was spent writing DARE essays. For my communications class, I once again used Moodle to give students feedback. As before, it seemed to be an effective conferencing tool for my students and keep my from lugging piles of essays back and forth each night.

Starting next week, the NCLB testing will monopolize our computer lab completely, so this week we put a burst of energy into our blogs. On Monday I was out sick. I lifted my blogging lesson for the reserve teacher directly from Clarence Fisher's blog post on Supporting Discourse. As usual, a few kids were completely untouched and are showing no change in their commenting. However, a number of them are trying out the comment starters that Clarence found on Anne Davis' blog. For most of them, it still sounds a bit awkward. However, I am a firm believer in honoring approximations as students develop new skills. Hopefully they will soon own these new tools.

I've been streaking with the software side of things. The Superglu page I set up to make a one-stop link to our blogs is finally behaving. I quit making changes, so I assume it was technical difficulties with their servers. Now I'm struggling with Blogmeister. Some of the time, I receive email letters with comments to approve. When I click on the link to approve them, instead of a window popping open in my web browser that announces, "Comment Approved!", I get the message that no record exists. I'm getting a fairly high number of these. They never have a name with them, so I can't tell if it is one of our own students or one of our visitors. Luckily, the comment is visible in the email, so I show that to my students.

Final challenge at the moment is to find a painless way to track student blog posts through the writing process. In the past, I taught a number of courses at Hamline University. Participation in online forums via Blackboard was a mandatory part of the course. Since I found myself tracking those from home, school, and on campus, I set up a database in my PDA. Each student was a record. Each assignment was a field. The system worked well.

Since then, the software I used has gone out of business. I thought of using an Excel spreadsheet so I could mail merge it with a report card, but my Quickoffice never installed correctly and the company refused to help. I thought of using one of the nifty, free online web app creation tools, such as ZohoCreator. I still might go that route, especially if I can download the data in some friendly format. Or, I might use the free Mobile DB program on my PDA, even though it won't play nicely with anything on my desktop. One thing is for sure. I won't be toting a piece of paper as a checklist. With my impending move, there are already far too many of those little papers in my life.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Kindness of Strangers

One of the things I most appreciate about edubloggers as a whole is their kindness. This kindness translates into a willingness to share of their knowledge and time.

This was demonstrated to me again this week as our student blogs took off. I posted a short notice in the ClassBlogmeister discussion group announcing our blogs and asking for teachers and classes to stop by -- especially those who could model good commenting, since some of my students are STILL stuck in the chat room genre of commenting.

Within minutes of my post, two teachers had already gone in and left a few comments. Soon other teachers contacted me. One is going to have her middle school students visit. A fourth grade teacher added our blogs to their list of blogs to visit.

As always, these first comments had an electrical effect on my bloggers. They knew all along that their work would be on the Internet. As a result, many of them have spent more time than usual on revising and editing. However, it wasn't until they were reading comments from people in California and Italy that it really clicked for them. This is not just some assignment. This is real. Real people are reading and responding to what they have written.

Here's where I could get all sappy about the power of the pen, the importance of real world applications, the empowering effect of the red/write web. I'll spare you that, even though it all has me beaming. I'll just say that you for the kindness of edubloggers.

KWL via Moodle

I often use KWL charts at the start of a new unit to assess both what the students already know and what they want to learn. As I prepare our next health unit, I decided to use the journal module in Moodle rather than have them write their KWL on paper.

To my surprise, I seemed to get longer responses from them than I usually get on paper. This is especially surprising because the students who are not in my communications class have not spent much time keyboarding this year so their typing is a bit laborious. For most students, the spelling was highly inaccurate and a number of words were left out completely-- a sure sign that they aren't rereading what they write. I know that is typical of children, but I wish I had ideas on how to get them to reread-- ideas that do not involve lower grades or some other punishment. Ultimately, I don't want them to edit their work to get a good grade; I want them to edit their work because poor mechanics make it more difficult for their readers to understand the writer's message.

Using the journal module worked well because it is private- students can only see their own entry, no one else's, and because I can read all of the responses from one page rather than needing to click on each message as I must do in a forum or assignment module. I wonder what module I should have used so that they could add their "What I learned" section after the unit; journals only allow one entry from the student.