Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Combining Blogging and Comprehension Toolkit

I've been using Heinneman's "Comprehension Toolkit" created by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis. It is really good stuff for really helping kids comprehend real texts. Then today I was reading Nancy McKeand's post of her reflections on blogging with students this year. She blogged with her middle school reading students about what they were reading. Made me realize how rich this could have been combining blogging with the Comprehension Toolkit. The toolkit does a good job of scaffolding gradual release of responsibility from the teacher to the students. This could be the step after the lessons. I love having kids comment on sticky notes, but I can never get around and conference with them enough to help them grow more. If they were blogging from their sticky notes, I could do that outside of class, saving the face-to-face follow ups for where they were really needed.

Yeah, I know, this isn't truly unique thinking on my part. But it is thoughts of how to build on the good and make it better, which is progress.

Now, I must get back to preparing for our shippers. They arrive Wednesday and we are far from ready.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Lessons Learned from our Wikis

Journal Wiki
I'm learning a great deal from the two student wikis we have in use. The first one is the journal wiki that I've written about before except its lack of change notification. I received a good suggestion from Diane P; she is making great use of Nicenet and suggested that it might meet my needs. I'll check it out if I can remember my old Nicenet user name and password.

Important Poems Wiki
Since my wonderful communications class has mastered every bit of technology that I've thrown at them, I decided to give wikis a try as well so that they would have the exposure and I could get a handle on how they worked so I could plan for their use next year.

Unlike our journal wikis which are private, our entire class can edit the poem wiki. At this point, that has proved to be more of a weakness than a strength...

We spent a few brief periods in the lab working on it last week. The index page of the wiki was to be a list of their names. Their names would be links to their pages where the poems would be. I had thought of creating the list of names myself, but I wanted them to have some experience with the CamelCase necessary to create links in the Moodle wiki (or at least, necessary when you are running such an old OS that you don't get the toolbar in edit mode).

The first problem arose on the second day when kids would click the edit button on the index page and make their changes. When they tried to save the changes, they were told the page was in use because other children were editing it at the same time. As I realized what was happening, I told them to all leave and I'd type the list. After I typed in all the names, I realized that one child had NOT logged out and so I hunted him down and had to type all the names again. Finally, all was working well.

This afternoon we were in the lab. Some children were commenting on each other's Important Poems in our Poem Wiki in Moodle. Other students were still trying to get their poems into the wiki. Unfortunately, this became impossible for a brief period. It all centered around one student. This poor kid had his computer crash last week when he was drafting the poems. As a result of the crash, his own computer didn't have the poems, but even after a restart all other computers claimed the couldn't access the file because it was in use. Fortunately, we used the Apple OS trick of opening a recent document and that pulled it up.

Today when we were back in the lab he was eager to get the poems onto the wiki where they would be safer. Unfortunately, he's not real big on reading or listening to directions and he managed to delete the index page of our wiki by pasting his poem over it. I tried using the wiki's revert to previous draft feature, but I couldn't get it working. I'll need to read up on it.

In any case, I asked everyone to once again get out of the index page. I retyped all the names. To my relief, the new list of names was linked to the children's poem pages. If that hadn't worked, I didn't know how to relink them.

A few minutes after all the links were restored, the poor kid's friend helped him to do the exact same thing AGAIN. His friend pasted the poem over the index page. It was a teachable moment as I showed them how to tell what page they were editing, and then I typed all the names again. Actually, a few of the names survived this second assault so I only had to retype half of them.

So, up to this point, the highly editible nature of wikis has been a hindrance to progress. However, I think that as we move ahead, they will master wikis and be able to respond to each other's writing even from the old computer lab where the forum module won't work correctly. In the future, I'd use one of the online wiki platforms that allow comments and provide a real-world audience. Until then, I'll probably get really quick at retyping.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Stupid Grade Book Tricks using Easy Grade Pro

I started the year using Makin the Grade as my grading program. Our district has a site license so I invested in the OS X platform version and began using it. In the past, I have always created my own grade books using Excel. I'd merge these into our report cards which were in MS Word. This worked better than what teachers had been doing before, but the spreadsheets always became complex enough that they had trouble merging correctly. We figured out tedious work arounds, and it was still quicker than working by hand, but it wasn't ideal.

My district uses an online report card system. Merging grades into it from Excel or any other program isn't an option, so I decided to use Makin the Grade. I tried it for a term, but it didn't fit me well and my middle-age eyes found it difficult to track across the screen.

A friend and colleague was also questioning whether it was the best program for him to use, so he did some research and settled on Easy Grade Pro. It has suited my work style and been much easier for me to read and to locate information.

All worked fine until yesterday when I printed out Almost End of the Term grade slips to help my students track their progress. Normally I print a summary of each category at the top and then include an itemized list of all missing assignments at the bottom. This time, the summary at the top would list X number of missing assignments, but then there would be nothing listed in the itemized section. I hadn't noticed this discrepancy, but a few of my astute students did.

It took me a while to track down the problem. In the assignment set up window, one of the settings had somehow been changed so that the assignments were supposed to be included in the scoring but excluded from reports. I have no memory of toggling on that setting, but once on, all new assignments carry that attribute until you choose a new one. Normally this is a useful feature-- as long as you are awake enough to notice what you are doing. Fortunately, my furniture ships to Singapore on the 31st. Hopefully after that I'll be a bit more aware of what I'm doing on the job.

There. That's probably far more than you wanted to know, but hopefully of use to someone.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Do You Have a Favorite Children's Book?

What's your favorite children's book (besides Harry Potter)? If you have a few minutes, please go to my new Vaestro channel and tell us about it.

Vaestro is a new, free, online service that lets anyone set up a channel where people can have an asynchronous voice discussion. You don't need to sign in or subscribe; to leave a comment, just go there and take part. All you need is a microphone. I just used the tiny pin hole microphone on my iBook and it worked quite well.

To add your comment, click on the reply button, then click the record button and start talking. Don't worry; you get to listen to your recording before it is posted. It is up to you to delete or approve it.

If you experience technical difficulties, anything from the site being blocked by your school's filters to the URL not working, please post me a comment here. I'm asking all of your to be my guinea pigs before I release the link to my students. Thanks for you assistance.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Arianna's Nutrition Expedition

I'm working on a nutrition unit with my fifth graders. My pre-testing showed that with a few exceptions, my students do not already know the information I plan to teach. The students who did score 15/20 points on the pretest had been playing around on my SchoolNotes page over the weekend and had already tried out many of the resources. I found it encouraging that students are voluntarily using the resources on my site even before I introduce them.

I started the unit by setting up a journal in Moodle in which students told me what they knew and wanted to know about nutrition. Next, they took a pre-test in Moodle. I adapted it from the pre-test provided in Arianna's Nutrition Expedition, a nutrition unit available online from the National Dairy Council. In the past, I've shied away from teaching materials from groups with a vested interest, but these resources are excellent, not merely an advertising venue for the council.

As they finished the pretest, they played the Blast Off! game I mentioned here to expose them to the ideas and information they will be learning. Next, we began using the lessons in Arianna's Nutrition Expedition. I found the lessons very age-appropriate. They held my students' interest and engaged them in thinking about the topics being taught. For example, after an adventure story that taught about the different food groups in the food pyramid, the students completed a worksheet in which they had to identify which foods were placed in the wrong groups. I heard students having good discussions with each other as they tried to figure out which foods were misplaced. After that, they responded to journal questions.

The final activity was to go to the lab and play the first of four online computer games that are part of the unit. We played Quintricious! First students had to use colored eye droppers to label each food to indicate the food group to which it belonged. Each pair of students were stumped by a few foods. Peanut butter was the trickiest overall-- many pairs of students had to try it in all of the wrong groups before figuring out it went in the meat group. This gave us a natural lead-in to helping them rename the group to the Meats, Beans and Nuts group. This will become clearer after we start discussing the nutrient basis for assigning foods to groups.

When the foods were all assigned to the correct group, the game took the students through three levels of a Tetris-style game where they matched up foods from the same food group. This part of the game was well-scaffolded. In level one, all the foods retained the color coding the students had given them. By level three, there were no clues as to what food group each food belongs.

I hope the worksheets and games continue to cause spontaneous, focused discussions occur. I tend to shy away from science worksheets in general because they tend to require such low level thinking, but these are doing just what they should. If you teach fourth or fifth grade and have a nutrition unit at your grade level, I hope you find these resources useful.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Different Flavors of Journals in Moodle

I last wrote that we were trying to use the assignment module as a tool for the ongoing journaling between each student and myself. I liked the privacy and that the text fields didn't become increasing narrow as the replies nested. Unfortunately, even when I selected the options for my comments to be in-line, it didn't work. My comments would not intersperse between their comments and the children found the whole venture very confusing.

Thankfully, pdzone left me a comment to my earlier post, suggesting I try the wiki module for my journals. I set it up with each student having their own wiki. The wikis are private; only the student and I can see or edit the wiki.

The students were glad we were abandoning the assignment-style journals and they loved the term wiki-wiki, so they were game to give it a try. Thus far, the wiki seem to be working. Students were a bit confused at first about how to add to the journal- the edit button wasn't an obvious choice, since in their minds, they weren't editing.

Students were also confused by what they saw after hitting the edit button. The cause of the problem is that to make the journals easier to read, I make my replies italic and blue-- the students are using an older web browser that doesn't give them formatting options. Since my text is formatted, when students click the edit button, my posts are encased in html coding. However, I showed them how to just click at the top of the edit box, add a few blank rows, and type their response, and they quickly adapted.

Our only real difficulty came last weekend when I went to make my first replies. I was using Firefox version It appears that this new version doesn't play well with the Moodle wiki. I could start new wikis using it, but if I tried to edit an existing wiki, my additions disappeared when I hit the save button. After a frustrating ten minutes, I thought to switch to Netscape. This solved the problem.

I am excited that the wiki option is working because it is quicker; I spend less time waiting for Moodle pages to load. It seems to meet all our needs and since the pages don't fill as quickly, I won't need to keep switching us to a fresh set up. This is important since my students want to continue journaling after the school year is over. I love the idea, but don't want to spend a lot of time on upkeep. Now the challenge is to see if edit notification is available via email or RSS.