Saturday, November 18, 2006

Kidpixing in their Zone of Proximal Development

Two weeks ago I had the good fun of introducing (or reviewing) all the main tools in Kidpix to my third grade classes. I felt like Santa Claus as they oohed and ahhed over each new tool.

This week, they needed to use those tools to create an illustration. Exactly what they needed to create varied by class. Some teachers wanted them to create an illustration for a story they typed. Others wanted a picture of something from their assembly. Still others were creating cards.

In all cases, I told the kids that this was a graphic art and design unit, so we weren't going to use the stickers, stamps, animations and backgrounds that are already in Kidpix. Those are off limits because they are now learning to create their own.

The assignment was challenging. They've been using Kidpix for years, but relying on those ready-made elements. This pushed them to really get to know the tools, to experiment with different sizes of lines, different brushes and textures.

Most kids were frustrated. Give them a crayon or a marker and they could have translated their idea to paper in 15 minutes. Here they worked for 30 minutes and most were just starting to find their way by the end of the session. However, I could tell they were in their Zone of Proximal Development because they weren't quiting. It was tough, but it was an interesting challenge.

I was pleased to see a number of things.
  1. Few children were erasing the entire picture if their was one mistake-- they were able to use the small erasers and make revisions.
  2. They are starting to make efficient use of the tools, such as using the fill buckets to fill large areas rather than coloring it all by hand.
  3. They are exploring and refining their skills. I watched them figuring out and then staying with the most effective line sizes, types of media, etc.
  4. They are learning from each other. One child used the pattern fill bucket to create a design on a person's shirt. Soon we had patterned carpets, buildings, etc.
  5. Very few gave up or were so distracted by the bells and whistles in KidPix that they couldn't stay on task.
We should finish up the pictures this week. I think we need to follow up with another assignment that is "same same but different" as they say in Thailand.

Wikis + Webquests = Perfect Union?

I was replying to a post on the EdTech listserv the other day, when I came up with an idea I like... why not make Webquests using a wiki?

For those of you who teach teachers to create web quests, it gives you a lot more bang for your buck because you are helping them become familiar with wikis while also creating web quests. Your students (and you) will be able to comment on each other's works in progress. And they will see each other's works which may raise the over all level of quality as one good idea leads to another. It would also support teachers working together on the same web quest if you offer that option.

You could create a class wiki and within that create a page for that term. All your students could create a link on that term page to their own web quest wiki, giving your class a one-stop place from which to reach each others' wikis-in-progress.

At the end of the term, you could have them place a link to their wiki on a category page in your wiki (e.g. Science Webquests, Elementary Math Webquests). This would give you an ever-growing library of examples for future classes to explore and build upon.

I think the teachers should create their own wikis (especially since Wikispaces gives teachers free, ad-free) wikis rather than make each of theirs an actual part of your class wiki. That way, they have their own wiki when the class is over. They can continue to add to it, use it with their students, etc.

There is a lot to be said for adding web quests to some of the repositories already in existence, but if you don't do that with your classes, try this-- and let me know how it worked, since I'm not teaching any college courses this year.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

No More WebGenies; Welcome the WebMonkies!

Tonight I was actually using the HTML tags that I've been teaching the kids. I was creating a survey in Zoomerang and using the tags to format the text and lists.

Unfortunately, the font was being dodgy. The title was in a different font than the rest of the page, so I decided to go into WebGenies (which I wrote about earlier this week) to find the tag for setting the font.

Imagine my horror when I received this message...

After 5 years WebGenies: Website Design for Kids has now closed. Thank you to all those people who emailed to say they found it useful.

For excellent information on website design for kids please see WebMonkey for kids

Talk about bad timing! Fortunately, the WebMonkey site is excellent and it even goes into a much more detailed explanation of tables, which I know my students will need to help them with layout.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

"Web Page Success!" or "Why I Love Teaching Fourth and Fifth Graders"

A big thanks to everyone who commented on my idea of teaching my students to write HTML code rather than using FrontPage to create their student web sites. I appreciate your insights.

Based on your feedback, I have decided to go ahead and teach my fourth and fifth graders how to code their own pages. We may eventually switch back to FrontPage, but for now we are working in Wordpad and previewing in Internet Explorer (because that is the only browser we HAVE.)

I am using a site called WebGenies as the backbone of my lessons. Thus far, it is written at just the right level, or rather, it is in their Zone of Proximal Development, which is just what I want.

In lesson 2 it gives them guidelines for designing their site. After reading those, students fired up Inspiration and began to develop their web plan. For now, those plans are long on ideas and short on actual content, but at least the students have begun thinking.

Next, we jumped ahead to lessons 6-8 which introduce HTML, first the idea, and then the actual tags. It steps them through coding a really simple web page.

I do a lot of modeling. For example, today I showed them how to line up two different windows on their desktop so that they can see the directions and their code at the same time. I modeled right-clicking on their index.html file so they can "open with" Wordpad and Internet Explorer. I modeled typing the opening and closing tags for a section first, and then clicking between them to insert content. Most importantly, I modeled the repeated process of re-saving the Wordpad document and then refreshing their browser window so they can view changes.

I figure this first page is the most difficult because they need to get their brains around the idea of a computer language, of tags, of opening and closing tags. To my delight, they are getting it.

I worried that these tech savvy kids would be underwhelmed by their efforts to code, since most have already used FrontPage to some degree and they all visit complicated sites on the web. Thus far my fears were unfounded.

My hopes that because coding is a constructive, generative process, that the children would see the value and experience success have proven accurate. The class sessions are full of Ahas! In typical nine-and-ten-year-old fashion, cries of "Yes! I rock!" can be heard when they first view their very simple page in Internet Explorer. I've seen a few happy dances and a great many broad smiles of self-delight.

One fifth grader took an after school class last year that involved coding web pages. She remembers a bit of it and is already one of our "experts". In general, I am delighted that kids are starting to develop a playful, "I wonder what happens if I do this?" attitude, which is just what is needed, both in this activity and in life. Many of our students, especially our Asian students, are afraid to take risks so I rejoice to see them boldly tweaking tags and quickly refreshing their browser to see the results.

The class sessions fly by because I am so busy. We are just starting to grow our own experts so for now, I am in big demand. I worried that the kids would get frustrated waiting for me, but many of them have said as they walked out, "Class was short today" or "Was that really 45 minutes?"

Our next lesson helps us spice up our page with formatting tags such as bold, italic and color. After that, we need to go back to planning, figuring out the navigation links they need on each page and on the home page. We'll also learn how to create a template so that they aren't coding each page from scratch. I am thinking I should create a few resources on the server as well, such as writing the code for a basic table so that they can copy that and paste it in. I'd rather have them tweak that code than spend days creating their own from scratch. I only get to work with them once per week, and this is one project that their teachers won't be able to work on outside of class, at least not until we have a few more student experts.

[UPDATE: The WebGenies site just closed! Fortunately, they recommend using WebMonkey which is another excellent resource.]

Kayaking for Airfares
I'm 0-2 so far with travel agents here in Singapore. We used one agent for our Depavali trip and he messed up costing us a bunch. I used a different agent to book my trip back to the USA for Christmas. I booked back in August. Due to some lack of communication between Northwest Airlines and my agent, my ticket has now doubled in price. I am not amused.

And so, I spent a chunk of time online tonight to see if I could find replacement airfare. In the process I learned three things...

1. Many of the discount airfare sites such as Travelocity and Orbitz can only book flights originating in the USA.
2. As bad as the new price for my ticket is, my travel agent was quoting me the cheapest current price.
3. finds the most flights at the best prices.

Kayak is an interesting site. It really is a meta search engine. It checked over 300 airlines. It found far more flights from far more carriers than the other flight search engines I tried, and I tried a bunch of them. It found prices as cheap as the carriers' web sites which usually boast that they have the cheapest flights. Kayak's price quotes include all airport taxes.

I hope you never find yourself in my position. But if you do, check, Kayak. They also book hotels and rental cars.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Protect Your Creativity and Share Your Ideas and Work

Wonderful Creative Commons has made it even easier to license your work. In the past, copyright was your only way to protect your work. Now there is Creative Commons which is free and much more flexible. The licenses run the full range from almost total protect under copyright to total permission of Public Domain, and everything in-between. It applies to all types of creative work including audio, video, images, text and educational materials. To get a feel for it, scroll down to see the nifty new Creative Commons banner in my sidebar. Click on it and you can see the license I've placed on this blog.

I love the idea of Creative Commons because I believe the increasingly restrictive copyright laws in the US are stiffling creativity and the movement of ideas. However, I've also watched as generous educators freely shared their work online, only to have it picked up and sold commercially by unscrupulous companies who provide no support to the original author. Creative Commons allows you to prevent that type of abuse, or at least gives you recourse if it occurs.

I also love Creative Commons because it allows me to bring my students to places like Flickr and use Flickr's Creative Commons search section to find images that we absolutely, positively have permission to use, and it makes it easy for us to give the creator credit for their work.

To add a spiffy Creative Commons license and banner to your blog, wiki or other creative work, the Creative Commons website has a really easy to use tool to create your own license. It asks you questions, and then based on your responses creates your license and spits out the code so you can add it to your blog or wiki.

To add the banner and link to your blog or wiki, you do need access to your blog or wiki's code (e.g. In Blogger, I go to my Dashboard and click on the template tab.) Alternately, you can save the banner as a graphic, and just upload it to your blog or wiki and then make that image a link back to the Creative Commons license of your choice on the Creative Commons website. I had to take that route on my WikiPlaces project. All Wetpaint wikis are protected under a Creative Commons license, but I wanted it to be visible on my wiki so I added it that way.

And as long as we are talking about Creative Commons, it is their annual fundraising time. If you are so inspired, you can support them financially. You can also support them by spreading the word. They have this nifty banner on their web site to help you do that.

Google has added Jotspot to its Web 2.0 Empire

Google has acquired Jotspot, so now Google has a wiki as part of it's Web 2.0 empire. Jotspot is not accepting new users as it migrates to Google, but you can leave your address at Jotspot's old home page and they will recontact you when it opens. I read notice about it today (which now I can't find it so I can provide a linktation to it) that said the wikis would be free. However, I'm betting they won't be Google Ad-free.