Tuesday, May 29, 2012

My Own Journey into the world of PLNs

"PLN" has been a buzzword for a while now.  I myself first heard the term right before school started this past year at a local conference.  It didn't really have much meaning for me at the time, and the idea of having my own "Personal Learning Network" seemed overwhelming--I already was very busy (aren't we all, as teachers?) and couldn't imagine fitting something else into my schedule.  That changed, though, when Miriam and I started writing Pomegranate Beginnings in January.

The blog's name ended up being a lot more meaningful than I realized at the time.  The pomegranate is associated with rebirth and fertility in many cultures, and seemed fitting--we were planning to use the blog as a way to share our ideas, experiences, and experiments with other teachers and hoped not only to offer help but to receive comments and critiques in return: a way to improve and innovate in collaboration with educators from all over the world.  Or at least with our friends, who would read the blog out of pity, if nothing else.

However, the symbolism has gone further in the short five months since we began.  Pomegranate Beginnings has become a true representation of the fruit, and Miriam and I are willing Persephones, who tasted of the seeds and have found ourselves in a new home.

Dramatic metaphor aside, the blog really has been a doorway for us into the amazing and endless support system available online.  In terms of my own personal experience, it was in my attempts to build the blog and find a forum for the blog that I began to discover the power of online learning.

Most of us have attended great conferences, full of great people who have great ideas, where we spend hours not only attending sessions that help us focus our attention on methodologies, activities, and research, but talking, really talking with others and expanding concepts that might have just been a flitter otherwise.  For me, the conversations are the best part of conferences, the places where I honestly learn the most.  It's instantaneous idea transfer, innovation and feedback, in a pure format that a formal session just can't replicate.

On the internet, on Twitter, Google+, and some other sources, those kinds of conversations are taking place.  They're taking place right now, and I'm taking part in a couple as I type this post.  That's the power of a Personal Learning Network.  It's personal.  I have chosen people to be part of my network whom I respect and want to learn from, who have great ideas, know new and useful (and free) tech, and/or can offer me viewpoints I haven't yet considered.  Some of my connections are Latin teachers, some are language teachers, some are teachers of other subjects, and some aren't teachers at all, but they still teach me things.

PLN for the Beginner: Watch and Learn

You don't have to write a blog to build a Personal Learning Network.  You don't have to write anything to build a PLN.  You can simply find people who write things you find useful and read their stuff.  The best part?  If you don't have spare time, you don't have to participate.  Choose a few blogs to read, some great people to follow on Twitter, and call it good!  Get online when you have a moment, see what people have to say, check out a few ideas, and move on.  

Gathering Blogs
Since you're reading this, it means you probably already have started doing this.  This is where I began.  I read a few other blogs regularly, and I can be a fickle blog reader--if I don't feel like I'm getting my time's worth, I'll stop reading a blog quickly.  Because, like you, I don't have huge amounts of time on my hands.  

Some EduBlogs I currently read that are aimed at educators in general:
  1. Hack Education: Audrey Watters writes honestly and helpfully about all kinds of educational technology and educational technology concerns.
  2. Educational Technology Guy: This is not as thorough as Hack Education, but it is prolific.  Once in a while it has something I'm interested in.
  3. SpeEdChange: Some very thought-provoking ideas here that keep you mindful of how many different types of learners and learning there are.
  4. The Nerdy Teacher: Often uses free technology and always offers new ideas.
Of course, I also follow blogs that are specific to my subject area, such as The Everyday Language Learner and techna virumque cano.

The most surprising thing I found in my beginning PLN was how useful Twitter is.  I originally opened an account because I was told it was a good way to promote our blog, and since I wanted interaction enough to make the blog useful, I did what I was told.  
Then I did some research.

I learned how to effectively use hashtags and which hashtags were worth following as an educator (my favorites are #edchat, #edtech, #langchat, and #latinteach).  I found a couple of Latin teachers to follow via the traditional search.  Then I got clever (not especially clever, just cleverer than I was before) and looked to see who those people were following.  I grabbed several people that way, and soon had around 30 people to follow on my Twitter feed.  That will seem like very few to some of you, and a lot to others.  It was a great starting place for me.  

I still only follow 76 people, but I find my 76 people post useful information to my feed: links to new tech, articles over methodology, Latin facts I could use in class, etc.  I have custom-built a resource, and have a constant stream of useful information that I only have to tap into when I feel ready.

More Advanced PLNing (yes, it's a verb now)

Of course, I am not very good at just watching and not participating.  I was the annoying kid in school that always raised her hand when the teacher asked "Does anyone have any questions?" (though in college I learned to let my questions wait until after class).  I like being part of a discussion.

The easiest way to join the discussion is to, well, join!  Comment on people's blog posts (that's how I got the incredible chance to write a guest post on Aaron Myer's blog!), tweet great articles you read or cool resources you find that you think other teachers might appreciate.  Chances are, we do appreciate the things you have to share.  At the very least, there won't be any pointing and laughing in the digital world.

Okay, you've heard the hype.  There is an amazing anti-Google+ publicity campaign out there, generally accusing G+ of having no users.  There are also 4 million plus users who generally pass the publicity around and laugh at it (fine, some pointing and laughing happens in the digital world, but not at teachers sharing information and resources).  

The real deal about Google+ is that it is not another Facebook.  That's what makes it so valuable.  It's something between a blog and a social network, and if you choose your "circles" (a.k.a. groups of friends) wisely, you can spark conversations that are as addictive as they are informative.  

Like Twitter, you don't have to be a contributor to get something out of Google+.  Just choose people to follow who write about things that interest you and read what they have to say.  Or read what others say to them.  I grew my G+ network by friending ("circling"?) one person (a Latin teacher) and then friending people who made intelligent comments on her posts.  Again, you have control over your information flow here, and if I don't like what someone posts, or they post too many things that don't interest me, I don't have to continue following that person.

However, I would recommend posting there.  The possibility for real conversation is probably largest in the Google+ community because of its unique format (and because you aren't limited to 140 characters).  You can set up your groups of friends ("circles") wisely and choose who can see each post.  I generally make mine public--because I want open discussion--except personal things like pictures of my son (which I limit to my circle of "friends and family").

Other PLN Sources
Twitter, blogs, and Google+ are my three top must-have picks for building a PLN.  That said, there are several other possible sources and resources out there.  I have already posted about using Pinterest, and I also have created a scoop.it account where I follow the posts of other teachers and curate my own topic.  Miriam has posted about using Diigo and I have played around with Storify as well. 

Most importantly, find things that help you and help you learn.  This year I have had the most rich learning experience I have ever known as a teacher--I am constantly being fed a near-plethora of ideas and tools.  My hope in sharing this information is that others can find something similar.  Feel free to comment, ask questions, or recommend other resources!  I am always glad to learn something new.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Join us: The Google phenomenon -- Google Basics

I have wanted to do a post on Google for a long time. I remember way back when the concept of a computer was a large (twice my size at 6 years old - or so it seemed) screen and hard drive with keyboard, and mouse, and speakers. I also remember the old Apple computers that required 3 1/2 inch floppy disks. Technology certainly has come a long way since then, but it can still be intimidating. It wasn't until my fiancee sat me down and showed me what Google could do that I began to really feel comfortable collaborating, archiving, and +1-ing things. Since then, I use Google for almost everything: my website, my calendar, my email, my pictures, social networking, basic research, music, and e-books.

Now, before you call me a lemming (insert grin here), let me make my case.

There are plenty of reasons to like Google or the products associated with it, but here are my top five:

1. Ease of access -- Unlike programs downloaded to a computer, I can save my work anywhere and access it anywhere. Any document I create on the Drive is easily accessible from another computer in another place. When using Chrome, I can log in and access my bookmarks on any computer with Chrome. On any Google site, I have access to the tool bar on top, which connects me to my email, pictures, documents, videos, music, maps, calendar, and (was there ever a doubt) search tools. Furthermore, I have apps on my Android phone for all my Google products. I can access it all on my phone, making it really easy to double check things really quickly or keep track of notes/ideas.

 2. Universality -- Even if you don't have Chrome, Google products are incredibly easy to access and you can still see the toolbar on Google sites. Unfortunately, however, it won't always work as flawlessly as it does with Chrome. Documents on the Drive can be downloaded in a variety of styles like PDF, word, txt, etc. (although not with Apple products) and these files can all be uploaded to the Drive as well. My email and Drive talk to each other and I can open an email attachment in the Drive to edit and save it; and everything talks to my phone, where it is also completely compatible.

3. It fits all aspects of my life -- I use Google for just about everything. I have a work gmail, a home gmail, and a couponing gmail (yes, I'm one of those). I can link all my accounts so that, instead of having to check 3 emails every hour, I have one email open and all three show up. I also have my Junior Classical League email accounts on gmail. It is really easy to access them without connecting them to my own email accounts. I don't have to log out, I can access them through the profile menu (see picture to the right). The downside, however, is that this feature is only available for email. If you want to access another accounts pictures, or documents, you have to log out and log back in. I rarely do this, but when I do, it can be a bit annoying, although easily fixable.

4. It's a fairly decent search engine -- Google doesn't simply look for webpages with the words you search. It has a method of ranking pages from most to least important and relevant. You can put search parameters on that include only showing images that are available to share or use freely. You can also preview websites before you click on them. I am not an expert on using search engines (I am more comfortable using a card catalogue in a library), but you can look at this nifty infographic on getting the most out of your Google search.

5. It's free -- Every Google product that I use is free. Free for my computer, free to access anywhere, free for my phone. I have not paid for anything, save music that I've downloaded on Google Play. Often times, when we get free things, they are difficult to use, or lacking in uses. This is not the case with Google. In addition to the basics, Google offers maps, sky maps, hangouts and voice, news, chat, groups, and much more!

These are the basics, that is why I believe Google is a great tool for teachers and why I intend to continue using it, of Google. Over the coming weeks, I will be blogging on some of my favourite tools: Drive, Calendar, Google Sky, Google Plus, and Voice. I have used all of these either in class, for research, or collaboration for teaching. Check out this neat infographic on how to use Google's products with Bloom's Taxonomy!

So, another plea for comments! Let me know what you want to know about Google. It can be something you want me to answer in one of my posts about the above products, or it can be a product you want me to play with and make a post on.

Next post: Google Drive

See you then!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fighting the -itis: a look at review games

The time of year from the beginning of April through the last day of school can be major crunch time for Latin teachers, or any foreign language teacher. Final exams must be written and revised, year-end paper work piles up, and phone calls to parents must be made. Many teachers assign final projects, assignments, or tests in those final weeks. Students get tired, irritable (well we all do), and willing to do anything to bump that grade up a few points. Even in my two and a half years teaching, this pattern has been easy to pick up on and easy to become a part of. This year, I wanted to do something different. We spent 3 weeks prior to the last two weeks of school doing Project Based Learning (which I plan to post on after some more experiments) and the last two weeks reviewing. In this post, I plan to lay out some very basic, yet completely customisable review games as well as my rating of each. Some schools have already let out, some (like mine) have one week left, and some have a few weeks left. I hope that, either way, you find some things you can use and I'd love to get some ideas from you as well!

  1. Progressus -- This game was introduced to me by my father, Bob Patrick, although I am not certain if it is his originally. The rules are fairly simple. The goal is to get all students into the "safe zone" which you designate in the classroom. Each student gets asked a question. If the student gets it right, they go into the safe zone where they wait. If they get it wrong, the question is asked of the safe zone. Those students not in the safe zone do not get to collaborate and mus answer on their own. Students in the safe zone are allowed time to collaborate (I give 20 seconds). If they get it right, they are safe. If they get it wrong, they go back to their seats and must earn space in the safe zone again. I have found that many students really enjoy this game. They get exposure to many questions in one class period without a lecture or simply filling out a review sheet. They can see what other students know, learn from them, and are often surprised and just want they do know themselves. The game can go on a whole period (and often does), but if you offer an incentive and let kids know the day before, most of the time they will review and come prepared. I don't like this game for every chapter test, but I do enjoy it for a cumulative review. 
  2. Speed Dating -- I learned this game from this website. I love many of the games and ideas this website has to offer and I encourage you to give it a look! I am able to adapt most of the activities to a spoken method classroom as well. In this game, you have students fill out a time card. One person for each time slot (I do 1 pm- 8 pm). I often require that they never use the same person more than once except in odd circumstances. The teacher calls out a time and students move to that partner. The teacher asks two questions with time to answer between each one (I give two minutes). I like this activity because it gets the kids moving and talking to people they normally would not. Students bounce ideas off each other, ask each other questions, and work together to get the answer. You can simply do this as a review or collect it for a grade. I have found that most students enjoy this game, but those who prefer a passive role in the classroom will complain about moving or working with people they don't like. This game takes the whole period, but you can review a lot of material in that time. 
  3. Mala Malis -- The lovely Rachel Ash made Apples to Apples for Latin and I took the time this year to print out the cards and use it to review vocabulary for my kids. Next year, I plan to let my kids make their own decks as an assignment to review vocabulary from the previous year. The rules are the same for basic Apples to Apples. Each player gets 5-7 red cards (which all have vocabulary on them). One person chooses a green card (with another word on it) and the other players put down cards they think make the best, funniest, most logical, etc connection to the green card. The person who chose the green card, chooses their favourite and a new leader is chosen and a point given. This game give the students an opportunity to make their own connections to vocabulary and imagine new uses for words. It gets them thinking. I like to use this game in stations where students rotate and play many games in one class period. I have yet to find a student who does not enjoy Apples to Apples... in Latin or English.
  4. Jeopardy -- This is often the go to for teachers doing review. Most students recognise the game and can easily follow along. You can do a variety of questions and it includes a "betting" aspect which makes the game more interesting. I rarely use this game. Some students want to play the game just as they do on TV and argue with students who don't answer in question format. Some students argue about how many points one can "bet", etc. For me, there are too many places where students can get upset over minor details. Set-up can take a while too: choosing teams or choosing students to go first, etc. I enjoy being able to put questions into categories, but find it difficult to to make them harder and harder each step without overdoing it or underdoing it.
  5. Volo/Nolo -- This game came from a website that Rachel Ash led me to. I like that this game comes with cards and instructions already to go. The game was easy to play and the students really enjoyed it. For upper level courses, I changed the "volo/nolo" part to a "spero/dico". This way they had to practice indirect statements. I'd love to see other versions of this game that practice sentence construction in a controlled way!
  6. Simple Silly Sentences -- This game is also from this same website. While students also enjoyed this game, many found the directions a bit hard to follow. That being said, it was easy to explain and once they understood it, they really enjoyed it. This game is really easy to modify for upper levels, and since it includes animals, the kids really enjoyed making the sentences and getting the points.
  7. Vocabulary Boggle -- This is a game that I got from Patrick Yaggy. Very similar to the idea of Boggle, this game review vocabulary and, like Mala Malis, gets kids thinking about ways vocabulary words are used and how vocabulary words go together. Students are put into groups and the teacher chooses the vocabulary list. Students are given a set time (I give 5 minutes) to place words into categories (i.g. Dinner cena, vinum, cibum, mensa, triclinium). After this, students compare lists in the group and for each unique word and category, students get points. I find that it challenges students to start thinking about how words play off each other. They want to beat their group mates, so they get creative with their categories. 
This is not, by any means, a complete list. These games are the ones that I used this year and have used most often. I fully recommend that you check out the links listed. They are very cool websites with lots of ideas! I find that these seven games are very easy to play with all levels and every level can get some sort of review out of it.
So, I'd like to ask you for some feedback here (shameless begging really). Did you have a different experience with these games? Are there games not listed here that should be? I am always looking for new ideas and I'd love to feature some of your suggestions too!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Beating the End-of-Year Doldrums with Video

We all feel it.  It's the end of the school year.  The high school I work for is testing for the next week, and then it's finals, and then it's, well, over.  The teachers and students are really just counting down the days and ticking off the minutes until that final bell rings and we can all do a little resting.

As much as I love teaching, I pour so much energy into my profession and work so many hours in a week that once summer comes, I am very, very ready for it.  Not that I'll stop working in the summer, but I'll at least get to tone it down.  And stop the 5:30 AM wake-up call.

So at a time of year when all of us, student and teacher alike, are having to force a facade of energy and eagerness, I like to introduce a video project.

Video has come a long way in the nine years I've been teaching.  VHS was the main modus operandi for my students when I started, and editing video was a complicated process involving multiple VCRs and wires, and which degraded the quality of the picture with every copy.  I usually had to help my students edit the video because it was something I had done often in college (I had two VCRs simply for that purpose) and not something they had felt the need to do before.  When I started doing video projects in my classes, it was neat, and rare, and really hard to accomplish.  Now making a video is as easy as turning on a cellphone and many computers come with video editing software already packaged in them.

The video project has enlivened my students.  Comparing last week, with its half-dead eyes (to be fair, we had a performance final to prepare for and take, so it was not an exciting week anyway) and barely-concealed sighs, to this week, with laughter and natural activity abundant, is like comparing Saltines to chocolate truffles.  And they're doing basically the same thing (composing in Latin).  The difference is the method of assessment.

Students have choice in this project.  I am not yet ready to relinquish control and leave the project destination open-ended with only a couple of requirements (though Nicholas Provenzano makes a great argument for doing so here), but I really value the chance to see my students shape their own expression for a story we've discussed in class.  I hand out a rubric, discuss it with them, and then let them go--usually with exciting results.  I check in with my students constantly, roaming around the room, answering questions, and offering direction if they are having a hard time figuring out their focus.

That said, the basic concept of the project is simple: write a script (in Latin) for a video about either a myth or historical story we discussed this year in class.  I have videos ranging from simple to complex.  I have videos that evince a strong love for cinematography and acting.  I have videos that have surprised me--students who have spent the year coasting suddenly have come to life for this project.

Students get to create something in this project.  The end goal is not some essay students didn't care about written on a piece of paper.  The goal is a video, a product, that has the potential to become something students are proud of and want to show off.  I hope some day to collect videos into a library of simple Latin stories--but for now, I have at least one video I can offer as an example:

This has been a great way to review Latin (we'll do a more formal review next week) and at the same time just have fun with Latin.

What are some ways you've used video in your classes?  I think I want to include more next year and always appreciate inspiration.