[I’ll be posting in the future about how smartphones are changing what it means to teach and learn, and in particular, assess, in this day and age – but for now, I’m taking a purely selfish standpoint and posting on apps that have made my life as a teacher easier, more organised and streamlined.]

There are a whole bunch of resources floating around on the internets reviewing and suggesting various apps for smartphones and tablets – but, most of these a geared towards the students. Spelling apps, times-tables apps, cartoon creation apps etcetc.

What about us poor old teachers ay? Where is our app-love?

Do not fear, ye rabble of educators. Salvation is but a finger swipe away.

Here are a couple of apps I’ve personally found to have been helpful; to keep me organised, connected, up-to-date, and sane.

I’m coming from the perspective of an Android user, but I’m sure there are exactly the same, if not comprable app choices on other platforms. Another disclaimer – this is just a couple I’ve found handy, not the be-all-and-end-all list of TOP TEN APPS FOR EDUCATION which I see so often. Please leave a comment if you have any others we could add to the list!

Here is the tl;dr:
Llama, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Tasks, Google Translate, Google Currents,  Maps, Gmail, Blogger, Chrome, Dropbox, Evernote, Vimeo, Flickr, Soundcloud, Socrative, MaharaDroid, Where’s My Droid, Redditsync, Backgrounds HD Wallpapers.

EDIT: From @phpnz, who suggested a few more in the comments (thanks Pascale!):

Hi-Q MP3 (audio recorder)Audioboo (audio recorder)Skitch (picture annotation), Hika lite (Te Reo / English translation), Pocket (save and view articles to read – “all interesting URLs in one place)

Below is a more in-depth look into some of these apps – how they can be useful for teachers, save us time, keep us organised, and help us do our job better.

I’ll start with my favourite, then Googley ones, then the rest:

Llama
This little app has been so, so handy. It allows you to set phone profiles based on different parameters – the two I use are location and time parameters. I have mine set up so that when I get to school, it automatically changes the ringtones for my email, text, and calls. When I leave school, it ups the volume and changes them back to my regular ones (The Flight of the Conchords series theme song!). At 10:00 at night, it mutes my phone completely (with the exception of people in my “family” list). At 7:00am, it reverts to normal. When I get to school, it goes back to “school-mode”. It does it’s job – saves me time, and makes life easier. Fantastically fantastic app.

Google Drive (+widget)

Google Drive widget for Android

The widget for this app is particularly epic (see screenshot). Instant access to anything uploaded or created within your Google Drive suite of apps (docs, draw, presentations, forms, spreadsheets etc). Most useful for accessing starred docs, especially planning or student lists etc. Can access photo upload and doc creation from the widget too – good for snapping evidence of learning and note-taking on the fly.

Google Calendar
This is the official app, just released a few months ago. Before that, we had to make do with less-optimised calendar alternatives, none of which I found particularly intuitive. This app helped me finally ditch my last bastion of physical writing – my mighty Moleskine diary, which is now sitting alone and derelict in a drawer somewhere. I’ve got my personal gmail account set up in this, as well as my school one – and it displays both together. I make sure I create school-based meetings and events using my school account, and personal appointments on my personal account. That way, other teachers at school can see when I’m meeting with a parent, or have a PRT day, but not when I’m getting my hair permed. Like the web-based version, you can add other people’s calendars – so I’ve done that with all my fellow teachers at school. This really helps to flesh out all the extra stuff going on around school and to keep me up to date with comings and goings.

Google Reader
I talked a bit about the awesomeness of an RSS feed in this here Ignite talk. This is the app I use to access mine on the go. It could be a little more user friendly, but it works pretty well. Google Reader is only as strong as the blogs you’ve subscribed to though, so get out there and start exploring the edu-blogosphere.

Google Tasks To-Do List

Google Tasks
I was on the hunt for a decent to-do list which synced between devices and browsers, and this was it. I can add an item from any device / browser and have it sync across all others. I use the Google Tasks Chrome extension on my laptops too, and to add an item, click a little button at the top and voilà!  – it appears on my smartphone. Vise-versa with smartphone to Chrome. Actually I lied when I said my Moleskine was my last bastion of writing – it was actually the humble supermarket shopping list. This app sent that packing as well. Fare thee well, handwriting.

Google Translate

This app is great because it supports voice input and output. Say a word in English and it can play the word out loud in the language you are translating to. Excellent for use with ESOL students who either don’t know a word, or don’t know the English version of a word they know in their native tongue. Has saved my life multiple times with my Taiwanese better half (and her Mum and Dad).

Google Currents
This app is a little like an RSS feed-reader, except a lot smoother and more magazine-like. You can access popular sites such as Forbes, Lifehacker, Engaget, CNet, Huffington Post, The Verge, etc. Good for staying up with the play / procrastinating starting the day on a Sunday morning.

Maps
This is pretty self-explanatory – it helps you to not get lost. The navigation aspect of this is very functional and works like a charm when you’re in the car. You can save routes for accessing them offline if you’re near to reaching your data cap.

Gmail

Again, self-explanatory. What I find particularly great about this though is (like Google Calendar), it handles multiple Google accounts with aplomb. I’ve set each account as a different notification tone, so I know when I can safely ignore an email if I’m having some Matt-time.

Blogger
This app has just been updated, and would not have made it onto this list if it hadn’t been. It got a major UI overhaul and hugely increased functionality. You can now easily view posts and blogs, create a new post, and tweak settings. Great for the mobile blogger, and people with multiple blogs – although I still use the web-based version for the majority of my bloggings.

Picasa
I am dissapoint. There is no such app, only terrible “third party” Picasa apps. I hope Google gets onto this.

Chrome
The first thing I download when setting up a new system, on any operating system, on any device. My web browser of choice.

Dropbox

My Samsung Galaxy S3 came with 50gb free Dropbox storage. Images and videos I snap upload directly to the cloud. Be careful with this, as it can wreck a fragile broadband limit, especially if uploading chunky HD photos and video. I love this app though, and it makes sharing between teachers nice and streamlined.

Evernote (+Widget)
I don’t use this terribly much – I tend to use Google Docs when at school, but when I’m out and about at P.D or observations at other schools, Evernote is useful. It tags your note with geographical data so you can pinpoint where in the world you were when you created the note. Add text, audio, pictures, images, all kinds of stuff – label it, it syncs to your Evernote account, and available across all devices. On Android, the widget provides quick access to some of the central functions.

Soundcloud record widget

Vimeo, Flickr, Soundcloud
I’m lumping these guys together because they all fundamentally have the same core functions – the capture, uploading, sorting, storing, and sharing of media (images, video, audio). I love Vimeo, and after getting a pro-account for school, love it even more. Auto HD embedding really makes your videos pop when on a blog. I like Flickr more than Picasa for sharing photo slideshows, as Flickr’s slideshow aesthetic is much more cleaner and leaner. Soundcloud for audio; recording a student explaining a maths strategy, me reading a chapter of a book, or one of our hit songs – and sharing with the world. The Soundcloud record widget is nice and big for quickly recording kids when they say the darndest things.

Socrative
Down with clickers! This is a student response system for things like quizzes, feedback, surveys and the like. There is a teacher version and a student version. I’ve chucked this app on all our tablets, and use it when the need arises. The cool part is you can also gain access via web-browser, so computers and netbooks can be used to gather responses too.

MaharaDroid
Upload photos directly to MyPortfolio. To be honest, I haven’t used it this much this year, but we’re getting much more into e-portfolios next year, so it will no doubt prove it’s worth then. In saying that, I often use it to snap and upload evidence of my own learning to my PRT portfolio.

Where’s My Droid
Helps find your lost phone. Have not needed it yet *touch wood* but will certainly need it when I inevitably do. Damn you back seat of taxis with your ability to suck everything out of pockets!

Twitter
Because, Twitter. Build your PLN, learn, share, grow.

Redditsync
Because, Reddit. Laugh, cry, WTF, gifs.

Backgrounds HD Wallpapers
To make your device purdy.

So there we go! Reasonably straightforward; nothing too crazy.

Have you guys found any genuinely epic apps that help you in your everyday teacher-ish lives? I’d be interested to hear about them in the comments!

Late last term we decided to embark upon a bit of a pilot programme. Our goal was for the children to have a snippet of regular time each week to explore their passions and interests in a purposeful, autonomous way. We started with the idea of “Explore Time” but it soon became clear that we were so enamoured with the Impact Project model we saw at Albany Senior High School earlier in the year at Ignition, we just had to give it a crack.

PBL: Problem Based Learning. I like to think of it as Passion Based Learning.

“your chance to follow and explore your passions in an authentic project that makes a positive contribution to our community.” – ASHS/curriculum/ImpactProjects

Luckily, ASHS has a fair bit of documentation online which I perused during the holidays. I also checked out a few other PBL resources, read ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink, and managed to pull together a framework for what it might look like for us at Amesbury School. We ended up calling them Ignite Projects. What follows is a look at what we did, what lessons we learned, the challenges and successes, as well as next steps for the future.

What Went Down

Our first few sessions were dedicated to explaining the process as best we could (having not done it before). Here is what I came up with as a road-map for the process: Ignite Project Sequence.

I printed all these steps, shuffled them up, handed them out and then had the children put them on a continuum of where along the line they thought they may need to “do” these things. It churned out some good discussion and as an introduction, I think it gave the children a fair idea of what they were about to get amongst.
Albany Senior High School Impact Project Cycle
The next step was brainstorming interests. We encouraged the children to think widely and deeply about their interests. More often than not though, it was the first idea they hit on which was selected. Some of the topics included: Minecraft video walkthroughs, netball and rugby skills videos and blogs, designing a multi-cultural fashion line, volcano warning information, conservation of endangered animals, a Rome: Total War club, robot making, designing and creating reusable supermarket bags, creating a healthy cookbook, starting a dance tutorial blog, and holding an “Amesbury’s Got Talent” show.

They then got into self-selected groups based on similar interests (some went alone, others between two or three), and began to plan a road-map. This came in the form of a written proposal which they had to submit to teachers for approval. Here is a link to the doc. Within this, they had to propose an intended outcome – a real thing; a website, event, video, book, or presentation they thought might be the end-point of their project. They also had to justify their choice via explaining how their project will have a positive impact on the community (local, national, international). This was a bit of a stretch for some, and in the end, we were happy with outcomes which indicated they had increased their own knowledge of a subject (with a view to sharing it with their peers in the concluding workshops).

Writing their proposal took a few sessions – we plugged editing and re-crafting as the piece was for an authentic audience, and needed to be perfect. We publicised that if their proposal was not well thought out, didn’t make sense or had errors, it was likely to be denied – just like in the real world. This actually ratcheted up the tension quite a lot, and the announcement of successful proposals was quite an event.

We allocated the groups with advisers, and then let them loose.

What followed was (to date) six weeks (of an hour, three times a week) of messy, engaging, loud, authentic, autonomous-ish, epically awesome learning. The children were so engaged they often worked through lunch time, and at home in the evenings and weekends. For a bunch of Year 4 to 6 children, this was a sight to behold.

I can’t say it was always easy though. It was often teaching in the moment (the best kind!), juggling multiple groups and personalities, guiding and suggesting, being pulled in a hundred different directions at once. It took a lot of energy, and often left us feeling drained and wondering if it was worth it after each session.

Other times though, we could stand in the middle of our hub and have no one hit us up for the bulk of the session. And this was when the magic happened. This was when the children entered a “flow” state – where the task was on that razors edge between challenging and interesting. Where motivation and engagement was king and children were in the zone.

We’re now drawing to the end of this period – the kids are starting to wind up; hold talent shows, sew bags and clothing, post videos, make visits, cook food, and blog. It’s also a time for children whose goals were achievable-but-not-achieved to reflect on time management, collaborative skills, and their ability to show initiative and be self-directed.

Design, create, impact.

What we learned

  • Groupings: we divided the groups evenly between three of us, but in hindsight, we could have used what we are now calling Trust Groups. Children who have proven themselves able to sustain and self-direct their learning are given more autonomy. High trust groups need less supervision, low trust groups need more targeted support. Give advisers allocated with low trust groups less groups, and advisers allocated with high trust groups more groups. **Note, this notion of “Trust” is simply trust in terms of ability to have a high level of self-direction and initiative in autonomous work – it’s a bit emotive, so may not be the best language to use.
  • Planning: we were quite loose with encouraging planning, which could have been tighter. Next time we could use a calendar or diary, or a to-do list chart with columns for to-do, doing, and done (with post-it notes) to help structure time-management a little more.
  • Evidence of learning: next time, we will encourage mini-reflections, perhaps on a weekly basis as well as have children collect their own evidence of learning (literacy, numeracy etc. as well as key competency based development). This will sit hand in hand with recording the development of their project, and would be perfectly suited for an ePortfolio.
  • Preparation: children need to select interesting AND sustainable topics – topics which are broad enough to keep them going and which won’t putter out due to lack of steam. This needs to be clearly communicated to children in the first few sessions.
  • Sharing: Spending five minutes at the start of each session as a whole group sharing some of the ups and downs, challenges and success of what has been happening during the sessions could be extremely beneficial. Children are often curious about what others are doing, and discussions about each others’ projects can often spark ideas or motivate others.
  • End-game: our Term 4 is shaping up to get incredibly busy very soon, so it’s not looking like we are going to be able to get to the workshop phase of the process. I had envisioned a barcamp style day of workshops and sharing which would mark the end-point of projects. Prep and organisation of this takes time, so we need to be more aware of our own time-management for next year.

PBL takes time to really get cranking though. According to this post, it takes three years for things to “click”. We made a start though, and learned a swag-load about the process along the way. It’s all about iteration, reflecting and learning and understanding things may not be perfect the first time, and to not give up and keep moving forward.

I know there are probably lots of ya’ll out there doing PBLish stuff – what has your experience been? How can we make the process more functional and meaningful for children in the earlier years? Let’s start a dialogue and share our experiences!

TL;DR We tackled passion based interest projects with the aim of positive outcomes for the community. It was tough at times, but awesome. We (children, teachers, whanau, stakeholders) learned so much, and are excited for the next iteration.

More information via ASHS: Impact Projects: Igniting Passions

[Friday Takeaways is a new series in which I sit through (and summarise) P.D sessions – so you don’t have to! What a brave and noble sacrifice…]
A couple of us attended a P.D session on Wednesday evening run by Jill Eggleton, author of the Key Links series by Scholastic. The brief was: “implementing small, simple steps, towards creating lifetime writers, keeping in mind the keys to a child’s progress.” She wrapped up with this quote, which summed up her key point nicely –  a point which we as teachers need to always keep in mind, and one which we would do well to pass on to our students:

“Write drunk; edit sober.” – Ernest Hemingway

Woah, let me re-check my notes! Ahah! Here is the right one:

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” – Truman Capote

Writing shouldn’t be a mundane task, out-of-context, and painful to get through. It should be a passionate, thoughtful experience; a playful and rich process. This starts from you. Be wide-eyed and enthusiastic when reading children’s work. Model the joy in reading and writing.

How do you inspire a love of writing? (Also: see, look! We DO use pens and pencils …sometimes)

Here are a couple of takeaways from the course, tl:dr (“too long, didn’t read”) style:

  • The key to writing is oral language – if they can’t talk about something, they probably can’t write about it.
  • For teachers – be writers yourselves. Know what it means to get from the head to the page. Start a journal, record interesting personal experiences and characters. You don’t have to always read stories to children – tell stories too!
  • Provide opportunities to write daily. Practise is the best ‘instruction’ of all.
  • For youngins: write from personal, common experiences. Don’t introduce text-types too early. When you do though, make it purposeful: “I want to tell you a personal story, so we’re going to use personal narrative.”
  • Emphasise “putting a magnifying glass” over certain experiences (don’t waffle on about the whole holiday for example, stick to your most memorable moment).
  • Great writers don’t tell the whole story – encourage the children to “show don’t tell”.
  • Read poetry every day. It encourages children to be more playful and descriptive with their own writing.
  • When giving feedback / reading a child’s piece for the first time: make sure they know their message has been communicated (use a statement, not a question and do so using their own language). Then strengths, then next steps.
  • Don’t have them write too much! They can’t be bothered going back and re-crafting / editing. Quality over quantity. They can write long meandering rambles at home if they want to.
So these were the meaty chunks I was able to extract from the casserole of information at the session. Some of them may be common sense, but to a newb like me, I need to make a concious effort to keep these in mind.
Thanks Jill.
P.S:
Maybe I’m spoilt by attending Ignition 2012 and a few Ignite evenings, but jeepers creepers, we really need to change traditional teacher P.D. Sitting for 3 hours passively listening to a tumult of information in a hot fidgety theatre can be draining and just plain hard work. Mix things up, get us talking, be creative… practise what you preach!