Breathe Some Humor into Your Drab Routine with Pixton Comics for Education

Pixton comics has been around for only a few years now and it’s no surprise that they have won many ed-techy awards in their short lifespan. But it took just a half an hour before I  became instantly hooked.

Pixton allows students and teachers can create their own highly-customizable comic strips with unlimited options, scenes, characters, poses, props, and backgrounds. The uses for these strips are manifold, but Pixton does a great job of making them user-friendly and purposeful. They provide a community where users can submit their comics to showcase learning, comment on , and remix other strips.

Teachers can make their own (as seen below) and assign students projects based on the strip. Students can remix them, or make their own. They can add panels, re-edit an already published strip, work collaboratively, and get approval from their teacher once their project is complete.  Teachers can also monitor student progress and manage their classes, assignments and grades.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Pixton also allows users to print, download and (thankfully) embed their creations. For ELL’s the potential here is truly exciting. Students in groups or individually can add appropriate dialogue, even record their own audio tracks to correspond to each panel, or type content into speech bubbles to illustrate real-life scenarios, for example.  Ideas like these keep bubbling  like effervescent bursts of inspiration when one plays with Pixton.  Give it a shot here for a trial period.

Yeah, the downside is that it costs money. But It’s not out of this world, and one teacher could afford to make one account that allows up to four users. These could be set up as teams of students. The above strip will be part of a CELDT practice module that will soon be available for download.

 

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iBooks and English Language Learners

Apple’s recent announcement of a “gamechanger” in education arrived with much fanfare and generated mega decibels of buzz around the world because the Cupertino, CA tech giant was again attempting, to either  A) help revolutionize how we consume and create content, or B)  to gobble up yet another industry.

The past few days have produced many posts and tweets, many critical, many outraged, some cynical and  others truly awed and excited about the possibilites iBook Author offers. With all the questions regarding content ownership, portability, collusion with mega publishers aside, we at Zacatechista wanted to drop our own thought droppings on eTextbooks and iBook Author specifically.

 

Here is a screenshot of our current project–and the reason for this post:

We should disclose that we have been working for more than a year now on a set of English Language Development games and apps for the iPad called elDcoder, and while the project is still under construction, the prospects of being able to extend its boundaries  into the textbook realm offers new possibilities.

First, as content creators we look forward to adapting and extending the content of elDcoder,  which is currently much more geared to gaming and testing English listening, reading, writing skills, and porting some of that over onto a sequential textbook series that can accompany the app, or vice versa. And its clear after only one weekend of playing with iBook Author really makes this process easy. This should come as no surprise, coming from the same company that puts out Garage Band and iMovie, both of which were used to build the content for the first chapter of elDcoder’s (Beginner level).

Getting the hang of it was no problem. Knowing how to best take advantage of the features and to better streamline your job will require more tinkering. Discovering the versatility of working with Dashcode also contributed to the prolonged sense of tech-arousal inherent in these interactions. Now a textbook can be embedded with anything we can dream of, as long as it is not Flash.

As for what this means for English Language Learners? Well, anyone that teaches ELL students knows that ELD curriculum is not always the top priority of most schools or districts. The requirements are there, but ELD, at least as it is practiced in California is a reality often found on paper, but with so many curricular and other constraints, it often goes untaught or folded into the traditional English Language Arts, leaving many students with profound language gaps in both the forms and functions of English which prevent them from every reaching Fluent English Proficient Status, permanently relegating them to a secondary LEP  status, thereby  not graduating, or amounting to anything, and dying a cold and lonely death.

OK, hyperbole aside, It should also be noted that while explicit English Language Development is very important, not just for newcomers, but for those students with years in the system, there often is very little invested in terms of materials for its instructions, leaving many teachers to make up their own curriculum.  This is where iBooks author comes in. All of us who are in the trade of educating English Language Learners in all of their manifestations and who have been for years developing our own curriculum where there was none now can come together and start building the next generation of textbooks, as open and free in many cases, and under Apples restrictive ownership agreements in others.

The goal for us ESL teachers, authors and content providers  should not be whether can get rich making textbooks, as the mega-conglomerates are happy to do, but to offer schools the most authentic, constantly updated, classroom-tested textbooks at the lowest possible price in the name of education. If we must partner with the Giant Apple that is now doing the gobbling in order to do so, then we must deal with them with the best interest of our students constantly in our mind.

If you are interested in contacting us about possible collaborations or if you have further questions, please leave a comment below. We will be launching a more formal collaborative effort with the aims of producing a collaborative eTextbook series for English Language Learners in the coming months and asking other interested educators to share their lessons, materials and other resources for inclusion into the elDecoder series.

 

 

 

 

 

MangaHigh: Free, Standards Based Games for Students and Reports for Teachers

While I don’t want to sound like a commercial for this site, I do want to give props where props are due!

Since I began incorporating MangaHigh into my weekly Math routine, my students have been thrilled to obey my every command.  Buah, ah, ah!  Well, maybe not, but they’re certainly more willing to follow instruction on math content as well as be more engaged during the “boring” direct instruction because they see the MangaHigh light at the end of the tunnel.

As a teacher, MangaHigh helps me keep my students engaged, motivated, and learning the basics.  After learning the basics and getting the exposure and practice at their level on MangaHigh, one begins to see students going beyond the analysis into the synthesis and evaluation pieces in Bloom’s Taxonomy.  I upload a whole class list, assign challenges for my students on the standards they need the most practice knowing they’ll get adequate feedback, get reports on their progress toward assignment completion (keeping us all honest), and work with a small instructional group that needs more of my personal support.

When My Dictionary Doesn’t Help try YourDictionary

How many times have you assigned work out of some dictionary–even reputable online dictionaries–and end up with a definition that is equally baffling to a student. A student in this situation will usually do what she or he is  told and copy said definition in their notebooks. Then  they will attempt to write a mangled sentence with no sense of context and meaning, suggesting that the whole activity might just have been a huge waste of time. 

This aforementioned scenario takes place in countless classrooms around the world and millions of students who are supposed to be learning new vocabulary are in fact engaged in a senseless practice of copying from a reference book and practicing their handwriting and patience, but little else.

Dictionaries are useful tools that can help a reader find the meaning of a persistently hard-to-pin-down word when all other recourses fail. They should not be used unless context clues and word analysis don’t help.

That said, I recently came across Yourdictonary.com, a site specifically developed for learners of English who struggle with the oblique and comprehension-unfriendly language often found in most dictionaries.

It works very similarly to a dictionary.com or the Websters online dictionary. The user enters a word into a field, and as long as it’s spelled correctly it will reveal the definition. The difference is that in YourDictionary the results actually make sense.

Let’s compare:

Here is the dictionary.com entry for “manifest”

man·i·fest

[man-uh-fest]

adjective

1.

readily perceived by the eye or the understanding; evident;obvious; apparent; plain: a manifest error.
2.

Psychoanalysis. of or pertaining to conscious feelings, ideas,and impulses that contain repressed psychic material: themanifest content of a dream as opposed to the latent contentthat it conceals.
verb (used with object)

3.

to make clear or evident to the eye or the understanding;show plainly: He manifested his approval with a hearty laugh.
4.

to prove; put beyond doubt or question: The evidencemanifests the guilt of the defendant.
5.

to record in a ship’s manifest.
noun
6.

a list of the cargo carried by a ship, made for the use ofvarious agents and officials at the ports of destination.
7.

a list or invoice of goods transported by truck or train.
8.

a list of the cargo or passengers carried on an airplane.

And here is the YD version…

manifest

Manifest describes something that is clear to see or understand.(adjective)

An example of manifest is someone knowing that something is true.

Manifest means to prove or make something clear. (verb)

An example of manifest is showing someone the facts about something.

As you can see, the latter is much clearer and easy to understand. It goes without saying that the previous definition is more comprehensive and more reliable in terms of finding out the specific use in all the possible contexts, however the YD version has the advantage of purging out the language that is an obstruction to understanding, and only presents the most common uses of the word.

Another advantage to YourDictionary, at least as it pertains to English Learners, is that it offers sample sentences, probably fished out of the internet by some algorithm, but that nonetheless offer a student many different ways they might encounter a word, or many real life ways that a sentence can be constructed with it.

But it doesn’t stop there. Besides providing word definitions and examples in sentences, YourDictionary.com  offers ESL and Education pages specifically designed to help teachers and students of ESL make better use of their vocabulary development time. There are lesson ideas on how to use YourDictioanry.com and other resources to help with comprehension whether you are learning English in Harbin, China, or in Phoenix Arizona. You can even use your mobile device so you can get results on the go.

There are also pretty simple printable worksheets on vocabulary, commonly confused words, GRE or SAT practice, essay writing tips, grammar help for kids and more, earning this site the title of “indispensable” for any bilingual or ESL classroom.

So next time you think of throwing  a brick at your students, send them to YD instead, and you will hear more students exclaim, “Aha” instead of “huh?”

Brain Nook Combines Best of Gaming, Learning Worlds

On recent list of top edtech startups (Wired Academic)  one noteworthy company stood out for its potential for making a big impact in the  learning of English and Math skills at the elementary grades.

Brain Nook, as it’s called,  is an “all-inclusive” learning resort for the students from Kinder to 5th grade.  Featuring more than a hundred engaging games it is a robust and entertaining way for students to practice their academic skills.

But what seems truly remarkable is Brain Nook’s ability to put together the best “brain-rewarding” (see previous post)  elements of the gaming universe and package them into a learning site that will be the envy of many start-ups and “been-ups” alike.

The premise for the game is a story: You, an alien cosmonaut, crash-land on earth. Stranded, you have to buy and collect badges, stars, unlock levels and ultimately find all the spaceship parts needed to get back to your home planet.  Avoiding  immigration does not seem to be an issue for the alien players who travel around the world challenging others to games, or accomplishing solo missions by practicing skills ranging from recognizing long and short vowels to counting money.

What makes the game so engaging is not only the fact that students can customize avatars and “purchase” additional items to decorate themselves and their rooms, but also because they can progress at their own pace and choose from a variety of games and lands.

 

The mission aspect of the game is reminiscent of what made Cyberchase such a popular game.  Quests seem to add a whole new level to learning that engages students beyond the ability to solve a problem in isolation. The progress bar is an excellent motivator in this regard. When a student sees their progress moving up, never down, they immediately realize that it is within their power to move up, albeit at their own rate.

 

At first this seemed a bit confusing. The games after all, are adaptive, meaning they increase in difficulty if the user makes progress, so a student might feel like they lost, but in the end they still get to walk away with enough stars to add to their point total. They are thus motivated to continue playing, once they feel like the have a handle on a particular skill.

Another winning  aspect of the game is the social component. Students can walk around and chat, challenge each other and become “friends”.   When you add other people to a game, as any gamer knows, it adds another level of engagement. You are not just playing a game for yourself, but in front of a set of “game peers” united in your quest to get out of Earth. The dynamics of this and why its motivational has to do with neuroscience and we won’t get into that here, but the effect on a learner is remarkable.

It is also a great game for English Language Learners beyond the 5th grade. In fact that is the main reason zapaTECHISTA looked into this site.  It is often the job of the late elementary teacher and beyond to fill the skill gaps of students whose first language is not English. Brain Nook offers students who have not had success focusing on class lectures, or who have missed school in earlier grades (here I’m thinking of a student from El Salvador who did not attend school from 2nd to 4th grade) or who need to work on skills below their grade level to feel successful at their own pace.

The only drawback so far is that Brain Nook only works on a flash-enabled device. Sorry iPad folks. I’m sure the developers are quickly working on an app version, or a lite version like BrianPOPs iPhone app. Also, some of the text moves off-screen too quickly for the youngest readers to keep up, especially the instructions to the games.

We’ll keep an eye out for this one and wish it well.

 

Engage Your Student’s Brain with Dopamine

Reluctance is only one of the words that comes to many a teacher’s mind when thinking about letting students play video games in class. After all, video games ruin your brain, so they say. They turn you into passive, drooling vegetables and will ultimately ruin your grades and your life and nobody will ever want you.

But seriously, the idea that video games can be a beneficial and engaging tools in a classroom  no longer seems as controversial as before. Millions of students around the globe have learned their times tables by shooting rockets  at asteroids,  or learned their spelling words by guiding a frog across a river of drifting logs, or gone on web quests around the world collecting artifacts,  and learned a multitude of skills without even realizing they were learning,  simply by playing video games.

Recent studies have found that what makes video games so addicting and so engaging can also help in making learning irresistible.  The brain, according to Tom Chatfield in this TED Talk,  is rewarded  when put in a game environment. Those rewards are intrinsic in our chemistry, and if we as educators can learn how to tap into those veins, we can make students into learning junkies.

It all has to do with dopamine and how the brain craves more of something it finds rewarding.

Watch the video to find out the 7 ways in which video game architecture can be used to engage students, as I don’t want to repeat what he says. However the ideas he advances should be taken very seriously by todays education gurus. Here are a few points that I think could be furthered developed:

Experience Points

Current assessment models that track student progress are known for being obtuse and non-immediate. A student report card is usually a collection of grades weighed with different considerations in mind like homework, test results, effort, etc.  They are mere summaries of a grading period and especially in the elementary grades, provide very little feedback.  Instead, students academic progress should be measured by experience points, starting in Kindergarten and ending at graduation. These records could follow a student throughout her or his educational career and would provide a greater motivation than simply getting an A here and a B there, year after year. It would make learning into a cohesive continuum in which students move at different speeds and accumulate points as they move through life.  Furthermore, a student would not be limited to gaining these points by attending a particular school  or completing a regular course, but in theory they could accumulate them through other means, as long as they prove they master the essential steps (in our case academic standards). They could learn from home, or accrue more points though real life learning situations. A whole variety of programs and curriculum would exist to permit students to play and gain points though video games, simulations, brick-and-mortar learning,  digital portfolio evaluations, and even peer review.

 

Learning Missions

Chatfield mentions that engagement is greater when there are mini-missions to complete. Huge tasks are overwhelming, but smaller, more manageable ones are a lot more fun and will give the brain a better “high” in the end. These mini missions would essentially replace the typical lesson.

“Today, class we will work on dividing decimals by two digit whole numbers. Take your textbook and turn to page 89!”

or

“Today we will see how well you can use conjunctions in a sentence with correct punctuation. Open you practice books and try not to fall asleep.”

Quotes like the ones above will hopefully be a  thing of the past one day.

“Today we are going to play a game with some students in Singapore who are challenging our class to divide decimals in order to escape a labyrinth they made! Make teams of five and log on to…”

This example shows how students could complete a quest as part of a team (this part is key) and move through to the next level only if they problem solve and use the skills above. They could complete the mission at home on the Wii, or on their mobile device, in the learning lab, or in their portable holographic projector while they run on their treadmill. (Hey, learning does not mean sitting on your butt).

In fact a student could go on a hunt and take pictures, video, and gather evidence, to later present to their peers and show how they were able to use decimals and conjunctions and earn a digital “badge” like scouts.

 Learning Teams

Students should not have to be limited by their particular school in order to make progress. They should be able to connect to students at the global level and work on solving problems in teams, like in the virtual worlds described by Chatfield.  I would also expand this to include a peer-teaching component. It is no secret that students often learn faster from each other.

Any sort of online learning collaboration should, as a fundamental part, include an element of peer review and instruction. Those students who have more experience points can team up with those who are starting out and lend them a hand.

Competition could still play a role, but students would be compelled to make sure everyone on their team was up to task in order for the team to complete a mission.

Bright Horizons?

The challenge in all of this is not merely to change the way we teach our children. Many of these ideas are already permeating the educational world in smaller, more limited settings. Others are still in their infancy. What is truly worrisome is that these changes will arrive and that they will become centralized and monetized for the for-profit world.  The last thing we need is for all of this to be handed over to Pearson or some other large conglomerate whose only concern is reaping a profit and who see our students not as the leaders of tomorrow, but as items on a quarterly report.

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Also of interest is a study by Stanford Medical School that found that the male brain is more likely to be rewarded by video games than the female. Hmmm…definitely throws another wrench into the equation!

Also, check out this podcast for some funny insight on the world of video games:

A Life Well Wasted

 

 

NY Times Not Sold on Digital Learning Outcomes

Perhaps some of you have had a chance to read the recent article published by the New York Times,

In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores

written by Tech correspondent and novelist, Matt Ricthel. It is part of a series called “Grading the Digital School” which looks critically at how schools are drinking the technology Kool-Aid, buying all sorts of equipment, laptops, Smartboards, etc, without waiting for any proof that those things actually translate into higher achievement. I won’t summarize the article, as it should be read by anyone who purports themselves to be a tech-savvy educator, not because the article’s findings are a definitive answer to the question of whether technology can have a positive impact in learning, but because of some of the  issues it raise are quite provocative.

His main conclusion is that so far, technology cannot be considered much of a cure-all for the country’s educational woes, and that results are currently a far-cry from what proponents of digital learning hope for and promise. Some schools he featured in his piece actually recorded a decline after switching to a more tech-based system of learning.

So, how is a tech-savvy educator to respond to this piece? Should we pretend it doesn’t exist, or that the author is biased against technology, or not looking at the right schools? Is he ignoring some that have shown success while focusing on the ones that have shamed themselves after making costly investments that only seemed to have benefited the chip makers of the world? Is he going against the conventional wisdom to play devil’s advocate or to shine a light on a deeply held misconception?

To his credit, it should be noted that Richtel comes with some pretty impressive credentials. He has a Pulitzer Prize to wave around and has written extensively about technology and our culture. And in all honesty, his article makes a compelling case that very often schools and districts are going whole-hog buying gadgets and expensive upgrades without doing their homework first. It would be naive to assume that there did not exist a whole cabal of technology companies which salivate at the thought of  tech-based classrooms/markets blossoming around the country ready to stake it all on their digital wares.

Simply throwing iPads and other gadgets at students will never produce truly meaningful educational outcomes unless a series of factors are first put into play:

Too early to tell

First, we need more time. Many teachers don’t know what to do with technology and rely on the students to handle even as simple a task as printing a document. If there is going to be any sort of progress in the field, any measurable progress that is, we have to wait a few years. The current population of teachers is simply not ready to implement the newest educational technology advances at the mass level. It is amazing how many teachers still cling to the old technology out of sheer habit, even when the new stuff sits in their classrooms. Don’t assume for a minute that just because a school or a district has “gone digital” that the instruction that happens in a particular classroom reflects that reality.

New technology, new yardstick.

The obvious thing to say in this case would be that we need a new test. If it seems too obvious it is because it is. Everyone knows it, the testing regime carved into granite with NCLB  is from almost all of its angles, wholly inadequate in measuring a student’s learning. Standardized tests are a lead balloon handed to us by our political masters, who tacked on the most unreasonable goals and provisions to it hoping to have something to sing about back home.  It was baby kissing on a massive scale and after all these years people at the top are finally beginning to inch away from the law’s most unpopular components. The need to reform it is part of the regular education chatter coming from DC.

There are  currently plans to revamp large-scale, high-stakes student assessment at the national level.  The U.S. Department of Education is pumping money into new avenues of assessment, hoping to take advantage of computers and the internet to move away from the once a year, fill-in-the bubble monsters that plague our sleepless nights. The new tests are coming. Some states hope to give them several times a year, and get a more balanced average of a students score, while other states are going the adaptive route, letting the test change difficulty to match the tester’s skills. And they will both be on a computer.

Great things are coming, it seems, but the question remains about whether these tests will actually produce meaningful measures and whether those measures will be used for good aims. Will they measure writing skills in the same absurd way? How many wonderful writers fail when given an awkward sentence completion multiple-choice assessment? And how ridiculous is it anyway,  to try to assess a person’s writing skills with multiple choice? Until the Reading and Writing portions of the test  get a radical face lift, we will continue to get limited results, regardless if the test is delivered through pixels or pulp.

A new testing system needs to exist altogether. We need more carrots and less sticks that are keeping educators cramming standards into test items, when those standards could be approached on a whole variety of ways, including ones and zeros. They should be measured like rungs on a ladder, where a student moves through the grades gaining points, or levels, like the very video games they play. Students should be allowed to master them at their own speed and to focus on areas that they are better at. They would be encouraged to work collaboratively to solve problems and help each other reach common goals.

Computers (in all their incarnations) give us the option to bundle many standards together and package them as quests, games, or complex tasks that would force a student to rely on and develop a multitude of skills along the way. Their ability to move through these modules could be measured and the student could receive immediate feedback, and he or she could  receive up-to-the minute remediation both digitally or in person. The goal of the assessment would therefore not be to rank schools and to see if they were “making the grade,” nor to make decisions with high-stakes outcomes, like a teacher’s salary or the funding a district receives, but to actually help a student make progress in the areas most at need.

Training

Perhaps related more to the first point, the issue of teacher training is central to the success or failure of any educational revamping involving technology. For this to happen, clear goals have to be set by districts and schools as to the proper use of technology. Many schools and districts see it as a way to boast on their websites that they offer this or that technological enhancement, and gladly dish out the money, often at taxpayers expense, without the follow through.

If a teacher is handed some shiny new device and is told that the students will love it, she or he is more likely to use it if they get proper training. They have to see it at work and they have to become comfortable talking to other educators across broader networks, sharing ideas and getting feedback on lessons and strategies.

For technology to really make a lasting impact in the way students learn, the teachers have to be trained on how to best combine their  very interpersonal delivery of standards,  or the human connection, with the digital, screen-delivered,  multi-sensory experience offered by computers, which can correct your spelling, point out a sentence fragment,  count the words you’ve written, and even estimate the ‘grade level’ of  some piece of text, but they can’t judge a writer’s voice, nor the effectiveness of an opening line in a story, nor critique you for relying excessively on clichés. For that we will always need our teachers and peers.

We all look forward to the evolving discussion, and await a verdict on this issue which still remains unresolved.

-Francisco Nieto Salazar