Thursday, April 11, 2013

Using SoundCloud (for poetry and other stuff)

The other day, I read about Poetry Foundation's new SoundCloud group, Record-a-Poem. Basically, the idea is that anyone can record themselves (or someone else) reading a piece of poetry and post it on the Record-a-Poem group. Here's a more detailed post on how to do that.

If I were still teaching English--grade school, high school, or college--I'd take this prime opportunity to get my students to appreciate the oral art of poetry. Imagine: you tell your students to join the group, pick a poem from the Poetry Foundation archive (of which there are a great many), record a reading, and upload it. Others get to listen to their poems, like, share, or repost it. I think it's a wonderful way to get students excited about reading and listening to poetry.

Alternatively, you can also do the following:
  1. Create your own SoundCloud group.
  2. Ask your students to make a SoundCloud account and join your group.
  3. Have them upload whatever audio file you want them to upload (e.g., a podcast about your current topic, a song, a poem, reaction to a lesson, readers theater, etc.)
  4. For added interaction, ask each student to listen to a few of them to give comments or reactions.
Doesn't even have to be for English class. I can imagine all the different subject areas
that can use this. The possibilities are exciting!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

App Happy: Some Educational Apps I Recommend

Image from Google Apps for Education page

A couple of days ago, I went to visit a former co-trainer who was already the principal of a school. I went there for work (full disclosure: I work with Flipside Publishing, an ebook company that distributes etextbooks for different publishers), but during the meeting, us being former co-trainers, we talked about materials and faculty development. And then she asked me what I actually thought of schools who adopt tablets for education.

Now, even if my work throws me across such schools and publishers who provide e-textbooks for these schools, believe it or not, I rarely get asked this question. But whenever I am asked, I give the same answer I've always given for years:

I think schools should think more about how to maximize the use of a powerful multimedia device to aid learning and instruction, instead of thinking of the device as merely a substitute for books. Like, seriously, as an educator, using a tablet primarily to replace textbooks is the worst kind of reasoning I have ever heard. The one who reasons that is not someone who fully appreciates what it takes to be in the classroom, day in and day out, designing good learning experiences for one's students, but likely of someone looking for a business or marketing opportunity.

I'm not against using tablets. Far from it. I think they're wonderful. IF, and that's a big if, used properly. I'm not against etextbooks, either. Obviously I can't be because that's part of my work, and I happen to really love my work. I am against, however, a myopic view of what content should be put in it. No, Virginia, a tablet is most definitely not just for etextbooks.

It should also be for online work, where possible, to maximize Web 2.0 (itself a seemingly passe term already, though I don't know if my country has caught up with it), and for apps.

My former co-trainer knows that getting the tablets are the easy part; it's what to do with them that's more challenging. And this goes way beyond putting a few etextbooks in the device.

My advice: start with choosing good apps. And that means that the teachers will have to curate the apps. Which means that teachers will have to get familiar with what apps are available first. Which presupposes that the school/administration provides the resources and creates an environment where the faculty can play around with the devices, test apps, and share their discoveries. Part of testing, too, will be imagining how to use the app in instruction.

Now, since I stopped teaching in an actual classroom four years ago, I can't claim to know all the great educational apps out there. I'd love to, but alas, I no longer have all the time I'd like to have for this interest.

I do know a few good ones, though, some of which I get for my two young kids and others I just like. We use iOS devices, so I'll be linking to those versions, but I think some of them may also have Android versions.

For Grade School Math:

A couple of Splash Math apps on my son's iPad. (He likes the knights, hence the wallpaper.)
Splash Math for Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5

I'm super sold on Splash Math. We've been using it for the past 2 years. It's like an entire Math workbook, with a cute interface and clear segregation of skills. Very easy for kids to use. And if you're worried about the idea that kids won't learn to actually solve things by hand, Splash Math actually has a "scratch pad" that kids can use to solve for the answer. But my favorite part? Analytics. There's now a parents' section where I can check how my son did on each skill. I've even opted in for the email reports, which I get weekly.

There's a free option, which is only a few skills, but the full versions currently cost $9.99. However, I just think about how much it costs to enroll my kid in one of those summer enrichment classes or how much different math review books cost. Put those beside the $9.99, and the full version is more than worth it.

For pre-school kids literacy and numeracy:

Three of the Planet Boing apps. 
Planet Boing with Savannah!, Ocean!, Iceland!, etc.

Admittedly, this is a more recent discovery, when I was looking for beginning literacy and numeracy aids for my daughter. The main app, Planet Boing, really just has these characters that boing around based on your taps. And there are prizes if you keep them boinging. For some reason, this vastly entertains the kids. But that's not why I got the app. From this main app, you can go to the different planets like Savannah, where the beginning numeracy skills are, or Iceland, where my daughter's learning words and phonics. Like Splash Math, I get email notices every time my daughter finishes a level. I'm loving this set of apps, too, because they're fun and challenging in an age-appropriate manner. Plus, the boings are really cute.

For grade school Science:

Star Walk on the App Store
Solar Walk, Star Walk

To be honest, I'm not sure what age level this app is for. But I downloaded it for my son last year, when he was eight, and he loves it. Then again, it also seems like the kind of app that even adults would appreciate, especially if you want to take a look at the universe. Solar Walk and Star Walk allow you to look at the universe from a closer perspective. You can toy around with the planets, moons, and stars. You can read about them and even about the ships, satellites, robots, and other projects NASA sends out to the different planets. Very, very informative, and pretty cool.

For higher-level English:

The Paris Review 

Ok, so this might not necessarily be an app for basic education. But it's a wonderful, wonderful resource you can refer your high school English students to if you want them to learn more about the Art of Fiction or Poetry or the Essay from the mouths of esteemed writers themselves. After all, what decent-thinking lit major is going to say no to a collection of the Paris Review Interviews? Because I have a tutee who's reviewing for his IB finals, and he wants to prepare for poetry, I advised him to read at least one Art of Poetry interview per day. Who have they interviewed? Well, only poets like W.H. Auden, Billy Collins, and T.S. Eliot. But to be honest, the list of interviewees for the Art of Fiction series seems more impressive. In any case, they're all in the app, and the app is free!

Poetry Foundation

Some days, you just feel like reading some poetry, you know? That's why I have this app. And it's fun because it classifies its database of poems into themes. The themes are placed in two rows, and there's a spin button. When you spin, the rows move, and whatever two themes match, you get a list of poems with those themes. See what I mean by fun? Anyway, it has a combination of the classic poems and more contemporary ones. Also recommended my tutee to read a couple of poems here everyday. And if I were still teaching, I'd probably use the spinning feature for some activity in class. Because, as i said, it's fun.:)

For thinking out of the box:

The Moron Test

I am seriously not above recommending this. When my son was in prep, I'd give this to him to play with everyday. The app might insult  you a little bit with the copy, but it has really fun lateral thinking puzzles. Good for any age.

And these are just the fun apps. There are a lot of productivity and social apps that are wonderful for education. I hope to write about them, too, thereby adding to this list of apps I'd recommend.

What about you? Any apps that you think are great for education? If so, for what year level, and why do you think they're great?