I steal learning

Yesterday, in ‘must reads,’ I wrote that the challenge of a reading list had propelled me to the library to check out a few of the books on the list, so that I might increase my reading score. One of those was The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble. A story within the story concerns a 200 year-old memoir written by a Korean crown princess, who admits that “learning was not forbidden to women, but nor was it freely offered to them;” therefore, she often ‘stole’ learning:

When I was young, I read everything I could lay my hands upon. I stole learning from my clever young aunt, who was willing to teach me. I stole from Prince Sado, who in those early years was willing to talk to me about history and about literature and about the Confucian texts. I was an eager and a secret scholar. I stole and stored the scraps I thought I might need. (32-3)

It struck me that this was an apt description of how I compile scraps of information from all over the web, to remix and use in these blog posts as well as lessons for the classroom.

I have several growing repositories for my loot, and I choose which one to use depending on need. For example, if I find a website I want to keep in its entirety, I sock it away in Del.icio.us, a social bookmarker. The site provides a button to download onto my Firefox toolbar, making it very convenient to tag and bookmark sites. The social aspect of Del.icio.us, however, encourages me to steal even more learning, as I often find articles of interest that others have bookmarked.

If I come across a site that I need to annotate or highlight as a whole or in part, Scrapbook or Diigo will ride shotgun. I’ve written about them previously here. Google Notebook is similar to Scrapbook as a means to capture information, and while it doesn’t have an annotator, you can add comments. The main difference between the two is that Google Notebook is a web application and can be shared, while Scrapbook resides in your Firefox browser, and is therefore available to only you.

Recently, I’ve been seen with a new partner-in-crime, called Google Docs Bar, and it is a real multi-tasker. Gdocsbar is a Firefox extension that downloads a button for my toolbar. When I press it, a sidebar loads a scrolling list of my Google documents, so I can access them at any time. This handy application also provides a simple drag-and-drop function that turns any website, or portion of a site, into a Google document. It’s the easiest way to grab recipes, or poems, or tips about the using the web.

No learning is safe from my thieving ways.

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serving up visuals

In my previous post I wrote about the importance of including visuals in slides to improve memory retention of the material you’re presenting. Where can you get the visuals? After all, time is always a factor and you can’t spend a large chunk of your ‘free’ time looking around the net for pictures to make your slides pretty. For my Elements of Anglo-Saxon Poetry slideshow, I grabbed the pictures primarily from Google images and Wikipedia. They both contain a treasure trove of images, which are generally free to use for non-commercial purposes.

You can also use your own photos, and for that you’ll need a great photo collector and editor, such as Google’s Picasa. Whether or not it is worthwhile to accumulate desktop or online tools depends completely upon the tool’s ability to solve a problem for you, or make your life more productive. Or, if it’s fun. Picasa qualifies all the way around.

There are two parts to Picasa. First, you’ll need to download the basic application. From there, you can import pictures from your computer or your camera. I use a USB connector cord that downloads pictures directly from my digital camera to Picasa. The fun part comes next, as I edit the photos. I don’t have to worry anymore about arranging the perfect composition for my picture-taking, since Picasa’s crop tool makes composing a breeze. From there, I can adjust the light, adding more where the picture is too dark, and increasing shadow for shots that are flooded with light.

There are special effects, too, such as making the photo black-and-white, or saturating it with more color, or sharpening the view to make it crystal-clear.

When I’m ready to share my photos, I click on web albums to send my edited photos into cyberspace. Why would I want to do this? First of all, it’s useful as backup storage without worry that my photos will disappear along with a broken computer. It also is a great place to share your photos with whomever you choose. You share the links through email, and your recipients can view and leave comments at your album.

Picasa’s photo-editing capability makes me a far better photographer than I really am, and with Picasa web albums I get to show it all off.

wikis unwrapped

I’ve mentioned wikis as a possible platform for your classroom. I’ve used wikis before, particularly PBwiki, but not in the way they are intended. Wikis are meant to be interactive, meaning that a group of people collaborate to produce and edit information.

When I was using a wiki, it was difficult to set up controls about how information could be edited. I needed my information to be static, or at least edited only by me. Now, wikis are much improved so that page-editing controls are manageable. Pages can be set up that can only be edited by me, the teacher, and other pages may be set up for groups of students to manage, each group with its own editing authority.

Unless you see a wiki in action, it’s difficult to understand the process. CommonCraft has an excellent tutorial video that makes wiki-use immediately intuitive. Once you watch this presentation, you’ll get it, and what’s more, you’ll want to get it: a wiki, that is. Watch and learn.

The three wikis mentioned in the video are PBwiki, Wetpaint, and Wikispaces.

Would I still use a wiki today, considering that they are better than ever for education purposes? Probably not. But only because I see much of that same wiki functionality in Google docs (collaboration, revision tracking), and I’m trying for simplicity’s sake to keep everything as close together–in one place–as possible.

Whether or not you decide to integrate a wiki into your classroom planning, watch the video. Commoncraft is uncommonly good at rendering unfamiliar concepts easily understood. Presentation technique is the real lesson to be learned today.

easy peasy: Google Page Creator

In yesterday’s post I briefly discussed how teachers can develop a web presence using blogs and wikis. Many school districts offer web pages for teachers, but they are severely limited in scope. Use what the district offers to link to your own site, where you will have much more flexibility. Price need not be an issue: blogs at WordPress.com and Blogger.com are free and come with many features. PBwiki offers a free wiki as well. I’ll talk later about these platforms, but I want to start with what I think is the easiest option: Google.

Google’s entire philosophy is based on easy-to-use, easy-peasy, as that cute British cook Jamie Oliver always says. The beauty of using Google for education is that you can integrate as many of the applications together as you need. Start by signing up for gmail. If you did nothing else on the web, you would still be far ahead with gmail, which allows your students to communicate with you, send you assignments, etc. Gmail has a very simple and efficient tracking system so that you can easily retrieve past communications, and you have enough space so that you never have to delete anything. Gmail also has an effective spam filter, and is therefore a good option to offer to your students for email communications.

Once you’ve got email under your belt, you can set up a page on Google’s Page Creator. This page would be the go-to place for your students to find assignments, syllabus, class rules, interesting links, etc. And it is very simple to set up. Google allows you 5 different sites with each gmail account, however, you probably don’t need more than one. Use the opening page to lead your students to their distinctive class or grade level pages.

It’s free, and it’s easy.

narrative literacy

We’ve all heard the term ‘media literacy’ but what does it actually mean? My thoughts are that we are still inventing the definition, so we find many creative iterations of the term. Penguin books, ever hopeful of engendering a new generation of readers, who don’t read (according to Steve Jobs), has developed an interactive narrative in We Tell Stories: Six authors. Six stories. Six weeks.

The story starts out on a Google map of London at Pancras Station. We read the bubbles over map locations and follow the steps of the protagonist as he progresses through the story. There is a puzzle involved and we get the clues as we read. Gimmicky? A bit. And, for those of us who love traditional book literacy for how we become lost in a narrative, this is a decidedly different experience.

But it’s part of the experiment. Books, after all, are merely narrative. And, how we deliver the story can vary, as this particular vehicle demonstrates.