Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Child-like Discoveries

"Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows." ~John Betjeman, Summoned by Bells
Children are a wonder. They have this natural curiosity about all things that allows them to explore and discover their surroundings. They lack the sense of danger that comes with age and experience that allows them to learn without hesitation through their explorations.

All too often as adult we are afraid to try new things for fear of failure or fear of breaking something (like ourselves - our bones, or the machines we are on). But what could we accomplish if we approach these opportunities with child-like optimism?

Many times I'm asked, "How did you learn how to do everything on the computer? Did you take classes?" Sometimes I do tell them of classes and training sessions I've had, but most of the time my response is simply, "I've learned from trying and not being afraid to push buttons." And then I see the look, that puzzling, timid, shocked, scared, well - what if I break something look. And here's the beauty of it all, and my reply, its only a machine and can be fixed or rebuilt.

Last week I got a new Android phone and have been trying to learn a new user-interface because I'm not familiar with Android OS. I think I gave the battery a pretty good workout this weekend on an photographic excursion to Naples (Florida). Although I brought my dslr and all its bulky lenses and equipment with me, sometimes it was just easier and more practical to slide out my handy cell phone and snap a picture or two. While I've been taking pictures and uploading them to Facebook and Google Plus, I've also been playing with the settings and seeing what each setting was capable of. Sure, I could have read manuals, blogs, and other articles about my phone; they all would have helped me learn about its capabilities. But I find the best way to learn something is to just play with it and see what it can do. Some may be saying, what if I broke my new phone? Well, my thinking to that is that I have all of my Contacts backed up elsewhere, and my pictures are all saved onto a memory card (and most have been uploaded to my computer), so if I really messed my phone up badly, I could always reset it as a LAST resort, so no harm in pushing buttons!

My mom has a smart phone and hates it. She says she doesn't understand it and doesn't know how to work it. On a recent visit, my children and I played with her phone for about five minutes. The interface was different than what I was used to, but I was still able to figure out a few things on her phone. We made her a video and showed her some things on her phone she never knew existed. She wanted to know how we knew how to do those things on there so quickly. My question to her was, well, have you played with it? She didn't understand the question.

When many adults think of the word "play" the word is interpreted as something children do. Yes, children do play - it's how they learn. When children play house, they are learning how to communicate with one another, and they are learning how adults do things in the real word. When children play games, they are learning about sportsmanship and strategies. Younger children love to learn, because to them, learning is fun. They have not, yet, equated learning to work. I think we as adults need to spend less time working at work, and more time playing at work. If nothing else, it would make work a more fun place to be. Have you played today? :)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Turning words into art with word clouds

I know I've blogged about using word clouds to create works of art earlier this year, but after participating in yesterday's webinar on word clouds, I decided to try out each of the reviewed sites and see what they could do. I think I also mentioned in my blog, yesterday, about the webinar that this post on word clouds was coming next.

I've also been told by some that my posts are WAY too long and I need to keep them shorter if anyone is ever going to read them. So here goes, 4 word cloud sites, the ins, outs, good, bad, and ugly, as short and sweet as I can get it.

I decided to use the same list of words for each of the 4 sites so I could get a better comparison of what each is capable of. I kept the list in a TextEdit page, copying and pasting the list each time into the 4 sites.

Since I've already written about Wordle before, let me share some things I've since learned about this site. You can increase the size of a particular word in your cloud by repeating the same word a time or two in your initial word list. You can also use sentences, phrases and word strings (or compound words) if you use a tilde (~) in between the words taking the place of a space. For example, "nuts and bolts" would be written out "nuts~and~bolts". (Only, no quotation marks.) I've discovered a good way to save your image, other than taking a screen shot, is to save it as a .pdf. Otherwise, Wordle does not provide a way of saving your images, other than posting them in their gallery and showing you a link to your word cloud.

Here's an example of my elementary engineering terminology - click on the image to see a larger image and close up of the words:

Wordle: Elementary Engineering

Word It Out is a new site to me. I had not heard about this site until the webinar. That being said, WordItOut is pretty simple to use, and very straight forward. You simply type in (or copy/paste) your word list, and click the "word it out" button. The generator does the rest for you. The things you have control over include the color scheme, fonts, and target. Target is where you want your word cloud centered. You could move the target so the words move stemming from one of the corners, in the center, or off to one side. When your are done, push the "save" button, and the site emails you a link to your word cloud.

Here are the same words used in WordItOut - click the thumbnail image to see a larger image:

I chose to keep this one rather than customizing it futher because the color scheme and the font style reminded me of a chalkboard.

WordItOut provided some ideas for printing your word cloud on shirts, mugs, and other gift accessories. I don't think I noticed this capability in Wordle.

Tagul was the only site of the 4 that you needed to create a login for. However, its free and easy to create a login for this site. Only takes a minute or two, and then you are in. The thing I liked about Tagul was how dynamic the words in the cloud were. By default, all words in the word cloud are set to defer the person clicking on the word in the word cloud to a dictionary on Google. With Tagul, you could also set the word cloud to a defined shape, like circle/ellipse, diamond, heart, circle, cloud, and triangle. When you are done and you have your shape set up the way you like it, I recommend going to that site and downloading the picture image. Tagul also provides you with embed code to add your image as a flash object on your web page. And for iPad users, they provide an .svg version which allows for similar viewing as the shockwave-flash version. I think this is a great addition to the site and adds to the usefulness of the tool.

Another one of the nice things about Tagul is that you can save and download your images with a transparent background. This comes in handy when adding your word cloud to a site that does not have a white background.

Click on the word cloud image below to see it in Tagul. Run your mouse over the words to see it in action.

The last site I learned about is Tagxedo. The cool thing about Tagxedo is that you can form your word cloud into many different shapes, much more than the basic shapes Tagul provided. And if any of those shapes are not working for you, then upload your own shape to use. (I uploaded a gear to add my engineering words inside of.)

Tagxedo allows you to to take any website, blog, RSS feed, Twitter account, news article, pretty much anything on the web and turn it into a word cloud. Besides uploading your own image to use as a word cloud shape, you can also use your own local fonts. There are many different color themes to choose from, or you can create your own. Saving your word cloud in Tagxedo is easy with so many different ways to choose from. You can save as an image wiht a wide range of sizes and extensions, even thumbnails, share in gallery and get URL and the iFrame embed code (under the Web tab); you can print it, save as a thumbnail; or in the Advanced tab you can save the link to the full size image or download it as an .html page. And when you are done with your Tagxedo masterpiece, think about having it printed on a mug, t-shirt, totebag, mousepad, or many more gift items in their store.

One thing I did notice, being on a Mac, is that when I initially tried creating my word cloud in Tagxedo in Safari, it wanted to update and install my Microsoft Silverlight. When I switched to Firefox, I did not have any issues with the site.

You can view the word cloud below in Tagxedo and see the dynamics by clicking on the image below. The gray gear background is not there, but you can roll over the words and see them pop out.

And that's four word cloud sites, using the same word list, all done differently with the tools provided in each site. I hope you will take the time to play around in each site to see what it can do for you in your classroom. Special thanks to Kim Munoz for featuring these sites in a webinar, and to SimpleK12 for their webinar series. If you are looking for more ideas on how to use these sites, Kim has links in her blog on to different articles written about these sites.

Monday, July 11, 2011

SimpleK12 Webinars are a good investment of summer time

Today I participated in a wonderful webinar by SimpleK12 on using word clouds in the classroom. It was called "Tag, you're it! - Free Word Cloud tools" and was taught by Kim Munoz, part of the "Wonderful World of Web Tools" series. This was my first webinar from this group, but certainly not my first webinar. I had a little trouble getting in, especially from my technology room at school, but once I got in, I was fully engaged the entire time. By the way, if you are on a Mac, and trying to get into one of these webinars from behind a firewall, such as a school network, I highly recommend using Firefox over Safari. After multiple attempts to join the meeting (gotomeeting) on Safari, and having Safari go unresponsive on me, I switched to Firefox, and got in immediately.

The webinar was an engaging half an hour giving me an over view of four word cloud sites and tips for using each site. (Look for the word cloud site review coming soon!) I could see where she was going, what she was typing in, what buttons she was pushing, and also hear her explanation of the steps she was taking as she went along. There was also a chat window on the side that offered me the chance to ask questions along the way (or offer a suggestion) that was shared at the end of the webinar.

The webinar was short, only thirty minutes, but yet, gave me exactly what I needed about some helpful tools I cold use in my classroom. I'm signed up for two more this week, and a few next week as well. Looking forward to getting some more professional development in while I have the extra time during the summer. My son, who came to school with me today to help work on some of the computers, followed the webinar right along with me, and learned a thing or two about using word clouds.

SimpleK12 has many different webinars to choose from on technology that are offered free of charge. They are presented by leaders in educational technology, many of whom I follow on Twitter and in my PLN. Some of the webinars offer include using Skype with your students, 21st Century teaching tools, using mobile devices in education, virtual field trips, how to convince kids that writing is fun, using Google tools, and creating posters in Glogster, just to name a few. All you have to do is go to the site (http://simplek12.com/tlc/webinars/), select some webinars that interest you, sign up (name and email address), wait for the email, click the link on the email when its time, sit back and enjoy. Its that simple!

Now you could check out all these places and tools on your own or you can be actively engaged with others learning more about their potential with your students from other educators who already use them. Its only half an hour - that's the length of most sit-coms, and its summer time. You don't even have to drive anywhere to attend a workshop. You can participate right from the comforts of home, school, or wherever you are (with Internet, of course). What do you have to lose?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Timeout for Updates

A friend of mine told me I needed to take a technology timeout; and I'm wondering what's a timeout from technology? I read in a blog yesterday written by a man that was trying to take a time out from technology by spending a week on the beach. I thought it was a little ironic that he was taking the time to blog (I think, via his cell phone) while he was supposed to be relaxing on the beach. (But a well-written blog post, nonetheless!)

Yeah, okay, so you are writing about the irony of saying you are taking a break from technology then using technology to blog. What's your point? The point I am trying to say, and wonder, is Is there really such thing is a break from technology, aside from going Amish? Have we really become so attached to our high-tech devices as a society that we cannot let go, kick back and enjoy the beauty around us?

I think there is a happy medium, though. Sometimes we can get so caught up in trying to do day to day activities, such as work and home, and trying to keep up with our social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc) that we fail to take time out for some things that need to be done. And then we put those tasks off, procrastinating to the point where the tasks become to daunting that we feel overwhelmed.

Last night as I was waiting, rather impatiently to try to get into Google Plus, I pulled up some student podcasts from this past year that I have been needing to post to the website. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was redoing my teacher page that is attached to my school's website. The teacher site had been needing to be updated since the beginning of last year, and now it is time to update it once again for the coming year. Now, I know some would have said to just ditch the student work and forget adding it to the website, try for next year. But it was important for me to showcase them on our website for the students and the parents. This was something that needed to be done while school was still in session, I realize, but at least now they are up there. And I can find some comfort, or relaxation in the knowledge that I followed through with what I told my students.

After spending the night working on several pages for my teacher site and seeing that all shiny-new on the website today, I'm thinking maybe its time to stop procrastinating on other issues, and get to it! (We won't even talk about organizing my desk at home in this blog post! :) (Sorry, babe...) If you are a regular reader of this blog, and have been kind enough not to comment on the state of the rest of the website, I dearly appreciate it. However, it has been sadly neglected and desperately needs a make-over. Time to stop tossing around all those ideas in my head for what I want to change and put it to action! This is what I mean by taking time out for updates. Time to stop paying attention to what's happening on Twitter or Facebook - all those posts will be there for me to catch up on when I come back, the school's website is pretty well updated and everyone's happy (that I know of) with that. So, now its time to turn my attention to something that I'm actually paying hosting on, but am too embarrassed to show of in my ed tech circles. No more excuses, no more apologizing, just going to knuckle down over the next week or so and get it done. :)

What is it that you are needing to work on? Do you have a pile on your desk, or a folder in your computer that you have been collecting stuff, but never putting to use? How about taking a technology timeout for updates? At least a time out from the social media scene...

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Can computers replace teachers?

Today's blog question comes from a topic I read about in LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Technology-Integration-in-Education-108447) - can computers replace teachers?

This is an interesting question, and something to think about as our technology becomes more and more advanced. Yesterday I was twittering as I sitting in my living room watching tv with my boyfriend. And as we were sitting there, him on the iPad, and me on the iPod, half watching an older movie/quoting lines from the movie together, and half sliding our fingers across the Twitter screens on our perspective iOS devices, we began to Tweet back and forth to each other. Mind you, we were only about 2-3 feet away from each other and could reach out and grab each other's hands if we wanted to. But there we were communicating to each other through Twitter.

This brought to mind another scene I've seen quite often in my own children, and at times, with my students, and that is texting to each other while standing next to each other. (Is texting the new talking?)

I bring these two scenarios up to show just how reliant we have become as a society on our digital devices. And, I'm sure Hollywood would like for us to believe that there is some possibility for computers to replace our teachers. After all, they've had a holographic program replace a doctor, a robot replace a boy, and an artificial intelligent man become a beloved member of a household, even to the point of becoming the great-granddaughter's husband.

This question also reminds me of a short story I wrote in one of my college English classes some years back about a day when technology failed in an elementary school and everyone had to revert back to battery powered lanterns to light the class, and books (actual hard covered paper books) to teach the class. This sounded very futuristic at the time that it was written, but with so many school districts moving forward in the next five years replacing textbooks with digital copies on tablets, some of those thoughts are not so far-fetched as they once were.

My thinking is that while we may be moving more towards a digital horizon where tablets replace textbooks, and biometrics built into OLED desktops take the place of old fashioned attendance records, students still need teachers. While it may seem like teachers are being replaced by computers with so many online classes are being offered, and students are able to work at their own pace rather than sitting in a physical classroom listening to a lecture by a flesh-and-blood instructor, teachers (certified teachers, at that) are still the ones responsible for planning the syllabus and course work offered in the online courses, and still may be providing the lectures, even if they are recorded.

Today's high schoolers, and some middle school students have the opportunity for acceleration (or remediation) through virtual schools, but the course work, curriculum road maps, tests, assessments, and even data collection, are still done, planned, and evaluated by certified teachers.

As a twenty-first century teacher, it is our duty to integrate technology into the classroom; however the integrated technology is by no means a replacement for our teaching, merely a tool or means of presentation. It is still our duty to evaluate and monitor student progress, measure the lessons according to benchmark standards, and differentiate instruction as we see fit to meet the needs of our students. Teachers make decisions everyday that affect their future lesson plans based on many aspects of his or her students' responses to an activity, some of which is read through body language, and the teacher's understanding of the student.

Sure computers are capable of evaluating and making decisions based on responses, but not to the level of complexity and humanity that a real, live, breathing teacher is capable of. A computer's decisions are based on a series of if-then clauses, zeroes and ones; opened and closed. No computer can evaluate the depth and richness of a student's artwork, or appreciate the complexity of creative dance move. If it could, my bet is that a teacher wrote the algorithm.

What's your take on this? Is it possible for computers to replace teachers? If yes, to what extent?