Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Plain English

This week, Wikipedia has been my best friend and worst enemy. Ok, that may be a bit melodramatic, but I have seen it's good and bad side. (Impressive, for a 2 day week!)

My 7th graders have been working on creating a documentary on topics of their choice. In one of my classes, I have a blind student. I've been working with his Visual Impairment teacher to help modify lessons so he can participate. (First of all, you'd be amazed how much work it is to use a computer completely without a mouse or visual cues of where you're at.) The part of the project the kids are working on right now is using Google to effectively search for information. His teacher told me that web searching is sort of a mess for the visually impaired since websites are all designed differently, so screen-reading software reads them all differently. So, I decided simply to find one basic website, and let the screen reader read him the information that he was looking for about WWI. Where did I turn? Wikipedia.

I got to the website for him, set him up, and let it go. When I came back, he said he didn't understand any of it, so I listened for a second. It turns out that every time text is a link, a screen reader says "Link" before it reads that word. Hence, a wikipedia entry might sound like this:

Long-term causes, such as link imperialistic foreign policies of the great powers of link Europe, such as the link German Empire, the link Austro-Hungarian Empire, the link Ottoman Empire, the link Russian Empire, the link British Empire, link France and link Italy, played a major role.

Needless to say, I can understand why that would be confusing. So, I spent the rest of class (while managing 30 other kids) trying to find a website that didn't sound ridiculous and have unnecessary links. (I failed.)
However, my faith in Wikipedia was restored today when I found a student looking at a picture of the bus that Rosa Parks rode on. I looked at the picture and started to read the caption when I realized it was in French. I asked why he was reading in French (which he doesn't speak), and he said he must have accidentally clicked on the language button on the left side of the page. As we scanned the list of languages, I noticed one listed as "Simple English." I clicked on it, and it "translated" the page into plain English. As I read the page, it occurred to me that it is PERFECT for ELL students learning English and younger students who need less complex sentences and words. (When I translated the page back into the regular English entry, it included more information and in more complex forms.) Simple English Wikipedia has over 65,000 articles, which is, of course, not close to the nearly 3.5 million articles the standard version has, but still a substantial number. About 80% of the things I was looking for were there.

While it does still have plenty of links, and is therefore not very suitable for my blind student, it is perfect for many, many other students. I particularly like that the homepage says that it is meant to be simple wording and descriptions of things that may not be simple concepts, which makes it particularly suitable for older students learning English or who may have learning disabilities. Also, students can add to it. If they know more information that isn't included on a topic, they can submit it. If a page they're looking for isn't there, they can create it. You just can't beat plain English!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Give it a try!

This summer, the district began a cadre of teachers who wanted to learn how to make video tutorials using Screenflow, a program that records audio, video, and actions on your screen. I knew this could be extremely useful in various settings, so I signed up. Each month, we have assignments on which educational technology tools we are to create a screencast about. The theory is that it takes about an hour of work for every minute of video you create, and district wants 3 minute videos. Unfortunately, mine tend to take closer to an hour and a half of work for each minute of completed video. But, they end up being very effective, so it's exciting.

My first video was about Wallwisher, an online sticky note website. It got pretty good reviews from district personnel, so I was happy about that. For the next month, I made one on Google Lit Trips. Google Lit Trips were created by a guy named Jerome Burg and they basically take books and plot their locations in Google Earth. Then, all users do is download the "layer" in Google Earth and it automatically flies to those locations and brings up comments, discussion questions, quotes, etc. from the book. Some of the books they have done this with include "Make Way for Duckling" and "Grapes of Wrath."

My video was posted on our district website and Youtube channel about a week ago. On Friday before I left school, I got a phone call from one of the district Instructional Technology Specialists (which I aspire to be ;-)), and he read me the following comment left on the video on Youtube:
This is Jerome Burg, from Google Lit Trips. I just wanted to thank you for your excellent introduction to the project. I'm honored by your kind words. I don't know if you noticed the new link to videos on the front page, but that link is actually a search string that finds all YouTube videos about Google Lit Trips. I just tested it and sure enough yours shows up.
Thanks again, it means much to me.
I was so excited to see that 1) ANYONE saw what I made, and 2) that one of the people who saw it was the creator of the whole thing! It was definitely exciting to see the power of the web :-) It once again strengthened my view that you won't get anywhere in life without putting yourself out there. It's true: someone might say no, it might not work, people might not like it, etc. but you'll never know if you don't try. In my case, it's not like there aren't smarter, more tech-savvy people out there (there are TONS), but I'm slowly getting closer to my goal, just by trying things out and occasionally failing, but often succeeding.

Google doesn't speak English

Before fall break, a teacher came up to me and said some of my favorite words (other than, "Go home, take the day off, you deserve it!"). He said, "Hey, I'd really love some help with integrating technology, especially now that I have the new Activboard. Can you help me sometime?" Yes, yes!!! :-) This is one of my favorite things to do at school. [Note that I didn't say one of my favorite things is to FIX technology.]

After a brief discussion with him, we established that he'd like to start with doing web research with his 5th graders. This was an excellent place to start, because I was planning on doing the same thing with my 7th graders in the coming weeks. So, last week, when the internet was down at school and the battery on my laptop was dead, I hand-wrote my lesson plan for the first time ever. (It bites, because my handwriting is awful and I'm not good at visually organizing information on paper.) But, all in all, it was a good start.

Yesterday morning, it was time to put the rubber to the road and I went over to work with the 5th graders. Since I had previously come in and seen some of their projects on Native Americans, I started with that topic. First, I had them close the laptops, and then take out their textbooks. (Sometimes you have to go back in time to make current technology make sense.) After we established a research question, "Why did the Iroquois build longhouses?" I had them look it up under W for Why (according to a suggestion by a student, which is what I was hoping someone would say :-)) Needless to say, it took about 15 seconds for them to realize that wasn't going to work. So then, we narrowed it down to keywords (Iroquois, longhouse, why) and I had students come highlight them on the Activboard. They looked up those keywords and came up with much more information.

From there, we addressed the fact that Google is basically an index, and you have to search in keywords, just like you do in an index. Additionally, I tried to emphasize that Google doesn't speak English, so complete sentences are irrelevant, because it looks up every single web page with all of the words you searched (including every page with Why, every page with The, etc.) That brought us to searching the keywords in the question, and then refining the search with other synonyms for better results (why, cause, reason, etc.). I also made sure to emphasize that the more accurate keywords you use, the more you'll narrow down your search results (referencing the number of results Google found).

Once we were clear on that, I had them do a quick 3 question Google Form survey/quiz to determine that we were understanding it, and then reviewed the results together, which show up in a linked Google Spreadsheet in real time. (By the way, Google Forms are the coolest thing ever for that type of instant results without expensive "clicker" systems. It's another option when you create a new item in Google Docs.) Overall, it seemed to work like a charm :-) Hopefully, it'll work that well with 7th graders :-)

I'm planning on going in to the 5th grade class again and reviewing web site quality and reliability next, and then (at least with the 7th graders) we'll talk about Advanced Search options. In the grand scheme of things, this seems like a really little thing to get excited about, but the topic is so crucial, since it's something the kids will use (eventually) multiple times a day, essentially every day of their lives. So, it's exciting seeing them learn a skill that will be so critical down the road. Whether its cool or not, its exciting to be a part of it!

PS: I dressed up as Google for Halloween. White pants and shirt, with Google logo and search bar pinned to my shirt :-)