Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Maximizing eBook Potential

For a middle or high school English class, reading novels on an electronic device utilizes the commenting, built-in dictionary, clickable background knowledge via web links, and multimedia components, all the great resources teachers have been using in one, mobile device. 

However, it would be wasteful if lessons were limited to traditional literature circles in which students read the same novel as a small group and allow discussion to guide the learning. Years of pedagogy supports this practice, but with the advent of mobile devices, these literature circles need to expand outside the 25-30 students of a classroom. 

Kids aren’t just holding books, they’re holding a communication device. FaceTime, Skype, instant messaging, email, and wikis are all ways discussions on text can break the classroom’s four walls. Opportunities for discussions with experts or students from relevant regions of the globe bring a range of insights a single community of learners can’t. 

Attached below is a lesson plan for traditional literature circles in which the only innovative component is utilizing eBooks and the various tools the book reading apps provide. It falls short of its potential by limiting the discussions to the students in the particular classroom. 

This lesson focuses on the skills of using an ebook. Yet, student background in technology literacy and device intuition is growing. While basic training in the tools of a school’s particular ebooks is necessary, just as it is necessary to teach the use of science lab equipment or a new software program, an entire series of lessons is overkill. Further, students often end up teaching the teacher a new trick and are more than ready to show off their knowledge to the fellow student who is a tad behind. This instructional time could be better spent discovering connections with world-wide circles. 

eBook Lesson Plans:

Sunday, February 10, 2013

10 Apps for Teachers

As a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, I've been using my iPad to stay organized and grade assignments for a couple years now. Here are my thoughts on the ten I've used the most. 


This is the best lesson plan organizer in the app store. It color codes your classes, allows you to bump lessons ahead due to scheduling or pacing conflicts, and email lessons from the app in a wonderful looking table view. I love the ability to return to previous year’s lessons, referring back to “Teacher’s Notes” about what worked and what would need revising. The most useful aspect has been emailing the lessons to my administration. During a yearly review, my principal asked for lesson plans. It was a click of a button away. The developer is a teacher himself and has created desktop versions of the software. He is very easy to get in contact with for questions via Facebook or email. He’s responded to each of my questions within 48hrs. 

I give it a 4/5 because it only has weekly and daily views. I prefer to see my lessons and unit structures in monthly views. I understand this would be difficult to display on the iPad screen, but it’s just how my brain works. 


Anyone familiar with Google Drive knows the collaborative and accessibility benefits. Your documents are everywhere without the hassle of saving them to DropBox, and you can easily partner on documents with others. The app version provides everything from the online experience including editing, invites, commenting, and publishing, only now in an iPad friendly user interface (UI). 


As I’ve gone BYOD in my Language Arts classroom, I recommend all my students download a dictionary app. MW is my number one choice for its superior quality of information and UI. The voice recognition allows you to say the word you’re searching for; however, it is very sensitive and won’t work if background noise breaks up your voice. Students appreciate it’s use as a thesaurus. By looking up a word they know, several synonyms are provided. A simple click on any synonym will send you to that word’s entry. Sometimes a 7th grader can’t pronounce a word they found. The app will voice the word for them. 

A trusted name came through with a great app. 


I experimented with several note taking apps before settling on Notability. My main concerns with other apps were the lack of organization and constant crashing (resulting in lost work). Notability has been very stable, organized, and comprehensive in its capabilities. Videos, links, and images are easily embedded. Transitioning from typing to handwriting is seamless. A library of shapes allows for infographing. All of my notes are neatly organized in folders and everything is automatically backed up on my DropBox. 

I use Notability to grade student essays. It allows me to write comments directly on the essay as if it was paper and pen, type longer comments at the end, and highlight sentences with various pen styles. The most impactful benefit has been emailing graded assignments directly to families. Handing back essays has always resulted in unread teacher comments and a filled trash bin at the end of class. So, I email the essays home for parents and students to view together. If a student wants a retake, they must log-in with a parent, review my comments, and a parent notifies me by email. 


While I prefer Google Drive for my professional and personal work, DropBox’s folder organization makes it the better choice for student essays. Google Drive’s folders are clunky to create and navigate. DropBox has an organized UI for folders and viewing documents. 

I use DropBox and Notability together to grade essays. Students save their essays as PDFs and post them to a public folder on our school server. Then, I save all the essays to my DropBox by logging into the website. When I open the app, the essays are organized and I open the PDFs in Notability for grading. 


Explain Everything allows the user to record “white-board” like actions as he or she speaks. I often upload a PDF template of what I want to demonstrate in the video. I prefer it to Educreations due to the increased amount of tools. This is a great tool for educators looking to implement Flipped Classroom elements. 

It can be a bit cumbersome when finalizing the videos, taking long amounts of time to post the video to DropBox or email. So, your iPad usage comes to a standstill. Plus, you can’t leave the app during this time as the uploading will pause and then restart when you return. Be sure to monitor longer uploads. If you’re screen goes into lock mode after a few minutes, the upload will stop. Either turn off your lock in settings or keep an eye on your iPad and touch the screen every few minutes.


This app is a prime example of a web tool developing an app with all the same features, but the web experience cannot be trumped. The UI looks great but can be touchy when it comes to manipulating the screen with your fingers. Creating a Prezi requires scaling and tilting images and text. The use of a mouse online makes this a simple process. Using your fingers with the app is not nearly as simple. 

But, all your presentations sync with the online log-in and save your changes. So, if you don’t want to carry your laptop, at least you have your presentations. 


This app has a very basic function but holds a lot of nostalgia. Remember those (or perhaps do you use?) cardboard, slidable percentage calculators? Slide the number of questions into the window and the column shows a percentage to the corresponding amount wrong. For this app, all you have to do is type in the number of questions and the same information is provided. That’s it. Basic. The best part is it mimics the green color of the cardboard grader I remember seeing on a teacher’s desk as a kid. 


This app allows you to read and edit documents opened from DropBox, email, or other cloud based systems. I find the UI inferior. When using any of the editing or note taking functions, it requires you to click save, undo, or cancel before going back to the read view or switching tools. If you forget to click save, you’ve lost potentially a lot of notes. If you want to undo something five moves earlier, you have undo all five. Double tap to zoom, but single tap to pull up the tool bar and swipe to switch pages. Sounds familiar, but if you’re not use to the app, you might zoom when you want to turn or the tool bar keeps reappearing. Notability does everything this app does better, and more. 

Except for one tool: popup note. This tool places a tiny word bubble icon (which you can color code) on the document. When you click on the word bubble, you can type extensive notes regarding whatever picture of text you’re reading. A similar function is built into iBooks. This is the only thing Notability is missing. In Notability, you’re limited to writing in the margins or white space of PDFs. Sometimes I have more to write. These popup notes can hold any amount of typing and only take up a small portion of the screen.


Admittedly, the main reason for such a low rating is I got burned on the app crashing, resulting in the loss of 30 graded (but unrecorded) essays along with a myriad of notepads filled with ideas and comments from training conferences. 

As for usability, the app provides handwritten or typed note taking space, as well as marking PDFs. However, it has zero support for embedding video. Again, I refer you to Notability for greater stability and superior UI in every way. 

From Fun to Necessary: Breeding Student iPad Users

This video confirmed my recurring views on iPads in the classroom. I categorize iPad educational capabilities into two groups: A) touch/respond apps best suited for elementary and B) innovating old-school materials for faster access to knowledge. 

The beginning of the video focused on the former category. Elementary aged students respond positively to the instant gratification of answering correctly, spelling with their fingers, or completing word searches. However, the charm of touch/response wains as students advance in years which is where the second category comes into play.

As students lose interest in a firework display for answering a math problem correctly (touch/response), the iPad better serves as an expedient means to traditional ends. Considering current students are digital natives, maneuvering apps is second nature and preferable to interacting with traditional materials (i.e. paper books, maps, calculators, etc.). The second half of the video shows students viewing maps and reading text with iPad apps. While a student could just as easily search in a hardcopy atlas or read the paperback version of a book, supplemental information has greater accessibility on the iPad. 

Digital natives find it cumbersome and antiquated to search out supplemental information when using physical copies of text. This reluctance will often lead to inaction. Will they put their novel down and flip through a dictionary for each word they don’t understand? No. Will they actively search out a modern roadmap overlay for the topographical maps in a paper atlas? No. iPad versions provide immediate access to this information, matching the cultural expectations of the digital native. 

While their reluctance to put in the research time is concerning on certain levels, educators must understand the inertia of the technology movement cannot be slowed or stopped. True, proper research skills that include the use of multiple resources, tables of content, indexes, etc. is necessary to a certain extent, their traditional methods of use are themselves antiquated and have taken on new meaning and usability. A table of contents is no longer a place to find page numbers, but a chapter list for which to click immediately to necessary information. Further, even these uses become overshadowed by the “search text” bar at the top of iBooks and similar materials.

The video focuses on the consumer and research side of iPad use but does not show the creation aspects. Using document sharing, blogging/vlogging, and infographic creation apps allows for high quality student products in short time periods. Further, iPads allow for these creations to be collaborative and published just as quickly. This is of greater benefit to the classroom than the consumption aspects because, for the time being, traditional hardcopy materials can suffice as the information is still available. However, it is more difficult to recreate the collaborative and publishing capabilities if student products are limited to pen and paper or word processing. Thankfully, iPads allow for both. 

The video is evidence of how digital native students are conditioned from an early age to utilize technology for expediency. In kindergarten they can know immediately if they picked the correct shape by way of touch/response apps. This learned expectation manifests itself as the need for immediate definitions and access to information in the older grades. Because of these reasons, in the coming years, more iPads or similar tablet devices will replace traditional materials within the classroom.