National Novel Writing Month Prompts Teen to Write Book

I was interested to see this article in the Raleigh News & Observer last week: Novel Writing Mission a Success: Apex teen crafts schi-fi book as part of one-month challenge.

Not only was this fourteen-year old able to meet daily word counts as part of the annual writing project, but he was able to extend, complete, and then publish his story.

NaNoWriMo badge

National Novel Writing Month, and its offshoot, National Blog Posting Month (otherwise known as NaBloPoMo), take place every November. Every year, tens of thousands of people take up the challenge to write daily, either for blogs or on a novel manuscript. The challenge pushes the participants to keep writing, even when inspiration dries up.


When I have participated in NaBloPoMo in previous years, I always started out with a few ideas to write about, then hit a wall when nothing inspired me. The point of the daily writing, though, is not so much to write beautifully crafted work (although that’s great too), but to keep writing even when you are not inspired. Some posts turn out nicely, and others are simply finished and posted. It’s an experience in perseverance. As writer Daniel Colvin says,

“Writing is like exercising. You got to do it often and it’s not always divine.”

The Novel Writing version sets a daily word count target and offers targets writing focuses, such as fleshing out characters and setting up conflicts in the plot. NaNoWriMo, and its Young Writers Program may be an even better choice for younger writers as it offers a finished result with lots of support. It’s worth learning that sometimes one has to to produce a bad draft to get to a better draft.


Given my past experiences, I was excited to see that this young man took the project all the way to actual (limited) publication. This offers inspiration to other young and old writers, and to teachers as well.

Imagine your students writing daily. Imagine them focused and persevering. Writing for a goal helps keep them excited and motivated, even when inspiration is in short supply. There’s nothing like a goal to help move them along. Using Web 2.0 tools such as a blog or class wiki can only support this kind of daily writing. There’s also a community of other writers working along side your students. It can be fun and encouraging to be part of a larger project.

Have any of you undertaken a daily writing project, either for yourself or with your students? I’d love to hear about it.

Additional educator materials from the Young Writer’s Program here.

Digging for Educational Apps

I have spent the last few days digging around for educational apps to review for my class webliography. My focus is partly on apps for English Language Learners and partly on apps that I would use myself as a teacher, such as a student dictionary reference. Now having spent the better part of two days searching, I have been feeling like an app prospector, that is: panning for gold and finding mostly gravel. Or perhaps, since I am focusing on ELLs, finding garnets and rubies and the occasional rare pearl instead of the particular precious material I’m looking for.

There are not many apps or products targeted toward ELLs that are targeted toward older students. Basic apps are often too babyish and simplistic for the older children, much less high school students. Many of those apps are as easily accomplished by other means as well.

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking for a digital dictionary source to use with students. I’ve been a little frustrated by my search because many options seem to include either too much or too little information. My favorite one thus far is the Merriam-Webster educational website. I’m pleased to notice that they have a variety of dictionary resources for a variety of age levels. I do like their Learner’s Dictionary for Students of ESL, EFL, and the TOEFL Test. They have digital dictionary references for younger students as well.

I also tried out, which is a free app available through the Apple App Store. If I were to buy an upgrade, that would get rid of the ads and add example sentences, both of which would be necessary or useful if the app were to be used by students. Dictionary is a little more pared down, which I think would be useful for distractible students.

I found Grammar Dragon or Grammar Words Types Quiz,  which looked promising untilI realized that their company, Always Icecream and Clever Dragons, also promoted other less-school friendly apps with any of their product line. I would not want children clicking on tempting games while trying to practice grammar unless they were grammar games! I found many colorful but hokey games.

I’ve been using several sources to search for apps and resources. From Edudemics, I found several links, including this list of The 200 Best Special Education Apps. I thought it might include some apps for ELLs. If I were looking for tools to use with Special Ed Students, it would have been fantastic. They offer a scrollable Scribd doc with the apps categorized by area. The first ones I investigated were related to helping students verbalize or communication simple needs, such as Communication Skills and Everyday Social Skills, both found in iTunes. The series by Mobile Education looked especially promising. They include Sentence Builder, Story Builder, and more. I watched several product demos to assess their suitability for ELLs, but not really. The Mobile Education apps are actually designed for children with special needs, and were originally developed by a father frustrated by lack of effective educational materials for his daughter with special needs. So the Mobile Edu apps are great for children with auditory processing or aspbergers or other developmental challenges, but not as useful for ELLs as I had hoped (unless someone was additionally learning challenged).

Another source I’ve been intrigued by is this “Padagogy Wheel” of apps arranged by how they coincide with Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is also used in the Common Core Curriculum. I especially like how I can find apps that correlate with the different verbs from Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy that are often used when writing lesson objectives. By the way, Padagogy is not a typo; all of the apps are available for use on the iPad, hence the ‘Pad.’ The developer seems very responsive to feedback, and has issued an update in the last week since I first saw it. My only quibble about the wheel is that is seems mostly about apps that I might not use with ELLs or younger children. Still, it’s an interesting arrangement with lots of ideas, some of which overlap with other arrangements.

I’ve also looked at Kathy Schock’s Web 2.0 Apps to Support Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, another take on sorting for lesson objectives. The two apps I looked at from there are podomatic and photobabble, both which seem to be apps for adding student-created audio. Interesting, but not quite what I am looking for.

One app that seems promising for ELLs is Pocket Artic by Synapse Apps, LLC, which features common phonemes for practicing pronunciation. I was a little disappointed by the price tag, though, nearly $10, and the reviews complaining about the need for additional upgrades. It is available for both iPad and iPhone, so it would be pretty versatile for older students to carry around, but I think it’s a little too technical to be useful for younger children.

I love, love, love Scholastic’s Read180 for ELLs and other struggling readers, but it is considerably out of my price range. Does a it count as a resource for teachers if I would have to lobby my school to license it?

So I’m still looking for my second app. I’ve scanned and looked over scores of apps and Web tools (more than I can even write about here!), but I’m just not finding one that seems to fill the ESL gap. I’ll have to decide soon. Maybe I’ll go back to assessing a non-ESL resource. There are plenty to go around. I just have to dig through a lot of “gravel.”

iPad-Centric Classrooms?

At Edudemic, I saw another interesting article by 4th grade math & science teacher, Nikolaos Shatzopoulos, iPads In The Classroom: The Right Questions You Should Ask. The article seems written out of the concern that we are making our classrooms more “iPad-centric” than “student-centered,” a concern I share.

In an especially apt quote (no pun intended), he says,

The truth is that that no device can match the value of human interaction with real life situations or with other human beings. The iPad can be a tool of immense value in the classroom. However, it should remain just that: a tool that complements instruction, and offers learning opportunities for situations and learning concepts that are impossible to be accessed, observed, or analyzed in a classroom setting without the assistance of technology.

I might say the same about other pieces of technology. How does technology (or how do certain resources or applications) contribute to the learning goals for a class?

Mr. Shatzopoulos offers an intriguing observation:

[W]e have to move away from the question “how to use an iPad in the classroom?” and think more in terms of “why to use the iPad in the classroom?”.

Then he surprises me by saying that before we even start to plan a lesson, we need to ask not just one but both questions as a movement along our developmental path.

I think this is right. It’s not that we want to keep technology out of our classrooms, but it’s more that we want to find just the right applications for our purposes, and the fact that there are so many options makes it more likely we will grab onto something that seems to work well on a given topic, is easy to use, and has an attractive GUI or interface.

An application may not be the best, but we have only so much time and energy to sift through our options, and additionally, to learn how to use them. We are all (well, many of us), trying to operate in a new language – the language of technology – and we have to think twice as hard to juggle all our cognitive tasks.

The people creating the content are also working away. Yes, I’ve seen apps that address student’s unique learning styles and challenges. I’ve also seen good ideas in half-baked development. I’ve seen productivity apps that are little more than a glorified scratch pad, albeit with cross-playform capabilities. I’ve seen “educational” apps that seem more game glitz than learning practice. Even well-developed apps sometimes contain glaring bugs or omissions. Not every resource can serve all ages and populations.  (See my next post for more on sifting!)

I think the real trick is finding those unique capabilities that a given resource can offer to the learning process. So for the iPad, what can it offer teachers and students? Or what unique capabilities do Interactive White Boards offer, a question I’m considering as I’m planning a sample IWB lesson plan.

I think part of what makes it so challenging is that technology applications offer a dizzying array of possibilities, and we are caught in learning them all, or enough to make use of them. Maybe we are so engrossed in learning about the “how” that we lose sight of the “why.” Mr. Shatzopoulos also points out that it’s been a scant few years since the iPad has been introduced into the classroom, so of course, we are still adjusting to its very presence. This reminds me of the learning curves I’ve experienced with each new technology I’ve encountered, such as my first computer with email, my first chat rooms, my first data processing applications and encounters with social networks. It’s the same with blogs, RSS feeds, and asynchronous collaborations. I’ve lost a lot of sleep while investigating each new technology. It was and is exciting, but exhausting too.

Don’t we all just take in big gulps of information as we try to take it all and find our footing? After a while of thrashing about and losing sleep while working with the new capabilities, we settle down and really focus on what role a given technology can fill in our lives. Some applications become incorporated into our workflow, while others drop away as insufficient.

I’m sure we won’t wait to implement new technology into classrooms until we work out all the bugs. We’ll continue to take in our big gulps of new exciting Web 2.0 tools. I hope we will soon finish the “big gulp” phase, though, and move onto tailoring the applications for our actual needs. As the author says, we’ll work on discovering the “potential roles” and “meaningful ways” of addressing learning needs.

My hope is that someday educational apps and Web 2.0 technology will include educational ratings to help guide their use, much like Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (and the Common Core Curriculum derived from it) help to guide our lesson objectives and learning goals. Until then, we’ll continue to swim about in our sea of new apps. Happy swimming!

The Impact of Usability on End-User Attention Span

My classmate Kate T recently wrote about feeling overloaded with all the new technology she’s been trying out. My Word Press is not cooperating with letting me comment at the moment, so I’m cross-posting my comment here.

Kate, I’ve been feeling the same way: inundated with new tools and technology.


I’ve found myself signed up for so many little technology accounts just to try them out, they start to blur together. My reaction is to cut back to the ones that work without too much hassle. For instance, one info-graphic tool has terrific graphics, but I had to sign up for more of an account than I wanted, AND the type was so tiny, I could hardly read it, and no option to increase the font size. If I had had two out of the three, I might have attempted it.


I think the needs of the end-user is a big factor in the usability or usefulness of a given tool. As a user with many things to do in little time, I have an internal rubric for how much time I am willing to put into making something work. After a certain point, I abandon a tool and try something else.


I think content creators need to be aware of this factor as well. All the snazzy design in the world does not help you if your application is not legible or useful. That then reminds me of our blog sites. We are working on both how they work and how they look.

(Cross-posted from Kate’s Power Play on Technology Overload.)

QR Codes – Quick Links to Web Content

One thing I needed in this class besides a mobile device was something to read QR Codes, those little black and white boxes with pixilated designs that look like an ancient Mayan designed a bar code! I’ve been seeing QRCs around here and there, but how to read them? The answer, for my iPad, was a great little app called QR Code Scanner Tool from Apple Apps. A quick download and I was ready to go.

Interestingly, this app tends to get either very good or very bad reviews. This app has been working very smoothly for me so far, though, so I am very happy with its performance. It focuses in on the code quickly, scans it automatically, and takes me to the designated web content with no extra clicks.

The main reason to read QR Codes for me is to follow along with one of our texts, Flattening Classroom, Engaging Minds book by Julie Lindsay and Vicki A. Davis.


One fun feature of the book is the numerous QR Codes in the margins that take one to a specific area of the corresponding website, Flat Classroom, sometimes linking to videos, challenges, or interesting applications. There’s no need to type in the exact web address; the code takes you right to the exact page. Thus, with one scan, I found myself reading about a challenge to use new technology in the classroom – and to share my experience with others. Other teachers had already chimed in with successes and challenges. It inspired me to think of teacher collaboration as a potential for “cross-pollination” of ideas and inspiration.

Now that I had a means to scan and connect with QR Codes, I started looking for other QR Codes.

I saw one on the bottom of my raisin box. It took me to a website that first sent me to a movie promotion that the company was sponsoring. That was not of interest to me, but when I clicked around on the site, I found a terrific write up about the history and origin of the SunMaid logo. The logo image was originally based on a real person and a real red sun bonnet, and the story told me all about her and how she came to be featured in the logo. The site had lots of other links to recipes and other ideas, attractively laid out.

Next I tried a QRC I found on my Mueller whole grain spaghetti box. It sent me to a very dull, simplistic website with the logo and two link buttons, neither of which worked. Sorry, Mueller! It looked like a placeholder website while they figured out what to do with this new QRC technology.

I noticed a QRC on a stake that came with my orange pepper bedding plant. Scanning that QRC sent me to a simple website about that variety of pepper. More impressively, the company had a home website that offered lots of avenues to explore, everything from cooking ideas to tips for growing and storing the food and herbs.

A label for a basil plant took me to something similar, and more information about storing and preserving.

I looked for QRCs on other packaging and especially seed packets, but I didn’t find anything of use. I did find something that looked like a code on my tomato plant labeling, but in color. My scanner did not read it, so I gather it is a different kind of code that is less in use. The GetElastic website said it was some kind of designer tag. I think it is a Microsoft QRC tag. Very colorful, but my QRC scanner can’t read it.

I also attempted to scan the QRC off of my new tube of Neutrogena sunscreen. It looked promising, but the QRC was too tiny for the scanner to read. It was only a couple millimeters square. I think we’re going to need a bigger code.

Photo on 5-28-13 at 11.14 PM

Speaking of use, I went looking for QRC codes in magazines and newspapers. The only QRC I found in my newspaper was for Deal Saver, a “daily deal” company.

Out of curiosity, I surveyed the entire newspaper. I found that websites were mentioned more than forty times, and web addresses even more often, especially from the paper itself linking to particular stories, sections, or categories of feature. For instance, the obituary section had its own web link for submitting content. Other sections had links for a particular feature.

Of other mentions directing us to digital content, I saw three directing us to FaceBook, two to Twitter, and only the one to external info via a QRC. Email addresses for paper features or journalists were of course, ubiquitous. The local (state) paper has done a good job making sure we are as connected to their content online as in the physical paper.

Among other magazines on hand, none had any QRCs other than a denominational magazine asking people to look at plans to move the headquarters, and another for a survey. I gather they think they will get more people to fill out the survey if their readers can simply scan the code with their smart phone rather than key in a web address,

QR Codes aren’t ubiquitous yet, but they seem to be “up and coming” technology. They depend on people having a phone or scanner available to scan the codes. The primary use I’ve seen up to this point is on coupon websites. QRC coupons seem to be very popular, but I’m not sure how useful they are yet.

Still, it is very convenient in our book, to scan and go directly to a section of the website showing a particular project or topic. I will definitely look for QRCs in the future.

As I am writing this post, my “related content” that pops up at the bottom is yielding some interesting links and articles about QRCs.

The site Technology in Early Childhood explores using QRCodes to link to sight words as a audio-to-reading matching game for emergent readers. This sounds like it could very fun and useful if scanning technology were easily available.

For more on QR Codes, see the links under Related Articles below.

Organizing Via RSS Feeds

One of my tasks today has been to organize my RSS feeds. I’ve never used RSS feeds before, preferring to go to each blog individually for the visuals. After reading Richardson‘s assertion that I could “read more content from more sources in less time” (p. 72 in Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts), I realized that was exactly what I needed from my RSS. The amount of information I’m trying to keep up with is too much for me to read effectively without some “power” strategies to help me skim and filter.

I had started up a newsreader in Bloglines, somewhat at random, and had stuffed a number of interesting blogs and sources into it. I had already saved all of the class blogs that I needed to follow in a bookmarks folder on my browser (my usual method). Today I started the process of opening all of them and transferring the links to the RSS aggregator. None of them have a specialized RSS link for me to click on (since these are mostly beginner learning blogs), but I was able to use the home web address of each blog into the RSS list. Only two of the blog addresses did not cooperate with the process.

I also set up a folder on the reader for “class blogs” to organize the content. It seemed to work well to set up the folder first, and enter the links I wanted.  To be clear about that process, I pasted blog web address into the “new context” box, which generated several “widgets.” I then picked one widget for each blog (usually the one marked RSS), and dragged it into the appropriate folder.

This gave me instant information (how many new posts for each blog in the reader), and all of the blogs neatly arranged to assess easily. Best of all, I did not have to constantly click back to a bookmark folder to find the next blog or post.

Screen Shot 2013-05-25 at 6.12.10 PM
Screenshot of current folders in Bloglines.

Blogs with new content were bolded and numbered, showing me at a glance what had not been read. I could mark single or several posts as read or unread. I expect this is standard procedure for most RSS feeds.

Although I was a little lukewarm about the usefulness of the RSS feed initially, I am won over by the ease with which I can follow all of my fellow students’ postings. Now to organize my other educational feeds. I don’t know if I would use feeds for my usual recreational reading because the visuals are part of the pleasure of the visit, but for churning through other reading, it’s a Godsend. Now if I can figure out how to post a few of these feeds to my blog, I’d be set. I’d settle for my blogroll links showing up as they are supposed to. Next up: introducing a few of my regular reads.

Web Tools + Face Time: Recent Collaboration via Blended Learning

It’s been an interesting last few days as I and my group have been whipping up a collaborative presentation within a single week.  My group has been evaluating and summarizing the third chapter of Dr. Curtis Bonk’s book, The World is Open, in preparation for presenting it to the rest of our class. It’s been a steep curve to something that feels like proficiency. It’s been especially interesting to evaluate our group process and my own learning as it relates to the different technologies I am learning about.

First, we each had to read Chapter Three on E-Learning and Blended Learning. I found this a task in itself because I’m reading the electronic version on a Kindle app, and my preferred text and line width size renders one page of the book into at least two different pages. 49 pages x 2 = more pages. (Oh no, math already!)  I am much more of a paper-page person, so being glued to the screen for long periods of time – even if skimming – became a little wearing. I bought the electronic version of this book on purpose so I could try it out, and sure enough, I still prefer books on paper. I am, however, becoming more comfortable with navigating books on the Kindle app.

My group first started a conversation about our chapter on our class wiki page during the weekend while we were all busy with our own schedules. This classic “asynchronous” technology worked fairly well to help us start a conversation about what we felt were some of the key ideas of the chapter and ideas on how to present them. The wiki felt a little clunky as we had not set up a design protocol, but it worked well from a utilitarian standpoint. My biggest concerns were keeping up with whatever changes or comments showed up on the wiki (it did not allow us track changes, so I had to go into each section of the wiki to check), and keeping all of our group members informed. I sent a couple emails to our whole group to inform them when I had started a wiki or changed it, or to encourage those who we had not heard from yet. We started to rough out some ideas for how to divvy up the tasks, but we hadn’t really decided what we wanted to do yet.

When we met in person for our work session tonight, we had only a basic idea of what each of us thought. We spent some time face to face to hash out both the information, and how we felt about it. It felt like a good opportunity to air our ideas and qualms about the chapter, and sift through our ideas. I don’t think we could have done that as effectively online, partly because some issues may have felt too trivial to write about formally, but yet they nagged at us, and needed to be shared. Another advantage of  our face to face discussion was that I was able to feel closer and even more sympathetic to and appreciative of each group member and their perspectives. It was also fairly easy to propose different strategies and have the rest of the group give a quick response.

Once we had gone around the circle a few times proposing different structures or frameworks, inspirations, or concerns, we turned our attention to the format of our presentation. I felt we (okay, I) was having a hard time focusing on our different options. We quickly considered a number of presentation ideas, but many of them would involve either more time than we had or rely heavily on a single person. Then someone suggested a collaborative presentation program named Prezi. Within seconds they had it upon their laptop and had confirmed that we could all edit the document at the same time. Within a few more seconds, I had found the program on my laptop and had signed up while someone chose a template for us. A few moments later, I received an invite someone sent me to the document, and signed in. It was fun to see each of our icons pop up on the common document and float around as we figured out the navigation. This was simultaneous collaboration made possible by this particular web tool. Before too long, we were testing out entering text and arranging our slides. We confirmed each of our topics for the slides we’d be responsible for creating. This portion relied heavily on our face to face interaction as various people proposed different ideas in rapid succession and were confirmed or altered on the spot until we reached a consensus. Yet at the same time, we were able to set up placeholders for our content as we talked and made decisions.

We attempted to set up a time to check in via a hangout or web talk, but were stymied by our options. Skype was possible, but one needed to pay for multiple users in the same room. Google hangouts seemed ideal, until we were reminded that our college accounts did not allow us to use certain programs. None of us had set up for “Enlightenment” yet, and the old wiki would be too clunky for the quick call and response we’d need to finalize our project. We spent what felt like a long time trying to bring everyone into one Google doc using non-college accounts. I could not remember which of my passwords related to which google account (none of which played well together), and other people were having a challenging time getting in as well. This was where technology was not helping us collaborate as much as we would have liked. The frustration outweighed any benefits. I proposed that we drop our attempts as Google, and try something else. Someone else proposed that we decide some things right then, and again, within seconds, we came to agreement on that and commenced coaxing the slides into a credible arrangement.

To me, this was blended learning at its best: using face to face interactions to discuss, sort opinions, and make decisions, while using the technology to help us collaborate and collect. Creating our presentation either way by itself would have been less efficient and more frustrating to implement, especially with our time constraints due to the accelerated Summer work schedule. I’m finding it very interesting and satisfying to find the ways which work best for different tasks and scenarios.

I didn’t realize how important it was to me to connect with people in person until I started reflecting on our process. When I remarked on this, another group member told how a long-running planning group she belonged had managed to keep in touch over time and distance.  They  met a couple of times a year in person, mostly for team-building activities, and then used social media to keep in touch and work on their projects the rest of their time apart. It seems we benefit from a balance of both face to face interactions and asynchronous communication. It’s something to think about for our students.

A Tangle of Technology and 21st Century Skills

Technology forces a new medium for the message, the means to transmit or support learning content and skills. In our society’s rush to embrace the latest technology (and to keep up with the younger generation who are already thoroughly plugged in), many people seem to confuse the means with the method, which sometimes shows up in literature about education and technology. When people talk about using 21st century skills, they clearly mean using technology. Yet simply using more technology does not automatically to higher-level or critical thinking. 

Some writers like Dr. Bonk speak sweepingly about technology connecting people, freeing the flow of information, and transforming the educational landscape for everyone’s betterment. Some authors scold us to use technology so that our students will pay attention and presumably be “engaged.” Are the students not engaged because they have become used to digital formats and digital speeds for entertainment, and haven’t learned to focus on non-entertainment? This seems to suggest that we must entertain students to hold their focus. Interestingly, the same video that challenges us to use technology shows students holding phrases written on low-tech white boards. 

I was interested in the story about the one boy who was very plugged in digitally and yet was doing very poorly in several classes. He could not stay focused on his reading because he kept getting pulled away by the internet and the many little snippets of information and interaction available at any time. 

When this same boy was working independently on editing a video project, he was focused and productive for hours. The key phrase there seemed to be was “interactivity.” Rather than operating primarily in a “transmittal” learning model, he was actively creating something that interested him. There digital technology made it easier for him to shoot and edit outside of class so he could work both collaboratively and independently. 

Other authors focus on jobs and being “literate” or “prepared.” If, as the earlier video claims, technological information doubles every two years, how can we possibly keep up? Other phrases that came up in my readings included “exponential times.” We are generating so much information and forced to navigate so much information, that we have to sift the incoming information and decide what is relevant. 

The idea of literacy seems to be changing as well. Writing by hand has been replaced by keyboarding or otherwise manipulating digital devices. Technology looms so large that it has gained equal footing with actual content in a T-PACK model. I might argue that part of technology literacy is learning/teaching to navigate the flood of information.

The quote that resonated the most was from Mr. Mishra et al’s article about 7 trans-disciplinary skills. 

“We suggest that trans-disciplinary knowledge which emerges from disciplinary practices, and also transcends them, is critical. Trans-disciplinary knowledge helps students move beyond looking for one “correct” solution, towards an approach that integrates different solutions, viewpoints, or perspectives.”

This perspective seems to include technology as a component, but it only includes it and does not make it front and center. The important skills are the new ways of combining, interacting and creating information, with technology facilitating produced work, not as an end to itself. 

So the key component for me is not so much that we use more technology, but that we use it more effectively to engage in higher level thinking, and to teach our students to use it effectively as well. Mishra et al’s seven “trans-disciplinary” skills  – perceiving, playing, patterning, abstracting, modeling, embodied thinking (perhaps this is producing work?), and finally synthesis – seem to fall more in line with critical thinking, and even compliment the WIDA learning objectives.