So Long, Farewell!

This summer, as I did the What-To-Chuck Walk around my classroom, my eyes kept returning to an entire bookshelf filled with giant Merriam-Webster Dictionaries.

We’re not talking five or six of them.  We’re talking an entire class set.  The collection was one of those inherited things that another teacher offered to me, and I was too much of a naive, young, greedy teacher to turn them down.  They were still in near-perfect condition, each with a $22.99 sticker stuck to the front cover.

Credit: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/60437

Credit: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/60437

So I began the analysis: Do my students use them? Was in because of accessibility issues?  Could I put them anywhere else?  What else could I put there?  Would something else on that shelf serve the students better?

Then I remembered one of my students from the last school year: Ellie.  I think it was during our work on books for the Young Authors’ Conference.  I remember her words and actions specifically.  She was working at her table, located near the wall of computers in my room.  She must have still been drafting or editing.  Nearby, students were typing their drafts on GoogleDocs, preparing to copy and paste into StoryJumper for publication.

Ellie came across a difficult word to spell.  She asked her neighbors, to no avail.  Then she flipped on her lightbulb and exclaimed aloud, “Let’s look it up on GoogleDocs!”  Within seconds she was leaning over a friend’s keyboard, typing her best guess and waiting for for “The Red Squiggly Line.”  With a flash of the line and a quick right click, she had her correct spelling and was back to writing.

Meanwhile, four pieces of dust fell atop the dictionaries on the bookshelf.

So during that reflection, I had my answer.  I loaded up the dictionaries on a chair with wheels and scooted my way to the storage book room.  It was tough to stack perfectly good dictionaries (and their price tags!) on a dark shelf in the corner of the book room, knowing well that they would remain their until the end of time.  But alas, it is a different time.  Ellie, and all of my students, have coping mechanisms to assist them.  [Rest assure, I’m about to right-click on my spelling of “mechanisims” instead of heading to my bookshelf for a dictionary.]

Thanks for leading the way, Ellie!

Goodbye User Accounts

A couple things have happened over the last couple weeks that have me thinking.  It all started with the all-too-common news that more cuts were coming our way in the district.  Long story, short: if May’s levy doesn’t pass, our district’s technology department, consisting of a technology administrator and a recently-added technology assistant, will lose the latter of the two positions.  As our technology administrator cautioned the Board of Education at the March meeting, the loss of this position will force him to make drastic cuts within the technology hardware, support, and programs that are currently offered.  One such “program” is the fact that each student in our district (2,000ish K-12) has her/his own student account/login on our MacOS district server.  This allows students to login, configure settings (desktop pictures seems to be the favorite pastime of the month), store photos and documents, and personalize Dashboard widgets.

About the same time, the stars aligned and district’s technology assistant delivered six IBM Ubuntu-running ThinkPads to my classroom.  This was in addition to the two that I already had in my classroom.  I also have two iPod Touches (one school-owned, one personal), my MacBook Pro, and two OS X eMacs, an OS X Intel iMac, and six Ubuntu-running thin-clients (old, gutted iMacs).  In short, quite the hodgepodge! I’m proud to say that students leave my classroom experienced in multiple platforms!

On the iPods and “new” ThinkPads, the students aren’t able to access their user accounts (sure, they can FTP to them from their student dashboard page, but who really does that?).  Despite that flaw, I was able to setup an entire two-day lesson.  Here’s how it went:

Students were in groups of three with each group assigned to a machine/device.  They were given a guiding WebQuest packet (note: to all of you die-hard WebQuesters, I’m sorry, but I often break the traditional mold of what a true “WebQuest” is supposed to be!).  They accessed the appropriate

Ancient Rome WebQuest Answer Form

links on my classroom website and completed the assignment.  They then transfered their responses a Google form I has setup using GoogleDocs.  Each group submitted their responses and it made for easy grading.  The lesson turned out to produce some great exposure, educational dialoge (often arguing over and defending answers) between students, and great formative assessment for me before our final unit test.  Oh, and the kids enjoyed it.

Okay, the meat  of the post (for real).  I made a HUGE observation during each of my six classes.  The students who were on iPods, my laptop, or the ThinkPads were hard at work a good four or five minutes before the students logging on to the MacOS machines!  Seriously.  As each group went to their respective macine/device, some students only had to open the lid of the laptop and the browser was ready to go with the first website!  The other groups faced a variety of hurdles before their screen displayed anything educational.  These included forgotten passwords, misspelled usernames, students “locked out” because they forgot to logout somewhere else on the network or the last machine they were on had crashed, startup applications (at some point, many of the students have set iCal to open upon startup), etc.  Okay, now they’re logged in.  Next came group discussion over which browser to use, Safari or Firefox.  When Firefox won, there was the wait while the app checked for plugin updates, gave errors about past sessions, and restored tabs from said sessions.  MEANWHILE, their classmates who didn’t face user accounts were already adding Roman numerals and watching embedded presentations about gladiators.

The moral of the story:  Let’s dump the user accounts!  I certainly realize that from a managerial point-of-view, their are some essential components to user accounts that make them ideal for a school setting.  These include tracking/monitoring activity, storing usernames and passwords in the browser, setting bookmarks, and probably many others that tech administrators require.  That being said, my job is to teach.  Watching half my class become engaged in the content a full five minutes faster than the other half is enough of a selling point for me! With my students completing more and more word processing and presentation design using [online-stored] GoogleDocs, a personalized Documents folder on a student-account is quickly becoming obsolete!  With the elimination of our computer class next year (again, cuts), students no longer have a class dedicated to photo, video, or audio management and won’t be needing dedicated server space to house that content.

I love the idea of user accounts.  I love each child having a unique username.  I love the idea of students personalizing their computing experience with themes, desktop pictures, widgets, etc.  I love the idea of students securely storing their personal content.  But unfortunately, I also love the idea of time-on-task. Let’s maximize it.

Wanted: Collaboration

In two weeks, my building will be on the receiving end of something called a Technical Assistance Visit (TAV), a two-day visit by a team of local educators assessing our building’s progress and adherence to our Site Action Plan.  This two-day fury is a product of a state-funded initiative, Making Middle Grades Work, a sister program to SREB’s High Schools That Work.

As one of four members of our building’s leadership team, I’m co-charged with preparing  mounds of reports and documents for the TAV.  This process involves taking templates (unfortunately not real template files, just what some people like to call templates), populating them with the information specific to our building/district, and preparing them for publication (binders, slideshow, etc.).

So here’s my gripe:  We’ve gone old school!

In the weeks leading up to the TAV, our leadership team has covered ourselves in a nearly-unsortable web of updated, revised, changed, modified, and edited documents that have been shared, attached, forwarded, and replied.  There has to be an easier way!  And there is.

A simple Google of “top collaborative tools” yields a plethora of results.  Add the word “education” to the mix and you get even a more helpful list of tools.  There have been tweet after tweet RT’d through my PLN over the last year, offering reviews and guides to a whole slew of collaboration software.

These tools, specifically designed to connect people who are physically distanced to a single, shared document, would be PERFECT for our TAV preparation.  Simply put, we could see who edited what, when, and where.  They could even comment to tell us why! Without that tool in place, we’re left with a textbox in the footer that says “Rev. XX/XX/XX.”  Even with that, only a few of the collaborators will update it as they go.  On a bright note, I’ve used DropBox to share (and monitor updates) a folder of documents with another team member.  (On a side note: DropBox is a great solution to those of us migrating away from Apple’s MobileMe.  Another post for another day.)

When my family decided to celebrate my parents’ anniversary this past summer by renting a cabin in Tennessee, I created a pad at etherpad.com (recently acquired by Google).  It was just the right solution for helping three couples around the state plan who would bring what on the trip!  I’m confident that the same successes would be seen if our TAV team would give it a shot.

So why not?

I guess it’s easier for me to complain than it is to fix it.  Fixing it requires professional development for my colleagues and troubleshooting when something goes wrong.  It would require us to ask permission from SREB to communicate with them with these non-traditional collaborative tools.  Or does it?  What if I just…shared.  What if I just sent them invites to collaborate on GoogleDocs?  With GoogleDocs’ new “upload” feature, it’d be perfect for working on the already-existing Word document “templates.”  Would they accept the invitation, tinker with it until they figure it out, and result in true collaboration on this project?  Or is there a middle ground somewhere between these two options?

I should count my blessings.  We did use email to send attachments.  Final, no-need-to-edit-anymore, documents are being converted to PDFs for emailing/presentations.  It could be worse.  We could be sharing paper documents in manilla envelopes.