Sunday, April 11, 2010

Help Your Students Become Bloggers

In a previous blog post, I detailed how I got my own students blogging, using's powerful and safe features. In this follow-up post, I'll cover how to help your students come up with catchy blog topics, titles, and blog posts, as well as ideas for keeping them motivated to blog.
Assuming all your students have their own Gaggle account, they will be prompted to select a title for their blog.  Get your students to talk with one another about hobbies, areas of interest, and activities in which they have a high interest, and already know a lot about. Some of the discussions you'll inevitably overhear are topics ranging from sports, cooking, and fashion to video games and music.  The key question each student needs to answer yes to is: "Is this a topic I believe I can write about knowledgeably for about 15 to 20 minutes, once a week?" If they can answer yes to that, then this may be a good topic. It's not necessary the topic be of any interest to you, or anyone else in the class, for that matter. The only rule of thumb is, it should appeal to him or her. It may go without saying, but I'll mention it here: It should be rated G in appropriateness.  Remind students that as bloggers, they have a responsibility to themselves and to others, to be careful about what they say. Unlike a journal or diary entry where you write for "your eyes only," a blog is out there for all to see. As a professional educator, remind students to use their best discretion. If you are concerned, check your district policies as to the appropriateness of the content of your students' blogs. 
Coming up with catchy blog titles
It's hard to find a title that's both catchy and descriptive at the same time. Titles can't be too long or they risk being forgetful; they can't be too short, because short names can be ambiguous.  One of my students wanted to blog about video games, sharing tips and tricks on how to win a given video game. He chose the name Game It! I liked it because it was short, snappy, and said a lot with few words. One of my girls loved fashion and keeping up with the latest clothing styles. Her favorite thing to do was go shopping, so she named her blog, Shop-o-holic. Give students ample time to come up with a blog title, and time to brainstorm, either in a journal or sheet of paper, future topics they'd like to write about. One of my students wants to one day play for the NFL. His idea was simply to comment on one of the games he watched that week, so he called his blog NFL Weekly. 
Setting up a classroom blog schedule
Before you set up a classroom blog schedule, there are a few questions you need to consider. How many computers are available with Internet connections? How many instructional minutes can you allocate for your students to blogging? The answer to these questions will impact the frequency your students can blog. In my sixth grade class, I have five computers. It just so happens that my students are seated in groups of four or five. I teach writing for 45 minutes per day. If each table group blogs for 20 minutes, once a week, I can have two table groups blog during my writing period. I have seven table groups, and on Mondays, it's Table One and Two's turn; Tuesdays, Tables Three and Four; Wednesdays, Five and Six; and Thursdays, Table Seven. Therefore, by Thursday, everyone in my class has had the opportunity to add a blog post. What's more, they have the entire week in between to be thinking about what they will write about. Hopefully, by the time they sit down at the computer, they will be able to unload all that's been on their minds all week. I have a poster where the schedule is posted. Students have other opportunities to blog, too. What's great about the Internet is that they can access their blog controls from anywhere they have an Internet connection. Several of my students simply can't wait until it's their turn to blog in class, so they blog much more frequently throughout the week from the comfort of their own home.
How is blogging beneficial?
Students' interest levels vary depending on the academic pursuit. Some subjects are more fun than others; but one thing I've found to be true is that if you can put a technology "spin" on the subject - any subject - students' interest levels increase across the board. It's one thing to see childrens' faces light up when they open a present they got for their birthday. But I see that same face when I tell a child their account is "live" and give them the green light to start their blog. They can't wait. Then, when they type their URL into the address bar and see their post, you get an idea how Santa Claus must feel every Christmas day. Part of the reason they have such a high interest is that they feel empowered. With blogging, they suddenly have a platform from which to share opinions, feelings, thoughts, and ideas. From a writing strategies standpoint, blogging improves writing through peer editing. It's important that students be required to read one another's blog posts and to offer positive and constructive criticism. For example, when anyone encounters a blog post with grammatical errors such as capitalization, usage, punctuation, or spelling, they are expected to leave a comment, but not before they make a positive comment. One comment may read: "Hey, I loved your post about caring for your pet, but you spelled "dalmation" wrong."
Encourage students to use their first blog entry to introduce themselves and what their blog will be about. For example, One student writes:
"Yaaaaaaaay! Welcome to my blog. My name is Sara, and my blog is going to be about DANCE. Now I'm not just talking about boring, one type of dance. I'm talking about ballroom, modern, and many others. So all those dancers out there, tell your friends and tell them to tell their friends because my blog is going to be fun and not boring!!!!! See ya' at my Blog Dance-a-Palooza."
I encourage students to write at least once a week, for about 15 to 20 minutes. This works out to be about 100 words, although some write significantly more or less, depending on the student's age and ability level. It's important to maintain a classroom schedule so you have a minimum expectation of one blog entry per week. Any more than that should be left completely up to the student. You will find that some students will barely make the minimum expectation. This could be because they ceased being interested in the overall scope of their blog. If this is the case, I always let students change their topic. Joe is one such student. He started blogging about NASCAR, but realized one month and four blog posts later that he really didn't tapped out his knowledge and interest in it, and asked if he could cover WWE Wrestling, and his creative juices began to flow again. Then, you'll have the students who blog as though they've finally found their higher calling. These are the students who post every day, from home, from grandma's house, from Starbucks, and anywhere in between. These are the kids you've simply hooked. It's fun to see kids take to it like they do and run with it. There's simply no stopping them. 
How to stay motivated to blog
There are a few tricks that you can try mid-year that can keep students' interests up to continue blogging. One idea is to select certain outstanding blog posts to be part of a classroom or schoolwide newspaper. We all like seeing our own ideas validated in print, even though we're in the digital age. And what better way to  highlight some of the great writing your students are doing than to have some of the best rise to the top in the form of a published work.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Smartest Pen in the Class

Remember the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial? "You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!" - "You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!" If Livescribe, the company that invented the Pulse smartpen, were to resurrect this ad campaign, it might sound something like this: "You got your ballpoint pen in my digital voice recorder!" - "You got your digital voice recorder in my pen!" Encased in a sleek, aluminum body with an anodized finish, it kinda feels like it could have been designed by the boys at Apple. It's a unique device and literally exists in a category all its own. Judge it as a pen, and it writes as well as any ballpoint, but it's no MontBlanc. Judge it as a digital voice recorder, and it plays back hours of high quality audio as well as you'd expect any voice recorder to do -- but come on- you can get a decent voice recorder for a third of the price. But here's the deal: Judge it as a smartpen, and you have a device that has defined its own category. If your pen had a brain, it would behave like this pen. It's like having a computer in a pen. The Pulse smartpen is by no means a replacement for your PC. You can't surf the net or send and receive e-mails - yet... Ultimately, what you have is the world's coolest pen ever made. Period. It's a device that will link whatever is written to what is spoken. In a word: whoa.
From prehistoric cave walls to the modern tablet PC, the human need for self-expression through drawing and writing has endured. However, paper and pen usage presents serious limitations in an increasingly digital world. Paper documents are static and difficult to share broadly without the use of flat bed scanners. Written notes can be easily lost or damaged. They suffer an inherent lack of connectivity; despite how rich the content on a piece of paper is, it is physically bound and limited. What’s missing is a way to maximize the freedom of expression and rich context afforded by pen and paper while delivering the connectivity, archiving system and “capture” capability of a computer. Enter, the Pulse smartpen by Livescribe, a device that attempts to bridge the gap between traditional pen-and-paper and 21st Century digital technology.
Users can write something (anything) down on Livescribe's proprietary micro-dot paper, and the pen will record its movement and link it to whatever sound it was recording at that precise moment. If I had only had this pen during my college Chemistry class, I might have actually passed the first time -- My professor talked so fast I couldn't keep up! With the Pulse smartpen, students can rest assured that no matter how much (or little) notes they take, they can still take the entire lecture home with them. 
Livescribe dot paper is regular paper printed with a unique pattern of tiny micro-dots. Livescribe’s unique patented dot-positioning system enables the Pulse smartpen to precisely track everything it writes on paper. Livescribe offers a variety of dot paper products, including college-sized notebooks, journals, and note pads. Customers can also print their own dot paper using certified laser-jet printers. In addition, Livescribe Desktop allows you to digitally transfer your notes and recordings from your Pulse smartpen to your PC or Mac. It's especially fun to watch your notes animate when you play back your recordings.
One of the Pulse smartpen's "wow-factor" features is itspiano and rhythm app. You literally draw vertical and horizontal bars on micro-dot paper, and the piano you just drew will behave like a tiny piano. Tap the "keys" and you can make melodies and then add an accompanying drum track. I also like the English to Spanish dictionary. Simply write a word in English (or vice versa), tap it, and it translates it into Spanish. This app is available in the Livescribe Online Store.
Right now, in the online store, there are currently 64 unique applications available. In the spirit of  Apple's App Store for iPod touch and iPhone, and most recently, iPad, most apps are about one to three bucks, such as games like Blackjack and Hangman. Some are free, like "Classical Music Snippets." With a few taps of your smartpen, you can listen to short snippets of the most famous moments from a selection of classical tunes and learn interesting facts about each masterpiece, or test your classical music knowledge with the Music Quiz. The one exception to the relatively inexpensive app line up is an app designed to help kids study the Torah for their Bar or Bat Mitzah, called "Magic Yad." You use it with Torah passages printed on Livescribe's micro-dot paper. This app costs $119.
But for all its bells and whistles, this is a device that shines brightest when its in the hand of a student with a longwinded teacher. Students can have unlimited access to their teacher's instruction any time and anywhere. The Pulse smartpen is not for elementary students whose teachers assign a lot of group projects or organize cooperative learning environments. Therefore, I recommend it to Jr High students on up. Of course, a case can be made that the Pulse smartpen has its place in elementary schools, as well. For example, each day, as a sixth grade teacher, I assign one student the task of "notetaker." It's a great way to motivate students to take notes, and a fantastic way to build interest in note taking, because kids simply love the novelty of getting to write with the Pulse smartpen. Furthermore, English language learners can speed up, slow down, or replay a lecture's audio to more effectively develop both oral and written skills.
The Pulse smartpen is useful in meetings, too. I recently took it with me in a business meeting, and recorded the entire discussion. I only cared about a few minutes of the content, which happened to be near the end of the meeting. Thanks to this innovative solution, I was able to "tap" on the my hand-written notes at the precise part of the meeting I wanted to hear back. The pen began to play back the audio from that exact moment and I was able to clarify an important point in the conversation.
Users can upload their "pencasts" online with the Livescribe Community for everyone to see, hear, and play. Pencasts are like "podcasts" (only since they're recorded with the Pulse smartpen, they're dubbed "pencasts").  You can share your notes, drawings, and recordings online as Flash movies or PDF files with a vibrant online community of people who upload their own audio recordings, linked with their written notes. For example, at a recent Comic-Con, (Annual Comic Book Convention in New York) some attendees interview popular comic book artists, but instead of merely asking questions, the interviewer simply hands the artist a piece of the special Livescribe paper, presses "record," and asks the artist questions while he or she sketches his or her favorite, or trademarked, character. When you watch/listen to the interview unfold online, you hear the conversation while you actually watch exactly what the artist was drawing as he or she was talking. Because each penstroke links with the sound, it makes for a compelling visual and auditory experience.
Livescribe has developed a full Java-based development environment for professional developers to write their own smartpen application code using the Livescribe APIs, which became available in Q2 2009. Over 5,000 developers have signed up to write apps for the store, so look for more apps in the future. The SDK includes an Eclipse-based integrated development environment (IDE) with custom plug-ins, a suite of APIs, sample code and documentation.
Where can you get one?
2GB (Titanium)  $149.95
4GB (Titanium) $169.95
4GB Pro Pack: (Black) $229.95 Includes a matching desktop Pro Charging Cradle. Also included are a premium leather case to protect your Pulse smarten and a download code for a full version of MyScript for Livescribe transcription software.