Etherpad – The best thing since sliced bread?

Today provided me with one of those – ‘blimey things are going to be different from now on’ moments.   After a staff meeting about guided writing with children last night, I put two and two together and realised that a tool called Etherpad could be a match made in heaven.

I came across Etherpad through a tweet from my Twitter network.   It is a collaborative online text authoring tool.   The nice thing about it is that it lets up to eight people author the same work in real time.  This is a significant advantage to Google Docs collaborative element as this does tend to be rather sticky.

Each person has a different colour highlight and it’s really easy to invite others through the url.  

 I tested it with the class today by showing the class this video of Batman the Animated Series (thanks to Dawn Robertson for the idea.)

 

Then I split them up into groups and assigned them each a few seconds of video to describe as a narrative, trying to focus on powerful words, pace etc.   I shared the url with each group and we all watched each other developing the narrative together.

What was really powerful was that we could see the writing in real time and children were editing ‘live’.   The different colours also gave me as a teacher a really clear visual representation of how I was modelling the writing and in fact which aspects of the writing needed to be focused on next time.

The Results:

Batman The Beginning
 
The lights shone through the shadowy clouds like a cat's eyes searching for its prey.   They stood there waiting, until it was clear to go.  The city skyline behind them looked like the shattered teeth of a giant miserable beast.  The city looked bleak dispressed.The howling wind blew through each cloud.
 
 
BANG!   With a tramendous force the door of the bank shattered into a thousand pieces.   The explosion was brightly coloured and sparks fell, floating down onto the dirty floor.   
 
Wind shivered down Batman’s spine, he knew something wasn’t right. He jumped into his Bat Mobile and raced off with wheels smoking. The caped crusader started to rev the engine of his metal beast, about to charge into action.
 
The villans started to run, their feet pounding on the moonlit streets.  Suddenly a glowing light appeared.   They sprinted even faster because they knew it was coming.
 
At last they saw him at the corner of their eye.   The end was closer.  Faster and faster they ran they ran just as much as their legs could hold it .   They  leapt onto the cobbled wall and started to climb like wild animals, their breath harsh and fast. Batman  flew high in the shimmering sky and  dropped onto the fragile roof of he building. He appeared as if from the moon-lit night like a deadly shadow.   He stopped, stared, relaxed and confident of his ability to save the city.   As they saw him the villain's eyes filled with fear, sweat poured down their for heads .
 
 
Robbers sat in the dark gazing up at Batman. Batman, looking down at the sly criminals, shone in the lightning bolts.  He stood tall and proud after his latest capture. The moon was a silver frame againest the black shiloutte. 

I have to say that it was one of the most exciting developments in my classroom over the last year – and there have been quite a few.  I can’t wait to set up another activity for tomorrow and see what come of it!

 

Chatting in class allowed!

Exciting addition to the work I’ve been doing with Synchroneyes today! I got the children to use the chat feature to post research that they had found on the Internet about David Livingstone the Victorian explorer.

This worked incredibly well and led to a really interesting discussion with the children about chatting in general.

After the inital “Hi wassssaaaaapppp!” comments the children quickly started posting only relevant information. In fact they came and told me that they were getting annoyed with people who were still posting like that because it got in the way if the flow of information that they wanted to work on.

It struck me what a massive jump in real learning this was for these children, which completely quashed any fears that this was going to be a free for all chat a la msn.

All of this within five minutes!

I then got children working in smaller groups of six or seven to complete the task. They loved it and you could hear a pin drop in the classroom.

I asked the children what they liked about it and was amazed with the responses. Essentially they liked the fact that the chat was actually about something that they were learning about and that writing on the chat stopped “stupid conversations” starting and distracting them!

This from a class that loves to natter!

It was a great session that had some briliant learning outcomes for the children and me. Can’t wait to get back in on Monday and experiment further!

Using Synchroneyes in the classroom

Over the last few weeks I’ve been using Smart’s Synchroneyes classroom management software to monitor children as they are working on the individual umpcs on the classroom.

I have to say that I think this could be some software that helps teachers hugely. Basically when children log on they have to connect to the teachers laptop wirelessly. The teacher then has control of what happens on that laptop. No great level of ict skill is required as at it’s simplest level the teacher can see thumbnails of each of the children’s screens and a small icon showing the program that is being used.

This gets around one of the biggest barriers that I have encountered whilst trying to spread good practice – namely teachers ate worried that they can’t see what the children are looking at on the screen. Now they can!

The other rather fantastic piece of practical functionality for the classroom is the lock feature. It does just what it says on the tin, at a click of a button all the laptops display the message “Eyes to the front please.”

This is hilarious when you see the children reactions the first time that you do it! Interestingly this has actually led to some interesting negotiation in my class as they don’t like being locked out and I have found that I’d really has improves the attention from the children when I ask them to stop.

Also you can pull up any examples of good work and send it to all the other screens, again a really practical tool in the classroom.

There are lots of other elements to the program that I haven’t fully explored as yet, such as setting up working groups, letting other children control each others monitors and ‘teach’.

There are some drawbacks. You need to have a pretty full on wireless network and processor for it not to become sticky. Also it doesn’t seem to enJoy the graphic intensive software such as google sketchup. Although that’s not really that suprising!

Overall though I would say it is definately worth looking at as I think it has the power to layer all the good aspects of traditional classroom practice over 21st century technology which is really exciting.

Scriptwriting in Google Docs

 AIM: To write a collaborative play script using Google Docs

WHY: Writing using Google Docs should allow the teachers and children to work on the script in their own time without having to be together.

Using the Forms should allow all the children to contribute their ideas to the script.

The children should have a greater ownership of the script if they have contributed to it in a meaningful way.

 

Teaching the final year of primary / elementary school is a stressful job at the best of times.   There’s the pressure of SAT’s, the emotional strain of the children leaving and then there’s the dreaded ‘Leaver’s Production.’   As time has gone on in my own school this has become a grander and grander affair that consumes the final three weeks of the year.   The results on stage are always outstanding, however the toll on my body / sanity usually less favourable.   This year I decided that I would do something different and try to engage the children a little more in the whole writing aspect.   That’s where Google Docs came in.

The first thing that I decided to do was to get the children’s ideas together and distill the best elements into a script.   I did this by setting up a form that was sent out to all the children to fill in.   I asked them the types of songs they would like to sing, the teachers they would like to embarrass, the theme we should use etc.    

The principle of this was great, the ideas all flooded back into my spreadsheet .   Unfortunately the ideas themselves were to be frank pretty useless.   This, I hasten to add, was due to my own lack of discussion prior to sending the form and not due to the form itself.   In fact I think that this could be a great way of gathering ideas in the future as long as the children get the right input beforehand.   So I was forced to carry on with only my year group partner to help.

What has subsequently occured has been a bit of a revalation.   After our initial meeting to sort out the overall structure of the script we went our seperate ways and worked on individual aspects of the script.

This worked brilliantly, we were able to work on the script in our own time and see the changes that we had each produced.   As a result the script was written more quickly and efficiently than we could have imagined.  

It was extremely helpful to decide beforehand the areas that we would each work on.   This gave us a much clearer focus and stopped any unnecessary ‘creative differences’.   We also used the document as a shared ‘To Do’ list which helped us keep a track of where we were up to organising props etc.   The fact that we didn’t have to be in the same room at the same time was fantastic and made the whole writing of the script a lots less stressful.

One unexpected yet welcome development happened when we published the page to show the children where we were up to.   Once the children have the web address they read the script at home and we were daily inundated with e-mails suggesting plot changes, huge action set pieces etc.   The script became the talk of the playground and generated a huge amount of constructive conversation between the children.   It was with great regret that we had to sideline many of the larger more extravagant ideas, however in terms of the children’s contribution to the script and gaining ownership of the production, it was a fantastic to see. 

  From a starting position of no ideas the children now were debating the relative merits of different ideas.

Further advantages to using Google docs for this script were that the children didn’t all have to have a full copy of the script.   We were able to print them the relevant part, saving a great deal of money on photocopying for the school.   This doesen’t sound like a lot, but in my school every penny counts.  If children wanted to see the whole script they just went online.  Once more using Google Docs ment that if they lost their script they could simply go online and print it off.   No more hassling me a lunchtime for extra scripts!   This fact alone massively reduced my stress levels as the cry of ‘I’ve lost my script’ is one that every teacher dreads.

The curtain has yet to open on the production, but already expectations and excitement levels are high.   One thing is absolutely clear in my mind, allowing children to be part of the organic development of the script has already made it a far better prioduction than it would have been.   The ownership the children have over the script has brought us all closer together as a class.   Now they just have to remember their lines!

LESSONS LEARNT

  • Writing the script using Google Docs did make the whole task more managable.
  • The use of Forms to gather ideas would have been sucessful if I had put more time into explaining to the children exactly what I had wanted from them.
  • Publishing the document even in it’s initial stages allowed the children to watch the script develop and gave them the opportunity to suggest additional ideas. (I don’t think in this case giving editing rights to the children would have maintained the unified ‘feel’ of the script – I could be wrong though.)
  • Publishing also allowed the sharing of the script in a simple way that saved resources and money.

This is one that I’ll be doing again.