Ten Awesome Webtools to Use in the Classroom (Part 1)

This is the first installment in a three-part series in which I am going to “tinker” with and review some webtools to enhance and transform your classroom experience! Please feel free to shoot me any questions about any of these tools, and I will answer them (or point you to the person who can answer them). 🙂

1. GoAnimate for Schools: This webtool allows you (and your students) to make your own video animations! It comes with high quality background templates and character choices. It also gives students the option of typing in their own dialogue (to be read by a computer voice) or record their own dialogue, making the on-screen characters like puppets. The facial expressions of the on-screen characters can also be manipulated, though the choices are pretty limited (happy, sad, angry, or crying). Teachers can use these videos to record virtual lessons for students to view at home (which may be especially helpful for students who are absent, students with special needs, or ESL students). Students can also create video projects for a wide range of topics and share them with their classmates in person or online. There is a free demo available on the site, but a paid subscription is going to cost at least $99 a year (depending on how many students are using it). It may be worth it to purchase a group package and share the subscription with the other teachers at your school–especially if you can get the school district to foot the bill! Though it is pricey, this app is definitely worth the cost!

Screen shot of my GoAnimate! video. Abe Lincoln is about to seriously school these students on how it all REALLY went down...

Screen shot of my GoAnimate! video. Abe Lincoln is about to seriously school these students on how it all REALLY went down…

2. Edmodo: This is a social network made exclusively for use within the classroom. The interface looks strikingly similar to Facebook and it is incredibly user friendly. The teacher acts as a facilitator and adds student users into groups that she manages, and she can even invite parents to join. (So, for organizational purposes, I could have a ninth grade group and a tenth grade group….or I could even organize by first period, second period, third period, etc.) The teacher can upload assignments or polls, and post alerts or notes that the students can read and comment on. Again, the main page looks like a Facebook news feed, with the most recent posts floating near the top of the page and older posts getting pushed to the bottom. The teacher also has the ability to add apps to Edmodo (both free apps and apps that cost a small fee are available) for the students in her group to use. It’s difficult to truly “tinker” with this site right now, since I don’t have a classroom and I can’t practice interacting with real students–but I am very excited about this app! The potential for socially constructed learning, online collaboration, and community (parent) involvement is incredible!

Screen shot of my Edmodo homepage

Screen shot of my Edmodo homepage

3. Class Dojo: I grappled with whether or not to include this webtool, because it doesn’t directly relate to literacy–it is more of a classroom management tool. However, when it comes to classroom management, I need all the help I can get! And it makes sense to utilize technology on this front to make my life a little easier. Class Dojo is a tool that I saw several third grade teachers using during my recent internship at an elementary school. My immediate thought (just from observing) was that teachers are the only ones who really engage with this app. However, after “tinkering” around on the website and watching some of the tutorials, I discovered that the students are invited to play an active role as well. One of the most interesting things they get to do is have a hand in creating an avatar to represent themselves throughout the school year (all avatars are made to look like various monsters/creatures). After the students create their avatars, the teacher is able to create seating charts, award points for positive behavior, randomize who gets to answer questions during class or take a turn being the line leader, etc. Students are able to use the site to view their behavioral status, create goals for themselves, and reflect on poor behavior. Parents can get in on Class Dojo too, receiving automated behavior reports at the end of each day (the teacher doesn’t even have to think about it!). The site also vaguely mentions that students can use the Dojo to connect with each other. Because I created a teacher account and not a student account, I’m not sure exactly what this means. It also seems like a tool that is most effective with younger students (elementary aged and possibly middle school aged); however, I have read some testimonials on the site of high school teachers using this as a motivational tool (for participation) with their high school students (they recommend ditching the juvenile avatars and allowing students to upload real profile pics instead).

Screenshot of my class dojo

Screenshot of my class dojo

Advertisements

Evaluating My Digital Estate

Of all of the matters to take into consideration when a family member dies, I think the term “digital estate” would probably be one of the last. However, this idea of leaving behind a legacy on the internet is becoming increasingly prevalent. We’re investing more and more of our time into social networking, online banking, and other electronic profiles. What happens to all of those things after we die? If you’re interested, you can learn more about digital estates in this video from PBS Newshour:

All of this got me thinking about the different websites that I have become heavily invested in. How much of a presence do I have on the internet? Also, how can I go about purposefully enhancing that presence to improve my professional life and help me better reach my students?

I decided to evaluate my digital estate by taking an inventory of the social networking tools that I currently use, and reflecting on how I can use them better to enhance my instruction.

Blogging

I actually have three different blogs on www.wordpress.com, though I’m only currently maintaining two of them. I kept one blog (www.lostonplanetchina.wordpress.com) when my husband and I moved to China for a year, and I wrote about our experiences and culture shock there and posted quite a few pictures. This blog had 50 followers, most of whom were people I had never met, and as of today (September 8, 2014) has been viewed 10,679 times.

When we returned to the United States, I “finished” this blog and started a new, more general one where I could write about everyday life (www.yourfavoriterachel.wordpress.com).  This blog, while not quite as exciting as stories about life in China, has 98 followers and has been viewed 6,900 times. Because I have been enrolled in graduate school and I had a baby in May of this year, my posts have become more and more infrequent, dwindling from once every week or every other week down to once a month or so. I’ve also cut down on the number of blogs that I follow—cutting down from eight to just three (because that is all I can manage to keep up with these days. When I follow a blog I am “all in.” I read every post word for word and I comment on or “like” just about every post. I really want the author to know that I am there, reading their material).

My third blog is this one–an educational-themed site. Though it has been sitting dormant for quite some time, I am starting to post more material to it (for the purposes of a New Media and Literacies course that I am enrolled in for graduate school) to bring it back to life again. Because this blog has been largely inactive, it is by far the least popular; it has only four followers (though I still think it’s exciting that I have followers on a blog that I just started as a school project). However, I am surprised to see that WordPress is reporting that this blog has been viewed 4,428 times, which is not far behind my much more active blog!

Twitter

I have been avoiding Twitter for a while because from what I’ve gathered, the feed is much more fast-paced than Facebook newsfeed, and I am not sure that I am ready for the kind of commitment it would require to keep up with that. I joined Twitter for the sake of this class, and I was surprised to see that because I created the username ReadingRachelD (a reference to the nickname I had during my reading specialist internship because there were one too many Rachels on staff, and they used “Reading Rachel” to distinguish which Rachel they were referring to) a few up-and-coming/self-published authors have started following me on Twitter—perhaps in the hopes that I will read their books! So I suppose that people are using Twitter not just as a social networking tool, but also as a marketing tool; I’m not sure how I feel about that. I probably haven’t been posting (or reading through my feed) quite as often as I should be—perhaps once a day or once every couple of days.

Diigo

I’m not sure that I’ve been using Diigo correctly either. This site is completely new to me—I had never even heard of it before my graduate class started. I’m so accustomed to reading an article all the way through and then making a general comment on it at the end (the same format that many online newspaper articles and blogs use); however, I am not really used to annotating as I read, or highlighting specific quotes from the author to comment on. I’ll keep working on it! I would say that I’ve been visiting the Diigo site about twice a week. This could potentially be a great tool for me to use in the classroom once I’m on the teaching side of it again!

Facebook

Facebook is the first social networking site that I ever joined, and the one that I’ve been a member of for the longest time. (I have used other sites that have since died, like MySpace, LiveJournal, and Xanga, but they didn’t have nearly the staying power that Facebook does.) I joined in 2004, and I’ve become more and more active as the years have gone by and the website has developed and added more features to occupy users’ attention. Even when I first joined the site, I was fairly active, frequently updating my status (which I perceived, for all intents and purposes, as an “away message,” having been a frequent user of AOL instant messenger) and creating groups for my friends to join (which I recently realized, much to my embarrassment, still exist out there in the Facebook universe). At this point, Facebook also contains a detailed photographic history of the last ten years of my life, cataloguing my college (undergrad) years, my dating relationship with my husband, our wedding, and now the birth and month-by-month growth of our baby. If Facebook were to suddenly crash, and all of that photographic history lost, I would be pretty upset because many of those photos are only stored on Facebook and not backed up on my laptop (which unfortunately died a few years ago). It took quite a bit of getting used to when my family members started showing up on Facebook, along with the students that I teach! I was so accustomed to it being a social networking site exclusive to college students. However, I’ve grown used to it now, and I’ve adapted with the many changes and transformations that Facebook has been through over the years. I use the Facebook app on my phone (which makes it convenient to check even while I’m feeding the baby or rocking him to sleep), and I would estimate that I look at Facebook several times each day.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is another website that I just recently joined for the purposes of my graduate class. My husband has been a member of LinkedIn ever since the website first gained popularity, but I haven’t really explored it or created a profile until now. I am interested to see how useful this website becomes once I am back in the job market searching for a teaching position! I have realized over the years that in this very competitive job market, connections are just as or more important than credentials, so I wonder if LinkedIn really aids in providing the connections needed to get noticed by an employer. So far I’ve been on there a handful of times to tinker with my profile/resume.

Google

I’ve been using the same Gmail address for the last seven years now, and it’s really been nice to keep the same email even when I switch to a different internet provider. I move around a lot, so my email address has stayed constant even though my physical address has not, which provides a great way for distant family and out-of-touch friends to reach me when they need to. I also enjoy the Google chat feature. Even though text messages have become so prevalent, my husband and I still chat with each other on Gmail while we’re at work (because typing on a computer at work is much more discreet than “swyping” on a cell phone while at work).

I also recently used Google Docs as a way to collaborate with a classmate on a multimedia presentation in real time rather than saving various versions of the same document and sending them back and forth. It was a very efficient way to complete a group project, and I really enjoyed using the chat feature on Google Docs so that we could ask questions or make comments to each other while we worked. It’s a very nice alternative for people who don’t have (or can’t afford) the Microsoft Office Suite.

I am new to Google Hangout (I just joined for the purposes of my grad class), and I’m not sure that it’s a site I will use all that often. Only a handful of my friends are using Google Hangout. It seems like a copy of Facebook with some features that have been slightly tweaked. For example, I do like the fact that I can have different circles of friends, and only share information with certain circles (unlike Facebook, in which I generally share the same information with all of my friends). However, until Facebook dies, I just don’t anticipate my Google Hangout account getting very much use—it just seems redundant.

Aside from Google Hangout (which I’ve only really logged onto twice) and Google Docs (which I’ve used a handful of times), I would say that I use some sort of Google application every day, several times a day (such as Gmail or the original Google search engine). Because both my Gmail account and a Google Search app are on my phone, it makes it much more convenient to consult them often.

Pinterest

I have been using Pinterest for the last two years, and I would say that my use of the site is very irregular. I’ll spend a few days creating a new board and pinning things to it, and then I might not use the site for another month or two before something catches my interest and I’m back on there pinning again. Pinterest isn’t quite as social as some of the other sites that I’ve used. For example, I pin things that I know I’ll enjoy and add them to my own personal collection (or board). It doesn’t bother me if no one “repins” my pins or comments on them—that’s not really the purpose of creating a board (for me, at least). It’s very different from Facebook, where I might get discouraged if I wrote a status update and no one made any comments or “likes.” I don’t use Pinterest to connect with people or see what they are pinning—I’m very selfish in my Pinterest use, and simply focus on what I like. I have 14 boards with 235 total pins. I have 100 followers and I am following 123 people (though, like I said, I’m not following them very closely). Perhaps it’s because I’m not using Pinterest to connect with other people that my use of the site is so sporadic. However, I did find it interesting that when I searched “Rachel DeAngelis” on Google Images, pictures of things that I’ve pinned showed up most frequently on the first few pages of search results.

REFLECTION

Honestly, I don’t feel like I’ve ever been a digital “native.” Technology is something that I have to work at—it doesn’t really come naturally to me, and it generally tends to intimidate me.

One thing is becoming clear after examining this inventory of social networking sites—it seems that I used to be a digital enthusiast many years ago. Every time a new website craze came along, I jumped in headfirst. That has changed a lot for me in the last 10-15 years. I’m not sure if it’s because I used to have more time to play with social media sites (when I was in high school and undergrad—before I had a full time job or became a mom), or if social media sites are just more abundant and cropping up faster than I can keep up with, but these days I find myself resisting new crazes.

However, I’m too young to start lamenting that I’m having trouble keeping up with the times or that I just don’t understand how to operate that [insert device here]. One thing that is becoming increasingly clear after spending only two weeks in my New Media and Literacy course is that I’m going to need to stay current and use cutting edge technology in my classroom to truly meet the needs of my students. During my first year teaching (in 2008), I was offered a classroom that had a smart tablet (for use in conjunction with the projector) and a class set of remote controls for students to use. There were so many things that I could have done with these gadgets to make my classroom more interactive and engaging for my students; however, because I didn’t understand how to use them (and felt so overwhelmed with other first-year-teacher responsibilities that I didn’t take the time to learn how to use them), they sat on a shelf collecting dust all year. And I conducted class by giving lectures and writing notes on the chalkboard. What a shame!

But of course,  using technology in the classroom is not just about having fancy gadgets. It’s about teaching students how to access information, think critically about it, and do something important with it. Now, with the Common Core standards being adopted in most states (and being more rigorous than ever), it’s so important to use technology to challenge students’ critical thinking skills and help them develop multi-modal literacy.

Having technology as such an integral part of the classroom makes me uncomfortable, because it’s not how school was done when I was growing up, and I am inclined to teach using what is familiar rather than what is cutting edge. It makes me uncomfortable now, as a grad student, to try to stay on top of multiple social networking sites at once—it’s a little scary and overwhelming at first. But like anything, if I continue practicing at it, it will become more familiar and less scary. And it won’t just be a benefit to me to tinker with all of the digital tools and websites that are out there—it will be a benefit for my future students as well. It will help me prepare them to enter the 21st Century workforce (whereas before I was preparing them for, perhaps, the 1950’s workforce). If I provide them with the tools they need, I can help them not just function as citizens there, but as leaders who stay ahead of the curve.