This is the second in a series of posts about using technology in your classroom to support all learners. While it will mainly focus on iPads since that's the technology we have at our school, many of these apps are also available for Android and some even have computer versions. See the first post here.
At first blush apps for writing seemed to be a simple blog post. After all, when most of us think of apps for writing, we think word processing apps, often with speech-to-text capabilities. If that's the case, we are basically talking about your preferred platform for recording, editing and sharing dictated work. Nothing complicated about that, right? But then I started to think, I mean really think, about the definition of writing and I realized that there is much more to writing than simply putting pen to paper. If you broaden your definition of writing to include spelling, planning, creative writing and presenting there are a myriad of apps out there. In the interests of keeping it simple, I have shared only the apps that I use consistently and effectively in my own practice; there are definitely many more that are super useful and worth exploring!
Handwriting Without Tears: Wet Dry Try - If you use Handwriting Without Tears in your classroom then this is an excellent app to add to your toolkit. Essentially just an electronic version of the chalkboard, it allows kids to practice all of the familiar HWT letter formations on an iPad, which usually ups the motivation factor a bit. It also has a lefty-friendly feature, which is great for those poor kiddos who are smudging their chalk.
How I use it: I have generally used this app in rotation as part of literacy stations. The kids seem to like the opportunity to mix it up between the chalkboards, the wooden shapes and the app.
Available for: iPad
ABC Pocket Phonics - Although this is technically a phonics app, I really like that kids can practice tracing the letters as they learn letter sounds. I also like the way that the app models the correct letter formation for them and progresses through the letters in a logical, well-organized sequence. Finally, the kids love it!
How I use it: Just like the Wet Dry Try app, this one usually gets used in rotation as part of literacy stations and in my small group instruction. When their interest in that station starts to wane but I know they still need practice, I'll throw this app in there.
L'Escapadou French Words for Kids/Dictee Montessori - Number one thing I love about this app? It's available in English and French. Second thing I love about this app? Simplicity. The movable alphabet is definitely for the primary crowd, so simple is good. Kids can explore the alphabet, placing letters on a grid, combining letters to make words and then have the app read the word back to them. They can also work on spelling given words, which are presented in order of increasing phonetic complexity.
How I use it: We have this app set up at our French Immersion kindergarten literacy centres. They are free to explore building and hearing words but we do encourage them to spell friends' names, word wall words, etc as well. They have also explored the more directed spelling activity but I tend to keep this for the Gr. 1s. My only complaint is that to exit back out to the main screen kids have to use the settings menu, which allows access to changing things like the speed and tone of the voice. I don't love the sound of the Chipmunks reading the words.
Available for: iPad, iPod, Android
Vocabulary Spelling City - this app has so many dimensions to it for younger and older students alike. You can choose to use the free version of the app and access the spelling features (practice games & tests), all of which can be used with pre-loaded word lists (Dolch words, for example) or with your own personal word lists. Upgrade to the paid app (which is very reasonably priced) and you can also access the vocabulary features (again, games & tests). Loading your own word lists is quick and I love that it suggests definitions so that you don't have to write them on your own. *Update: I just found out that Vocabulary Spelling City is now linked to a variety of spelling/reading programs, including Words Their Way - word lists are automatically available!
How I use it: We've used this app to reinforce unit vocabulary, introduce vocabulary prior to reading and practice spelling words. Although I find the interface a bit dated, the kids don't seem to mind & enjoy playing the games. Many schools use the student login feature to allow students to take tests online; we haven't experimented with this but I can definitely see the advantages.
Available for: iPad, Android, Web-based
Evernote - This app is as simple or as complex as you want to make it; use it strictly as a multi-platform on-line note taking tool or expand it to include individual notebooks with your dictated notes, voice recordings and clippings from webpages. Use the work chat feature to share your work with other Evernote users quickly and easily. Add in some companion apps (Skitch, for example) and the uses quickly multiply.
How I use it: This app is ideal for students with written-output and organizational difficulties. Use the built-in speech-to-text feature on your student's phone or tablet to have them dictate a piece of writing or take notes. Create notebooks for each subject and students can automatically file their notes in the right place. Need a piece of writing edited at home? Because Evernote is multi-platform, students can access it at home on their computer, phone or tablet quickly and easily. Start simply and grow as students become more comfortable and confident.
Available for: iPad, iPhone, Android, Web-based
Google Drive - Google Drive has become synonymous with cloud storage, online work space and collaboration and it is a perfect fit for using in the classroom. For some, this is the go-to option for a whole host of uses, from simply storing student work to having students work collaboratively, submit their work and mark it. The possibilities, especially when paired with other apps, are mind-boggling. The fact that it is multi-platform is a definite bonus.
How I use it: Much like Evernote, this app is perfect for helping students with written-output and organizational difficulties. Have them use their device's built-in speech-to-text feature to dictate a piece of writing, then save it and share it with their peers for editing, before sharing it with you for marking. If this is as far as you intend to take it, then it's really a toss-up between using Google Drive & Evernote - both have equally good functionality (for the record, I much prefer the look and feel of Evernote). Once you start to go deeper, you may find that you prefer one over the other...Google Apps for Education represents a world of possibilities for your classroom (and beyond) that you may wish to dive in to as you continue on your journey with technology.
Available for: iPad, Android, Chromebook, Web-based
Haiku Deck - this simple, beautiful presentation tool shines due to it's catalogue of images that are offered up based on the words you use on your slides. Don't like those images? Similar options are also presented so that you can quickly and easily search for images to create a truly gorgeous presentation. Another great aspect of this tool is that, unlike PowerPoint, it limits the amount of text you can put on a page, forcing the presenter to be concise.
How I use it: Plain and simply, to create beautiful presentations. I love Haiku Deck for it's simplicity - no more student presentations with too many words and images bouncing all over the screen, far less time spent on the slides themselves and far more on the content of the presentation. A word of caution, however: while some image searches are filtered (searching the word sex, for example, returns pictures of bugs and the statement "aww, you are making me blush") others, such as drugs or guns, return some pretty explicit images. That being said, so does a Google Images search for those same words, so use in your classroom with the same caution and guidance that you would any other search engine.
Available for: iPad, Android, Web-based
Ideament (formerly Idea Sketch) - This mind mapping app is easy to use and very simply laid out. While the free version only allows for the creation of 1 mind map, the paid version is quite reasonably priced ($4.59). You can also export mind maps to be printed or e-mailed. My favourite aspect of this app, however, is that you can convert your mind map to a writing outline. With one simple tap, students can see how all of their ideas flow in to a piece of writing.
How I use it: In general, I use this app with my struggling writers to help them plan their writing before they begin to write or dictate. With a little bit of instruction in correctly linking their ideas (main idea then sub-ideas), most students can effectively use the writing outlines to structure their writing clearly (an issue many struggling writers face).
Available for: iPad, Windows Surface
Popplet - Another mind mapping tool that is simple and easy to use, Popplet allows for more creativity than Ideament. Colour, drawings and photos can all be added in to the mind map with a few taps. And while you cannot convert your mind maps in to writing outlines, you can have multiple people collaborate on one mind map, opening up great group work possibilities.
How I use it: Unlike Ideament, I tend to use this app more often for planning group projects or as simply a representation of learning in and of itself (by adding in pictures, drawings, colour and links, students can show me that they understand how a concept or concepts are constructed and linked).
Available for: iPad, web-based
Finally, I can't help but share a fun and motivating set of writing lessons, based on the Bike Baron dirtbiking app. The app itself has nothing at all to do with writing, but when these writing lessons, from Mr. Andrews Online, are structured around it, magic happens.
Writing can be such a struggle for so many kids...technology can be the bridge that helps them get to where they feel like writers. I would love to hear what apps you use to get your class writing!
Awhile ago, I wrote about some books I have been reading that have really got me thinking about the language we use with kids (see that post here - you'll learn about one of the most influential professional books I have ever read. Seriously.). In addition to these books, a couple of other opportunities have continued to drive my learning in this area. The first was a professional development workshop I attended (about spelling, of all things. Structured spelling, which is phenomenal btw. But that's another post) where the presenter was a master at using great language. I couldn't stop noticing how empowering it was and how naturally it seemed to come to him. The second is an ongoing conversation with a good friend (and kindie teacher) about ways to talk to my daughter when she's upset because I sometimes just feel so inept in this area. She always knows just what to say, which never ceases to amaze me.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that a) words matter. A lot. and b) we are not all extremely skilled at using the right words. I am one of these not so skilled people. Sure, I know how to talk to kids, I know how to make sure that they understand me, absolutely. But what doesn't come naturally to me are the simple changes in phrasing that empower kids, that allow them to feel like they can do just about anything, that what they are doing is meaningful and important. Thankfully, although this skill doesn't come naturally to me, I believe that it can be learned (and I have that good friend who is wonderfully skilled in this area and willing to answer all my crazy questions). So, on that note, I thought I would share a few common phrases that we all use with kids and some powerful alternatives.
Instead of "What a lovely picture. What is it?" try "Tell me about your picture". This slight change removes the sense that the child's picture is unclear (which, if it's anything like my 3 year old's artwork, it likely is, but they don't know that) and puts the child in the driver's seat when it comes to their own art, giving them a sense of agency and accomplishment.
Instead of "Who can tell me the answer?" try "Can anyone offer a hypothesis?" followed by "Interesting hypothesis. Does anyone have another one?" Although you may have to explain the word hypothesis a few times at first, this simple change in phrase makes it easier for students to take a risk and offer an answer because you are implying that you are not expecting the correct answer, simply their best guess. Note that you have to be willing to accept multiple hypotheses and be open to the idea that an unexpected one may, in fact, turn out to be correct.
Instead of "Not quite. Does anyone else know the correct answer?" try "Oh wow! Great mistake! Here's why..." As with the word hypothesis, you are making space here for students to be willing to take risks and potentially be wrong. If mistakes are treated as positive things, students will be more willing to make them, knowing they lead to growth & learning, rather than to just plain being wrong. You will be creating a culture of inquiry in your classroom.
Instead of "This is how you will do ______." try "As scientists/readers/writers/historians, how should we approach this?" Aside from simply moving from a telling to an asking stance, this rephrasing allows students to see themselves as scientists/readers/writers/historians and encourages them to use the mindset of that particular role to solve a problem. Can you guide them along the way? Absolutely! Try saying "As a scientist, I think I would..."
Instead of "I'm proud of you." try "I bet you're proud of yourself" or "How did accomplishing that make you feel?" The purpose of this rephrasing is two-fold; 1) it removes the idea that the child is subordinate to the teacher and 2) encourages the student to seek an internal motivation for completing something. The more kids rehearse this, the more natural it becomes.
Instead of "Good try but..." try "Which part are you sure about and which part are you not sure about?" or "I see that you got the first part right. How else could you spell that second part?" I love these two because they put so much emphasis on having the student use their knowledge to figure out the correct answer. They will also give you, the teacher, a ton of insight in to what the student knows and doesn't know and where you should take them next in their learning. Asking students how they went about figuring something out is incredibly powerful as it develops their sense of themselves as a capable problem-solver.
Finally, instead of "I see that you're feeling frustrated/overwhelmed/angry." try "How does your body feel right now?" followed by "Sometimes when our bodies feel like that, it means we are feeling ________________. Do you think this is how you're feeling?" This allows students to begin to internalize the process of recognizing how their body feels when they are experiencing a certain emotion, allowing them to learn to self-regulate over time. Of course, follow this conversation up with some things the child can do when they feel that way - breathing, visualization, reading, etc.
Hopefully you find these helpful. I know that I will be slowly working on using these phrases more and more in my teaching; I would love to hear how your attempts go!
It's that time of year...Back to School. Every year at this time, Facebook and Pinterest are filled with posts about the 50, 75 or 100 things your child needs to know before they start kindergarten. Talk about stress! Admittedly, the parent in me read those lists and mentally tallied up the things that my kid could do and the things she couldn't; the educator in me just cringed and reminded me that the developmental continuum is at one of it's widest points as our children enter K and this is not the time for comparison (is there ever a time?). Cue my lovely, oft-mentioned Kindergarten teacher and friend who very eloquently responded to one such post just the other day. Her response was so on-point that I asked her to guest blog about it here!
As a Kindergarten teacher and mummy to my first entering 'my zone', I'll admit I won't read these lists. I find them way too stressful and frankly, I'm maxed on stuff to worry about. While I don't generally think it's reasonable to make uninformed comments on random posts, I threw caution to the wind on this one and refered to my inner guide,: my heart.
If I were to make a list of the things the kids coming in to my class every year need to know, my list would look something like this:
Some things your kid really needs to know before entering school
- That you love them, always.
- How to love themselves, always.
- How to navigate mistakes as learning and opportunity.
- How to see there is magic in differences.
- How to be a good friend.
- How to laugh and enjoy fun.
- How to take care of themselves, each other and their place.
- How to achieve and maintain a happy heart.
- How to love books, print, art, stories, nature, playing, inventing games.
- How to love and be loved...
There are so many things that I could add but they would all be heart centered. It's my jam. My colleagues and I can and will teach the rest of the stuff (it really is just stuff).. It's important stuff but... it's stuff. What really counts, what really matters, is that kiddos feel safe and loved, that their bucket is full and that they can share that with others.
Parents, we know you're doing your best, we honour that. Many of you need to honour that in yourselves too. Don't worry about lists! Read this and feel it, for you AND for your kids. Don't we all need a little more of this? There's nothing your children can't do without the village that makes up their team. Teachers are part of your team and most importantly, your kid's team. We realize that children are each on their own journey. They each come with their own unique strengths and challenges. We too, want for your kids to be happy, healthy and successful, however that looks for them. We are in this together.
Oh, remember to take a minute to breathe and laugh too. Time passes so quickly, don't miss the moments worrying about lists.
Beautiful, isn't it? My humblest thanks for joining me on this, Robyn!
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!