Could Alexa work for you?

Second blog for #WeeklyBlogChallenge17

Like many great ideas this blog was born of a comment on twitter by @pepsmccrea

I have a fascination with AI – albeit the kind of HAL AI – but still… Having yet to try Alexa at home, but surrounded by Bluetooth enabled devices and the internet I can’t wait to give it a go. In the meantime I’ve given myself some time to consider uses for this tech in schools.

It is worth mentioning first of all, that there will always be issues of privacy with an always on internet device in schools. This is something that will need to be seriously thought about, I’ve looked into it and I am unclear as to what exactly happens with the voice commands that are sent to the cloud. But – let’s imagine right now that the device is on or off – that it learns, but doesn’t save all recordings for years… (the ethic of this could be another post!) Also, learning from other voices would need to be in there.




Knowledge
Instantly you can see how children merely asking questions and receiving answers, facts and things may not be such a good idea… Alexa would need to have a kind of Socratic approach to answering. It cannnot be simply a high powered calculator. Ask Alexa should not just be the last thing on our ‘if you are stuck…’ list. No, Alexa will need to be a bit smarter – to learn to respond with pointers, hints and other ideas that the children could try first. Saying that however, there is much to be said for an oral account of eye-witness accounts from history, or a different explanation of fractions and decimals. Children will need to learn to listen carefully, and of course, to formualate their questions appropriately.

Integration
Some of the above issues could be solved by textbook/curricula providers having Alexa linked modules. This would mean that the children could actually say, ‘Alexa I’m stuck with Chapter two’ or ‘Alexa what does so and so mean in Question 3’. Linked with a smart board (or projector) and it could show videos or other resources. I’m imagining a virtual science experiment whereby videos from a service such as the BBC Schools, or Expresso might be genuinely useful. Google classroom links are obvious here – as this could also lead to children identifying themselves by username and getting personalised content. Again, I realise the technology is not quite there yet – but it is within reach.

Personalised Learning
This is the area that really makes me think we could see a game changer. I already find iPad apps and google classroom brilliant for SEN. An AI enabled device would be able to offer more resources and more ideas for children as mentioned above. Recording the initial teacher input, or reading aloud chapter from books. But also the formulating of questions, the dictation of ideas and the organising of their thoughts could be vitally supported by an AI enabled device. ‘Alexa record this…’ ‘Alexa read back what I just said’ A device which connected to a visualiser could, maybe, learn to read handwriting or support the child in editing. Or upload the images to google classroom and ping the teacher – link to an iPad and you have the pupil recording their words and then sharing with other apps. Again specific apps and providers could link with Alexa.

Admin
This is the most obvious area where teachers could be supported. Send to printer command; take the register; share school messages; share school calendar; check emails; read aloud lunch menus… If you use an electronic assistant at home you will realise how it could support your classroom. This is where most privacy issues will come in – you couldn’t really ask it to read aloud school emails if it then saves all the information on a server. Your school calendar probably shouldn’t be that detailed. But then… emails are similarly saved, and many schools already use google calendar or a similar device. One to think about definitely…

Realism

Again, I know there are many hurdles to this, I know that the internet connection will need to be faster than most schools currently access. There will be privacy issues, and parental worries. We will need to ensure strong, unbreakable firewalls. Other educational companies will need to get on board to make it genuinely useful…

But I think this is worth investigating – and if anyone wants to donate a few so I can get started….

Links

CNet Review

Donald Clark Blog – ideas and more link

Why we ALL need to improve recruitment and retention.

A new education secretary era begins – and the advent of a new education secretary alllows us to take stock of where we are and, more importantly, where we want to be.

Recruitment and retention is a huge issue right now.

One that impacts on education at all levels, and crucially, one that threatens to get worse as we won’t feel the full lack of trainees for a couple of years. Many open letters have been written, conversations had and suggestions put forward – pay raises, less holiday, workload ‘promises’.

We now need to take some of the responsibility for this crisis –  Local Authorities and MATs and the culture that we have all created – whilst the argument that it is (or was) OFSTED driven still hangs around there is much that schools can do now to help turn the tide. We need to act braver, take responsibility for our own work choices and trust each other. As professionals.

Perpetuating Our Own Myths

Ofsted released their own ‘myths‘ documents and subsequent updates a couple of years ago now. They are attempting to ensure that they are not unduly adding to workload, or to the stress on teachers. This has seen some effectiveness – leadership teams in schools seem to be taking this on – rumbles throughout the system suggest that marking expectations, for example, are being reduced. ‘Wellbeing’ – possibly a fair bit of hype with this, but at least a conversation is taking place.

Trust is the key concept here.

For schools to effectively tackle workload leaders of all types need to stop double and triple checking everything done and intervene only when there is need. Schools where planning is handed in before teaching and in some places after once it is evaluated. Schools where marking is checked weekly, where book scrutiny demand a minimum amount of writing each week, where assessment data is decimalised and expected every half term.

Don’t get me wrong – we need standards and we need to strive for our pupils but we also need realism. We need to encourage open conversation so that teachers feel they can query school systems, can make suggestions and, most importantly, ask for help. This kind of culture comes from the top. Cutting staff meetings, reducing marking expectations, demanding data less frequently are all side effects of this culture, but they don’t necessarily create it. To create this culture you need to announce it – you need to actually tell teachers they are trusted. Book scrutiny, lesson observations, pupil interviews – whatever forms part of your strategic calendar all need to take place in an open manner – with teaching staff involved, not just closed door senior teams. Teachers need to be part of the system, not just be recipients of judgments.

What can change tomorrow:

– your next ‘judgement forming’ action needs to be open and shared with staff. Why are you doing it? What do you want to see? What are the criteria.. etc. Etc.

– senior staff: try just taking the class for a lesson or series of lessons, best way to learn about standards, expectations, behaviour routines etc.

– if there is an issue, and you are looking to rapidly improve standards give staff mentors that they can talk to. Don’t just give a list of things to improve and then a ‘we’ll be back in two weeks’. Give the reasons why changes will impact standards.

– regularly review policies such as your marking and teaching and learning with teaching staff. Try to get honest impact assessments – what does it mean for pupils? What does it mean for staff time? Etc. Etc. Does consistency mean consistency or does it  mean a couple of staff members working all hours and some staf members only  doing what they know will be looked at? Be honest!

– not use performance management to set data targets for class teachers. Data is, after all, a school wide product.

– don’t demand assessment data half termly. No need at all.

Again, all of these things rely on trust – and until we as a profession can honestly, and openly, talk about colleagues with a sense of professional trust rather than bickering and distrust.

Have you tried a MOOC?

When studying Education Technology a few years back MOOCS were just becoming commonplace – and like everything in the edu-tech space was being hailed by some as the technology that would transform education. (See various articles here).

If you haven’t heard MOOCS are Massive Online Open Courses – courses led by Universities (or similar), open to all for no cost and wholly online. There were notable courses that got the ball rolling – Medical courses from Harvard and a large scale artificial intelligence course at Stanford that attracted over 150,000 students back in 2009. Nowadays you can look at MOOCS in almost all areas of study – and for teachers it is rich pickings for CPD and subject specific courses.

The discussion rumbles on of course – we cannnot say that MOOCS have had the impact on education that we thought they might do – and there is no doubt big differences in the courses with quality, dropout rate and student satisfaction. The judgement of MOOCS also remains somewhat controversial. A course that attracts over 100,000 people from across the world will mean different things to different people and we cannot judge their success on drop out rates alone.

However there is something to be said for trying some of these courses for yourself. Take part in a short MOOC and you will be expected to take part in weekly activities (watching and commenting on a video say) – quizzes – peer feedback on comments and ‘essays’. You may be expected to watch interviews via video and then answer questions, or complete tasks using apps and upload results.

In the last few years I have taken part in three MOOCS – I studied coding for a school specific thing, a course with Newcastle Uni about Hadrian’s Wall (when I moved to it!) and more recently a brilliant one at Stansted about the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism. I heartily recommend trying them. The best MOOCS have some things in common of course –  and a good MOOC will have:

  • Weekly targets – expect some kind of interaction each week. Most MOOCS won’t be very long, and will expect a few hours of your time at least.
  • Interaction amongst those taking part and wih some of the course tutors (or facilitators) via a forum.
  • A mixture of media – interviews as well as video clips, graphics and text. Taking full advantage of the technology available.
  • Finishing certificate. I am a sucker for a ‘finish’ – and whether it is via percentage attendance, judging your writing via peer feedback or completion of quizzes the best MOOCS have worked out how to give you data driven feedback for your work.
  • They are ‘live’ – that is to say that they are not ‘at your own place’ but ongoing with deadlines.

If you’re looking for something a bit different for the new year – give one a go – I’ve already signed up for an astronomy course about habitable moons…

And, if you have tried one, let me know in the comments!

Further Reading:

What is a successful MOOC? -The Atlantic

List of MOOCS for teachers at Future Learn.

Moocs will Transform Higher Education – But Not How We Think – TImes Higher Ed

#NorthernEd

As many of you know, I have had the pleasure of working across the country – and currently in Cumbria. Given the chance to bring together more colleagues from the North of England I jumped at it. Please take a look at the group blog below – and sign up if you are interested!

Exciting things come from colleagues supporting one another!

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Northern education is talked about frequently. Northern educators, on the other hand, are talked to rather less frequently. We are regularly told about the deficiencies of the education we offer; we are less regularly listened to about the challenges that shape the education we offer.
This is unjust.
We do not deny there are improvements to be made. We do not deny that change needs to happen. But we reasonably expect to have a voice of our own when discussing how these things might be achieved.
We are as skilled, as passionate, as well-informed as our colleagues in other areas of the country – we deserve to have our voice heard. And too often it feels as if it is not, with discussion and access always based far away from the villages, town and cities that we teach in.
This needs to change.
And so, we propose the creation of a Northern Education Forum. We’ve put together a Google Form for those who may wish to register their initial interest in being involved. The details of its remit, its membership, and its role will be fleshed out over the coming weeks.
But in the meantime, we have one simple question:
You in?

Sarah Ledger
Amy Forrester
Rebecca Stacey
Lisa Pettifer
Michael Merrick

New Teacher Advice

A few tweets doing the round for this – and a few responses (some more tongue in cheek that others…. )




Here’s mine – and forgive me, but it is Primary Teacher aimed!

  • Best way to get to know your children is by teaching them – get straight into your routines and straight into all those great lessons you are raring to try!
  • Don’t waste time with a ‘what did you do over the holidays piece’ – see ideas for writing here.
  • Get straight into routines for presentation and your classroom. If you are not sure what they should be right now ask a colleague – but introduce something. I went massively overboard on ‘rotas’ in my first year teaching – child monitors for everything!!
  • Explicitly model presentation requirements – with older children get them to model them to you.
  • Children love helping! They do! Use this by all means but don’t let it eat into learning time.
  • Make sure when you are talking, they are listening. You are the expert remember, be proud of this. No fiddling!!
  • Get a good class book on the go – it calms tempers and can bring the class back to focus.
  • Listen to them read – no matter how old they are – even in Y6 I had a class list up and aimed to listen to all the children at least twice a week… it forms relationships and really helps with vocab.

Getting to know your school:

  • Have a chat with your head of year or deputy about what is expected in lessons and ask to see some of their sessions.
  • Use your PPA and NQT time wisely – think about what you are not so confident about teaching and brush up on that. Whether it is observing others or reading.
  • Sit in some of the sessions you are allowed to leave – I mean music classes, PE PPA cover, assemblies whatever – watching other adults with your class is a valuable lesson.
  • The SENCO is another good person to spend some time with. Look at how t paperwork is filled in and get to know any targets for your children.
  • Talk to staff! I mean all the staff. Not only about your children (some will behave very differently during lunchtime!) – but also the office staff (do you know what to do if you run out of something?), the cleaner (do they want you to put chairs on table at the end of the day?).  Take a bit of time to find out!

Above all try and enjoy yourself – every school is different but there will always be someone who can help, and if not join in on twitter. No problem is too small. Promise.

 

Digital 5 a Day!

This is a response to a post by Cliff Manning (@cliffmanning) regarding the Children’s Commissioner’s recent Digital 5 A Day campaign.

This campaign, in their own words aims to:

The Digital 5 A Day provides a simple framework that reflects the concerns of parents/ carers as well as children’s behaviours and needs. It can also act as a base for family agreements about internet and digital device use throughout both the holidays and term time.

Based on the NHS’s evidence-based ‘Five steps to better mental wellbeing’, the 5 A Day campaign gives children and parents easy to follow, practical steps to achieve a healthy and balanced digital diet.

And it makes complete sense – there is a need to give parents, and children, a different dialogue about being online that is not all about esafety and ‘nots’. There are lots of great resources out there for Parents who are worried (I wrote about them here) – but my experience, as a teacher, is that this focus can make pupils fearful about speaking out and, at the same time, Parents don’t ask for help if they need it as they feel they will be labelled. To have a campaign which focuses on the good technology can bring – and then uses that to bring families together can only be a good thing. Articles like this represent how it has been received. However, as is pointed out by by @cliffmanning:

The press headlines inevitably focused on ‘regulating screen time’ and rules — however the intention was to help young people develop a balanced, creative, empowered relationship with digital and devices.

What then, would support the young people develop this relationship?

I’m torn between the #digital5aday being too prescriptive and then not prescriptive enough.  The five elements are useful to guide thinking and will, with some, promote conversation amongst families. Themes that many schools will recognise and in fact teacher’s will talk about technology in such ways.  However, as I outline at the end of this piece, I do think that there other problems with a campaign like this.

Connect

Here parents are prompted to see the value in connecting with people. Parents are reminded to ‘keep a dialogue open’ (nothing new there then!).

With the support of parents children could be prompted to check in with a family member they don’t see very often? To message a friend and make them smile? For older children – can they support an older family member online? Can they look up their favourite author? Or TV personality – write them a short note? Author’s website can be a great source of activities such as writing competitions, or book-linked ideas.

Be Active

This prompt feels like it has been included just to make sure ‘screen time’ isn’t the only focus. But, let’s face it, using the internet as directory enquiries really isn’t that inspiring – these days it is the default. Asking them to research a place or local activity without using the internet would be a bigger challenge!

But – older children can challenge themselves to do something new – and then share it. Join a local group for their chosen activity? Find  a video of an inspirational achievement in their chosen sport? Can they learn something to help them improve their favourite acitivity?

Get Creative

This one is easy – and where children excel online. The danger is in mentioning specific games (which dates your publication immediately) – and you tube tutorials which parents of younger children may not let them access. Writing fan fiction is a great idea – especially as that can link to film and TV – not just games. But also signposting some game creation tools they can use something like Scratch -which would be a great joint venture with parents. Trying the Hour of Code – or asking children to contribute to a  blog post or to a writing competition. Sharing any creations would be ideal – designs using something like TinkerCad for example.

Give to Others

This is a really lovely inclusion which again many schools will recognise. Researching and linking to chosen charities would be nice here -and in the link to activity why not challenge yourself to do something to raise money for charity and set up (with parental help) – your fundraising page complete with charting your success via a blog?

Be Mindful

Another inclusion that feels little connection to the Digital 5 a Day. Good advice, of course, to switch off. Being mindful however is also about taking your time to really ‘be somewhere’ – and to give yourself completely to the activity you are doing. Whatever that may be.

The right campaign? 

I think one of the issues with a campaign like this is that it tries to be too many things at once. I know what they are trying to achieve – but I think we need to pick our audience more carefully. Children / teenagers may find this advice patronising, and many will just be unaware of it completely. It is important to note that children and teenagers who are tech savvy enough to be aware and involved with these activites don’t need ‘digital’ 5 a day – the digital is superfluous and unnecessary. It would be better to just appeal to the ‘5 holiday habits’ or some such. Parents may welcome these kind of prompts – but I suspect that the parents who are aware of this, and reading it, will already be aware of the many uses of the digital world. The digital divide is very real for families and if you want to get to those children who are just left unsupervised with a tablet and TV for hours on end I don’t think this will do it.

A Platform

Finally with a campaign like this why not go the whole hog and develop a kind of ‘challenge’ – digital badges such as the like seen at Makewav.es. Being totally serious about it, they could develop a sharing platform? Using existing social media to put everything in once place for parents to see. Using existing networks already like faceboook for local sports groups would also help young people see what is out there.

How I teach writing…

A few steps into how writing is taught in my classroom….

 

Context

I usually teacher upper KS2 – but I have taught all KS1 and KS2 – and adhere to these ideas. At my school the pupils have targets – written marking by the teacher is minimal but feedback is expected in class with children acting on it as we go. Peer marking and self evaluation is also trained in to the children, using Even Better If and What Went Well. Obviously at Key Stage 1 this process needs to be modelled by the adult.

I rarely teach writing as a standalone. It is part of a purpose, linked to work we’ve done, a book we’re reading or an experiment we are doing. In short, every bit of writing we do in the classroom has a context, and a purpose, and is a learning opportunity.

Nuts and bolts

Grammar rules, spelling support and punctuation is also taught standalone, across the whole school, for 20mins a day. But writing sessions need to pull this learning in. Individuals have their focus for their own writing,  but we may have a class focus for new grammar or spelling rules as well. Displays make use of this – as well as key examples during reading.

Task Planning (them and me!)

I encourage planning – but by the end of Key Stage 2 I don’t really care how they do it. We model different ways of planning – e.g. Story board (pictures), story mountain or just good old fashioned boxes, but, to be honest I don’t care as long as they have an idea where it will end. Instead I will limit something via the task. For example when we were writing a biography we limited ourselves to the same template and to two or three choices (from topic work). No time wasted on ‘researching’ their favourite footballer. When we looked at diary entries we all did the same piece based on August from ‘Wonder’ – then we all knew where we started and where we were finishing. I rarely ask them to just ‘write’ – though I will sometimes give them a choice of the character to write a diary entry from.

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Success criteria?

When teaching I rarely give success criteria up front, instead as we get started I will give them something linked to the genre (or context)  and remind them of any grammar focus, especially if new. However I always stop them say, fifteen minutes in, and ask them to think any criteria the want to work on. They make a note of this at the bottom of their page. Note that for children who may find this difficult this will be modelled a part of a group, and if need be give a group success criteria.

Modelling

I’m a huge believer that the children cannot write it if they haven’t read it. Often as we write I will also write the task and stop and share. Often I will do this on the whiteboard as a ‘guided write’ to get thing started. Then I will pause the board, get them going and continue myself. When we stop in ten minutes or so to look at success criteria I will share mine, and they will share theirs. This works very well for younger children who can use my modelling as springboard. I also love working from poems and books. Sharing good writing, and not so good writing. Asking them to reflect on stories by writing diaries, school reports, letters etc.

Examples:

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Using ‘The Wall’  – Y5/Y6

We have been reading this book – and the children had found some of the ideas and concepts quite challenging. As such we spent some time focusing on vocabulary and themes – exploring the choices made by adults and how they could appear to children. To do this we did some ‘short writing’  snippets of conversations that the characters had with one another (focus on speech punctuation, and on formality) in the lessons before. Some of which were on our wall to remind us. We then built up to a write where we chose Liev (a kind of bad guy) and wrote two letters. One to a ‘higher up’ – e.g. An old army boss or his current chief and another letter to a friend. Both letters had to explain his motives and we discussed which letter would be more honest. With this activity the letter writing layout was reinforced, but also the diferrent language and grammatical feature a more formal letter would have.

Postcard to a Pirate (Y1/Y2)

A whole assortment of Pirate works went into this – including the reading of various picture books and previous work on the characters. Then we decided to write a postcard to a pirate. Simple really. We thought about what a postcard is, discussed language we would use and then wrote it in our books first. I modelled mine, and then those less confident continued from where I left off. A taught editing session (with year two the same principle applied  we read our work and looked for finger spaces, capital letters, and any words that didn’t seem right)  – then the copied it up.

Key points – to finish with! 

1. Context is everything – especially with the more tricky vocabulary. Make your  literacy lessons worthwhile. Don’t waste time  – if you want them to write biographies link it with their topic, scientific writing can be done in literacy etc. If you want pictures of a character do that in art.

2. Expectations need to be high. You know your children – so high but not unobtainable; if you want them to spot missing capital letters then you need to pull them up on it. I had a chart once (only needed it for a week) where every missed capital letter was a minute they owed me. Y6. It worked. Word walls and misspelled words regularly shared.

3. Work ethic – a school wide issue I know – but they need to get used to focusing on their work. They need to produce a minimum. I don’t always stop ten minutes in, but when I do I use it to reinforce not just the grammar and punctuation expectations but how much I expect to get done.  I give them a specific five mins where they can look at someone else’s work and get ideas – they edit and correct in a different colour so I can see how they apply their learning and we use books with space at the bottom for comments. Silence is the norm when they actually write.

4. Key questions – plan some of these if need be. Questions which interrogate the text and which they can ask themselves. Even with the pirate task above thinking of ideas such as why they are writing a postcard, are they friendly, or boasting? (Etc)

5.Editing is an important skill and needs to be taught and modelled. Edit your work to show them them the process and, with younger children, give them an aim to editing. E.g. Just sentences, or just capital letters. You want them, by the end of Y5 to be drafting and then editing a piece – google docs is brilliant for this is you can model as they type!