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

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!

 

 

 

 

Clear walls = Clear mind!

 

This Tweet: 

This reminded me of an ongoing conversation that I have with teachers. Not just about tidying classrooms (don’t get me started on cables!) – but about their walls. It always seems to me massively counter-intuitive to suggest that classroom walls should be covered in stuff. Over the years I have argued with many head teachers who were convinced that every spare space of wall should be covered in, well, something vaguely connected to learning.  Lists of things to have; topics to be covered and how it should be set out.

This year when I planned my classroom I asked the children what they wanted on the walls – what they liked, what they used and, importantly, what they remembered with their eyes closed. Their current classroom is pretty typical – lots of grammar and punctuation hints (Y6) – topic ‘best’, maths working wall etc etc.

In a nutshell they could remember very little of their classroom wall when they were not in it! They felt proud of their work being up – and they wanted more of it. They found the vocabulary useful but could only really tell me ‘two or three words’ – and they really did not notice or remember any of the posters / extra displays (friendship reminders, class rules etc)




Those children who are coming to my classroom last year requested three key things.

Firstly they wanted their own space – in the school library we have a ‘proud of’ space for each Y6 – and they really, really liked this. I use it as a kind of ‘blog’ area.

They wanted words up that they can’t spell. Tricky this, as every child will find different words helpful, but they told me they can manage to keep it updated… Y6 also wanted grammar… same reason I guess.

Finally they liked the ‘polished’ displays… and we’re proud of their work on them, and they wanted to keep those. Interestingly,  not everyone, but enough to warrant me mentioning it!

Everything else… they were not bothered.

For me, I need a working wall, they might not remember it afterwarss, but somewhere to display the process we are working through is very useful during lessons and it certainly helps me organise my planning.

And finally, a special mention for the interactive display screen which they loved!

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Reflections on a PGCE

Just tell them…

Primary schools have a huge part to play in Primary ITT – trainee teachers seem to be in schools much more than ever before and it stands to reason that if we don’t like what is happening then we should stand up and say so.

The problem seems to be that in Primary there is a culture of ‘just stay one step ahead of the children’ – especially in history or geography topics where the teacher may do it once every few years. Moving year groups or key stages just compounds this – the curriculum across these very different age groups has very different demands.  Not to mention the fact that the whole thing changed three years ago with absolutely no support given for teachers to brush up on their own knowledge – European History study? Coding? The Americas?  And don’t get me started on chikdren’s literature – I firmly believe that their should be a reading list of core children’s books. I don’t really care what is on it, I just think it should be encouraged and seen as standard behaviour.

My own experience of teacher training now, as a Head, is very different from when I trained. My institution did their own English, Maths and Science tests. I remember talking about how to help children learn times tables by rote – how powerful chanting could be for memorising poetry and getting the ‘feel’ of the rhythm. We spent a day learning about animal habitats  – and then discussed how important it is to get the children writing up scientific study. I focussed on key stage 2 and my subject specialism was ICT (as it was) – and yes, we had a children’s book reading list.  I had to do an ICT test – and was tasked with learning how to create, and edit, a video. This was the year before (I think) – the national skills test. I remember trialling them in some London office and receiving my first, and possibly, last, crisp £50 note.

There was an early a lesson observation (seared into my mind!) – where I was really pleased with the ‘activity’ and the ‘busy’ classroom. My tutor sat down with me after the lesson (poetry) – and asked me a very simple question – ‘but what did they actually learn?’ – this question sticks with me now. Another memorable lesson involved the properties of solids, liquids and glass. My year 2s could not get the concept of gas being ‘all around us’ – as I was teaching it. We had balloons, we had huge sheets of paper, we made aeroplanes but I was getting more and more frustrated trying to get the children to guess ‘what was in my head’. In the end, convinced that I was on some educational version of Candid Camera I asked my teacher mentor what she would have done. In another memorable quote she answered – ‘just tell them – tell them first and then ask them to explain how we know it is true.’

School based?

Now, when trainees are ‘school based’ – there is a danger that school leaderships value the trainee who can control the class, who can please parents and who keeps the children smiling. The VAK culture – where teachers have to ensure they are hitting the needs of all learners means that our trainees are at the whim of their current class and their current leadership team. Unmanageable workloads and expectations of ‘cover’ will not help trainees. A school that ‘grows their own’ purely for fast track leadership will not sustain our system. I’m not against these systems, I just want to make sure we keep an open mind about the role of other institutions that have grown up recently.

We need to value what our profession actually does – educate.

The quality of teacher training is very patchy – and will always have an element of subjectivity – but it is right to be under the microscope like this. Those providing the training have a duty of care to their trainees and ensuring that the job is manageable is one of them. ITT providers should be able to challenge the demands of SLT in schools, should be a able to share the latest thinking with the schools without throwing out everything else that works. Universities sadly seem not to do this.  Certainly in my time as a school leader none of the tutors have ever engaged me in professional debate about why I do things in my classroom. ITT should be about time to reflect, yes, but also time to study what has gone before and debate choices.

I’m enjoying this current debate – there won’t be one right answer – but let’s ensure that ITT provides our teachers with everything they need to teach. Schools systems will change and children will change – but at the heart of what we do is ensuring our children are actually learning and our teachers can teach.

 

Cubetto!

This half term I was very lucky to borrow three of these fab Cubettos! 

The Cubetto is unique, not only because of it’s gorgeous aethestic feel but because it is designed to introduce coding to the youngest members of your school.

The instructions are placed, in sequence, in the unit and the then bot itself ambles along wirelessly doing exactly what you’ve told it to. The unit allows children to physically manipulate their touchy-feely wooden instructions,  and to experiment. It allows for the creation of a sub-routine and it allows EYFS children to explore problem solving and storytelling using tech without screens.

Firstly, it will not look out of place in any nursery or EYFS setting – it is just gorgeous. So well made and chunky.  It follows the same principles of a Bee Bot, but the commands are entered separately and physically. It really does make Bee Bots look like plastic rejects.

I started by asking my Y5/Y6 Digital Leaders to play with it, and then they were able to share it with the younger classes. Cubetto comes with a mat and a storybook (see their site for more options about this) – these are just brilliant ideas and a real starting point that many a busy teacher will love. As it happens my pupils set about writing their own stories for Cubetto – and I had to dissuade them from designing their own mat… We then set about looking at what coding we could actually achieve and plan learning for the younger ones.

The result? The children talking about logic, ordering of instructions and reading the Cubetto story to the younger children. One of the first things they did was to see how long Cubetto’s range was (answer – very long!) – and then to see if they could create an ‘infinite’ loop… The younger children loved to try the challenges – asking themselves questions and then using this in their writing. (Did Cubetto get to the mountains? )

Nowadays in these budget-conscious times the Cubetto represents a lot of bang for your buck – the well made resource (with great grippy wheels that work on all kinds of terrain!) – the whizz-bang of wifi and robotics and the genuine opportunities for learning. For being able to feel and see your instructions before your robot tries them out. I love having these in school and will definitely attempt to purchase some once our loan has finished!!