Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lessons from Brazil: False Assumptions

Recently I took a trip to Brazil as part of a Global Learners Fellowship. We visited a handful of schools in both Sao Paulo in Rio de Janeiro. In addition, we visited some other Non-Governmental Agencies, Volunteer Organizations as well as some typical tourist sites. I plan on writing a series of posts about the things that I saw and experienced and the reflections from all of it. It really was one of those experiences that will take several weeks, months, and even years to fully processed and unpack. Naturally, I took a ton of pictures and videos. Here is just a short video I put together as a one-minute highlight reel.



False Assumptions

When I left for Brazil I had a lot of preconceived notions about what I was going to experience and witness while in the country and in their schools. To be honest, I had a pretty stereotypical American attitude that there was going to be very little I was going to learn about how to do my job as a teacher better. I figured I would have fun, meet a ton of great people, but not really find anything great to bring back to my classroom. I knew the goal of our trip was to open our eyes to global competency and give us a unique perspective on just that. However, I was incredibly skeptical that I was truly going to be inspired to change my teaching based on anything I was going to see in a Brazilian school.

On the insanely long plane ride to Sao Paulo, another Fellow and I were talking about why we were even going to Brazil. Why were we not heading to Helsinki? Clearly we would learn more there. Then we began to think that maybe we were coming as the messiahs to preach the good word of American education to the people of Brazil. How colonial of us. J Frankly, we were more excited about seeing the cable car from Moonraker up on Sugar Loaf Mountain than visiting the sure to be uninspiring schools of Brazil.

Yet on our very first school visit to Humboldt High School in Sao Paulo my preconceived notions were shattered in just a matter of seconds. Where I thought I would see depressing and sad state of affairs, I encountered passion and enthusiasm unlike anything I had ever seen. The students at this school showed a level of passion for being in school that I have never witnessed in any school I have ever attended or taught in. I saw the kids that had a love for learning and literally craved it is we see Americans crave fast food. Now I must put a disclaimer here that the school we visited was sort of a pilot school that I will explain in a future post. Essentially it was a public school that did receive a level of financial support from a business partnership.

There was no sense of entitlement that we often face in American school. In fact it was quite the opposite. The kids we spoke with felt that they were genuinely lucky and truly blessed to be in school and to learn as a way to improve their lives. It was like nothing I have ever seen or witnessed or felt before. Here I was, this arrogant American teacher who thought that I had it all figured out. How wrong I was. What I wouldn’t give to have just one of those students come to my school and share their genuine love for learning with my students and teachers. Words can simply not express the experience.

One might ask why were they so enthusiastic and passion about learning? Obviously, they had Classroom Dojo to facilitate their behaviors and make sure they were getting stickers and badges to motivate them. Or maybe they were using the flipped classroom model and these kids were going home and being inspired by watching YouTube videos and coming in and having lively discussions. Some of you are thinking it's because their teachers were held to such a high level of accountability with test scores that they just naturally had this lively, loving, and supportive learning environment. You might assume that they had a one to one technology environment with every kid having a MacBook Air or an iPad or wearing a pair of Google Glass. You can probably picture the walls filled with student work and motivational posters with people climbing high rock walls in mountaintops.

To be honest none of that was there. It was just a bunch of kids that wanted to learn and a bunch of teachers that wanted to teach them. It’s just that simple. They had created such a community that it just worked. A great example of this community was when we ate lunch. I am a lunchroom supervisor and often spend my lunch periods eating while standing and roaming around redirecting and disciplining kids to pick up after themselves. Yet in this school there were no supervisors anywhere in the lunchroom area. It was just kids eating and in some cases teachers sitting with them as well. You could feel the community and respect the kids and staff had for each other and their school.

My initial takeaway from this visit was how they were able to do so much by way of motivating students and creating a community of learning with so little. You could see in every teacher and student we spoke with a genuine love for each other and passion for making theirs lives better. This was not about improving tests scores, which is a reality for them, but it was about improving lives. Their sense of community and passion was something I will never forget and will remember with jealousy.


I moved forward from that first school visit with a new outlook and tossed all of my false assumptions out the door. From that point on I embraced the idea that I had a lot to learn and planned on soaking it all up. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

History Hero

For the past several months I have been working on a new project that I am excited and super anxious about. I was approached by individuals at Mind Gamez to come on and consult on a new video game app they were developing. To start, all I knew was that I was going to visit museums, play a video game and do some work with Historical artifacts, which sounded great to me.

The idea behind the video game is to make kid’s experiences at museums and historical locations more interactive and engaging. The name of the game is History Hero and has recently hit the App Store in several markets. Essentially, the users are trying to save historical artifacts from being stolen by the villains who are the Erasers. For example, I have written missions at the Art Institute of Chicago. The mission will take kids through the museum where they will have to “save” some of the most important pieces of art in the museum. It is a great way to get kids and adults involved in the exhibits. Maybe the best part is it takes some of the guessing game of what should we see at the museum out of your visit. As of right now the App is ready in a few select markets and you can read the full press release here.

Personally, I am the Chicago area “guy” and am putting finishing touches on missions at the Field Museum and the Art Institute with more sites to follow. If you have kids or students that travel to any of these museums I would strongly encourage you to grab the app and have a blast.

Here is a great promotional video that was recently released!



Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review

Recently, I was approached by Staples to do a product review on the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.

The model I received has 2GB of RAM, is WiFi only (802.11a/b/g/n), Bluetooth 4.0, and has 16GB of memory storage, expandable to 64GB via a microSD/HC slot.

Some other important specs include:
8" screen with a 1280x800 resolution
Quad-Core, 1.6GHz processor
Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean)
.73 pounds in weight
5MP rear and 1.3MP front cameras

I have never written a review of a product before and if I am being honest, I read a number of them before attempting to write this one. Most reviews give you all the technical jargon and specs that the average user could probably care less about. I decided that as a teacher I would go through my uses of this tablet and how I could see it being used by students and teachers in a classroom or school setting. To be clear, I was skeptical that this tablet would be any different than the iPad or even the Kindle Fire, which I also use regularly.

Aesthetics
To start with, I do like the aesthetic qualities of the Galaxy Note. It is small enough to fit in my hand and feels very much like a small notebook as the name indicates. I used it in both portrait and landscape mode depending on what I was doing on the device. I did use it to read a book and found it had a sharp picture and was easy to read and maneuver within the text. I could see this being a good device for younger students as it is smaller and therefore better suited for small hands. As I can attest, it is also capable of being dropped from a high table and remains in perfect working order. J I did not have a screen cover or any sort of shell but realize there are a number of those available for additional protection or customization.

Apps and Programs
In terms of overall apps and programs, I found the ones I installed and used intuitive and easy to use. This might have been because I use a Samsung Galaxy S3 Phone and many of the functions and procedures were similar. Many of the apps included are the same ones you would have on any device. I am a user of Tweetdeck, Vine, Evernote, Facebook, Instagram and a handful of photo and video editing apps. All of these functioned exactly as they do on my phone or any other device for that matter. Again, I see this device having value in a school setting because it is cheaper than a full iPad and frankly I was unable to find any apps that could not be used on it effectively.

As the great device wars rages on, I think cheaper and smaller devices such as the Galaxy Note will be popular because it can run nearly all of the same apps as the Apple devices but also have great integration with Google. As a heavy Google user (Blogger, G+, Picasa, Drive, Talk and Maps) this device seamlessly integrates all of those programs and utilities. When I first logged into the device I synched with my Google account and instantly had access to all of my “stuff” in the Google universe. I see this is a huge positive for schools that are using Google Apps for Education or are heavy users of Google tools.

The Stylus
I am aware that other tablets have styluses, yet this one works a bit differently. The big feature for me is the button on the stylus that can be used to take various screen shots. Just simply tapping the button on the stylus and your screen will take a full screen shot very quickly and easily. I was also doing a fair amount of reading on the device and wanted to take notes. While I was reading, I simply grabbed the stylus and was able to click the button and essentially grab portions of the screen and snap a picture of it. I then used those images to drop into a notebook page or into an Evernote note. This would be tremendous for kids doing research or taking notes from text. I could see big uses for students to grab screen shots of a whole variety of things including documents or images that the teacher is sending to them via an LMS or tool such as Google Documents or through Evernote. The possibilities are really endless.

In addition to the screen shot taking, the stylus will function in the same way that most do in that it can be used to scroll, navigate pages and write. This would be useful for some of the handwriting apps for primary grade students. The ability to take notes was something I also tried and it has a very solid handwriting to text recognition that I found useful. Again, students can take notes in their own hand and then have it converted to text and imported, shared, or used in a whole host of ways.

Camera and Video
As far as tablets go, the camera and video playback on the Galaxy Note is pretty standard for most devices on the market. I took videos and pictures in a variety of settings and it worked as anticipated. Low light settings are not great but then again most devices are lacking in this area. I installed a host of picture editing apps because that is something I enjoy doing. They all functioned great and I would anticipate teachers in a variety of settings that use digital media to find great use in that area. The screen size was also large enough to see and interact with the pictures while editing. In terms of the video playback, I did do some video streaming/watching on the device and it was of high quality. As a parent of two little guys who love being at out local pool, I spent a great deal of time with the device there. Even in the bright afternoon sun, I was able to view videos and even text with little trouble at all. This would be useful of you have a handful of these devices with kids working outside.


Overview
As with any piece of technology, it all comes down to user experience and with so many options out there, the consumers have plenty to choose from. I own more devices than I am willing to admit and they all have some place in my routine of either work or play. Many of us continue to search for that one device that will serve all of our needs or in my case, th
e needs of my students. I see that Galaxy Note as a solid candidate for use in classrooms simply because it is small in hand and can do just about everything the other devices on the market can. I look forward to using the device more and seeing what other classroom uses I can develop including its possible synching with our school Learning Management System in the fall.

Full disclosure: Staples.com provided me with this product for review. The thoughts and opinions expressed are strictly my own. Feel free to shop their entire line of tablets online.