Monday, November 14, 2011

Preparing for a Long Term Sub

My maternity leave is nearing its end (only 2 weeks left), and it's been a great relief to me to know that everything has been going smoothly in my classroom while I've been tending to my beautiful baby girl. A big part of that has obviously been the high quality sub that was hired in my place, but I also did a lot of work to get ready for my sub. These are things that worked for me that I would recommend to anyone planning for a long term sub.

1. Create a gmail account for your sub.
I didn't know who was going to be my sub until the week before my due date. I was a mess worrying that I would go into labor before my replacement was found! My mind was racing with all of the things that I needed to remember to tell my sub before she took over. I also realized that even if I had an opportunity to tell her those things face-to-face, there was a good chance that she'd forget some of it due to information overload. And honestly? I was going to forget to tell her things, too. My solution was to create a generic email address (e.g., sub4[your last name] and then send short emails to that address as I thought of things I would want her to know. This was really helpful in a lot of ways:

  • My sub could easily find the information she was looking for based on the carefully chosen subject lines of my emails to her.
  • I could share the email address with my colleagues and administrators so that they could include her on staff emails without needing to rely on me to forward the emails to her. Given that it took almost a month for her to get set up with an official school email, this was especially useful.
  • I could share my relevant Google Docs, Sites, Calendars, and Dropbox files with her.
  • I have a permanent archive of the "tips" I thought of through the emails that I sent her. 
When my leave is over, I'll change the password to the gmail account, and if my sub would like to continue to use the materials, I'll share through her personal email address. That way, I'll maintain ownership of the account, and I can continue to send emails to it in case there's a next time I need a long term sub. In fact, I may use this for short term subs as well.

2. Create unit plans in Google Docs.
I increasingly love having all of my work stored in the cloud. I alternate between 4 different computers and 2 different iPads between home and work, and there's no way I could stay organized without having my important documents in the cloud. Over the summer, I began to create a Google Doc for each unit that I teach. I've created subject prefixes to help organize the files, and I also tag them for different folders such as "Social Studies" and "Term 1." I'm sharing these with colleagues on my grade level, and I also shared them with my sub via the gmail address that I created. The docs were helpful because I could add to them if I thought of more ideas while on leave (particularly helpful during the week when I was on leave but still waiting to go in labor -- the little one was late). It also let me see what was happening if and when my sub added to the documents.

3. Find little ways to stay connected to your students.
I was with my fourth graders for the first three weeks of the year, so I got to know them a little bit, and I had an opportunity to set up some of my classroom routines, expectations, and procedures. I worried, however, that I would feel like I was starting over when I return after Thanksgiving. To help combat this, I created assignments that would allow me to occasionally check in and monitor their progress online. My students blogged about the books they were reading on Kidblog, and they competed in a multiplication and division showdown on SumDog. I commented on the students' blogs from time to time, and it's seemed to keep my students motivated to read and write. None of it was a big time commitment, and it gave me something to do when the little one was asleep in my lap and too content to move.

4. Plan, but don't overplan.
My district will only place certified teachers in longterm sub positions, and I think that's the way it is in most schools. With that in mind, I did not go into anywhere near the level of detail that I would go into for a short term sub. I know that I have a different teaching style from many other teachers, and the detailed lessons that I would write up might not work for my sub. I put together detailed plans for the first couple weeks to help her as she got acquainted with my class/school, but beyond that, I left her with a detailed curriculum map with learning targets and suggested resources. It saved me the work of writing lesson plans that she wouldn't necessarily use, and it saved her from trying a style that she might not have been as comfortable or effective with.

5. Try to arrange for some shadow time. 
I am incredibly grateful that once my principal secured my long term sub, he paid her to shadow me the week before my leave started. It allowed her to get a sense of my students and classroom management style, and it facilitated a lot of conversations based on questions she had. And given that I was 39 weeks pregnant in the middle of August, it gave me someone to help shuttle my class up and down the three flights of stairs between lunch, recess, and specials while I dashed to the bathroom. It was a blessing.

It was really hard for me to give up control of my students for 12 weeks, but I feel good about the situation that I'll be stepping back into. And if I ever need a long term sub again, I feel comfortable with some of the infrastructure that I created this go around. Certainly there's more that I could do, however. What about you -- any tips for how you prepared for a long term sub or reflections on how you would've done things differently? I'd love to hear them in the comments section.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

App Finding Tip

Sometimes, I hate the process of searching for apps -- especially if I just want to browse and I don't have a specific app in mind. I have yet to figure out how the App Store determines what has the most "relevance" to my searches because often times it feels wildly off. In addition, it can be time consuming, and I don't feel like I'm as efficient with it as I could be.

This week, I found a work around. Go to Google and begin your search with the query "" and then the key words you want to find in the app store. Here's a very broad search as an example:

This search seemed to return far more relevant results for me. Like the App Store, I was able to see prices and ratings on one screen. Maybe it's because I have more experience searching with Google, but I also felt like the browsing process was much more efficient. Although this search returned 305,000 results, I noticed that there started to be a lot of duplicates on the fourth or fifth page. I also noticed that a lot of the obscure and seemingly irrelevant hits that I would get with a similar search through the App Store were weeded out, or at least moved to much later in the results. Overall, this seemed like a much better route for casual browsing than working through the app store. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Free App - The Patriots US

I recently saw this game, The Patriots US, on AppShopper. It is free for a limited time. Here is the official description of it:
The British are coming… Again! It’s been twelve years since the war of 1812 and the British have reassembled and are seeking revenge for their ancestor’s losses. Take control of the cannon and defend the Capitol against the relentless Redcoats. The British have assembled an elite task force consisting of Redcoats, the Scottish Guard and the Green Dragoons. Green Dragoons are known for their savagery and disdain for the American colonies and will stop at nothing to help the Redcoats take control of the Capitol. Defend the Capitol with a barrage of weapons. Advance to the next level and use your war funds to purchase upgrades that can help you defend your country. The fate of America’s freedom rests in your hands. See if you have what it takes to fight off the Redcoats and send them back to their country empty handed… Again!
I really debated whether I should download it for my fourth grade iPad Social Studies pilot. On the surface, it looks like a typical strategy game, and I wasn't sure what educational value it might have. But then I started thinking...
What if students were assigned the task of evaluating the historical accuracy and integrity of this game? It could open up an inquiry into:
  • US-British relations in the era following the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
  • Battle strategies and alliances
  • Living conditions in early America
  • The economics of military spending and costs of war
Students could also recommend changes to the game to make it more historically accurate, if necessary.
There seems to be a shortage of historically-based social studies apps out there, but I think we could still use several of them if we think creatively about their purposes and the lessons we hope to craft surrounding them.

What, no posts?

My involvement with Eberopolis has been slow as of late. As I mentioned previously, 2011 was bringing big changes to my life through the addition of one amazing little being. Meet Sydney:

Sydney was born on August 26, and my husband and I were blessed that she came into the world both healthy and happy. I've also been blessed by the fact that I've been able to take a substantial maternity leave to be with her. I'll be out of the classroom through Thanksgiving.

While I've had ample time to do some reading and browsing and to play with some iPad apps so far, I haven't had much of an opportunity to share my findings. You see, ever since she was born, Sydney has refused to sleep for more than 10 minutes in any space farther than 3 inches away from me. And while she still has that preference, she has at least decided this week that she can tolerate snuggling against me while confined in a Moby Wrap. So rather than having one hand typing while the other holds the baby, I can now snuggle her for hours hands free.

I can't begin to describe how much that improves my quality of life. Unbelievable.

Meanwhile, I haven't been doing as much with the 2000 hours project these last couple of months even though I've been working on school-related things in fits and spurts. I'm back to logging that more often now, though. I've amassed over 360 hours so far, and I expect that number to shoot up considerably now that Sydney has a more predictable nap schedule that I can work through. I attended the DEN Virtual Conference today, and that alone has generated a slew of ideas that I look forward to sharing.

More to come!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

iPads + Google Site + Google Forms for the win!

I have a pretty sophisticated Google Site that I've built over the last three years for my classroom, and I use it daily for instruction and parent communication. Many of the activities that I ask my students to do online are connected through this site in some way, so I wanted to make sure that it would be compatible user-friendly with the iPads. Here's a tutorial on how to access such a frequently visited website with students and some of the special features such use could create.

Step 1: Go to the website.
In this instance, my website is located at

Step 2. Click the button immediately to the left of the browser bar, and select "Add to Home Screen."

Step 3. Find the new icon for your webpage as the last icon on your last page of apps.

4. Hold your finger on the icon until the page of icons begins to shake and they have the "x" symbol in the upper left corner of each icon.

5. Drag and drop the website icon into the bar at the bottom of the screen.

6. Press the home button to save your changes and stop the apps from wobbling.

The shortcut will now appear in the bottom row regardless of what page of apps the students are on.

One thing that I love about Google is the ability to create forms through GoogleDocs. I can create assignments that include fill-in-the blank, multiple choice, check box, short answer and long answer type questions. I can make some questions required and other questions optional. I can then link the form to my website, and students can answer the questions and submit their responses to me electronically.
Here's an example of a Google Form that's already linked to my website:

All of their responses are sent to me in a spreadsheet which gets updated in real-time. It's great for quick assessments as well as projects that students have a larger window of time to complete. I also like to use Google Forms for parent surveys on my website.

I tested out my Google Form using the iPad, and it was very easy to use. This will definitely be a tool that I incorporate into future assignments. I'm also thinking that I may design a quick parent survey for curriculum night, and let the parents answer the survey using the iPads.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The iPad Experiment - Day #1

Yesterday, I received my iPad cart fully stocked with 30 iPads and a laptop that acts as the hub for syncing the devices. Today was the first day that I attempted to use the devices with my class. We spent about 20-25 minutes discussing the iPad Driver's License requirements and reviewing the rules for iPad use. The students were very excited about the opportunity to use the devices, and they asked a lot of good clarifying questions about the rules. I then gave the students about 30 minutes to just explore the iPads and play with the apps that I'd downloaded.

The Good
1. I like the iPad cart overall, and I think that it has great potential as a classroom hub. It is so efficient at syncing the iPads, and it makes managing the devices far less cumbersome than I'd anticipated. The cart doesn't take up a lot of real estate in my classroom, and it's easy to move around. It locks easily, and the back lights up to show the numbers of the devices that are plugged in. It makes for a really well-organized system for managing the iPads, especially since all of the students are given numbers and assigned a specific device to use each and every time. As long as they put it in the right spot, I should be able to gauge how well they've been put away pretty quickly.

The Bad (a.k.a. the issues that we'll need to work on...)
1. The cart is a bit cumbersome for plugging and unplugging the iPads. Rather than having the standard iPad plugs, the cart has special cords that plug into the hub to allow for multi-unit syncing and charging. They don't fit into the iPads super-smoothly, and they can be a challenge to navigate. Several students were getting frustrated with them today, and I had to explain that this was a learning experience for all of us. Through much trial-and-error, we determined that the best way to put them back in was to plug the device into the hub, and then rotate the iPad into its slot. When students tried putting the device into the slot before plugging it in, they had a much harder time getting the plug to attach correctly.

2. Not all of the devices synced correctly the first time. On several of the iPads, students could see the icons of all of the apps that were loaded, but when they tapped on the icons, the app would begin to load and then crash. We had to re-sync those devices, and then they worked. All of that was fine, but it was frustrating for the students and me because it was time consuming, and they were all very eager to use their iPads. We were also a lot slower at pulling them out and putting them away because it was our first time, so it just compounded the inefficiency of the process.

3. Not all of the iPads were synced the first time, period. Many of them appeared to be plugged in, but they hadn't connected completely, so they didn't get synced. I learned today what to look for and that I'll need to carefully check the device list to make sure I have all 30 devices connected. It also seemed to matter that I ejected them one by one through iTunes after the sync and before the students took the iPads out of the cart.

4. Volume controls matter! The students are going to get the earbuds for the iPads so they can listen to their apps and work independently, but we didn't have those today. I asked the students to mute the devices so that they wouldn't disturb others around them -- some of the apps are very audio-rich! We figured out, though, that we need to have the volume on when the students return their devices to the cart so we can hear the chirp that tells us the iPad is plugged in correctly.

None of these issues are all that significant, but they're definitely things I didn't anticipate going into the learning experience today. As always, troubleshooting on the spot doesn't always yield the most efficient solutions, either. The students were wonderfully patient throughout the process even though some of them really only got about 10 minutes to explore their iPad. I was also so busy figuring out the technical aspects that I didn't really get to see what the students were doing with the iPads or how they were using them. Now that we've got some of these issues worked out, I'm planning to give the students another opportunity to explore the iPads tomorrow, and hopefully everything will go more smoothly. Once we've got some of these kinks worked out and the students have had an opportunity to "play" with the iPads, we'll really begin to dig into using them for social studies. I'm planning to start those lessons next week.

Breaking the News...

Last Friday, I shared with my 4th graders the news that we are piloting 1:1 iPads in our classroom this year, and the announcement was met with a great deal of enthusiasm. We brainstormed rules and guidelines for using the iPads, and we discussed some of the potential problems we might encounter. While this was happening, the students passed around my iPad to take a look.

Part of it may be the age-level that I work with, but the students were very hung up on different scenarios for how they could "break" the iPad and strategies for how to avoid that. I was eventually able to convince them that I wasn't concerned so much about them breaking the iPads (despite some of the creative scenarios for iPad destruction they generated!) so much as I was worried about the iPads misuse. We came up with several ideas for rules, and eventually I helped them categorize these into 4 big catch all rules.

1. Treat the iPad with respect and care in how you get it out, move with it, use it at your seat, and put it away.
We talked about how this meant putting it in the right place in our iPad cart, setting it up at desks in a way in which it won't accidentally get knocked off, avoiding work near food or drink, cleaning the iPads, etc.

2. Only use the iPad for its intended educational purposes. When in doubt, ask your teacher.

This is our "don't do YouTube and random internet searches" rule. We talked about how they could ask themselves "Would Mrs. Eber be okay with me doing this?" and if the answer is "no" or "I'm not sure," they should either stop themselves or double check it with me. We also talked about how this means that they have to finish assignments before they can move onto playing educational games or using other apps.

3. Keep the iPad in the same state you found it. Don't add or delete apps or change your iPad in a way that will make it differ from everyone else unless it's part of an assignment.
At some point, students will be given assignments to change their desktops using a social studies related picture, and we'll also learn about using folders. But for now, it's helpful to have the iPads match. That way, when I want them to use a particular app, I can say that it's on Screen #3 and not have to waste instructional time waiting for them to figure out what folder they moved it to. This will also facilitate a conversation about good ways to organize apps. I know some classes using iPod Touches last year had a student categorize apps in folders called "Apps I like" and "Apps I hate," and I'm hoping to avoid those not-so-universally-descriptive categories.

This rule is also the rule that covers the idea that even if you have an iTunes account or know your mom or dad's password, you may not use it on this device.

4. Be prompt in following all directions while using your iPads.
We talked about how this rule is intended to mean that when someone is presenting or giving directions, they need to stop what they're doing and listen. Or at the end of the lesson when I ask students to put away their iPads, that doesn't mean to do so after they play one more game. We talked about how they're more likely to get more time with the iPads if they're following directions, so we don't want to abuse that privilege.

Right now, students have "learner's permits" for iPad use as we learn more about the ins and outs of managing these devices. In a couple of days, students will earn their iPad Driver's Licenses, and they'll have these out on their desks anytime they are using their iPad. If they break one of our rules, they'll have their license suspended, and they'll lose out on the iPad privileges that day. That won't mean that they lose out on participating in the lesson; they'll just need to follow along with what their neighbors are doing on their iPads. Then, the following day, their iPad license can be reinstated.

We may need to add more rules, but these seemed to be broad enough to catch the biggest issues we're likely to confront. As always, however, I'd love feedback. What ideas or additional rules might we need to use these devices effectively? Leave me a comment with your thoughts!

The Quest for Free Apps

As we continue to prepare to launch the iPads in the classroom with our fourth graders, I've been tasked with finding as many useful free apps as possible to load onto our iPads. Free is good. We like free. But free also means weeding through a lot of mediocrity to find the gems.

Let's start with "How NOT to find the great apps" (a.k.a. How I regretfully spent one half hour of my life...)

Just like when you go to the mall, there's a real temptation to browse and do some window shopping in the app store. The list of the "Top Free Apps" can be helpful, and you can break those lists down into smaller categories like education and productivity. Again, that's helpful. It's a good way to get started and get the basics, but we're piloting these iPads for Social Studies -- predominantly early US history and government topics -- and those topics aren't exactly rolling to the top of most people's "gotta get this app" list.

Highlights from this search include:
Productivity Apps
- Adobe Photoshop Express
- Calculator for iPad
- Doodle Buddy
- Dropbox
- Evernote
- Evernote Peek
- ShowMe Interactive
- Skype for iPad

News Apps
- CNN App for iPad
- Fox News for iPad
- NPR for iPad
- NYTimes for iPad
- USA Today for iPad

Reference Apps
- Google Earth
- HowStuffWorks

Book & Multimedia Apps
- BrainPOP Featured Movie
- iBooks
- PBS Kids Videos

- Spell the States

A reasonable start, but not great on the Social Studies content -- especially for the standards we're studying.

I decided to reach out to my friend, Google, and I did a couple of searches for social studies apps for the iPad. In doing so, I found one particularly great resource: Teach With Your iPad wiki - This wiki is a fantastic resource for anyone considering the use of iPads in education. It breaks down into specific content areas (e.g. Social Studies Apps), and it shares images of the icon, the title of the app, a brief description, and cost. In addition to steering me toward several great social studies apps, I also found a great visual that shows how to access Bloom's Taxonomy using different apps. There are many great app-finding resources on this page as well. It's really one stop shopping.

After about an hour and a half of effort, I was able to get 53 free apps downloaded. Few were social studies specific, but many were ones that I could see as being useful in the classroom for a variety of engaging projects. As we delve deeper into the pilot, we'll begin searching for more specific apps aligned to our social studies standards, and we'll begin to acquire more of the paid apps through volume licensing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Over a month later...

As I enter my final week of summer vacation (and honestly, where did this vacation go!), I have time to update on my progress toward the 2,000 hours project. In June, I spent 66.2 hours working on school related things with about 40 of those hours spent in workshops, conferences, and professional learning opportunities. The rest was devoted to lesson planning. So far this month, I've spent about 32 hours working on lesson plans and preparing materials for the classroom. I expect that number could nearly double this week since school work is high on my priority list. To see the complete and frequently updated breakdown of how I'm spending my time, click here.

I'm very excited about going back to school next week, but more than a little bit wary, too. My due date is only 5 weeks away, and while I'm miserably pregnant at this point and dying to meet my little one, I do not want to give up a single second of time in my classroom. There is so much that I want to and need to accomplish with my class before I leave, and it kills me to know that I'll have to entrust my students to someone else for 12 weeks. I'm sure the sub will be fabulous, but it's going to be tough to give up the reins for a while. I'm trying to figure out some ways that I can stay involved--such as implementing a digital writer's workshop so I can read their writing and give feedback on it--but there are a lot of variables at play that I'll still need to investigate. I'll update more on that as I figure it out.

Nothing new to report on the iPad front. I've been playing with my personal iPad all summer, but I haven't gotten one from the district yet. Hopefully that will happen next week!

Back to planning...

Friday, June 10, 2011

The 2,000 Hours Project & iPads

It was a busy year in Eberopolis -- so busy, that I didn't find opportunities to blog. I'm planning to change that as we head into 2011-2012, however. More details a little later in this post...

Amidst my reading in the blogosphere last week, I learned about the 2000 Hours Project. This project aims to debunk the myth that teachers have cushy jobs because they only work part of the year and get the whole summer off. While things like spring break and summer vacation are definite perks to the job, the project aims to prove that teaching is such a time-intensive and demanding job, many of us still end up working 2,000 hours over the course of the year.

In an attempt to show my support for the project (and out of sheer curiosity), I've decided to document my time for the next year to see how it all adds up. I started on Monday of this week, and I've been keeping a log in Google Spreadsheets. (You can view my log here).

I'm breaking my time up into four categories.
1) Classroom - this will include any time that I'm working at school, regardless of the content of the work. It can include actual teaching during the school year, after school meetings with faculty, parents, or students, planning, grading, etc. The key factor for making it into this category is that I'm physically at my school building doing some sort of job-related task. (Stopping by over the summer just to chat with my school's fabulous office staff doesn't count...)
2) Lesson Planning - this is time spent outside of school planning lessons or activities for use in the classroom. It can include professional reading, searching for or writing new lesson plans, preparing materials, building my class website, previewing materials, or learning how to use different technologies I intend to use with my students. During the summer months, this is where I'm likely to spend most of my time.
3) Grading - this is time spent outside of school grading and assessing student work. I have a self-contained 4th grade classroom, and this category might be a little lighter than others since I tend to do a lot of grading and assessing throughout the school day. The exception to that tends to be at the end of a term when there are more projects and tests. I would expect this category to be lighter than someone who teaches high school English, for example, but then I might spend more time on lesson planning since I'm planning for all subject areas.
4) Professional Learning - this is the category for any classes, conferences, workshops, or seminars that I attend on behalf of my school outside of the job-embedded professional learning that I experience. This week, for example, I went to a 3 day workshop with some of my colleagues to learn about transdisciplinary planning in an International Baccalaureate Programme of Inquiry. We learned about and discussed a lot of the IB pedagogy, and then we applied it to create our curriculum map for the year. Later this month, I'll attend a conference about the IB Primary Years Program. Some of these may be job requirements and others may be voluntary, but they're all important to my performance as a teacher.

This year will be a little unusual for me hours-wise in that I won't have as many classroom hours as normal. I'm going to be on maternity leave at the end of August through mid-November, and that may definitely stop me from getting to 2,000 hours. Still, I suspect that I'll generate a number that's surprisingly large given 12 weeks of leave. If you consider that the average full-time job works 50 weeks of the year and 40 hours per week, that would amount to 2,000 hours. If I work 40 weeks (52 weeks minus 12 weeks since my 12 weeks of maternity leave isn't unique to teaching -- anyone in any profession could potentially qualify under FMLA), that would put me with an expected total of 1,600 hours for the school year.

I don't expect that target to be difficult to reach.

I will be updating my spreadsheet daily, and I'll try to post more about my progress and findings each week. That will be one way that I intend to write more in this blog this year (and no, I'm not counting blogging toward my 2,000 hours...).

The other news that you can expect to read about in future blog posts is how I'll be using iPads in my 4th grade classroom. My district is piloting the use of iPads in the place of textbooks in a couple of classrooms next year, and I learned this week that my class will be one of the two fourth grade classes involved in the pilot. There will be an iPad for every student in my class, and I couldn't be more excited. Honestly...I'm normally a pretty calm and collected gal, but I really did start jumping up and down when my media specialist told me the news. And keep in mind that I'm 7 months pregnant, so jumping is especially unlikely for me these days.

I know that having 1:1 iPads in the classroom is pretty rare -- especially at the elementary level, but I'm very excited about the project and its potential for student learning. I plan to blog about the process (apps we use, student reactions, discoveries, tips) in an effort to be more reflective as a teacher, but also to dialogue with others who may be considering this route or already using the technology.

While I already have an iPad of my own, the school is supposed to issue another one to me next week so I can see what apps have already been loaded on the student iPads. Once I get that, I should be able to share more about my vision for how they'll be used. Until then, I'll be racking up the lesson planning hours as I write sub plans for my maternity leave...
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