Primary Preoccupation

A grade one teacher inviting the world into her classroom

Primary Preoccupation - A grade one teacher inviting the world into  her classroom

Free Books for Kids

As a teacher, I value choices for my students in both how they learn and in how they demonstrate that learning. I try to give my students choices about as many things as I can each day, including whether to use technology in their learning or to use more traditional methods. Because I am fortunate enough to now have a classroom set of iPads, I am able to offer the choice of using technology much more often.

Our iPads have apps for math, writing, arts education and many literacy activities, but it bothered me that these devices did not have a good choice for just reading. There are apps available that contain leveled books of some kind, but these books are always a bit contrived. There are also some good “listening to reading” apps available that read stories to the students. The best of these highlight the words as they are read. I appreciate the value of this as part of my literacy program, but I looked in vain for quality books that the students could read on their own.

Finding the Solution

Back in the spring, someone on Twitter shared a link to onehundredfreebooks.com.  This site has a constantly changing list of books that are currently free at Amazon. When you click on the link to a book on this site, it takes you right to the Amazon page selling that book and you can then purchase the free book. Because I had the Kindle app installed on my iPad, I could view all of my purchases there. I loved this site for myself. I could try books from authors I had never heard of without spending money on something that might not be as good as I had hoped. Last summer, I noticed that there were sometimes children’s books available. This intrigued me. I wondered about using these books in my classroom. Could this provide me with some choice for my students who like to read on the iPad?

I set up an account and tried it on my student’s iPads, only to discover that a book can only be viewed on a maximum of five devices. After five children had downloaded a book, the other children could see the book in the Kindle app, but not read it. The other children were more than a little disappointed when the Halloween book they wanted to read was not available to them.  So I started over.

Making it Work

This time I set up four different accounts. Since all of my iPads are numbered, I set up four gmail and Kindle accounts– accountname1, accountname6, accountname11 and accountname16. I put the Kindle account from accountname1 onto iPads 1 – 5, the account from accountname6 on iPads 6 – 10 and so on.

Then, I started watching for good books on onehundredfreebooks.com. Now, when I see a book I think might interest my students, I first check it out on Amazon. I have a look inside (Amazon provides this option) to see if it is an appropriate reading level, whether the illustrations are good ones, whether the illustrations are supportive of the text—in short all of the things I look for in a paper book. I have learned to NOT purchase any books that do not give you a look inside at the first few pages. If I think the book is worthwhile, I get my student’s iPads that are numbered 1, 6, 11 and 16. These iPads always have their Amazon account open. (This has never been an issue and saves me a lot of time). I choose onehundredfreebooks.com in Safari—and purchase the book on those four iPads. When my students next open their Kindle app, the book will be available to all of them.

I try to check the site a couple of times per week, and if I see something interesting, the whole process takes me about two minutes. Books on this site do disappear without notice, though. More than once I have found an interesting-looking book that has been taken off the site by the time I got to the iPads.

Here is a screenshot of what their Kindle app currently looks like. We have books from a variety of genres and reading levels.

Onehundredfreebooks.com has recently added genre selection to their home page, so I now go directly to their children’s books page and browse all the titles available there.

I appreciate the variety of books I have been able to provide for my students. Now, all of the students have access to a variety of books on their iPads as well as in their self-chosen bin of paper books. During our “read to self” time, the students can choose paper books or digital books. Some choose to read on the iPad every day, some rarely do and some switch back and forth. My students have another choice.

Is There an App for That? Word Work Edition

One of the most often asked questions these days seems to be “what are some good apps?”   This is such a difficult question to answer, because the answer depends on the question “what do you want an app to do?”

Don’t get me wrong. I have asked that question as well. Sometimes you get an unexpected answer and you are able to see an application for your classroom that wasn’t immediately obvious to the person you questioned.  It’s a fair question. I just don’t think it’s the best question. I think that better questions might be “what is an app you might use to help a child struggling with letter reversals?” or “can you think of an app that will help students to demonstrate their learning?” or “is there an app that you have used to help students understand groupings to make ten?”

The question I’m hoping to answer with this post is “what do you use for word work” or “what are some apps that could help students to learn to spell frequently used words?”

Here are my answers. These are apps I am currently using in my classroom for just that purpose.

DrawFree – (free) This is technically a drawing app not a spelling app, but in my classroom it does double duty. Writing words can be so much more engaging when you get to choose to write with a paint brush, a pencil crayon or a crayon and can also choose from a wide variety of colours. Children can also change the background colour or the thickness of their lines.

Magic Ink – (.99) The more quickly you move your finger, the thicker the lines this app makes.  Your letters become gorgeous, with extra swirls thrown in at the end. The magic part is that after a few seconds, your letters disappear, leaving you room to write more words.  The length of time the letters stay before disappearing, the colour of the letters and the line thickness are all adjustable in the settings.

Skywrite – (free) As you write the words in the sky, a tiny airplane follows your finger and turns your letters into cloud letters. You can also type the letters into a textbox and the airplane will again make cloud letters for you. (I first learned about Magic Ink and Skywrite from Angie Harrison.)

 

Word Wizard – (2.99) This app makes the sounds of each letter as you drag them onto the board. As you put the letters beside each other, the app tells you the combined sound. When all of the letters of a word are in place, the child knows it is spelled correctly because it is read aloud to him. There are also lists (CVC words, number words, Dolch words etc.) in the app that are spoken aloud for children to spell. My favourite part of this app is that if you spell a word that is inappropriate in school, the app will say “oops” and return your letters to the bottom of the screen.

This list is by no means definitive, just the apps I have been using so far for this. I do have other spelling apps on our iPads, and since apps that are not yet suitable for my students may be useful to someone else…here is a screenshot of my current Word Work folder.

Word Work Folder

Managing: The Nuts & Bolts of an iPad Classroom

Awhile ago, I wrote about the beginning of the one-to-one iPad journey in my classroom.  I have always appreciated when others have shared not only their pedagogy,  but the organization of their tools or classroom as well.  I’ve also had more people ask me questions about my set-up than how I use iPads to actually teach in my classroom, so here’s my “share”.

Purchasing the iPads was the easy part. Managing them is another matter.  Dean Shareski says that “iPads are meant to be owned, not managed.”  I think he is correct, but managing them still needs to be done for my grade one students.  Managing them is the nuts and bolts that makes our iPad classroom run. Truthfully, the management has turned out to be more work than I imagined. Setting up email on each device (gmail worked the best), syncing apps, updates to firmware, making (and re-making) folders and keeping the devices charged has kept me busy. My IT department has been supportive, but they are clear that this is my job and not theirs.  I am not complaining–I wouldn’t trade this opportunity for anything–but it has meant a great deal of learning and planning.

Organizing

Each iPad was named with a number.  This number is also written on its case.  Initially, I  had put numbered stickers onto the iPads, but they began to fall off the first day, so I used a gel pen to write the number right on the iPad case. I have a record of which child goes with which iPad, but I have rarely had to use it. Each student knows their own number as well as many of the numbers of their friends, so if an iPad is not put away correctly, it only takes a moment to find out who it belongs to.  This is working, but next year, I think I will put student’s names on stickers on the front of the shelves as well to eliminate my “who didn’t put away their iPad?” questions.

Before we purchased the iPads, the students had been storing their headphones at the other end of the classroom.  The students use the iPads and/or headphones over and over during the day so it has proved to be time consuming to be fetching and returning both to two separate places.  We now keep their headphones or earbuds on top of their iPad, making getting and putting them away a much quicker process.

Ipad Storage

The iPad shelf in my classroom has become as hot an item for discussion (at least for the adults who visit us) as the iPads themselves.  Designed and built by my ever-supportive husband, it has been working exactly as I hoped it would. I had heard from more than one person that iPads are more often broken putting them in and out of a charging station than they are broken when in use.  I wanted the students to be as independent as possible in getting, putting away and charging their iPads themselves. (Avoiding the high cost of a cart–not available through my winnings–was also a big factor.)I frequently mused about this and my search for some type of shelving on my daily walk with my husband.    Since he had already designed and built a book trolley, a bench and a poster storage unit for my classroom, he began to see the writing on the wall and started making plans.  The day we drove to Best Buy to pick up the iPads, we stopped to pick up the wood for the shelves as well.

To power the iPads, I used four Belkin charging stations, which are fastened right onto the back of the shelves. Their size ‘just’ allows for the chargers.

Students Making the Rules

Up to this point, we had had a couple of the original iPads in our classroom, so the students were fairly familiar with their care, but having so many more in use at a time is a different story, so I asked the students to come up with any rules they thought might be necessary to keep our new devices safe.  They came up with two:

  • Use two hands to carry the iPads.
  • Don’t leave the iPad on the floor. If you have to go to the bathroom or somewhere else, leave the iPad on a table or a counter.

I can’t recall a time I have had to remind any of the students about these two rules.  I often hear the students policing the other students themselves.  No one wants anything to happen to these engaging devices.

Updates and Adding Apps


Because we chose to not get a charging cart, I instead purchased two 7 Port USB Hubs. Since we have 30 iPads, I sync new apps or do updates in three separate lots of ten iPads. It does take more time, but has saved a lot of money.

Currently, I have to remove ten charging cords from the shelf to do this, but my plan is to purchase ten extra cords that can be left attached to the USB ports.  This way, they will be able to be used for easily syncing other iPads in the school with other computers as well.

So for what it is worth, this is how I am “managing” our iPads. It’s like the nitty-gritty of all teaching. You have to deal with report cards, policies that you don’t agree with and lots of frustrations so that you get to do the incredible job of  teaching kids.  In the same way, you have to take care of the syncing, the storage of the iPads and the frustrations to get to use tools that have such tremendous potential. In both instances, it’s well worth the effort.

As always, I know that there are people doing this better than I am. I’d love to have your input in the comments.

“I Guess We Really Like the iPads!”

Because I was fortunate enough to win a contest from Best Buy Canada, I got to go on a $20 000 shopping spree last week to purchase technology for my classroom.  I chose to buy iPads.  Being 1:1 with some sort of device has long been a dream of mine, a dream I was ecstatic to fulfill!

Day One of 1:1

Friday was the big day—the iPads finally arrived in our classroom. To say my students were excited would be a bit of an understatement, but then, so was their teacher.

I don’t want the iPads to just change the way we do things in my classroom.  I want them to be transformative.  That is, I don’t want to use the iPads to just do things we could have done on paper.  An app should not just be a glorified worksheet. I want them to allow us to connect and to work and learn differently.  I hope that will happen more and more as time goes on.

Our First App

But for this first day, it was all about fun and about learning some of the possibilities of these new tools.  For our first app, I chose Letter Reflex.  Almost every child in my classroom is still struggling in their reading to consistently identify b’s and d’s. If you teach kindergarten or first grade, you know this is pretty common.  The Letter Reflex app allows students to tilt the iPad to select a b,d, p or q, adding a kinesthetic aspect to learning letters.  The students loved the game, and I hope they’ll go back to it often.  With so many students trying the game at once, hearing the voice on the app proved to be difficult, so everyone ran to get their headphones.  Success, engagement and learning—but no transformation yet.

Creating with the iPads

We next moved to Brushes, a drawing app that was recommended to me by Giulia Forsythe. It is more pricy than some other drawing apps that I could have chosen, but my students spend most of the year learning to read and write something that is readable to people who are not first grade teachers. They show their learning much more often through a drawing than through text.    I wanted them to have a great tool that will allow them to show their learning effectively through drawing if that is their choice.  The students used this tool to make (and to decorate) the number of their iPad. (I numbered them for organizational purposes.) I helped them to make a screenshot of their drawing, and to set these numbers as their wallpaper and home screen image.  I saw this as a higher thinking skill—the students were creating rather than consuming—but not yet transformative.

While the students were not complaining about the restrictiveness of the activities we had done so far, they really wanted to explore on their own, so I let them do just that.  Some of them gravitated to games that we had had on the two original iPads that were in our classroom.  Others returned to Letter Reflex. Still others began to explore the other enticingly coloured squares they saw on their iPad.  They were so engaged, that we all forgot to watch the clock for our gym time (a practically sacred time for my mostly male learners) and missed it entirely.

Taking Pictures–The Highlight

In the afternoon, we had a chat via Skype with a second grade class in Wisconsin about a project we are doing together called A View From the Window.  Afterwards, the students and I talked about how we would show them our view. Would we make a movie…draw pictures…take pictures?  The students felt that we needed to use a camera, not drawings, so we grabbed our iPads to figure out the camera app. This app is very intuitive, and the students only needed some support to tuck the cover into the back of our cases so that it would not block the camera.

This was their favorite part of the day. We agreed to wait until a sunny day to take pictures out the window for the project, but they joyously took picture after picture of the view from the window, objects in our classroom and each other taking pictures.  It was amazing how many pictures some of them were able to take in a few short minutes.  One student had dozens of pictures, including sixteen pictures of a computer mouse.  Lots of fun, and then, it was time to teach them how to delete unwanted pictures. The student with the most pictures quietly admitted to me that he had taken “too many pictures” and I showed him how to delete them more quickly. The students kept only those photos that they really liked. Most of the students emptied their photo gallery.  For them, the fun was in the taking—not yet in the sharing.  Sharing pictures—now perhaps that will begin to be more transformative.

My favorite comment from the day was from one of the boys when we realized that our time in the gym had already evaporated while we were so engaged.  “Mrs. Cassidy, I guess we really like the iPads”, he said.

I guess they do!  We’ll keep on working to make this technology transformative as well as engaging.

 

 

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