Friday, 16 April 2010

I've got a pen that talks !

Last weekend my husband and I went down to the NEC in Birmingham for the Gadget Show Live. Some people don't believe it, but Mr S is even more into gadgets than I am. In fact he's been into gadgets a lot longer than me, but I'm trying to catch up ! I already have most things that I need for my work, and so wasn't looking for anything in particular. I looked at a few things and talked to a few people (and asked the Flip Mino man a question he couldn't answer!) and then was most interested to come across the Mantra Lingua stand.

Mantra Lingua have a new product called the
RecorderPEN. You can use it to play sounds in specially prepared books, but, more interestingly for a language teacher, you can record your own sounds onto special stickers and then stick the stickers anywhere. On seeing this, my brain started ticking over and thinking of lots of ideas for how I could use such a gadget. So, dear reader, I bought one.

A few days ago I started to have a play with it. It took a few attempts to get a decent recording (start talking as soon as it tells you to, and don't put it too near your mouth) and then I set about making a resource. I printed some colours on a piece of paper and recorded seven different labels - a title and the seven colour words.

Here is a little video of my 7 year old daughter demonstrating it:

My resource is on paper at the moment, and consequently is flimsy. If I were to use it in the classroom, it wouldn't be long before the paper got dog-eared and the stickers came off. I would print the next one on card and then laminate the whole thing to make it more durable. Mantra Lingua's support team say that the stickers will still work and can still be re-recorded when they've been through a laminator.

I teach my KS1s in small groups of about 10, and have thought of some simple interactive activities that I could make for them using the RecorderPEN. There are also plenty of ideas on the company's forum. I was lucky to get the pen and the stickers for the show price of £35 all in. It is a lot more expensive on the company's website, and unfortunately I think this may put people off. Something else that has been a little annoying has been the lack of written instructions - the instructions are embedded on labels on the packaging ! - so I listened to them and wrote them down myself. All in all I think it's nifty little gadget, which gives me something else for my teaching backpack. Watch this space !

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Flash Forward

The premise of the American TV series FlashForward is that everyone on the planet (well, nearly everyone) simultaneously loses consciousness and experiences a blackout of two minutes and seventeen seconds.  During this blackout they have a vision of their life six months from that point.  The characters spend the series trying to come to terms with and to understand what they have seen in their "flash forward", and to discover who or what is responsible for it.

"Flash Forward" is also the title of an article in last Friday's TES magazine about MFL teachers who are using Web 2.0 and social networking in their work.  I was extremely flattered to be interviewed for the article by its author, Yojana Sharma.  I spoke to her for about 45 minutes about the tools that I have been using, about my websites and about my school blog.    And I am equally honoured to be mentioned on the same page as Joe Dale, Isabelle Jones, Suzi Bewell, Chris Harte, Helena Butterfield, Alex Blagona, José Picardo, Jo Rhys-Jones and Lisa Stevens.  The article is very positive, and makes it clear that what we are doing has not been imposed by the DCSF or any other agency.  It is grass roots - real teachers finding things that work and sharing them.  I'm proud to be a part of it.

I sent the link to the article to my line manager.  Part of his reply read "It's really pleasing to see that you are at the forefront of new technology use.  What can we do to share this practice further in Sunderland ?"

Interesting question.  If I were to put on a training session next week for language teachers, in particular secondary language teachers, they would either smile and nod politely and then forget all about it, or go back to school all fired up with new ideas and find that all the important websites were blocked.  I don't think that there is any one easy solution to this problem of getting more teachers on board, so why bother ?  Well, we are ceaselessly trying to show our students that knowledge of another language is an important skill for the modern world and for the future world.  So we need to present it in a modern way which looks to this future world, and which speaks to the students in their language, the language of the digital native.

So, now to more thinking about parallels between FlashForward the TV series and Flash Forward the article.......

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Clouds of Words

One of my biggest regrets, educationally speaking, is opting to do Chemistry instead of Art for O'level.  I didn't understand much of the Chemistry and remain a frustrated artist.  Therefore I'm delighted that one of the best things that I have discovered via Twitter is the ability to make word clouds, as these display my very favourite things - words - in an artistic and useful way.

There are now quite a few different ways of making word clouds, so I thought I would show you here what they can do.

To make comparison easier, the words in all the clouds are from this blog.

First, the word cloud generator that people are probably most familiar with - Wordle:

I entered the URL of this blog, clicked on "Submit", and this is the group of words that I got.  I then chose a font, set all the words to lie horizontally and created my own colour scheme.  It looks as though Wordle has only used the most recent posts to make its cloud.  The biggest words are the ones which appear most in the blog.  It has discounted the most common English words, and this is a function that is available for other languages too.  Wordle is very easy to use, but you can only save your resulting wordcloud by doing a screen capture.

Another one that I have tried is WordItOut:

WordItOut works in a similar way to Wordle, but always puts the biggest, and therefore most common, words in the centre.  The WordItOut image has used the whole blog.

To make a WordSift image, you paste in some text.  I used the most recent of my blogposts about the food flags:
Once it has made your wordcloud, WordSift invites you to sort your words in different ways.  The above image is an A-Z sort, and the one below is 'common to rare':
Once you have your word cloud, you can click on the individual words and WordSift will show you Google images for that word and you can also see that word in a Visual Thesaurus.  The Google images part works for text in other languages, but the Thesaurus does not.

Tagul creates word clouds in the same way as Wordle, but something you will have to do is to "blacklist" the most common English words to create the most useful result.  (My most common words came out as "they" and "then"!)  The big difference with Tagul is that each of the words in your cloud is linked to a Google search.  I think that this function is useful for word clouds of blogs, websites, or presentations, so that readers can click to find out more about certain things.  You can also embed your Taguls:

The size of the Imagechef Word Mosaic means that you can only put in a small number of words, but in many ways this is ideal for use with students, especially beginners or the less able who find independent writing a daunting prospect.  You can make your own symbols and colour combinations, and then embed the results:

And finally, the new kid on the block, Tagxedo, which has caused much excitement on Twitter this week.  Tagxedo offers many different fonts and colour combinations, as well as different options for the direction of your words and for saving your word clouds afterwards.  But the main innovation and something that sets it apart is the function which allows you to change the shape of your wordcloud.  There are nine different shapes to choose from in the program, or you can import your own shapes.  Another bonus is the option to create your wordcloud in the shape of a word:

It's all very well to be able to make these beautiful wordclouds, but what's the point, apart from pure creativity ?  How can we use them in the classroom, and what is the value of students creating their own ?  The Twitterati have come up with lots of good ideas.  Here are the links to their blog posts:

And here is a cool trick which will help you to put phrases into Wordle rather than just single words.

Of course it goes without saying that these ideas can be adapted for the other word cloud generators.

Clouds of words, pieces of art.