Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The "Best Apps" Aren't Necessarily the Best - Wandering through the vast app landscape

We are rapidly learning that the many lists (some of which are linked here) of "best apps for kids" don't necessarily lead us to the apps that we consider of value or able to meet the goals we have for our iPad program.

So far we have downloaded for free or purchased (for review) 49 apps. Many were selected based on their presence on a "Best" list. Our teachers are exploring them, and most importantly, handing them over to their students or their own children, to see what happens. We find we are most frequently disappointed, especially with the apps intended to help students develop literacy or math skills. These apps tend to either be far too simplistic, too single-purpose (just focusing on one isolated skill), or just too much of a silly game. There are a few the teachers can imagine using, but even those could be made far better.

So what are we looking for? If our use of technology with small children is to have value, it should offer unique experiences and opportunities for discovery and self-expression. Since practice is important as children learn to form letters and numbers, the apps that lead a child through the steps of correctly forming letters (and don't tolerate cheating!) will offer a responsive, self-correcting, and individualized way of learning to write letters. Our favorite at the moment for this is iWriteWords.

We are looking for a way to facilitate digital storytelling on the iPad. There are many "story" apps out there, but we have yet to find one that allows students the freedom to tell their own story with their own illustrations AND record a narrative to go with it. There are far too many apps with pre-fab art that limits the story to a set pattern. Anyone found the perfect app for our needs?

Our Math Coordinator is not very pleased with the math apps we've reviewed so far. Most of them are drill and kill style simple math problems that don't support the development of concepts, and make little use of the interactive touch capacity of the iPad. She and I do agree that Motion Math is a great app. In Motion Math a ball drops from the sky and you must direct it by tipping the iPad to the point on the bar that represents a fraction. It requires quick thinking and lots of good estimation skills to decide where on the bar to send it for, say 3/7 or 4/9. This is not a Kindergarten app, unfortunately, but the fourth graders love it! I am very happy with Coin Math. This app offers true to life pictures of coins and presents challenges from beginner (match the coin to its value) to counting and then adding coins. The coins can be moved around on the screen, so students can learn to group them to count by familiar numbers, and organize them to see the quantity better.

So far those are our only favorites. We are reviewing the apps on a chart you are welcome to explore: Apps and Reviews Framework. Please let us know if you've discovered apps that fit our expectations!

Spell Blocks

I found the Spell Blocks app to be a useful tool for helping kindergarteners reinforce letter-sound correspondence and word-building skills. Students listen to a word, and then build the word by dragging and dropping the scrambled-up letters of the word into empty spaces. We do similar work in our classroom with sets of letter tiles, but the advantage of doing this type of activity with the iPad is that it could be used at a more independent work time, because the student is prompted by the computerized voice and gets feedback as to whether he/she has built the right word -- without the teacher needing to be present. This means that a child who needs extra reinforcement with letter sounds can easily get practice without waiting for a teacher to be available to give feedback.

Features I liked about this app:
  1. The user (teacher or student) can specify the difficulty level and whether extra letters are added. That way it can be more or less customized to each child's word-building skill level.
  2. Also, the user can adjust whether the screen advances automatically to the next word, and whether the words appear in a pre-set order or randomly. I think the random option is very useful for a child who may be working repeatedly on the same level, so that he/she does not just repeatedly build the same words, and instead gets a different set of words to build each time.
  3. Also, I liked the simple way that the app deals with student responses. When a child puts a letter in the wrong place, the letter simply bounces back to the bottom of the screen; when the word is built correctly, a burst of fireworks appears on the screen.
Features that I didn't like as much about this app:
  1. It was sometimes hard to hear the target word. The volume never got particularly loud (even when set as high as possible), and the target word was spoken quickly. When we do this type of word-building activity as a teacher-led activity, we make sure to stretch out the sounds to give students the scaffolding they need to break down the word and put it back together with tiles. That kind of support isn't offered by Spell Blocks.
  2. Also, I think the program would be better if the word were said in a sentence, to emphasize the meaning and put it in a context. We use this approach when we do teacher-led word-building activities.
I watched one of our lower-level readers try out the Spell Blocks app in our classroom. She clearly was very motivated to work with it, and she reported that she had fun and was learning a lot about how to spell words. She quickly got the hang of the app, and she learned to deal with the difficulty of hearing the target word by getting in the habit of pressing the "repeat" button and then saying the word out loud.

Students can get the hang of this app quickly, and I think it'd be useful in a kindergarten class during an independent work time or choice time. Students may need a little support from a teacher in understanding the computerized voice and in utilizing the repeat button.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Story Patch App

Learning how to use the iPad and navigate through different apps has certainly been an adventure. I originally assumed that the iPad would be very easy for me to explore and figure out. During my explorations, I have come to realize that there are certain tasks on the iPad that are very intuitive for me while others are not.

After playing around with several different apps I decided to take a more in depth look at StoryPatch. It is an app that allows children to create stories in a variety of ways. Below are several options that kids can take in order to create a story.
  1. Write your words and use your own photos: This option gives the most freedom for children to create a more personalized story.
  2. Write your own words and choose from a wide variety of images in the gallery. This is a fun and easy way to add simple illustrations to your story. A child can experiment with different ideas and manipulate the size and placement of the images. The only drawback is that you are limited to the selection in the gallery.
  3. Choose from a set of topics and the app writes a story for you. In this option, your main focus is to play around with creating illustrations.
I like the idea that kids can write a story but I am not convinced that this app offers a better experience than that provided by simply using pencil and paper. On the other hand, I do see the potential for children to play around with quickly creating a story in a fun and easy way.

Friday, May 20, 2011

iPad Exploration

Since I've been experimenting with the iPad, I have been most challenged by learning how to navigate the apps. As a kindergarten teacher, technology has not played much of a role in my teaching or in my professional life. Now that I'm tasked with getting to know this device and the apps, I'm already much more comfortable using technology professionally.

I have "listened in" on an aimschat on twitter about teachers using technology. I have found wonderful resources on diigo about technology in education (although I'm still not entirely sure how to use diigo). I have joined a PLN (professional learning network) to hopefully exchange ideas about iPads in kindergarten. I have tried out many apps for kindergarteners.
I never would have done this without the iPad. I never would have done this on my school issued laptop (which I lock away in my classroom each night). The iPad is easy to keep with me and is always on. I can flip it open and explore easily and quickly.

My iPad not only holds promise for classroom review and exploration, but also for my own growth as a teacher. If only every teacher had one.

When Things Go Wrong - a work around for finding deleted files on an iPad

Our AIMS Technology list just carried an interesting question and answer that I have gained permission to share here.

The question was, Does anyone know how to recover data (e.g. Dragon Dictation or Notes) that have been deleted on an iPad?

Stephen Monn replied:

I think you may be disappointed to find that files deleted on an iOS device are actually deleted. The lack of a true file system in iOS makes finding things difficult but not impossible. Mounting a iOS device will only show you the media area files. To see application files the best tool I have found is iPhone Explorer which is available for both Windows and OS X.

Connect your iOS device and start iPhone Explorer and you will see the device in the window with two main folders, Apps and Media. Media has the songs, photos books, etc. In the Apps folder you will find a folder for each app which contains that apps' files including data files. If your files do still exist on that device this is where you will find them.

You will have to scan the apps carefully as they are not in order alphabetically by name and cannot be sorted.

Later, when responding to my request to post his response, he added:

When using iPhone Explorer to move files onto an iOS device they may not show up immediately and you may have to use the import icon to pull them from the iTunes synch area as in Pages on the iPad. Other apps will show you the file immediately, Good Reader, for example. These are the things we must tolerate on a device that has no file system or many file systems, depending on your view. It is still so much better than the steps needed to do similar things on my old Treo.

So thanks to Stephen, we have a way forward if we're looking for lost files. I'm interested in other solutions from anyone with similar experiences.

A Visit to Harford Day School

We are gathering a small consortium of local schools that are implementing, or preparing to implement iPads. On Tuesday, tech coordinators from National Cathedral School, Concord Hill School, and I drove to Bel Air, Maryland to visit Harford Day School.  This fall they purchased 20 iPads and 20 iPod Touches to see what they could do with them. The iPads are stored on a rolling cart and are shared throughout the K-8 school.

We first visited a Kindergarten class where students were have a 20 minute session, some using selected apps on the iPads at a table in the classroom, some working on website activities on eMacs in the small classroom computer lab.  The students using iPads were happily engaged practicing math with "Dino Math". The teacher explained that they use the iPads once a week to review and practice math, although they do some work with phonics using "Pocket Phonics" and "Digraphs and Phonics" as well. In general, it seemed that the iPads serve as a practice and review tool.

The iPads were due in the First Grade next, so the cart was wheeled there where a small group of students were waiting. They selected from a choice of apps written on the whiteboard. These students also used "Dino Math", while others engaged in Tangram activities, and "Undersea Math". The iPads have about seven pages of apps, since they have selected apps for teachers and for students from grades K-8. There was a variety of choices for Tangrams, the best of which was called just that, "Tangrams".  We noticed that since the version of "Undersea Math" was the "lite" version (meaning free), the younger students repeatedly clicked on the offer to upgrade and had to be helped to get back to the game. It reminded me of the value of paying for something to avoid the advertisements!

Next we wheeled the cart to an upper grade music class where they were going to be using them to do research. The cart is neatly arranged with iPads filed sideways and a power cord for each slot. As far as having a cart goes, this is a very practical arrangement.  In the Tech office they have an interesting set up with USB adapters strapped together to allow 10 iPads to update at a time.

We are looking forward to speaking with more colleagues who are launching iPad experiments in a couple of weeks when we meet to learn about AirWatch as a means of wirelessly updating and managing iPads.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Ten Frame App

I took a few minutes to explore the Ten Frame app and alas, that is all it really takes to have the full experience. The Ten Frame app is simply an empty Ten Frame that the user can fill at will.

If you are so inclined, you can even fill up the Ten Frame with as many dots as you like-who needs 10? How about 20? How about 2 dots piled into one box?

As a tool to teach children the concept of ten, I think the Ten Frame should only allow a user to place one dot in a square. I also would prefer if there was some sort of timing mechanism that would click in so that once a user placed say, 1 dot, the rest of the frame would then freeze up allowing the user to see the 1 dot in relation to 9 empty squares.

I also think that the user should only be able to enter dots in a particular order, or at least the dots will align themselves in a particular order. The order I would propose would be left to right, starting with the first row. On a related note, I think the Ten Frame should also be oriented with 2 rows of 5 versus 2 columns of 5.

In a more "advanced" version of the Ten Frame, a number sentence could also appear:

ex. 1+?=10 or 1+9=10

Or a question could be asked, "How many more dots to fill in the Ten Frame?"

At an introductory level, I think there should be some sort of "tutorial".

The user would be presented with a series of Ten Frames and accompanying questions.

#1: An empty Ten Frame+the question: How many dots do you see? Answer 0

#2: A Ten Frame with 1 dot +the question: How many dots do you see? Answer 1


until the user reaches the Ten Frame with 10 dots.

For the first time user, say, the K student, this orientation process will hopefully allow them to see and learn to "read" a Ten Frame automatically, so that it becomes the quick visual tool it is supposed to be.

In its current form, this Ten Frame app is empty.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The New Listening Center

One of the first thoughts that I had in regards to using the ipads in the classroom involved our Listening Center. In fact, the first thing I opened on my iPad was the iBooks app. I can easily imagine filling that empty shelf with picture books from our Listening Center. Our books take up so much room - at least 6 copies of each book, 1-2 books each week for the entire school year. That's a lot of books (nearly 75 titles) and they take up a whole lot of shelf space in the classroom!

Imagine having all of those books on a virtual bookshelf on the iPad...

In our class, when students have finished their work or during free choice times, listening to an audio book and following along on the actual book is an option. We have the kids sit and wait until we have at least 5 ready and then we hit play. They all listen along together.


We could keep 6 iPads in our listening center with headphones. Each week, we would simply post or queue up the book for that week. When a student makes the Listening Center choice, they could sit down and start the story. If they listen at their own pace, more kids could take a turn.

While I haven't completely explored the iBooks store yet, I did check out an app that Jenni loaded for us - Beast Nian (2010 Rye Studio). I love the illustrations, the story, and the page options! The book can be set to automatically turn the page or the reader can use a quick touch to flip pages. Rye Studios has a variety of ebooks available, many are Chinese stories, but there are others about artists, musicions, animals. The illustrations are bright and colorful and beautiful. I already want most of these books on my iPad bookshelf!

In the "pro" column:
-freeing up shelf space for more manipulatives, tactile and spatial materials, rocks, shells, counters, anything
-allowing kids to listen at their own pace
-reinforcing skills for beginning readers (some books highlight words as they are read)
-room for a much larger Listening Center collection of stories
-less wear and tear = less book tape, fewer bucks spent replacing damaged books
-the ability to share stories in multiple languages - what a great way to increase the variety of exposure to a modern language for our students!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I love our kindergarten unit on tangrams so I was eager to explore some of the apps that support that type of spacial learning. As a teacher who uses the Grandfather Tang book by Ann Tompert, I would love to find a program that begins with the shapes from that story. We use those templates of the fox, lion, goldfish, etc., in the classroom and the students love to solve the puzzles again and again. So far, I haven't found an app with those shapes or one that ties into that story. (and is appropriate and fun for five and six year olds)

I began exploring with My First Tangrams HD. In this app, there are four levels or categories. The first level is very simple and each tan is outlined so there is little room for error. The second level shows a tiny picture of the finished puzzle in the right upper corner and only one piece is outlined. In order to solve, the user needs to figure out which piece goes where. It goes on to two more levels or categories of puzzles. One of those is open for free tangram designs.

Ideally, an app would show an outline of the puzzle and leave it to the user to decide how to fill the puzzle with each of the seven pieces. I think the My First Tangrams HD app is too guided. It leaves little room for flexible thinking. One of the great things about the traditional tangrams puzzles is that students need to struggle with the spacing of the pieces to complete the picture rather than have a finished puzzle to copy. This only allows them to polish their duplication skills rather than the added spacial math component.

One other challenge with this app is that often a tan appeared as a much smaller version which needed to be placed off center to make the iPad accept completion. For kindergarteners (or anyone) this would become frustrating.

I am still on the search for a better tangram app - I am discovering that many of the apps for children don't have a "snap" feature for the tans and need precise placement.

I have read good things about Borbas Gergely Tangram and am excited about getting to play with that app next.

iPad Screen Cleaning

Needless to say, our Kindergarten teachers are anxious to know how to manage the fingerprints spread by one child, then transferred to the next when sharing an iPad. A quick resulted in very clear guidelines. Thanks to  So it seems the most important equipment will be the lint-free cloth!

1) iPad screen cleaning - Use a dry cloth
For general iPad smudges and fingerprints, Apple writes this in their support PDF:
The glass surfaces (of the iPad) have an oleophobic (smudge resistant) coating. To remove fingerprints, simply wipe these surfaces with a soft, lint-free cloth. The ability of this coating to repel oil will diminish over time with normal use, and rubbing the screen with an abrasive material will further diminish its effect and may scratch the surface.
So, for simple iPad glass/screen fingerprint smudges, use this technique.

2) iPad screen cleaning - Use a damp cloth
For harder problems Apple also makes this more detailed iPad cleaning statement, which I've converted to step-by-step instructions:
  1. Unplug all cables and turn off your iPad.
  2. Use a soft, slightly damp, lint-free cloth to clean the iPad, including the iPad glass screen and the back iPad surface.
  3. Avoid getting moisture in any iPad cracks or openings.
Apple also specifically says not to use any cleaners or solvents when cleaning the iPad, as they can damage the special oleophobic coating:
Don't use window cleaners, household cleaners, aerosol sprays, solvents, alcohol, ammonia, or abrasives to clean iPad.
One of these two iPad fingerprint and smudge cleaning tips should do the trick for you. Just remember, soft cloth, or a damp soft cloth for harder iPad cleaning problems.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

First exploration...

After the initial excitement passed, I have learned that this technology is not as intuitive for me as I thought it might be. It has taken the better part of a day to become comfortable navigating between screens on the iPad. I keep looking for the undo button...

Today I spent some time experimenting with iWrite. I really think that this app will be useful (and popular) in the classroom. It asks the student to trace numbers and upper and lower case letters with their finger. The app prompts with a character that indicates the starting point. If the proper stroke order is not followed, the letter or number jiggles around. What I really wish I could find was this same app for the Handwriting Without Tears program since that is what we use in our classroom. The iWrite app is close to HWT - but not the same.

In my opinion, one of the best things about iWrite is that it will fit into and enhance our current handwriting curriculum. I was worried that the iPad and apps would drive curriculum rather than the other way around - so this discovery made me happy.

Challenges: Will the little guys scratch the screens? Will the screens end up sticky and smudgy? What will happen when the iPads get dropped?

Introducing the Teachers to their iPads

Phase 2 of our iPad Adventure has begun! Yesterday the five teachers who will be implementing iPads in Kindergarten next year received their iPads and joined this blog. Here is a rundown of the process so far:

I think of this as Phase 2, because during the last two weeks, (Phase 1), I have been getting ready for yesterday's gathering.

Phase 1:  Setting up the iPads for Teachers
I set up an iTunes account using an email address that is an alias for my own, and a password I could share with this user group. Any activity on the account will send receipts to me, so I can track changes. The central computer for the account is in my Tech Lab and will be the place for teachers to get updates of apps we purchase for the program.

I researched apps, both free and paid, that would give a broad sense of what is out there for the teachers. I learned to use Apple Volume Purchasing (see my previous post). Overall I downloaded a long list of apps for us to try, not just for K's, but also for our own use so that the teachers could try using the iPad for everything. I will post the apps we're trying and reviews as we write them in a separate post. I visited two schools to talk to teachers and students about their experiences. I set up each iPad (these are the 64gig 3G iPad2 models for teachers. Students will have the 16gig, no 3G). I named the iPads for the teachers so I can keep track of them as I update them later. I also purchased the RGB projection adapter for each teacher and the camera adapter.

Phase 2: Orienting the Teachers
Armed with the good suggestions from my friends at Collegiate in NYC, I started the meeting by setting some expectations.
1. Join this blog and post weekly. Post about the user experience, about how children in your life use the iPad, reviews of apps, problems you're having, and thoughts about managing them in the classroom.
2. You can purchase a contract to use the cellular service, but it's on your own dime.  You can also purchase your own personal apps, books, etc. through your personal iTunes account. Consider this your working computer and use it all the time.

Then we went over Melanie Hutchinson's five tips:
1. Play first! Everyone needs to be allowed to play before they are expected to focus on work. Mess around, show your family, observe how different people of different ages interact with it.
2. Build and explore your network - I encouraged the teachers to explore the links I've added to this blog and to share any they find along the way. Expand your circle and learn from others.
3. Find great apps - we will be reviewing the apps I have already loaded here, and seeking leads to others.  The teachers are asked to write reviews of those we have and suggest new ones. In the end, only the vetted apps will be loaded on the 10 kindergarten iPads.
4. Don't lose sight of your learning goals - we are seeking to enhance learning through the use of this technology, not merely to replace what they already have in the classroom with a virtual version. That is what makes this pilot interesting. Of course, I hope that we will find that there are ways we can teach with the iPad that offers students creative and intellectual opportunities they don't have access to now, but it's possible we won't. That's the adventure.
5. Management is key - our first challenge is to name the student iPads. Do we call them simply iPad1, 2, 3, or can we come up with fun names that K's will connect to. Literary references? Shapes? Colors? Still to be decided. From my end, we are looking at the possibility that the new Mac OS "Lion" will have a mobile device management piece. Updating wirelessly would be fabulous. More to come on that one.

Finally I walked them around the device. Those with iPhones knew what to do right away and could help others. We all practiced taking pictures and movies, everyone set a background of their choice, and we practiced consolidating apps into folders. With that, they all went home with their new "toy". I look forward to their observations on this blog!

iPads were Everywhere! Connected Teachers and their Tools

The Association of Independent Schools in Maryland (AIMS) just held its annual Technology Retreat. This event brought together 134 librarians, technology educators, division heads, heads of school, IT staff, and teachers for two and a half days of collaboration, discussion, and networking on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. As a member of the planning committee, I have seen the retreat change over time. Once upon a time, we asked people to leave computers home, with the idea that we were taking time out from our usual behavior to retreat together. In the last couple of years not only did we see more laptops at every session, but our keynote speakers requested them, so that we could learn to interact with each other during the talks. Last year two attendees created quite a stir when they arrived with their new iPads.

This year marked a whole new era for the Tech Retreat. At every session it seemed as if one third to half the group set up their iPads or iPad2's. Many of us are preparing to integrate them and have taken a similar vow: use the iPad for everything to see if it can do it all. Leave that laptop in your room (or at home) to force yourself to practice using the iPad.

Another new aspect of the Retreat was the authentic integration of our AIMS Ning site as a note-taking and sharing tool, and the use of Twitter to communicate our discoveries with the outside world and to share our learning with our colleagues in the room. All this was done from my iPad2, using the virtual keyboard and no other accessories.

My experience using my iPad at the Retreat was very positive. The iPad picks up networks well, so access was seamless. I used Evernote to record my thinking during sessions and have it synced to my laptop. I had HootSuite running on the iPad, along with the iPad Twitter App in order to follow the action on the #AIMStech11 stream along our more permanent hashtag #AIMSchat. Sending tweets was quick and easy - although HootSuite does not remember hashtags while the Twitter app does. Guess which one I ended up using! I appreciate the way Safari saves your pages and was able to keep all my usual resources open and find them quickly (webmail, Facebook, the Ning, my blogs, etc.)

Those who were posting to the Ning during sessions still found that a laptop was a better tool, however. The process of grabbing a URL to copy/paste it to a discussion is much more direct on a laptop, unless we are missing something about the iPad set up. I also find that my habit of following a Twitter stream and dropping in to select an interesting link is inhibited on the iPad by the fact that I then step out of the stream to be transported to Safari. In Safari I have not successfully linked my Diigo account, so while I can use the Diigo app, I can't easily bookmark a link directly from Safari. (I believe there is away through Web Highlighter, but it didn't set up correctly the first time.) And while I'm doing all that, I'm missing seeing the Twitter stream!

We held sessions about iPads and we made many connections with colleagues in local schools who are launching pilots similar to ours. Now there are plans to meet regularly to share our experiences. I look forward to where it will all go from here!