Giving myself room to learn…and my film-making debut

February 23rd, 2011 | Filed under: professional development, teaching, technology

I’m a proud proponent of technology integration in schools and I’ll happily talk about it til the cows come home if you let me. I’ve got all sorts of ideas about the opportunities for deeper learning afforded by many social media like blogs, Twitter, Skype, and wikis, to name a few. I could go on and on. But there’s one area where I feel like a total fraud…

I’ve always talked about wanting to make movies and digital storytelling projects with my students, but never had the chance to given resources in the buildings where I’ve worked. I secretly let out sighs of relief after learning this fact. Shame on me.

Even in my personal life I’ve limited myself to snapping photos here and there and taking videos on my digital camera. The videos have just ended up on my Flickr in their entirety. The idea of editing and piecing together something more cohesive just seemed beyond me and difficult.

But I’m happy to say that I have never been more wrong about something.

I’m doing work again for Powerful Learning Practice in a Program Administrator role. This is a great job because it allows me to work while collaborating with teachers around the world and I get to attend webinars with thought leaders around the convergence of education and technology. I’m there to work, but I always walk away with a renewed sense of inspiration about my practice as a teacher.

Such was the case last week. I helped moderate a session with teachers from Texas. Dean Shareski was presenting on video techniques in the classroom. He asked participants to take a video of themselves using the built-in cameras on their computers or devices they had with them and to upload those videos, each around 10 seconds, to his Flickr. In less than 10 minutes a page in Dean’s Flickr was populated with videos of teachers around Texas trying their hand at video making. Dean then took all the videos and edited them into a short.

After seeing the ease with which me and the other teachers learning in this session were able to tell short stories about ourselves in video, I was ready to try it on my own. I was inspired.

Dean shared a video he made using the 5 x 5 format, which involves telling your day in five, five-second video increments. It’s fun and gives people a taste of life in your shoes. I decided to try something similar using a terribly old camera – a point-and-shoot Canon Powershot that is around six years old. The camera records video in a fuzzy fashion, but it’s what I had at the moment.

Throughout the day I recorded snippets of my life here and there. I’d get the camera running, set it down, and record. I captured much more than five second increments and I knew I would have to edit the video to create a more clear story. I sat down with my memory card and proceeded to upload the videos from my camera into iMovie on my Macbook (it took a while for my computer to load each video even though they were quite short).

Once I had all the video clips in iMovie, I set about playing with the program. I’ve never even opened this program before this project. I learned how to play each video, right clicked around to see a drop-down menu of options, hovered my mouse over different buttons to get informational text (maybe this should have been a screencast…another thing on my list to try). As Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach often tells educators participating in PLP, we learn through playing and we need to give students and ourselves time to do that. Rather than get frustrated with not knowing the program right away or seeking out tutorials online, I just let myself goof around for a while.

Eventually I figured out how to edit a part of each clip (click until a yellow box appears and drag each side of the yellow box to the part of the video you want to clip). I selected five-second portions from each video and dragged them into the project window. I played it over and over as I added and edited, making little adjustments here and there.

Once I was satisfied with the clips (there were about 12), I needed to add some transitions. This couldn’t be any easier. You just drag a transition of your choice in between the clips where you want a transition and that’s it. You can make the transitions longer or shorter if you want, but I stuck with the default of .4 seconds. The last thing I needed to do was add a frame at the beginning and end of the video to give some information. I dragged a title screen to the beginning and one at the end, choosing a black background and adding my text.

Export the video and it’s ready to upload wherever. Not including the time I spent recording here and there during the day before, this whole project took me an hour – and that was without any experience in iMovie.

My point in writing this post isn’t to paint myself as some sort of tech savant able to catch on quickly – I’m not. My point is to show teachers that you don’t need to wait for someone to show you how to do these things. You don’t need a long in-service with tutorials. Just give yourself a small chunk of time to play around with a new technology. These days user interfaces have never been easier and more intuitive – you practically have to try to screw some of these things up. Hey, but if you do screw it up, learn from that failure and try again. And you don’t need to be an expert to know how to use these tools with your students. You’re an expert in teaching. Make sure your students know what you expect from them and decide what tools might help them achieve that and then let them loose. Allow them time to play, don’t stand in front of the room making everyone try each and every tool together. Be there to help and let students that have figured it out help the ones a little farther behind. It will be messy. No doubt about that. But you and your students will come out on the other side with highly transferrable skills and techniques to demonstrate learning. Plus, it will be fun. I promise.

And without further ado, I give to you A Quiet Day filmed in my still-very-new home of Breda in The Netherlands…

A Quiet Day from pickledtreats on Vimeo.

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Open-source lessons

February 14th, 2011 | Filed under: teaching, technology

I’ve heard and read of people lately lamenting our dependency on technology, complaining about how “social” networks seem to alientate us from real life social interaction, etc. While I hear these things, I try not to listen. No matter how over-stimulated I feel, no matter how out of control my RSS reader gets (sometimes you juts have to hit “mark all as read” and move on), I’m still pretty stoked about living in this time.

One of my favorite things about the web and connectedness is the availability of tons of free software. Developers and programmers blow my mind. I have Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff marked as to-read because I am unabashedly being programmed. I don’t know much about how all of this stuff works – the stuff I sit down to use every day – but I would be lost without much of it. The authors of many of the free programs out there spend countless hours developing programs only to spend even more time answering questions in discussion threads, responding to tweets, making helpful screencasts, and addressing errors in the program with subsequent updates. They might request a donation here and there, but whether or not they get it they keep plugging on. I’ve started reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin on recommendation from my super-smart friend Amber Karnes. I realize that these software developers found problems or needs, figured out how to address them with a program, and set about spreading the answer freely. They weren’t waiting for someone to “pick them,” as Godin calls it. They went for it and boy am I thankful.

I’d just like to give a shout out to some of the rad software I’ve been using lately. All of this is available for free. A few of these have freemium options or additional things you can add on for a fee, but at their most basic they’re still great:

1. Calibre. I’d be lost without this program. With the many ebook devices, file formats, and files available, one can easily get overwhelmed. If someone wants to share a file from their e-reader device with you, but you only have a Kindle, you need to convert the ebook to a different format. How do I do that? Enter Calibre. With minimal input from you, the program will take a file and convert it to the format needed for your device. You can also download metadata like tags, book covers, author info, and organize your library. Another awesome feature is the news gathering option. Calibre will grab news from various sources and create a readable file from that online content you can send to your device. Oh, and did I mention it will grab all your Instapaper reads and send them to your device? Every time I turn around this program gets more awesome.

2. Anki. I had a little trouble figuring this one out, but thanks to active discussion boards with responses from the program’s developer and screencasts, I’m set. Anki is a spaced repetition system, which most people consider to be the best system for reviewing information in a flashcard setting. I won’t get into whether flashcards are helpful for truly learning info (there is a lot of debate about the “best” languge learning methods), but it’s something I’m experimenting with in my learning of the Dutch language. To oversimplify an SRS system, it uses algorithms to remember what cards you answered easily versus the ones you need help with and puts the ones that need review closer to the front of the deck. There’s an Anki desktop app, an online version (both free), and a iPhone app ($25) that will seamlessly sync cards and statistics. The program also supports non-Arabic characters and is popular among people learning Japanese. This is a reminder to myself that I need to be studying my Dutch more…

3. NeoOffice. Who needs Microsoft Office? Seriously. This program allows you to save documents, spreadsheets, presentations, in tons of different formats, including super old MS Office file formats. While I tend to use Google Docs for everything, and I recently found my Office for Mac disk, I still need something to open files that might be sent to me in formats my programs don’t currently support. Not totally necessary, but it’s nice to have if you want all the bells and whistles offered by the ubiquitous Microsoft Office suite of programs. NeoOffice is part of the project.

4. OmmWriter. This is a distraction-free writing zone program. Once you open it you’re given a clear space to write without pop-up notices or anything else happening on your desktop. Omm has an upgrade for which you can pay, but the basic is enough for me. I’ve gone a little analog with a traditional writer’s notebook for brainstorming ideas, but when I need a clear space to write a blog post or free-write and want to type, Omm is my go-to.

5. Evernote. Yeah, this is another one where you can pay for extra storage space and features, but I’m still below that threshold (most of my notes are text) and find its basic to be enough for my needs. Right now I’m using my new favorite screenshot Chrome extension to grab articles I’ve written online and save them to Evernote. My hope is to create an online portfolio outside of links, which can often go dead.

Digital Design "Slam" at VFS

There are risks with using free, start-up, and open-source programs (the biggest being programmers can just stop updating them or companies can fold without notice leaving users floundering), but those risks are outweighed by the great things you can do with them. And there are lessons to be learned when companies fold – things we can teach students, such as “Don’t put all your digital content in one basket (program)” and the one I need to remind myself of often, “Backup your data early, often, and in multiple places.” We teach kids about time management and organizing their notebooks – here are those same lessons, digitized. Photo by vancouverfilmschool.

So don’t just sit back and accept the suite of products that comes standard on your computer (or on your school computer). There are people out there creating programs that can put the best productivity suites to shame. Schools should be considering these programs first before heading to vendors and spending astronomical fees on licenses.

While the preceding tools aren’t all deserving of the term open-source, I wanted to mention it since I believe theĀ open-source movement to be one of the most amazing parts of the internet. People are creating software and content and telling others to “go, use it, copy it, do with it what you want and maybe in the end it will be even better.” There’s a community out there and a lot of learning and creating going on without any payback (Wikipedia comes to mind). This intrinsically-motivated community is happy to share with others and often asks for nothing more than a bit of hyperlinked credit. This community is an important thing to introduce to students and offers a lot of potential for educational institutions (hello, free software! goodbye licensing fees!). Isn’t this what we want from our students? To not even think about the grade or the points value or the damn rubric, but to create because it’s fun and can make a difference?

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