Using apps to improve writing and increase engagement

Epic Citadel
Epic Citadel
Riven
The sunners in Riven

Tim Ryland’s blog contains so many links to wonderful websites and apps. From here I learnt of the fantastic apps, Epic Citadel and Machinarium, in addition to Riven. These are fantastic ways of boosting writing skills and engagement. Pupils love to explore the worlds and are then able to use this inspiration to significantly improve the quality of their writing.

For children who spend so much of their time playing computer games and are able to relate easily to them, I would recommend the use of apps and games as a way of encouraging normally disengaged pupils. If you have a group of boys, whose writing is a concern, you may find (as I did) that their increased engagement has a major impact on their writing quality.

Epic Citadel

epic citadel appI built upon Tim’s ideas from his blog, and we used this app to focus on narrative writing. Pupils loved to walk around the empty city. It provoked questions about where the people had gone and it certainly stirred pupils’ imaginations.

This was a fantastic app to develop vocabulary and write descriptions of settings. I took screenshots from different places around Epic Citadel and pupils used thesauruses and word banks to gather language to use in their writing. We also developed our sentence structure using some of Alan Peat’s exciting sentences, so that we not only had a bank of great vocabulary to use but a bank of sentences to adapt and include in our writing. This was a fantastic way of scaffolding their writing and enabling all pupils to work towards improving their writing.

Riven

I built upon @GnuBee’s unit of work that had originally been used in a writing booster class to boost pupils from a Level 4 to a Level 5. We focused on different text types and included the following:

  • A description based on initial exploration of the islands.
  • An advert for a pod house.
  • A mystery story based around going through a gate on Jungle Island.
  • Instructions informing visitors how to operate the transportation system, the MagLev.
  • A non-chronological report based around the history and features of the MagLev.
  • A non-chronological report about the creatures on the island, known as sunners.
  • A complaint letter sent to the island after visiting and standards were not up to scratch.
  • Diary entries (before and after) about moving to Riven

All tasks were adapted from past SATs writing tasks. As the SATs writing test is no more, I decided to elevate the status of this writing topic to make it more of a project and I gave each pupil a brand new book to complete their work in. Here is my tube map learning journey that I created (Riven Learning Journey to map our way through our Riven project

Example of a learning journey
Riven Learning Journey

The quality of the work that was produced was fantastic.

Machinarium

machinarium-wallpaper-cover-1280x1024This is a lovely app with great artwork, based around a little robot in a steampunk world. We explored the start of the game together so that we were able to gather ideas and vocabulary about how the robot moved.

I used this app with a mixed Year 5 and Year 6 group of children as part of a blogging story writing project.

We began by looking at images of the landscapes within the game (I had a series of screenshots). I had A3 sheets of paper around the room with different images in the centre of each page. The class moved between the different images to gather vocabulary and phrases for each of the images that they wrote around the images. We kept all of their ideas for future lessons so that they could use any that they wanted to. We later did the same with images of the robots features in the game. I provided word banks with adjectives and adverbs, as well as thesauruses for pupils to refer to.

Firstly pupils wrote a setting description. The second writing project was a character description. We next used Talk4Writing story mapping techniques to plan out the quest narrative. The final part of the writing project was to write the story on the blog. We promoted the writing on our school Twitter account and encouraged other classes to read their writing and post comments. The group of bloggers also self-assessed and peer-assessed their writing on the blog.

How I structure writing projects, built upon Talk 4 Writing principles:

  • Explore the app
  • Gather vocabulary, phrases and sentences in pairs or groups
  • ‘Magpie’ ideas individually to ensure all pupils have a bank of ideas
  • ‘Cold writing’ of a specific text type
  • Look at examples of the text type and explore features
  • Story mapping including annotations of ideas already gathered
  • ‘Red hot writing’ (writing after having explored the text type) alongside a checklist of the features of the text type
  • Self-assess and peer-assess (use checklists)
  • Self-assess and peer-assess using WWW, EBI and Next Steps
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Using QR code to increase engagement

The children we teach are constantly surrounded by technology. They are used to finding out instantly what they want to know at the touch of a button, as most of them will have a smart phone or tablet to hand. QR (quick response) codes can be used effectively to engage pupils, who may prefer to engage with their phones and social media as opposed to their work, especially for homework.qrcode

Some teachers may find the idea of introducing QR codes into their teaching as daunting, or perhaps even unnecessary, but when you consider how easy they are to generate, combined with the high interest from pupils that they generate, I would recommend their implementation as a fantastic way of increasing engagement in learning.

What are QR codes?

A QR code is like a bar code and it contains information. You can easily generate your own to show information you want them to see. When they are scanned by someone (a pupil) that information will be displayed to them.

How QR codes can be used:

There are plenty of websites that allow you to create your own QR codes. I use http://goqr.me/ but there are many other alternatives.

I tend to use QR codes in two ways: to take a pupil to a website and to display a piece of text.

You can add printed QR codes to your displays to link to class blogs or additional information. Additionally, they can be used as a way of increasing engagement and communication with parents by displaying QR links to topics being studied in class. You could send home printed QR codes of these topics to parents if your classroom environment or school routines (e.g. maybe parents don’t wait by the classroom to collect their child) prevent you being able to display the QR codes in a place easily accessible to parents.

QR codes in lessons:

If you are fortunate enough to have access to a class set of iPads or tablets, or your school allows pupils to use their own devices, then a simple QR scanner app would mean that you could introduce QR codes into your lessons, instantly making them seem more appealing to pupils. You could be setting what could be seen by many as a fairly mundane task, e.g. answering questions, but the technology element would elevate its interest to your pupils.

You may have heard of QR treasure hunts, where pupils answer questions from QR codes around the school. Websites like this: http://www.classtools.net/QR/ make a QR treasure hunt an easy lesson to organise. The most time-consuming element would probably be putting the QR codes up around the school! Adding a small incentive for completing the task first, (e.g. house points, raffle tickets or something that fits in with your own school’s behaviour system) you may find that pupils who would normally struggle to complete tasks, will be more successful in this activity due to its competitive nature and the added element of moving around the school.

QR codes for homework:

You can use QR codes in a similar way to how you would in a lesson. One way would be to give them a sheet with printed QR codes that lead to questions being displayed. They then bring their answers back to school or write them on an answer sheet that you provide them with.

I find that pupils are much more likely to visit a website that I provide to them in the form of a QR code, than as a URL. You avoid typos this way and the time spent in accessing the homework is reduced (something that will also appeal to your pupils!).

Sometimes I produce a sheet of QR codes that lead to additional websites that aren’t necessary to complete the task but are related to the topic we are learning about. I find pupils are more likely to engage with this additional information when they can scan it on their smart phone and browse at their leisure than if I give them a list of websites. If you provide a list of websites, pupils will have an idea from the URL what it is you are asking them to access. However, if you provide a sheet of QR codes with no additional information about where they lead, they will be far more likely to visit all of them, therefore engaging with far more material than they might initially choose to.

Flipped or blended learning

If you are in an environment where you are able ‘flip the classroom’ (supportive parents, engaged children, home access to internet etc.), you may find the use of QR codes a useful tool.

You could generate QR codes that link to videos, photographs, websites or texts and if not providing a hard copy of these to your pupils, you could always add the QR codes to your school’s VLE (if you have one) so that they are stored for future use.

Using mind maps to reflect on learning throughout a topic

I am a big fan of using mind maps as a way of tracking learning and understanding. I always use mind maps in Science lessons and we always create a new mind map at the start of each topic. I encourage pupils to use their mind map as a ‘working document’ and to be constantly updating them throughout the topic.

In order to track what they have learnt, we do our mind mapping in stages.

Start of topic:

  • We begin our mind map by adding anything we already know about the topic.
  • We highlight or shade in with pencil crayon anything we have added.
  • In a corner of the page, we write WINK (What I Now Know) and the date.

Research-based lessons:

  • At the end of (or during) a research-based lesson, pupils have the opportunity to add anything new that they have learnt about the topic to their mind map.
  • Again, we highlight or shade in with pencil crayon anything we have added, but in a different colour.
  • In a corner of the page, we write WINK (What I Now Know) and the date.

Throughout the topic:

  • I provide opportunities at the end of lessons to update the mind map.
  • The updating is always in a different colour and I always emphasise the importance of writing the date with WINK.

End of topic:

  • A final opportunity to reflect on their learning throughout the unit or topic takes places (again in a different colour).
  • The result is a somewhat colourful mind map that should be full of key words and essential information that can be added to and used for revision purposes.

Why I like using mind maps throughout topics.

  • It isn’t resource-heavy (just highlighters or colours, a ruler and something to write with and on).
  • It is an easy way to track learning. I can see what has been learnt when.

5-4-3-2-1 Summary

Independence displayThis is a really quick way for pupils to summarise their learning. I tend to use it at the end of a lesson where I have introduced a new concept. At first pupils find it hard, but they soon get the hang of it. I have used it in a range of subjects and find it an effective reflective tool for pupils that requires no additional resources (I have a little sheet to stick in but this isn’t necessary) or much additional time – pupils can do it before they hand in work.

All pupils do is summarise a new concept or a topic in 5 words, then 4, then 3, then 2, then 1. Simple! It makes them think about the key points and what is most important. Hopefully they are then more familiar with it when we revisit it later in the topic or they come across it in another context.

 

More exciting than learning from text books!

text bookI recently read an article by Doug Belshaw (5 ways to make’ textbook lessons’ more interesting) which made me think about what I do in my classroom.

Text books contain a wealth of information that shouldn’t be overlooked. A more ‘old-style’ way of learning (‘turn to page 27 and answer all the questions’) can be turned into a far more exciting experience with a competitive element.

You can do this type of activity with any subject. I have used it in Science, History, Geography, RE and reading comprehension (making answering mock SATs reading questions more interesting).

To make this activity more competitive, provide the questions one at a time and reinforce the idea that they can’t have the next question until the first is correct.

How I do this in my classroom:

I take questions (perhaps from text books; perhaps some of my own) and have a set of them for each group cut up so that each question can be handed out individually. I also tend to have the questions on brightly coloured card (partly because I am a primary teacher; partly because it makes it easier to track which question each group is on).

I have a range of information that I arrange around the room. The information contains the answers for the questions, so there is no reason why all pupils can’t achieve. I have information on tables (maybe text books) and other information (from the internet) on walls, doors, and any other space I can find around the room.

I provide all groups with the first question. They then need to answer this and either tell me or write it on an answer grid before showing me. If correct, I then hand over the next question. There are obviously many ways of doing this, but one way I like to engage the lower ability pupils in mixed ability groups is to assign them the job of telling me the answer. I normally give them some kind of title (e.g. ‘the question collector’), as this elevates their importance within the group, and seems to increase their competitiveness.

Bizarrely, pupils don’t seem to realise that all they are doing is reading through information and answering questions, and instead become really engaged and extremely competitive. They really want to ‘win’ and beat all the other groups. They improve their skimming and scanning skills when it comes to finding the information; they learn what they need to know and are more likely to remember it as they will remember the activity. This activity allows them to take more responsibility for their own learning, increases independence and it is easy and quick for me to organise and facilitate.

This is an example of a style of lesson that easily adapts to a range of topics and subjects and doesn’t take days of planning to arrange.

With this type of activity, where I am trying to encourage effective teamwork, I will very often use a reflective activity at the end to evaluate how well they have individually participated, such as using raffle tickets, where I assign each group a number of raffle tickets or house points (more than children in each group) and they have to discuss who deserves them. I find pupils to be very honest and realistic when doing this, but obviously this takes some training.

Use of computers / tablets for research in lessons

SurfaceA few years ago, I attended an INSET with Chris Moyse (@ChrisMoyse) about independent learning. One of the things I took from it was the use of computers for research within lessons (I think pupils had been asked to find specific answers to questions). In the scenario given, pupils had to find answers to a range of questions in the context of a Science lesson and given the opportunity, pupils would go straight to the computer instead of accessing the other resources provided to find answers. Their skills when it came to the effective use of a search engine were slightly lacking and as a result, pupils who had opted to use the other resources provided (printed information and books) were far more successful in the task.

A great focus in my teaching is in creating an environment that benefits and encourages independent learning, and in facilitating learning, without me constantly standing at the front talking at pupils.

I am fortunate in that I have access to tablet computers for use in class, without having to relocate to a computer room. Bearing in mind what I learnt from Chris, in research-based lessons, I provide a range of resources (books, printed information, sometimes a list of websites etc.) but I also provide access to a few (2 or 3) tablet computers. Whilst sometimes I find that it is beneficial to provide each group with one or more tablets, in the type of lesson I refer to, I limit the time pupils can access the tablets for to a 5 minute period. (I provide stopwatches for timing, and if the IWB isn’t needed for other uses, I have the number of interactive stopwatches that I have tablet computers displayed on the board). This means that all pupils in the class are aware when they can access the internet if they choose to. They write their names down on the board so there is an obvious order to the computer time, and groups can decide whether or not the use of the computer is beneficial to them. I often find that pupils initially opt for the internet, but soon find that their time is more effectively spent finding out the information in other ways.

Last Man Standing

whiteboard 2This is an activity that can be used at any point of a lesson, in any subject, to check understanding of a topic. I find it particularly useful in Science.

  1. Pupils work in groups within a short time period to write down everything they know about a specific topic on one whiteboard (you could use paper).
  2. After the time is up, one member of each group stands up.
  3. Go around each group and they must say one thing from their list. They cannot hesitate or repeat anything already said. (If they do, they are out). Emphasise the importance of excellent listening skills (to avoid repetition).
  4. The last group with a person standing wins.

This is a very simple and very speedy activity that allows you to ascertain where pupils’ understanding is and how to move it on. It also focuses on listening skills and encourages effective group work.

If you encounter problems with participation, you could combine the activity with the ‘String web group work’ activity as an immediate visual clue as to who is struggling to fully participate in the activity.

Pupils are engaged as they want to win. I often provide house points or raffle tickets to the winning team.

Mini Whiteboards

whiteboardUsing mini whiteboards isn’t a revolutionary idea but I find that sometimes teachers forget that they have this resource to hand.

They are great for AfL in that you can immediately work out who understands a concept and who needs support, especially if you introduce basic rules, such as not showing the teacher the board until you say “Show me!” or count for them to show you. Encouraging pupils to do this will give you a more accurate understanding of who needs more help, as in a larger class, it can be easy for pupils to copy the correct answer from a fellow pupil without you seeing.

I use whiteboards constantly in Maths lessons, but I also encourage the use of them constantly in other subjects. Giving pupils the opportunity to draft ideas, mindmap or use them to support other pupils (consolidating their own understanding) will create good habits and should help pupils to produce a higher quality of work.

Learning Journeys Displayed As Tube Maps

Example of a learning journey
Example of a learning journey

http://beno.org.uk/metromapcreator/

This is a great website that has allowed me to create learning journeys displayed as tube maps. I create one for the start of each topic. Pupils like them as they know which direction their learning is taking and there is a clear structure that they are aware of. I encourage pupils to tick the tube stop after we have covered that part of the topic.

I have used them in English and History but I would also like to use them in Science and for other Humanities topics in the future. The only negative I find with the website is that it isn’t that user-friendly so I tend to draw out my learning journeys beforehand. Here are two examples I have created and used with my class: Beowulf Learning Journey and Riven Learning Journey (based around the iPad app, Riven, inspired by the work of Tim Rylands adapted into a scheme of work by BeeGnuEd @GnuBee.

This is a website that I found in a great book called Teaching Backwards by Andy Griffith and Mark Burns and is part of Osiris Education’s ‘Outstanding Teaching’ range of books. I also recommend their previous book, Engaging Learners.

Making Marking More Manageable

EBI stampI have found that using these stampers in my marking: WWW (What Went Well); EBI (Even Better If) and Next Steps has made my marking more manageable through the time it now takes.

I bought my stampers from here: http://www.superstickers.com/c/3842/products/stampers/stamp-stacks/assessment but there are plenty of other places you can get similar stampers or stickers from.

I also find that not only is it far more targeted, but by asking pupils to complete these regularly (they stamp WWW, EBI or Next Steps, or a combination of these into their books on completion of a piece of work) it ensures that pupils take more responsibility for their learning and are more aware of their targets and how to make progress.

DIRT

In English, we complete a weekly DIRT session (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) where we are able to spend time looking back through work, proof-reading and improving, before completing a WWW, EBI and Next Steps target based on work completed that week. By incorporating this into my teaching as a regular activity, pupils know that there is that expectation of them and they know they have to take responsibility for moving their learning on.

This is not only used as a self-assessment task, but I also provide time for peer assessment of work where peers are able to also provide WWW, EBI and Next Steps targets.

More information about DIRT can be found on David Didau’s Learning Spy blog.