Saturday, January 13, 2018

Fit and healthy

Although my blog is mostly dedicated to posts about education and about how technology can transform learning, I occasionally blog about how I'm using technology in other areas of my life as well.  For example recently I've been trying out several new sleep apps, as I've been awake at night worrying about the situation with my mother, whose dementia has progressed to the point where she is really not safe to be alone any more.  I've also written about mindfulness apps, travel maps and apps that I've used when travelling, and other apps designed to improve the lives of people with dementia.   Since the summer I've also been trying out a variety of apps to help me stay physically fit and healthy, and this post is going to review some of my favourites.

Back in May, I decided I would start to walk 5km per day as part of a self-care regime.  Almost every day in Mumbai I go down to Joggers' Park, right on the edge of the Arabian Sea, and walk 12 times round a 400 metre track.  The first app I needed was one that would calculate how far I walked, rather than having to count the laps as I walked around the track.  I've been using the Steps app for quite a while now - it's simple and I like the way it changes colour as you approach your goal (mine is set at 10,000 steps a day. which is actually quite a bit more than 5km).  It's simple and easy to use, without sounds, messages or other clutter to distract you.  You can also upgrade the app cheaply (£1.99) to track calories, though I haven't done this.  Generally this is a simple, free app and it does everything that I want to to do right now.

One evening as I was walking around the park I met up with another colleague from school who recommended another app to me called Lose It.   This is also a free app, that lets you track the calories you eat, and enter the exercise you do (so I enter the data from the Steps app into it each day).  To get started with this app you enter your details and your goal weight/date, and the app automatically calculates the daily calorie budget you need to achieve that.  There is a huge database of foods, and there is also the possibility of scanning in barcodes of food that you eat, or photographing your food.  The app contains various challenges (none of which I've done) and you can also challenge friends privately.  I like the way that the app adjusts the daily calorie total based on the amount of exercise you do (so I have told myself I will only have an ice-cream on days where I'm still "in the green" zone - if I'm not there it's an incentive for me to do a bit more exercise!)  Your achievements are tracked daily, but are shown in weeks, so you can in fact eat a little more one day and then balance it out over the rest of the week to stay within your target.  There's a premium version of the app ($3.33 per month) which I don't use as I find the free app is fine for what I need.  Also, from previous posts you will know my thoughts about monthly payments versus a one time purchase.  You can find out more about Lose It on their website.

Sometimes, at the end of the day, I'm a little bit over my target for calorie consumption - or perhaps it's been the sort of day where I haven't been able to get down to the park for a walk.  What I've now started to do is to use an app called Seven, that was recommended to me by my son over the Christmas holidays.  This app is also free!  These 7 minute workouts, designed to be done daily for 7 months, are based on scientific studies that give the maximum benefit in the shortest time possible.  If you subscribe to the Seven Club you can get personalised workout plans for goals such as getting fit, losing weight or becoming stronger.  The workouts are designed to be done anywhere and at any time as long as you have a chair and a wall.  With Seven I get an alert at 8 pm each night if I haven't done my 7 minutes of exercise that day.  The basic workout consists of a full body workout of 12 exercises (jumping jacks, plank, wall sit, lunges, squats etc). 
Each activity is done for 30 seconds with a 10 second rest in between.  Personally I love Seven.  I'm totally convinced that no matter how tired I'm feeling, I can do anything for 7 minutes.  The subscription to the Seven Club costs $9.99 per month or $79.99 for one year.  With the free app you get the basic daily workout, plus another one that is free on that day.  Some of these free ones seem really intensive (Extreme Cardio) others such as the one I did a couple of days ago are called Easy Fit and are a good mix of exercises that complements the basic Full Body workout.  The app is gamified to keep you motivated.  You start with 3 hearts, and every day you miss a workout you lose a heart.  If you lose all 3 hearts in a month your progress resets to zero, and you have to start over again.  Each month you get 3 new hearts.  Click here to find out more about Seven on their website.

The final app that I'm going to review today is Yoga Studio.  I was lucky enough to purchase this app some time ago, but now I see that, similar to other fitness apps, it's now being offered as a monthly subscription.  This subscription is fairly cheap ($1.99 for a month, $19.99 for a year) but I was grateful I'd already purchased it and could access all the yoga classes simply by clicking on Restore Purchase.  This app contains around 80 easy-to-follow HD video yoga classes at 3 different levels and for different lengths of time (15 minutes to 1 hour), as well as guided meditations and yoga for specific conditions such as back pain, strength and flexibility. 
Once you have downloaded the classes you can play them anywhere without needing an internet connection.  The yoga pose library contains 280 poses with images and information on the benefits of each pose and how to modify the pose for beginners.  There are also pose blocks which consist of sequences of poses such as the Sun Salutation.  For more information visit the Yoga Studio website.

While I've been going to gyms, fitness and yoga classes for years, this is the first time that I've ever tried to customise my own fitness programme using apps.  Generally I feel it works to be able to take a short "class" or set of exercises at a time and place convenient to me (this tends to be at home in the evenings) rather than having to work my schedule around a class being held in a gym.  One downside is the lack of community - though in my case this has been my choice because so far I've chosen to use the free versions of the apps rather than actually take out a subscription.  I would like to say, however, that the paid options are very attractive when compared with a regular club or gym membership or buying individual classes.  One thing I want to monitor closely over the coming months is whether these apps sustain my motivation, and whether I feel they are effective in keeping me fit.  A lot relies on will-power when you are trying to keep fit in isolation, rather than being in a class with others.  As I'm leaving India this year for new opportunities, I'm really hoping that these good habits, built up now, will allow me to continue to be fit and healthy in the future.

Do you have favourite apps for health and fitness?  If so please share these in the Comments.

Photo - Arabian Sea from Joggers' Park, Bandra, Mumbai, India

Monday, January 8, 2018

Technology, reading and digital literacy - sharing books

As mentioned in the previous post, when I was a 5th and 6th Grade teacher I used to have weekly Book Shares, where students could use a variety of ways of sharing and recommending books they had read to others in the class.  For some students, moving from "consuming" a book to "creating" something that will share that book with others, is an important factor in getting them to read or finish a book.  The Book Shares were always extremely popular - students enjoyed both the creating and listening/viewing what their classmates had made.  At my current school we have continued to promote these sorts of projects with students making book trailers, adding QR codes to library books with recommendations, and using the AR app Aurasma to share books with the rest of the learning community.

One thing that I've discovered is really important is for teachers to use these tools themselves.  Sometimes we underestimate just how time-consuming some of these projects can be!  Recently when our Grade 4 teachers were introducing a variety of tools to students, they decided they would all take one one tool and use it to tell their own story.  Teachers chose various tools such as iMovie, VoiceThread, Book Creator and paper slides.

Making video book trailers is a lot of fun, but there also needs to be a return on learning for the time spent in this creation.  Students need to understand the importance of writing a script including a powerful hook, and that they don't need to give too much of the plot away.  They need to consider the images they will use to illuminate the book, and they often need to practice talking in a "performing voice".  Students can also use tools such as GoAnimate, Bitstrips, Make Belief Comix, Pixton, TouchCast and Livestream for sharing books.

As well as supporting students to meet important literacy standards, sharing books in this way helps students to meet the ISTE Standards for Students, in particular Standard 4, Innovative Designer, Standard 6 Creative Communicator and Standard 7 Global Collaborator.

How do your students share what they are reading?  What are your favourite tools?

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Technology, reading and digital literacy - discussing books

Ever since 2005 I've been in a book club.  This has generally been a group of teachers at school who come together once a month or so, over something to eat, to discuss a book that we have read.  I've been in professional book groups as well where we have tended to focus on a couple of chapters of a book to discuss each time we meet.  In recent years I've also continued to connect with some of these book club friends, even though we are no longer working in the same country, using Goodreads.  I love my book clubs and enjoy our discussions - so we can assume that students would also like to opportunity to discuss what they are reading as well.  Even reluctant readers can be engaged "beyond the book".  As a 5th Grade teacher I used to encourage students to come up with a variety of ways of sharing what they had read and enjoyed, and I agree with L. Robert Furman who writes that this can lead to a passion for reading.

Technology provides many platforms that students can use to discuss what they are reading.  As mentioned before, Goodreads can be a great tool: now 10 years old, it has over 30 million members who have written 34 million reviews of over 900 million books.  Wow!  That is a lot.  When I hear about a new book and am thinking about whether to purchase it, Goodreads is definitely my go-to place online.  I'm particularly interested in seeing if the friends I've known in person have reviewed these books.  Teachers can also make book groups within Goodreads for their students to join.  Students can then discuss the books, make quizzes and take quizzes.

Other tools recommended by Furman for discussion books include ePals and videoconferencing either with other classrooms or with the authors of the books themselves. I've blogged before about activities that students can get involved in both pre call, and during and after the call. Furman recommends the Children's Authors Network for connecting with authors. For a couple of years now, one of the teachers at ASB has been participating in the Global Read Aloud. Through this project, her class has been able partner with other classes/schools and participate in shared literacy experiences using tools such as Edmodo, Padlet and Google Docs. Tracy has written about this project in her blog which also contains a video with student reflections. Other tools suggested by Furman for virtual books clubs include LitLovers, Edublogs and email.

As well as promoting a love of reading, global book clubs are an ideal opportunity to address issues of digital citizenship with students. They need to understand that once a comment is published, it's there forever, and it has been a good "teachable moment" for us to revisit our Responsible Use Policy with students.

Have your students been involved in virtual book clubs or online discussions about what they are reading? What are your favourite tools for encouraging a passion for reading?

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Technology, reading and digital literacy - finding books

As an ISTE member I have the benefit of choosing an ISTE book each year to download, and this year I chose the book Technology, Reading and Digital Literacy by L. Robert Furman.  I share an office on the elementary campus of my school with the literacy coach and with 2 iCommons coaches, and so I thought that this book would be a great one for all of us to discuss, since we are all working on digital literacy.

In the introduction to his book, Furman explains that teachers need to understand technology in order to provide students with the tools they need to be successful - in particular because the volume of information is so huge and because the platforms through which students learn are ever changing.  Future success is likely to depend on being excellent communicators of knowledge - and to do this students need to be proficient readers.  Our students are very at home in a virtual environment and teachers can use online tools to teach reading and digital literacy, which meets both literacy standards as well as the technology benchmarks contained in the ISTE Standards for Students, such as collaborating with others, finding and using information, managing projects and solving problems.

One issue discussed by Furman is that students often don't have a rich exposure to books - therefore it is our job as teachers to share with them our enthusiasm, interest and expertise in children's books.  Furman suggests a number of different tools that teachers can use to help students find books.  These include Book Wizard, Listbuilder, Goodreads and Storia.  I thought I'd also share some online tools we subscribe to at ASB:
  • Big Universe - An engaging online reading and writing community for elementary students. Students can read fiction and non fiction books, listen to read-alouds and create their own stories. With more than 10,000 levelled eBooks from over 40 publishers that are tightly integrated with tools for writing, speaking, listening, and language use, Big Universe is your one-stop solution for balanced literacy models. Use on any device, anytime, for almost any learning situation from independent reading or group instruction to special education, ELL, after school enrichment, and more.
  • BookFlix - A collection of fiction and nonfiction texts to support Literacy for readers and learners. With colourful animation, rich audio, and interactive games, BookFlix is a perfect tool to engage and support beginning readers. Built-in literacy support tools–including read aloud and word highlighting–cultivate key literacy skills, support beginning and ELL readers, and build fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
  • TumbleBooks - an online collection of animated, talking picture books that young children will love.  TumbleBook Library has over 1100 titles for grades K-6, including read-along chapter books, national geographic videos, non-fiction books, playlists, as well as books in Spanish and French. The collection also features Graphic Novels and Math Stories.
  • Raz-Kids - Online guided reading program with over 400 interactive ebooks, downloadable books, and reading quizzes. The books are levelled, spanning 29 levels, and include books in Spanish.  New books are added every month.
  • Lerner Digital - Provides a valuable resource to help support student learning and reading improvement. Designed to support literacy improvement for struggling readers, Lerner Interactive Books feature fun activities and resources to extend the reading experience and inspire students to read more and more often. Lerner Interactive Books offer nonfiction and high-interest books for K-5 in multimedia format designed to improve key literacy skills for emergent and struggling readers.
  • Capstone Interactive Library - includes an online collection of up to 450 enhanced digital books and provides reading practice time over the Internet. Each book includes audio that reads the text aloud, and embedded online activities to extend the learning environment.
How do you support students, especially struggling and reluctant readers, to find books?  What tools would you recommend to help students develop digital literacy?

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Monday, January 1, 2018


Some time ago I was talking to my son about the long walk he is planning (he is doing the Pacific Crest next year) and about what he's thinking of doing afterwards.  This was quite an extensive plan, that involved such things as buying a house, getting engaged, getting married, and having children.  I remember saying to him "Don't tell God about your plans" as I know life has a habit of getting in the way of these and taking us off in directions that we couldn't even imagine.  In fact the first part of his plans have already changed.  Despite finding a house and being just 4 days away from purchasing it, the whole thing fell through.  And sadly, his plans to go to New Zealand for a friend's wedding have fallen through too, as his friend has been diagnosed with cancer and wedding plans are on hold for now.  Plans for the walk continue.

As 2017 came to a close it was also time for me to reflect on changes in my own life.  As readers will know, my mother has been diagnosed with dementia.  A year ago my brother and I visited care homes to find an eventual place for my mother.  We were asked what our timeline was, and all we could say was "sometime in 2017".  And yet those plans have changed as well.  Now at the start of 2018 mum is still in her own home.  The place we were hoping and planning for also fell through recently.  I'm desperately seeking options.

 A year ago I thought I was in India for the long-term.  Even at the start of this school year I thought it.  But now it seems it's not to be.  I've fought this for a long time in my own mind.  I've often said I have the perfect job in the most amazing school, but this year I've had to question that as well.  I think I spent many months trying to preserve the status quo - now I know it is time to focus on the next steps, and these are going to involve a return to Europe.  Mum is very needy.  I need to be close by.  It's time to redirect my energies to the next things in life.  It's time to accept what's coming.  It's time to forgive people for not giving me what I thought I needed.  It's time to move on.

So what is next?  Some months ago I started to think of other options.  I registered with a couple of search agencies and even interviewed for a couple of jobs.  I learned a lot about myself in this process.  I learned that there are actually very few schools where I would want to work.  I have come to see that I'm passionate about curriculum and "getting out of the way" so that students can do deep dives into limited areas rather than trying to "cover everything".  I learned that I can never work at a school where the focus is on ticking the boxes.  I also learned that my passion is technology integration, not managing systems.  I want to work with people - with teachers and students - not with software and hardware.  I thought I was heading in one direction, but when I actually thought about it, I realised that I needed to head off in a different direction.  I don't just want to focus on "the latest and greatest" technology trends that are not authentically integrated into the curriculum.  I want to focus on using technology for deep learning.

I've come to see that life gives you opportunities, though sometimes they don't seem like opportunities - they seem like challenges.  Sometimes picking up my whole life and moving again seems overwhelming.  But I know it isn't - I've done it before.

One thing I know is true - you don't regret the things you do, you regret the things you don't do.  When an opportunity comes along you need to grab it.  Moving to India 6 years ago seemed to be a challenge - but it was amazing.  How glad I am now that I took the "scary" option instead of staying in Europe.  Now I'm opting to take the "scary" choice again.

It has been a tough year, and something else I've learned is that I want someone to challenge me to do new things.  I'm fairly self-directed, but I do want people to notice and appreciate what I do.  It's hard to work and stay motivated in a vacuum.

So 2018 is going to be a year of personal and professional change.  Watch this space - more coming soon!

And to all my readers, I wish you all the best for the coming year - whatever it may bring!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Stressless sleepfulness

The past months have been stressful.  While I never have trouble falling asleep, I often wake early in the morning (anytime between 2 - 4 am) and find my mind is in turmoil worrying about my mother (regular readers will know that she has been living with dementia and that I've struggled to find the best way forward to give her the support she needs).  Recently I've been trying a few sleep apps and thought I'd share my experiences here in case other people are considering trying these as well.

First of all, many people will think that if you are stressed and unable to sleep, the last thing you need is more technology - I've heard this being described as being akin to having an AA meeting in a pub!  However having used the mindfulness app Buddhify for a couple of years now, I was curious to try the new app Sleepfulness by the same developers, Mindfulness Everywhere.  The app contains guided tracks designed to improve sleep - and you don't just use this app when you are in bed as there are 4 "timezones":  going to sleep, can't sleep, waking up and daytime.  The app automatically changes the recommended track depending on the time of day.  You can choose to end the meditation with music if you wish (though no matter which meditation I've tried I've always fallen asleep before the end!)

The app is free and 10 of the meditations that focus on relaxation are also free.  There are over 3 and a half hours of sleep meditations ranging from around 6 minutes to just over 20 minutes, and 4 other packs that can be purchased that deal with things like stress, anxiety and pain.  You can also buy an "Everything Forever" pack which gives you access to all the meditations and all the new ones that will be released in future. I like this idea much better than apps such as Headspace where you have to pay a monthly subscription.   The Everything Forever pack is roughly the same price as a single month's subscription to apps such as Headspace.

Another app I've downloaded recently is called Calm which has various meditations for breathing, sleeping and relaxing.  This is also a free app that allows you to make in-app purchases for monthly or yearly subscriptions.  There are also several free guided meditations.   This app is different in many ways from Sleepfulness.  For example there are beautiful natural scenes that you can look at along with ambient sounds such as rain.  There's music to help you relax as well, and stories to help you get to sleep.  There's also the Daily Calm which is a daily 10 minute mix of meditation and inspiration.

With this app you start with 7 Days of Calm. Each day there is a different focus.  You will go through guided breathing, paying attention and a body scan, followed by a session on training your mind, living in the here and now, patience and awareness.  After that you can go into other free areas such as Loving Kindness. There is also 7 Days of Sleep which you listen to in the evening to prepare your mind and body for sleep - the meditation voice is over the top of the ambient nature sounds.  At the end is the suggestion to do a body scan later in bed - you can choose the time for this from 3 minutes to 15 minutes. 

Calm also contains timed unguided meditations where you can choose an end bell or to have a bell playing at regular intervals to bring your mind back to meditating.  I have used the Calm scenes several times recently to help me fall asleep.  I assumed (wrongly) that after a certain time the ambient sounds would stop, however when I woke up in the morning they were still playing - possibly this helped me to get a deeper sleep, though I'm not sure.

What apps have you used to help you get a deep and relaxing sleep?

Innovative leadership

Over the past few weeks I've been involved in a design thinking project at school aimed at coming up with a new model for tech integration.  It was interesting to see the approach that was taken, with candidates focusing on different things - either the logistics, or the learning, or some new technology.  As a result of this process, it was interesting to read Scott McLeod's blog post today entitled 18 things that leaders of innovative schools do differently.  In this post Scott writes about the TIES conference and how at the Leadership Seminar they looked at a variety of innovative schools from around the world to see what the leaders of these schools are doing differently.  He asked - which of these are most important, which are being done well and which need more attention?  The interesting thing, something that I was really heartened to read, is that this list does not include a focus on the new technologies.  The focus is much more on things that empower students and teachers.  So to answer the question which on the list are most important, here are my thoughts:
  • Creating an atmosphere of safety and trust so that teachers can take risk with support.
  • Leaders being willing to take risks themselves.
  • Empowering student choice, building on intrinsic motivation.
  • Personalising academic pathways that take account of students' interests, skills and talents.
  • Reducing the number of things on everyone's plate by focusing on the few things that are really important - tied in to the mission and purpose of the school.
  • Time for meaningful collaboration, including protocols for making decisions.
  • Distributed leadership.
  • Not just being concerned with the "spark" of innovation, but also having the depth of knowledge to tie this to student learning.
  • Getting rid of "tall poppy" environments.
One of Scott's 18 things is in bold - he has added the emphasis showing what he feels is most important:  innovative leaders are able to help teachers translate big ideas from mission and vision statements into day-to-day instructional practice.  I like this statement a lot as well.  It makes me think of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours to become an expert (outlier), and although the notion that anyone can become an expert after a certain number of hours of practice has now been debunked, innovative leaders do need that knowledge and understanding of the day-to-day of teaching (which translates into about 10 years of teaching experience to get to the 10,000 hours).  In addition, to be that innovative leader an educator is required to be a reflective practitioner with a passion for excellence, someone with strong values, in particular integrity, and someone who demonstrates empathy.  Without these last two, in my opinion, someone may try to lead innovation, but will anyone follow?

I'm looking forward to working with Scott at ASB Un-Plugged in February.  Scott will be leading a pre-conference institute on building schools of the future.

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