Soapbox cart

It was half term and I had a bit of free time so I decided to see what Thomas had been up to on my iPad. There alongside the Rugby15 games and half-finished Hopscotch coding attempts was a copy of The Beano from the website. It featured Danny from The Bash Street Kids in what we used to call a cartie.

The Bash Street Kids are all nine years old – a little older than Thomas. So I figured I had time to build him a cartie of his own so he can pretend to be Danny, Denis the Menace, Roger the Dodger or whoever else he admires from those hallowed pages.

Here are the results. I’m now well on the way to building a second model so Thomas can have races with his friends (or sisters).

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What struck me taking the cartie out for the first time was the number of people (men and women) in their sixties, seventies and (in one case) eighties who stopped us to say “Oh my! I used to have one of those!” or “A soapbox cart! I haven’t seen one of those for years!” It was a lovely way to connect with people in the village decades removed from Thomas’ own age.

The cartie goes like a dream – and yes, I did decide I needed to “test it out” (ahem). A great way to get outdoors and engage with an active boyhood. For all its fascination, there are some things the iPad simply cannot do (although, admittedly, in this case it at least provided the inspiration!)


Learning Chinese on the iPad

The summer holidays, as always, is a chance to reflect back and project forward.  The new school year starting in August will be the first where we introduce large numbers of iPad Airs, and the first where we begin the year with Casper as our MDM system.  Further afield, we have collaborate research projects set up with Hurstpierpoint College and with our sister schools in the ACS group, and invitations to present our research at several international conferences.

But I’m keenly aware of how easy it is for the researcher to become too intensely focused on the mechanics of the research process itself, and to lose sight of the connection research must have with real life.  This is a danger to which researchers whose day to day school role is in administration, not teaching, are especially susceptible and so the subject of this month’s blog is deliberately pragmatic and stems from my classroom experience teaching my weekly Chinese class.

Language teachers commonly complain that there are no decent apps for teaching language. This may be true (although the picture with all apps is so fast-changing that it is difficult to make definitive statements about anything), but it misses the point.  The conversations I have had most recently with teachers of French and Spanish at my school certainly leave me better informed about apps like Linguascope and Duolingo, but they also make it very clear that the most engaging activities that teachers appear to find effective are those where the students are using the target language incidentally, rather than as a conscious exercise in mastery.

When I was training as a language teacher more years ago than I care to mention, the prevailing (but at that point untested) thinking was that the best way to master a language was to study something other than the target language through the medium of the target language.  At International House, where I studied for an RSA Diploma in TEFL, I observed students in a film studies course whose fluency in both spoken and written academic English developed as they pursued their learning about film.  My own mother-in-law developed her English through studying a higher degree in Education. So we have known for a long time that making the target language incidental to the learning can be effective, and the lesson for teachers teaching with iPads is to make the iPad the tool to achieving tasks other than directly learning French, Spanish or, in the case of my own students, Chinese.

In my Chinese classes I have been known to set the odd quiz in Socrative, but I admit that these serve little pedagogical purpose beyond giving the students a mental break from other tasks.  The biggest benefit I have seen in quiz setting (other than giving the impression to some parents – and a recently-departed education minister – that real learning was going on when it wasn’t) is the experience it can give students in mastering test-taking techniques. But passing a test, rather than acquiring mastery of the learning the test is supposed to assess, is a very limited horizon for which to set one’s course.

This is where one needs to consult the research and adapt pedagogies and instructional strategies that we know assist language acquisition.  These include (but are not limited to) the following:

Hands-on activities
Project-based learning
Reciprocal learning
Student-centred learning
Simulations & Rôle Play
Reflect & Write
Anything involving Rhythm, Rhyme, Music & Rap
Graphic (visual) Organisers
Collaborative learning

I’ve written on most of these before, but in the context of teaching Chinese there is a resource I am prepared to endorse that I have used for about six years now and which, with a bit of tweaking, allows the teacher to cut out a lot of the donkey work involved in lesson planning.

The resource is called Chinese Pod and it started many years ago as a podcast. You could download the podcast and listen to it on your iPod as you got on with your day. It often involved conversations about topics that were in the news or of general interest to ordinary folk at the time. Therein lay an important difference between Chinese Pod and even the best textbook – it was fresh and unpredictable; relevant and topical. You couldn’t flick ahead and see what was coming. Although pre-recorded, it felt live and the presenters (typically two – a waiguoren and a native Chinese speaker) didn’t worry about the odd slip of the tongue. It had the feel of people enjoying themselves.

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Allied to the podcast was a webpage from which you could download and print off dialogues at different levels. I’m actually a great believer in dialogues as a way of learning languages. I learned Chinese this way myself and occasionally even today I find myself slipping into phrases I learned wholesale from those days. Chinese Pod’s dialogues ran the gamut from Newbie to Advanced, with pinyin support available where appropriate.  They discussed things like pop music, St Valentine’s Day and who was going to win the World Cup – the very conversations I knew my students were having in the recess playground.  

Today, these dialogues are still there on the Chinese Pod website, and subscribers can make use of Lesson MP3s, Dialogue MP3s, Audi Review MP3s or just a straightforward pdf transcript of the dialogue.  We use all of these in my classes, and my students access them via their iPads either before or during the lesson, but they also give me ideas for prompting my students to write their own dialogues, and we record or film these after they have had a chance to practise them.

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Today, students can produce sophisticated translations using Google Translate (see above – and also on their iPads in the form of an app), and can have the phrases modelled for them by a native speaker to guide their pronunciation and tones, but this really doesn’t matter. Students get a buzz out of seeing themselves and hearing themselves speaking Chinese, and if they keep the recordings, they can use themselves as revision aids or teachers in the future.   

Of course, I also encourage the students to use the Chinese keyboard on the iPad, and we have had some success in the past with the app iChinese as a way to encourage students to master the correct stroke order (although it has been admittedly mixed success as it is time-consuming – and I have to say I sometimes get stroke order wrong myself even after years of learning Chinese), but it’s probably fair to say that reading and writing Chinese are the last two skills to be mastered (albeit, there is a thrill to be seen on the students‘ faces when they manage to translate a piece of text written entirely in characters!)

To that end, there are a number of apps for both iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch that have proved effective over the years.  Here are some I still swear by.  

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The Flashcards app can be especially addictive – in a wholly positive way.  Many years ago I would spend hours on trains across China taking a pack of flashcards out my my jacket pocket and trying to commit them to memory. Those I knew I would transfer to my right-had pocket; those I didn’t, I would shuffle to the bottom of the pack and try again when they surfaced.  The Flashcards app (see screenshot below) is the modern equivalent of that. So with that in mind, I’m now going to roll the clock back and see how well I do on the advanced set.


The Great War on a 9.7-inch Screen

This year’s centenary commemorations of the start of World War One have had a conspicuous presence on television and in the printed media and as the summer approaches and we mark 100 years since the Old Contemptibles marched in France it seems fair to guess that the coverage in the mainstream media will be even more thorough.  Schools across Europe are no doubt giving thought to how best to reflect those happenings in the classroom.  Certainly, we at ACS are pondering the question of what are the most appropriate and effective ways of giving children a context in which to understand the Great War.

kitchener_posterFor people of my age, schooled in the seventies and eighties, the Great War belongs to the twilight of living memory.  I grew up in an environment where the oldest generation, including several of my relatives had experienced the war either as soldiers on the Western front and other theatres, or as members of the home front.  My grandfather, great uncles and several members of my extended family had all been soldiers.  One lost a thumb at Gallipoli; another had been gassed and passed away at an advanced age in the nineteen-seventies after a lifetime of lung problems; two great uncles were killed in action in 1918 and my grandfather survived the war only to die of illness in 1929.  Tins could be found in the bottom drawers of various cabinets in my childhood home containing medals, ribbons, coins, letters and military badges from the period.  Two cards, lined with black and a few sepia photographs spoke to the memory of the two great uncles who had lost their lives.  The war felt part of my personal history.

That feeling is not possible in the same way for the current school generation.  My first two years as a teacher, in 1992 and 1993, coincided with the last two years anyone I knew of invited surviving World War One veterans into the classroom to address the children.  I remember one surprisingly sprightly nonagenarian telling my students how he had joined up in time to see the last few months of the war at the Western front – and how he had got through it “without even a scratch”.  He, and all his comrades, are now long gone.  The last British Tommy, Harry Patch, died in July 2009, and the last WWI veteran of any nationality, Florence Green, passed away in February 2012.  Today’s children’s understanding of the war – and their ability to make sense of it and relate it to their experience of the world, will depend not on hearing live first-hand accounts, but on their ability to navigate the multitude of resources available to them, and the guidance we give them in doing so.

A major part of those resources exist in places these students will access via their iPads.  The temptation for many teachers will no doubt be to regard online resources as material for consultation and review. iPads are certainly useful tools for such consumption of reference material, and there are scores of apps available for reproducing, sometimes in beautifully presented forms, the pictures, posters, newspapers and moving images from the war’s four-year period.

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These content consumption apps also include trivia quizzes and Top Trumps-style virtual card games (see below) that ostensibly teach the consumer something about the machinery or weaponry used in the war (with aviation disproportionately represented to a conspicuous degree).

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Content consumption is also the driving force behind the many podcasts, television and film productions and even poetry recital and music albums currently being prominently displayed on the iTunes store, not to mention the books, audio books and games that take World War One as a backdrop or theme for the events or action they feature.  But there are also many opportunities for students to create appropriate content using the resources on the Great War. Posters in apps such as Trevor D’Arcy-Evans’ comprehensive World War One Posters (shown below) can be incorporated into student written work, artwork or combinations of graphics and images in presentations using Pages, Moodboard, Keynote, ArtRage, Puppetpals, iMovie and so forth.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 12.48.56Projects like these can be used to connect today’s students to the young men and women of 1914 who, informed and influenced by the media and social commentary of the day, joined up in their thousands to serve their countries.  Such work brings the period to life and allows today’s students to identify with and personalise the experience of the time they are studying.

More formal courses of study, some of which are connected to genuinely interactive work, are available via the iTunes U.  History and literature studies of the period of the Great War are offered, for example, by the University of Oxford (below).

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 13.04.43 The Great War is, therefore, extremely well represented in formats suited to the 9.7-inch (or 7.9-inch) iPad screens, and war resources available for iPads such as timelines, interactive archives, reference eBooks and the like can be incorporated into the modern classroom in a way that at least approaches the authenticity of my sprightly nonagenarian friend from 1993.  Imaginative use of authentic archive material also allows a multitude of perspectives to be understood, rather than one man’s personal memories, a caution Harry Patch himself mentioned in his only memoir, The Last Fighting Tommy.

For all those who did indeed get through the war unscathed – or at least in one piece, there are those who did not.  As I write this blog entry I have in front of me a letter written by one such member of the Fallen, my great uncle Syd.  The letter was written by Syd to his brother, Arthur, a private also on the front.  The envelope in which the letter was placed is addressed to M.G.C D Section, 106 Company, B.E.F. France, and is dated April 8th 1918.  In the letter, Syd says “…well, old boy, like you I am fed up with the whole thing, if it wasn’t for Bess and the children I should wish I was somewhere out of it but I think I shall trust to luck now I have had so much of it”.


Syd’s letter to his brother, Arthur. Written on April 8th 1918.
Syd was killed in action eight days later.

The letter was delivered to Arthur and it made it home to my family’s archive. Sadly, Syd did not make it home.  Stuck to the back of the envelope was the announcement of Syd’s death, killed in action at the age of 37, just eight days after he wrote the letter.

This letter has personal resonance for me and for my family, but there are equivalent stories in millions of families around the world, and there is deep and lasting learning associated with school projects that tap into such stories.  Clearly, we have a responsibility to ensure that events like the Great War can be understood, contextualised and made real for our students. Thanks to content creation apps and the efforts of teachers, iPads can have a useful role in that.

Show and Tell (for grown ups!)

One of my mantras as a school administrator (and I don’t feel I have that many) is that the best teachers understand the experience of school from the students’ perspective.  It’s one of the reasons I’m an advocate of shadowing – following a student’s day and getting a sense of the pace, structure and division of the seven, eight or nine hours per day that students are in school.  Recently our school put on a highly effective faculty meeting that involved little more than a carefully planned sequence of show and tell presentations.  Each presentation was about five minutes in length and although we did use the Apple TV and large display screen it was only because of the size of the audience. Any one of them could feasibly have been hosted in a classroom.

The sequence ran the gamut of the school – from Early Childhood to twelfth grade.  teachers showed student-created work on iPads and explained the benefits of Edmodo, Showbie, Socrative, Explain Everything, Collabracam, Book Creator and so on.  Teachers who hadn’t yet tried what was being presented took notes, asked questions and from time to time downloaded recommended apps.  It was quintessential peer-teaching.  With the exception of the downloading, the audience of teachers was set up to participate in the session in exactly the same way we assume students will participate.  There was discourse but it was channelled. Most of the new information came from the presenter and then the audience shared their take on what was being presented.  I was reminded of Robert Fulghum’s famous poem Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

When it came to the turn of the Early Childhood teachers, my own son’s former teacher (from last year) stepped up to demonstrate how his class of 4- and 5-year-olds had responded to their class readaloud, Jan Brett’s adaptation of the Ukrainian folk tale The Mitten.


The pre-kindergarteners had created PuppetPals shows to retell the story in their own ways – much as Brett had done with the original folk tale.  This meant learning how to take a picture from a bank of images and insert it into the background menu and cast list that PuppetPals HD makes available to creators of new shows.  With teacher assistance, even pre-kinder students could do this.


Here, for example, the student has reordered the visitors to the mitten so that the fox gets a turn before the badger and owl (who, for those unfamiliar with puppetPals, are seen waiting off stage in the edit mode view above, but who would not be visible to the audience watching in presentation mode).  The students can also add new animals, provide a soundtrack or voiceovers or even change the ending of the story if they wish.


It’s a simple lesson to the veteran iPad user, but it engages these young students at an appropriate level of involvement in the story, and it sets them on the path that leads to mature reflections on reading as an active process that will inform their self-reflections in later grades.  Although there were some fascinating presentations at the meeting, it was this one that perhaps provoked in me and many of my colleagues the most pause for thought.

Defending Creativity from Facile Memes

I was sent a poster meme on Facebook this week and took the step of sharing it on, which is not something I do with 99% of what I receive.  It had to do with Obamacare, and whilst, thanks to the NHS, that’s not something that we on this side of the Atlantic have to worry about, I did think the wider message about the democratic process was worth Facebook’s equivalent of a retweet.  However, there was one thing that bothered me about the meme and that was the fact that it took the form of a quotation next to a large publicist’s photo of the US actor George Clooney.  When I shared it on Facebook I commented people should ignore the picture and concentrate on the words.  I argued it doesn’t matter who said it;  the words themselves are the power of the message.

I had a couple of people disagree with me on that.  Possibly they are not serious and were simply making a point about the physical attractiveness of George Clooney, but I think there’s a serious point to be made that our connected students need to recognise and engage with.  The problem with the picture in the meme, apart from the fact it may not be Mr. Clooney’s words we’re reading here, is that it distracts from the message and perpetuates the notion that the force of an argument is somehow magnified if the idea is articulated by a celebrity. We see the same problem in all the posts that are ascribed to Albert Einstein. In reality he said hardly any of the things that are attributed to him on the web (although I earnestly hope he’d said the one about reading children fairy tales because it is SO true!) but we read so many quotations with his name cited underneath that it does seem people are so nervous to express an idea these days that they cloak it in the artificial protection of celebrity endorsement (or in Einstein’s case, intellectual endorsement) to see off any potential challenge. In my view this is a serious failing and a manifestation of the creativity crisis so often spoken about by Sir Ken Robinson and others. This is a crisis those of us in education should be concerned about and be working to solve.

As this is a blog about the use of iPads in schools, as since online sharing is responsible for  the rapid global proliferation of memes like the George Clooney one – as well as the diminishing tendency of people to take the time to check sources, it seems to me appropriate to address this concern here.  Last month’s TES interview with Sir Ken Robinson prompted many teachers to raise the awkward observation that Sir Ken, for all his inspirational (and witty) comments on the dearth of creativity in schools, doesn’t actually offer any practical advice in changing the situation.  However, give teachers the time, space and tools to nurture children’s creativity and they will produce results.

I have consistently argued in this blog that the iPad is one such tool.  Since it was launched in 2010 there have been many copycat devices launched by rival technology firms.  My comment on this is good luck to them; if they spark a child’s imagination and push him or her to show innovation that formerly remained hidden, what’s not to love?  We’ll probably never find agreement on which tablet is best suited to nurturing creativity.  There are entrenched positions on all sides of that pointless argument. But one thing we could all agree to stop doing is falsely attributing ideas to individuals within a narrow category of people whose celebrity status is somehow supposed to elevate both their existence and the outpourings of their mouths to hallowed status.  Most innovations that have truly changed the world have had their provenance in the febrile imaginations of obscure or little known individuals whose desire was to power an idea to wider acceptance.  I doubt very much that George Clooney was the first to observe the failings in US democracy that led to the recent shutdown, and we do the argument a disservice by projecting it as a meme with his photograph pinned to it.

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And in the time it took me to write this post I see I’ve received another one!  This time it’s Michael J. Fox‘s picture next to a quotation on teaching styles I first heard in 1995 (above).  I’m guessing it’s another example of someone hearing a nugget of good sense for the first time, and wanting to share it but defaulting to the habit of putting it in the mouth of a celebrity.

Or it could really be Michael J. Fox speaking.  But surely, even a time traveller can’t be THAT far behind the curve!

It’s a bird; it’s a plane and it’s a travellers’ digital tool kit!

Other WordPress bloggers do a fine job of blogging about their families, and it’s not my intention to attempt to emulate that, but it was interesting to reflect back on my own family’s recent short break in Egypt last week (see below) during spring break (Easter holidays to those not from the USA) – especially after asking the students at my school how many of them took their iPads with them on their travels and finding that the answer was most of them!

Taking the view that the iPad is, in Vickie Bacon’s words, “the digital pencil case” of the twenty-first century it is easy to see why the iPad is the tech tool of choice to take with you on a holiday trip.  After all, most of us used to take pens, paper, children’s games and colouring books, Walkmans, cameras, travel books, beach paperbacks and diaries with us when we travelled.  And we are beginning to realise that the iPad replaces all of those things and more.  Moreover, when we get to our destinations we still write and send postcards, make videos, consult maps and phrase books and check out restaurant guides.  Again, the iPad can replace all those things.

So it was fascinating to see how my own three digital native children would react to this latest trip, and it was noticeable to me how much lighter we were able to pack compared to our last family flight three years ago.  It was a long journey to Cairo (where we were going to be visiting friends and seeing the sights) mainly because the last-minute nature of our decision to go meant that the only flights available enforced a night’s layover in Milan en route.  Angry Birds came to the our rescue (along with Harbourmaster, Cut the Rope and Temple Run inevitably) as it has come to the rescue of so many parents whose nerves are frayed by tired children, but I was encouraged to see the kids also experimenting with Senet – the board game beloved by the Ancient Egyptians that now has its own iPad versions (see below, left).  We also played the Royal Game of Ur (also pictured below, right) that hails from the even earlier civilisation at Sumer.

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Another app that proved to be a popular distraction during airport transfers was Plane Finder (I used the free PFHD version, but the paid for version includes much more information).  PFHD allows you to track aircraft on a real-time map and identify flight number, airline, destination and altitude.  The paid for version allows the iPad holder to point the device’s camera at a commercial airliner flying above and collect the same information.  It’s probably a plane spotter’s dream, but it’s also a great guessing game for youngsters learning geography.  You simply look at the map, find an aircraft and ask the children to guess where it’s going.  “Look, it’s leaving from Cairo and flying south and it’s an Egypt Air airliner.  Do you think it’s going to Nairobi or San Francisco?” etc.

FlightsSo, to paraphrase the old Superman cartoons that I used to watch to excess when I was a child, the iPad can be a bird (albeit an angry one!), a plane (or at least a plane finder) and it can also be a digital toolkit.  It was at Egypt’s breathtaking tourist sights, that the iPad really came into its own.  There are literally scores of quality apps dealing with all manner of aspects of this enigmatic land, from interactive guides, to photo collections, to views of Egypt from above, to phrase books, to games, to hieroglyph readers to scholarly works on the ancient civilisation.  And that’s not to mention the iTunes U courses on Egypt.

My own son loved the pyramids – and had no difficulty dragging his Egyptomaniac dad into each and every one we came across, but at the age of five he also defaulted to the iPad when it came to taking photos (see below).  In fact, I wonder if he even differentiates in his head between a camera and a phone – or an iPad.  In any case, the results were great.

If I had to choose a favourite Egypt-related app, it would probably be Touch Press’ Pyramids 3D.  The flyover scenes at Giza are impressive, but it is when you navigate via the app into the pyramids’ tunnels themselves that the app really comes into its own.  It also shows a “then and now” version of the wall hieroglyphs and features a small selection of the treasures of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities.  At £9.99 Pyramids 3D is probably an app for people like me who are keen on Egyptology, as there are cheaper apps (some even free) that do some of the same things as this one.  But it certainly gets my vote for the best ancient history app on the iTunes Store.

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Leadership Day


The ECIS technology Conference began with an all-day pre-conference workshop titled Leadership Day.  During Leadership Day school heads, IT directors and others with a leadership position in international schools met in the morning to hear from three keynotes speakers, watch a video presentation (from ESSA Academy head Showk Badat, whose words of advice to schools considering iPad deployments will be the subject of my next blog post) and attend speed dating sessions on aspects of leadership, pedagogy and technology.  The afternoon began with classroom visits in the Early Childhood, lower school, middle school and high school divisions of ACS Cobham and finished with a closing Keynote and wrap up session.

Marc Prensky opened proceedings with an unpacking of his famous digital native and digital immigrant metaphor.  He told the audience his metaphor had been challenged – particularly in the UK, but all it was meant to describe was the analogy between the traditional and the cyber age versions of the immigrant, who has experience of living in two cultures and the native, who has experience of only one.  Accept that and you’ve understood the extent (as well as the limits) of the metaphor.

We also heard from high school ICT teacher Patsy Davies who had surveyed her students to find the extent to which teachers integrated technology into their lessons, and Andrew Wetherall from the International School of Amsterdam, who illustrated his discussion of the ease with which our initial false assumptions about technology can prove to be lasting ones with a discussion of his experience learning to skate in Holland in preparation for the Elfstedentocht!

Predictably, it was the students who were the true stars.  The first graders were completely unfazed by the arrival of forty adults in their classroom, and the fourth graders simply used the visits as an excuse to explain patiently how you use an iPad to teach yourself biology and maths.


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