Friday, September 6, 2013

Online Tools: Collaborative Writing Pads

Around January of last year, I started using the phrase "writing collaboratively" without really knowing what I meant.  Actually, I knew what I meant.  But I was only vaguely aware that other people were using the term to mean something rather specific.

What I meant was that I wanted my students to be able to add to and comment on eachother's writing without doing any of the following:
  • printing documents out and writing all over them
  • sending documents via email (students can't access email at school)
  • saving documents to external devices and opening them on other computers
What I was looking for was basically an online text editor that multiple people could type into at the same time, without a lot of complicated logging in.  That was my idea of collaborative writing.

But when I started looking for online tools to accomplish my goals, I realized that (hello!) collaborative writing is a Thing.  Seriously, just look it up on wikipedia

So, about those tools I was researching.  Now, I already knew about Google Drive and I already knew about wikis (like wikidot and PBworks)*.  But both of those are a little complicated for elementary school students, and they require a certain amount of logging in, which is tricky with under-13-year-olds who don't have access to email at school.

But it turns out that there's a better option for creating single documents, and I am in love with it: Etherpad.  Unfortunately, it no longer exists in its original form.  Google acquired Etherpad, the first realtime collaborative text editor, in 2009, presumably because it would complete with Google Wave.  Etherpad ceased to exist and its users were invited to join Google Wave.  However, Google released the source code, and there are now a number of sites that use the Etherpad software.  So it's like it's been resurrected!

Of the sites that use the EtherPad software, I have two favorites: TitanPad and Twiddla.


TitanPad is super simple. It does not require a login.  Once you start typing, the site generates a web address.  If other people go to that address, they can start typing, too.  Each person's text is highlighted in a different color, so you know who wrote what.  There's no hierarchy of users, so one person can also strike out or delete another person's work, so you need to have a good working relationship!  You can also send each other chat messages while you're typing.  Those appear in a window on the right.

The only thing I did not like about TitanPad is that there are no copy, cut, or paste buttons on the toolbar.  You can use the CRT key, but I miss my buttons.

That's literally my only disappointment.  Everything else works flawlessly.  And you can export your document at any point into a txt, pdf, word, or html file.  Another cool feature is the timeslider which is like a motion capture of your document being created.  You can stop the replay at any point and save or export a specific version, as well. 

This is great for students, because they can jump in and start using it really easily--no logging in or figuring out a tricky interface.  There's also very low risk of them losing a document, because they can either export it or just go back to the address where their pad will be saved for a generous amount of time. 


Tiwddla is a bit more complicated than TitanPad and makes it more difficult for you to save your work (you have to login to export or take a screen shot).  But there's always copy-and-paste!  And this site also offers many more options for marking up existing documents.  In fact, I was delighted when I found it because I think it will make it a million times more fun to use my SmartBoard in the computer lab!

Tiwddla markets itself mostly as an online whiteboard and defaults to a pen tool that you can use to draw.  You can also call up a webpage or a document from your computer to scribble all over.  Or you can click the EtherPad tab and switch from the "pen" tool to the "browse" tool to start writing.

Take note: in order to get a normal cursor and start typing, you have to click the "browse" tool which looks like a hand.  That didn't make a lot of sense to me and I can see my students (who rarely listen to directions) struggling to figure that out on their own.

Your other tool options are a "select" arrow and a "text" tool which actually puts little text boxes on top of your document--it doesn't let you type on the EtherPad.  FYI.

Like TitanPad, Twiddla lets you chat with other users and even add audio so you can straight-up talk to them.  You can also upload documents and images to share.  It even allows you to add bits of code and mathematical formulas to your document.

So basically, Twiddla's a powerful tool for collaboration, but you're still limited in the extent to which you can create a final document without logging in.  It lets you do more, but there's a bigger learning curve.

I am super excited about using these tools with my students.  I think they will take me one step closer to my true dream of initiating a library resource which kids actually contribute to and maintain--like a small scale wikipedia for my school.  But that's a post for another day!

*Oh, and Padlet.  I like Padlet, but it doesn't result in a single document, and it's sometimes really slow to load.  But shout-out to Padlet anyway.  It's definitely in my rotation.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: Homesick by Kate Klise

If you're looking for a chapter book for your fourth grade class's unit on the 1980s, then Homesick, by Kate Klise, is the book for you!  Of course, nobody teachers units on the 1980s, but wouldn't it be awesome if they did?  With its land lines, game boards, and mix tapes, this book answers the question, what was life like before the internet?  Also, it's about hoarding. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Review: Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur

I loved the mood of Suzanne LaFleur's Listening for Lucca: summery, sinister, dreamy, mysterious.  Siena's family moves to a house on the beach in Maine, hoping the change will encourage Siena's little brother Lucca to start speaking.  Siena welcomes the move.  In Brooklyn, she has developed the reputation for being weird because she sometimes sees things that are not there.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Book Review: YA Roundup

Since I work at an elementary school library, I can't really call my YA reading "professional."  In light of that, I don't usually post reviews here.  But sometimes I just have to say something about what I've read!  So I've decided to occasionally indulge in some mini reviews of YA books that got my attention.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Online Tools: Infographics

I decided that I wanted to make an infographic as part of my annual report this year.  So at 12 p.m. yesterday I started playing around with a couple sites and 11 hours later, I had an infographic!  Seriously, I spent forever on this.  But sometimes you just have to give yourself permission to be obsessive and inefficient so you can learn a new skill, right?

Fortunately, I am really happy with the results, and I have a few thoughts on the sites I tried and on infographics in general.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Online Tools: Websites for Making Avatars (for kids under 13)

I'm doing a program for 3rd-6th graders this summer, at the public library.  After a rocky start, I've sort of focused on the goal of teaching kids how to make stuff online.  I'm sure I'm being influenced by the whole Maker movement, but I also notice that lots of kids use the computer passively--watching videos and clicking madly, but rarely contributing by commenting or creating something new.  So now I'm on a mission to change that.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: The Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz

I was looking for readalikes for The Tale of Despereaux, which the teachers at my school like to read aloud, when I came across The Adventures of a South Pole Pig.  It has an old fashioned way about it--well spoken animal characters, true danger, and a slightly bumbling but good-hearted hero.  And while I don't usually go in for talking animals, I was quite charmed.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: The Bamboozlers by Michael de Guzman

I've often looked at the cover of The Bamboozlers, by Michael de Guzman, and thought, what 11-year-old boy could resist this?  It's got cash, a gangster-looking grandfather, a boy in a 3-piece suit, and a tiny dog.  (It's actually a tiny 3-legged dog, but you can't tell on the cover.)  Happily, this is an occasion when the inside of the book matches the outside (or vice-versa), and I don't know why it took me so long to read this kid-friendly heist story.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Review: The Sleepwalkers by Viviane Schwartz

I don't want to say that the concept of The Sleepwalkers, by Viviane Schwartz, is better than the execution.  It's more like the execution is just really melancholy and full of the fear of death.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Doll Bones by Holly Black

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, is one of those "is it magic or isn't it?" stories in which a children's game "turns sinister."  (I don't know what I'm quoting there, but it sounds like a quote from something.)  For me, the game never turns quite sinister enough, but the dynamics of three friends entering middle school and ending a long-standing game of pretend are perfect.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cover Style: Cupcakes

A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff had me thinking about baked goods and children's books.  Baked goods have always represented family, tradition, sweetness, and warmth, so it's no surprise that they often feature in books for children.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Review: Ghoulish Song by William Alexander

I think I would have really liked Ghoulish Song, by William Alexander, if I hadn't already read Goblin Secrets. I expected this second book to expand the world Alexander introduces in the first.  Instead, it contracts it.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review: The Center of Everything by Linda Urban

About 40 pages into The Center of Everything, by Linda Urban, I thought, is she doing what I think she's doing?  Is she seriously writing a children's novel in which all of the action takes place over 10 minutes?  The answer is almost yes.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh

The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh is a slim sci-fi novel that looks like it might be a good beginning chapter book.  I read it as a child and the outline of the plot still stands out in my memory: a father and his three children choose the bare minimum of possessions to take with them to a new planet, but when they get there, nothing will grow, and there is no way to leave or get help.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Rant: Should Libraries be Quiet?

Does the answer seem obvious?  Are other librarians asking themselves this question?  Do you shush people?  Do you feel guilty when you do?  Or when you don't?

My mother recently directed my attention to this article from which interprets a recent Pew study differently from the way Pew does. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Cover Style: Old Fashioned Borders

I'm reading Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, and I can't get over how girly the cover is.  I know that's an irritating adjective--girly--but seriously, this book is being marketed to girls.  Which I think is a real missed opportunity, since it's a fierce kidnapping adventure story that would appeal to boys, too.  Especially boys who like Avi's The Fighting Ground or Cynthia DeFelice's Weasel.  But how many of those boys will pick up a book with a flowery border?

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Booklist: 2012's Most Destroyed Books for Kindergarteners

One way to measure the popularity of a book is the amount of destruction it has sustained.  I'm not talking about one-time acts of destruction, like dropping a book in a toilet, letting a dog chew on it, or using it as a coloring book.  I'm talking about the day-to-day wear and tear that comes from being loved by a kindergartener.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

An Ode to Honey I Love by Eloise Greenfield

Teaching poetry to kindergarteners has made me realize three things:

1. I don't know how to define "poetry."
2. Kindergarteners do not recognize the letters "g" or "a" when they are written in serif font.
3. There is no children's poetry collection that has ever rivaled the amazing power of Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review: Escape to Witch Mountain

Escape to Witch Mountain, by Alexander Key, is one of those books that's hard to slap a genre label on.  If you know the story, you know it's sci-fi.  But since the alien connection isn't revealed until close to the end, is it spoilery to call it sci-fi?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Online Tools: Biblionasium

Recently, the "social networking sites for kids" post on my site has been getting a lot of hits, so I wanted to talk about a newer site I've been using with my fourth graders.  It allows kids to record their reading, either by pages or by minute, and create bookshelves with their favorites.  If parents agree, it also allows them to recommend books to their friends or classmates.  So you could call it goodreads for kids.  Or shelfari for kids.  My students really like the site, but they have a little trouble using it.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Cover Style: Hand Drawn Covers

Look at the book I checked out from Warwick Public Library today!

I've heard of/thought of having kids design new book covers, but I worried it would hurt the circulation of the book.  Although I often disagree with the way publishers market books, I recognize that kids are attracted to current-looking covers.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: The White Mountains

You know what makes me feel old?  Trying to explain to my students what life was like before we had the Internet.  I was thinking about that as I read The White Mountains, because the aliens in it don't possess the kind of technology we would expect from a master race these days.  But the book was written in the 1960s, so can you blame them?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Fudging Dewey: Aliens

If you're a kid and you want books about aliens, wouldn't you look next to the books about planets and stars?  If you did, you probably wouldn't find any aliens. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Booklist: Grandparent Read Alouds

Unfortunately, I was not able to include one of my favorite Grandparent books on this list, Just a Minute, by Yuyi Morales.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Online Tools: ScootPad

There are a number of products out there that provide students with increasingly difficult math problems and generate lovely graphs and charts showing their progress.  But I don't know of many sites that do it for the price of zero dollars!  Which is the budget my school has allocated for technology!  However, there is ScootPad.  And it's pretty awesome.