Low-Tech Fun: Senior Project on GoogleMaps

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No, I have not hacked the NSA, nor am I running my own double-top-secret operation. I teach a sibling of a former student this year, and I mentioned to her that I noticed an addition going on the house. I know where she lives because her brother and some friends made a battering ram for their final project for my Medieval Lit class and, since the house is near the school, and I wasn’t sure how admin would feel about a battering ram on campus, we walked to his house to see it. I mentioned this to her and she laughed and said that the battering ram shows up in the GoogleMaps image of their house. Clearly I had to check that out and memorialize my Medieval Lit project’s brief moment of fame.

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PBL – Classical Lit Play – Next Steps

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The groups are continuing to specialize and develop their assigned work. The Tech Crew has split into a Marketing group and a true Tech Crew, the former of whom are developing advertising posters and the latter of whom are today starting on making the masks for the show. The writing crew is finalizing the script (the English teacher especially enjoys me hearing them have discussions about scenes that work, how to develop ideas, etc.).

I’ve included some pictures below. The top one is the writing group (didn’t realized until I posted it that AG is shooting an amusing glare at me / the camera). The next is the marketing group (another glare from EZ; they were on me documenting). And then the bottom three are the Tech Crew working on the masks.

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I continue to be impressed and pleasantly surprised by the amount of work that is being done in class. It is by no means intense; I would not describe the atmosphere as tense or stressed (yet…?). But it is consistent with few to no deviations, i.e. once I get them focused (and I do wish that they would begin without me prompting them, but I am happy to accept that as a minor blip), they work straight through class and are / seem pretty much on task the entire time, and certainly more so than they would be in a more traditional setting / approach.

PBL – Classical Play Project – Table Read

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The script is done? Ok, so the script is on its way; we at least have a working draft of the script. And today, both because of the performance approaching and because I didn’t want the same groups working on the script for too long at a time, we’re doing a ‘table read’. The class is in a circle and the actors are reading the script through. The goal is to get a sense for portions of the script that are awkward, forced, loose, off-topic, etc. The class has access to the script via GoogleDocs and are editing / commenting as the actors read through.

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I had originally conceived this as a straight read through, saving comments until the end, for continuity’s sake. I have quickly found, however, that that is pretty much impossible, that students are invested enough in the script and its writing to not be able to resist commenting as the script is read through.

The read through itself is going, well, predictably. There is enough double entendre and implication in the original that my juniors have taken that and run with it, likely too much so, which we’ll talk about.

Otherwise, it’s interesting to hear the class as a whole interact over the writing. Much of the interaction has been digital, via the GoogleDoc, especially over the bigger picture points of discussion, but there has also been some interesting discussion. A lot of that discussion hasn’t actually been discussion but non-verbal reactions (laughs, one-way-comments, etc.) but it’s been interesting to hear students accept those reactions well / without defensiveness; there have really been no arguments, so to speak, which has been a pleasant surprise.

So we have to cut down on the (unnecessary) profanity (all of it? we’ll see) but otherwies an interesting beginning to the script. We’re on our way?

Project Based Learning – Classical Lit Play Project

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(This will be a long one. I was hoping to write this more piecemeal but didn’t get to it, so this is about three or four entries in one.)

The Genesis

I’d entertained last year the idea of producing a play as a culminating project of my Classical Literature class. But the group wasn’t right from both a size (12) and a chemistry standpoint. I’d not thought much about it this year until our superintendent showed us a movie on High Tech High in San Diego. One of the featured projects of the movie was a staged Classical Play: Euripides’ Trojan Women, produced both in an ancient version played by all males (as it would have been in the ancient world) and in a modern / updated version, focusing on the Middle East, played by all females. I brought the idea to the class and they liked it (more on that below), so we decided to go for it.

Convincing the Class

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The genesis of the project was a bit of two steps forward, one step back. When I informed the class that the play that we produce would not only be performed for fellow students but would also encompass an evening performance for parents / the public, they balked (understatement) and were ready to scrap the project. I talked them down (a bit) and eventually left the room so that, as I told them, they could have the conversation they really wanted to have without me there to (passively) censor them. The t-chart above is what they came up with. And it was the first lesson that I learned about this process: the potentially hard truth is that a lot of buy-in to the project will involve an elaborate calculus about whether it (the project) or more traditional work will introduce more work for them to do. More on this below, but the work they are doing now is far more than they would have done in a traditional setting, but it is perceived as less work.

Choosing a Play

So we agreed that we would produce the play. The next step was deciding which play to produce. We had read a few as part of the curriculum, and they had recently completed an outside read project in which they chose a play (that we didn’t read in class) and did a project on. On the day on which the project was due, I allowed students to ‘nominate’ the play that they read for consideration as the play we would produce and we took an anonymous survey to vote.

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We then took a second, more focused survey.

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On the one hand, this produced a clear(er) winner. On the other hand, this muddied the issue in that the first two choices (Wasps and Birds) are comedies while the Medea is a tragedy. Much of the debate then settled on comedy vs. tragedy rather than a specific play, since exactly half chose a comedy and half chose a tragedy.

Once again, I left the room to allow them to have the conversation they wanted to have without me. This absence was much more prolonged (20 – 30 mins) and I was shooed back to my hiding place at least twice when I appeared at the door to check on them. And, again, another T-chart was produced.

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My own thinking was comedy; I wasn’t sure not so much if students would have the emotional depth for a tragedy / for the Medea but more if they would be willing to access it for this project. Performing a tragedy half-heartedly is pretty painful (and can border on the comic). On the other hand, comedy is difficult in its own right because of the nuance often involved, especially in the satires of Aristophanes that they were considering. There is an element of the ridiculous in both plays, which I suspect is what attracted them to the plays, but it isn’t, and can’t be, all ridiculous.

So at the risk of producing a dramatic eye-roll in everyone, I did the unthinkable. I introduced a not-previously-considered play, suggested to me (unintentionally but still insightfully) by a colleage; thanks, PG: Plautus’ Menaechmi. A comedy, but a more archetype-driven comedy that has its satirical points but is more plot driven and less heady in its subject matter. They read the play, enjoyed it, and we decided on it (I know, I know; after all that.)

Assigning Jobs (Roles)

One of the sticking points to embracing the project was the potential public nature of the project. I assured students that they would not be forced to act if they did not want to, though they may have to appear in the chorus, depending on which play we chose. (The Menaechmi does not have a chorus, and the chorus in an ancient play is not the singing chorus the term conjures today. Rather it is more of a group actor, a single ‘voice’, usually of a concerned party to the plot, represented by multiple actual voices. There is, however, often a lead chorus member who speaks individually and it is not uncommon for individual chorus members to have individual reactions to the narrative.) I did remind them, though, that they would be expected to participate fully in the process, whatever their job was, and that really the only way to fail the project was to detach themselves from the process.

As you might expect, I had them take a survey about which job, or at least what kind of job, they wanted. I used a Likert scale (with a humorous (?) twist) and introduced the various jobs for the project in no particular order.

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Here are the results of the survey. (And remember that 1 is doesn’t want to do it while 7 is wants to do it.)

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I counted the top two and bottom two choices together (1 & 2; 6 & 7) and, to some extent included the 3 and 5 in those groups as well when determining groups. In the end, though, we really only used the survey to identify the actors, which, to some extent, are the unique roles, both in terms of what they will do and in terms of the preparation and decision-to-do-it required.

(I realize that this is twice now that I’ve essentially introduced a process and then described how we completely discounted the results of that process. Part of the interest for me, doing this for the first time, is seeing how the process works in terms of what works and what doesn’t, and so these missteps are as important to document as the successes.)

We determined then that we would move forward with two broad groups: the actors and writers, essentially those that would be directly involved with the narrative; and the tech crew, essentially those that would be directly involved with facilitating the production of the narrative. The class broke down roughly on the lines of 2/3s actors and writers and 1/3 tech crew, with the caveat that I told the ones that weren’t sure to go with the writers because, at some point, that process will end and they can transition over to the tech crew.

The First Days

Back from April break, we started the real work of the project in earnest yesterday. We spent the first half of class in our two big groups starting the work of organizing how those groups would function; the writing group especially was big, and needed to tackle how best to utilize that size to its advantage.

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For the second half of class, our school’s drama teacher came and gave an overview of and some insights into the writing and production process. Today, we continued that work and, after the initial foundations yesterday, got a good start.

The writing group divided the play into scenes to rewrite and assigned ‘modern’ names to the characters. The character Cylindrus became Squircle, a portmanteau of square and circle, one I particularly enjoyed. And I believe there was a Google search for ‘trashy names’ or something similar / more lascivious when trying to update the name of the courtesan Erotium.

The tech group started sketching out backdrops and scenery, albeit in a general sense as they wait for a better idea of where and when the script will be set (modern times but they will need a bit more detail than that) and scouted out the size of the lecture hall where the play will be performed. They brought a tape measure, took some measurements, and sketched out a rough sense of the size and basic appearance of their backdrop (which, by the way, follows the basic approach of Roman sets, which had three doors facing the audience, one each for a relevant location, usually a house, and one on one side leading to the harbor with another on the other side leading to the forum; for a good illustration, see the University of Virginia’s amphitheater below the sketch).

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First Impressions

I’m pleased. I’d say that more cautiously if it were after day 1, but they seemed to maintain their momentum well into day 2. Of course, we’ll see how day 3 and, more important, day 15 goes.

As for the work they’re doing, they are in many ways working harder now than they would be in a more traditional class, i.e. in a more traditional class there are more and easier ways to check out: I talk too much, they zone; we do group work, they wander on their computer. Little to none of that happened today or yesterday; there was a much higher rate of engagement, as far as I could tell.

After one of the making-decisions day, I think the one where we decided the play, when I was out of the room for 2o or 30 mins, I was talking to one of my students about it and he joked that we didn’t do anything in class that day. And in a very literal sense he was right: we didn’t cover any material, didn’t learn any new information. But in a bigger picture sense he was very wrong. Students were arguing passionately without anger or rancor; they were disagreeing in a respectful and purposeful way. Students were forced to make a decision as a group of 22, each (or most) presenting their rationale and opinions on why their decision was the right or better one. And students were working towards something very tangible that they could not avoid; they had to make this choice.

And this inevitability is what I have found most valuable about this project. June 6th we’re on. It’s on our calendar, I’ve told the Superintendent about it; it’s happening. And the students get that too. From my standpoint, the compact is that I will not overburden them with this. It will be a lot of work. But it will not be an insurmountable amount of work. It is what we are doing. There isn’t work other than this. With that pressure of fitting it into other work (at least for this class) lifted, they are more able and willing to focus on the work they need to do (and want to do?).

So I’m not only pleased but excited to move forward. I’m excited of course to see the product. But I’m more excited to see my students’ involvement and investment in the process, which has been impressive thus far.

An iPad (Pro) Typing Question?

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A question out there for anyone listening. When I type expressions that involve a period (e.g. E.g.), as you can see in the parenthetical there, the letter after the g. Is (again) automatically capitalized. With an onscreen keyboard, I can unshift the keyboard to type a lowercase letter, but on the Apple Keyboard the shift key does not work in reverse that way, I.e. When I try to correct that uppercase E (or I or W), it automatically capitalizes; depressing the shift key only keeps it capital (rather than, in effect, reversing the process. I can, and have, used the copy – paste approach, I.e. Finding a corresponding lowercase letter elsewhere, copying it, and pasting it over the capital letter, but that is of course cumbersome, especially when needed more than once.

Any thoughts out there? Is there a workaround, either simple or complex that I could do? I suppose I could turn off autocorrect? Not sure I want to entirely disable it (depending on the day…).

I appreciate any help, I.e. Thanks. 

An iOS Email Client I Actually Like

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I have never been a fan of Apple’s Mail, either on the Mac or especially on iOS devices. I used it early on when, in OS X, it was the only (obvious) option, but, once I shifted to Gmail, I used (and liked) the Gmail interface. It’s not particularly slick, but it’s functional and easy. I especially like Gmail’s columns / categories (Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, Forums). I have more email addresses than I care to admit forwarding to one Gmail address, so those columns provide a good baseline of organization.

I avoided Apple’s Mail on my phone and iPad from when I first got them. I was on Gmail, liked its web interface, and so just used it via iOS Safari. I would see on the App Store, in MacWorld, through various promotions, different mail clients that tout greater efficiency and organization over Mail. I tried a number of them but found them too slick, e.g. swipe slowly to archive and quickly to trash (I archived a lot more things than I wanted). I did like some of the organizational tricks (at least a couple had a feature that would redeliver a message at a future date, say the agenda for a meeting that isn’t for another week, and CloudMagic has a version of this (see below)) but not enough to override my familiarity with Gmail.

I heard about CloudMagic (can’t remember where) and, as I’ve done with similar email clients, gave it a shot, figuring that I would not take to it any more than I did the other clients I tried. But, a month or so later, I have conferred on CloudMagic the ultimate compliment: I have replaced Safari with it in the dock on my phone; it is now, with Messages, Phone, and Calendar, among the Big Four.

CloudMagic presents a relatively straightforward interface (and I will say at this point that it does not maintain Google’s columns / categories, even in a sidebar-way like Gmail presents on iOS Safari; the linearization of my inbox isn’t great but, since I don’t use any phone client for hard core emailing, I can get past it). Messages appear with a search bar above, the account name / label above that, a compose button at upper right, and a menu button at upper left: clean and straightforward.

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The menu button brings up a list of folders / storage that mimics whatever your account has. The settings button is at the bottom right of this menu.

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There is one swipe available: trash, archive, and mark read/unread (whichever it is not). I do wish (and I have looked, though might have missed it) that there is a preference or setting that could customize these choices; I’d much rather a file option than a mark read/unread option, but I can live with that. I appreciate the simplicity of the approach, rather than the perhaps more common and more heralded fast swipe / slow swipe for different options.

The star function is a common one and you can of course isolate based on your starred messages (as well as your inbox, which I use, and your unread messages. Tapping and holding the star, on the other hand, brings up a delay option whereby you can hold a message for a fixed period of time. I would like to see a few more options here but this is a handy feature for organizing email (if a bit unintuitive being hidden behind the star).

The lock screen and out-of-app functionality of the app is adequate, if not perfect. Messages of course appear on your lock screen if notifications are enabled and a swipe to the left allows archiving or deletion (a swipe to the right takes you to the app). The only potential annoyance to this (which might, I admit, not be unique to CloudMagic) is that messages will not actually archive or delete without inputting your passcode or fingerprint (if enabled), which makes the process a bit less efficient. Other messages in the same group of notifications, however, can be deleted without reauthenticating.

More useful is the functionality of notifications when using the phone. They appear at the top of the screen and a swipe down allows for archiving and deleting.

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I think I’ve covered the range of at least basic functionality of CloudMagic. I’ve been using it consistently for at least a month now, which is about three weeks and six days longer than I used any other iOS mail client. And I no longer use Gmail via Safari on my iOS devices. I still do (via Firefox or Chrome) on my Mac; there is a CloudMagic app in the app store, but I’m not sure it’s $20 better than the web-based Gmail interface. But I recommend the iOS app, especially if you are a dissatisfied (Apple)Mail user.

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IPad Pro (Logitech) Keyboard (Redux)

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If you read my intro post to the iPad Pro, you read about my struggles with the Logitech keyboard that came with it (mostly having to do with lag time and capricious auto-correct). One of the Genius Bar kids at my school emailed me the following: “There is an update for your iPad Pro, which fixes compatibility with the Logitech CREATE Keyboard (the one with the back-light keyboard). There was an issues in 9.2 and 9.2.1 that caused the keyboard to be laggy and miss keypresses; however, in 9.3 this issues has been addressed. If you would like to try the keyboard out again after you update your iPad please let us know. If you need help updating your iPad Pro please let us know.”

I had already swapped out the Logitech keyboard for the Apple keyboard (which I’m using now; more on this below) before I got the email (and the update), so I can’t attest to the correctness of the email or the improved performance of the keyboard. But it was comforting to hear that I was not the only one having trouble with the keyboard. And I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the email / the suggestion. (I also found the lagginess inconsistent, almost as if it was app-to-app, such that with some apps the keyboard worked fine, while with others it barely functioned.)

So I’m now using the Apple keyboard and, to be frank, loving it. It took a few seconds to pair, that is for the first minute or two the on-screen keyboard kept appearing and the Apple keyboard didn’t work. It was such even that I Googled it to see how it pairs (not realizing the existence of the Smart Connector nor how it worked / what it did). But now that it’s in place, it’s great. The keys are responsive and intuitive; low profile, high performance. And, more important, the shortcuts are in place. I can highlight letter by letter (shift-arrow keys), which is one of my favorites. And there are arrows. One of the great mysteries of the iOS keyboard / the tyranny of Steve’s design standards, is the persistent absence of arrows from the iOS keyboard. I love tapping a screen five times just to get the cursor where I want it to be (really I do). Having arrows (which is not unique to the Apple keyboard, of course) makes life countless times easier.

At the risk of revealing too much about myself, I will say that I find the zigzaggy nature of the Apple keyboard somewhat labyrinthine to navigate. The first time I got it, it took me a good few tries to find the right combination of folds to transform from minimalist cover to functioning keyboard and stand. Likewise refolding it / putting it away. I was reading a bit (like here) about how the Smart Connector can be limiting in that it forces the iPad Pro to be oriented in only the landscape direction. On the one hand, I get this and don’t disagree; I found that frustrating about previous iPad keyboards. On the other hand, one of my complaints about the Pro is that it is so laptop-like and so screams out for a keyboard that I’ve not really used it like an iPad. I’d like to spend more time with it out of its keyboard so that it functions more like a tablet rather than an iOS version of a laptop. The Apple keyboard, however, perhaps allows the best compromise on this front. With its foldability, I can fold it relatively easily behind the iPad to use it as a straight iPad (with little added bulk) or go back to it being a performance machine with the keyboard back in place. I will add too that the keyboard with the Pro seems best suited to landscape. While I would like to use the Pro in portrait mode, I can’t see a lot of keyboard uses for portrait mode, which is why the flexibility (literally and figuratively) of the Apple keyboard works well.

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