It’s amazing how much can change in 10 years. Especially when you’re talking about classroom technology.
When I first started teaching in 2006, my classroom was rocking a 14 inch TV/VCR combo, two ancient desktop computers, and, my personal fave, the overhead projector. I could pop in a VHS copy of Milo and Otis on a rainy day, have the kids type up their writing pieces (it took freaking FOREVER on just two computers, but still), and project math problems up on the board. What else could a new teacher need? Life was good!
My next school took things one step further with the glory that is the document camera. It projected to a flat screen mounted on the wall above our carpet area. This felt like hitting the lottery. “What?! I can write on PAPER? And they can all see it??” Good-bye transparencies, hello world!! We still had desktop computers, but now I had four of them and they performed much better than the old dinosaurs I was used to. Life was great!
The next year, my brain nearly exploded when I learned that I would be getting a SMARTBoard AND a class set of laptops in my room. I can’t even begin to explain how that changed everything, so I’ll just say it changed everything. Research, online games, word processing, SMARTBoard games and lessons; the possibilities were limitless and I honestly couldn’t fathom how I’d taught without these tools before. Life was fantastic!
Except…when it wasn’t. Anyone who has ever lost a document they were working on or had the internet go down at the worst possible moment has realized that sometimes, tech = trouble. For all of the amazing things technology has brought into my teaching world, it has also created some of my greatest frustrations. It’s a tricky thing – we want to make technology an integral part of learning, but when it crashes and burns, it’s enough to make you want to swear allegiance to paper and pencil forever.
One of the frustrations I had when first starting to use class laptops was finding an effective method for getting kids onto a specific website. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, students come to you with varying levels of web savvy. Some can barely find the address bar, while others can navigate the internet with the best of ’em. I tried bookmarking sites on each individual laptop, but they always seemed to disappear and seriously, who has time for that nonsense on a regular basis? I tried writing sites on a strip of paper to pass around and have the students type in themselves. I tried having kids google very specific search terms to land on the page I wanted. These all had varying degrees of success, but were not at all efficient. I found myself directing kids to the computers less and less, to avoid the hassle that using them had become; it was such a missed opportunity in many occasions.
Then, something magical happened. In one of our school-wide professional development sessions, my co-worker, Gary, introduced us to something called Symbaloo and it was a total game-changer. In essence, Symbaloo is a free tool that lets you set up a custom “home page” similar to what you’d have on the face of your smart phone. It allows you to put a bunch of your own self-selected links all in one place, accessible from any internet-connected device at any time. You can even make multiple pages for different subject areas, which is what I did. Here’s a screen shot of one I made for second grade math.
I decided to make each row a different math topic, so I could say “pick a game in row one” if we were studying multiplication, for example. To make the tiles, you copy and paste the link you want into the tile-builder tool, then upload your own picture or choose from a bunch of generic ones on the site. Sometimes if it’s a well-known site, it’ll even generate a suggested tile for you. You can also choose the tile’s background color and the text to be displayed.
Another cool feature is that you can search for Symbaloo pages that other people have made (like mine, for example!) and either duplicate or subscribe to them. You can also move or copy tiles from one page to another.
So, how do the kids get to the Symbaloo page? The easiest way is to have it linked to a classroom website. The links to all of my various Symbaloo pages are housed here. All I have to do is teach the kids how to get to THIS page, and they’re good to go. Also, they can access it anywhere there is internet which is really great. Some kids love certain games so much they will play at home just for fun, and what could be better than that?
The official Symbaloo website has lots of helpful info on setting up your pages, and I hope you’ll give it a try. If you’ve ever struggled with managing links for students, this just may be the solution you’re looking for!