Thursday, May 18, 2017

Social Play With Amazon Echo Dot

I have to admit I bought an Echo Dot because I hate birds. You see, we live across from a park, which is lovely except that around February all sorts of loud birds descend and ruin my life. So it's great to have a device that you can ask, "Alexa, play ocean waves," at 4:45 am and drown all that courtship out.

The Echo Dot ($49.99) accesses Alexa, Amazon's "virtual personal assistant." She's like Siri but, to be honest, better. She recognizes pretty much everything you say, and I've discovered that goes for children as well. Siri remains decidedly like that aunt who doesn't like when children speak. Using Echo Dot involves a simple setup through an app on your phone or iPad, mostly to get it connected to Wifi, and then you are good to go. In addition to accessing music and information by request to Alexa, you can "enable skills" that are more or less like apps, and for the time being, free.

I have been popping my Dot into my bag occasionally to introduce it to my social groups, and it has been a big hit. The kids have some experience with Alexa and find her way cool. But from a FIVES point of view, Alexa is very Interactive and "Speechie," particularly when it comes to working on sharing talk time and using speaking and listening skills (as the Dot is just a speaker, search engine and connection to other programs and microphone to respond, essentially) .

I say this having tried only one activity, which I found via a search of Echo activities for kids and activated the skill simply by saying "Alexa, let's play 20 questions." Alexa's version of this is a game in which you decide the target object (before starting the game) and she asks the yes/no/partly questions. When playing this with a group it was helpful (and contextual!) for me to review a visual about Whole Body Listening Larry and also emphasize the Social Thinking® concept of The Group Plan (activities go best when we follow the group plan so that others think comfortable thoughts about us, rather than our own plan which might bring the activity off track):
A visual I made in Keynote and displayed on the Apple TV as we played

In this way, to the kids it seemed we were prepping for the activity with Alexa, but really we were targeting concepts that are important across the day. As usual, the technology can just provide a context to work on communication skills.

I look forward to trying out and sharing other activities with Alexa.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

New! Google Earth for Chrome

Some weeks back I discussed Google My Maps as a tool integrated with Google Apps (used by many districts) that can be used to target spatial concepts, description, and narrative while working with curriculum contexts. Recently, Google ported its excellent, but logistically complicated Google Earth program into its web browser, Google Chrome. So now you can use a vastly simplified (for the better) version of Google Earth right in your web browser. I refer to this for laptops and chromebook users, though the iPad version of Google Earth offers you a lot too. I've written about Google Earth a lot, and you may get some lesson ideas here and here and here, knowing that all of those suggestions will be easier in the Chrome version.

On Chrome on a laptop or chromebook, all you need to do is navigate to Google Earth at There you will have an interactive globe at your fingertips, to search or navigate via your mouse. Hit the ? key (you can do this across all Google tools) to see the keystrokes for navigating. I needed to do a little searching to discover that to tilt the view, you hold the shift key while clicking and dragging on your trackpad.

A view of one of my favorite places, Acadia National Park
Compared to using flat maps or Google Maps, Earth gives you a more "experiential" view of any place, with 3D buildings and geographic structures, as well as flying effects. For your students with Google accounts (and yourself), you can sign in and save "placemarks"- which can be a good way for you to plan an activity.

Some ideas:
-Use the Voyager feature in the left sidebar to go to pre-made tours with short videos with information.
-Use the "I'm Feeling Lucky" feature (the dice icon) in the left sidebar to "fly" to a random location on Earth and have students identify where it is using their knowledge of social studies vocabulary (hemisphere, continent, etc).
-Plan a "virtual field trip" to a location related to what students are studying and complete a graphic organizer describing that setting, or other post-activity. I recently discovered that by searching "USA" in the wonderful Epic Books for Kids app (free with educator account), you can access terrific visual books on all 50 States (Exploring the States is the name of the series); you can use these as a guide or structure for searches in Google Earth.

Check out the always-excellent Richard Byrne's video guide to the new Google Earth here.