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9 Questions for iPad Party Poopers

Potato Pals tablet in schoolPatrick Jackson, author of the popular Potato Pals series, questions the assumption that there’s an app for everything – especially where young learners are concerned.

My son Kai went for a sleepover with his best friend Aedan last night. As we were packing his bag, he asked if he could take his iPad with him. We said he couldn’t. “You’re going to play with Aedan. You don’t need an iPad”. Shock! Horror! As far as Kai is concerned, we are totally wrong about this and have done him a great injustice. He reckons that it’s just another toy and playing with an iPad with Aedan is just like playing with Lego or running around in the garden. I think not. I even rang Aedan’s mum and asked if Aedan was going to be using his iPad. I was delighted to hear that he had already been banned for a week for some unspeakable and unnamed crime earlier in the day. I didn’t ask what. I tell you – digital parenting in suburban Dublin is a mine field!

Thank goodness technology has not yet managed to replace most of what happens in old-style play. Where it replicates it we have a poor cousin to the real thing. There are apps that you ‘run’ on and apps that you ‘paint’ on but unless you are stuck on a long car journey, neither will be as fun or valuable as the real thing.

There are well-understood reasons why kids need to play ‘naturally’. They need to socialise. They need to move. They need to be creative. They need fresh air. They need to communicate in the wonderful way that kids do when they are playing and they need to get dirty. They need to be dancing to their own wild inner drums and until the unlikely day that technology catches up with the ‘real’ world, Kai’s iPad is staying on my desk (where I can play with it) for most of the day and particularly when his friends are around.

Apps are all around though and aren’t going anywhere soon. Parents, teachers and educational administrators are dealing with these issues all over the world. In our home, we deal with it with a sophisticated and continually negotiated system of time limits, rewards, checks and balances. We hardly even understand the system ourselves.

To make it more confusing, we distinguish between educational apps and those that we consider to be a pretty good waste of time or ‘just fun’. There are many that are virtually impossible to distinguish. We are totally aware that we could be wrong about many of the calls we make. We may indeed be denying our son a future in a world where a key skill will be catapulting different types of birds at distant pigs. Anyway, our current rules allow Kai a 30-minute iPad session in the morning before school during which he is allowed to do creative or educational things. Then he gets 30 minutes of free iPad time after his homework when he can do whatever he wants. The only things we forbid completely are games that show graphic violence. Incredibly, that is not the case for all of his classmates.

For language educators, apps are a hugely valuable resource. They will increasingly become part of how languages are learned. We are now just at the beginning of the mobile age in ELT and, for better or worse, it’s only going to become a larger part of what we do. Being able to sort out the digital chaff from the grain is going to be a key skill for the language educator. Knowing when to say “No. We can do this activity better in the real world” will be important.

The danger is that educational systems will err by replacing real world activities with cheaper, cleaner, more addictive tech alternatives. The irony is that in many cases in the ‘developed’ world, giving a classroom of children more time on tablets will save the system the time, money and the trouble of organising and cleaning up after real play while creating the illusion that this is preparing them better for the 21st Century.

We need to be able to recognise when an app can do the job better and in a more compelling way, and when it can’t. Some apps definitely enrich and support learning in a valid way. Some are really just addictive eye-candy or one-offs without any real lasting depth.

So what questions should we be asking when we look at an app? What should app authors and developers be aiming for as they work on the latest educational apps? What should teachers and administrators be asking as they make these important decisions?

I’ve found myself asking a few questions while working on an app for young learners that’s just arrived at the big party going on over on the App Store.

Does this app allow students to interact with the target language in a way that would be difficult or impossible to replicate in traditional ways?

Does the app offer students opportunities to communicate with friends and family beyond the classroom using the target language; opportunities that would not exist otherwise?

Can the app deliver authentic language in a more efficient way than by traditional methods?

Can students use this app to create personalised learning that puts them at the centre of the target language and helps them to tell the story of their own lives?

Is the app going to support home study and take-home sharing, building a bridge between the classroom and the home?

Will this app develop student autonomy; helping them to take responsibility for their own learning?

Does this app deliver existing materials in a more efficient or more compelling way and does it supplement and enrich those materials?

Is the target language delivered through the app in an integrated and linked way?

Does the app use a good variety of skills and engage those skills meaningfully?

It’s great fun at the app party now but it’s wrong to believe there’s an app for everything. As parents and educators we need to be able to think clearly; know when to be party poopers and know when to jump in and join the fun.

Patrick Jackson is an ELT author and teacher. He is author of the popular Potato Pals series, which has just been released as an app for iPad. You can download one story for free from the Apple App Store, with the option to purchase 6 more stories from within the app.


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Three Question Interview – Patrick Jackson (@patjack67)

We’ve asked top ELT authors the following 3 questions:

  1. What’s your favourite ELT book?
  2. What or who has had the biggest impact on ELT in the last 25 years?
  3. What do you wish you’d known when you started out in ELT?

Here, Patrick Jackson (and his dog Frosty), author of Potato Pals, Stars, and Everybody Up, answers these questions in a short interview.

Patrick Jackson is an ELT author interested in the use of songs, stories and real world connections to motivate learners. He believes that the classroom should be an enjoyable, happy and stimulating place for students as well as teachers. Passionate about Linked Language Learning, he is fascinated by the way technology, and especially social media, has the power to transform the teaching and learning experience. He is also interested in the ways in which we can help our students develop creativity and real confidence. Patrick spent 13 years in Japan teaching learners of all ages but is now based in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of Potato Pals, Stars and Everybody Up and blogs at patjack67.com.


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How music changed my teaching life

Patrick Jackson in a class of kids

Havin’ a bit of fun

Patrick Jackson, author of Potato Pals, Stars, and Everybody Up, all published by Oxford University Press, shares with us the power of using songs in the classroom. This article was originally published on the Super Simple Learning blog.

Before I went to Japan and started to teach kids, I ran a late night café in Dublin. While there are some similarities between customers in a restaurant and students in a classroom, I certainly wasn’t qualified to be a teacher. I had very little training and, like many other foreigners who get a job teaching English just because it’s their mother language, I basically walked into a classroom with no idea at all about how to teach young learners. It’s an unacceptable situation that the TEFL industry has to look at. Anyway, I really didn’t know what I was doing and so I made it up as I went along. I had no connections with a wider community of teachers beyond a couple of people in my school who were in the same boat as me.

I soon found out that the only way to survive with young learners was to sing with them, and keep them moving.
The combination of music, language and movement is the most powerful tool we can use to teach young learners and, more importantly, it keeps everyone happy! After a while, I was pretty much structuring my lessons around song. I would include at least four or five songs in a forty-minute lesson. I could easily see that these refreshed everyone, kept the energy positive, gave the class a nice structure and really got the kids to remember the target language in a fun and effortless way. Songs are a great way to get the language in! This is accepted by most teachers nowadays. It always amazes me that there are some who still don’t embrace music and movement. In fact, I don’t know how they survive!

Do you have any tips for using songs in the classroom?

Give everyone something to do. Students can make simple instruments out of recycled materials and that will keep the whole class involved. You can also use props, costumes or get students to make and hold up cards illustrating the language while singing. This creates a stronger connection between the lyrics and the meaning.

Always add movements to songs and if you’re dealing with space issues make up hand movements that can be done even by students sitting at desks.

Get the rhythm going and the tune will follow easily. Clapping out the rhythm together will also create a good screen of background noise for shyer students to feel safe behind.

Divide the class into half or groups and break the song up, singing to each other. A bit of competition can even be fun and a good way to get the energy up. Singing rounds and parts will make it sound very professional!

Think about how the song ties in with your curriculum. Although singing most songs is fun, if you don’t make the connection to the curriculum, you are missing an opportunity to strengthen language acquisition by making those all-important links. With a ready-made course, that hard work has already been done for you.

Patrick Jackson presenting in China

All together now!

Look to combine your favourite storybooks with appropriate songs and vice versa. Projects and other supplementary activities will also build up those connections between the lyrics of the song and ‘real’ language.

Once the language is in, make sure you give students enough ways of getting the language out again – to really use it! I find that a combination of role-plays and personalized writing, drawing and speaking activities that all lead up to take home moments make for the best all-round approach.

How about songs in your books?

When I started authoring textbooks I was very happy to be allowed to make songs a major component. This was true of Potato Pals where every book is accompanied by a song, but to an even greater extent with Everybody Up. Everybody Up is a new primary ELT course from Oxford University Press that I was very happy to have worked on with the Super Simple Learning team. Actually, Everybody Up has more songs than any other primary course. Oxford University Press spared no expense in putting together a dream team of songwriters including Grammy winning Julie Gold (“From a Distance”) and Devon and Troy of Super Simple Learning. We really couldn’t have been luckier.

Everybody Up Global Sing-along 2013The Everybody Up Global Sing-along is an exciting project that encourages classrooms around the world to send in You Tube videos of themselves singing songs from Everybody Up. It’s something that would never have been possible before the easy access of technology and social media. Watching the videos come in from around the world has been the highlight of my career so far. It’s especially fun and educational for the kids to see themselves cooperating on the production of their videos and to be able to see other children all over the world singing the same songs as them. The competition is open until August and I would very strongly urge any of your readers that teach kids to enter. There is a huge prize for the best entry; an all expenses paid trip to Oxford to attend the English Language Teachers Summer Seminar 2014 at Oxford University, including flights and accommodation. The schools that submit the best entries can also receive a visit and concert from the songwriters and last year Devon and Julie Gold visited Taiwan.

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Are your young learners getting their five a day?

Mother and Son in supermarketIn the light of recent food industry scandals, Everybody Up co-author Patrick Jackson asks some questions about what we are putting on the table for our young learners.

When I was little, breakfast was spent listening to our budgie Jacob telling my sister to wake up. I drew faces on boiled eggs, poor souls, then executed them with the whack of a spoon. Above all, I read the back of the cereal box from which you’d often get a small plastic toy. Nowadays, because I eat boring grown-up cereals, the backs of cereal boxes only give me nutritional information and charts showing me how I have made the right choice and will live for 100 years. To be honest, the magic has gone. No more mazes, jokes, cartoons or collectible plastic figures for me.

As educators, we are responsible for providing our students with a healthy balance of activities to make up a good all-round educational diet from source to table.

The recent food industry scandals have made us all think a bit harder about where our food comes from and who we trust to supply it. We should have the same rigour when choosing what we bring into the classroom. Home-grown and home-cooked are the most delicious but not everybody has the time or the expertise to prepare tasty food day in day out. When the ‘family’ consists of 40 or more with ‘meals’ running all day long, it is time to reach for something that has been prepared for you. Do your materials come from trusted suppliers and are those suppliers providing what they say on the packet?

The other day in the supermarket I was struck by how, down the whole length of the aisle, I could only see plastic, paper and glass. I could not see any actual food at all. What a shame it would be if we allowed our education system to become like that: depersonalised, delegated and always covered in expensive and unnecessary packaging.

Patrick in the supermarket

So what are you bringing to the table? Are your lessons nice and fresh or a bit stale and mouldy? Is your presentation crisp and crunchy or a getting rather tired and floppy? Do you use enough organic local ingredients? Are your lessons colourful and attractive or bland and uninviting? Do they change with the seasons or is it the same thing all year round? Do you even get to choose what is on the menu and do your students get to feel like they have choice too? Are there some tasty treats and snacks to brighten things up now and again? Is there enough variety and balance? What utensils do you use to prepare, serve and eat? Does it all come to the table piping hot or have your materials got the look and feel of yesterday’s cold pizza? Do your students get enough chance to ‘cook’ for themselves or is it always a one-way process?

And how about those essential five portions of fruit and vegetables we should be eating every day? What are the language teaching essentials that young learners absolutely need? Everybody will have their own ideas on this but I believe that the diet should include the following:

  • Music and movement
  • Links to real world wonder and discovery
  • Creative and imaginative activities
  • Stories and values
  • Personalisation moments

We owe it to our students to give them fresh and healthy produce. When we need to reach for processed fare, we should do everything we can to ensure it does what is says on the tin. What sort of meals are you laying on for your students?

Try the Everybody Up Global Sing-along for free animated songs, lesson plans and a great learning opportunity for your students.

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The Young Explorer’s World of Nature

Everybody Up author Patrick Jackson rediscovers his favourite book from childhood after 35 years and asks if it can teach materials writers and young learner educators anything.

Young Explorer's World of NatureThe Young Explorer’s World of Nature

I’ve just found my favourite book from when I was a boy. It’s called The Young Explorer’s World of Nature and it was published in 1957 by Sampson Low, Marston. It’s nearly four decades since I last looked at it but every page comes right back to me like it was yesterday. I loved nature and spent a lot of time looking under rocks in the garden. What was it about The Young Explorer’s World of Nature that kept me reaching for it? What fascinated me about that one book so much? Is there anything in that fascination that will help me now as a teacher and materials writer?

The first thing to mention is the variety of the content.  This is an adventure that spans the whole world, from creatures living in a pond to an armadillo’s burrow, to giant redwoods, to the Kalahari Desert. Woodpeckers, beavers, bees and a bush pig, a bathyscaphe, people who live with herds, a frilled lizard, a wolverine, a vet examining a sick chimpanzee and a man milking a reindeer into a bowl all jostle for attention. This variety keeps you turning the pages. Likewise, lessons and materials should be varied and have plenty of surprises to keep our students on their toes.

Animals running from volcano

There is a sense of wonder throughout the book. Nature and our relationship with it is something to marvel at. These images were my connections to a wider world beyond suburban Dublin. Although most of the pages showed scenes beyond my imagination, some of them were about things closer to home: a cat with an injured paw, a toad in a half-buried flower pot or sycamore seeds that spin as they fall – all fascinated me as much as the Kirghiz chief riding along with a falcon on his arm. We should never forget that plenty of miracles are very close at hand and do our best to bring them into our classrooms.

Every single page of the book is full of action. A frog dives into the water, a musk ox tosses a wolf high into the air, a baboon bangs his chest and a puffin catches a rabbit’s foot just as it enters its burrow. Most memorably, a hippopotamus overturns an African canoe as two crocodiles watch intently from the bank, one showing its sharp teeth. As a rule, crocodiles should be kept out of the classroom but we should never forget how much children are verb-driven creatures and bring as many opportunities to do as we can into our teaching.

Wild buffalo

Every page is rich with detail. To think it was all done by hand without a computer in sight! There isn’t a photograph in the whole book either so this had to be made up for by the excitement of the drawings and the events they show. There’s plenty to take from that too. As we surround ourselves and our students with the digital and the instant we shouldn’t forget that something hand-made and personal usually has the value of a thousand clicks.

These images leave as many questions unanswered as they answer. Will the squirrel catch that dragonfly? Will the man who looks a bit like Charlie Chaplin get out of the pot-hole? What happened to that camel’s leg and can you really bandage them like that? Are Tasmanian Devils dangerous? Will I ever see cormorant fishermen or listen to lions roaring just beyond a thorn hedge?

This book comes from an age when people had fewer tools at their disposal and had to work harder to captivate the young explorer’s imagination. There is much for us to learn 55 years on as we do our work in a world utterly changed. We have so much power at our fingertips but do we appreciate that power enough? Do we make the most of it? Would we sometimes be better off with less?

I learnt a lot from my trip down memory lane. The Young Explorer’s World of Nature is full of variety, adventure, surprise and wonder, connections to a wider world, action and movement, fascinating detail, discovery and metamorphosis and I suppose, without realising it at the time, that’s why I loved it so much. All those happenings and all those questions both answered and unanswered!

Those are not just the ingredients of a great children’s book, they are the ingredients of great language teaching, the ingredients of beautiful and effective education and, ultimately, the ingredients of happy childhood. Think back to your favourite book when you were a child. What can you learn from it today?

Visit our site for more information on Everybody Up and the Everybody Up Global Sing-along 2013.

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