App Review: Newspapers

I ‘m a news junkie. I admit it. It comes from spending a decade as a newspaper reporter. So I have been pleasantly surprised by an app I found called — wait for it —  Newspapers, and what it does is synchronize and provide access to hundreds of newspapers around the world.  It’s free, too, and pretty easy to use. You just use the globe to find countries (or the search engine), and then choose the newspapers you want to read (some are in English and some are in native languages. Both experiences are pretty neat.) You can favorite newspapers, too, to make it easy to return to their sites.

For example, I just went from looking through some Russian newspapers to learn about local reaction to the meteorite event that happened last night, and then bounced over to a New Zealand newspaper to read about developments in the Pistorius case, and then ended up closer to home with my local newspaper — all off the same app. One thing that this kind of news traveling does is remind you of the lens in which countries and publishers see and report the news of the world.  Biases can be uncovered, and even political filtering noticed.

It would be an interesting to use this app to do an analysis of a single news event across various newspapers.

The Newspapers app is a potentially valuable tool for learning, but also for grazing for information. (Note: some newspapers do have paywalls but mostly the front pages are free for access. Also, some newspapers are better at updating their online versions in a timely fashion than others. The St. Petersburg Times in Russia, for example, was still showing a front page from two days ago when I took a look.)

Peace (in the app),


App Review: Animation Desk

It’s no secret that I love stopmotion animation (See my website resource for teachers: Making Stopmotion Movies).

I love watching it as magic on the screen and I enjoy trying to make my own, too. I’ve always often brought stopmotion animation into the classroom. So I was intrigued by this app called Animation Desk, which is available for the iPod and iPad. I have it on the iPad, where the canvas is larger and easier to use. Essentially, it is a fairly intuitive program to use that allows you to draw, frame by frame, and then create a simple movie that can be exported to YouTube and other sites. I liked the relative simplicity of the design of the App, and while I am still trying out some of the bells and whistles, I had made a short video (Bouncy) in minutes and when my son joied me, we worked together on another one (Dognose). It was a lot of fun.

There is a free version of the app but I shelled out the  $4.99 because I wanted all of the features. I think the free version is a good place to start, though.

Check out our short videos:


Of course, now I realize that I had better do some app updating on my stopmotion website resource. I don’t even have an App area there.

Peace (in the stopmotion),


App Review: Marble Math

My son and I tried out the free, limited version of Marble Math Multiplication on the iPad. Here is one example of an app that functions better on the smaller screen, in my opinion. Given that the math skills game works mostly via the twisting of the device to move the marble to the right answer in a maze, the larger iPad seemed to be more of a pain in the neck than an optimized playing experience. We’d twist the iPad to put the marble in play, and then lose sight of the play. (You may feel different, and there is an option to use your finger to “guide” the marble instead of tilting the device, but really … what kid will choose that?) An earlier version of Marble Math on our iPod Touch was easier to play, since the Touch is there in the palm of your hand at all times.

The free iPad app is a taste of the larger Marble Math app (two versions — one for younger kids and one for older kids). The larger app has more options for creating avatars and choosing the math operations that will be featured, which is handy. While the concept of the app is clever enough — you have to solve a math problem and then move the marble through a maze to the right answer, avoiding various obstacles along the way — the arcade-style app loses its flavor after a while. In this situation, the app really is more of a skill re-enforcer than a game that keeps kids coming back for more and more. The developer certainly tried to bring in elements to make it more engaging — the ability to redo a level that you do wrong, a scoreboard, levels of increasing difficulty, etc.

What I did notice with my 8 year old son, however, is that he gave up on solving the math problems and instead, began moving the marble randomly around the screen, hoping to bump into the right answer and purposely hitting the obstacles. When he failed at that a few times, he quit the app altogether. In the classroom, you’d be wise to set up some system for kids making progress, I suppose. In the end, Marble Math is one of a growing stream of skill-related apps that are a notch above worksheets, but will not likely keep all kids busy for long stretches of time. For parents, it is a game that can help reinforce some basic math concepts.

Peace (in the app),


eBook Review: Bartleby’s Book of Buttons, Volume 1

I am on the hunt for interactive books on the iPad that really use the technology of the device to create a different kind of reading experience. Perhaps I err in having The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore as the ebook/Holy Grail that I compare others to, but I figure: isn’t it about time that companies push the development of interactive books in new and interesting directions? (or am I being unrealistic?). Just adding some sound to a book doesn’t make it much of an interactive experience.

That said, Bartleby’s Book of Buttons (today, I review the first volume, The Far Away Island, and another day, I will review the second volume in the series) does a pretty decent job of pulling the reader into the experience of the story. Simply put, Bartleby is on an adventure to collect more “buttons” for his book of buttons, and that leads him to Mystery Island where danger rears its head. (When I first heard “buttons,” I thought of shirt buttons, and wondered why anyone would collect those. I soon realized that “buttons” are literally buttons that you can press and make things happen. Perfect for a game, right?). The narrator’s Australian (I think) accent gives the story a different kind of “feel” to it, at least for my son and I.

The story here, such as it is, moves along at a good pace, and it’s not always obvious what the reader needs to do to advance the story. That’s not a criticism. In fact, it is a plus. You have to think, and listen, and follow clues that don’t always appear to be clues. There’s a solid mix of sequencing activities, discovery via touchscreen, and more. I’d rank The Far Away Island near the top of the some of the interactive books I have been experiencing lately (volume 2 is even better)

I suppose the challenge for developers is how to match the possibilities of the technology with the development of a good story for a wide age group audience.

Peace (in the touch),

PS — check this interview with the developers of the book:




App Review: HistoryMaps

One of the major shifts in the Common Core is the move towards reading informational texts. This includes charts, graphs, maps and more. So when I noticed this free app — HistoryMaps — I was curious. Maps can tell amazing stories, but students of course needs strategies for learning how to “read” a visual display of information. This particular app can be helpful, although you should know that its name tells you exactly what it is: a collection of historical maps (and very Europe-focused). There’s almost no text, and very little historical reference to the maps (other than some time periods).

But that lack of information is what makes this app so fascinating. What can we infer from the map of Omaha Beach from the WW II section? Where do troops land and what was the landscape like? How about Waterloo in 1815? Or the layout of the city of Paris during the French Revolution? And what did the European continent look like in 814 after the death of Charles the Great? Pull up the map and see. One of the more fascinating maps is the Map of Discovery, which shows the paths of explorers from 1340-1600.

Sure, you can probably find many of these maps with some online searching. But why bother? This free app has them all, handy and ready to be “read.”

Peace (in the map),

PS — it’s free but you have to put up with some banner ads at the bottom of the page. Just thought you should know that.

Resource Review: Summer Apps and Tech for Kids

CommonSense Media just put out a handy guide to summer technology activities, broken down by age levels. I might share this with the parents of my students, as I often get questions about what kind of technology is appropriate for my sixth graders (I often say, the kind that gets them creating not just consuming). This guide is worth checking out and maybe sharing.

I like that Minecraft, Machinarium, Scramble with friends, and other games that stimulate the mind are on the approved list here. And the apps are grouped around themes, too, as if it were a summer camp flier. I appreciate that stab at humor. Keep in mind that CommonSense has a pretty strict filter for technology — they are a bit narrow in what is good for kids. I’m fine with that, but it is important to be aware of that bias around technology, too.

Peace (in the summer),



App Review: Sketch Nation Studio (for gaming)

I’ve been intrigued by Apps that provide the tools for the users to create their own video games. Sketch Nation Studio is a free app that does just that. The platform allows you to create and play original games, by using either artwork that you draw right in the app, or artwork that comes off your device, or art that you draw on paper and then take an image and import into the game.

There are several variations of platform-style games, and while the end result is not nearly as sophisticated as some of the apps you might buy for your device, it provides enough creative outlet to feel as if you have, indeed, created your own app game.  You can set the style of game, add energy boosts and enemies, adjust gravity, create backgrounds, and more.

And did I mention that the Sketch Nation Studio App is free? I don’t see any advertising on the app, in case you are wondering .


iPhone Screenshot 1
There are also options to publish the game onto the iTunes store (and the company promises to share in the profits from any sale of the game app, so I guess your game funnels through their publishing system). I’m not sure if that would actually work (yet I may give it a try just to see what happens), nor if the game app provides enough variation to actually create a game that would sell, but even sharing a game via iTunes is pretty interesting. And, therefore, I am intrigued by the potential of that opportunity for creating and publishing for my students. And I am now wondering if using this app on our school’s iPods wouldn’t be a neat end-of-year activity to tie into our earlier Game Design Unit.
Hmmm …
Peace (in the app),
PS — here is a video overview of the app

A Podcast: Apps, Ads and Kids

(Note: I wrote this for our local newspaper, hoping they might run it as a column around the holidays, but I never heard back from them. Oh well. I still have other publishing spaces, right? — Kevin)

My seven year old is looking at my classroom book order form from Scholastic.
“Ohhh, dad, can you get the Angry Birds book? Pleasssssse?”
I noticed that there is indeed an Angry Birds Poster Book. It says I can decorate my classroom with Angry Birds.
“No. Definitely not.”
“Why not?”
This podcast and column is why not, but I explained it in a different way to him before we both sat down to read a book together.

Listen to the Podcast


Is it just me or am I the only one getting more and more tired with those Angry Birds?

This frustration began simmering this summer when the fun little game app moved off of our mobile devices and into Hollywood (Angry Birds Rio, anyone?), then into plush toys ($18 for a stuffed animal, are you kidding me?). Now, I notice, the video game has morphed into a no-tech board game that came out just in time for the holidays and there’s even a webcomic that tells the backstory of … something.

Forget the birds. Rovio Entertainment has itself a real cash cow.

What worries me most is that gaming apps like Angry Birds are fast becoming prominent places for blatant advertising and options to buy with in-app purchases popping up everywhere, coupled with tie-ins for all sorts of other products.

It’s not just those birds, either.

The whole resurgence of the blue-skinned Smurfs this past year has spawned not only a movie but also a series of online game sites, networking spaces for children like Smurf Village, and mobile device apps that are completely loaded with ways for kids to buy, buy, buy …. with their parents’ credit card accounts, of course.  You may have missed the lawsuits that finally led to some changes with how in-app purchases take place after bills of hundreds of dollars started showing up, but I didn’t.

As an educator who fervently believes in the possibilities of technology to transform the ways we write and interact with the world, this commercialization of technology is incredibly frustrating, particularly when you consider the audience.

I can’t say I am surprised by the corporate world’s push to make new games a touchstone of commercialism.  If nothing else, they know the compulsive tendency of their young audience. Every innovation that eventually attracts a mass of consumers (radio, television, the Internet, etc.) is also bound to attract companies seeking ways to leverage that audience for profit.

But can we please collectively agree to leave the kids alone? Target me all you want. I can take it. I can turn it off. I can buy your product and regret it later.

Our youngest citizens, however, are bombarded enough with the commercialism of our culture. They don’t need their world of play tainted with advertising, too.

Recent news items that have alarmed me included some schools now offering up the doors of lockers (Minnesota), the sides of school buses (Utah), and even the front pages of their report cards (Colorado) for businesses willing to pay up to hawk their goods to an unsuspecting audience. These schools do it because they are strapped for cash. I understand that. I just can’t stomach the idea of the captive audience.

I recently came across some push-back recently that gave me some hope.

It’s a petition for folks and organizations and families who want to send a clear message to gaming companies and the vast entertainment complex to consider the audience for their products, and to please tread lightly on their childhood.

As far as I can tell, the petition has no advertising. I take that as a good sign. And there is not a bird or Smurf in sight. Even better.

Peace (in the ad-free play),

App Review: My Doodle Game

My Doodle Game

I was about one minute into trying out My Doodle Game, an app for the iPad that allows you to make Doodle-Jump style games, when my seven year old demanded (with vigor) that I let him take over and create the game. And by the way, Dad, go away for while and I will call you back when my game is ready to go. So I left the room and came back, and then I played a pretty neat game that my son designed and created within a short amount of time.

My Doodle Game is surprising rich, and robust (and I thank my friend, Skip Via, for showing me how students he is documenting in Alaska are using iPads for this app). Best of all? The app is free. That’s right. Free. (There is a cost for the software version for computers and it runs about $15. I’d rather have free, to be honest. Now, this free cost means that you don’t have access to every character and every option in the pretty extensive library, but there is plenty to do with the free options, including an array of heroes and villains and various objects to place in the path of your little stickman. You can also pay to add more to your library.

If I had a class of iPads (oops, I mean a class of students with iPads … hehehe), I would add My Doodle Game to the list of apps I’d like to see on there. In fact, I’d want more apps to be like this one — shifting the student from player of the game to creator of the game.

See what the kids from Alaska were up to:


Peace (in the app),


App Review: Shake-a-Phrase

I was approached on Twitter to review an educational app for vocabulary, so I figured: what the heck? The developer seemed nice enough and he sent me a code for downloading Shake-a-Phrase, which I somehow messed up and ended up buying the thing after all. So, there’s a sort of disclaimer here: I should have gotten this app for free in exchange for posting my opinion about it, but I bought it anyway. Take it for what you will.

What is Shake-a-Phrase? It’s a vocabulary app that seems nicely suited for learning some basic parts of speech (when you shake the app, it changes the sentences). There are three main components to it, including a section in which you tap words to identify the parts of speech identified (the basics: nouns, verbs, adjectives), and each time you do it correctly, you move to another level. I’m not sure what the levels bring you, to be honest, but I can see some advantage to my students around parts of speech here. It might get way to repetitious after about ten minutes, though. There are a few “themes” of words — sports, monsters, etc. — that make it interesting, but only to a point.

Another component of Shake-a-Phrase provides you with a one sentence story, and if you tap words, it pulls up both the definition and the part of speech of the word. This is useful for learning new words. Again, useful but repetitious after a while.

The third component is called “story starter,” and they give you the first part of a story, which is designed to inspire your writing. Except you can’t write on the app. Which seems strange to me, as I was all set to imagine “what if a flaky serpent evolved into a witty pixie …” But there was no room on the app for my words. I sort felt let down.

Overall, the app is nicely designed, and it is pretty fun to play for a short amount of time, although it feels a bit like the result of an adult designing a game that they think a kid will play for hours when the kid really wants to play Plants and Zombies. I don’t think my sixth graders would find it all that interesting for too long.

Yet, Shake-a-Phrase could be a nice addition, or extension, activity for work around Parts of Speech. What would make it more valuable for me would be for the app to have all of the major Parts of Speech, not just the Big Three. You can only get so far with nouns, verbs and adjectives. Prepositions, pronouns, adverbs and the rest would be more helpful. And if it were something I could pull up on the interactive board, that would be neat (Can you see us shaking the board? Yeah.)

Still, for younger students who are just learning that we even have things in our language called Parts of Speech (although why and if Parts of Speech are important to improving writing is whole other conversation), the app might be a beneficial entry point for fun practice. The shaking of the app and the silly stories that appear on the screen would likely be a draw for a lot of kids.

Peace (in the shakeable words),