Teacher Lee Briggs on technology in today's classroom. Brought to you by Weekly Reader.

Archive for October, 2010


I want to share a great app for anyone teaching astronomy, the planets or the moon.  It is called Stellarium.  It is an open-source program—100% free—that turns any computer into an instant planetarium.  You simply tell it where you are in the world and what time it is (or what time you will be stargazing) and it will tell you what you can look at.  Students can find out exactly what constellations will be visible, what position the moons of Jupiter will be in, what phase the moon will be in Christmas night and even what satellites are currently overhead.

Reporters At Work

One of the great writing activities made simple through computers is that of a newspaper.  As the gifted and talented coordinator in my building, in order to meet the needs of my literary kids and provide them an outlet for their writing and leadership skills, I started a school newspaper last year.

The newspaper is a testament to team effort and peer pressure, and it inspires a self-starting nature to writing. You take a group of kids who like to write (or just like to gossip) and give them a task: tell people what’s going on. Suddenly, everyone is coming up with ideas.

“We would like to know more about the new principal.”
“We are learning about crawfish in science. It’s pretty neat!”
“Can I put a cartoon in?”

Then, you have the kids write up their stories and put them all in the same file, preferably on a network, but passing around a thumbdrive or a zip disk works well too.  The students who are writing aces (and need a challenge) become editors, fixing up the writing, leaving me free to supervise. When it’s all done, we pile them into a pre-made Publisher template.

On a perfect month. But nothing is ever perfect.

Much of the time I, along with the editors, am chasing kids around for the stories that they promised us.  We also spend a lot of time getting those stories to fit into the template, either by making them bigger or trimming them down. But what we are left with is a great collection of writing from different kids in different grades with different interests.

Seeing Weekly Reader each week has helped the kids understand that what they’re doing is not just writing, but something bigger: They are doing the same jobs as many of the reporters of the paper are doing. Weekly Reader gives kids a great example of how to write professionally, and it allows them to feel like they have a kinship with the people who report on the news.

Digital Editions

WR News Edition 4-6

A digital page from WR News Edition 4–6

One of the things the kids are looking forward to lately has been the arrival of our Weekly Readers.  Not just because they are a great read, or because they are a great example of timely and relative non-fiction, but for the digital editions of the issues.

Every Thursday I make an effort to squeeze in time for current events.  We sit down with the readers in front of the SMARTboard, and bring up the electronic version of the issue.

The kids love to have the computer read to them and seldom take their eyes off of their own page.  The real treat comes after the story has been read, when they get to see all of the videos, interactive graphics, and links to other sites.

I think that we will be seeing more of this as print publications and online publications begin to overlap.  Perhaps this is one way that education is ahead of the curve, linking print content to online content.

Response to Intervention

We are in the process of hammering out a Response to Intervention plan for the district.  Being a small district, we manage to share and document most of the information that we need on a student who is struggling to get by. However, like all districts we are looking to RTI as a way of meeting the needs of students at risk—the students who year after year fall farther and farther behind.

Like so many things, the problem is not in finding good strategies but in building documentation.  Documenting the strengths and weaknesses of the student, what the problems are, what things have been done, what has worked, and what has not.

The Madison School District and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction have developed a system called SIMS that as a district we are implementing. It allows us to look at a student (or group of students) and record details about the student’s issues and what strategies work.  This is something that follows the student from grade to grade, allowing other teachers to understand what works for that child. This system is easy to use, allows teachers to add their own ideas or select others, and, best of all, is Open-Source and therefore free.

Just curious: what RTI program is your school using?

The Science Club

This last week saw the first meeting of the Science and Engineering Club. As the gifted and talented person at the elementary school, I set up the club last year to fill a hole in academic extra-curricular activities. We have done activities in the past such as building bridges out of spaghetti, launching model rockets, and building robots with our Lego Mindstorms kits.

You would think that lots of kids would want to take part, but there is one small problem. I can’t find a night that works where kids can come after school. Between basketball, football, kids club and the local religious education classes, there is not a free night! So the result is having the club meet one recess a week.

This last week I was lucky enough to get seven electronics kits on loan from our CESA office. These kits contain capacitors, transistors, resistors, and all the parts needed to make a noisemaker, a radio, or a thousand other projects. They all snap together as easily as Legos with no wires or soldering. Great stuff.

But I am up against the best fall weather we have had in recent memory. And football—there is always football. The first meeting 20 kids showed up; the second meeting, about 12; and the last meeting, eight kids completed their project.

I can’t lose hope; the first project is always the most difficult. I learned that from last year. Plus, the weather will be on my side by next week when the frost sets in hard. Electronics down; up next, building a computer from spare parts!

Demonstration or Interaction?

I have written about interactive whiteboards before, and I plan on writing about them in the future. My enthusiasm for the SMARTboard is unbreakable.

In a comment I received last week, someone brought up the idea of using a tablet (like the iPad, but more on that later) hooked up to a projector as a lower-cost SMARTboard alternative. I think that any technology in the classroom is better than nothing, and a projector hooked up to the Internet is the single-best first step you can make when it comes to instruction.

I have used tablets before. In fact, I’ve had just that setup, a tablet connected to a projector. It allowed me to “write” with digital ink on lessons that I had scanned in and to project PowerPoint slides, but there were things that just didn’t work for me.

The tablet was a teacher-only device. I invited students to come up and write on it, but holding the pen, writing something on that small screen that seemed awkward, it was easier as a teacher for me to do it, and as a result, it became the teacher’s presentation computer.

The interactive whiteboard does something else. It invites the teacher to be in front of the room instead of hunched over the tablet. It is easy enough to use that students feel free to walk up to it and add their answers. In short, students interact with a board; with that interaction, they are engaged in learning.

For example, my class was reviewing what we know about proper nouns and common nouns. Using the Smart Marketplace (a site that lets people share lessons made on the SMARTboard) I downloaded a set of lessons on the topic. The students were soon coming up to the board, sorting the words into categories and getting their answers automatically corrected as if they were on a game show. If I had done this on a personal tablet, I would have been playing the game, I would have been demonstrating, and the students would have been lectured to. If we look at the learning pyramid, a tablet with a projector tends to be in the low-retention category of “demonstration” a SMARTboard lesson is several notches higher, in the realm of interaction or teaching others.

Interactivity at work! A student drags and drops words as part of a grammar lesson.

I think tablets are great, but coming up to the board is more natural and, in my opinion, makes a better lesson where students are active participants in their own learning process.


The news has been full of stories lately about cyberbullying and children committing suicide due to online taunts.  Here in Wisconsin, there have been several shocking cyberbullying cases which prompted our district to call in an expert who spoke to grades six and up about what is possible out there in cyberspace, how to stop a cyberbullying situations, and what would happen to a student if they were found to be harassing another student online.

As the law stands right now, any behavior that disrupts class or threatens a student can be stopped by the district. A student who is engaging in bullying behavior online from his home computer can be reprimanded by the school. I suppose it is legally akin to suspending a student for drinking even if it is off of school grounds.  As scary as this may be to parents, few of them seem to show up to meetings to become informed. I suppose they think that it could never affect them, or they’re unaware of the potential of the problem.

There are two things, in my opinion, that make this kind of bullying worse than the standard variety that most parents and teachers are aware of.

1. The Internet is anonymous. When a child logs on to the Internet, he is not Billy in science class; he is Bcrasher153, or some other secret identity. This gives children the idea that they can say anything on the internet and get away with it.  The whole World Wide Web is a giant bathroom wall, where anything can be said, or responded to, or carried on by anyone.  Rarely does the victim have a name or a face to attach to the bully.  A parent asks, “Who is picking on you? I’ll call their parents.” The child can only say, “I don’t know who they are.”

2. The Internet is unavoidable. The first reaction that a lot of parents and teachers might have to a student being bullied online is, “Don’t go on the computer.”  But a child does not need to have a computer to be bullied; rumors and harassment can be posted on Facebook pages by other students and seen by other students.  The victim might never know that a bully has made an “I hate Kathy” Web site, for example.  In short, once a bully has decided in using the Internet, the bullying is unavoidable.

With everything that is happening out there and the news stories of bullying and suicide, I am wondering how many districts have an online component to their bullying or harassment policy. What are some of the roadblocks that you have run into in trying to combat cyberbullying? Or successes in overcoming it?

NetsafeUtah.org is a site that has done a lot of good in creating programs for children to educate them about online bullying.

The Greatest Web Site in the World

Spelling tests are like laundry, a weekly chore that nonetheless has to get done. Conducting a spelling test means taking 15 minutes out of my already-packed language arts schedule. It means reading out each word and having the students repeat it to ensure they understand it. It means going over those words letter by letter, a simple but time-consuming task. A task that gets even more time-consuming when you have to re-give the test to a student who missed the test, or failed it.

Spellingcity.com is a Web site that allows teachers to publish their spelling lists online and then creates custom-made games, worksheets, and comprehension tools. But where it shines is in test taking.

Students take a test by listening to a voice sound out their words and then inan example sentence. It automatically grades the list and allows students to either print out an official-looking PDF file with their grade or review the words that they have misspelled.
Spelling is no longer a contest with other students, but an individual task—something that can be done in their spare time and with a variety of ways to learn their words. Tests take, at most, five minutes in the computer lab. Stress over spelling tests evaporates when a student is able to take dozens of practice tests in his or her free time.

Spellingcity.com is a great site because it takes a load off the backs of teachers. It removes a task instead of adding one. Thank you, Spellingcity.com! A thousand times thank you!

The Mighty Netbook

I first was introduced to the idea of a netbook two years ago while walking through the aisles at Target. I spotted a little wireless Asus EEPC with its a seven inch screen and an 8GB flash drive. The first thing I thought was, “Awww.” The second thing was, “Finally.”

The netbook is loosely defined as a notebook computer whose primary purpose is surfing the Web. Netbooks tend to be tiny and low-powered, with small keyboards and little chance for expandability. Who would want such a machine? I had one before Christmas.

Now, I like a powerful computer as much as the next guy, but as a teacher I spend most of my time typing, surfing the web, and responding to email. The last thing I have the time for or interest in is playing video games. Yet that is how most computers are judged-by their ability to play the latest game. That’s not what a school should be looking for when buying computers.

Netbooks are small, so the screen can seemed cramped, but as they mature as a market, the screens have been getting better. The machines themselves are also getting tougher; battery life on some stretches to seven hours, almost a full school day! Netbooks make portable computing easy and affordable for schools, especially since many of the new models are faster and, in fact, built for schools.

Here are two of the models that have been produced especially for the education market.


The Dell Latitude 2100: This computer is built like a Mack truck, with a tough, rubberized body that makes it extra-easy for gripping. It is loaded with options such as an anti-microbial keyboard, a handy carrying strap and a touch screen (that I assume would work with SMARTboard software?). Dell seems to have thought a lot about what teachers’ concerns might be. For example, they offer a big LED on the top of the netbook that lights up if someone is surfing the internet. They also came up with a special docking cart so you never have to worry about a rats’ nest of tangled cords.

The HP Mini 100e: HP was a little slow to the education-netbook game, although their mini line is solid and very user-friendly. They have just released the Mini 100e, a netbook with a carrying strap and spill-resistant keyboard. It has the usual features of a netbook, two USB ports, Ethernet, and audio-jacks, but what surprised me was this: it has a modem. A modem: the Coelacanth of the computer world. Who uses dial-up? The dozens of kids I work with, who live outside the realm of cable or DSL, that’s who. I imagine there are many rural districts like mine where students would love to check out a laptop but can’t use the internet since most don’t have modems.

A few “musts” before investing in netbooks:
Larger batteries: Most netbooks come with three-cell or six-cell batteries and as a result get only about four hours of life. I think it’s much better to spend a little extra and get a larger battery to give you at least six hours, enough to get through a school day or a long field trip.

A dependable wireless system in your school: These are more affordable than you might think. A high-volume wireless port that can connect students to your network is a must. I will never forget the frustration of having wonderful new laptops and never being able to use them due to disconnects or long log-on times Add in a class full of frustrated students, and fun technology quickly becomes more trouble than it’s worth.

The Turtle

Inspired by a recent article in WR News, Edition 4–6 (“Deep Sea Rescue,” September 3, 2010), the class decided to release our class pet, The Turtle.

That is his name: first name The, last name Turtle.

Reading along with the digital edition online, we learned about all the work that goes into rehabilitating the sea turtles and went to the linked website, seaturtles.org.  Deciding that after a year, the time was right, we returned The Turtle to his home in our outdoor classroom and videotaped the event on our Flip camera.  The video was shot and edited by my students.

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