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

Archive for December, 2010

This is Your Brain on Sugar Plums

The holidays tend be a time when I am reminded of why I became a teacher. There are concerts filled with doe-eyed kindergarteners in little three-piece suits and miniature prom dresses. There’s a half a day spent making snowmen out of tube socks. The excitement as we approach the big day is palpable; the growing amount of snow (about two feet so far) has only made the season all the more real.

Outside the school, the kids have dug huge forts into the six-foot snow drifts that piled up above my windows, making our playground look like equal parts the surface of the moon and southwestern cliff dwellings.

There is of course the other side of the whole affair. Those same doe-eyed kids trample snow through the halls, stomp all over forts and feelings alike. Getting any work out of these little cherubs is nearly impossible as they seem just so distracted by everything. I take comfort in the fact that the holidays and the absent-mindedness, as they do every year, will pass.

At Greenwood, the last day before break we have the Jingle Bell Run. Put on by our gym teacher Mrs. Weyer, the students do a cross-country run through our outdoor classroom blanketed in a few feet of snow. One last sprint, one last surge from our kids running through the snowdrift and everyone will be ready for a week-long break. I know I will.


Stop Motion Movies

Setting up the next shot.

To keep my kids busy in this crazy time, I gave a few of them a project. Using a common digital camera and a tripod my kids were able to make a stop motion film starring the snowmen they made last week and the alligator head I keep on my desk. Anything can work as a model for this activity: old action figures, army men, Legos or clay figurines. Making sure not to move the camera, you move your model a fraction of an inch, then take a photo. Repeat several hundred times.

The next step is to import them into Windows Movie Maker after you have set the default image time to .25 seconds. This gives everything a nice, smooth movement.

Add titles, effects, and even a soundtrack and you’re good to go.


And now, please enjoy Chompy vs. the Snow-Women:

A few interesting things from the feeds

The Educator’s PLN: A teacher discussed taking part in a webinar that discussed how schools are integrating netbooks. I would have liked to have taken part in this one, but like so many things I didn’t know about it until it was too late. The superintendent of Lake Tahoe spoke about their netbook program that puts a netbook in the hands of every student from 3rd grade to graduation. What was fascinating to me is that the school seems to be very realistic about how they are used. The school made sure that the web was filtered so that the computers couldn’t be used as a distraction. They also made a deal with AT&T to provide the computers with mobile internet to make sure that students would be able to connect to their document servers; nothing is stored on the computer itself.

What blew me away about this was that the school paid only about $40 per laptop; the rest was picked up through grants, textbook funds and lots of clever accounting.

Talking Tech With Robin: Another teacher-blogger like me brought up the need for a quality safe search engine for kids. Honestly, I couldn’t agree more. Google’s best filters only manage to get a little off the top. Using their image search from an educator’s point of view is like walking through an appropriateness minefield. Yahooligans (now Yahoo Kids) used to do a good job, but now mostly markets games and movies to kids and does little for research. Ask Kids also does a good job, but tends to direct kids to their own services rather than reputable sites.

Lo and behold, there is Sweetsearch, a clean, easy-to-use search engine that contains sites that have been approved by actual people involved in education. This could be a godsend if the organization that reviews the sites does a good job of expanding the list. As of now many searches refer to libraries, which is good, but not the first place I would look to learn about a subject such as dinosaurs, at least not on the web. I am just overjoyed that anyone is working on this issue.

My Clickers Arrive!

Earlier this week I walked into the librarian’s office in my school to ask a simple question. That’s when I saw it: a bright blue bag that could only be our SMART response clickers.

I have used clickers in the past.  Perhaps used is not the word; “built my curriculum around them” is a better description. Classroom response systems, as they are called, are one of the more exciting elements in modern classrooms. They generally consist of a computer, a receiver, and dozens of hand-held remotes.

The teacher leads the students through a series of questions and the students answer through their remotes. Usually these questions are numerical or multiple choice, although several products are out there that allow short answer questions as well.

SMART clicker in classroom

Instant assessments with SMART clickers!

Clickers have several benefits and distinct limitations. Clickers are a great way to give tests or quizzes. I’m fond of ending each lesson with one so that I can quickly identify who got the lesson and who will require intervention. As a teacher, you get a print-out seconds after the quiz that tells you who got what grade. The students get instant corrections and feedback on their work.  On the other hand, the students can’t show their work, and it can be hard to decode from a multiple choice test just where the student is having problems.

I like to think of clickers as a way of quickly and easily identifying if my black-and-white lesson objectives have been met.  For example, do all of my students know how to divide? Do they know the capital of Michigan? Can they find the area of a rectangle? It might not tell me how exactly the student is struggling, but it does tell me which ones are, instantly allowing me to make a quick intervention while the concept is still fresh in their minds.

SMART clickers

I've got the goods ...

There is another dilemma: In my last school I was the only teacher in the building who knew how our clickers worked and had any interest in using them. Here in Greenwood, I am surrounded by staff who are eager to use these new devices. I’ll have to share my toys …

Operation Copperpot

I have a family history of ruthless charity. For nearly 20 years my father, also a teacher, has dominated his school’s food drive, winning year after year through cleverness and deception. I recall there being rumors of a secret deal between my father and the local supermarket, and whole pallets of canned corn showing up in our garage.

I don’t get worked up about much. When it came to competition I tended to enjoy Frisbee more than football. No, like my father before me, my blood sport is charity. My school is holding its annual “Penny War.” For those not familiar with the rules: each class gets a jar; pennies count for the class, while silver subtracts from it.

Penny jars for charity

Penny War: It's on.

The fifth grade (and my family) has a reputation to uphold. Last year, it was hard to say when things got out of hand. Was it when I showed up at school in a surplus army helmet? Was it when we dumped $70 worth of silver into the kindergarten jar? Was it when I made a video of my dad, who gave the students tips for collection and then told them I couldn’t have Christmas if I lost? We were so despised by the other classes that it was not a surprise when 5th grade came in dead last with -$70 in our three pickle jars.

I like to play the villain in these events; it gets the kids worked up and in the end brings in more money for our local food pantry. Plus, it inspires kids to think outside the box. The dastardly 6th grade, for example, wrote letters to the businesses downtown asking them to collect on their behalf. I have a feeling that I will be making a video for my students when they come back from Christmas break, where I am out in the cold cooking a hotdog over a coffee can fire while my family opens presents around the tree.

Collaborating on Reports

Early in the year I experimented with different ways to get my kids to learn their vocabulary. I settled on having some way for the kids to demonstrate how their word was used rather than trying to bury them in examples of my own or learning the definitions by rote.

I tried once having each of them make a PowerPoint of their word, its definition and how it is used. However, being unable to watch each student as they made their slide created other problems. Too many children were slipping through the cracks and not understanding their own words, let alone creating a quality product to demonstrate to the class. Also, for anyone who has tried to have each student create a digital product, it was a headache to manage all those files, get names on them, check for completion and everything else.

At some point I went back to the drawing board and began using Google Documents for this. I had been using Google Docs for some time but had not used much more than the ‘forms’ feature to collect information from students. However, this time, I created a presentation (similar to PowerPoint) and gave each student their own page with spaces for their word, its definition, a sentence, and a picture to demonstrate the word. I then opened the document for sharing and allowed anyone who had the link to edit the document. I then made sure that said link is protected behind my password-protected Moodle page to avoid it being tampered with.

Students logged on and began editing their presentations. They then freaked out royally when they saw the other pages changing before their eyes, realizing that they were seeing each other’s work in real time. The plus side to this was that I could see them in real-time too. I could see all of their work and intervene when needed. Sure enough, many of them started to police each other, checking their peers when their slide didn’t make sense.

When the half-hour was over I could download the whole thing as a standard PowerPoint. I have their weekly vocab slides displayed now in a constant loop on my SMARTboard during work time. It’s a study aid they made together.

Fun With the iPod

I just got an iPod Touch as an early Christmas present.

Q: Why not the iPad or the iPhone?

A: We have a pay scale here and I am not there yet.

However, after looking at my wife’s iPod Touch for some time, I decided that I would use the iPod Touch primarily as a PDA and web device and just happen to put music on it. I still have my three-year-old Nano, and for driving and working out, nothing beats it. I have also heard from sources that we may be seeing more of them, since they are being pushed as a replacement for everything, and I wanted to be ahead of that trend.

I got it working in my school quickly enough. It sees the wireless and was getting internet right away, syncing up with my calendar and my email. I felt relieved that most of the blocked sites, for better or worse, were still blocked (so much for being able to bring up my Netflix for movie day). I also managed to freak the kids out when I installed a VNC app and was able to “write” on my SMARTboard from across the school, controlling it remotely with ease.

I’m still learning how to use my iPod Touch, but I am intrigued by its potential as a small and rather intuitive internet device.  I don’t know if I would give one to each of my students yet, judging by my “lost weekend” playing Angry Birds and watching episodes of Top Gear.

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