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

Archive for March, 2011

Robot Building

There are things that I run into as a teacher that I wish I could create a whole year around. For example, LEGO Mindstorms robots.

For those of you who are not familiar with LEGO Mindstorms, they are a product line produced by the good people of LEGO. They allow students to build robots. When I was a kid, they called this line “Technic,” and I remember spending hours lining up little gears and cogs to make cars with working steering and gearboxes. Today, our kids have a kit that comes with three servo-motors, an array of sensors and a Bluetooth-equipped “brick” that can be programmed on the fly or with LEGO’s computer software.

LEGO Mindstorms Robots

LEGO Mindstorms Robots

I inherited nine LEGO Mindstorms classroom kits for my gifted and talented program and the result has been fantastic. Students first create and program a simple robot that follows light or lines on the carpet, avoids obstacles, and hits red balls with a hammer.

But like all things LEGO, the fun begins when you deviate from the book that comes in the box. Schools across the country have LEGO League programs where students compete with their engineering marvels. Last year my students created a working Segway that balanced itself using a beam of light to determine how far it was leaning. Another group created a device that could calculate the volume of any object. This year, I have a group making a machine that sorts bricks based on color; a factory machine in miniature. Yet another group is planning to create a machine that automatically solves the Rubik’s Cube.

I could create a year-long class based around the engineering and design principles used by LEGO Mindstorms, and could easily have another year-long class dedicated to the programming aspects. As a teacher, I could see myself spending months tinkering with how they work and finding new aspects of science, math, problem solving, and logic to teach my students.

But being a small school, I don’t have the time—not while there are so many other things to do and so little time to do it in. I have all the respect (and jealousy) in the world for those teachers who get to spend more quality time with these creations.

Some of the other things I have seen made using LEGO Mindstorms include: A working scanner and printer, a three-speed transmission with clutch, and an automatic Sudoku solver. Just try looking up “LEGO Mindstorms” on YouTube and see what comes up. I was told once that in the 60’s, all the NASA engineers had worked with Erector Sets as kids. If little metal screws and beams can eventually land a man on the moon, I wonder what the kids who play with microcontrollers and code in their free time will come up with?

Basic Skills: Grouping

I’m going to share a tip that I am sure most people already know about. It’s a little command that I had thought everyone knew about and is common to most computer programs. Most people already know ‘copy’ and ‘paste’ but one equally important command is the command ‘group’. Most people familiar with page layout learn group very early on, but many teachers, especially those who learned computers as they went, don’t know about it.

Grouping saves a tremendous amount of time when you work with a lot of graphics, clip art and general objects within page layout programs or word processing. Let’s say you have a neat little logo that you made from clip art objects, a little bunny and an Easter egg for example. Let’s say as a teacher you need to make lots of copies of this little logo you just made as cut-outs, you would have to copy and paste every little bunny and paste all the copies, then repeat the process with the little eggs, making sure not to have anything out of place. Some might laugh at this but I just printed out two dozen little robot badges for my gifted and talented students. Instead, select the objects that you want to copy by either dragging them into a box by using control + click, then right-click and look for the ‘group’ feature. Now all of your objects will be tied together into one big object that you can copy, paste, rotate, or resize without having to re-invent the wheel.

Wireless LCD Touchscreen

Just found this great gadget out on the web; it’s a Wireless LCD touchscreen.  That’s all. It doesn’t play music, it doesn’t do video or the internet, or anything like that.  All it does is copy whatever is on your computer’s display and give you a touch screen. Now, I could do this with a tablet PC or an iPad with VNC installed. I think it could be another great unitasker, something that serves a purpose when paired up with an interactive whiteboard or  even just a projector. There are other devices that let you wirelessly write on the board, but those are little more than a wireless touchpad. I’m not saying I’ll give up my iPad yet, but this might be a great low cost alternative for those who want to interact with their whiteboards wirelessly without the bells and whistles of a tablet.

National Gallery of Writing

A few weeks ago I blogged about how Amazon is allowing writers to self-publish work directly to the online Kindle store.  While part of me worries what will become of the written word when anyone can publish their great American novel, a much larger part of me was excited that young and very talented writers would have an outlet for their work.  A third and diabolical part of me wanted a cut of the profits and buy the MacBook I have been eyeing this year…

Well, I guess my ethics will remain intact.  Another blogger turned me on to the Gallery of Writing, a creation of the National Council of the Teachers of English.  This site allows students to browse work by other writers, and also to contribute their own work.

Teachers can even start a “local gallery” where a group of students can publish and gather their work online.  A digital shelf of student-created work available to the entire world. All of this is provided for free.

So much for being a Fagin of child-authored literature. I will have to settle for being “that teacher who lets us write novels.”

Pi Day

pi pie


Spring is on its way in Wisconsin and it’s easy to tell from the signs.  For one thing, the robins have shown up in small flocks that will hopefully grow and fan out.  Another sign from nature, although less poetic, is that the skunks are out, their aroma drifting through the countryside.

We celebrated Pi Day on March 14 (3/14—get it?) and the kids had a great time when they came into my room and Hostess pies were hanging from the ceiling. The SMARTboard, again, is invaluable as I was able to put up descriptions and diagrams of what we were doing on the board. The lesson plan goes something like this:

Step 1: Print out 7 inch and 3.5 inch circles for each kid. Using clip art of pies works well too.

Step 2: Model on the board how you cut the “pie” in half and measure the diameter.

Step 3: Show the kids how to measure the “crust” of the pie to find the circumference.

Step 4: Have the kids divide the circumference by the diameter for one circle then the other.

Step 5: Explain to the kids that this number, pi, is found in all circles from the penny in their pocket to the solar system and is in fact, magic.

Step 6: Go to piday.org and show the kids pi to one million digits. It’s seriously neat.

Race to a Million

A lot of fun was had by my students in technology class. We are learning basic spreadsheets.

Now, spreadsheets tend to be boring. They are boring because the thought of listing a bunch of numbers and graphing tends to be all that it is used for. However, if you teach kids how spreadsheets work, I find that they can get a little more exciting.

I focused my lesson this week on teaching them the SUM feature. Common to all spreadsheets, SUM adds up numbers in whatever cell you want. My students were given a task: Spend a million dollars. Using SUM they were able to add up all the prices on the items they found on the internet. Houses, RVs, and game systems were all totaled up and automatically subtracted from their budget. By learning how to copy and paste cells, we were able to put our purchases into categories and create pie graphs of what we were spending our money on. Pie graphs changed every time we added or removed an item. For younger kids who needed to learn how to put things into categories and cells, making this file ahead of time might be better. Also, the internet has its limits; for buying real estate, newspapers are best.

How do I know that this lesson was successful? The kids were trying to sneak in at recess to keep working on their lists. As fun as Excel seems to this crowd, I think I may have some future accountants in my class. Good thing, too; tax season is coming up.

Winter Fun

The last few weeks we have gotten dumped on by a LOT of snow. Now, for some this is seen as a problem. Sure, things get canceled and driving is tough, but nothing beats an occasional snow day. I cook a big breakfast, put a meatloaf in the oven, and get caught up on all my work.

This also means lots of winter activities for the students. Our wonderful gym teacher Bonnie Weyer has the kids snowshoeing and cross country skiing through the outdoor classroom. The pond full of tadpoles, turtles, and bullheads freezes over and we all go ice-skating.

The cold froze the snow into a hard crust, so the students broke it up into chunks with a shovel (yes, a big metal one) and with the skill of a professional quarry piled the rocks of snow into a fortress bigger than my apartment complete with eight-foot watchtower. Then later, after a warm spell, the snow become soft and ‘squeaky’ and we were able to make bricks using plastic tubs. In the span of two recesses, we checked ‘build an igloo’ off my bucket list.

The highlight for the 5th and 6th grade kids though is an annual trip to Bruce Mound. Bruce Mound is a county-owned ski hill where kids can race down small hills and crash to their hearts’ content. Every year I get a bit braver, too. This year I managed to go up and down a ski jump in one piece. Using a hand-held Flip camera we chronicled our visit. In the process of making the video the students learned a bit about production and video editing and managed to create a great video ‘thank you’ to the people who sponsor the trip.

Note: If the video link to YouTube below doesn’t work for you, click here to watch the video.

Three Ways to Make Comic Books in Your Classroom

My students and I were reading a selection of the book Lunch Money by Andrew Clements, when the comment came up if we could make our own comic books like the boy in the story had. Just like in the book, making comics seemed like a very easy idea, but quickly became very complicated. As a comic book nut myself I know that a lot of work goes into the art, writing and details of a comic before it goes to print and before the books are made, so I had reservations about making them. But using basic desktop publishing software you can have everyone churning out the funny pages.

First, ask yourself how hard you or your kids want to work on this task. As a lesson plan, it works great for teaching the sequence of events in a story, but depending on the quality you want it can chew up a lot of time.

The first method is the simplest. In Microsoft Word or the page layout/word processing program of choice, draw three or four boxes to make a panel. Then right-click and “send to back” so that they are out of the way. You also may want to make them “in front of text” or “behind text” — for some reason Word always seems to want to put my images in line with the text. Then drop in clip art cartoon characters and speech bubbles. Using functions like “rotate” and “flip” will allow you to have the characters looking at different things.

Method two is the same as method one, the only difference is that instead of clip art, you drop in photos that you took with a digital camera. The kids love to dress up as heroes and villains. As for costumes, an old bed sheet and some tin foil go a long way.

The third method involves using a program such as Microsoft Paint. This is by far the most time-consuming method, but gives the best results. Open your digital picture into a painting program or use the drawing tools that come with many of the page layout tools. I like to use my SmartBoard because I can zoom right in and get those fine lines. Then using the paintbrush, trace over the action. When you have added all the lines you want, select the original image and delete it. What you are left with is a great hand-drawn image, traced from your photo. Then just drop the images into Word or Publisher and add speech bubbles.

Comic made with a paint program.

Comic made with a paint program.

Choose Your Own Adventure!

If you were in elementary school in the era where video games were far less impressive (where Mario and Donkey Kong were cutting edge), you know about Choose Your Own Adventure books. One would always start the story in a particularly bad situation, like a plane crash or alien invasion, and at the end of each page it gives you a choice and a page number to go with that choice. For example, do you try and fight the cyborg-zombie gorilla—turn to page 263— or reason with him?—turn to page 174. Apparently, they are still published. However, I remember going through dozens of them as a kid, always making sure that I had my fingers in about 8 different pages to make sure that I never made a really bad choice.

My students just happened to be studying cause and effect in reading class—how one thing leads to another in a story. They also just happened to be working on PowerPoint in technology class. Now, I like PowerPoint and other presentation programs, but I can’t help feeling that they are often incorrectly used. Most presentations are long, dry affairs that cause people to “turn off” during a presentation. Mostly because PowerPoint presentations are made to be passive and not interactive, a presenter talks about what is on the slide, goes to the next slide, repeat. I find they are often linear and dull.

In an attempt to make PowerPoint more interesting, I showed students how to use a rather forgotten feature of any of the Office programs: hyperlinks. A student can easily link to different slides using hyperlinks and change the linear and often boring presentation into an interactive one. Instead of listing the characters one after another, they pick the characters from a menu, and so on.

This all came together one day when a good part of my class was out on a ski-club trip. Using Inspiration, a great graphic organizer application, we created a story with several dozen events, each with two possible outcomes. By making slides and linking the choices to yet more slides, we were able to generate a creative writing project that demonstrated cause and effect. The result was a game where students could choose how the stories could shape up. And now the result of our labor: The Flight of Icarus. (Clicking on the link will download a PDF.)

The Flight of Icarus: Click on the image to follow the adventure. (PDF download)

Somehow, I Am Getting a Cut of This

I have a gigantic book given to me by my wife a few birthdays ago. This gigantic book is the 2009 copy of The Writer’s Market. It tells writers where they can send novels for submission. Now I was reading the blogs the other day when I came across this story about author Amanda Hocking, who has been publishing her books directly to Amazon and onto Kindles everywhere. I know firsthand how the Kindle and eBooks in general act as a great equalizer. People can read any book they want without people judging them.

Here is where teaching comes in, as well as my nefarious plan: Every year dozens of students produce short stories and novels, while very good, are not exactly marketable in my big book of publishers. I have two students I am thinking about right now who filled notebooks with stories. We could easily type those up, edit them, and, using Amazon’s handy five minute self-publishing site, get them on the market without any overhead cost. This would make a fantastic opportunity for my gifted and talented students who crave some way to get their words out. Combine couple of good high school students to edit and another few good art students for cover art, and you have quite the project!

Granted, the royalty is something like $2 per book sold, but what better incentive is there for a young writer than getting a $10 check in the mail because people liked your book? I have a sneaking suspicion that more than a few copies will be bought by grandmothers. If only I could get some sort of finder’s fee … but I suppose for the sake of the profession I will probably have to offer the books for free or use them to help fund field trips.

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