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

Archive for April, 2011

Digital Photography, Part 2: Taking a Good Photo

Teaching kids how to use a camera is only a fraction of what it takes to bring photography into the classroom. On a recent trip to a conservatory, I witnessed a little girl taking pictures of animal pictures on display. Meanwhile, while she was desperately trying to capture someone else’s photo, the animal in question, a live, adorable little baby quail was less than three feet from her in full view. I have a theory that children these days don’t see cameras as a tool for art so much as a tool for capturing information or recording that a moment even happened. This leads to a lot more photos, but of very low quality.

Students can give each other feedback on their photos.

I used to take my students outside and let them photograph whatever, hoping that quantity would lead to quality. Anyone who knows anything about the YouTube generation knows that this is a bad idea. Generally the photos would be of the class clown doing something funny and a bunch of students standing around him in a circle attempting to capture it paparazzi-style. This led to me making “rules” that all photos need to follow.

  1. EYE LEVEL: look your subject in the eye.
  2. GOOD BACKGROUND: backgrounds must be simple and non-distracting. The most distracting thing you can have in a photograph is other people, especially other photographers.
  3. RULE OF THIRDS: never have your subject dead center- have them a little to the right or left, otherwise it ends up looking like an ID photo. The only exception is when you are taking a photo of an experiment (like the science fair)- then have it in the middle.
  4. BE A BOSS!: order people around, tell them where you want them in the picture, tell them to get into better light etc… the only exception is when you are taking pictures of things like bears.
  5. GET UP CLOSE: make sure your subject fills the picture, again unless it’s something like a bear or a skunk.

Any rules you like your kids to follow when using cameras?

Field Trips as Embedded Reporting

Really great field trips can change a kid’s life.  The question that we are always asked is: “Where are we going to use this?”  For me, I like the field trips where you can confidently say back, “Right here.”

That occurred for us last week when we took a trip the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Home of the Badgers. The UW is ranked as one of the best schools for research in the world in many different fields including engineering, biotechnology, and nanotechnology and every two years they open it up to the public to see it all. The UW Engineering Expo goes on for 3 days and highlights hundreds of topics for students of all ages.

For us, this is a big trip.  Madison is three hours away by bus so the trip lasted nearly twelve hours, from the time we got them on the bus at 7:00AM to the time they were picked up at 6:30 that evening.  To make the trip more interesting (as if detecting radioactive Beanie Babies with a Geiger counter and riding on top of an electric snowmobile were not interesting enough), I wanted to make this a reporting activity.

Most field trips end with the teacher asking the students to write about something they saw on the trip.  I decided to take it a step further and have the kids report while we were on the trip.  I did this by setting up a blog on Blogger.com dedicated to the trip. Then I set it up for mobile posting, meaning any kid with a cell phone could text updates to the blog from anywhere. I passed out digital cameras for each group and gave them instructions to record everything they could.

I had wanted to have a wireless hotspot for the bus, but sadly none of our local carriers stepped up to the plate and lent us one for the day. Instead we had one student who borrowed his mother’s smartphone (which I coveted), a few iPod Touches (including mine, which was loaded with the fantastic BlogPress software), and my netbook which managed to save all the kid’s posts as drafts until we could find a wireless hotspot.

At first, things went fine. We were posting live from the bus and we even had people from the school and the community following our trip.  Posts like, “We just passed Wisconsin Dells!” and “Mr. Briggs hates sing-alongs” were big hits back home.

But at some point we must have upset the robot hive-mind of Google’s servers and suddenly all mobile and email posting was stopped without warning or comment. I have yet to find out exactly why, which is bad form from Google. If you suspect something is up, you could at least send me an email; really, Google. I still managed to get lots of posts made to my classroom blog from the trip. And the next day all of the students who had missed the chance to post on the bus managed to show everyone on the internet what they had seen from school.

Was this a win or loss for my original plan? Well, I would say that if my goal was to find a new way to share what we had seen with the community and the school, then yes, I met it. Just not as quickly and instantly as I would have liked. Next time, I’m sticking with WordPress and ponying up the $10 for their mobile posting option.

You can see the results of my experiment on our original field trip blog here: http://greenwoodexpo.blogspot.com/

And on my classroom blog here: http://gwbriggs.wordpress.com/


There are times when I think I must be able to see the future, but never in a useful way, like lottery numbers. A few weeks ago I was wondering if there were some way to get all of my student’s pictures to be put on a mobile hard drive wirelessly. I pictured some sort of WiFi lunchbox that could be taken on field trips so all of our photos would be in one place without the hassle of copying over everything. Well, those dastardly wizards at Eye Fi have come up with a solution to my problem and robbing me of the patent rights. Their newest 8 gigabyte SD card will wirelessly send its photos directly to your iPod, iPad or Android device.  So now I could hand off half a dozen cameras loaded with EyeFi cards while at the zoo. Then on the bus ride home, all the photos would be magically uploaded to my iPad which I could then pass around for the students to look at. If it’s a long bus ride, they could write blog posts on that same iPad about what they saw and fill the rest of the school in on their trip. No cables, no computer, no hassle, and all of the photos are dumped on a mobile internet-enabled platform. So much for the BriggsBox…

Cloud Storage for Everyone

Earlier this year Best Buy become the excusive distributor of the pogoplug. The pogoplug connects to a hard drive and then instantly makes all the media on that hard drive available to anyone on the internet. It’s a “cloud in a box” that allows you to share all of your files, videos, and music to any web-enabled device, streaming the video and audio live over the net. Basically, you are your own YouTube.

Now, Buffalo, the makers of really great networking hardware released their first pogo device, the CloudStor, which uses the same technology but contains up to 2 terabytes of data and comes with a USB 3.0 connector, letting you expand its media streaming ability to 8 terabytes (that’s enough to fill about 1000 iPods) by adding an array of hard drives.

What floors me is value you get with these devices. For under $300 you can bring your school’s AV club into direct competition with YouTube. Sporting events, morning announcements, school plays, band recitals and even French lessons could be shared on the web without having to make things too public. Most of this tech has security measures and fair use built in so it should be safe to use. Imagine if your kids working on their Spanish could listen to their conversation tapes via their phone? Or Grandma catching the last game on her iPad? With this device anyone can be their own media outlet. Throw some commercials in and it may even help the school pay for the bandwidth it’s bound to eat up.

Tobii Eye Tracking

TobiiTouch screens are so 2010. Earlier this year, Chinese computer manufacturer and heir to the IBM Thinkpad name, Lenovo, released a laptop that you could control with eye movement. You read me right. You just look at what you want to click on an the cursor goes there. What effect could this have on education? Think of all the physically disabled students that we will soon be able to help with this new technology. The company that created this technology for Lenovo, Tobii, has now released a stand-alone version of their eye tracking hardware that can attach to any computer.  There is now price tag yet (which probably means it costs a small fortune) but I can see this technology becoming a cornerstone in assistive tech.

Field Trip to Grassland!

My gifted and talented students went on a field trip to Grassland Dairy, located down the highway from Greenwood. This local factory supplies much of central Wisconsin with butter. They make, process, package, and ship massive amounts of the stuff for many other companies around the country as well. If you had butter on your toast this morning, chances are good that it might be Grassland Butter. Grassland is also home to a massive automated packaging system, complete with several large robotic arms and miles of conveyer belts. It was the robots that brought my kids to the dairy. For many of them, to see these massive and complicated machines in action gives them an idea where technology can take them and how it affects us even locally.

Students visit Grassland Dairy in Wisconsin

Ready to see technology at work at Grassland Dairy.

The people at Grassland were happy to show us around and explained to my students how all of the incredibly complicated parts of the factory work together. One of my students, a fourth grader who built a robot that sorted LEGO bricks by color, said, “That box sorter works just like my machine!”  We all were floored when we saw that the robot arms that load up boxes without fail are all programmed to within 1/1000 of an inch. “We are going to need to learn our math,” remarked another student.

Look at your local businesses. There is tremendous, real-world application of technology right under our noses. Think of the math involved in stocking a grocery or running a restaurant. The student who loves cars but won’t work on his math might have a change of heart if he is taken to an auto body shop to see just how much of the job is ordering parts and making estimates. Just think what your class could learn from the workers in your community if you take them off campus from time to time.

Teaching Photography (Part 1)

There must be something in the air right now. Perhaps it’s the warm-up that is finally hitting the Badger State after such a long and brutally cold winter. On my way to work, I have to avoid hitting robins, ducks, cranes, and red-winged blackbirds—seasonal arrivals and long missed. The snow is slowly receding and the playground has become a giant mud-puddle. Unlike many schools, we only have a small strip of sidewalk to keep kids from the thawing turf, much of which ends up being tracked into the school on tall rubber farm-boots.

parts of a cameraIt’s in the spring that I like to start teaching digital photography. It ties really well with the ongoing science fair projects and allows students to record their experiments and use the photos for their demonstration booths.

I don’t like to give the kids cameras right away. First, I train them up on the basic parts of a camera, and some of the more basic functions. My favorite cameras to use in the classroom right now are the $70 Kodak cameras. Why? The fewer the features, the less likely that the students will goof up any of the settings. And really, what kinds of photos do the kids need to take? They need a simple point and shoot where the flash is easy to turn on and off and a decent “auto” function. Too many features and you end up with a disk full of blurry photos from accidentally leaving it on “landscape,” or shot after shot of flashbulbs reflected on aquarium glass (the flash can’t be good for the fish can it?).

I give the kids a good once-over of the parts of a camera, how and when to turn the flash on, and how to operate the shutter. Then, the most important part of the lesson: How to get the photos off the thing!  I don’t know how many times I have seen students plug in camera after camera looking for their lost photo. A great way to get kids to understand how files and folders work is to show them how to copy photos from their camera to their network drives. Basic copying and pasting is vital to get down, or else you end up with a lot of headaches when you start to edit the photos.

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