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

Archive for May, 2011

Bookmarks in the Cloud

A teacher’s day is never really over, is it? We go home, grade homework well into the night, and can’t enjoy a film or a trip to a museum without trying to see how we can fit this into a lesson plan or organize into a field trip.

You never know when you will find a really great website at home, when a website you use at work will be needed in your living room. Keeping all your links straight can be difficult. I know of more than a few teachers that keep all their links saved to a Word file they take around with them on a flash drive.

But there is a better way.

Social bookmarking is keeping all your bookmarks on the cloud. Sites like Digg, Delicious, StumbleUpon, and Reddit; Google Bookmarks; and the king of them all, Twitter, are all different flavors of this concept. All of them operate on the same basic principle: save your links to the web where you can access them anywhere, and while there, share them with others.

Bookmarks anytime, anywhere.

Here are some ways that social bookmarks can work for you:

1) You find a website at a conference and link to it using your work laptop. It then shows up on your work desktop, your phone, and your machine at home.

2) You are part of a group collecting information on a topic; every member of the team finds online resources and shares them automatically.

3) You collect lots of bookmarks, and are at a loss as to how to organize them. Using the tags feature common to most social bookmarking services, you can index every link using your own words. For example, you might link to Weekly Reader’s latest issue and tag it with the following: rabbits, airplanes, Hispanic, census, Jim Carrey, and penguins. Then, years from now, when you are doing a lesson on rabbits, you click on the ‘rabbit’ tag and find all the articles that you have ever found on rabbits, along with the Weekly Reader story, show up.

Here’s a video that also explains the concept of social bookmarking.

Wireless Outage

It happened this Monday. Due to testing we were set to use our new netbooks and wireless had been working fine all day.  Then, without warning, minutes before I was to teach group of sixth graders the wireless cut out. We tried restarting the router but to no avail, and my impatient little cherubs were not happy about it and had absolutely no patience for me. “What do you mean it doesn’t work”? I could almost hear them say.  “Starbucks never has this problem!” I thought I heard them whisper. Then again, in my hurried state, I don’t know what I heard; only an unhappy rabble of children who wanted their internet now.
I wanted to tell them that in my day we had nothing better than flimsy little floppy disks and if you so much as looked at them the wrong way you lost all your data and we JUST LIVED WITH IT.  The internet was on ONE computer that shared a phone line with the office and went out every time someone picked up the phone and we LOVED IT.

Wikimedia Commons

What have I learned from this outage? From running between two different rooms to get something done only to have it all blow up in my face and being accosted by angry students who blame me for it all?  Being a reflective type, I have considered the following:

1.     I need to remind students that this whole internet thing, and in fact computers and technology in general will fail and what matters is that you handle it with grace. Something I have not fully mastered myself. It’s like I tell the kids: “If you get your leg caught in a bear trap, at least you’ll make a great pirate for Halloween”

2.     I need to plan for the worst when it comes to these things. Teaching technology means that a power outage, a blip in our network, or any other number of little disasters could turn my lessons upside down. I need to be prepared for the worst. Activities that while technology related could be adapted to work without internet, like going on nature walks with the digital cameras, or collecting data that could be used in a future spreadsheet.

Oh, internet readers! Is there something that you do when everything that can go wrong does? Is there any advice you could give this poor soul that like his students just expected everything to work?

Google Scholar

I run across a problem all the time when my students need to find information. They jump right to Google and pick the first thing that comes up. This tends to be Wikipedia, which generally gives good information, but when it comes to writing reports, it collects sources—many of them questionable—rather than provides them. So it does not make for good research papers.

But like so many things. Google is the cause and the answer to many of my problems. Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) is a search engine that searches only scholarly information on the net—papers written by people and not an anonymous army of contributors.

Give it a look sometime; there’s lots of good stuff to be found, written by real people. And when it comes to the internet, when can you say that?

Springtime Wind-Down

Spring arrives in Wisconsin in about a week. Two weeks ago, there was snow in the air and I had to brush off my car every morning. Today, all the leaves are green and students run outside in shirtsleeves even though the temperature has not yet caught up with the trees. The fields are all turned up and freshly plowed on my way to work. As soon as we shake the last frost from this long and cruel winter, the corn will be in the ground.  Even though the farmers I pass are about to plant, I feel like it’s harvest time; I’m rushing to make sure that everything is ready for the 3 months of summer to come. I have testing to muscle through, reading assessments to conduct, and final projects to put the polish on. The students, for their part, threaten to shut down in the face of the coming summer, and I have to keep pushing them on, reminding them that the year is not over yet.

In many ways, I wish the year were not over yet. Five wonderful teachers whom I have come to respect will be retiring this year. They are retiring for reasons that have nothing to do with their outstanding work and dedication, but rather because of a political trend that is best argued by pundits and lawyers, not by me. Over 100 years of combined teaching experience leaves my building this year and we are poorer for it. With all the talk about accountability, test scores, and the like, I just wish people remembered this simple truth: You learn from people you care about, and those people are not easily replaceable. 

The year keeps trudging on; the leaves are getting bigger and the students more restless. And just like ending of every year, I look at the ever-growing to-do list and wonder how I will manage to get it all done.

My [School’s] Netbooks Arrive!

While we are on the subject of netbooks, my school just received our first cart of netbooks. The spoiled high school students have had two carts for years now! It was about time.

The netbooks have actually been in the building for some time, but we had to get a few issues handled when it came to integrating these machines into our Wi-Fi network. However, things were soon running great with all of the students logged on, able to see their network drives and working happily on writing projects and Glogster.

I will say one thing, despite the netbooks’ small screens, I like that students have ample desk space sitting in the classroom. This allows them to have a book or a notebook next to them while they are working—something that a large keyboard, monitor, and mouse in the computer lab makes difficult. It also lets me stagger my instruction. I can have a half of my class finishing up their spelling while the other half works on their papers without having to move between two rooms.

The netbook's small size works well on students' desks.

After my first few days teaching with netbooks, here are my recommendations for getting any netbook for the classroom:

1)    Make sure that you pound the idea of keeping cords untangled into students’ little skulls. If the back of the cart becomes rat’s nest of cables, the next step is that they don’t get plugged in. We now have a new job in my classroom along with the milkman and the librarian: the AV guy. The AV guy has to make sure that the cart is in tip-top shape at all times and observes people removing and plugging their computers in.

2)    Make sure that you train all the kids to know where the WiFi button is on their laptops. In case they can’t log in, it’s the first place they will need to look.

3)    Teach them how to mute their machines. Our HP mini netbooks actually have a little mute light that turns on which makes this easy.

4)    Teach them to use the full screen feature of Internet Explorer by hitting F11. It frees up a lot of space and makes using the tiny screens bearable.

I’ll let you know how things go with the other classes, since I will no doubt be giving a lot of talks to the other classrooms on how to use our wonderful new toys.

The Chromebook

Google has been releasing one new barrage after another against Apple on the mobile front with new ‘flavors’ of their Android OS, such as Honeycomb and, I kid you not, Ice Cream Sandwich. They’ve also announced that we will soon be able to plug USB devices into tablets.

But what blew me away completely was Google’s announcement of their business-minded Chromebook. Google will rent you a basic netbook made by Acer or Samsung for around $20 a month that runs their new cloud-based Chrome OS. The kicker for me? For that $20 a month, you get the laptop, access to online storage, Google documents, Gmail, and complete technical support. Google will fix it if it breaks and the computer will even update its software via the cloud so that they are always up to date and secure.

This is a shot across the bow at Microsoft who is in the business of selling expensive, individual packages of software that you have to support. Google gives you the computer and the software for a low monthly fee. Basically, Microsoft is the video store that sells you DVDs and Google is trying to be Netflix, giving you a subscription to your computer.

Would I personally do this? Probably not, but for institutions like schools that only need computers do perform basic and increasingly cloud-based tasks, I have to say it sounds interesting. Doing the math it would cost about $240 a year to provide a student with a netbook, storage, software and support. That is a really tempting price for schools, all things considered. Will Google prevail, or will Microsoft? Maybe Microsoft should ask Blockbuster how business has been lately…

Ecology with Project Noah

The Project Noah app on the iPod Touch.

The Project Noah app on the iPod Touch.

In preparation for my coming iPad, I have been playing around with some useful apps. There really isn’t a lot of thought behind it; I just search for things that might be relevant to what I am teaching.

My science and engineering students are beginning their biology unit and I came across a great app and site called Project Noah, an organization of citizen-scientists that exists on the web. Visitors to the site use a computer, smartphone or iPod to upload pictures of a plant or animal that they have spotted in the wild. Then other users comment on it and identify it. Along with the photo comes automatically generated latitude and longitude that then broadcasts to the rest of the scientific community that yes, your animal was found here.

One way of thinking about it is geocaching, but for animals. You can then go online and see all of the different things near you or around the world. Kids get a real kick out of seeing the world map on the site with their result showing up. With the iPod app, I can have a small army of students contributing their information to this as well. That weird crawly thing they found under a rock? Post it on Project Noah. Maybe someone knows what it is.

Project Noah

Project Noah in action

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