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

Archive for August, 2011

The Outdoor Classroom in Summer

Yum! Corn grown by Greenwood students.

I have posted before about the outdoor classroom at my school. The outdoor classroom was created almost on a whim when our school was built back in the 70s, a patch of land next to school which could have just as easily been more parking or another soccer field was instead set aside in order to preserve an outdoor education setting. The classroom is a few acres (or about three city blocks for those of you who don’t know how much area a horse can plow in a day) which contain an orchard, a well-established forest, and a pond, which is home to ducks, tadpoles and lots of bullhead catfish. The students use the classroom year-round; fishing in the fall, ice skating on the pond and snowshoeing in the winter. Thanks to being fenced in destructive deer are kept out and other animals like foxes, rabbits and birds are allowed in.

Last spring as part of a horticulture project that my gifted and talented students did, the students refurbished two raised flower beds in the orchard. They tore up the weeds that had taken over and planted beans, corn, pumpkins, and sunflowers. We left the seedlings over the summer to develop. Now, wonder of wonders: the garden looks like a big wall of green. Corn eight feet high and sunflowers that look like small trees; the beans wrapped around everything; the pumpkins exploding out into the lawn.

A "wall of green" in the outdoor classroom.


I checked up on the garden this week and filled my basket with fresh sweet corn and pole beans. The fruit trees planted decades ago by the founders on my school were drooping from the weight of ripe plums, apples, and pears. I wish that school would start a little early so my students could share in this harvest, but among the staff that I shared my basket with, it makes a fine fringe benefit. Hopefully they will stay green a little longer until the students show up next week.



I am a big fan of setting goals, but meeting them has never been a big deal for me. Maybe it was growing up talentless in a family of athletes, but to me goals always implied that the destination was more important than the journey. That said, I tend to start the year with a set of things I want to work for and expand from there. If a goal is abandoned, so be it. The point is that I keep pushing myself, knowing that frustration and distraction, like roadside attractions, can be just as memorable as reaching your destination.

My goals for this year are as follows:

  1. Completely abandon the paper and pencil grade book that forces me to enter my grade twice, first in the paper grade book and secondly into the electronic one.  This had led to a last minute scramble at the end of the year that I only survived through the pity of my co-workers.
  2. Use my school’s new RTI (response to intervention) period to expand interest in the following programs within my classroom:
    1. Student Newspaper/Blog
    2. Reading Club
    3. Science and Engineering Club
    4. Create a self-directed Khan Academy program within our school as an alternative to advanced math classes.
    5. Use my Moodle Page more efficiently, hopefully working in some grammar lessons, as well as a way to create a portfolio-based writing project.
    6. Develop the best Neville Longbottom costume possible for Halloween.  How I will manage to carry the sword of Gryffindor, a cactus, and a toad needs to be sorted out.
    7. Build a massive igloo with my students using Pi to calculate its volume and estimate the cubic feet of snow used to build it.  Knowing how March is in Wisconsin, we might even do this on Pi Day (3-14)
    8. Teach most, if not all, of my class a simple C-F-G7 chord progression on the ukulele.
    9. Use my iPad to better organize my lesson planning and instruction.
    10. Manage to keep my classroom from turning into a junkyard by the end of the year.
    11. Build a lot of great memories with the minimum number of regrets and missed chances.

I can’t help but feel that most of these are goals for myself. I don’t know yet what my goals will be for my students. I guess I am less concerned about what my students goals are, only that they have a goal for themselves, that they push themselves and try a little bit harder this year than they did last year. I guess that’s a goal that my students and I can share in.

What are your feelings going into the year? What are your plans for completing them?

Setting Up the Classroom

It’s that time of year where I feel like I have a lot in common with sparrows, salmon, and lemmings. I feel the desire to tack sheets of paper to bulletin boards, arrange desks, and make name-tags. School is just far enough away that I am not panicking, but getting close enough that I feel the need to prepare for the panic that will come at the end of the month, leading up to a sleepless night before the first day of school running through the first day in my head over and over again.

I read an article recently from a person in higher ed claiming that perhaps if our classrooms were more comfortable places, students would be more apt to learn. Part of me thinks his idea of couches instead of desks could never fly because half of my students would be asleep before I started the lesson. But how do we balance making a classroom an interesting and comfortable place for our students while at the same time directing their attention to the lessons? How to we make room for lecture, where the teacher is the center, and group-work where students need to have their own meetings? It’s made even more interesting for me because I am in an open-concept school. I have two small cabinets and some shelves to store everything I need for all my lessons.

My solution has been to make sure I always have a small reading area for collaboration and down-time and at least one large table for small group instruction and meetings with students. Then I train the kids the first day on how to put the room into “pod mode,” “theater mode,” and “classroom-mode” for whatever we might need to do. By the end of the year I have the students trained like a good pit crew, able to change up the room in three minutes or less.

In what ways do you adapt your room for learning? Do you focus on instruction or groups? If you had one wish for your classroom (mine would be another wall to mount a hammock) what would it be?

Portable Whiteboard Options

I recently visited an urban school  in southern Wisconsin. Like so many other schools, they are trying to integrate technology into their instruction. They had several well-stocked carts full of wireless laptops, a projector in every classroom, and a lab full of recycled web-only computers. I was very impressed by everything that I saw and marveled at how a large school like this had so much in common with my little school in Greenwood, with its single large room and buggies trotting down the street. One concern that I realized was universal was the installation of SmartBoards or other interactive whiteboards.

Most of the popular interactive whiteboards, such as my own SmartBoard, are large touch screens that have an image projected on them. Most of these can cost upwards of $1200, a very large investment, especially when you add the cost of a projector, a computer to be connected the board, the wiring for everything, and mounting equipment for the board and the projector.


There is little doubt that interactive whiteboards improve instruction and make lessons more engaging, but when a teacher moves to a different room, grade, building, or leaves the district: where does this expensive piece of equipment go? Often, the teacher that has moved, who has put their time into working this technology, has to give it up as a prerequisite of moving. I know of several schools that find it easier to put off installing whiteboards than deal with the politics of eventually moving them.

Being the type of person that sees a problem and can’t help but try and solve it, I decided to look into portable alternatives to whiteboards for teachers that move to different classrooms, mobile classrooms (teachers who work from carts), and schools that want to share an interactive whiteboard over several grades easily.

The most exciting options for me come from Mimio and eBeam. Both of these companies produce products that turn any surface into an interactive whiteboard. They do this by projecting the computer screen and then attaching a sensor to the surface you wish to make interactive. Many of these products fit into a small case. Several of them are wireless and require little in the way of setup, so they are ideal for portable solutions.

eBeam Engage

The eBeam Engage

I was particularly impressed by the products from eBeam. They produce a small wireless sensor that attaches magnetically to your whiteboard, as well as the full-featured eBeam Engage, which I loved because it comes complete with speakers and a combination wireless track pad and mini keyboard—a gizmo that would save me lots of time in my room.

All of these conclusions are based on the company websites. I would love a chance to use them firsthand. In particular, I would like to know if there are problems with glare on the typically shiny whiteboard surface. I’d also like to know what solutions there are for a school like mine where we still have lime-green chalkboards. If you are using anything like this, please comment on your experiences. I would love to hear how they work!


There are people who follow Facebook and confine themselves to the things that their ‘friends’ link to. Then there are people who use Twitter to follow the links of others, but due to the limited nature of tweets, rarely have in-depth information and commentary.

Then there are the real geeks of the world: pathetic people like me that use Google Reader to subscribe to RSS feeds. RSS feeds let you get articles from your favorite news websites as they are written. By using an RSS reader, such as Google Reader, you can subscribe to multiple news sources that all intermingle on the same page. In a sense, a RSS reader allows you take your favorite newspapers, tabloids and other news sources, cut out all the columns you actually read, discard all the things you don’t, and paste them all into your own custom-made newspaper. My personal paper contains the latest in educational technology, gadgets, blog feeds from several teacher-only social networks, and of course the gossip on the latest season of Doctor Who.

The genius of RSS feeds is that they allow you to get updates from web pages without having to actually go to those websites and waste valuable time navigating them. This cuts the surfing for information, and instead delivers the good stuff directly to you on a silver platter. However, there are websites that I rarely go to that I would nonetheless like to be informed about. A company’s product page or a school’s home page, for example. How can get updates on web pages without having to go to them? The answer is a website called Page2RSS. You simply put in the web address of the website you would like updates on, and it creates a RSS feed for that site, even if the site does not have one. You then get updates whenever that site is updated and saves you the trouble of periodically checking websites.

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