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

Archive for September, 2011

Lessons From my Typewriter

Through college, I worked as tech support for the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh journalism department. I was an education major, but looking back on it, a lot of that job and that department rubbed off on me. One of my favorite professors in the journalism department would still have his students lay out pages by cutting and pasting articles with a scissors and rubber cement. He often complained that with tools like modern computers and page layout, most of his students never appreciated how much easier their craft had become. I think that’s even truer with my students, many of whom have never seen a TV screen that was not flat, never dialed a rotary phone, and never had to be taught how a tape player worked.

But if I learned one lesson in that job, it was to hold on to those old tools of the trade. You never know when they might come in handy.

I still have two manual typewriters. One is my grandmother’s Underwood typewriter that she used as the accountant for the Richland Dairy Co-op. It’s made of black rubber, enamel, and cast iron; a hundred years old and still working fine. The other is a portable Olympia typewriter that I got for $10 at Goodwill. It’s in mint condition with the original manual and cleaning kit. I keep the Olympia around specifically to punish students who misbehave on the computers, but it doesn’t work.

They like my typewriter too much.

A week ago I was short on computers due to MAPS testing taking over the labs. And being short on netbooks, kids had to use my typewriter for our exercise in writing an outline. They loved it. They loved the click and clack of it, the little bell that rang, the instant-printing that went along with it. For them, it must have seemed like some kind of noisy metal computer with a printer attached to it! It was not long before a team of boys were huddled around the machine, giving pointers to the person doing the typing. For once, my boys were having to think every keystroke through before they punched a key and it became a team effort to avoid mistakes in spelling or format.

They walked away with a sense of wonder about how the machine worked, and more importantly, an appreciation for how wonderful a tool a computer is. How many of the things like underlining, centering, and justification are taken for granted? The other day a student asked me if he could use my “old-fashioned metal computer.” My old professor friend would be proud.

An Audio Conundrum

For quite some time I have used Moodle in my classrom. Moodle is a great free and open-source online classroom suite. It allows me to have a safe place for my students to share and interact with open another on the web and also hand in assignments.

One of the great tools attached to Moodle was a sound-recording plug-in called NanoGong. (Moodle? NanoGong? Who names these things?)

NanoGong let me record my students and greatly sped up the process of our thrice-yearly running records. In many ways, this was a great replacement for a stack of audiotapes.

Until the new version of Moodle axed NanoGong.

What do I do now? How do I record my students with the least amount of effort? There are a few options for recording audio in my classroom.

  1. Use Audacity, a free audio application, to record my students, then have them upload the audio via Moodle.
  2. Have the students use my iPad to record their audio on a handy app called DropVox, which not only records them, but also automatically uploads the file to the cloud.
  3. Invest in a digital audio recorder. Several options exist; most seem marketed to college students or reporters and are far too complicated for most of my students. In this case, features and lots of buttons are bad. Although I did find one that looks like an old-timey microphone and seems designed just for students.

I ended up using DropVox. Sure, it robs me of my precious tablet, but it has just one button, which is pretty student-proof. I also like not having to connect anything. The audio files are right there waiting for me.

Keeping Notes

I heard somewhere that a teacher has to perform several thousand tasks every school day. I don’t know how true that is, but I sure do feel overwhelmed from time to time. I find keeping track of all details of my day, keeping track of what to do and organizing my thoughts difficult sometimes. My wife would say that I am predisposed by my gender to be disorganized and unable to hold more than a few thoughts in my head at a time. Again, I don’t know how true this is. I do know that many times I have found myself in the staff room with no idea as to why I was there.

Always looking for a novel solution to the problem of holding a million things in my head, I thought I would take a few note-taking solutions for a spin. I found two that seem to work for me. Both are simple enough that I actually use them. Both use tags and a great search feature to organize everything so that I can actually find what I bothered to write down.

The first is Simplenote and works as its name implies: simply. After an account is set up, one types up their note and pops a tag on it to index it later. That’s it. For me, it works because it does not confine me with too many features or attempt to get me to conform to an interface. No links, fancy colors or features; just text, organized. Best of all, Simplenote works with the cloud so my iPad at work, my iPod at home, and any computer I use all have the same notes. That means I can get ideas down quickly before they evaporate and find them again wherever I am.


Another great option I am playing with is the popular note-taking service Evernote. Evernote is similar to Simplenote in that it allows you to make notes on any device and organizes them by tags. But it does not stop there; it allows you to create separate notebooks for, say, school and work. It allows you to tag them with the location so you can know where you took that note. It can attach pictures or audio clips, for those of us who prefer to keep track of ideas through voice recordings. It also goes farther than Simplenote with how you can format your notes and share them with co-workers and family. I’m sure there are even more features that I have not even touched yet.


So which do I use? Simplenote, which has all the complexity of a sticky-note; or Evernote, which is far more versatile? They both have their uses, but in the long run, I think I might lean towards Evernote, just because my ideas often include pictures and links and are often shared with others.

But part of me wishes that I could turn off all those features 90% of the time and just have a blank screen to fill with my thoughts, and for that, I make sure to keep a notepad handy.

If you want something with more features, my favorite website, lifehacker, has a great roundup of note-taking apps, including good old pencil and paper.


A wonderful app I have been using lately is TeacherPal. It is indeed a friend to me. I discovered this free app a while ago, but never got much of a chance to use it. For the most part, it is a graphical classroom management app that allows you to make classes, take attendance, assign grades, and take notes on student behavior.

Now, I did not intend to use this much. Like most schools, we already have a web-based attendance and grading suite made right here in Wisconsin, called Skyward. But being web-based it is tricky and often cumbersome to use on a tablet. TeacherPal just looks great. My classroom is organized by large thumbnail photos of my students. I tap one and it gives me all their attendance info, lets me take notes on their behavior or reading scores, see what their grades have been like, and even send an email to a parent.

I still am going to use Skyward for grading and attendance because I have to, and because I am not going to do the same job twice. But TeacherPal has been great in letting me keep track of the dozens of behaviors and interventions that I previously had to put into a spiral notebook.

My partner in the iPad trial, Scott, said it best when he mentioned how great it will look at conferences to click on a student and have all the important information right there, rather than a stack of papers in a manila envelope. If a hard copy is needed, say for permanent records? TeacherPal allows you to either upload your data to DropBox or emails you a handy Excel file, organized by student.

For everything that this app does, the only thing that hampers it is the occasional crash and subsequent loss of data. Though in using it in the last two weeks, I have lost only a single note. To its credit, it did warn me that it had not been uploaded to the database and a restart fixed it. In education, where records are vital and can cost you your job, I hope it’s something they take care of soon in an update. If you are a teach and own an iPod or iPad, trust me and download this soon!

iPad Observations

I went into this school year skeptical about how I would use my new tablet. For one thing, I questioned how useful it would be when I already have a computer and a SmartBoard.

However, I have noticed several changes in my behavior since using it.

  1. I am keeping better track of my student notes. I used to have a notebook where I would jot down late assignments, behavior issues and interventions.  I find that with a handy App called Teacher Pal, I am keeping better records than before.  Now when I click on a student’s name, I get his or her latest reading scores, a list of missing assignments, behavior issues, and positive interactions.  Imagine how useful this would be in a conference, and how much better this looks than a stack of papers in a manila envelope.
  2. I am keeping better track of events. Using the calendar, I can set reminders for myself and never forget any of the little management issues that often trip me up during the day.  Morning announcements? Rescheduled band practice? A student getting picked up early? I get little chimes throughout the day to remind me of the little things. They are like sticky notes, with alarm clocks strapped to them.
  3. I update my classroom blog a LOT more. Using the Blogspot app, it only takes me a few minutes to churn out an update, attach picture, and post it. I used to update my class blog every week or so. Now I get two or three posts a day, many of them written by my students. Many of the posts are little reminders for my class or updates for their parents. Hopefully this will go a long way toward making my classroom seem more approachable to parents, and the blog a place where my students can go to get updates.

Things I still want to be able to do:

  1. Be able to ‘write’ on my SmartBoard remotely, as though a miniature version of it were projected on my laptop. I have played around with a few programs, but most of them require a ‘double-tap’ or a ‘tap-and-hold’ to write. I want to be able to open an app, see the screen on my ipad and start doodling.
  2. Some way to easily write on PDF files. GoodReader does a decent job, but far too complicated for my students and far too complicated to replacing printing and writing on documents. I would like to be able to write on all the masters that I printed out, then save them rather than wasting paper printing them
  3. Speaking of printing, I want to be able to print wirelessly to our network printers. ANY network printers, not the choice list of printers that made the AirPrint cut.

Ten Years

Like most people old enough to be teaching, I remember exactly where I was when the twin towers were hit on 9/11/01. I remember spending the day watching everything happen on that horrible day, minute for minute. I remember walking around my university in a haze, unsure of what would happen next. I remember the guys I worked with in the tech support department of my university, many of whom were from the Middle East, wondering what would happen next for them. They were worried because in their countries, things like mobs, secret police, and people getting rounded up were not uncommon. I remember wondering how I would teach this to future students. Later that day, I told off a fellow student who was spreading rumors about the guys I worked with; it turns out this was my first teachable moment.

My students are all around 11 or 12 years old. That means they were toddlers when it happened. They don’t remember the attack on the towers or the Pentagon, or that field in Pennsylvania. They don’t remember not taking your shoes off at airports. For them, Osama Bin Laden has always existed in the forefront as public enemy number one, but they are not sure why. We have always been at war with someone.

Weekly Reader helped me start a conversation this week. My students got a feel for what it was like, got a feel for just how terrible it was, of how it changed everything. That led to talking about what has happened since.

The article led to me showing my students the great animations created by StoryCorps, a storytelling project from National Public Radio and the Library of Congress. Watching John and Joe, the story of a father and his two sons who died, my students got an idea of the human cost to families. StoryCorps has promised to collect at least one story from every person that died in the attacks. I look forward to the day I can view all of these stories and have my students listen to them. In the end, I think nobody can say it better than these storytellers recalling their family and friends.

Another Scanning Strategy

Scanned, merged, and ready to go.

Last week I mentioned how I scanned in all my masters. A co-worker of mine came to me with a problem when he was attempting to do the same thing and I thought that I would share the solution with you. He was trying to scan in a particularly large activity book when it became clear that the scanner wouldn’t take it and he was forced to scan the book in 5 parts.

This led to a problem: how to connect multiple PDFs together? This is a fairly common issue. I ran into it earlier this year when I had to send in my massive professional development plan into the state as part of renewing my license. I needed to combine lots of different forms and documents into one. Normally this easy to do if you have a full version of Adobe Acrobat, which we did not. But luckily, those open-source angels on the internet created a utility called PDFsam, which can separate and merge PDF files quickly and easily for free. It saved us a lot of time and grief. And in the end, isn’t that what computers are for?

Tag Cloud