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

Archive for December, 2011

Wolfram Alpha

I used to think that Google was a little scary. Perhaps I’ve watched too many science fiction movies, but the idea that you can ask a computer anything and it gives you an answer seems a little … frightening. But I could at least take solace that a search engine does not understand what it is looking up.

Last week I discovered Wolfram Alpha, and I am convinced that it is the name of the coming metal overlord. Wolfram Alpha does not search for websites to answer your questions, it simply answers them, putting out simple, concrete facts. Search for 2+2 and it gives you 4, ask it what is the 23rd most populous nation, and it finds that too. Not a website that answers it, not a Wikipedia entry—an actual answer.

I started by searching for Franklin Roosevelt. It gave me a single photo, dates, and places of birth and death, a timeline and half a dozen of his most notable accomplishments. Not enough to write a report, but enough to put him into context at a glance.

But the real fun occurs when you type in math and science based questions, or statistical data. Type in your name and it tells you how common it is, and when it peaked in popularity. Ask it what the 23rd most populous country is, and it will tell you it is Italy. When I use this website I feel like I am amazed and terrified at the same time, like riding a roller coaster.

Some fun searches could include:

  • How old was George Washington when he died?
  • 125*2109
  • Who was the 5th king of Spain?

If your imagination limits you, try going here.

Checking Out Nook eReaders

Our wonderful library has received a set of brand new Nook Color eReaders, and being more than happy to be a guinea pig (or, at least, to let my students play that role), I decided to give them a try this month for my literature circles.

I gave six Nooks to one of my reading groups and loaded them up with a few popular Project Gutenburg titles: Tom Sawyer, Doctor Doolittle, The Jungle Book, and Treasure Island, all available for download free along with thousands of other classics. (My students found Treasure Island boring—the first few chapters anyway.)

Reading Nook

How well do the eReaders work? Here are some of the good things that I found from my initial trials:

  • The page numbers of eReaders are different, so getting on the same page is a little hard. I could see having kids getting lost easily without a common point of reference. Setting up bookmarks will have to be a must.
  • That said, being able to change spacing, text size, and other features in what you are reading could be a boon for students who have trouble reading fine text.
  • Research, research, research: You can touch any word and get an instant definition. This is so easy and effortless that my students were looking up all kinds of terms. Another link takes them to Wikipedia or a Google search for searching for names or places.  So much of reading is making connections, and using an eReader allows you to make those connections easily.
  • Internet access makes these eReaders a watered down iPad in many respects. My students can look stuff up, post to my blog, or work on their Edmodo page. However, most don’t have the kind of control over content and oversight that a school would like.  Until we figure out how to properly manage WiFi on the readers, we shut it off.
  • Organization/management rights. Most of the e-book market is made for consumers; you buy the rights to a single copy of a book and can install that single copy. How does a school keep track of all those rights? How can it manage 10 copies of each text? How do we lend a copy to another school? Ten years from now, when we want to know what copies we have rights to, where will they be?
  • Asset tracking. How do we keep students from walking off with the Nooks? Having them sign a waiver seems a little much, but unlike the iPad, most eReaders don’t have the ability to track their location.


I have been bemoaning the need to have some way of making my SmartBoard and my iPad talk for some time.  There are options out there, I have been using them at home, but due to some issues with the setup of our network here at school I have been unable to remote control my school machine.

Until now.

I can control my SmartBoard using what is called, in the business, a VNC (virtual network computing). I call it awesome. After setting up a client program on my SmartBoard computer (it could be any computer. really) I fired up a great little app called Screens.

Screens is not alone among the remote control market. There are free apps, such as Mocha VNC, and paid, professional versions such as Gotomypc. Screens costs $20 and works with Mac or PC, and has completely changed how I can work in my room.

If I have to jot something on the board I no longer have to turn my back to my little cherubs. Instead I just tap it out on my iPad and it shows up behind me. If I send a kid to board and they mess something up, I can fix it from the back of the room. I also tend to work in the lab a lot, but then feel the need to put something on the board. I can now do that. Magically, my commands appear on the wall. (I am a wizard, children, you cannot escape my commands! Now do your spelling!)

The magic of Screens.

The only hitch with this particular App? It was not designed to work as a demonstration app. For example, it does not execute drag commands very well. This means that if I want to ‘write’ on the board I need to tap and hold before I can write something with my stylus.  Screens could easily fix this by making a ‘drag’ button that you press while writing. But taht seems to be the only feature this fantastic app has overlooked.

For real presentation integration you can use a program/app combo called Doceri, which was made specifically to be used in classrooms for demonstrations with full pen support and even a pen that recognizes your palm while writing. That allows you to rest your wrist on the screen while writing. But all that customization comes at a cost, which is $50 per install.

Which begs a question: Why am I even reviewing these options? My school spent a lot of good money on this interactive whiteboard. Why doesn’t Smart technologies, Promethean, or any other the other companies create an app that is made for their program?  Because they want to sell me their proprietary tablets or slates and make even more money off me. So for the time being, I will continue to use Screens, an affordable, easy-to-use option that works with what I already have.

Dear Santa

Dear Santa,

For a long time I have been in love with the lowly netbook, an under-powered computer that does internet, word-processing, and little else. I’ve mentioned that, while weak in terms of performance, they allow students to get easy access to much-needed services at a low cost.

Tablets have taken a lot of the steam out of netbooks lately, but the need for low-cost computing is still very real in education. Soon there will be a new contender—what I will call a Netstick.

Google has long stated that phones at tablets were only the beginning for its lightweight Android OS, and they were right. FXI Technologies will soon release their “Cotton Candy” (who thinks up these names?!) device, a small USB stick with a SD cardslot and HDMI connector on the other end. This stick is essentially a miniature computer running Gingerbread (again with the names!) Android OS. It will never win any awards for speed, but will run Android Apps, WiFi, and Bluetooth. The cost? Around $200.

Imagine your students carrying around a whole computer system on a keychain. Plugging it into a projector when they want to demonstrate something, into a desktop when they want to work, or into their TV when at home. A whole computer on a keychain? I can’t wait to try one of these out.


A Few Weeks Without Paper

For the month of December as a treat to my students, I have decided to switch off from my typical reading program and conduct good, old-fashioned literature circles. They may be old-fashioned novel studies, but instead of having my students journal in notebooks and taking home a stack of them every night to grade, I have instead decided to conduct all my journaling and grading online.

I am using Edmodo, a site that I have recently sung the praises of. Having used other online services (Moodle), I had my doubts about Edmodo’s limitations, since it runs itself more like a social network than a traditional website.

Every day, my reading groups are given a few chapters to read and a few questions to journal upon. After their reading, they post their journal responses to Edmodo, which I then grade, giving my students prompt feedback.

I have noticed a few things about running my reading program using Edmodo. For one thing, I get fantastic written responses from many of my students.  That said, many of the same students who struggle to write in my regular classroom also struggle to get their work in when online. If you think that writing on a computer will solve all your late work problems, you are wrong. It does allow you to keep better track of missing work, although the excuse of  ‘my computer ate it’ does come up.

Edmodo helps me get on top of my student’s reading responses, to provide quick feedback, and to make good assessments of student understanding and comprehension that goes well beyond multiple-choice tests. Students write mini essays, conduct polls, and respond to each other in a way far simpler than any other service I have used.

So Long, Ti-83!

The workhorse of good upper math courses (the kind that I never got to take since I went into physics and not calculus) is the graphing calculator, the blocky grey machine that can solve any problem, graph any equation, and can be programmed to play Tetris.

I always wondered why, in the age of smartphones and computers, the Ti-83 had never really changed. But now even the good people of Texas Instruments have been cloud-sourced.

For a long time now, if you entered a math problem into Google’s search bar, you get the answer via a calculator. Go ahead, Google 2 + 2, or even ask for a conversion like 5 gallons to liters; you will get an answer. Now Google has expanded that to functions. Try entering sin(x) into Google (or just click here). You end up getting a pretty little graph.

Will this replace the Ti? It’s hard to say. Will it work in pinch if you are without one? Probably. Math teachers (of which I am not one), test this out for me and tell me how this works!

Igloo Math

Winter has come to Wisconsin late, but I could not be happier that it is finally here. This last weekend we got hit with a few good inches of heavy, wet powder. The snow has clung to everything like thick sugar icing; the trees, barns, and houses all look like some picturesque postcard of the great white north. For one day, we had perfect packing snow at the school and I used it to create a … ahem … math lesson. We built the first igloo of the year.

Using a 6-foot ceiling as a radius, we figured out that it would need to be 12 feet in diameter. Using pi we figured out how many rows of 8-inch bricks it would take to clear the arch — 21 rows. Then the building began. We managed to get the walls five and a half feet up before a few weak bricks (which I suspect were packed by another class, less dedicated to the cause) resulted in wall failure. The next day, the temperature dropped to 14 degrees at noon, and our bricks were as hard as glass. There would be no new bricks.

We re-used them to build 2 smaller igloos, going around in circles and eventually walling a student up inside (hopefully one who is not claustrophobic) and digging out a door. Add a little water to the walls and they become incredibly strong. Other teachers might play football at recess or take kids out to the pond for skating. I build.

“So, Mr. Briggs, I’m thinking of getting my kid a laptop for Christmas…”

… is the question I have been asked several times this year by parents and co-workers.

As usual, since I have too much time on my hands, I not only tell them what kind of computer they should get, but I also offer to help set it up in exchange for baked goods. I know I should up my tech support rates, but I am a sucker for pie and snickerdoodles.

Normally I would lean toward recommending a Mac (ease of use, rock solid reliability), but, sadly, Apple does not make a machine for under $1000 these days. That is more than any 12-year-old deserves. The best option for an upper elementary to middle school child I have found is a 12-inch netbook. Many of these computers should not even be called netbooks since they have considerable horsepower and come with plenty of features. They just happen to have a 12-inch screen and no optical drive. Asus, Acer, and several other companies make good machines for around $300.

How about setting them up? I have three steps for setting up a home machine that earn me my snickerdoodles:

1. Clear off all the junk. Most computers today come out of the box loaded down with all kinds of things: games, backup utilities, antivirus, and other stuff that is usually either useless or redundant. Why uninstall the included antivirus and backup utility? Windows 7 already has a solid restore option built in. Also, as soon as the trial version of your antivirus expires, you will have to install a free option anyway (like the fantastic Microsoft Security Essentials).

2. Install needed programs. I could go on and on about the individual programs that work best for new computers. But I won’t. Instead, just go the Lifehacker Essential Software page and run their downloader. Even if you are not getting a new machine, this is a great site to check out: a company called Ninite created a service that allows you to pick the best free software on the market from a list just like a menu. Run the installer and everything gets put on all at once! It turns what is normally hours of installations into single, 20-minute install. Need to update? Run the installer again and it makes sure you have the latest version of everything.

3. Back up. For most machines, you would need half a dozen DVDs to backup your system and create a restore disk. Save yourself some time and buy an external hard drive to back up your drive. Treat a computer like a house; have an emergency plan and create a kit of backups and disks to get your files off and restore your machine. My only wish? That Microsoft would let you easily make a restore disk on a thumb drive and not a CD. It would make restoring a netbook a lot easier. Apple has already done this, giving people their restore disk in the form of a thumb drive.

Another thing: You might want to install a remote access program like join.me so that if your little brother/cousin/nephew/grandma needs help, you can see what is on their screens and walk them through any problems they might have.

As for me helping you? Pecan pie is my favorite.

Tag Readers

A Tag reader at work.

Our school librarians are fantastic. Every week we get these wonderful little emails about the great new things they have found for us — the new toys that they have brought into our district via grants and programs.

For instance, Tag readers. Made by LeapFrog, the educational toy company, Tag readers use little RF chips printed into the paper of books to make them interactive via a programmable stylus.

The Tag reader can read the book to a student, have him or her play a game and help him or her learn to read the book independently. This week all of our first graders were introduced to the Tags at the library. They showed up at my after school program toting little backpacks given to them by the library, loaded with a Tag reader and a book.

Do these fancy little readers actually help students read? Do they get kids excited about books? I can tell you that a student had to be reminded to go home because he was so enthralled by his book.

Cheeseburger Sentences

There are times when things come together perfectly for a teacher. I had one of those moments the other day, and, like many things I tend to write about, only other teachers seem to understand the kick I get out of it.

Years before I was ever a teacher, or even thinking of teaching, I worked flipping burgers, a job that is often looked down upon. I learned to make a really nice burger and the value of hard work, but other than that, I didn’t know how to apply those skills to my current teaching job.

Until, that is, I had to teach compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.

In the middle of a dry textbook lesson on sentences, I was looking for some sort of analogy that related to our subject and then it hit me: A simple sentence is like a plain burger. It’s an independent clause without any flavor: edible, but boring. Add another patty and some conjunctions/cheese to bind them together and you get a more interesting sentence/burger. Finally, dependent clauses, the condiments of the grammar world, add flavor and meaning to an existing sentence/burger but cannot be spoken/eaten by themselves.

It all came together mid-lesson. With the SMARTboard I was able to make a fantastic manipulative on the fly for my students to use and reference. Nearly every student aced his or her grammar test this week, and we celebrated with—what else—White Castle cheeseburgers.

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