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

Archive for December, 2011

“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.

Brilliant BBC

I am a huge BBC nerd. My wife and I watch episodes of “Top Gear” every Sunday when we have our pancakes and I am eagerly awaiting the latest Doctor Who Christmas Special. (Last year had a flying shark. This year they parody Narnia!)

But our friends across the pond have also made some fantastic educational resources that could add a lot to your classroom, provided that your students don’t giggle at the accents like my students did.

Learn a language: The BBC provides lots of great language lesson for free, they make a great tool for students wanting to work on their own or as a supplement for an foreign language course.

Learn to type: A great (but personally annoying; make sure your kids have headphones) website for learning to touch type, Dance Mat Typing teaches students to type using funny songs and typing lessons that work similar to Guitar Hero or Dance, Dance Revolution.

Know the news: The BBC World Service is a national recognized source of quality journalism.  They also produce a short, daily podcast that updates schoolchildren on world events.  A great way to start the day and serve as a global current events.

Bedtime stories: The BBC produces a great children’s program called CBeebies. Part of the show, called ‘The Bedtime Hour,’ involves acclaimed actors (including the 10th Doctor, David Tennant) reading bedtime stories in the manner of Reading Rainbow, but incredibly relaxing. Search YouTube for “CBeebies Bedtime Stories” to see these delightful clips.

Writing Resource

For me, writing has always come easily. I have a lot to say, and as poor as it may be in quality, I’ve never had problems getting ideas onto paper. This causes me to have difficulty in relating to and aiding my students who struggle to write. They have good ideas, but don’t always know how to proceed in the process.

I ran into this problem this week when I was teaching comparing and contrasting. I decided that the best way to teach comparing and contrasting something we read was to write something instead. I became reacquainted with a great site called Read Write Think. Produced by the International Reading Association, National Council of Teachers of English, and the Verizon Foundation, Read Write Think provides several services that include:

  • Student-Based Interactives that walk your students through literacy tasks such as writing an essay, inquiry and analysis, and writing poetry.
  • Lesson plans for teachers by teachers
  • The ever-popular (at least in my elementary school) calendar activities
  • Print-outs
  • Resources or parents and after-school programs to develop literacy after-hours
  • Professional development opportunities for staff

Have a great literacy tool you use? Please share it in a comment!

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