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

Archive for January, 2012

Website Workarounds

I love sending my students to websites. However, many of these websites are more Flash (as in Adobe Flash) than content. They are so full of pop-ups and banner ads—many misleading—that I find my lesson being more about the dangers of clicking banners than the content I was intending to teach. Thankfully, there are some great options out there for making the web more readable.

If you want to render a page into a simple, easy-to-read handout, save some paper, or export webpages to your e-reader, iPad, or other device, give these a try.

Instapaper: Simple and easy to use, sign up for a free account and Instapaper gives you a handy little bookmarklet. Find something you want to read later, click the bookmark, and a text-only version of that website is sent to your account and synced with your phone, e-reader, or other device. Think of the web as a giant newspaper, and Instapaper as a shoebox full of clippings.

Readability: This great service was built on the shoulders of Instapaper. It used to be a paid service and it shows in some of its added features such as the ability to archive documents, tag them and share them via email, Facebook, or Twitter, if you are so inclined.

PrintFriendly: By far, one of the handiest sites I have found in a while. It does one thing and does it well: prints from the web.  Put in an address or use their browser button and it makes any page into a PDF. This saves paper and money for districts. It also renders complicated and busy websites into simple-to-read PDF documents that you can then easily print, save, or share. All absolutely free.

Cooperating Online, or Sharing is Caring

For the last two weeks, our students have been working hard on a great project. They have just ended a unit on mechanical advantage and simple machines. Specifically, the students were to document the engineering and math that goes into moving really heavy things.

Rather than give the students a test, my colleague Mr. Schiller had the students create a business plan. The mission statement of this business? Simply put: no job is too big.

Each group of students picked an object that is normally too big to move. Good examples were icebergs (for instant lakes), whales, monster-trucks, redwoods, and dinosaurs.

As the tech teacher, my job was to see that students produced a brochure. Inevitably, these sorts of projects always devolve into one student in the group doing all the work. I don’t like this, and so I split the project up into parts and assigned each student a portion of the assignment to work on. Later on, all of the portions get pieced together. Cooperation is a skill often reinforced in other parts of the school, but often left out of computers, which are often seen as single-user tools.

Sure, computers are great tools of publishing. More can be done with a desktop computer now than a print company or professional advertising firm 10 years ago.  But more importantly, in this day and age of cloud computing and collaboration spanning the globe, it’s also important to teach our students how to work together online—to cooperate, as they do on the playground, to produce a product.

There are lots of great ways for students to work together online. A few of my favorites are:

wikispaces– A great site for creating a public page where students can collaborate and make their very own wiki. It’s a fantastic place for highlighting a science fair project, history reports, and literature circles.

sync.in– Another fantastic site; with a single click a word processor opens up, complete with a link. Share that link with as many people as you want for instant, real-time group writing. Great for reports, newsletters, and anything else where you want many students working on the same document.

Google Documents– By far my favorite and the most versatile of the bunch. Google Documents lets students work on the same spreadsheet, presentation, or text document. There are multiple ways to share, save, and publish these documents and multiple levels of control. The applications are limitless and it works with everything. If something should happen to it, I don’t know what I would do.

A great primer for collaborating in Google Docs, created by Weekly Reader, can be found here: http://www.google.com/educators/weeklyreader.html

A Little Help from the Old Grey Lady

I am always looking for good places to get lesson plan ideas. Bookmarking useful sites is usually not enough. If I really like them, I add their RSS feed to my list of blogs, that way, every morning I get an update of all these great ideas generated from teachers and other professionals around the world.

On great resource that I added this morning was The New York Times’ Learning Network Blog. Every day the Old Grey Lady gives me a new lesson plan. Most of them are small, prompt-like ideas that I can use as either a warm-up or delve deeper and create a larger lesson. They tend to be lessons that take full advantage of the day’s news and acknowledge the latest technology being used by middle and high school students, their main audience.

For example, the lesson I plan on using today asks:

A recent article described the “intimate custom” of teenage couples expressing affection for each other by sharing their passwords to e-mail, Facebook and other accounts. Have you ever shared your passwords with someone else? What do you think of the practice in general? Do you know any stories of password-sharing gone awry?

As a technology teacher who is about to introduce his sixth grade students to the concept of email, this is fantastic lesson prompt and introduction to the need to safely secure an online identity.

Yes, It Is That Cold.

We have had the strangest winter anyone can remember. A few weeks ago it was nearly 50 degrees in the January, and now, less than a week later the temperature drops from that balmy number to -10.  That is not taking into account the wind chill, which today is -33. Are we complaining? No, this is Wisconsin. Yesterday, on a balmy 12 degree day, we took our elementary students to our local ski hill as a reward for reaching their reading goals.

Today is too cold to even go outside, so it’s a chance to read some books and play some games at recess.  It also makes for a great science lesson: turning boiling water into snow. Which, oddly enough, is the same principle that allows snow making machines to work, just like the ones we saw at the ski hill yesterday…

Boiling water becomes snow when it's this cold.


I am always looking for new ways to present a report. You ask students today to make a report and they have limitless ways to present their ideas, but most seem to settle on the new common (and by common I mean overdone) denominator: the PowerPoint presentation. Don’t get me wrong; I love what PowerPoint can do. But let’s not forget that PowerPoint was made to replace the slideshow, widely known as the most boring meeting device ever conceived. Boring slideshows are so common that there are career sites that tell you what to avoid.

I found a great site recently called Prezi, which makes presentations anything but boring.  Flash-based, Prezi creates animations that are made to be seen and enjoyed on the web. Media from all over the web can be easily imported into a show, and slides can be arranged for panning and zooming, allowing students to make a cinematic style of presentation that’s far more interactive than any PowerPoint I have ever seen. The finished product can be embedded easily into a web page.

There are free educator accounts as well, so give it a try. I’m sure you will find reports far more interesting.

Here’s a sample.

One of My Favorite Tools Keeps Getting Better

I love, love, love Evernote.  I used to (and still mostly do) operate in my classroom using a mish-mash of legal pads, emails, folders and enough sticky notes to fell a small rainforest.  Most teachers I know of work the same way or similar. Evernote lets you take notes and save them to the cloud. You can tag them for indexing or search them to recall all kinds of useful information instantly, from shopping lists to your students’ reading scores.

Evernote has recently acquired a company called Skitch. Skitch was a Windows and Mac app that allowed you to edit and write on documents, screenshots, and images. Handy, sure; but nothing fantastic. By merging Evernote and Skitch, you can now save your images to notes, and add notations, highlighting, and the like. Not bad.

Wait, they just made Skitch into an iPad App? AMAZING!

This is a needed and missing puzzle piece in my use of my iPad.  There are not a lot of good options for filling out forms or writing on images. Now I can write up forms, annotate documents and shoot them off as emails, save them to Evernote, or collaborate with colleagues. Not only can I save typed data to Evernote, but also hand-written information, sketches, maps, and screenshots.

I only just started using this tool. More to come as I put it through its paces.

Mr. Briggs? Why Is the Internet Broken?

Rarely does a great teachable moment like today come up in technology class. Today, in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act, several websites—many of them cornerstones of the internet, such as Google, Reddit, WordPress, and Wikipedia—have “gone dark.” Google blacked out its name, and Wikipedia stopped working completely.

The act itself is a little vague. In fact, it’s vagueness that makes so many people angry; it can be interpreted in any number of ways. But it did lead to a discussion in my classroom about the concerns of the media over the theft of songs and movies and the concerns of many on the internet that the proposed legislation will lead to censorship.

It also was a case study on how dependent we are on the internet. What would we do if these sites were to shut down? I am old enough to remember card catalogs and actual, bound encyclopedias, written by experts who did not spend dozens of pages highlighting every Star Trek episode. But these kids don’t remember that. For them, the internet is like running water—it’s always been there and they expect it to always be there.

Whatever your stance on the bills, if you even have one, it does make for a great discussion in your classroom.

iTwin Connects Two (Or More)

My blogs are all a flutter with news from the Consumer Electronics Show. Most of the devices mentioned on Engaget and others tend to focus on anything shiny and cell-phone related, but occasionally I get wind of developments that I could apply to education in fantastic ways, such as a great cloud-based file-sharing option that could possibly replace Dropbox.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Dropbox. I live for the handy, simple to use file-sharing service.  But If I were ever in need for a replacement, if Dropbox were to suddenly start charging me or pull some sort of legal shenanigans, I would love to have one of the new iTwin adapters.

iTwin is a cloud-enabled USB stick. The standard iTwin has two little adapters that look like the USB drives we use all the time, but these lock into one another and sync up.  The idea is that you plug one end into your home computer and another into any other computer in the world with Internet and you have an instant, secure, unlimited, and free connection to that computer. Basically, it makes file sharing as easy as plugging in a USB stick. This could make collaboration incredibly easy and free after the initial cost of the device.  Better still, a new version, the iTwin Multi, allows more than one person to connect, allowing for a ready-made collaboration.

Imagine you and your colleagues are going to be working on projects over the summer, or you all bring your own machines with you to a conference. Hand everyone one an iTwin and instantly you are all securely connected and able to collaborate.



We Have YouTube! Now What?

The internet is a wondrous place, full of amazing information and things to learn. To me, the internet can be similar to going to the big city for the first time. It is easy to get so caught up in the glamour of the place, the opportunities, that sometimes you get lost and end up someplace you should not. This is especially true for one of my favorite resources: YouTube.

YouTube has fantastic potential. Need to show your land-locked farm kids what the Panama Canal looks like? There are plenty of videos of people passing through the locks. Want to see the Spanish Armada reenacted using Legos? You have that too. Music videos on being a paleontologist? Help learning an instrument? Want to report on human rights abuses to the west? YouTube has the ability to transmit more information and connect more people than any other site.

Many people credit the development of the printing press as crucial in the American Revolution because of its ability to get the word out. Is it any wonder that the Internet has played such a role in recent revolution in Egypt? YouTube is a tool as potent as the printing press; it has the ability to not only give people the means of production, but also distribution as well.

YouTube also has the ability to waste insane amounts of time, and through its “suggestions” connects you to things that have no business being in a school. YouTube videos are not rated, and it is for good reason that most school filters block it entirely.

But, like any tool, in the hands of responsible teachers, YouTube can be great. We recently got staff access to YouTube. And sure, my kids and I looked up a few viral videos (note: a video of a talking dog is a great motivator, and cheaper than candy) but we also saw a bunch of great videos about science. One thing to avoid like the plague, though, is the comments posted by random individuals who seem to get a kick out of being as vulgar as possible.

Here a few tools that I found that can make YouTube a little more school-friendly.

viewpure: A great tool that removes ads and linked videos from a video, making it clutter-free and age appropriate.

Hyperlinking to a point: By clicking “share” and then “more options,” you can link to a specific point in a video.

And lastly:

YouTube Education: A blessedly ad-free part of YouTube where educational videos have been posted, most by other educators, with lessons and tools available for everything from preschool to university courses. You will find every Sesame Street video ever made here, right along with an introduction to particle physics.



Wisconsin is a potluck culture. You don’t go anywhere without bringing something to share. Partly because we are a generous people by nature and partly because you can be sure there will be something you like to eat. I grew up near the bratwurst capital of the United States and I married a person who does not eat red meat. I know this to be true.

Which is why I think the new trend in students bringing their own devices (BYOD) is a fantastic idea. This Christmas, nearly every one of my students came back saying that Santa got them a new iPod Touch/Kindle/Kindle Fire/iPad/laptop (where was Santa when I needed him this year? All I got was a waffle iron! It’s great and I love waffles, but still …)

I think BYOD is a great idea for a several reasons.

  1. Students are less likely to damage their own property than the schools. I have seen too many of my students mishandling laptops and cameras and thinking nothing of it. If it was their precious iPod at risk, the one that they begged and pleaded for weeks to get, I doubt they would be juggling it down the hallway.
  2. It puts the pressure off the school to provide everything. I am all for giving students the tools they need, but wouldn’t it be nice if students were pumped about getting the latest Office suite? A group of my kids were pumped because they downloaded the Edmodo app on their iPods and were able to do their homework at home.
  3. It frees up resources for where they are needed. Rather than spending time creating an eReader policy, learning how to lock down and administrate the eReaders, and creating accounts for the eReaders—the kids can do that! Then, with setup out of the way, teachers and administrators can focus on teaching students how to use their devices better rather than getting them working and keeping them working.

However, there are issues that could easily pop up.

  1. Whatever machines are brought in need to have some level of conformity, such as everyone being able to use Google Apps. Most schools seem to use a policy that contains a list of acceptable devices and rules for how they can be used. Which brings me to the next issue …
  2. Acceptable use is an issue. If students are bringing their iPads to school, who is to say they are doing schoolwork and not just playing games or texting their friends? First, there are filters that can block most distracting and inappropriate communication. But no filter that I know of can beat a teacher being aware of what is going on in their classroom and being given the freedom to make judgment calls.
  3. Access for students needs to be universal. Sure, it is a parent’s job to provide what a child needs, but I have yet to visit one school that does not have a closet full of hats, gloves, notebooks, backpacks, pencil, and even Halloween costumes for kids who need them. Because, at the end of the day, it is the school’s job to make sure that everyone gets the opportunity to learn. Will schools have to buy some Kindles to act as loaners? Sure. But I think many schools would be surprised to see just how far parents will go when they are asked to step up. I would wager that schools would be loaning out fewer than they think, and that come the holidays, their kids won’t be asking for a Gameboy.

For more information on BYOD check out a great article The 7 Myths About BYOD Debunked by Lisa Nielsen.

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