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

Archive for February, 2012

Best Afternoon Ever!

Last week was a rough week for Mr. Briggs.  Between parent-teacher conferences, school board meetings, and the after-school program that I run, I don’t think that I ever got home earlier than 8pm.  Thankfully, it was a short week. Thursday was the last day before a three-day weekend. And the 6th

grade had nearly a third of its students gone that day for a cross-country ski competition organized by our indestructible (and, sadly, retiring) gym teacher.

I managed to get all of my skiers to watch the recording of their math lesson either at school or on YouTube the night before and arranged for them to take their weekly language and spelling test on the bus. This still left me with 11 students and an afternoon to plan for.

That was when I was struck with the kind of inspiration that can only hit a teacher at 9:45 am, knowing full well that he only has 35 minutes of prep to make it happen. I remembered a recipe that I had found for baking cakes in coffee cups in the microwave. This would be a fantastic idea for an afternoon activity! But how to make it educational? There had to be a way that I could convince the powers that be that this had educational—and not just culinary—merit. Then the second wave of inspiration hit me like a right hook: percents and decimals! The subject we had been working on for the last two weeks in math. Finding how many calories and grams of fat were in 1/8 of the cakes would be the perfect excuse/lesson plan!

I passed this onto my fellow sixth grade teacher who was at a similar loss for an afternoon activity and told him what the plan was. His answer: Let’s do it. So there I was, five minutes after having thought it up, running to the local grocery store for eggs and cake mix. By the time I came back, Scott, in his typical over-achieving fashion, had not only made a PowerPoint presentation complete with an introduction revolving around how Mr. Briggs and Mr. Schiller were both in danger of being tossed out by their wives (his story, not mine) for gaining too much weight, but also worksheets for each of the students complete with a breakdown of the cakes’ nutritional information.

Waiting for cake.

After a little paper work, we started popping cakes out of the microwave we had liberated from the staff room and shaking them out of coffee cups with a satisfying jiggle, like cranberry sauce from a can. And because of math we did, I know that each cake had 501 calories (for those of you worried, most of the kids only finished half of a cake).

Another math lesson, digested.


Futurecade and the Science Museum

I got a chance to play with a really nice set of games created by the Science Museum in England. They have developed a set of really fun games called Futurecade. Some of these games are based some of the real problems of the future. For example, removing land mines using robot drones you have to program (dealing with the real issue of mine removal) or creating strains of e-coli that can clean up oil spills. Others involve teaching genetics by having students care for, nurture, and breed ‘Things’ in the game Thingdom.

Many educational games are little more than regular arcade-style games with some math facts thrown in. These games were created to promote issues in math and science, but also to develop thinking and problem-solving. These could easily be adapted to lessons on global warming, energy, genetics, food distribution, and natural resources. What really makes them great is the optimism that science can solve these seemingly overwhelming problems, and that they allow your students to stand in the shoes of the problem solvers of tomorrow. Good thing too, since they will have to fill that role in the future.

Am I the Enemy?

I had a crisis of faith last week. I had been riding high for some time over the use of my recorded lessons in my classroom. Basically, I was using a screen-grabbing app to record math lessons and posting them on YouTube so that I could curate my math class. I created a “Khan Academy lite” in my classroom, geared to my student’s needs. It worked great and my students have been responding very well in math since adopting this new program.

But then something happened. I heard that several local politicians were embracing the Khan Academy and sites like it as something “new” and “innovative.” Great, I thought, I love the Khan Academy! My students use it all the time to brush up on math, or get the help that their parents don’t have time to give. But it turned out they weren’t promoting Khan Academy because it’s a great tool; they were promoting it because they felt that, with such great resources available for free online, why were they paying teachers so much money?

Here was my dilemma. If I make my lessons available for free online, am I diluting the value of my instruction a product? Are teachers who share their instruction and lesson plans online putting themselves out of a job? I had to think really hard about it and I came to this conclusion: Heck, no.

Even though I can buy the album or listen to it on the radio, I won’t stop going to concerts. Even though Shakespeare is public domain, people don’t stop paying to see his plays or think that an audiobook can replace a performance. Canned tomatoes, while handy, don’t replace the real thing—if anything, they make you appreciate the real thing more.

Khan Academy and similar sites are not the end of education as some other educator-blogs would have you believe. Khan himself writes that his site is not a curriculum; he is simply offering another way to teach children, one that is realistic and pragmatic. He does not abstractly teach ‘why.’ Instead, he focuses on the ‘how’ of actually solving math problems and succeeding in math. Frankly, many students (including myself when I was a kid) were frustrated by the constructivist approach of ‘finding a way that works for you’ and would rather just skip to practicing the method that works every time.

Many make the argument that Khan is not a teacher and is not qualified to teach children. That just rubs me the wrong way. What I do is not special; anyone can teach, just like anyone can cook, work on a car, or learn to play guitar. But not everyone is brave enough to try and willing to put the work into doing it well. To me, Khan Academy is no different than a student getting help from mom and dad, who are often not certified teachers, and educators don’t turn up our noses at that.

I will continue to post my lessons, because it helps me become a better teacher. I like to think that if more people see my teaching, it will help them see the value in what I do. I want parents at home to watch the lessons with their kids and think, “Wow, my kid get to have him in person.” Like so many other times in my life when I have felt doubt and am forced to confront it, I end up only more sure that I am in the right place, doing the right thing.

A Virtual Writer’s Workshop

Ever have a hard time teaching students how to write? I know that I have trouble giving my students examples of things like narratives, compare and contrast papers, and essays, since they are not a common format in many books or magazines. And even if my students do create a great piece of writing, where would they share it? The only people that get to read it are Mr. Briggs and maybe the class.

Good writers tend to learn through imitation and through good input. In this way, Lend Me Your Literacy is a great website for learning how to be a better writer. Students from a variety of grades post their writing examples for others to view. The people viewing are students, teachers, and experts in writing. Think of it as a giant writer’s workshop for student-created work. On one hand you can use this to publish your student’s writing, and on the other give students a wealth of written examples from other students. Give it a try!


Hear That, Kids? It’s the Sound of My Mind, Blowing.

I am teaching my sixth grade students conversions from the customary system (inches, feet, miles, cups, ounces) to the metric system (liters, centimeters, grams) and for these kids it is a pretty hard sell. In my classroom, the metric system is condemned because it is associated with an object of universal hatred: My Toyota. I then explain that Canada uses the metric system and if any of them want to go fishing or hunting there they are going to need to know what a kilometer is. Teaching in the country is full of these kinds of accommodations.

The hardest part of teaching the metric system is that most of these kids don’t have any concept of how big a centimeter is, or how far a kilometer is. They don’t have a reference for it. They often make the argument that the customary system is fine; after all, aren’t fractions of an inch small enough? Why do we need to measure anything bigger than a mile?

I found a website that puts all of these arguments to task: The Scale of the Universe 2

The Scale of the Universe is a neat little Flash app. Zoom in and it shows you the smallest things in the universe—smaller than atoms, smaller than electrons—and their metric measurements.

That's tiny.

Zoom out, and it shows you humans and animals. Zoom out even further than it shows you planets, stars, and eventually the size of the observable universe.

That's huge.

In minutes you can compare the size of a person to a bacteria and the united states to the moon, and our sun to the galaxy.

There are many fantastic applications for this tool, but the one I used was this: Look at all the important things smaller than an inch. At some point fractions of an inch become too complicated and fail you. Miles are even worse. Try using miles to measure the distance to Alpha Centuri, our nearest star, and the numbers are truly astronomical. No, the metric system is shown to be useful because the same measurement is used for all of these things and it works.

Give this website a spin. It’s a…humbling experience.

Engaging Students Through Social Networking

My love for Edmodo as a teacher knows no bounds. I have been using the education-geared social network for several months now and I really do think that it is the wave of the future. Seriously, if you are not using it now, start.

I have been having trouble getting my students to get their homework done, or to even think of doing homework. Math, it seemed, was for school; home was for TV. Then I decided to try an experiment. On our assignment notebook board I wrote: “Check Edmodo at 7pm.”  Since finding out last week that all of my students, even the most rural of farm kids, has internet access, there was no excuse not to check it. Several of my students got iPod Touches for Christmas (they seem to be the Gameboy of this generation) and they loaded their devices up with the Edmodo app (which is fantastic, by the way).

At 7 pm I posted a math question. It was the kind I used to give my students in the form of a copied mini-worksheet: a daily word problem that they, for the most part, ignore. The first night I got 8 of my 16 students replying to the question. The second night it was 11, and the third it was all of them. I got them to do work at home, after dinner, during prime time! They did not even know what the assignment was; just that it was coming.

Edmodo in action (click to enlarge)

I don’t even need to give a reward anymore; they check Edmodo on their own, casually, the same way they would check their email or Facebook. And I have to be honest, I am seeing an uptick in their interest in math, or at least in the conversations that we are having about the subject.

I am not saying that social media is the cure-all, but it does represent a form of interaction that my students are comfortable with. I am sure that I could have arguments about how this is not preparing them for the real world, or that I am pandering to my student’s anti-social, media-obsessed digital lifestyle. But I can’t argue that my students seem more interested in their subjects when they are allowed to use tools that they are familiar with and find interesting. And I have to admit, it is nice to look at my Edmodo page and see a student asking for help on a math problem after school, and then see that several of her classmates have pitched in to offer help. Tools like this are new to everyone, and I can’t wait to see how they pan out.

Thank You, Weekly Reader!

There is one subject that my students know can get them out of any lesson. One subject that, if I get started, then any lesson of fractions, variables, or irregular verbs grinds to a halt: Cars.

I am not in a tax bracket that allows me to own much car, although what I do own I flaunt. I have been known to put on a suit, visit dealerships, and test drive cars I have no hope of buying. My students and I disagree on a lot of what classifies as a cool car, but one thing we can agree on is that the Camaro on the cover of this week’s issue of WR News was ‘sick.’ That, added to the coverage of the Washington auto show that came out last week, had my students fired up!

I have conducted lessons on cars before, and my students have responded well. The article makes that point that American manufacturing is leading us out of the recession we are in, but that much of manufacturing has changed. I show my students the inside of the new factories and the computers that go into the newer cars that are coming out of Michigan and suddenly even my most stubborn student realizes that he needs to do better on his math. One place to go to find that math is The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A great site to go to for hard facts, it makes a great starter for opinion papers on topics such as cell phone bans and fuel economy standards.

Have any other gearhead lesson ideas? Share them in the comments!

The “Flipped” Classroom

Flipped classrooms are a recent trend in many schools and are getting a lot of attention with a advent of new technologies and the large-scale use of video on the internet through such wonderful sites as Khan Academy and Learn Zillion to name a few.

The idea of a flipped classroom is students watch a video demonstration or presentation of the content at home or during their free time, and do their coursework at school where they can get help. This new method hopes to use the online media revolution to streamline the educational process and have students take ownership in their education.

Another great explanation can be found in this short video:

Personally, I like this idea. I find that I get the most out of my teaching working one on one with struggling students, rather than speaking to the whole class, most of whom (if I did my job right) should know most of the content right away (if they followed along in their textbook). I would gladly give up my time in front of the board to look over the shoulders of my students while they do their homework.

But there are some speed bumps on the way to a flipped classroom that I can see down the road.

  • Dependence on technology: Many teachers would love to be in a situation where every student had a dependable computer or tablet, and a high-speed internet connection. However, most of the world is not there yet. School budgets are tight lately and most don’t want to buy a laptop for each student when they have trouble keeping the heat on. Asking students to foot the bill? Any school with lots of free and reduced lunch students and a back room full of second-hand winter clothes would have a hard time asking families to shell out hundreds of dollars for a device and a high-speed internet bill. For this to work there needs to be a rock-solid 1 to 1 laptop or BYOD program in place.
  • A tech-savvy staff: There needs to be a breed of teacher who is comfortable publishing, grading and interacting on the web, and has the ability to keep up with trends down the road. A teacher that occasionally sends an email and has a shelf full of VHS tapes and a film-strip projector is not going to feel comfortable exporting lessons on the web.
  • Lots of oversight: Students are distractible. There needs to be a level of structure and discipline in place to ensure that students are learning their content in their free time. This would seem to be solved by the homework-at-school part of a flipped classroom; a teacher would know if students missed their lesson when he or she sees them at work, as long as they’re checking them while they work. I could see students forgetting to watch their lesson just as easily as forgetting their homework.
  • Professional considerations: What is the role of the teacher if the teacher is not instructing? They are no longer lecturing, sure, but then their role changes into that of a super-tutor. Many teachers define their jobs by instruction. But I would argue that giving up instruction frees up time for labs, demonstrations, experiments, and the kinds of hands-on lessons that define me as a teacher.

This last week I dipped a toe into the flipped classroom. I decided to record a set of lessons using a great little screen capture tool called camstudio, my smartboard and a USB headset. I then had most of my class follow along with the recording as I worked with students that had not yet mastered the topics from the day before. This ensured that every student had mastered their needed skills before proceeding to the next lesson. The work was stressful, fast-paced and exciting. While I was not in full control, I was much more available to my students than I had been before, and got a chance to intervene with students where I had not been able to before. A week later, my students’ grades are up and everyone is challenged and getting the help they need.

Anyone in flipped classroom or seen one at work? Ever used Khan Academy as a stand-in for a lesson? Please share your experiences!

Why, Google? Why???

I am going to get a little nerdy here, but try to follow me. I once heard that if web companies were superheroes, Google would be Superman: massive, overwhelmingly powerful and seemingly benevolent. But, like Superman, everyone throws a fit when they change his look, or they throw in some new plot twist. Also like Superman, everyone fears the day that Google some day turns on us and rules us like a king…

First it was my beloved Google Cow, a joke feature of Google Body that nonetheless was the BEST THING EVER. Then it was their new policy of demanding that everyone with a Google account also have a Google+ and Gmail account. The hope from a corporate standpoint is that they can muscle out Facebook in the social networking field if they force people to join their little club.

Which leaves teachers like me in a little bit of a predicament. Things no longer work unless you have a Google account, and you can’t have a Google account without the email and the Google+ profile, something that I can’t and won’t force on my students. Which is why I found a workaround.

This hits home with one of my favorite services: Picnik. Picnik is a great little site that lets you edit your photos and add all kinds of nifty effects. It is particularly great because it does not require you to understand all the filter-y layer-y photoshop mumbo-jumbo. It just gets right to the good stuff.

Google bought Picnik, and this April will lock it away in the fortress of solitude that is Google+ to live a new life as an integrated photo editor for the social network, far, far away from my poor students, who yearn for the day when they will again be able to paste mustaches on their friends and paste UFOs over our school. The only silver lining? Until April, all of Picnik’s features, even its premium ones, are free. So get it while you can people.

You lost my business, Google. From now on I will have to use FotoFlexer, Aviary or any number of other alternatives.


Recently, I have gotten to wondering about the fate of the classroom response system, or clicker. They tend to be nifty little devices for getting instant feedback from students.

What the clickers do is not complicated. If you know how to make a form in Google Documents, you can make a survey or a test much faster than if you were to make one in any of the classroom response systems. Sure, it might not be as pretty, but as long as your students have access to computer lab or, better yet, have any mobile device (iPod, iPad, Phones, laptops, e-readers) they can take a quiz on the web, in or out of school. For minimal cost, using what you already have, you can easily do many of the things expensive clickers can do.

Recently I found something that put the last nail in the clicker coffin for me: a great little webapp called Socrative. As of yet, it is free (it’s beta right now; this may change). The service works on all internet devices. It easily allows a teacher to give on-the-spot assessments with a click of a button, or create in-depth quizzes. As for making the tests? The site is easy to use and it also allows you to create tests in an Excel file and import them. Some of the other great features include a race game where teams of students race each other using quiz questions and an “exit ticket” where students have to report what they have learned in a lesson before they are allowed to leave.

The companies that make response systems should be scared; this is a great, easy-to-use service that works with everything I already have. Why would I spend a few hundred dollars on a response system if I get the same quality or better for free with Socrative?

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