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

Archive for March, 2012

Stretching Triangles

The educational world is full of great, seemingly boring software. These are usually applications that are not the prettiest or the most feature-rich but have tremendous staying power and appeal. A great example of this is Oregon Trail. Not the flashiest program, but I still use the original Apple II version of it in my classroom, and it is still as fun as it was when I was a kid.

This week, to round off a math unit on geometry, we used a program called Geometer’s Sketchpad. Sketchpad is a seemingly boring piece of software that nonetheless has nearly unlimited potential. The program resembles a drawing program that allows you to make points, rays, and lines on a plane, program them, and measure them. Simple, right? Well, after getting a crash course from a coworker, I  now think it’s amazing. It does for geometry what Excel does for graphs and Word does for writing papers. It takes all the work out of measuring and drawing objects in geometry and lets you play with shapes and constructions, testing out concepts like area and formulas. Pretty soon my students were drawing dozens of triangles, stretching them out as far as they could go, but the sum of their angles never changed. The only way that you can do this in a standard classroom would be to cut out about a million triangles out of construction paper, measure their angles, and add them as a class. This program frees up so much time teaching the basics and expanding on advanced concepts. Before long, my kids were programming pool games to show the angles in bank-shots and programming the hands of a clock. It also makes a great primer for computer drafting using Alice or Sketchup.

It does have a learning curve. I recommend you check out the website’s expansive resource center, full of lesson plans, or find any one of the great instructional workbooks on the program.

Instagrok for Better Searching

Found a great site floating around the blogs today. It’s called instagrok, and it can help your students narrow down their web searches. File it under “things I wish I had in school.”

Let’s say your students want to do a report on Einstein. If they do what my students do, they type “who is Einstein” into Google, pick out Wikipedia, and go from there. But all of those searches are horribly broad, covering EVERYTHING about the keyword.  Instagrok puts the search results into a movable graphic organizer, breaking down subjects related to your search and listing the associated sites along the side.

If you are inclined to sign up for their deluxe service, you can “pin” the articles you want into a document of all of your collected and annotated notes.

This could be a great resource for research projects, allowing students to really think about their subject and narrow down what it is that they want to know.

The Race for Flipping Begins

I was watching a program on Khan Academy that aired on 60 Minutes last week. The segment highlighted both his posting of educational lessons and the rollout of his online assessment and tracking software. It occurred to me that Mr. Khan is a canary in a coalmine of sorts, an indicator of trends in overall education. There are a half-dozen large-scale rollouts of websites and services that are attempting to do what Khan is doing.

Other than Khan, I have been pointing teachers to LearnZillion. LearnZillion has educational videos and tracking software, but the key difference is that instead of relying on one man’s take on math or history, LearnZillion has a small and growing army of professional teachers producing their content—teachers who have spent time in a classroom, learning how different kids learn and retain information.

I am also a fan of the math-centered TenMarks.com. TenMarks walks students through math topics geared to the Common Core math standards for states like mine that are adopting them. It allows students to learn a topic and practice it. Teachers receive detailed information about their students and how they are learning.

And just when things couldn’t seem more crowded, TED, the organization that publishes TED Talks from important thinkers, announced that it is producing educational videos from experts in various fields. The idea of TED-Ed is that an expert on the Civil War will gave a talk about the Civil War that you can then play for your class. At some point there will also be assessments on these talks.

All of this seems to me like history repeating. When motion pictures first were developed, such thinkers as H.G Wells and Thomas Edison believed that the best lectures in the would be recorded and played for young learners and that traditional schooling would be done away with.

Personally, I still don’t see any of these options as a good replacement for one-on-one interaction with a good teacher. Thankfully most level heads agree that these new tools are meant to free up lecture time so that one-on-one help can occur. I recommend making your own lessons and recording them so that you have resources tailored to your own class’s needs. There will always be companies or websites that will offer you a ‘quick fix’—a different method or service that will magically solve all of a student’s problems. The real fixes are never that easy. But they are not impossible either. There are some great tools out there; but a tool, no matter how great, will never replace the person holding it, the person that knows how to use it properly. Get ready for a rush of these services to pop up in a new round of technology-fueled education reform. Hopefully the new competition will lead to improved products for our students.

That’s Entertainment

A few weeks ago I introduced my students to the world of video editing through Windows Movie Maker. Not the best, I know, but it’s free of price and strings and (provided that you convert all the video) pretty easy to use.

This week we made several entertaining videos. These met with mixed results. I would not call this lesson a failure exactly. But I definitely should have given my students more parameters in making it. A few started with very clear ideas, such as making a video of Hatchet by Gary Paulson. Another group parodied Twilight. A few had good ideas that fell short very quickly, such as the monster movie that resulted in more prop-building than actual filming, and a group that wanted to make The Jeremy Lin Story only to get frustrated with details when they couldn’t make convincing jerseys.

On a side note, it makes me a little proud that in a town that is 99.9% Norwegian, my students still felt that the only hurdle to making a film about their favorite ball player was the lack of jerseys.

Then there were the short and sweet films—the ones with a clear idea and low production value. For example, one group made a movie consisting of K-3rd grade students telling knock-knock jokes. They had enough time left over to make a ‘documentary’ on Japanese candy. Another group made a great short lesson on how to play a simple 3-chord ditty on the ukulele.

Would I do something different next time? Probably the usual teacher-solutions of controlling the size and members of groups, and making the movie a contract/project: In order to get their grade, they would have to make the product that they promised to make, much like a real producer demands results. Their final assessment using these skills is to make a documentary that ties in with their environmental science essays. It’s a project where every student has to make a movie—no freeloading.

But in the meantime, I sit back and enjoy a chuckle on behalf of my students:

Saved By the Cloud

Ok, so most of the time, when I rely on anything electronic it ends up betraying me somehow. Nearly every gadget I own has turned on me to the point that when we go shopping, my wife refuses to allow me to pick the actual box we are taking home because my luck is so bad. I think most of my experience in technology can be traced to having it fail and being forced to fix it.

But for once, this is not one of those stories. For once, my horrible bad luck with all things gadget-y has turned. For the last few weeks, sixth grade has split its math classes into two groups: a standard math group and an advanced math group. For most schools, this is normal. But in our small school, it is unmarked territory. We have had to learn to make it work as we go. For the most part, it has gone great. The kids are picking up the concepts better than ever and everyone is challenged. As for the logistics, Scott (the other sixth grade teacher) and I shared an Excel document on Dropbox to keep track of grades so that we can coordinate and eventually feed them into our school’s online gradebook.

Let me repeat that: we are sharing a document.

I bet most of you who have done this already know what happened.

At some point, Scott (I choose to blame him; it just saves time) or I had the file open, then the other teacher opened it at the same time. One person saved the file over the other. The result: I lost two weeks of grading (Scott lost nothing, which makes it even more convenient for me to blame him). If this were a shared drive on our network, or a file on a disk drive, we would have been out of luck. But Scott, bless his heart, is a Dropbox user, and our Excel file was shared via Dropbox. In fewer than five minutes I was able to ‘restore’ my old grades and paste them into the new file without a single grade lost. With our third quarter ending this week, I was saved from certain doom. Seriously, if only for the ability to automatically track versions of your files and backing them up: START PUTTING YOUR FILES ON THE CLOUD NOW!


I recently wrote about using screen-capture to record lessons and export them to YouTube. While not difficult, this is muti-step process that requires you have a set of specific hardware. In order to make an instructional video, one needs to have screen-capturing software, a headset or microphone, and either an interactive whiteboard or a Wacom tablet in order to record writing.

After you record your lesson, one has to upload the resulting video to YouTube or a similar video hosting service. This takes enough time to make it inconvent, especially since—like most teachers—I prefer to do my lesson planning at home, miles away from my SMARTboard.

Enter my new favorite app/website, ShowMe. Show me is an app for the iPad that allows you to record lessons as you would on an interactive whiteboard, or over a screenshot or worksheet. It records what you say and what you write, something made easier by buying a $10 iPad stylus. When you are done with the lesson, it uploads it automatically to ShowMe’s website, letting you email it or embed it into a blog or website. One app. One step. As easy as falling down.

Sure, you have to have an iPad to use this app, but ShowMe makes this process so easy, and only adds to the already long list of iPad applications you apply to the classroom. ShowMe is also intended to be so easy that you could pass the iPad to a student and have peers teach each other. Imagine a room full of iPads which students recording their own ShowMes, then submitting a video explaining their solution to a problem with an oral and video answer to the question for their peers to look at and assess. That’s what I did:

ShowMe at work

A Tale of Two Brothers

Even though I am the oldest child in my family, it has been clear to everyone that I would live in the shadow of my younger brother Steven.

I am a school teacher working in Central Wisconsin. I pass Amish buggies every morning, get mocked by kindergarteners every lunch period, and wave to the same old man on his scooter on my way home. I can entertain a troupe of children with nothing more than a cardboard box, duct tape, and glitter.

My brother majored in international business. He has been to more countries than nearly anyone I know. He runs 6–7 miles a day as a warm-up. We are very different people that somehow emerged from the same home.

Sure, he has been to South America, China, Egypt, Jordan, Rome, London, Japan, Canada. He has slept on the shores of the Red Sea and on a boat off the cost of the Galapagos. But I can make a whistle out of a drinking straw! It teaches about pitch! Who am I kidding …

Well, Steven has finally invaded my classroom as well. Stationed by his employer in Japan for six months, Steven has happily become a pen pal of sorts to my students. Every week, he posts a new letter to my students on our in-house social network, Moodle. My students respond the same way that they would to a Facebook posting. Despite his long work hours and the 15 hour time difference, he has managed to respond to many of their posts.

What strikes us as a class are the differences between Greenwood, Wisconsin, and Tokyo. In Greenwood, for instance, the gas station has a hitching post and a local wolf pack is becoming a bit too prosperous. In the Shibuya district of Tokyo, a single commuter train could fit our town’s entire population, wolves and all. To prove this, my brother sent us a train diagram showing just how small our little town is. For my students, many of whom have never seen a bus let alone a passenger train, life without pickup trucks and cars for every family seems completely alien.

This week we received a package from Tokyo filled with goodies sent by my brother. The contents—a reward for students who learned to count in Japanese—are snacks that defy western description and taste. The only familiar item: the (in)famous Green Tea Kit-Kat. As a result, my room is full of kids learning to count in Japanese to earn a piece of candy—much of it odd in flavor and texture. It’s a reminder that the Japanese have the edge in snack food technology.

Green tea Kit-Kats!

Steven sent a letter last week with details about a lunch he was having at a famous sushi restaurant, along with a link to the Japanese version of Yelp reviewing the place. This led to another discussion in my class: what sushi is. One thing led to another, and by the end of the week, I was making California rolls for my students.

California rolling

It met with … mixed results.

Delicious sushi?

Thanks again, Steve. Even from half a world away, via email, you manage to upstage me in my own classroom, but the result has been some of the most memorable learning of the year.

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