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

Archive for April, 2012

Teach Your Parents Tech

If you are reading this blog, there is a chance that you know a few things about technology.  I don’t want to alienate anyone who does not consider themselves an “expert”—I don’t consider myself an expert.  But chances are you know how to get online, know how to check your email, and know better than to send your credit card information to a Nigerian Prince.

If you know these things, then chances are that you know more than the average person about technology, and chances are you are the go-to person for parents, fellow staff, and members of your own family for technology help.  I have spent more than my fair share of evenings using Join.me to fix my mother-in-law’s email.  You may have encountered more than a few families that enlist their children to maintain their computers, an often unwise and unsafe situation.

There are a few really great options for bringing families and parents up to speed when it comes to technology, especially the kind of technology that relates to their child’s education.  I have heard of more than one student use the excuse  “I need it for school” as an excuse to talk with their friends on the computer or waste time surfing the web (okay, that was me).

I recommend using a portion of your school’s open house or beginning of the year orientation to hold a brief primer on the technology in the school and cover thoroughly what their child will be using and how often.  This serves the purpose of bringing parents up to speed with what is required and lets them know what resources they have available.  For example, a parent who wants to know how they can help their student in math may not know that you have online tutoring videos, or that your school subscribes to a practice service such as Ten Marks.

Then make sure that you have your most tech-savvy staff on hand for an open forum where parents who have concerns or want to know more can talk one-on-one with a teacher about their personal tech issues, such as: “How can my child write a Word document without buying Word?” (Answer: libreoffice or Google docs) or “What apps should we get for our child’s iPad?” (a few tips here) or “What is a great free antivirus program?” (Microsoft Security Essentials)

Have your students interview their parents about what skills they would like to know more about, then point them to Teach Parents Tech.  Developed by Google, this great site seeks educate non-computer people in how to better use their machines by providing them a great list of simple-to-follow instructional videos on how to do such tasks as sharing a photo, setting up a webcam, getting on the internet, and more. Making it into an assignment for your students will serve the purpose of helping parents know more about technology and starting a conversation about computer use at home that most parents would rather avoid.

Advantages of eReaders

A new trend has begun showing up in sixth grade. Many of my students have been showing up with eReaders. It’s not surprising. The price of entry-level readers has gone well below $100, even for name brand readers such as the Kindle or the Nook. With prices this low, most parents seem happy to give a reader as a birthday or Christmas present.

I, for one, am excited about this development. A student can carry dozens of books with him or her and read them at leisure. But there is also another benefit. In a recent study by Pew Research, it has been shown that the average person owning an eReader reads 24 books per year compared to 15 by the rest of us. This is good news for the publishing industry, since eBooks are cheaper to produce and distribute than paper books. To me, it is all irrelevant when compared to what I see in my classroom: kids reading who did not read before.

Maybe it is the novelty of the medium; maybe a time will come when eReaders are considered boring and turn into the 8-track of literature. I think it has something to do with the convenience factor, that from that simple device they can pull up what they want to read when they want to read it. For those of you who live near a well-stocked library or a giant book store, that might not seem important. But for my students, living in a rural setting, acquiring things to read is harder and the ability to read something at the push of a button makes that first step a lot smaller.

As a teacher, I hope to see more of these devices, not just for reading, but also a wider move to a ‘bring your own device’ policy, where we welcome more electronics into the classroom just as we would books, notebooks, and pencils, treating them not as novelties (though they may be filled with novels) but as vital and useful tools for learning.

 

Picnik is Dead. Long Live PicMonkey!

My favorite tool for online image editing, Picnik, was bought by Google a few years back. On April 19, Picnik was shut down so that its image editing tools could get wrapped up into Google’s master plan of having services such as Picasa (their image hosting service) and Picnik (providing the editing) all incorporate into their Google+ social network.  My beloved little online image editor was sacrificed—a causality of Google/Facebook wars of the 2010’s.

That made me wonder what I would use instead of Picnik to teach my students photo editing. Sure, there are options out there; Aviary Suite or GIMP comes to mind. But most are trying to be Photoshop, and that is completely over the heads of my students.  What I wanted was something more along the lines of Instagram: cropping, basic filters and effects, and above all, SIMPLE TO USE.

The market it seems is an ecosystem, and in the void created by Picnik, PicMonkey has taken hold. PicMonkey copies many of the features of Picasa and Instagram to create a simple, registration-free photo editor on your browser.  No email needed for setup, no installing software. Just lots and lots of fun.

If you have a digital camera in your classroom, you will want to go to this site right now and give it a spin.

Tools to Teach Shakespeare, Methinks

So, if you are like me, you were forced to read Shakespeare in high school. Not that there is anything wrong with that; I am a big fan of The Bard, but so many people find his work hard to approach because of the language. Once you get past the poetry to the meat of the story, you realize that most of his stories are the root of every story that has been told since. Have a revenge story? Hamlet.  Have a story about power leading to corruption? I give you Julius Caesar or Macbeth. Want to tell a story about crazy, self-destructive teenagers? Romeo and Juliet. The first romantic comedy? A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Shakespeare is so at the root of our culture that to not have at least a passing familiarity with is work is a crime against civilized society.

So here I have a few resources to tie into Shakespeare. The first is from Cliff’s Notes, whose products (for better or worse) have helped countless people approach Shakespeare’s works.  They have produced a series of short films that sum up the works very nicely with a big helping of much needed humor.

For those of you on the other end of the spectrum, who think that the greatest writer in the English language is deserving of more respect and analysis: Wolfram Alpha, the fact-engine and source of limitless statistical data, has included the works of Shakespeare in its databases, and now gives such information as the average sentence length in Hamlet being 80.08 characters, or that Hermia speaks 1818 words to Lysander’s 1399.

Finally, here’s a collection of Shakespeare resources from Weekly Reader. Don’t miss the Macbeth rap.

3-D Toad

Perhaps I have mentioned my rather macabre group of female students. Their interests include diseases, anatomy, and watching Bones. They once begged me to find them cow hearts to dissect and pour over books about the nervous system. My hope is that that they all become doctors, make six figures, pay their taxes, and donate a Dodge Challenger to the school fleet.

Encouraging these interests in the right direction gets easier with the internet.  I just found a fantastic website called 3D Toad that allows your students access to hundreds of specimens. Drag the images to rotate them and zoom. View 3D images of skeletons, organs and models! But it doesn’t stop there! See images of how to make guitar chords, ballet poses, and even yoga positions!  Best of all, several of the images are actually in 3D!  Round up your green and red glasses and check it out!

 

Down With PowerPoint!

During the short week leading up to Easter I decided to assign a lesson that tied into the recent Weekly Reader topic of the Titanic. I assigned each of my students to create a creative report on a disaster in history. With a rather ghoulish gusto, my students were reading up on the Great Peshtigo Fire (still the deadliest fire in history and only a few hours from us!), the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and the Dust Bowl.

And in typical fashion, my initial hopes were dashed when nearly each one decided to represent all that they had learned as a PowerPoint presentation. ARRG!

I like PowerPoint, but I think it is the diorama of our era, telling very little and only used because it is so easy to churn out. The biggest complaint I get from the higher grades is that, if given the choice, students always pick the easy way out and go for the PowerPoint. So I decided that enough was enough. No more PowerPoint. I pointed my students in the direction of this great site that had over 150 ideas for book reports. Before long. students were making board games (chutes and ladders in the triangle fire) news reports (on the San Francisco earthquake) and stop motion movies (on the dust bowl).  A rap video was also made to describe Spanish influenza complete with a beat provided by Avairy Roc.  Which led to this exchange:

“Mr. Briggs, what rhymes with pneumonia?”

“Hmm…Ammonia. Can you work ammonia in?”

“Sure! If you don’t want pneumonia, wash surfaces with ammonia!”

Technology can make life easier, but just because it allows production to happen at a faster rate does not mean it can increase understanding or encourage creativity.  Sometimes it’s working within the rules that forces you to make the best of a bad situation and increase creativity.

A Window to the World

I am very spoiled by my Interactive whiteboard; it makes a fantastic tool for instruction.  But it can also make a great resource when you are not using it.

A few years ago I started collecting interesting and funny photos I come across on the web. Most of them are of cute animals, funny looking cars and pictures that I find inspiring or thought-provoking. This lets my students see all kinds of neat images during study hall or similar downtime when the screensaver kicks in. Then, this week I walked into a colleague’s room and saw her board filled with live a live video feed of an eagle’s nest. It occurred to me that the eagle’s nest was for the kids, a window to something new, as though the eagle was the classroom pet that they were checking in on.

This got me thinking of other live feeds I could put up during our downtime. Here are some of the more interesting ones I found:

NOAA undersea robot cam: live undersea feed from miles below the Gulf of Mexico

National Zoo cam: pandas, gorillas, lions and naked mole rats (You can also have an aquarium that never needs cleaning with the Amazon cam)

San Diego Zoo: elephants, apes, and more pandas

Monterey Bay Aquarium: penguins, otters and sharks

Eagle Cam: live eagle feed from Norfolk Botanical Garden, also another feed from Alcoa
My SmartBoard feed:

Smart board Slide Show

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