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

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Kickstart Education with DonorsChoose

I recently read an article on Wired’s Geek Dad Blog that focused on two interests of mine. The first was on crowd-sourcing, the act of taking large jobs or fundraising operations and using the power of social media to generate the funds or the manpower to make that job a reality. The second issue related to school funding, but more on that later.

Crowd-sourcing has had a lot of success with sites like Kickstarter.com that allow users to post an idea and have perfect strangers put up small contributions to help make that idea a reality. Most of these ideas are what you would expect from artsy Internet types, such as funding documentaries or comic book projects, while others are people trying to get their cake-pop business off the ground.

The author of Geek Dad, Jonathan Liu, made the point that his daughter’s school, like so many others are facing real budget cuts. Sadly, not many taxpayers are willing to vote in referendums to increase school funds if it means higher taxes during already tough times. Why then, he asks, can’t we crowd-source education and ask people to chip in to provide school programs they same way we ask them to support some guy’s idea for organic, live culture sauerkraut?

Thankfully, there is already a good answer to this issue. DonorsChoose.org allows teachers and non-profits to post their ideas for projects and requests for funding. Donors then make contributions and teachers receive a gift card to make the purchases they need. The donors get to see the results of their charity on the website and through thank-you notes written by the students that received the funds.

Next time you‘re thinking of selling magazines or holding a bake sale, remember that there are people out there who care about education, perfect strangers who are willing to help out. Give DonorsChoose a shot. What have you got to lose? And if you have had success with DonorsChoose, tell us in the comments!


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.


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.

Resources for the Titanic Anniversary

We eagerly read this week’s issue of Weekly Reader and its cover story of the Titanic. It really is amazing to hear students read about a boat that sank 100 years ago and still has them enthralled. We centered a lot of our conversations on how disasters like the Titanic change the world. My students were shocked that there were not enough lifeboats or life jackets on a ship as big as the Titanic, or that passengers were not required to practice how to evacuate the ship. Afterward, we went online to tour the ship, listened to the recordings of survivors, looked up the coordinates of the wreck and looked at artifacts that will soon be going on sale. We also discussed how we would feel if our families died in a disaster; and many years later people would sift through the wreckage and sell their belongings. Most of us settled on the idea that the event needs to be remembered so people can learn from it and never have it happen again.

Here is a list of some of the websites that we used to investigate this fascinating topic.

NBC’s Sinking of the Titanic series of videos

Thinkfinity, a great video site, search for “Titanic”

The only surviving footage of the Titanic

National Geographic: ‘Unseen Titanic’

Watch, Know, Learn: More Titanic videos

History Channel: interactive timeline of the Titanic

BBC: videos and audio, including survivor stories

BBC: Sinking Titanic Myths

Complete “Sinking the Titanic” documentary

Discovery Channel: On board the Titanic



Online Graphing Calculator

I had heard about this a long time ago but never bothered to investigate it much.  Do I ever regret it now! Desmos Graphing Calculator is an easy-to-use online graphing calculator that takes the place of the expensive Ti-83 I used to have. What is better, it allows you to save and share your functions, a handy tool to have for many reasons. One reason that is important to us out here in the sticks: being able to email your graphs is key when many of your higher math classes are either online courses or distance learning. That aside, it’s a great tool to have for any student that finds their tablet or laptop more convenient than a calculator.

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