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

Archive for the ‘Whiteboard’ Category

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


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.


I have been bemoaning the need to have some way of making my SmartBoard and my iPad talk for some time.  There are options out there, I have been using them at home, but due to some issues with the setup of our network here at school I have been unable to remote control my school machine.

Until now.

I can control my SmartBoard using what is called, in the business, a VNC (virtual network computing). I call it awesome. After setting up a client program on my SmartBoard computer (it could be any computer. really) I fired up a great little app called Screens.

Screens is not alone among the remote control market. There are free apps, such as Mocha VNC, and paid, professional versions such as Gotomypc. Screens costs $20 and works with Mac or PC, and has completely changed how I can work in my room.

If I have to jot something on the board I no longer have to turn my back to my little cherubs. Instead I just tap it out on my iPad and it shows up behind me. If I send a kid to board and they mess something up, I can fix it from the back of the room. I also tend to work in the lab a lot, but then feel the need to put something on the board. I can now do that. Magically, my commands appear on the wall. (I am a wizard, children, you cannot escape my commands! Now do your spelling!)

The magic of Screens.

The only hitch with this particular App? It was not designed to work as a demonstration app. For example, it does not execute drag commands very well. This means that if I want to ‘write’ on the board I need to tap and hold before I can write something with my stylus.  Screens could easily fix this by making a ‘drag’ button that you press while writing. But taht seems to be the only feature this fantastic app has overlooked.

For real presentation integration you can use a program/app combo called Doceri, which was made specifically to be used in classrooms for demonstrations with full pen support and even a pen that recognizes your palm while writing. That allows you to rest your wrist on the screen while writing. But all that customization comes at a cost, which is $50 per install.

Which begs a question: Why am I even reviewing these options? My school spent a lot of good money on this interactive whiteboard. Why doesn’t Smart technologies, Promethean, or any other the other companies create an app that is made for their program?  Because they want to sell me their proprietary tablets or slates and make even more money off me. So for the time being, I will continue to use Screens, an affordable, easy-to-use option that works with what I already have.

Cheeseburger Sentences

There are times when things come together perfectly for a teacher. I had one of those moments the other day, and, like many things I tend to write about, only other teachers seem to understand the kick I get out of it.

Years before I was ever a teacher, or even thinking of teaching, I worked flipping burgers, a job that is often looked down upon. I learned to make a really nice burger and the value of hard work, but other than that, I didn’t know how to apply those skills to my current teaching job.

Until, that is, I had to teach compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.

In the middle of a dry textbook lesson on sentences, I was looking for some sort of analogy that related to our subject and then it hit me: A simple sentence is like a plain burger. It’s an independent clause without any flavor: edible, but boring. Add another patty and some conjunctions/cheese to bind them together and you get a more interesting sentence/burger. Finally, dependent clauses, the condiments of the grammar world, add flavor and meaning to an existing sentence/burger but cannot be spoken/eaten by themselves.

It all came together mid-lesson. With the SMARTboard I was able to make a fantastic manipulative on the fly for my students to use and reference. Nearly every student aced his or her grammar test this week, and we celebrated with—what else—White Castle cheeseburgers.

A Scan-tastic Day at the Office

My fellow teachers! No more will I be a slave to the copy machine! Today I declare my independence from the daily ritual of lining up behind the beige, beeping monstrosity with blackline masters in hand! Today I took my fancy box of student handout masters, tore the bindings out of them, and stuffed them through the business end of said copier and set it for scan instead of copy. I spent the whole morning feeding the machine my masters. Sure, I had to unclog it a few times, but at the end of the morning all 30 weeks of my reading program were rendered into fancy, organized PDFs, now living happily on the cloud within my Dropbox.

Why scan all these in? Mostly to save time, to prevent having my eggs in one basket and hopefully allow me to be more versatile with how I can distribute my homework. Instead of having to spend time leafing through my book, figuring out the settings on the copier and barring access to the copier for my co-workers, I can now send the pages I want from my computer. (A trick accomplished by separating the pages with commas: for example, if I only want pages 5, 24, and 6 I tell the printer I want pages 5,24,6) Instead of having a single copy of my masters, through the magic of the cloud I have them at home on my iPad and on my SMARTboard at work. I can never lose the digital copy (hopefully) or have it damaged though a coffee spill or a hungry dog. If a student is absent, I can shoot them a PDF from my desk since I already have it on my computer. If I have an emergency, I can access the files I need from home and create a packet to send to my sub.

Would I replace my books for a digital edition? No. I like to have book to thumb through and mark up with sticky notes. But it helps to have a digital edition as well, since the act of printing and presenting can be hard on their binding. I hope that as ebooks and digital editions of textbooks become more common that more books include digital versions with their print materials. Then I don’t have to spend so many mornings wrestling with the great beige beast.

Whiteboards Win Again

Interactive whiteboards have been great for my instruction. I can never say enough about the whiteboard acts a magic window in my classroom, allowing me to make my lessons engaging and relevant to students who are increasingly plugged-in. What I discovered this last week was that a whiteboard can also be very useful in staff meetings.

One of the other great aspects of the interactive whiteboard is that you never have to erase it. There are no bad or outdated ideas on my SmartBoard. I only have to create a new page to move on to a new topic, and only have to go back a few pages to see what was on the board last week.

This came in handy during a scheduling meeting that took place last week. Despite it being the middle of July, everyone showed up and even I managed to pry myself off my hammock. Scheduling in a small school is always difficult, balancing the needs of gym, music, and art teachers, and the lunchroom staff, and still trying to create solid blocks for math and reading is complicated. Often, with all the grades represented in the meeting, it gets difficult to see the big picture and take everyone’s schedule into account.

Enter the whiteboard. Within a few minutes, our mobile SmartBoard was retrieved from the library, the blank schedule was copied into Smart Notebook, and for the rest of the meeting I played Vanna White, creating color-coded “blocks” of classes that we then moved around like pieces of a puzzle, until at last, they fit and (hopefully) the schedule was made.

VuPoint Magic Wand

There are times when a single-use item is best, and wrapping it up in other products is a bad idea. For example, take the scanner. Time was there used to be a variety of flat-bed scanners out there, and while they were hard to use, they performed an important task: to change paper hard copies into digital ones. Sadly, the humble scanner was a clunky thing and took up a lot of desk space. Now scanners are more often seen attached to all-in-one inkjet printers as an afterthought since most consumers no longer use them for scanning in photos and don’t bother scanning in documents.

As a teacher, I love scanners. I love to get my student’s work on a computer either to make a record of it, pass it on to a colleague or parent, or to pop it up on my SmartBoard. Part of my teaching routine is to go to the staff room and wrangle with the massive copier’s scanner function in order to make a PDF ‘overhead’ I can actually use since most of my teacher materials still come in the form of a bound, blackline master books. Sure, there are overhead options—for example, document cameras such as the ELMO—but they tend to be expensive, take up valuable desk space, and lack the ability to digitally share the document or mark it up.

The VuPoint Magic Wand, scanning.

Enter my newest toy and salvation: the VuPoint ‘Magic Wand’ scanner. It’s a foot-long rod that runs on two AA batteries and allows me to scan documents by simply passing it over a page. No clunky flat-bed, no waiting for it to ‘warm up’ or messing around with software, just pass it over your document and the image is popped onto a microSD card. I see myself spending a day before school starts scanning through all my textbooks and overheads so that they will be ready for my SmartBoard. I see myself passing this around to students so that they can share their work either on my whiteboard or via my online classroom. I finally have an easy, child-proof method of converting written work to digital work.

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