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

I wrote in a previous article about a project in which my students and I got a bunch of old, donated desktops, took them apart and rebuilt them into ‘frankencomputers’ running various forms of Linux, my favorite being Puppy Linux because it’s easy to install on even the oldest computers.

Recently, though, the pile of old computer parts that I had been building in one of the back rooms came the attention of the custodians and I was forced to clean house. Needless to say, my mess has been relocated, at least partly, to my classroom. Then, about two weeks ago, during our classroom spring cleaning, I ordered my students to set up one of the computers permanently on a lark. It was dubbed the ‘farm truck computer’ by my students.

Taking the farm truck computer for a spin

For those not in a rural district, most homes have two trucks: the ‘new truck,’ or the truck that you take into town and use on vacation to tow your boat; and the ‘farm truck’ or the beat up old truck that used to be the new truck. The farm truck is the one that you don’t bother washing, usually because soap would only wash off the protective layer of dust holding the all the rust together. To give you an idea of what one of these trucks is worth, my father once bought a load of hay for his hobby farm and the farmer threw in a farm truck to sweeten the deal. But every country kid knows that the farm truck is also a lot of fun, you don’t have to be nice to it, you can drive it through snow banks, grind the gears to your heart’s content, straight pipe the exhaust and grind the gears right down. If you happen to kill this truck, no one would miss it.

So it was true with our computer, a ten-year-old Dell running an OS off a CD. No one would miss it. It was a simple machine meant to tool around on. But you know what? It’s been great! The machine does only a few things, but it does them well; it gets on the internet, runs Flash (which is more than I can say for my iPad), and gives a place in my room for students to take their AR tests or look up their spelling words. But, it’s also so boring and slow that they can’t use it for anything fun. The cost of this incredibly useful little machine? $0. Every piece of its hardware was donated (as I am sure any computer repair shop would be happy to do) and the total cost of the software was $.10 for the CD the OS runs on. If it breaks down (which is unlikely) it costs the school absolutely nothing, and no one, except maybe me, would miss it.

Maker Kids!

Last year I talked about the ‘maker’ movement, a subculture of hackers and tinkerers and DIY culture that encourages amateur innovation. Events like the Maker Faire have found champions in such names as the Mythbusters and even President Obama, who invited young Maker Faire veteran Joey Hudy and others to demonstrate their creations at the White House, leading to one of my favorite presidential photos ever:

How did this thing get past the Secret Service? (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The maker movement is something worth looking into. It welcomes children as a fundamental force in innovation, teaching kids about math, science, engineering, and programming through invention.

I came across two really great sites this week that can help your more tech-minded students get into invention, giving them a few great weekend projects or just a few really great science fair projects.

The first is DIY.org, a website and app designed for kids that gives them a safe, supervised place to share their creations with the world and get feedback from the online community of builders.

The second is a great video podcast called Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show. This little girl not only builds some really neat things, but in the true spirt of the maker movement shows others how to follow in her footsteps. Learn how to make your own backpack buddy, build a paper rocket, or craft your own silly putty!

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!

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.

 

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.

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.

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