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

Posts tagged ‘classroom’

Taking QR Codes to the Next Level

I have a rather obsessive pattern of learning new things. I only started learning about QR codes a few weeks ago and I’ve already discovered two exceptional tools for using the fancy phone-candy.

The first is an all-around awesome site from popular QR-code reader Kaywa. This easy-to-use site creates QR codes that generate text, SMS messages, phone numbers or links. The text option alone has dozens of possibilities: creating stickers of questions to put into the margins of books or label a class library. Remember the tests we used to make using colored cellophane that reveals answers? This could make a fantastic 21st century spin on an old idea.

For example: What year did Wisconsin become a state?

Answer correctly and get a jelly bean!

You could also easily add links to paper books that connect students to online material, just as you add links to web pages. Instantly you could make every book a ‘smart book’ by connecting it to online resources.

For example: This could easily be attached as a label to the back of Little Women:

The second resource comes from Classtools.net, and is an automatic QR code scavenger hunt maker. It makes a great introductory activity for students. Just pop in questions and it creates QR codes to post around your school. The site also has great additional resources.

Butterfuel?

Had a really fun activity this week; not exactly technology, but it was a really fun science lesson on alternative fuels.

We had just finished a unit in science on alternative energy. Being that all my students are burgeoning gear-heads, they were most interested in biodiesel. Biodiesel is a very broad term for diesel fuel that is at least partly made from natural oils such as vegetable oil. We decided that we were going to brew up a batch. Sort of.

I started by asking my students what we have a lot of in Wisconsin. Overwhelmingly the answer was dairy cows. Oil is basically a fat, and milk (especially Wisconsin milk—this is home to the happiest cows in the world) is anywhere from 3% to 5% fat. If you let that fat rise to the top, you can skim off cream, giving you cream and skimmed milk.

Now cream is about 40% fat, much better, but still a long way from being pure enough to burn. As any visitor to Colonial Williamsburg will tell you, you can then take that cream and churn it to make butter and buttermilk. The buttermilk can be used for pancakes, and the butter is now 80% fat. But it still has too much water to burn.

Here comes the fun part. You heat up the butter and allow all the water in it to boil off, paralleling the distillation process of oil refining, but in reverse.  After about 30 minutes, when your room smells like butterscotch, you have pure, 100% golden butterfat, also known as clarified butter, or ghee to fans of East Indian cooking. And ghee burns…. 

Powered by saturated fat.

Next year we’ll see if we can’t get some corporate sponsorship (hello, Paula Deen!) to feed a steam turbine on the stuff and charge up a go-kart battery.

The Case for a “Farm Truck” Computer

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.

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.

 

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

NO THEY DIDN’T

Not to be messed with.

Has technology gone too far?  The iPod has replaced my CD player, my datebook, my calculator, my remote control, my radio, and my alarm clock. My iPad has replaced my newspaper, much of my library, and my laptop for a good portion of my surfing.  I am a huge technophile, but everyone has their limits, and today, I am sorry to say, I reached my limit.

The tag-team of the iPod and iPad have joined forces to replace something near and dear to my heart: a replacement so diabolical that it almost makes me want to renounce all things digital and take up with the Amish I see every day on my way to work.  Sure, the life is hard, but it beats the evil that has been done to something so dear to my heart.

The company Amidio has created a dual app that uses the iPad and the iPod to create a ‘virtual’ ukulele.   I have seven ukuleles in my classroom (with an eighth one on the way; this one hunter orange). A group of students meets three times a week to practice. And now this?  I feel like a candlemaker who has seen his first lightbulb. For shame.

Skype

Skype is the most popular teleconferencing platform in the world. Developed by (allegedly) former online media pirates, Skype is seen as an alternative to long distance calling, providing free voice and video communication over the internet from anywhere in the world. In the past few years it has exploded, to the point that I spent last Christmas at my in-laws as they received video call after video call from family in Trinidad, Florida, and England.

Skype is behind most of the live news broadcasts that you see from remote areas of the world. Anyone with an iPod and an Internet connection can connect in real time to anyone else.

What are the educational advantages to Skype? How about connecting with a teacher in Peru during a unit on South America? Have your students talk—really talk—to their students. Have your class and their class do a math lesson together. Have wireless? Take the other class for a field trip around the school. While we are the subject of field trips, why not have ’embedded reporters’ in your class report to another grade, live from their field trip?

How do you connect to these schools? Since becoming more mainstream, Skype has set up an education portal designed to allow teachers to connect with one another and collaborate using teleconferencing. Just make sure to clear it with your district’s tech support first; Skype is blocked by most filters, and modifications might need to be made for teacher use.

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:

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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