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

Posts tagged ‘education’

Gone Fishing

One of the great things about teaching in Greenwood, Wisconsin, has to be our outdoor classroom. I grew up surrounded by forests as a kid—named trees, watched birds, and fished in rivers. When Greenwood Elementary was built, an administrator with some forethought fenced off a small pond, planted some fruit trees and allowed the area to go wild. Protected by the fences from deer, a nearly perfect example of Wisconsin wilderness exists right behind our playground.

Went fishing with my students the other day in our little pond. Now that springtime has sprung, our little patch of wilderness is home to a brood of ducklings, a great blue and small green heron, a clutch of rabbits, a red fox, a few kingfishers, and more noisy warblers and testy red-winged blackbirds than can be counted. We made fishing rods out of sticks, used bent pins as hooks and hot dogs as bait. Before long we pulled in dozens of bullhead cats and one very upset turtle. I know that I am a technology teacher, but there are days when I am glad to be unplugged.

Please note: You can now find me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/LeeBriggsTech


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.

Finding Great iPad Apps

The iPad is an amazing device. If you don’t have one, it’s hard to describe what having one is like; the closest thing I can think of is what life was like when [the Internet/cell phones/wi-fi/automatic transmissions/wheels] first came out. You have those yet to make the switch wondering what the fuss is about, and those who made the switch wondering how they ever did without it.

I believe that this will be the case for schools in the next few years. Apple is betting on it with its educational push, and schools are doing their best to figure out best practices for these devices. What kinds of activities do we want to support? How will we authenticate and distribute purchases? In their own way, each distinct seems to be answering these nuts and bolts questions. But it’s all just so new! And finding educational resources for the iPad, while not impossible, is often a slow process. You can wade through dozens of apps; some are good, some not so good.

Which is why it was great to find this site. The author lays out 14 best practices for the use of the iPad and includes a shopping list of apps that help meet those needs. Each one is reviewed briefly and labeled in terms of difficulty. After mucking around in what passes for an education department in the App Store, it is nice to see something put together by a teacher that lays everything out so clearly. Thank you, good sir!

Futurecade and the Science Museum

I got a chance to play with a really nice set of games created by the Science Museum in England. They have developed a set of really fun games called Futurecade. Some of these games are based some of the real problems of the future. For example, removing land mines using robot drones you have to program (dealing with the real issue of mine removal) or creating strains of e-coli that can clean up oil spills. Others involve teaching genetics by having students care for, nurture, and breed ‘Things’ in the game Thingdom.

Many educational games are little more than regular arcade-style games with some math facts thrown in. These games were created to promote issues in math and science, but also to develop thinking and problem-solving. These could easily be adapted to lessons on global warming, energy, genetics, food distribution, and natural resources. What really makes them great is the optimism that science can solve these seemingly overwhelming problems, and that they allow your students to stand in the shoes of the problem solvers of tomorrow. Good thing too, since they will have to fill that role in the future.

Hear That, Kids? It’s the Sound of My Mind, Blowing.

I am teaching my sixth grade students conversions from the customary system (inches, feet, miles, cups, ounces) to the metric system (liters, centimeters, grams) and for these kids it is a pretty hard sell. In my classroom, the metric system is condemned because it is associated with an object of universal hatred: My Toyota. I then explain that Canada uses the metric system and if any of them want to go fishing or hunting there they are going to need to know what a kilometer is. Teaching in the country is full of these kinds of accommodations.

The hardest part of teaching the metric system is that most of these kids don’t have any concept of how big a centimeter is, or how far a kilometer is. They don’t have a reference for it. They often make the argument that the customary system is fine; after all, aren’t fractions of an inch small enough? Why do we need to measure anything bigger than a mile?

I found a website that puts all of these arguments to task: The Scale of the Universe 2

The Scale of the Universe is a neat little Flash app. Zoom in and it shows you the smallest things in the universe—smaller than atoms, smaller than electrons—and their metric measurements.

That's tiny.

Zoom out, and it shows you humans and animals. Zoom out even further than it shows you planets, stars, and eventually the size of the observable universe.

That's huge.

In minutes you can compare the size of a person to a bacteria and the united states to the moon, and our sun to the galaxy.

There are many fantastic applications for this tool, but the one I used was this: Look at all the important things smaller than an inch. At some point fractions of an inch become too complicated and fail you. Miles are even worse. Try using miles to measure the distance to Alpha Centuri, our nearest star, and the numbers are truly astronomical. No, the metric system is shown to be useful because the same measurement is used for all of these things and it works.

Give this website a spin. It’s a…humbling experience.

Brilliant BBC

I am a huge BBC nerd. My wife and I watch episodes of “Top Gear” every Sunday when we have our pancakes and I am eagerly awaiting the latest Doctor Who Christmas Special. (Last year had a flying shark. This year they parody Narnia!)

But our friends across the pond have also made some fantastic educational resources that could add a lot to your classroom, provided that your students don’t giggle at the accents like my students did.

Learn a language: The BBC provides lots of great language lesson for free, they make a great tool for students wanting to work on their own or as a supplement for an foreign language course.

Learn to type: A great (but personally annoying; make sure your kids have headphones) website for learning to touch type, Dance Mat Typing teaches students to type using funny songs and typing lessons that work similar to Guitar Hero or Dance, Dance Revolution.

Know the news: The BBC World Service is a national recognized source of quality journalism.  They also produce a short, daily podcast that updates schoolchildren on world events.  A great way to start the day and serve as a global current events.

Bedtime stories: The BBC produces a great children’s program called CBeebies. Part of the show, called ‘The Bedtime Hour,’ involves acclaimed actors (including the 10th Doctor, David Tennant) reading bedtime stories in the manner of Reading Rainbow, but incredibly relaxing. Search YouTube for “CBeebies Bedtime Stories” to see these delightful clips.

Fun With Hyperlinking

I am running into a problem with my technology classes. The problem is that I have had my current sixth grade students for three years straight now. Three years where technology has been a priority in their education. In those three years I have managed to teach them quite a bit about the Big Four: Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and the internet. Finding ways to keep things fresh has been a challenge for these kids.

One way I am overcoming this is to try and boost the creativity that I am asking of my students. Instead of my old lessons that focused on teaching a skill objectively and out of context, I am instead teaching them a skill and letting them run with it.

Take PowerPoint, for example. I hate PowerPoint because it tends to suck the creativity right out of a presentation, especially if all the presenter does is read what is on the slide. Instead, I had my students use hyperlinking in PowerPoint to link one slide to another, basically making a boring presentation into an interactive game. This hopefully teaches my students how to make a more interesting presentation, teach them what a hyperlink does and provides groundwork for computer programming, something I hope to introduce them to later this year.

Here are a few examples of ‘games’ created using PowerPoint.

Could You Be a Zombie? (PDF)

How Well Do You Know Mr. Briggs? (PDF)

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