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

Posts tagged ‘education’

Let’s Take a Starwalk

I held my second astronomy night last Thursday, and despite a table giving way and causing two gallons of hot cider to spill, everything went very well. The massive 8-inch cannon of a telescope, on loan from our local CESA cooperative, gave us great views of Jupiter and its four moons. The fancy (i.e., complicated) telescope that I purchased last year gave us good views of the moon and my two smaller (i.e., a lot simpler to aim) telescopes gave us views of the Galaxy in Andromeda and the Great Cluster in Hercules.

But the real star of the night (pun intended) were the two iPads that Scott Schiller and I had on hand. The app Starwalk was heavily featured in the original iPad commercials and for good reason: It’s fantastic. Hold it up to the sky and it shows you in real time what constellation you are looking at. Do the pinch-zoom thing and you can see deep-sky objects visible in your telescope. Adjust the clock, and you know what will be visible in a few minutes or a hundred years from now.

My students and their parents huddled around the screens looking up at the sky at stars they had always seen but never known the names of. The real fun happened, as predicted by Starwalk, at exactly 7:36pm. That was when the International Space Station flew overhead as a bright orange spot in the sky, it and its three astronauts flying cruising at 18,000 MPH. My students and their parents were in awe as it cruised by. Its square shape could be made out through binoculars. Exactly 7:42, as predicted by Starwalk, it passed again under the horizon.

Keep it Simple

I am head of the Elementary School Science Club in Greenwood and this week we started one of my favorite units: computers.

The goal of this unit is to show students the overall theory of how computers work. Many of these kids don’t see the computer as anything special anymore; it’s an appliance like a lamp or a toaster that simply works. The concepts of hardware, software, memory, and RAM are all lost on them. The best way to show kids how computers work is similar to teaching them how an engine works: take it apart, rebuild it, and make it work better than before.

Last year I did this for the first time and nearly tore my hair out. I had two pretty well-equipped machines, older but not ancient, and I loaded them up with the excellent Ubuntu brand of Linux. Now, Ubuntu runs like a dream on newer computers, has great components, installs quickly, and if I were so inclined I could probably cut the cord and use it day to day if it were not for a few Windows/Mac holdout applications. That said, these older machines are now, well, old. Period. Two even OLDER machines were then donated by our music teacher, who wanted the computers retired and put to good use. A whole wall of my classroom looks like a junkyard.

As it happens, all four computers are too slow to load Ubuntu. I tried a few alternatives, but most Linux installs are very complicated (at least for me) and require you to know at least some code. I don’t know code. I don’t have time to learn, and expecting that from my students is crazy. Luckily, I discovered this man’s best friend: Puppy Linux.

As its name implies, Puppy is very small and very friendly—129 MB in all. It installs onto a CD or flash drive very easily. Then, just insert your disk, reboot your machine, and within five seconds (really, it’s that fast) you have a slick little operating system complete with web browser, word processor, spreadsheet software, and even a few multimedia programs and games. And it does this all WITHOUT INSTALLING OR ERASING ANYTHING! Any changes or new software you add are put on the nearest disk (hard drive, flash drive, or CD) in a hidden file without affecting your main OS.

Good Puppy.

Everything is very, very easy to use—easy enough for my 5th graders to go it alone and learn the ropes of what an OS does. All the network settings are easy to find and we managed to get our proxy settings and a new browser installed in a few minutes. I found myself excited over a yellowed, 10-year-old tower; in short, this amazing OS really breathes new life into old machines, making them great again.

One student took a disk home; she and her mother got it running on her laptop, connected it to wireless, and checked mom’s Facebook. Two boys who live only for tractors and hunting are excited by installing network printers. One even wants to see if he can use Puppy Linux to fix up his grandma’s computer.

Here’s what my students had to say:

“Some of the computers were slow, but we got them to run. It was surprising that all that could run off of one little disk.”

“I asked my mom if I could try something, and she said ‘Sure, just don’t break anything.’  I had some trouble at first, but my dad helped and when we restarted, it worked.”

Puppy can be used to teach computers to students, or to refurbish an old lab with a basic browser/word processing setup. I am a Mac user now, full of smugness over the stability of my machine; but seriously, if I still had a PC I would keep a Puppy disk around just in case I got a virus or the machine died on me. Within a few minutes, I could pull off my files and check my email using this adorable life raft of an OS. If you want to have a little geeky fun, download this Puppy. It is a great way to explore Linux without compromising your machine.


I spend a lot of my time in our school’s computer lab teaching students the ins and outs of how to get the most out of their tools. Often, I have to demonstrate how to perform different skills on the computer and I have found that there are three ways to accomplish this.

The first is to somehow describe perfectly what you want the students to click on or do. This is very difficult, mostly because it involves describing clicking one icon of hundreds, usually by saying something like, “Click on the little arrow pushing a bunch of lines. That’s your increase indent button.” I avoid it when I can because often, it means having most of my students getting hopelessly lost.

The second is to have a projector in the room. This is slightly better, but it still means that your students’ attention is in two places, on their own screen and on yours, and they can’t always see the projection screen.

This leads me to the best option of all, which is screen sharing. There are whole classes of programs that usually operate over networks that allow you to do this, basically either take over a whole lab of computers or demonstrate to whole labs. Many of these programs require installation on a host machine and viewers installed on every other computer in the lab. Many of them are also very expensive because they try to do too much. They demonstrate, administer, oversee and share files throughout your lab—basically making you the all-powerful overlord of your lab (moo who ha ha).

We have such an installation in one of our computer labs, and I would not mind having it installed on all my machines, but price and the complexity of the install get in the way of that. However, I recently came upon a great solution for teachers, a service called join.me.

Join.me is not the first screen sharing service out there; others such as GoToMeeting have been out there for a while. Others might note that setting up a VNC or remote desktop system has always been an option as well. But join.me is extremely easy to use. I timed a machine and it took only 40 seconds to get to the site, run the helper program, and start sharing.

Sharing screens the easy way.

Install is a snap; run a small host viewer on your demonstration machine and it gives you an Internet address for anyone who would like to see what is on your screen. That’s it. Your students just type in that address and they see your screen from their browser.

Included in the free version is the ability to send your files and chat with your students. The pro version gives you a personal address and the ability to have students switch with you and present to the rest of the class. So far, I have used it to demonstrate to my class, but the control sharing feature would also allow students to ‘come up the board’ and interact with the screen that everyone else is seeing.

I am here because of Steve Jobs.

I am here because of Steve Jobs. As I write this, I have known for an hour that Steve has passed, and I feel the need to write my feelings down, I am sure that I am not alone.

I learned to type on an Apple IIe along with the rest of my generation. I can barely remember all the members of my extended family (cousins named Katelyn and Krytsen who look identical is too much to expect from anyone), but I can remember vividly playing the entire line of MECC computer games. Number-Munchers taught me to add and Oregon Trail taught me that if I hunted buffalo for too long game would become scarce. I remember typing up stories on flickering green screens and printing them on dot matrix printers. I remember learning to code using Logo and beaming with pride at ten when I coded a picture of a Volkswagen Beetle. I remember using a mouse on an original Macintosh, pointing and clicking on a little 7 inch black and white screen. So dependable was that little Mac that, years later, I bought one for $5 from my high school and used it to write my college applications, eventually replacing it with a lime green iMac DV. I regret now more than ever selling it back for $5. I miss how the words just seemed to flow on that machine.

Steve Jobs had a vision of computers belonging to the masses. He was not a particularly good programmer or engineer, but he knew what a computer could do and what people would pay for. He took computers out of the hulking mainframes and into homes and schools. He made computers that were simple enough for children to use and affordable enough for schools to buy. One of those buying Apple IIs was my father, whose job changed from math teacher to technology coordinator with the coming of the Apple.

When Steve Jobs left Apple, his vision seemed to go with it, and Windows took hold and got a foot in on the Internet revolution. When he returned to Apple years later, he decided to build his iMacs, which were designed specifically for the Internet so much so that they lacked disk drives. Once again, people laughed at the candy-colored computers, Steve laughed all the way to the bank. Once again, the public put their money behind the friendly, easy to use machine, despite limited performance and features. He then used the Macintosh as a springboard to a multi-media empire ignited by the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. He brought mobile computing out of the business world and gave it to the rest of us, just as he took computers out of corporate mainframes and into homes and schools decades before.

Graphic interfaces, multiple fonts, desktop publishing, feature-length computer generated movies, the computer mouse, digital music players, online music stores, tablets, and the App-fueled Smartphone market; while not created by Jobs, they were perfected by means of his vision, made elegant and easy to use for the masses. If you use technology in any way, you are a child of Steve Jobs, a great thinker and a friend of education whose insight into technology was balanced by his insight into the needs of people.

In the weeks and years to come, when he becomes likened to historic figures like Edison and Ford, it will be interesting to see how his contributions are weighed. Ford made us a nation of drivers, Edison illuminated the world, and Marconi brought the world into our living room. I feel like the Apple II and the Macintosh were the Model Ts of the information age because they we invited to schools and homes for the first time, their creation is the point where it began, and Steve Jobs was the personality that gave rise to that generation.


Cyberbullying was the cover story in Weekly Reader News, Ed. 4-6, on 9/2/11.

Found a really resource in Weekly Reader News, Edition 4-6, with their cover story on cyberbullying. As more and more students become more connected, cyberbullying has taken center stage, finally being seen as a real and destructive element of modern childhood.

Weekly Reader did a great job of telling my students how to respond to online bullying. First children should collect evidence, something that they don’t often do because the first reaction to a nasty post or text is to delete it. This led to a lesson on how to collect evidence. I taught students how to use the “print screen” feature to save messages and Facebook posts.

The second step of course is to report the bullying. Every state is different in how they handle cyblerbullying. In Wisconsin, we are instructed to treat it like any other form of harassment. Even if the bullying takes place outside of the school (or on the Internet), the school can take action if it prevents a student from feeling safe at school.

I like that the article portrayed cyberbullying as a crime, making it clear to students how serious this behavior is being taken around the country.

Day One

I got up at 5:30. I could sleep in till as late as 5:45 but I like to have a big breakfast of bacon and eggs every morning as I meditate over coffee on the day to come. By 6:30 I am presentable in a shirt and tie and out the door.

I hit the road on my long commute through the farmlands of central Wisconsin. Cows and corn mostly with the occasional Amish homestead with a whole zoo of animals including goats, sheep horses and geese and a working sawmill to boot. The highway has been surfaced recently with a mix of oil and loose gravel for no reason I can think of except to put yet more chips in my already abused windshield. This is a busy little road with commuters like me sharing the road with tractors, milk trucks, and, as of today, school buses. I make way to wave at the drivers. If they know you, sometimes they will pull to the side and let you pass. All of them slow me down. I keep awake by switching from public radio to the speed metal of my youth. What can I say? I was fifteen once, too.

Free time learning on the iPad

Then I arrive at school. Things get blurry at this point because I have to do so much in so little time. We cover rules most of my students already know. (All but six of my students were in my class last year for fifth grade.) Building rules, classroom rules, lunchroom rules, playground rules, where to go for fires and tornadoes, and how I expect them to walk in the halls (in a line, on the right, eyes on the back of the head in front of you, no talking, and no cutting corners).

They love my iPad. One of my co-workers gives me the idea of handing out 5-minute free time cards for it. During some free time, half of the girls circle around it and play Tiny Wings, then Tangrams, and then they look at different molecules and dissect a virtual frog. I have plans to work in a real dissection later in the year, so its good to know that they have strong stomachs. I teach four students the F, G7, D and C chords on the ukulele. Let’s hope the novelty holds on for a while.

I chew out a few students about the quality of work they put into their nametags. Trivial, I know, but it’s the first day and I need them to know that I expect them to work hard on everything, especially the trivial things, because often it’s the small details that matter the most.

Virtual dissection

I cook four of the last tiny ears of corn for a few of my students that worked on the garden last year for them to eat at lunch. They have already eaten their fill of raw beans. One of my co-workers and I go out the garden with the kids and pick a few apples for lunch. I eat a salad from the lunch line. I eat so much better when school starts.

Before I know it, the day is over; the kids have lined up and headed out. The only thing I think of now, the thing that will keep me up at night, is this simple question: What did I miss?


I am a big fan of setting goals, but meeting them has never been a big deal for me. Maybe it was growing up talentless in a family of athletes, but to me goals always implied that the destination was more important than the journey. That said, I tend to start the year with a set of things I want to work for and expand from there. If a goal is abandoned, so be it. The point is that I keep pushing myself, knowing that frustration and distraction, like roadside attractions, can be just as memorable as reaching your destination.

My goals for this year are as follows:

  1. Completely abandon the paper and pencil grade book that forces me to enter my grade twice, first in the paper grade book and secondly into the electronic one.  This had led to a last minute scramble at the end of the year that I only survived through the pity of my co-workers.
  2. Use my school’s new RTI (response to intervention) period to expand interest in the following programs within my classroom:
    1. Student Newspaper/Blog
    2. Reading Club
    3. Science and Engineering Club
    4. Create a self-directed Khan Academy program within our school as an alternative to advanced math classes.
    5. Use my Moodle Page more efficiently, hopefully working in some grammar lessons, as well as a way to create a portfolio-based writing project.
    6. Develop the best Neville Longbottom costume possible for Halloween.  How I will manage to carry the sword of Gryffindor, a cactus, and a toad needs to be sorted out.
    7. Build a massive igloo with my students using Pi to calculate its volume and estimate the cubic feet of snow used to build it.  Knowing how March is in Wisconsin, we might even do this on Pi Day (3-14)
    8. Teach most, if not all, of my class a simple C-F-G7 chord progression on the ukulele.
    9. Use my iPad to better organize my lesson planning and instruction.
    10. Manage to keep my classroom from turning into a junkyard by the end of the year.
    11. Build a lot of great memories with the minimum number of regrets and missed chances.

I can’t help but feel that most of these are goals for myself. I don’t know yet what my goals will be for my students. I guess I am less concerned about what my students goals are, only that they have a goal for themselves, that they push themselves and try a little bit harder this year than they did last year. I guess that’s a goal that my students and I can share in.

What are your feelings going into the year? What are your plans for completing them?

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