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

Posts tagged ‘school’

Rocket Summer

I am a huge nerd. As a kid, I got turned onto model rocketry by my fifth grade teacher, Miss Hanson. As with a lot of my interests, I surged ahead, devouring everything I could on the subject, building countless rocket kits and losing every single one to trees and wind. I even went so far as getting fellow nerds together for a “rocket club.” We met in my parents’ basement. My mom made us sloppy joes.

Then, like so many things, I cast away my childish interests only to have them come back to me as incredibly useful in my teaching career. As an end-of-the-year project, our fifth grade students are building easy-to-assemble rocket kits; a half-hour and a coat of paint and they are ready to go. What is more interesting is the project our sixth grade students are engaged in. The sixth graders’ rockets are made from scratch. They consist of a sheet of construction paper, a file folder, a paper clip, and a drinking straw. Total cost: $.12, not including the disposable rocket engines. As fun as building rockets from scratch can be, launching them can prove to be interesting; things like poor build quality and strange fin shapes can make for unpredictable (but exciting) launches.

I got the idea from the topic of a previous post: Sylvia’s Super Awesome Mini Maker Show

The subject of rockets could not happen at a better time. A wealth of YouTube videos capture amazing launches from home builders, and the news is full of Space X’s new rocket that may be replacing the space shuttle.

Here a few ways to get started on rocketry; it makes a great summer school activity.

First, make sure you have a launcher, launch pad, and engines. You can choose to buy rocket bulk-packs for your students (great for beginners), or have them choose from a list of rockets (more advanced students), or build them from scratch like I did (at your own risk).

There are lots of good places to buy your stuff, but I go with a website called eHobbies. They have lots of experience working with teachers and youth groups and work with several manufacturers. I bought rockets, engines, and launching equipment made by Quest Aerospace. They even have starter kits put together for teachers who want to start a rocketry program.

If it seems intimidating, don’t worry. It’s not brain surgery, only rocket science.


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.

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!

Kickstart Education with DonorsChoose

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!

Website Workarounds

I love sending my students to websites. However, many of these websites are more Flash (as in Adobe Flash) than content. They are so full of pop-ups and banner ads—many misleading—that I find my lesson being more about the dangers of clicking banners than the content I was intending to teach. Thankfully, there are some great options out there for making the web more readable.

If you want to render a page into a simple, easy-to-read handout, save some paper, or export webpages to your e-reader, iPad, or other device, give these a try.

Instapaper: Simple and easy to use, sign up for a free account and Instapaper gives you a handy little bookmarklet. Find something you want to read later, click the bookmark, and a text-only version of that website is sent to your account and synced with your phone, e-reader, or other device. Think of the web as a giant newspaper, and Instapaper as a shoebox full of clippings.

Readability: This great service was built on the shoulders of Instapaper. It used to be a paid service and it shows in some of its added features such as the ability to archive documents, tag them and share them via email, Facebook, or Twitter, if you are so inclined.

PrintFriendly: By far, one of the handiest sites I have found in a while. It does one thing and does it well: prints from the web.  Put in an address or use their browser button and it makes any page into a PDF. This saves paper and money for districts. It also renders complicated and busy websites into simple-to-read PDF documents that you can then easily print, save, or share. All absolutely free.

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.

Google Gobble

Thanksgiving looms on the horizon and my students are nuts about deer again. The hunt for their antlered quarry is on and my students are old enough now to take part. Each of them seems to have a story this year, from my student who missed a prize buck when nature called to one young girl pumped up about her new bright-pink 20-gauge shotgun.

Having worked the search-trivia game agoogleaday.com into my class’s routine, I decided that as a special activity prior to Thanksgiving break, I would tear them away from their obsession with this year’s deer hunting season. I brainstormed every trivia question I could think of regarding Thanksgiving and sent my kids on a search for quality answers.

Attached is the worksheet and a somewhat complete answer key. If you have any you would like added please include them in a comment below! Happy Turkey Day!

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.

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.

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?

Tag Cloud