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

Posts tagged ‘teachers’

Saved By the Cloud

Ok, so most of the time, when I rely on anything electronic it ends up betraying me somehow. Nearly every gadget I own has turned on me to the point that when we go shopping, my wife refuses to allow me to pick the actual box we are taking home because my luck is so bad. I think most of my experience in technology can be traced to having it fail and being forced to fix it.

But for once, this is not one of those stories. For once, my horrible bad luck with all things gadget-y has turned. For the last few weeks, sixth grade has split its math classes into two groups: a standard math group and an advanced math group. For most schools, this is normal. But in our small school, it is unmarked territory. We have had to learn to make it work as we go. For the most part, it has gone great. The kids are picking up the concepts better than ever and everyone is challenged. As for the logistics, Scott (the other sixth grade teacher) and I shared an Excel document on Dropbox to keep track of grades so that we can coordinate and eventually feed them into our school’s online gradebook.

Let me repeat that: we are sharing a document.

I bet most of you who have done this already know what happened.

At some point, Scott (I choose to blame him; it just saves time) or I had the file open, then the other teacher opened it at the same time. One person saved the file over the other. The result: I lost two weeks of grading (Scott lost nothing, which makes it even more convenient for me to blame him). If this were a shared drive on our network, or a file on a disk drive, we would have been out of luck. But Scott, bless his heart, is a Dropbox user, and our Excel file was shared via Dropbox. In fewer than five minutes I was able to ‘restore’ my old grades and paste them into the new file without a single grade lost. With our third quarter ending this week, I was saved from certain doom. Seriously, if only for the ability to automatically track versions of your files and backing them up: START PUTTING YOUR FILES ON THE CLOUD NOW!

Am I the Enemy?

I had a crisis of faith last week. I had been riding high for some time over the use of my recorded lessons in my classroom. Basically, I was using a screen-grabbing app to record math lessons and posting them on YouTube so that I could curate my math class. I created a “Khan Academy lite” in my classroom, geared to my student’s needs. It worked great and my students have been responding very well in math since adopting this new program.

But then something happened. I heard that several local politicians were embracing the Khan Academy and sites like it as something “new” and “innovative.” Great, I thought, I love the Khan Academy! My students use it all the time to brush up on math, or get the help that their parents don’t have time to give. But it turned out they weren’t promoting Khan Academy because it’s a great tool; they were promoting it because they felt that, with such great resources available for free online, why were they paying teachers so much money?

Here was my dilemma. If I make my lessons available for free online, am I diluting the value of my instruction a product? Are teachers who share their instruction and lesson plans online putting themselves out of a job? I had to think really hard about it and I came to this conclusion: Heck, no.

Even though I can buy the album or listen to it on the radio, I won’t stop going to concerts. Even though Shakespeare is public domain, people don’t stop paying to see his plays or think that an audiobook can replace a performance. Canned tomatoes, while handy, don’t replace the real thing—if anything, they make you appreciate the real thing more.

Khan Academy and similar sites are not the end of education as some other educator-blogs would have you believe. Khan himself writes that his site is not a curriculum; he is simply offering another way to teach children, one that is realistic and pragmatic. He does not abstractly teach ‘why.’ Instead, he focuses on the ‘how’ of actually solving math problems and succeeding in math. Frankly, many students (including myself when I was a kid) were frustrated by the constructivist approach of ‘finding a way that works for you’ and would rather just skip to practicing the method that works every time.

Many make the argument that Khan is not a teacher and is not qualified to teach children. That just rubs me the wrong way. What I do is not special; anyone can teach, just like anyone can cook, work on a car, or learn to play guitar. But not everyone is brave enough to try and willing to put the work into doing it well. To me, Khan Academy is no different than a student getting help from mom and dad, who are often not certified teachers, and educators don’t turn up our noses at that.

I will continue to post my lessons, because it helps me become a better teacher. I like to think that if more people see my teaching, it will help them see the value in what I do. I want parents at home to watch the lessons with their kids and think, “Wow, my kid get to have him in person.” Like so many other times in my life when I have felt doubt and am forced to confront it, I end up only more sure that I am in the right place, doing the right thing.

Keeping Notes

I heard somewhere that a teacher has to perform several thousand tasks every school day. I don’t know how true that is, but I sure do feel overwhelmed from time to time. I find keeping track of all details of my day, keeping track of what to do and organizing my thoughts difficult sometimes. My wife would say that I am predisposed by my gender to be disorganized and unable to hold more than a few thoughts in my head at a time. Again, I don’t know how true this is. I do know that many times I have found myself in the staff room with no idea as to why I was there.

Always looking for a novel solution to the problem of holding a million things in my head, I thought I would take a few note-taking solutions for a spin. I found two that seem to work for me. Both are simple enough that I actually use them. Both use tags and a great search feature to organize everything so that I can actually find what I bothered to write down.

The first is Simplenote and works as its name implies: simply. After an account is set up, one types up their note and pops a tag on it to index it later. That’s it. For me, it works because it does not confine me with too many features or attempt to get me to conform to an interface. No links, fancy colors or features; just text, organized. Best of all, Simplenote works with the cloud so my iPad at work, my iPod at home, and any computer I use all have the same notes. That means I can get ideas down quickly before they evaporate and find them again wherever I am.

Simplenote

Another great option I am playing with is the popular note-taking service Evernote. Evernote is similar to Simplenote in that it allows you to make notes on any device and organizes them by tags. But it does not stop there; it allows you to create separate notebooks for, say, school and work. It allows you to tag them with the location so you can know where you took that note. It can attach pictures or audio clips, for those of us who prefer to keep track of ideas through voice recordings. It also goes farther than Simplenote with how you can format your notes and share them with co-workers and family. I’m sure there are even more features that I have not even touched yet.

Evernote

So which do I use? Simplenote, which has all the complexity of a sticky-note; or Evernote, which is far more versatile? They both have their uses, but in the long run, I think I might lean towards Evernote, just because my ideas often include pictures and links and are often shared with others.

But part of me wishes that I could turn off all those features 90% of the time and just have a blank screen to fill with my thoughts, and for that, I make sure to keep a notepad handy.

If you want something with more features, my favorite website, lifehacker, has a great roundup of note-taking apps, including good old pencil and paper.

Whiteboards Win Again

Interactive whiteboards have been great for my instruction. I can never say enough about the whiteboard acts a magic window in my classroom, allowing me to make my lessons engaging and relevant to students who are increasingly plugged-in. What I discovered this last week was that a whiteboard can also be very useful in staff meetings.

One of the other great aspects of the interactive whiteboard is that you never have to erase it. There are no bad or outdated ideas on my SmartBoard. I only have to create a new page to move on to a new topic, and only have to go back a few pages to see what was on the board last week.

This came in handy during a scheduling meeting that took place last week. Despite it being the middle of July, everyone showed up and even I managed to pry myself off my hammock. Scheduling in a small school is always difficult, balancing the needs of gym, music, and art teachers, and the lunchroom staff, and still trying to create solid blocks for math and reading is complicated. Often, with all the grades represented in the meeting, it gets difficult to see the big picture and take everyone’s schedule into account.

Enter the whiteboard. Within a few minutes, our mobile SmartBoard was retrieved from the library, the blank schedule was copied into Smart Notebook, and for the rest of the meeting I played Vanna White, creating color-coded “blocks” of classes that we then moved around like pieces of a puzzle, until at last, they fit and (hopefully) the schedule was made.

A Note About My Colleagues

I am constantly impressed by the people who I work with.

I am not just saying that because I know that a few of them read this and give me a hard time now and then. I work with a third grade teacher who manages a twice weekly after-school program that gives kids social and educational activities.  I work with a fourth grade teacher who had her students conduct a biological survey of our outdoor classroom (link to previous story on classroom).  The music teacher’s idea of a Christmas concert is a full-on musical starring most of the school complete with costumes and dance numbers. The physical education teacher has kids geocaching with GPS receivers while they learn the basics of snowshoeing.

Earlier this week, I came upon this: three of the teachers I work with ‘testing’ a Dance, Dance Revolution set with the SMARTboards.

We use the DDR sets during indoor recesses when it’s raining or too cold to go outside, allowing the kids to stay active.

I am truly blessed to work with people who put so much fun into their work.

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