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

Posts tagged ‘teaching’

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.

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Thingdom Takes Over My Classroom

I was first introduced to the idea of genetics when I was a high school freshman in biology class. I found the idea of recessive and dominant traits fascinating. It was also reassuring that the things that made me weird (being able to roll my tongue, my hitchhikers’ thumb, being the only blue-eyed child in my family) were not really my fault. They were my grandmother’s fault.

Now, I find Mendel Squares fascinating; my students, not so much. However, they are of an age where things like hair color, eye color, and all those inherited traits are becoming more interesting to them. Most of my students are also farm kids and so the breeding of animals is something talked about, even if the logic behind it is unclear.

Enter a great game that I was only able to touch upon in an earlier post: Thingdom. A game created by The Science Museum in London, Thingdom was created to teach children about genetics in a very approachable and fairly age-appropriate way.

The game is simple enough. You create a small, multi-colored blob-shaped creature called a ‘thing’ and then slowly raise it up like a virtual pet; feeding it, petting it, and making it dance. The real fun happens at around 5 minutes when the little bugger screams out: “I WANT TO MATE!” With cute little hearts all around.

After the giggling has passed, the science starts. You are challenged to breed your ‘thing’ with other things in order to get a desired trait from the babies, such as stripes, blue color, or size. Children are shown how recessive and dominant traits combine to increase the chances of traits. Students are not allowed to proceed until they have completed such tasks as breeding a thing to have large size, fuzzy fur, or spots. This explains to students in a fun, age-appropriate way how children inherit traits from their parents. It also helps explain such questions as how human meddling created both the Great Dane and the Chihuahua.

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.

Tools to Teach Shakespeare, Methinks

So, if you are like me, you were forced to read Shakespeare in high school. Not that there is anything wrong with that; I am a big fan of The Bard, but so many people find his work hard to approach because of the language. Once you get past the poetry to the meat of the story, you realize that most of his stories are the root of every story that has been told since. Have a revenge story? Hamlet.  Have a story about power leading to corruption? I give you Julius Caesar or Macbeth. Want to tell a story about crazy, self-destructive teenagers? Romeo and Juliet. The first romantic comedy? A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Shakespeare is so at the root of our culture that to not have at least a passing familiarity with is work is a crime against civilized society.

So here I have a few resources to tie into Shakespeare. The first is from Cliff’s Notes, whose products (for better or worse) have helped countless people approach Shakespeare’s works.  They have produced a series of short films that sum up the works very nicely with a big helping of much needed humor.

For those of you on the other end of the spectrum, who think that the greatest writer in the English language is deserving of more respect and analysis: Wolfram Alpha, the fact-engine and source of limitless statistical data, has included the works of Shakespeare in its databases, and now gives such information as the average sentence length in Hamlet being 80.08 characters, or that Hermia speaks 1818 words to Lysander’s 1399.

Finally, here’s a collection of Shakespeare resources from Weekly Reader. Don’t miss the Macbeth rap.

Down With PowerPoint!

During the short week leading up to Easter I decided to assign a lesson that tied into the recent Weekly Reader topic of the Titanic. I assigned each of my students to create a creative report on a disaster in history. With a rather ghoulish gusto, my students were reading up on the Great Peshtigo Fire (still the deadliest fire in history and only a few hours from us!), the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and the Dust Bowl.

And in typical fashion, my initial hopes were dashed when nearly each one decided to represent all that they had learned as a PowerPoint presentation. ARRG!

I like PowerPoint, but I think it is the diorama of our era, telling very little and only used because it is so easy to churn out. The biggest complaint I get from the higher grades is that, if given the choice, students always pick the easy way out and go for the PowerPoint. So I decided that enough was enough. No more PowerPoint. I pointed my students in the direction of this great site that had over 150 ideas for book reports. Before long. students were making board games (chutes and ladders in the triangle fire) news reports (on the San Francisco earthquake) and stop motion movies (on the dust bowl).  A rap video was also made to describe Spanish influenza complete with a beat provided by Avairy Roc.  Which led to this exchange:

“Mr. Briggs, what rhymes with pneumonia?”

“Hmm…Ammonia. Can you work ammonia in?”

“Sure! If you don’t want pneumonia, wash surfaces with ammonia!”

Technology can make life easier, but just because it allows production to happen at a faster rate does not mean it can increase understanding or encourage creativity.  Sometimes it’s working within the rules that forces you to make the best of a bad situation and increase creativity.

Stretching Triangles

The educational world is full of great, seemingly boring software. These are usually applications that are not the prettiest or the most feature-rich but have tremendous staying power and appeal. A great example of this is Oregon Trail. Not the flashiest program, but I still use the original Apple II version of it in my classroom, and it is still as fun as it was when I was a kid.

This week, to round off a math unit on geometry, we used a program called Geometer’s Sketchpad. Sketchpad is a seemingly boring piece of software that nonetheless has nearly unlimited potential. The program resembles a drawing program that allows you to make points, rays, and lines on a plane, program them, and measure them. Simple, right? Well, after getting a crash course from a coworker, I  now think it’s amazing. It does for geometry what Excel does for graphs and Word does for writing papers. It takes all the work out of measuring and drawing objects in geometry and lets you play with shapes and constructions, testing out concepts like area and formulas. Pretty soon my students were drawing dozens of triangles, stretching them out as far as they could go, but the sum of their angles never changed. The only way that you can do this in a standard classroom would be to cut out about a million triangles out of construction paper, measure their angles, and add them as a class. This program frees up so much time teaching the basics and expanding on advanced concepts. Before long, my kids were programming pool games to show the angles in bank-shots and programming the hands of a clock. It also makes a great primer for computer drafting using Alice or Sketchup.

It does have a learning curve. I recommend you check out the website’s expansive resource center, full of lesson plans, or find any one of the great instructional workbooks on the program.

Instagrok for Better Searching

Found a great site floating around the blogs today. It’s called instagrok, and it can help your students narrow down their web searches. File it under “things I wish I had in school.”

Let’s say your students want to do a report on Einstein. If they do what my students do, they type “who is Einstein” into Google, pick out Wikipedia, and go from there. But all of those searches are horribly broad, covering EVERYTHING about the keyword.  Instagrok puts the search results into a movable graphic organizer, breaking down subjects related to your search and listing the associated sites along the side.

If you are inclined to sign up for their deluxe service, you can “pin” the articles you want into a document of all of your collected and annotated notes.

This could be a great resource for research projects, allowing students to really think about their subject and narrow down what it is that they want to know.

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