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

Posts tagged ‘Wisconsin’

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


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.

A Tale of Two Brothers

Even though I am the oldest child in my family, it has been clear to everyone that I would live in the shadow of my younger brother Steven.

I am a school teacher working in Central Wisconsin. I pass Amish buggies every morning, get mocked by kindergarteners every lunch period, and wave to the same old man on his scooter on my way home. I can entertain a troupe of children with nothing more than a cardboard box, duct tape, and glitter.

My brother majored in international business. He has been to more countries than nearly anyone I know. He runs 6–7 miles a day as a warm-up. We are very different people that somehow emerged from the same home.

Sure, he has been to South America, China, Egypt, Jordan, Rome, London, Japan, Canada. He has slept on the shores of the Red Sea and on a boat off the cost of the Galapagos. But I can make a whistle out of a drinking straw! It teaches about pitch! Who am I kidding …

Well, Steven has finally invaded my classroom as well. Stationed by his employer in Japan for six months, Steven has happily become a pen pal of sorts to my students. Every week, he posts a new letter to my students on our in-house social network, Moodle. My students respond the same way that they would to a Facebook posting. Despite his long work hours and the 15 hour time difference, he has managed to respond to many of their posts.

What strikes us as a class are the differences between Greenwood, Wisconsin, and Tokyo. In Greenwood, for instance, the gas station has a hitching post and a local wolf pack is becoming a bit too prosperous. In the Shibuya district of Tokyo, a single commuter train could fit our town’s entire population, wolves and all. To prove this, my brother sent us a train diagram showing just how small our little town is. For my students, many of whom have never seen a bus let alone a passenger train, life without pickup trucks and cars for every family seems completely alien.

This week we received a package from Tokyo filled with goodies sent by my brother. The contents—a reward for students who learned to count in Japanese—are snacks that defy western description and taste. The only familiar item: the (in)famous Green Tea Kit-Kat. As a result, my room is full of kids learning to count in Japanese to earn a piece of candy—much of it odd in flavor and texture. It’s a reminder that the Japanese have the edge in snack food technology.

Green tea Kit-Kats!

Steven sent a letter last week with details about a lunch he was having at a famous sushi restaurant, along with a link to the Japanese version of Yelp reviewing the place. This led to another discussion in my class: what sushi is. One thing led to another, and by the end of the week, I was making California rolls for my students.

California rolling

It met with … mixed results.

Delicious sushi?

Thanks again, Steve. Even from half a world away, via email, you manage to upstage me in my own classroom, but the result has been some of the most memorable learning of the year.

Yes, It Is That Cold.

We have had the strangest winter anyone can remember. A few weeks ago it was nearly 50 degrees in the January, and now, less than a week later the temperature drops from that balmy number to -10.  That is not taking into account the wind chill, which today is -33. Are we complaining? No, this is Wisconsin. Yesterday, on a balmy 12 degree day, we took our elementary students to our local ski hill as a reward for reaching their reading goals.

Today is too cold to even go outside, so it’s a chance to read some books and play some games at recess.  It also makes for a great science lesson: turning boiling water into snow. Which, oddly enough, is the same principle that allows snow making machines to work, just like the ones we saw at the ski hill yesterday…

Boiling water becomes snow when it's this cold.

Igloo Math

Winter has come to Wisconsin late, but I could not be happier that it is finally here. This last weekend we got hit with a few good inches of heavy, wet powder. The snow has clung to everything like thick sugar icing; the trees, barns, and houses all look like some picturesque postcard of the great white north. For one day, we had perfect packing snow at the school and I used it to create a … ahem … math lesson. We built the first igloo of the year.

Using a 6-foot ceiling as a radius, we figured out that it would need to be 12 feet in diameter. Using pi we figured out how many rows of 8-inch bricks it would take to clear the arch — 21 rows. Then the building began. We managed to get the walls five and a half feet up before a few weak bricks (which I suspect were packed by another class, less dedicated to the cause) resulted in wall failure. The next day, the temperature dropped to 14 degrees at noon, and our bricks were as hard as glass. There would be no new bricks.

We re-used them to build 2 smaller igloos, going around in circles and eventually walling a student up inside (hopefully one who is not claustrophobic) and digging out a door. Add a little water to the walls and they become incredibly strong. Other teachers might play football at recess or take kids out to the pond for skating. I build.


Last Thursday I had the option of getting up at 4:30 to take the 5:30 bus to Madison and watch the Greenwood-Granton Indians take on the Seneca Indians. The school day had been called off as a ‘field-trip’ day; the mayor of Greenwood had declared it “G2 Nation Day” and the town was completely deserted on account of the game.

I was at the school that day. I was going down to Madison in a few days anyway and decided that it was important for me to use that work day to sort through a pile of order forms for my after-school group’s fundraiser with one of the other teachers. We ran into trouble though, because unknown to us the WIAA had made an exclusive deal with one cable company and not another. Guess which cable company our school had? I spent the next few hours in the Kindergarten room, the only room with good radio reception, glued to the game while tallying up pizzas and counting checks.

The game was not even close: 40-0 in our favor, bringing the first state championship to our town since 1990.

G2 are the champions!

This might not seem a big deal to a lot of people outside our community. We are a division 7 school. My wife once asked me, “There’s a division 7?” Central Wisconsin is full of little towns like Greenwood, isolated by distance and size, and for a lot of these little towns the school, post office, and library are the heart of the town. High school sports, especially football, are the best shows in town. A whole generation of students in our little town will remember this game. And if we should forget, we have a giant golden football to remind us.

G2 Country

Wisconsin lives and breathes football. Anyone who has seen the Green Bay Packers play—or seen droves of fans sitting in sub-zero cold to cheer on their champions—knows that no mere dome can contain our dedication to this noble sport.

So it is with Greenwood. We may be so small that even combined with our neighbor, Granton, we are only Division 7, but through the fall and into the looming winter we are now 12-1 and we’ll be sending our champions to Madison for a shot at becoming State Champion. Driving into our town you would think that we have gone a little crazy; every road for miles is strewn with homemade billboards declaring this “G2” country.

We had a pep rally in the elementary school. The team was cheered on by our elementary students who had worked together to develop an choreographed cheer that included every grade. The players spoke to our students about good sportsmanship, healthy eating, and exercise. They even rode the buses with our little ones—a big deal particularly for our kindergarten students, who don’t seem to see any difference between this and the Super Bowl. After all, they are playing in Camp Randall, home of the Wisconsin Badgers, legends in their own right.

School has been called off on Thursday and declared a “field trip day” so that our students can ride the bus down to Madison. The 4-hour ride back will either be a caravan of victory or the longest, quietest 4-hour bus ride our students will ever have.

Biff Comes to Town

Last April, our fair city of Greenwood, Wisconsin, was visited by Biff Henderson of “The Late Show With David Letterman” fame. Someone in town had written in and apparently we made such an impression on Biff that he decided to highlight us on his “Biff Henderson’s America” bit. Well, after months of waiting, our segment finally made it onto the show last week. It is now the talk of the county.

Some may ask, do you feel like Biff was making fun of your town? No, we are as advertised: a small town of polite, frank people. There is not a diner or breakfast spot anywhere without its group of old men holding court as they clutch their coffee. The local McDonald’s has a long meeting table fixed to the floor for just such a purpose. And yes, it is widely believed that lactose intolerance is choice and can be trained out of you (seriously, a good friend of mine swears that he was “cured”).

We like a good laugh at ourselves, so by all means, enjoy.

Making The Most of Tech Budgets, or How I Bowed to Those Wiser Than I

Wisconsin is like a lot of states in that it has taken a beating in terms of its education budget. I won’t go into the political quagmire that has erupted in the Badger State from one group’s attempts to balance state budgets by giving schools less and businesses more. I do know that it has forced a lot of schools to make some potentially difficult decisions, and in most cases if given a choice between hiring enough staff, keeping the heat on, and buying new computers, the computers tend to be the first thing written out.

The cost of technology seems to be on the rise as more and more schools begin to see wireless Internet and providing laptops to their students as a necessity and not a luxury. Even as my school considers how many laptops to buy, I can’t help feeling that the day will come when a computer or tablet will be required and not provided by the district. It would certainly lower our operating costs and provide more money for our network and Internet filter.

On that note, my school and thousands of others dodged a big bullet in our overhead costs recently. Lawmakers threatened to eliminate our Internet provider, Wiscnet, because the University of Wisconsin operates it and is therefore a “public” option competing with private businesses. Thankfully, thousands of angry calls from parents, teachers, and library patrons seemed to have an effect. Wiscnet will remain in business for now and continue to provide a small, rural school district like ours an affordable option and ability to provide needed services such as distance learning classes.

I did, however, see some light at the end of the tunnel recently. A fellow blogger by the name of Doug Johnson (from Minnesota, but I won’t hold it against him) posted a wonderful series of posts on his blog, The Blue Skunk Blog, about how to make technology money last. I take no credit whatsoever for the fantastic insight that these posts contain.

Introduction: Strategies for stretching your tech budget

  1. Use effective budgeting techniques
  2. The (buying) power of groups: consortium purchasing, state contracts, bidding and quotes
  3. Sustainable technology
  4. The right tool for the right job: avoid buying a new semi when a used pickup will do
  5. Free is good
  6. Head to the cloud
  7. Enforce standardization
  8. Maximize your e-rate funding
  9. Are you still supporting 16mm film projectors? I thought so
  10. Stuff without training is money wasted

These posts showed me that there is a way out of this budget crunch that schools are currently having to endure and that teachers like me will have the ability to reach children through technology despite these cuts.

Field Trips as Embedded Reporting

Really great field trips can change a kid’s life.  The question that we are always asked is: “Where are we going to use this?”  For me, I like the field trips where you can confidently say back, “Right here.”

That occurred for us last week when we took a trip the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Home of the Badgers. The UW is ranked as one of the best schools for research in the world in many different fields including engineering, biotechnology, and nanotechnology and every two years they open it up to the public to see it all. The UW Engineering Expo goes on for 3 days and highlights hundreds of topics for students of all ages.

For us, this is a big trip.  Madison is three hours away by bus so the trip lasted nearly twelve hours, from the time we got them on the bus at 7:00AM to the time they were picked up at 6:30 that evening.  To make the trip more interesting (as if detecting radioactive Beanie Babies with a Geiger counter and riding on top of an electric snowmobile were not interesting enough), I wanted to make this a reporting activity.

Most field trips end with the teacher asking the students to write about something they saw on the trip.  I decided to take it a step further and have the kids report while we were on the trip.  I did this by setting up a blog on Blogger.com dedicated to the trip. Then I set it up for mobile posting, meaning any kid with a cell phone could text updates to the blog from anywhere. I passed out digital cameras for each group and gave them instructions to record everything they could.

I had wanted to have a wireless hotspot for the bus, but sadly none of our local carriers stepped up to the plate and lent us one for the day. Instead we had one student who borrowed his mother’s smartphone (which I coveted), a few iPod Touches (including mine, which was loaded with the fantastic BlogPress software), and my netbook which managed to save all the kid’s posts as drafts until we could find a wireless hotspot.

At first, things went fine. We were posting live from the bus and we even had people from the school and the community following our trip.  Posts like, “We just passed Wisconsin Dells!” and “Mr. Briggs hates sing-alongs” were big hits back home.

But at some point we must have upset the robot hive-mind of Google’s servers and suddenly all mobile and email posting was stopped without warning or comment. I have yet to find out exactly why, which is bad form from Google. If you suspect something is up, you could at least send me an email; really, Google. I still managed to get lots of posts made to my classroom blog from the trip. And the next day all of the students who had missed the chance to post on the bus managed to show everyone on the internet what they had seen from school.

Was this a win or loss for my original plan? Well, I would say that if my goal was to find a new way to share what we had seen with the community and the school, then yes, I met it. Just not as quickly and instantly as I would have liked. Next time, I’m sticking with WordPress and ponying up the $10 for their mobile posting option.

You can see the results of my experiment on our original field trip blog here: http://greenwoodexpo.blogspot.com/

And on my classroom blog here: http://gwbriggs.wordpress.com/

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