Thursday, March 27, 2008

Find your tool & go with it

I've got a friend at another high school who has never been particularly interested in using technology. We would talk about different things, like CPS or projectors or whatever, and he would always sort of shrug and say, "I just can't see how I'd use that." Fair enough. And I have been rather underwhelmed by the tools available for math anyway.

However, after seeing the video from Johnny Lee about using the wiimote for whiteboards (see my earlier post on the wiimote project), he found something that he could use and he has totally taken off with it. Within a week of me showing him how this worked, he bought his own wiimote, built several IR pens from scratch, and has shown this to his entire department. He went from 0 - 60 in 1 week, mostly because he found something (FINALLY) that made sense for his instruction.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I heard him describe was the reaction of his students. Not only does he have students (not his own) stopping by his room to see the "cool wii thing," but he watched his typically unmotivated Geometry class get absorbed in content by using the wiimote whiteboard. He might just be a believer now in the technology-engagement connection.

Perhaps the most sobering thing he experienced was the reaction of his department. According to him, they seemed politely interested, but not a single person asked him to help them use it or try it with their own students. He couldn't believe it (but he has seen plenty of tools with a polite eye). My response was "Welcome to my world." Guess it just wasn't their tool.

This was eye-opening for me for a couple of reasons. A) I had basically given up on ever convincing my friend to use technology for instruction and B) people still need to be convinced that engagement increases when technology is involved. I wonder what the reaction of his department would have been if they had seen the response of the Geometry class?

Bottom line: find your tool and go with it. Not sure what your tool is? Maybe feeling like you're "just not sure how" you'd use technology? Maybe you've tried it and something just hasn't clicked? Find the technology person in your building (or from someone who you know uses technology effectively) and talk about what you wish you could do. Chances are, it's out there. And chances are you'll see a totally different class of kids when you use it.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Finding podcasts via our online databases

This has already been covered in hard copy (see the most recent Books N Bytes publication from our stellar librarians). But I tend to collect stuff electronically so that I can get to it from anywhere. Right at this moment, my hard copy version is on my desk at school so I can't read the article. I'm going to post this here for my benefit and for the benefit of those who might be at home prepping for tomorrow (and who left the hard copy version on a desk at school).

There's no question that powerful content is available via podcast. The trick is, how do you carve out the time to wade through everything to find the classroom gem? I was thrilled to see that some of our online databases are linking podcast, video & audio content to searches. Instead of trying to find something in iTunes or another podcast directory, you can do a search in our databases and find multimedia content.

The latest edition of Books 'n' Bytes highlighted the Thomson Gale databases, but you can also find some great stuff on ABCClio, the Library of Congress, and CultureGrams. Honestly, I found the search for multimedia to be easier on the Thomson Gale database, but if you can learn some quick tips, you can find video & audio content on the other databases.

If you have time, stop by our library and chat with one of our librarians. Not only can they recommend the right database for what you'd like your students to research, but they can also help you learn how to search effectively. Best part about these databases? Get to them from anywhere. I love that our library is no longer confined within walls.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Geek Factor 10: Getting text messages from Google

* This post was originally published on the Smoky Hill Blogosphere blog before the move to Blogger.

I know, I know. Cell phones are banned in our school (and probably most other schools). However, a cell phone is one device that almost every kid I know has. Kids with cell phones are experts at receiving and sending texts with thumbs & number pads only (being old school, I needed a cell phone with a qwerty keyboard). But, to my knowledge, few of them use the cell phone to get information. That's where Google text messages could really be a powerful tool.

This functionality is not totally new, but it is not widely used. Here is how the process is described on a blog posting about Google (TextEverything: Google SMS):
"From any cell phone, you can send a text message request to Google's short code GOOGLE (i.e. the phone number 466453, corresponding to G-O-O-G-L-E on a standard phone keypad), and you'll get back an automated text message in a few seconds with an answer to your request. Google has a lot of info available, including yellow pages, movie listings, flight status, translations, and a lot more."

A user has to know a few basics for getting a text message from Google, like what kinds of information is available and how to request that info. via cell phone. (I'd put in a link to Google's info. page about this service, but it is blocked by our district filter (!). So, kids, you can get this information from home:

Highlights for educational use from Google's page:

  1. To find definitions on the Web, enter 'define' (or 'd') followed by the word or phrase (ex: define ubiquitous, d network).

  2. Enter a fact-based question or query to get facts (ex: india population, who wrote hamlet).

  3. To get translations, enter 'translate' (or 't') followed by the expression, 'to' and a destination language (ex: translate dog to french, t new to german).

As mentioned in the blog quoted earlier, other functionality is there, including directions, maps, weather, sports highlights, etc. There are some schools who are even starting to look at using text messaging as a way to get out emergency information or announcements.

This inevitably leads to another post on using cell phones for learning, but I'll save that for later date. For now, try it for yourself!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Online writing: the power of hyperlinks

* This post was originally published on the Smoky Hill Blogosphere blog before the move to Blogger.

I read this great blog post from Bud the Teacher this week called "Thinking 'bout Linking." I always get something meaningful from reading Bud's blog, but this particular post was timely. It came closely upon the heels of the recent definition of 21st Century Literacies from NCTE which made it even more germane.

I just spent some time working with kids on a research project/paper. The teacher & I decided to turn the assignment into a mini-wikipedia. Since all of his students had researched a topic, we created a page for each student so that s/he could make a separate entry into the mini-pedia.

To be honest, what I thought was pretty cool was the fact that they could read each other's research, make comments, and basically see their work online. I'd forgotten how cool links can be, probably because I'm used to using them in writing.

However, when I showed the kids how they could link their embedded citations to the actual page where they got the information, I saw some lights go on. It really struck me that kids may be used to seeing links, but they have little practice in writing their own. This is one powerful way to make citations come alive, and you can only do it if your paper is in electronic format.

Sure, you can do this in Microsoft Word. However, what I see most kids do is type in Word, hit the print button, and give the hard copy to the teacher. When we made this assignment web-based, the context of the writing totally changed. After all, the wiki is a web page. In the eyes of a student, Word lives on a computer somewhere. Why would you connect words in MS Word to something online? Chances are, the link will go unnoticed since the page prints in b/w.

Kids read A LOT of web pages, and they know what links look like. Bud's post reminded me that online writing taps into a different conceptual area in the brain, and it reiterated the fact that our brain actually works in a hyperlink way, not a linear way. I hope that I can see this happen more often in writing assignments. Why are we not doing this more?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Share and download iQuiz trivia games for iPods

* This post was originally published on the Smoky Hill Blogosphere blog before the move to Blogger.

I stumbled upon (not using stumbleupon, by the way) a podcast called Learning in Hand today, and it had 10 mini lessons on using iPods for education. To be honest, I didn't think I'd find anything totally new, but I should have known better. The gem I got was about the iQuiz game.

When I first got the set of Nanos for school, I was sort of bummed that you couldn't delete the games from the Nanos. However, my son & Mike played iQuiz first thing when they saw it. What I learned from Tony Vincent's podcast is that you can create your own quizzes for recent iPods using a piece of free software called iquizmaker from Aspyr. Here is the link:

From what I gathered, people are just now starting to use this game to create quizzes because all of the Nanos come with the game installed. If you have a 5th gen. iPod, you can buy the game for $.99.  If you go to, you can see and download quizzes that other users have created.  Not a huge list at this point, but I did find some stuff on geography & history.
Older pods can't handle it, only 3rd Gen. Nanos and anything after 5th Gen. iPods, but the cool thing is that you can create a quiz and simply email it or make it available for download for students. If students have newer iPods, they can use iQuiz to take your quiz.

Sure, it's multiple choice and a bit limiting in terms of what you can do, but like many other things, I think it's just a matter of time before something even cooler comes along. It will be sort of fun to test it out with our new class set of Nanos.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Geek Factor 10: Zamzar’s YouTube Converter

Probably one of the most frequent complaints I hear is that YouTube is blocked by our district web filter. According to a recent discussion on the CDE TechNet listserv, YouTube is blocked by virtually every district in the state. Most other districts, however, have access for teachers. Why we don't have a workaround for teachers is beyond me, but what we do have is a home workaround.

Zamzar is a free converter service that anyone can use from home (and it's EASY to use). While they also offer "paid" memberships, the free version does most of what we need. Here's how to do it:

  1. Go to Zamzar's website ( Click on the "Download Videos" tab. You'll see a place to paste in the web address.

  2. Find the YouTube video you want and copy the web address from your address bar in the browser.

  3. Decide what format you want your file to be in. For most of us @ SHHS, choosing .mov is the best option because it converts it into a QuickTime movie.

  4. Enter your email address.

  5. Click the "convert" button.
You'll receive an email with a link inside to download the file onto your computer. That converted file will be available for you for 24 hours. So, if you found something on YouTube that you wanted to show your students, you could use Zamzar @ home and get the email at school so you could download the video.

This is not a bad thing to share with students, either. I've had many kids come to our office & ask for help getting something from YouTube for a class presentation. This is a great way to give kids a workaround without having to mess with our district filter.

Caveat: the free version of Zamzar does limit the amount of video you can convert at a time. Keep an eye on your limits as that can be frustrating.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

It’s almost time for baseball in the Rocky Mountains . . .

I had my orientation meeting @ Coors Field last night, and it was the first time since I've worked there that there wasn't a single new hire. Here's what this means: those of us who worked in the Ticket Office last year were so swept up in the magic of Rockies baseball that none of us quit; and I couldn't get any of my friends jobs who actually wanted a summer job.

That being said, one of our managers reminded us that 3 years ago at our orientation meeting, we were subjected to a Powerpoint of the players because none of us knew them. In that entire Powerpoint, I recognized only Todd Helton. Names like Holliday, Hawpe, and Atkins meant absolutely nothing to me. Today, they mean everything. And let's not forget Tulo.

So, it's March and Spring Training is in full swing, and the season is full of promise. To shamelessly quote Bull Durham, "it's a long season, and you've got to trust it." We are all in 1st place right now. But this season, my shirt says, "National League Champions." And I'll be watching a National League Pennant wave in the breeze for the entire season, along with every other NL team who visits Coors Field.

So, basically, what I'm saying is, "Play ball." And GO ROCKIES!!!!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

NCTE’s Definition of 21st Century Literacies

As an English teacher, I found this pretty interesting.  NCTE posted this on their website last month, and it was really rewarding for me to see this organization acknowledge that the needs of today's learners have changed.  Here is the link, if you want to see it for yourself, but I've pasted in their definition below.
"Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Twenty-first century readers and writers need to

• Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
• Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and
• Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of
• Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous
• Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
• Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments"
Definitely food for thought . . .

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Simplify . . . (?)

I wish there was one tool that could do everything we need (or everything we will need in the future).  As exciting as new, free tools are, it is hard to keep track of them all.  I spoke today with a teacher who is participating in our district's Computer for Teachers program, and he was lamenting about the avalanche of tools he feels buried under (my words, not his).

Imagine what our students would feel like if several different teachers used totally different tools for instruction:  pbwiki, wetpaint, edublog, blogger, weblog (CCSD server), Blackboard, ning, voicestream, GCast, etc.  While I think that students enjoy extending their learning onto the web, how could they possibly keep track of each teacher's unique set of web tools?  And I don't know of anything that does everything we need, so what can we do?

We'll be offering a tech camp this summer, and I think we may to decide which tools we are using & be consistent.  Given the tools that Google seems to come up with daily, I think it's a matter of time until Google fits our needs.

I still wish we had a better solution.  And how hard is it to provide a web presence for the teachers in our district?  I have a feeling that I'll be fighting this battle for years.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Geek Factor 10: Parallels Desktop for Mac

Having come from a PC school once upon a time, I have had to learn the Mac platform. And I have learned to love it. I consider myself bi-polar, as I can argue passionately about either OS. But when the intel-based Macs came out, a third party developer came out with a program that lets you install Windows on your machine, and it runs simultaneously with the Mac OS.While I do like working on the Mac side, there are things that I can only do in Windows. All of our district data is only available using a PC plugin, and at this point, I have to use a PC to manage Active Directory. For someone like me, whose job requires both platforms, Parallels is the bomb.

Parallels costs about $80, and a license (through our district) for WinXP is about $45. So, I can have two machines in one for an additional $125.

There is another product out there for about the same cost from VMWare (it's called "Fusion"). I played with it briefly, and I prefer Parallels. However, I think that's only because I used it first. Anyway, it's worth checking out. Ultimately, I see us using free tools that aren't software or OS dependent. But in the meantime, what a slick solution!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Geek Factor 10: Wii Remotes & Whiteboards

On the geek factor scale, this is nearer to Ludicrous Geek. If you are someone interested in interactive whiteboard technology, you gotta check out this site from Johnny Lee, a guy from Carnegie Mellon.I first read about this on Will Richardson's blog. Basically, Johnny wrote a program that allows a wii remote to sense an IR pen, making any surface interactive. Best thing about the program, besides the geek factor? It's free. So instead of spending $1500 - $2000 on a SMARTboard, you can spend about $40 for the remote & download the software for free (Mac & Windows currently). And because it's open source, there is now an entire community dedicated to tweaking the code to make it even more functional. You can see what's going on with the project here: have plenty of teachers who ask about getting a SMARTboard, but on a limited budget, it's just not practical. I had faith (seriously) that something would come along that would be a cheaper option. I have to create my IR pen still to see how functional this is, but this idea GEEKED ME OUT.