Friday, December 18, 2009

Fundraising with Justin Bieber

Several weeks ago, local pop radio station Kiss 98.5 announced a penny drive to benefit Women and Children’s hospital. The school that raises the most money wins a special concert by teen heartthrob Justin Bieber.

The middle school where I teach is all abuzz about the potential of winning the contest. Kids are bringing in money by the bag full. So what if he’s a flash in the pan? It’s raising money for a good cause.

To help promote the contest, I started making daily Bieber pictures for teachers to hang in their rooms. I’ve been Photoshopping stupid pictures since I was about 16, so it only takes about 15 minutes for me to make one, and the kids love it. I admit that I’ve never even heard a Justin Bieber song until just recently, but again, it’s for a good cause so I’ll pretend to be as excited about him as all the kids. Teachers seem entertained too – every morning I’m greeted with an inbox full of kudos from my colleagues on the day’s Bieber propaganda.

And this is why I’m so surprised to hear rumors of a grumbling few who find my daily emails offensive or inappropriate. A colleague warned me today that she had overheard two other members of the faculty complaining. They said they were going to email me and ask to stop sending pictures.

I look forward to reminding them that my pictures are all in good fun, and intended to raise money for an excellent organization. Furthermore, I completely stand behind anything that unifies a school and creates an environment of comradery.

Or maybe I can just remind them that it’s the holiday season.

Don’t be a grinch.



 




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Monday, December 14, 2009

Live Like You're on Camera (Part II)




The other day while flipping channels, I turned to CNN and caught a breaking news story. It wasn’t about the war overseas, or the numerous financial problems plaguing the U.S. – it was about TLC’s celeb-reality stars Jon and Kate Gosslin’s court appearance.

This was the event that demanded live coverage?

Over the course of the five seasons of  Jon and Kate plus 8, viewers have taken sides between the irritable Kate and the seemingly irresponsible Jon, but they’re all wrong. It’s both of their faults that their marriage (and the lives of their 8 children) have gone down the gutter. They didn’t live like their life was on camera.

This is ironic, because they literally spent every waking moment with a camera crew recording their every movement and ever spat. The reason their relationship fell a part was because they forgot about the cameras.

Let their public debacle be a lesson learned for all of us. As teachers, we are not plagued by television cameras in our classes. Instead, we have something far worse - dozens of pairs of eyes always curious to see what their teacher is going to do or say. Never get too comfortable.

Live - and teach - like you're on camera.
 
(Like this post? This was part II in my series of "live like you're on camera" posts. Read my other one, here.)
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Friday, December 11, 2009

Live Like You’re on Camera (Part I)

Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt got himself into some hot water earlier this week when responding to a question regarding the privacy of Google users. His response prompted Mozilla’s Firefox to shift support to competing Microsoft engine Bing as a suggested add-on to the browser, but Schmidt’s answer made sense and was perhaps just a bit too honest for Firefox to stomach. He stated, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.”

Those are good words to live by, but I've got something better; similar sentiment, but with a nicer ring. 

Today marks the beginning of a three-part series that has been rattling around in my head for a few weeks. Defenestrate your proverbs, mantras, and words of wisdom. Follow my simple advice, and you will lead a long life free from the tangles of controversy.

Live like you’re on camera.
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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Real World Example of Plagiarism

I occasionally mark posts on here with the tag “practice what you preach” because we must lead by example – as adults, as role models, as professionals. Unfortunately, not everyone follows that simple, time-tested mantra.

Here is a review for the inspirational movie “The Blind Side” published by Erica Yunghans for Dunkirk NY’s daily paper, the Observer on November 28th, 2009.

And here is another review for the same movie published about two weeks earlier by Associated Press writer Glenn Whipp.




Notice any similarities?

There are two things about this that shock me. First, that a professional writer (I’m assuming Yunghans has a degree in journalism) would have the audacity to plagiarize in the first place, and secondly that the Observer has not yet reprimanded one of their editors for committing such a blatant crime. As a professional daily publication, I would hope the Observer is conscience of its credibility and reputation.

I wanted to share these two links so that they can be passed on to your students. Use this as a real world example of plagiarism. Let the lesson be that while it’s very, very easy to steal another’s work from the Internet, it’s even easier to get caught doing so.

If you’d like to contact Erica Yunghans, she can be reached at eyunghans@observertoday.com.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Using Etherpad in the Classroom

My students have spent the past few days reading and analyzing Poe’s classic poem, The Raven. I plan to use it to teach mood and imagery, but before that can happen they need a firm handle on the poem itself.

Classes were divided into groups of 3-4 and given the simple direction to read each stanza and then summarize it. Some stanzas are trickier than others, but overall this activity gives them a nice overview of the poem.

In the past, I would conclude this by randomly calling kids to share summaries as I wrote them on the board. This was a slow and laborious task to get through considering the poem is 18 stanzas long. Instead, I decided to give Etherpad a try.

I wrote about Etherpad in my post 10 Useful Chat Sites for Teachers. The thing that struck me most about the service wasn’t the chat capabilities, but the shared collaborating space that updates in real time. This is similar to Google Docs, but students can hop on and start collaborating without registering a username. Quick and easy.

It took about 30 seconds to set up the Etherpad workspace. Students figured it out with another 30 seconds of explanation. The first task was to have the seven groups in my class enter summaries for the 18 stanzas. Then, they went back and checked over what was written and either adding or amending what was there.

Each group’s work was highlighted with a different color, so it was easy for me to keep track of who was participating. There is also a playback feature that allowed me to see the whole thing unfold once the activity was complete (I used this to show off my students’ work when I open the workspace for my principal later in the day).

The only problem I encountered was when two groups wanted to work on the same stanza. It was actually quite comical – while one typed, the other deleted it to try and enter their own interpretation. I guess I shouldn’t complain when students fight over who gets to participate in a class activity.

When I noticed the typing on the workspace slowing, I took it as a sign that the groups were running out of ideas. I stopped the class and then went through each stanza’s summary. If there were things missing, I entered them as we talked. At the end of the period, I downloaded their work as a PDF and I can now make copies and hand it out tomorrow. We’ll use it tomorrow to begin looking at the mood of the poem.

Including the time it took me to turn the computer on, this activity took less then 5 minutes to set up and explain to my students. Etherpad worked very well for me. Rather than spend the period hovering over an overhead projector, students took control of the lesson. And they did a much better job of it together than I ever could alone.


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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Internet Filtering - Restriction or Protection?



I still believe we should be teaching Internet responsibility and digital citizenship to our students instead of trying to hide all the bad things behind a big iron curtain. But the fact remains that the Internet is a complex and sometimes seedy beast. It’s easy to forget that fact when search results for well-intentioned lesson plans get blocked, or when you watch students spend a period trying to sneak their way onto a gaming website. This is when the frustrated teacher throws his/her hands in the air and declares the filter to be the work of the devil. But for every game blocked, that filtering software is also blocking potential predators, unsavory images, and God knows what else.

I was thinking about this more over the weekend while flipping through the Black Friday edition of The Buffalo News. There were two stories on the front page of the City and Region section that highlighted someone using the Internet. One was about a Michigan man using a Genealogy website to find his long-lost birthmother. The other was about a local filmmaker getting arrested for having downloaded more than 1300 child-porn images. These articles create an interesting juxtaposition.

So what’s the answer? Is it to open the floodgates and hope no one gets swept away in the current? Is it to turn off the lights and sit in darkness? Perhaps it’s a bit of both, but where to draw the line is as big (if not bigger) or a question that whether filtering is needed in the first place.
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Monday, November 30, 2009

Thank You, Dunkin' Donuts

After just two weeks, my personal crusade against the grammatical inconsistencies of Dunkin' Donuts has come to a peaceful resolution.

On Monday, November 16th, I saw this sign hanging at a nearby Dunkin' Donuts. I wrote them a complaint letter via their website feedback form, and wrote more about the situation, here.

Within a few short hours, I was contacted via Twitter and this blog by Dunkin' Donuts. Within less than 12 hours of my original complaint, the sign had been removed. My blog post, here, explains more.

Two days ago, I received a package postmarked November 19th from Dunkin' Donuts headquarters. Not only did they send me a written apology, but they also included 2 pounds of delicious Dunkin' Donuts coffee grounds.

So this post is simply to say, thank you. You made good, Dunkin' Donuts.





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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Student Examples - Storybird.com (Part II)

Yesterday I posted the first round of finished student stories using Storybird.com, and I figure it's only fair to give all the projects equal exposure. Here are the rest of them.

Students were more than thrilled to see comments on their work. If you find yourself looking to kill some time while waiting for that Thanksgiving turkey to thaw, perhaps you could leave some feedback for my kiddos. It would be greatly appreciated, and a chance for students to see what publishing for a real world audience is all about!


Was It Better Not To Know ? on Storybird

Monster In The Closet on Storybird

The Life of Destinino on Storybird

Charlie On The Moon on Storybird

The Mighty Jungle on Storybird

The Lonely Girl on Storybird

The Yeti on Storybird

Bad Luck on Storybird

The First Rabbit on the Moon on Storybird

The Orange Chair on Storybird

Who Stole My Cheese? on Storybird

Imagination Gone Wild!!! on Storybird

I Wish I was a Bunny on Storybird

There Is No Such Thing As Monsters! on Storybird

Where's Santa? on Storybird

Birthday Truth on Storybird
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Student Examples - Storybird.com

My students have been hard at work creating stories on Storybird.com that answer the essential question, "Is it better not to know?" I wrote about the project in a previous blog post, so I thought I would share their finished work. If you have a few minutes, please read them and feel free to comment on their stories. What a great experience it would be for them to come to class in the morning and see their stories have been read by a worldwide audience! (To add comments, click on the title of the story located under the embedded file.)


The girl who wished to be a mermaid on Storybird

The Tower on Storybird

The Disappearance on Storybird

Glenn's Adventure on Storybird

THE WOODS on Storybird

The Story Teller on Storybird

Lost Fish on Storybird

The Flutist on Storybird

The Fox and The Pig on Storybird

The Mystical Gorilla and the Monkey on Storybird
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Sunday, November 22, 2009

10 Useful Chat Sites for Teachers

Several years ago, I used Chatzy.com to conduct an after-reading discussion on Poe's The Raven. I found using a chatroom to be more effective than a traditional verbal conversation. Quiet kids were more willing to participate, and even the kids who were not typing were actively reading the discussion as it unfolded in front of them. Imagine my disappointment late last week when I discovered Chatzy to now be blocked by my school's filtering software.

So the hunt for a new chat service began. The following sites came from Twitter, my Delicious account, and some creative searching on Google. I'm loosely defining them as chat sites, but they cover everything from chatting and back channeling to video chat and microblogging. I made this quick reference chart to give a very general overview of features for each site, and I also wrote a quick blurb about each. Of course, I omitted much, so I leave it to you, reader, to explore these sites to your heart's content. Enjoy!



Stinto.net is a German site. While the chat platform itself is in English, the help, about, and blog pages are not. This means that unless you are bilingual, Stinto does not offer any user support. This is the site I actually chose to replace my beloved Chatzy, and so far it has worked flawlessly with my students.

Tinychat is one of the more popular back channeling sites. Because of this, it is probably the most likely of the sites on this list to be blocked by your school’s filtering software. It has recently integrated a full-functioning video chat feature, which means incredible potential for use in schools, but also incredible potential that one of the rooms featured on the main page of the site will feature something distasteful or obscene.

Todaysmeet does not list the chat participants. This makes it impossible to know if a student is present in the chat but not participating, or if even worse, if an unwanted guest is silently listening in to the conversation. On the plus side, it's possibly one of the most stylish sites on this list. If you want something that looks and behaves "2.0," Todaysmeet is it.

Cover it Live is technically a “live blogging” platform, but I thought I would include it in this list because it allows viewers to submit comments to the moderating user. I could see this working in a more teacher-centered discussion. Cover it Live is designed to be embedded into a website, so this is ideal for use on a class blog or homepage.

Chatzy is ad-supported, but they can be removed and additional features unlocked for a $9 fee. This site also includes a private messaging option which can be turned on and off by the administrator (the person who created the chat).

Etherpad includes a collaborative workspace that is updated in real time for all users to interact with. This is a major advantage, however Etherpad only allows 16 users to be logged in to a pad at a time, which is a deal breaker if you’re working with a large number of students.

Edmodo is education’s answer to Twitter. It includes the same microblogging functionality as well as a few other features such as file sharing and scheduling. It takes some setting up though, so if you’re looking for a chat site that is quick and easy, this isn’t for you.

Tokbox is pretty overwhelming. Video messaging, instant messaging, video conferencing, etc. If you're a teacher looking to integrate long distance learning into your class for no money, this is an excellent avenue to explore.

Chatmaker is a bare bones chat site. It gets the job done, and does it well. The deal breaker for me was the Google-generated text ads. Most of them were suggestive, if not downright inappropriate for students. (Here's a screenshot of what I'm talking about.)

Shout 'em is another site, similar to Edmodo that allows a user to create their own microblogging network. The difference, however, is that Shout 'em can be specifically customized – everything from settings and functionality, all the way to design and color scheme.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Two Words That Start With Z

video
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5 Things Students Do (That Drive Me Insane)

Write on my whiteboard
It seems that the moment a dry erase marker is left unattended someone feels the compelling urge to document who is their best friend on my whiteboard. Is it genetic? I suspect a correlation between whiteboard graffiti and children who get immunization shots. How's that for a possible case study?

After missing a day of class, ask “Did we do anything while I was out?”
We actually spent the day coloring you a get well card. Did it arrive yet?

Slam Books on the Floor
When I ask kids to clear their desks, I generally get three types of responses. A minority of students calmly take their belongings and place them beside their chairs. Well done. Another third of the class flings their things, with a wide sweeping motion of their arm, across the floor around them. It’s sloppy, but I can deal with it. It’s the remaining students that drive me nuts. Upon hearing my command to remove their belongings, the proceed to take their textbook (weighing no less than 18 pounds, or so it would seem) and hold it about shoulder height like a waiter carrying a tray. Then with a swiftness of hand, allow the book to fall flat to the ground. The sound of textbook-on-tile is the teacher equivalent to a mortar going off on a battlefield. Flashbacks after retirement are inevitable.

Ask to use the Bathroom at the Most Inconvenient Times
Let me illustrate this one with a fictional story (fictional only in the sense that the names and lesson are imagined – this scenario happens daily).

The teacher looked out at her students. “Time to practice math facts!” As she began calling out numbers, students’ hands shot into the air.
“Six times five,” called the teacher. “Go ahead, Jimmy.”
“Thirty.”
“Nice job. Three times three,” continued the teacher. “Katelyn?”
“Nine.”
“Good! How about eight times four?”
Josh raised his hand. “Is it forty?”
“Incorrect, Josh,” replied the teacher. “Who can help him out?”
Sam raised his hand.
“Yes, Sam?” asked the teacher, point at his outstretched arm.
“Can I go to the bathroom?”

Nothing brings a lesson to a screeching halt like learning of a student's need to urinate.

Sit in My Chair
When did it become okay to sit at the teacher’s desk? When I was in school I just assumed teachers lived in their classrooms. Sitting at their desk would be the same as inviting myself to their house for coffee and dessert. My chair is not community butt space. Stay out of it.


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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Power of Twitter

Last night I wrote this blog post about a grammar error I spotted on a sign at a local Dunkin' Donuts restaurant. It included a picture of the offending advertisement and a copy of the feedback note I sent using the form on the Dunkin' Donuts website. I tweeted the post to my 900 or so followers.


I noticed this morning more than a dozen visitors to my blog from Canton, Massachusetts. I had a hunch about this, and after a quick visit back to dunkindonuts.com, my suspicions were confirmed - this very blog was being visited by folks working in the corporate offices of Dunkin' Donuts.

How's that for the power of Twitter?

Soon after, I was contacted by Dunkin' Donuts. Out of their 38,000 followers and millions of other Twitter users, my voice had been heard and addressed directly. How cool is that?


It's nice to see a company that is willing to speak directly to their consumers; a quick look at @dunkindonuts reveals most posts to be replies to other users. They are not using Twitter to market, but to connect - and that's what it's really about.

It's also nice to see a company take responsibility for their actions. The sign issue is on the smallest of scales, but it renews my faith in consumerism just a little bit. Even moreso, it reminds me how powerful one voice can be when heard by the right people.
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Monday, November 16, 2009

Grammar Enthusiasts VS. Dunkin' Donuts

When did society decide to stop following even the most basic rules of grammar and punctuation? Take this sign, for example. I passed two Dunkin' Donuts restaurants on the way home from work today and both had these taped to the windows. Presumably they were professionally made and distributed to the franchises by the corporation. How did the glaring grammatical error go unnoticed?

Maybe I'm being extreme, but this isn't the first time I've caught a problem with a sign at Dunkin' Donuts.

So I wrote a letter. You can read it in its entirely down below. Wouldn't it be cool if you wrote a similar letter to Dunkin' Donuts (or copied and pasted mine) stressing the importance of grammar in promotional documents? The corporation can be contacted here. If you do, leave me a note in the comments. You never know - maybe Dunkin' Donuts will be compelled to send monetary compensation!

I am writing to alert you of a serious problem that I noticed while visiting one of your Dunkin' Donuts locations. Taped to the front window of your restaurant was an advertisement for an upcoming promotional offer. It stated “Were opening at 3am on Black Friday.” From a marketing standpoint, this seems like a great idea, however it was not the strategy that alarmed me – it was the blatant grammatical error. The spelling difference between “were” and “we're” are subtle, but the meanings of these words are quite different. It is alarming to me that such a well-known restaurant chain would make such a silly error on a sign that is undoubtedly hanging in every franchise window. I am skeptical of ingesting food and drink from a restaurant that cannot catch simple mistakes that are easily detectable by the average 4th grade student.



UPDATE: (11/17/09) - Dunkin' Donuts contacted me about 12 hours after this was posted. Read about it here.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

3 Reasons Why Teachers Should Blog

A blog is better than a resume


I’ve been chosen several times to sit on a hiring committee for my school. After each applicant leaves the formal interview, the informal one begins. I Google his/her name, email address, former place of employment – anything that may bring up something that will help us make the best possible decision for our students. Most times I find a password-protected Facebook account (at least they know how to stay discreet), but occasionally I find some comments on a message board, or even a blog.

These things give us a better picture of who the candidate is. The formal interview shows us that they know how to dress nicely and can (hopefully) proofread their resume, but a blog tells the whole story. You want to know a teacher’s educational philosophy? Have them write a dozen or so posts, and it will naturally emerge. The results will be more insightful than any pre-practiced interview question response.

Practice what you preach

Teachers not writing regularly is the same as a child being scolded to eat his vegetables while his mother dumps hers into the garbage disposal.

But there’s more to it than just the obligation to write.

Ideally, every student graduating from high school with have the ability to write. They learn how to write opinion pieces, compare/contrast expositions, research papers. We teach them the skills, but we don’t make them enjoy using them. They learn writing, but rarely feel writing. Shouldn’t teachers model the idea of writing for personal enjoyment rather than how to write to a rubric or complete a graphic organizer?

Reflection

Much of the teaching experience happens after the lesson. For most, it’s during the car ride home from work when we think about what went on in our classes – what went well, what flopped, what can be done better next time, how we can build on the experience. Putting these ideas into a blog makes them more substantial.

Take, for example, this blog post right now. I’m sitting here sifting through all the reasons why I enjoy keeping a blog. By doing so, I’m getting more out of the experience than if I were to just be thinking about it to myself. Meta-reflecting, I suppose. By putting it into my blog, I am responsible for it – and responsible for holding myself to whatever conclusion I arrive at.
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Using Postcards to Connect Students to the World


When I was in 7th grade, my French teacher connected us with pen pals in France. They wrote to us in English, and we responded in French. I remember being most interested in the small details of the letters – how the margins on their lined paper were slightly larger than ours, the curious stamps, and the red-bordered airmail envelopes they were sent in. It amazed me that I was holding something that had traveled thousands of miles. Once, our teacher (at the certain disapproval of our school who had to front the international charges) placed a call to our corresponding class. The idea that the voices on the other end of the speaker phone lived in a foreign land was enough to make all of our young minds explode.

Of course, this was in the early 90s, when the Internet was only for folks wealthy enough to afford AOL's hourly rate service. Other than the occasional Canuck (my hometown is located about 30 minutes from the Canadian border), most of us had never met anyone from another country.

That's something kids seem to take for granted today. It's nothing eyebrow-raising to compete against a German on Xbox live, or to have a conversation on a message board with someone living in Japan, or perhaps read the blog of a person experiencing the turmoil of the Middle East first-hand. Our ability to easily connect to anyone in the world has dulled the excitement in doing so. International connectivity is just a free Skype call away.

There's something missing in all of that. Something tangible – that feeling of wonder I got years ago from holding a paper that had seen more of the world than I had. I wanted to share that feeling with my students, and that's why I decided to turn Postcrossing into our year-long team project.

Postcrossing.com
is a free service that allows random users to send each other postcards. For every postcard you send out, one is sent back to you from a different user. It's not correspondence, but more like single serving pen pals. The idea of having an anonymous and captive audience for my students to write to was an idea too good not to try.

Rather than use generic postcards, we had this one printed for our Postcrossing project. It was only about 70 bucks for 500 cards, well worth it in my opinion. Every week I pick one student per class – five total – to write a postcard representing the team. They write about their likes and dislikes, about their homes and families. That postcard is a chance to share a piece of their lives with someone they will never meet.

I don't grade these. It's about the experience, not the evaluation. When we receive postcards, they are shared with the team and then added to our Postcrossing map along with a string indicating its point of origin. And much like myself in 7th grade, my students are fascinated by minutia like the curious images on the postcards, interesting spelling, or unique first names. All things they wouldn't think twice about in an online environment.

At the time of this post, our Postcrossing account indicated that the postcards currently hanging in my room have traveled a combined distance of more than 120,000 miles. Even though that's a number so large most of my kids simply can't fathom it, these postcards connect them to the rest of the world better than any website, chat room, or email could ever accomplish.

A brief article on Postcrossing in The Niagara Gazette
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Monday, November 9, 2009

Using Storybird.com in the classroom



Do you remember that scene in Forest Gump where Lieutenant Dan appears on the dock as Gump sails his shrimping boat through the bay? Forest is so overcome by the excitement of seeing his old war buddy that he jumps overboard to swim to shore, leaving his boat to become a temporary analog of the famous Flying Dutchman ghost ship.

That’s usually how I react to new bits of technology. I don’t look back or anticipate potential problems – I blindly jump in. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

I haven’t decided if using Storybird with my students is going to be a success, or one of my ideas that are prone to devastating failure. Storybird is a free service where users can create (collaboratively, if desired) their own stories using a collection of illustrations provided by the site.

Here’s my idea: We are finishing up a reading of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. The big question that keeps resurfacing throughout the unit is Is is better not to know? The kids seem to understand its meaning in the context of Charlie Gordon, but they’re having a hard time connecting it to their own lives.

I got to thinking – wouldn’t it be cool if they had to write a story that focused on that same essential question? Beginning next week students will begin working on writing a brief tale – a children’s story, perhaps – that centers around a character discovering something he/she perhaps would have been better off not knowing.

The project will get a bit trickier when they realize that Storybird does not allow a user to upload their own images. Students will have to choose a set of illustrations and fashion their story around the images available.

Having two variables – a required theme and a specific set of illustrations – may be too much for them. But I’ve already jumped off the dock with this one, so all there’s left to do is see who sinks and who swims.

Below is a sample story Songbird created to explain their vision as well as the handout I’m planning on using with students to explain how to use the site.


About us: a peek inside Storybird on Storybird


How to Use Storybird.com
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Sunday, November 8, 2009

iPod Touch Home Screen OCD

iTHSOCD - The uncontrollable desire to control both the functionality and the aesthetic properties of the home screen on the iPod Touch.
I am simultaneously coining a new disorder and self-diagnosing myself with it. This brand new disorder is called iPod Touch Home Screen Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (iTHSOCD).

It has been driving me nuts that default apps on the iPod Touch can't be removed. I don't own stocks – I don't need an app staring at me from the home screen to remind me of that fact. There's also an app called Voice Memos for recording reminders and messages, and my iPod (3rd generation touch) doesn't even have a microphone! I don't need this junk!

It seems that that only options to remedy this are to either jailbreak the iPod and risk getting infected by the latest rash of viruses, or to simply drag all the unwanted items onto their own home screen. I decided to play it safe and go for the latter. The apps aren't gone, but they're effectively segregated.

On to my next problem.

Safari comes with the handy option of saving favorites directly onto the home screen. I personally like this because all my frequently visited sites can be grouped on their own home screen as a visually pleasing favorites list. The only problem is that not all of these sites provide visually pleasing home screen icons.


As best as I can tell, Safari uses the default .ico file (that's the little picture that appears in the address bar of a browser) as the home screen icon for sites that are configured for mobile browsers (Bank of America, for example). For all other sites, it just takes a screen shot and uses that. These screen shots are tiny, bland, and basically useless for anything other than making my iPod look kind of unkempt. Here's where the Home Screen OCD kicked in – I figured out a way to give every site an appealing home screen icon.

It's simple but it works. The screen shot Safari uses is literally a shot of whatever is on the screen at the time the “add to home screen” button is pressed. Before pressing the button, all I do is zoom in on either a logo or interesting design element, and viola! Instant home screen icon. This works especially well for blogs or other personal websites.

Home Screen OCD satisfied.

Here is my iPod favorites list, complete with visually pleasing icons.


And if you're interested, here are the links starting at the top left:

School Email – District employee email site
My Blog – You're lookin' at it!
Merit Badge – My band's Myspace page. Not really active these days, but I like to check up on it occasionally
Cool Cat Teacher – Excellent blog by educator, Vicki Davis
2 Cents Worth – Another great education blog
BobUffalo.com – Colleague's fledgling website promoting her children's book series
M&T Bank – Amazingly, this site did not supply its own icon
The Edublogger – Blog sponsored by edublogs.org
TeachPaperless – Great ideas from progressive-thinking Latin teacher, Shelly Blake-Plock
Mike Fisher – PB Works site for my tech integrator pal
Ed Insanity - Blog site of educator, Jonathan Becker
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Friday, November 6, 2009

Using the iPod Touch to Word Process

A glimpse of Zoho on the iPod Touch


Maybe it was too much birthday cake, but last night I had a bit of a stomach ache. I called it an early night and climbed into bed to play with my new iPod Touch.

Years ago I had experimented with students writing on a Pocket PC using Pocket Word. I was hoping to find an app for my ipod that was along the lines of a pocket version of OpenOffice but as far as I can tell, that doesn't exist. Instead I turned to Zoho.com - the leading rival to Google Docs. As far as I'm concerned, the two are equal. The only reason I favor Zoho is because up until recently Google Docs was blocked for us at school.

Toying around with my iPod last night eventually turned into a blog post about the dangers of poor administrative decisions. It was a decent post, but I was more proud of the fact it was written in such an unconventional manner.

I'm proud that this post is being written the same way. Here's my quick how-to for turning the iPod Touch into a portable word processor.

Go to mobile.zoho.com. Saving a shortcut to the home screen creates a very app-like icon. Unfortunately, Google gears hasn't quite found it's way to the iPod yet, so cloud sites only work with a wireless connection. Otherwise, it functions very much as a suitable word processing app.


Notice the Zoho icon at the lower left of my home screen.


Pros

  • The iPod Touch keypad allows for surprisingly speedy typing (especially when turned horizontally).
  • Because Zoho is a cloud app, work started on the iPod can later be completed or edited on a laptop or desktop computer.

Cons

  • Mobile Zoho is missing many of the bells and whistles that the full-scale app boasts. The one most sorely missed is probably spell check. As a Firefox user, I've grown used to a built in spell check when I type anything.
  • Mobile Zoho does not support direct export to other sites. This means after I'm finished typing this post, I'll have to copy and paste it into the Blogger editor before publishing.
  • Creating a new document is not a problem. Neither is adding text or saving it. There's one major glitch with using Zoho on the iPod Touch. For some reason, after the document is saved and closed, it is no longer able to be edited again on the iPod. It can still be opened and viewed, but clicking on the text field does not bring up the key lard and cursor. I sent a support request to the nice folks at Zoho - if I hear back, I'll update this post.
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The Cycle of Failure for Administrative Decision Making


Having a good relationship between administration and faculty is paramount for a positive work environment. When that bond crumbles, everything else is soon to follow. No one likes being told what to do and it's even worse when the person handing down the commands is out of favor. Here's the series of events that leads to total collapse:
1. The administrator sends down a directive. Either because of poor rapport with the faculty or nearsighted decision-making, he/she does not ask for input before doing so.

2. Naturally, the faculty is furious. They vow to either ignore the directive completely and rely on safety in numbers to avoid consequence or they pursue the directive in such a lax manner that there is no way its goal will ever be achieved.

3. The directive is a spectacular failure.

4. Frustrated and looking to make things right, the administrator sends out another directive. Again, the faculty throws up its arms in resentment. This time, however, they cite the failure of the previous directive as the reason to not do as they're told. "His/her previous plan didn't work, so why should we believe this one will?"
The administrator's efforts will always fail because of the faculty's ill contempt. It's a vicious circle that is nearly impossible to recover from without some major personnel changes.

When this cycle of administrative failure happens, what's to blame - the poor attitude of the faculty or the myopic approach taken by the administrator? Probably a bit of both. I understand that me offering advice to administrators is like the flight attendant telling the pilot what to do in the cockpit, but sometimes a different perspective helps. Before handing down orders, do yourself and every else involved the courtesy of gathering as much input as you can before making a decision that affects everyone in your building.

While most posts on my blog are reactive/reflective of something happening in my professional life, this one is not. At least not recently. Several teachers on my team at school currently have student teachers, and I thought about this today while discussing with them what they should hope for as they begin the interview process for a permanent teaching position. In my opinion, working in a positive environment far outweighs all other aspects of a district. It's the job of both the administration and the faculty to make this happen.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What's Next for Digital Natives?

At only about 4 years of age, I can remember sitting in front of the bulky console television playing my parents' Atari game system. I knew how to change cartridges and turn the thing on. Some games, I even knew how to play (All I could get my triangular spaceship in Asteroids to do was spin recklessly in the center of the screen, but I was a champ at Chopper Command). I don't think my folks ever sat down with me and taught me how to play - I just knew.

Chopper Command - Still the coolest Atari game ever

Almost 25 years later, I am now experiencing this from the other side of the fence. My 2-year-old daughter Sophie smuggled my new iPod Touch from the counter last night. Curious to what she would do, I opened up Doodle Buddy, a free drawing app I had downloaded earlier in the evening. It's simple to use – draw with your fingers and shake to clear the screen. Within minutes, Sophie had is all figured out. I didn't really have to teach her – she just knew.

video

Although Marc Prensky first coined the term digital native in 2001, I associate it with the work (and recent webinar I attended) of author Don Tapscott. The term is used to broadly define the current youth generation:

A digital native is a person for whom digital technologies already existed when they were born, and hence has grown up with digital technology such as computers, the Internet, mobile phones and MP3s.

Sophie certainly fits the definition of a digital native, but I think it's fair to say she doesn't belong to the same population that Tapscott and Prensky were writing about. Sophie's generation has yet to be defined. What will it be – digital native 2.0? The Networked Generation? The Wifi Child?

Regardless of the name, this generation undoubtedly has a lot to look forward to.
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Monday, November 2, 2009

Review of OpenOffice for Kids - OOo4Kids

There has been some buzz lately about a student-specific productivity suite called OpenOffice for Kids (or OOo4Kids) and considering my recent blog post pushing for the use of OpenOffice in schools, I felt the need to give it a good looking over.

Just like OpenOffice, the OOo4Kids word processing software is called Writer, and is completely compatible with Microsoft Word. It can save files with many different extensions including .doc, .rtf, and OpenOffice's native .odt. Because it's based on OpenOffice 3.0, there's no added features exclusive only to Ooo4Kids, so pretty much all the pros I listed in my early blog post apply to OOo4Kids as well.



The biggest advantage is an optimized layout directed at the tasks most often performed by children. Take a look at the side-by-side comparison of the default toolbars in OpenOffice and OOo4Kids. It's streamlined with only the most common icons active. I'm curious how it was decided what would make the cut because several tools that I find rather important (italics, bold, and underlined, for example) are missing.

Tools can still be added to the toolbar by manually activating them, but I don't think this is the kind of configuration the targeted audience is easily capable of performing. For example, to add a table in OpenOffice, go to Insert in the top menu and select table. This is missing in Ooo4Kids. Instead, here are the instructions from the help tutorial on creating a table:
To set the Behavior of rows/columns options for tables in text documents, choose Tools - Options - OOo4Kids Writer - Table, or use the Fixed, Fixed/Proportional, and Variable icons on the Table Bar.
I'm on the fence about the need for a student-specific version because I never really found OpenOffice that difficult to use in the first place. I don't teach at the elementary level, however, and that's where OOo4Kids is really intended. If the goal of the project was to create a simpler, more streamlined version of OpenOffice, then they succeeded. The problem, however is that the usefulness of tools is subjective.

Like all things open source, OpenOffice for Kids can be configured to your liking, and will surely improve as a community of users grow around it. And hey - If it's another advantage to adopting OpenOffice over Microsoft Office (since there is no student-friendly flavor), then I'm all for OOo4Kids.
A screenshot of OOo4Kids in action
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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Eat Dinner with Your Family!

When my wife and I first got married (it'll be four years in April!), my mom gave us one simple piece of advice – never eat dinner with the television on. She reminded us that dinner was a time to catch up with each other's lives; a time to ask How was your day? We've followed her advice, and I feel our lives are better for it.

Today (while not eating a meal), a commercial for Stouffer's caught my attention. They had taken my mom's words of wisdom one step further by suggesting that kids who eat dinner with their families are destined to do better in school, be more successful, and stay out of trouble. Wait a minute, Stouffer's, I think you're manipulating data here.

Am I arguing that eating dinner every night as a family is important? Absolutely not – I wholehearted agree that it's important to establish that as part of the daily routine. But I'm having a hard time swallowing the assumption that sitting down to a sodium-delicious Stouffer's meal will improve a kid's work habits at school. I remember a similar scenario appearing in an Educational Psychology course I had to take in grad school. It went like this - If wealthy families tend to own small dogs, then can it be assumed that small dogs are an indicator of wealth? I don't remember the exact term – some form of causation or correlation – but the same applies to families who eat dinner together. It's not the meal that causes the kids to do well, but the fact they come from a family who has it together enough to know that it's important to share in the lives of the people you love.

I'd like to know the percentage of families who still eat together. I'd assume it's lower than we expect. But in the end, if it takes a commercial campaign to make it happen, I'm okay with that. It's not quite as sentimental as your mother sharing her advice on your wedding day, but the message is clear. It's important to eat as a family, share as a family, and listen as a family.

Here's the commercial, or you can visit the commercial campaign site (dubbed "Let's Fix Dinner") here.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Am I a Selfish Blogger?

I read a post on CopyBlogger today titled "The 3 Fatal Diseases that Kill Good Blogs." I don't know if my blog constitutes as good but I have learned a lot since I started posting to it nearly 7 months ago. I keep an eye on the guest counter so I know at least some people are visiting, and it just tickles me when one of my blog posts gets retweeted. That's why I was eager to make sure I wasn't leaving myself open to a blog-fatal infection.

The first two diseases focused on folks looking to make their blog into a profession, so that simply didn't apply to me. The third in the list made me think, however.

Here's how the post described it:

The Selfish: These bloggers just don’t see the point in networking or in spreading goodwill. They certainly don’t take the time to foster relationships that can help them reach the next level, including creating a solid relationship with their audience.


Am I guilty of being a selfish blogger? I didn't think so at first. I'm pretty active on Twitter both in tweeting my own posts, and retweeting others, but does that count as spreading goodwill? I almost always respond to comments left on my blog and I try to comment of blog posts of others that I find interesting. That counts a fostering relationships, right?

But something about the last part of the selfish blogger description left me feeling a bit guilty. I keep a list of blogs saved to my favorites, but I don't make them public. I don't have a blogroll on my blog.

I know how excited I get when I spot my blog listed on someone's site. I should give credit where credit it due to the blogs that I enjoy reading.So I've decided to add a blogroll.

Maybe I have been a little selfish.
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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Modeling How to Use the Flip Camera with Students

Every day, my team begins our daily meeting by entering homework into the team calendar on our school website. It's a nice way to communicate to parents, and also serves as a way to hold kids accountable when they are absent. Understandably so, it's not the most popular page on the website. Based on a quick poll in class, I'd guess less than a third of our kids frequent it more than once a week.

I'm trying to change that. For the past week, I've been taking the last 10 minutes of my silent reading group and filming skits with them that go along with the day's homework. It's giving me practice with my new Flip camera (yesterday's post explained how I got it), and since I upload the finished movie directly into the calendar, I'm assuming more kids are visiting it from home.

Right now the skits are more about the message than the process. I'm the one who writes up the dialogue, and the one who records and edits the video. But I'm hoping by modeling this process on a daily basis, students will soon be able to take over the task. Actually, that's already happening. Today, several students knocked on my door to ask if they could borrow the Flip for a Social Studies project.

Those kids probably aren't going to check the homework tonight, but I can guarantee they wouldn't have thought of adding a technology piece to their project if they hadn't seen how it was done first.

Here are our video skits for the last two days. I hope you enjoy!

video


video
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