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!

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

4 Ways Flip Cameras are Better than Digital Video Cameras

Last week I was chosen to be a participant in a 2-year study on using a Flip Mino video camera in the classroom. Admittedly, I know very little about the Flip but I've been using digital video cameras in my classroom for a long time, so I really didn't see the big deal.

Even though my Flip Mino has only been out the box for about a week, I've already noticed some definite advantages to using it versus a traditional digital video camera.

I'm fortunate to teach in a district that has a healthy technology budget, so digital video cameras have been accessible for years. When a teacher needs to sign one out, they head to a storage cabinet where each camera is stored in it's own insulated lunch sack. Although it's a more economic way of keeping things safe, you can't help feel like a bit of a dork walking down the hall with it. Look at the picture below. Think about taking one of those bags with you on a field trip. You're already holding your own lunch, the first aid kit, a stack of permission slips, student health alerts, and all the other things entrusted to a chaperone. Do you really want to carry a video camera in a lunch box too? The Flip's size is one of its biggest strengths. I could easily carry a dozen of them in one of those sacks (although I'd still feel like a dork).

Like most media devices, the Flip camera comes with software to help edit and manage your work. The advantage, however, is that the software is loaded onto the camera and can quickly be installed onto any computer that it plugs in to. No more losing installation CDs minutes after opening the box. You need no accessories, adapters, firewire cables, or attachments. To upload, flip (hence the name) the usb connector out, and plug it in. Done. The Flip is like a portable, traveling movie studio.

The MSRP for the Flip Mino (which is what I have in my pocket right now) is under $150. The high definition version is under $200. Considering the fact that it was first released just over a year ago, and the effect of Moore's Law on things like this, imagine the capability/cost ratio in a few years.

Ease of Use
There's an on button. And a giant red record button. To give you an idea of how easy it is to use the Flip, here is a video my daughter took. She's two years old. If a two-year-old can do it, so can you.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Why Schools Should Use Open Office

Open Office is a free and open source alternative to the Microsoft suite of applications. It is available for download at

I first began using Open Office several years ago when I cleared Windows off of my home laptop in favor of Ubuntu Linux. I didn’t really have much choice in office suites considering Microsoft applications are unable to run on a Linux platform. The transition was easy though, and I soon found myself preferring Oo to the Microsoft suite.

Imagine my excitement when I learned that my school district was ready to begin implementing Open Office in the classroom. Today I attended the training for volunteers. A bit redundant for me? A bit. But it’s exciting because it’s my district’s first step in shifting student learning away from proprietary word processing software to open source – a change that is such a no-brainer that it amazes me that every district has not done so long ago.

Here are my reasons why every school should consider Open Office before devoting a large chunk of their technology budget to Microsoft licensing:

I began the workshop by making two columns in my notebook. I figured the day would make for an easy blog post outlining the pros and cons of using Open Office compared to the Microsoft suite of applications. As the day progressed, the columns remained pretty much empty. Comparing the two isn’t like comparing apples to oranges, but like comparing Granny Smith to Red Delicious. The skin’s different and the overall taste may be a bit off, but it’s the same thing. Sure, there’s minor differences, but with each negative comes an equal positive. For example, Open Office’s word processing application, Writer, cannot open Docx files formats (standard in Word 2007), however it has the built in function of converting a document to a pdf. Is the negative or the positive more significant? It’s nit-picking at that point.

We should be teaching students the skills, not the program. If students only learn by using Microsoft Word, how much are they learning about using the program versus how much they’re learning about improving their ability to create written pieces on the computer? In theory, they should be just as successful whether they are using Open Office, Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, or even something bare bones like Dark Room. Plus, in today’s struggling economy, it’s naive to think none of them will ever work for a business that is unable to afford high end proprietary software.

My favorite explanation of open source software is that it’s free – free as in freedom, because it can be modified by anyone, and free as in free beer, because it costs nothing. It takes about 2 minutes to download, and another 2 to install. In those 4 minutes, Open Office can save a district thousands of dollars in Microsoft licensing fees.

Why aren’t more schools doing this?!
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Sunday, October 25, 2009

3 Ways to Use Cell phones in the Classroom

Last May I wrote a somewhat satirical post expressing my disdain for the idea of using cell phones in the classroom. Reflecting back, maybe my thinking was a bit myopic. I wrote that post while sitting at my teacher desk, envisioning the inevitable chaos that would ensue from allowing a group of 7th graders to run wild with their cell phones. While I still agree that the idea isn't suitable for middle level students, I decided that I should at least admit some merit to the practice of integrating cell phones into upper level classes. If I were teaching at the high school or higher ed level, this is how I would use cell phones.

Audience Response System (aka clickers)

You don't have to abandon the idea of using personal clickers in your class when your school isn't willing to shell out more than $1200 for an audience response system. Text The Mob allows a user to create multiple choice questions, polls, and open-ended questions that can be answered by SMS. All the teacher needs to do is set it up on a projector. The responses show up in real time and are identified by the last 4 digits of the students' cell number. This allows students who normally don't participate to interact anonymously. Teachers can also record these numbers before hand and use them to assess individual performance. Since it's the incomplete cell number teachers won't have to worry about accusations of keeping students' personal phone numbers.


Did you know Google is accessible by text message? Try it out – send this text right now to 466453 (google):

Define disdain

In moments you will receive a text back with a list of definitions matching the word disdain. I know because I did just that at the start of this post when I wanted to make sure I was using the word correctly in the first sentence. Think of the possibilities if all of your students had a comprehensive dictionary available at their fingertips. Need an example? Next time you take a class trip to the zoo, have students define the animals' scientific names that are displayed in front of each exhibit. A later discussion on these names could be a great way to explore species and taxonomy. Other Google SMS tricks are available here.

Verbal Response/Fluency Practice

The easiest way to have a student self-edit a piece of writing is to have him/her read it out loud. Errors in punctuation, usage, and transitions become evident as the student stumbles through them. The reason why this editing strategy is rarely used is a matter of logistics. A teacher can't ask 25 kids to read out loud at once in class, and there's no guarantee they'll do it at home if assigned as homework. Unless, of course, they can be held accountable. That's where Google Voice comes in. This beta service proves the user (presumably the teacher) with a free phone number that comes with voice mail that is automatically transcribed and emailed. This is ideal for several reasons. First, the phone number does not have to be connected to a working phone (so students have no direct way to call the teacher). Second, the teacher has two ways of assessing student work – aurally and by reading the transcript. The only downside – Google Voice has yet to go public. To get on the list for an invite code, sign up here. There are other pay services (Jott, Gabcast, Gcast) that work in a similar way, but hands down, Google Voice is the best option.
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Friday, October 23, 2009

Introduction to Podcasting for Teachers

A colleague and friend of mine pulls double duty as both a literacy specialist in my building and a professor for Niagara University, which is located a few miles down the road. Every semester she convinces me to come in to give a guest presentation on something related to technology integration.

I've flirted with the idea of teaching at the college level, so I take it as good practice. It's a good opportunity for me to pass on some of my own experiences to folks that can hopefully benefit from my trials and tribulations. What can I say? I also love being the center of attention.

I'm planning on presenting early next month on Web 2.0 tools that promote literacy across all content areas (if you have some good ideas, please leave them in the comments!), but while hunting through my old presentation files, I stumbled upon this one. Several years ago I presented on how to use podcasts in the classroom. Before getting into the why, I wanted to make sure everyone understood the what and the how. I made this handout as a resource for teachers looking to explore the possibilities of podcasts.

Hopefully it's valuable to you.

Introduction to Podcasting for Teachers
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Building a Website Using Drupal

About 14 years ago, my fledgling garage band entrusted me with the duty of building a website. I registered an account with one of the free hosting providers of the time (either Angelfire or Geocities) and began teaching myself how to code html. I got pretty good at it too. This was in the days before services provided a built-in WYSIWYG editor, so I literally entered every line of code by hand.

Unfortunately for me, html has pretty much gone the way of Latin – it's a dead language. To build a professional site these days you need expertise in php, java script, Ajax, css, and other languages that are far and above simple markup tags. I know just enough about all of these to know I am grossly unprepared to take on a web design task.

Don't ask me why, but I did just that. About 6 months ago a colleague asked me to build a site for her to help market a children's book she planned on publishing. Thinking back to my html glory days, I naively said yes. I opened up my word pad, and got coding.

It didn't take long for me to realize that I simply couldn't accommodate everything she needed – user logins, message boards, checkout carts. Summer vacation came along, and the project reached a quick stasis.

A few months ago I was reading through some posts on and noticed the “Powered by Drupal” note in the footer. This opened my eyes to the incredible power of open source content management systems.

CMSes create a highly customizable online environment that offers the power and flexibility of a professional service provider without the cost or a need for technical coding skills. Drupal seems to be one of the more popular available, but there’s quite a few CMS applications that are free to download and install on your own web server.

Granted, it takes a bit of work to configure your web server and mySQL, but once that is done users can log in to the backend of the system and add content using a WYSIWYG editor. Do you need some tech-savviness? Yeah. But not nearly as much as someone staring at a blank txt file looking to build from scratch. Plus, the community is thriving, so troubleshooting is just a quick search away in most cases.

Now that I finished the site for my friend, I can move on to bigger and better things. Like figuring out what I can build with Drupal that will be amazing for my students. Really, the possibilities are endless.
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Friday, October 16, 2009

Teaching Irony

Last evening a six-year-old named Falcon Heene dominated the news and social media as the world looked on anxiously as a mylar balloon presumably containing the boy drifted across the state of Colorado. Turns out he was in no harm, having instead nested comfortably in a box tucked into the corner of the family's attic. Followers of the story are now singing a chorus of “Foul!” with rumors circulating that the spectacle was all an elaborate publicity stunt for a family who seems to love being in the spotlight.

Unlike countless other bloggers logging in to contribute their two cents to the story, I don't really have much to say about the family, their possible motivations, or the viral (and admittedly very funny) meme videos that are surfacing. Instead, I want to share something that one of my students said to me this morning.

A few weeks ago I began preparing my classes to read the O. Henry short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief.” It seems nearsighted to teach O. Henry without first discussing irony, so after taking a day to give the classes a definition and a few clear examples (none of them being the ironically un-ironic song by Alanis Morrisette), we were set to read. (If interested, here are some of the examples I used.) Students were able to identify irony in Red Chief, so I felt I did an adequate job.

This morning I had a student come to me with an exciting observation. While watching one of the major news outlets cover the story of the “Balloon Boy,” she had overheard the reporter mention that it was ironic that a boy named Falcon has been suspected of taking to the skies. My ever-observant student couldn't wait to share the reporter's error with me.

She eagerly explained that the reporter had mistaken a coincidence for irony. After all, the student noted, our class definition of irony is an outcome that is the opposite of what is expected. In this case, it would have been ironic only if the boy's name had been that of a land-dwelling creature. A boy named Turtle or Goldfish flying off into the Colorado skyline would have been ironic.

The true test of learning is the transference of knowledge. My students will soon forget the specifics of the story they read with me, but they will never forget what irony is.
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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Good School Fundraiser

Last Sunday my wife and I packed up the kids and headed to Applebee’s for a fundraiser breakfast hosted by the girls’ swim team. I had been hit up earlier in the week by a student – the tickets were only 5 bucks and promised pancakes and a bottomless cup of coffee, so I was all for it. It seemed like a symbiotic venture for both the swim team and the franchise. Applebee’s is typically closed Sunday morning, so they gained by charging a small building fee, and the rest was profits for the team.

But that’s not the only reason why I liked this fundraiser. Once we bundled the kids, piled into the car, and arrived at the restaurant, we were greeted at the door by several students acting as hostesses. Several other girls soon came to the table with our meals, and a girl who normally sits in my 2nd period class cleared my empty dishes. What a fantastic idea.

There’s a level of obligation to participating in fundraisers because the kid standing at your desk trying to convince you to buy candy/popcorn/wrapping paper/raffle tickets/candles is the same kid that just humored you in class and laughed at your dumb jokes. Forking over money for junk we don’t want comes with the territory of being a teacher, right?

I liked the breakfast fundraiser because it involved the kids working for the money. Maybe it's just my optimistic nature to try and see everything as a teachable moment, but you can bet those girls learned more than the kid whose mom dumped a box of fundraiser chocolates in the middle of her office with a sign saying something like “My son wants to go on a class trip to Montreal!”

You know and I know that I will probably cave regardless of the fundraiser (the $20 box of microwave popcorn sitting in my pantry is proof enough). But I appreciate it when the student at the helm and made to work for it.

In the end, whatever it is they are working toward will be more rewarding.
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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Are Schools Safe From Swine Flu?

Last night I had the unfortunate duty of attending a wake service for a distant relative. Crammed with myself in the funeral parlor was about 70 other mourners, and despite the grief and the sadness that always accompanies these occasions, I couldn’t help but think about all the potential germs being shared in the form of condolences. For a minute there, I felt myself getting sucked into Swine Flu hysteria.

In general, every American is feeling this same nagging concern. If not at a funeral, in restaurants, out shopping, while traveling, or anywhere else that requires some form of physical proximity to another human beings. Schools in particular seem to be, by many reports, the epicenter of the Swine Flu epidemic.

The Iroquois Central School District announced yesterday evening that they had reached an 18% absence rate due to ill faculty and students. According to NY state law, 20% absenteeism warrants closing school. (Here's the letter sent home to parents by the superintendent.) Other schools are attempting to curb the spread of germs by installing hand sanitizing stations in every room and hallway.  Considering I spend most of my waking life in a school, should I be concerned?


Is it surprising that schools are germ-ridden places? Kids, by nature, are germy creatures. Somehow the classic depiction of boys with dirty fingernails and toads in their pockets has gone from innocent adolescence to the cause of all the world’s ills. Kids and schools haven’t gotten any dirtier – just our perception of them.

Anyone working in a school quickly learns how to stay healthy, just like any firefighter is quick to figure out how to avoid being burned on the job. I learned two important lessons after getting deathly ill during my first year teaching: Never eat and grade papers at the same time, and take all necessary precaution to touch your food as little as possible (regardless of how clean you think your hands may be). In fact, I still eat my sandwich everyday by using the Ziploc bag as a makeshift plastic glove. This has nothing to do with Swine Flu – it’s just what teachers do.

The same hysteria surrounding Swine Flu was what panicked parents and school personnel during the 2004 SARS outbreak, and again during 2007 with MERSA. Did people get sick? Yes – life threatening for some. But does that mean we need to use this outbreak as a reason to redefine how schools are operated? Probably not. If your school’s custodial staff is doing what they’re supposed to, and you are taking reasonable health precautions, things should be just fine.

Last night after leaving the claustrophobic funeral home, I found myself doing a mental examination of my body. Was my stomach feeling upset, or was it just hunger pains from a light dinner? Was that a sore throat coming on? All psychosomatic symptoms of nothing at all.

I have to wonder how many of those 18% absent in Iroquois were going through the same mental checklist as they called in sick. The sooner we push past this Swine Flu hysteria, the better we’ll all feel.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

One-To-One Computing

When it comes to technology in education, we often get caught up in the hype and dazzle of the newest gadget, and as a result we focus on the what and omit the how. It's like buying the fanciest watch without knowing how to tell time.

I was thinking about this Monday night during a meeting for my district's one-to-one computing initiative. Providing a safe and effective environment for more than 3,000 students is certainly an incredible undertaking, so understandably much of our discussion has been on the physical components. What netbook to choose? How will machines be rolled out? What will be protocol for damaged equipment?

The committee is well-managed and is on its way to ironing out the wrinkles in the what end of things. Now for the how.

Training on the actual machines and training on how to incorporate into daily lessons needs to be synchronous. If teachers don't know the capabilities of the hardware then the whole initiative fails. If teachers don't know how to effectively exploit those capabilities then the whole initiative fails. But how do you show one teacher how to foster collaborative work environments, for example, while simultaneously teaching another how to plug in and recharge a laptop battery?

Maybe the question can be summed up as "What should come first - the hardware training or the pedagogy for technology integration?" The answer is yes.

Our building technology integrator made an interesting observation about my habits with technology. He told me that I tend to find something and jump in head first. Completely true. Luckily though, my ratio of perfect swan dives to terrible head injuries is in my favor. And when I do jump in head first only to find the water too shallow, what's the worst that can happen? I pick up the pieces of a shattered lesson, and learn from my mistakes.

On the small scale of my daily lessons this is a risk worth taking, but on the grand scale of a district looking to implement one-to-one computing, we need to be more assertive in addressing the needs of the teachers. Teach the teachers, and one-to-one has the opportunity to become a revolution.
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Thursday, October 1, 2009

10 Things New Teachers Need to Know

1. You will get sick during the first month of school. Starting a teaching career is like sucking on a roll of nickels. Eventually your body becomes immune, but until then it is going to make you very, very sick.

2. When your administrator says he/she has something "cool" for you try, you are about to be suckered into volunteering for something no other teacher was willing to commit to (but you'll do it because you're nontenured).

3. Secretaries and custodians run the school. Be very nice to them.

4. Inspirational posters don't inspire you or the kids. Don't waste your money. Other than the iconic-because-it's-so-stupid Never Give Up poster, do you remember any of the posters hanging around you during your k-12 experience? Exactly.

5. If your students ask if it is your first year teaching, lie. Admitting that you have no experience standing in front of a group of kids will incite a feeding frenzy worthy of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.

6. No matter how great your lesson is, if it involves something on page 69 of the textbook, your students are going spend the period giggling and whispering. To make it worse, if you teach a grade lower than high school, they probably won't know why they're laughing. It's just something American culture seems to breed into them. Kind of like standing for the pledge.

7. You will spend hours each night carefully marking homework and student work with comments, feedback, and well-intentioned notes of encouragement. After handing them back, your students will throw them away immediately without reading a single word of your carefully crafted response.

8. Your coworkers have been working together for a long time, without you there. Be prepared for awkward moments when they reflect on the "good old days" which, incidentally, were from a time before you worked there. Don't take it personally. Similarly, if you filled a position vacated by a retiree, be ready for people to spend the first 10 weeks or so telling you how much they miss seeing your predecessor.

9. If you wake to find some fresh acne on your face, don't worry that kids might notice. Rest assured that they will absolutely notice - and they'll call you out on it in the middle of class.

10. You will learn to hold it. Teachers tend to drink lots of coffee, and bathroom breaks are never as often as they need to be.
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