Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Fine Line Between Charity and Abuse of the System

My mother owns an agency that provides home-based therapy services for children under the age of three. Every year around the holidays I am reminded of a story she shared with me several years ago.

After the new year, my mom went to a family's house to work with their child. Upon entering the house, she was surprised to see wrapped gifts still stacked against the wall. The parent joked that they had so many presents that year that they simply hadn't had the time to open them yet. The family was on public assistance, so this confused my mother. The parent further explained that she made sure to get her children on as many charity lists as possible that year – churches, community groups, schools, etc. The pile of gifts was only a small portion of the donations and didn't include food and household items or gift cards. The parent openly shared all of this with my mother.

It's because of this incident that I am weary to donate money for holiday gift cards at my school. I completely understand that the story my mom shared may not be the norm, but it proves that it is quite difficult to find the line between much-needed charity and abuse of the system. This year, my school raised enough money to give 40 families each a $50 Walmart gift card. As a school, we should be proud that we are able to help so many people, however, I can't get past the fact that some of those families called the school and were asked to be added to the charity list.

How many of those 40 families asked to be added to other lists as well? Is their Walmart gift card destined to end up in an overflow gift pile similar to the one my mother witnessed? And how are we to know that the card didn't go toward cigarettes or alcohol?

In the past, the team of teachers I work with have chosen a student that we know could use a little holiday cheer. We buy him/her a few outfits and maybe a pair of sneakers and then mail the package to the house. I feel good doing this. First, the gift is going to the child. Second, we have the freedom to choose who we think most needs a donation based on our daily observations. It's a lot of extra footwork to prepare the package, but it's worth it knowing that the donation is needed and truly appreciated.

This post is by no means a slam at anyone who donates money around the holidays. I give credit to anyone who is willing to share the wealth, especially to those in need. It's just a shame that some people are willing to exploit the kindness of others. Charities and not-for-profit organizations have been on my list of interests lately, so this will probably not be the last post on this topic. In the meantime, I would appreciate any feedback on good groups/organizations/programs that you feel comfortable donating to. I want to make a difference and would love to know the most effective way to do so...

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Is there a Movie for this Book? (And other frustrations with film adaptations)

The worst part of reading with students is the inevitable question that is always asked: Is there a movie for this? For ELA teachers, this is equivalent to telling Bobby Flay not to bother with dinner because you would prefer to order a pizza and wings.

Most stories we read in class do have movie adaptations – if they are good enough to dedicate class time reading, they were probably good enough for someone to make into a movie. I don't like showing the movie out of obligation, and the typical movie/book-compare/contrast activity is near worthless in my opinion. To make matters worse, the availability of a movie doesn't necessarily mean its any good. Some movie versions of books are quite awful – take the 1981 made for tv adaptation of Todd Strasser's book The Wave, for example. (After starting the movie, kids actually complained about having to finish it.) But any teacher who admits that a movie exists but refuses to show it will face a potential mutiny in his/her classroom.

So how can teachers use a movie version of a story as a valuable resource rather than a frivolous time-killer?

I was faced with this question several weeks ago after reading Shirley Jackson's classic short story, The Lottery. I was teaching a unit on setting, mood, and tone, and I felt this story would work nicely in exploring how these elements work together. The kids loved the story, but I was not sure how to wrap up the unit. The Lottery film adaptation from the 1960s is dated and kind of slow moving, but my students insisted they see it anyway.

The film version is only about 20 minutes long, and as I watched it with the class I again noticed how drawn out the story was. I realized that it could probably have been boiled down to three minutes of actual substance – and this gave me an idea.

After watching the movie, my class agreed that the movie did not do justice to the story. I told them that the final assignment for The Lottery was to create a music video that accurately portrayed the setting, mood, and tone of the story. They could use any song they'd like that they thought fit those requirements, but they only video footage they were allowed to use were clips taken from the film.

To do this, I found the complete film posted on Youtube. I downloaded it from there using Keepvid and then converted it to a usable format with Format Factory. From there, students used Movie Maker to cut and splice what they considered to be important scenes together to fit with the soundtrack.

The group took to the technical labor of this assignment much quicker than I anticipated. It was also interesting to see the variety of songs they were able to successfully apply to the film. We had everything from Tom Jones to Bob Marley, but they all managed to edit the film in such a way to meet the needs of their songs. I was impressed.

This worked especially well with The Lottery, but I could also see it being an excellent culminating project for other short stories (with bad movie adaptations) – The Tell-Tale Heart, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, maybe even novels like The Outsiders, if broken down by chapter. The beauty is that all of these are available on Youtube, so finding the raw materials your students need is not very difficult.

Obviously, this treads dangerous copyright ground, so you may want to refrain from posting students' finished work. I, however, am not heeding my own warning – here is the sample project I made for my students to use as a reference. I made sure to disclose that I am not the owner of any of the materials – the song is Know Your Enemy by Green Day, and the movie is The Lottery, directed by Larry Yust.

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How to Create Virtual Realty Field Trips

Field trips are a great idea because it exposes kids to things many of them have never seen before. The probem, however, is that the excitement and novelty often trumps any chance for the true real-world learning and teachable moments that field trips offer. Sure, you can take pictures or videos, but these static media just don't compare.

I was thinking about this and I was reminded of a feature I used to like when my wife and I were house hunting. Some realty sites have an interactive feature where the potential buyer can take a virtual tour through the house. It was a great way to really understand the layout of the house and visualize what it would be like to live there.

Why not use this virtual realty technology for field trips? It's actually fairly simple to do. Imagine taking a field trip to a historic location, for example. The trip can be captured by digital camera and later transformed into a virtual trip that be re-explored in depth from the classroom.

Here is my tutorial for creating a virtual reality tour.

Software Needed:
Auto Stitch
Pano Cube
PT Stitcher
(I have included all of these applications in a .zip folder that can be downloaded here. They can also be downloaded individually from their respective companys' sites.)
Image Editor – Photoshop/Gimp/etc

Equipment Needed:
Digital Camera with plenty of memory

Part I: Taking pictures

1. Position the tripod and camera in the approximate center of the location that you plan on capturing. Once you begin taking pictures you cannot move the tripod, so choose carefully.

2. You need to be able to move the head of the tripod in a vertical line from bottom to top but keep it level horizontally, so adjust your tripod as necessary. Do this before you begin taking pictures so it doesn’t interrupt the continuity of the shots.

3. Begin taking pictures by tilting the camera as far down on the tripod as it allows. It’s okay if the tripod legs are in the picture – that’ll be fixed later. Take one picture, then move the camera up so that the new picture will have about 60% overlap. In other words, before moving pick something on the camera screen that is about 40% up from the bottom, and then move the position so that target is now at the bottom of the screen.

4. Continue to take a picture and move the tripod position until your camera is facing straight up (or as close as your tripod will allow). One series of vertical pictures should consist of approximately 10-15 shots depending on the overlap for each picture.

5. Swivel the camera counter-clockwise so there’s about 60% horizontal overlap. Aim the camera all the way down to the ground again and begin a new series of pictures.

6. Repeat steps 3-5 until you have moved 360 degrees around your location. Your final series of pictures should overlap with the first series.

Part II: Create the Panorama

1. Run the AutoStitch program. Select Edit from the menu and then choose Options. You can leave everything as it is, but change the Output size height to 700.

2. Go to Open in the File menu. Select all of your pictures (there should be between 100-150 of them depending on how much they overlap).

3. When AutoStitch finishes, it will create a file called pano.jpg.

4. Use the image editor of your choice (Photoshop or its free equivalent, GIMP) and open pano.jpg. In order to display correctly as a virtual reality tour, pano.jpg must be cropped to be exactly twice as wide as it is high. First, crop out any black areas (these are usually on the outside edges where you may not have tilted the camera enough while taking your pictures) as well as any place where you see the tripod legs. If you’re comfortable with your image editor, these can also be removed using the clone tool. Do not crop the width of the image. If you do so, your virtual reality tour will not be seamless.

5. Make note of the width of your image and then increase the canvas height to half the width. This will put a white space both above and below your image.

6. Using the marquee tool, select and copy a 50-100 pixel strip from your image and copy it. Then stretch it to fill the white space. Do this for above and below the image.

7. Save this edited file as a jpg.

Your image should look something like this. Notice the top and bottom of the image are just slices that have been copied and pasted then stretched to fill the space.

Part III: Turning your panorama into virtual reality

1. Begin by moving the PanoCube folder (named PC00292) directly to your C drive (click on my computer and then C drive). This program is pretty finicky and won’t work if it is in a different location.

2. Open the folder and locate both the PanoCUBE.exe file and the PTStitcher.exe file. Drag the PTStitcher.exe file into the PanoCUBE.exe file. This only has to be done the first time you use the program.

3. Now locate the image file you created with the image editor. Drag this file into the PanoCUBE.exe file. PanoCube will work for a while and then create a .mov file with the same name as the image you dragged into it.

4. You’re done! You can either embed the .mov into a website, or play it from the computer by double clicking it.

Here is a sample tour I created of one of the science labs at my school. (If it doesn't display correcly on your computer as an embedded object, you can download the .mov here).

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Watch Security Cameras using Google

Google is so good that all it usually takes to find what we're looking for is the most basic of searches. Few realize all the added commands and query strings that Google can also use to find something. When these are used, Google opens up to a whole new world of results.

Like unsecured, password-free security cameras, for example.

Many network security cameras do not come with a default password. If this is unchanged by the user, then the feed is available on the Internet. Google makes it simple to find these. By using a few simple Google search specifications, live security cameras from around the world are at your disposal. Many of them can even be controlled. I bet you never realized Google would give you the power to maneuver a video camera through a mall in Germany.

Most of the cameras you'll find offer little clue as to the location you're viewing, but it's still interesting nonetheless. If you'd like to find some cameras of your own, there is a great list of searches here that will yield some cool cameras. Here are my favorites. Click on the image to view the live surveillance stream.

Web cam: Mall/Pet Store
Location: Somewhere in Germany

This camera is always busy with shoppers checking out the hamsters, birds, and other critters for sale. Swivel the camera around and you also get a nice view of the main drag of the mall as well as people moving up and down the escalators. I figure the cam is in Germany because there’s a sign above the rabbits that has the word “die” in it, which is German for “the.” Either that, or the store sells some seriously badass bunnies.

Web cam: Office
Location: USA? Maybe around Florida or surrounding states?

This camera is not as exciting as the others, but it was the first one I found so I figured it was worth adding to the list. The site actually shows four cameras located throughout what appears to be some kind of small business (possibly named ENCO based on the floor mat in the lobby?). I’m assuming it’s someplace warm, because it’s December and the only employee to work yesterday was wearing shorts. Incidentally, that employee must have off on Fridays because the building has been empty all day today.

Web cam: Zoo/Giraffes
Location: Asia

This camera is trained on a large cage containing two adult giraffes and a baby. I’m assuming it is a zoo, but the strange thing is that the giraffes never seem to leave the room. Regardless, it’s kind of cool to get a glimpse at these animals from such a close distance.

Web cam: Print/Photo Developing Store
Location: ?

There is nothing real interesting or amazing about this camera, but that’s the reason why I’m intrigued by it. The camera is positioned in the corner of a bustling print shop and allows a close-up view of customers and store clerks.

Web cam: St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital
Location: Memphis, Tennessee

I included this camera on the list because it’s the only one that I was able to confirm a location for. For me, it proved that all of these places do actually exist somewhere!

Web cam: Pizza Joint
Location: Someplace Spanish speaking

This camera offers a near 360 degree view of a small pizza place. There are usually stacks of pizza boxes sitting around, and although I can’t make out the name, it looks like there are accent marks above letters. I’m assuming it’s Spanish.

Web cam: Copy shop
Location: Asia

It’s difficult to tell what kind of store this is, but I’m guessing some kind of print shop. Because of all the signs scattered about the store that are in a language so different from English, watching this camera is very “other-worldly.”

Web cam: Dog Boardinghouse
Location: ?

When I first came across this camera, I was a little creeped out. It is a view of a small room – no larger than a walk-in closet – containing nothing but a small area rug and a children’s bed. I did some snooping and found several other similar cameras in the facility, and eventually figured out it must be some kind of kennel for over-privileged pooches.

Web cam: Horse Carving
Location: ?

Throughout the day, you will find people hand-crafting a wooden horse. I'm not sure if this is an art workshop or some kind of business. Antique carousel, maybe?

Web cam: Cows
Location: Finland

Google Translate tells me the camera locations are written in Finnish, so I’m assuming this stream is showing foreign cows. This camera also has a setting to adjust audio, however I haven’t had luck getting it to play over my speakers. Unfortunately, this leaves an important question unanswered – Do Finnish cows sound like American cows when they moo?
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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Can Online Courses Enhance High School?

I haven't written much about this, but last Winter I was accepted into the Educational Leadership program at Niagara University. The degree will certify me to hold both administrative building and district leadership positions. I love my job as a teacher, but no one knows what the future may hold and I like the idea that I have the option to advance if that is something I one day choose to pursue.

Currently, I have the pleasure of attending classes taught by former New York Regents Chancellor, Robert Bennett. He is still active in Regents decisions which means I get the chance to hear weekly from someone at the top of the ladder when it comes to educational policy-making in New York State. It's like getting a behind-the-scenes look at education.

Tonight's topic in class was high school graduation requirements. Chancellor Bennett warned us that it was an area the the Regents Board was investigating, and would ultimately be changing in the reletive near future. These changes would most likely involve the credit hours needed to graduated and required seat time in class, but neither of these things will be quick or easy to implement. Both would require either hiring more teachers or increasing the pay of those who are already employed, and this seems improbable considering the state of New York laid off 58,000 teachers this September.

So how do we make high school more rigorous and expansive without further crippling the state budget?

I read an article the other day about a school district in Ohio experimenting with the idea of moving classes online in the event of a snow day. This idea is not without some serious flaws (what happens to kids without Internet access, for example?), but it has potential nonetheless.

Would it be possible to extend seat time, so to speak, without extending the school day?

How can this be mandated?

What will it look like?

What happens to students who do not have Internet access?

How will we prepare teachers?
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Friday, October 22, 2010

This is not really about cookies.

I had a unsettling revelation the other evening: Cookies are not as good as they used to be.

Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy cookies, but I remember them being better when I was a kid. Cookies from the past are what all present-day cookies are judged by, and to put it frankly, they just aren’t measuring up.

My first impulse was to blame the process that was used in preparing the recipe. But after close inspection, it was clear that this was not the source of the problem. Sure there are changes – electric beaters instead of hand mixers, fancy convection ovens instead of Grandma’s ancient oven – but the job gets done all the same.

What about the bakers? Are they not as good as the bakers of yester-year? I don’t think that’s the problem either. They love to bake and wouldn’t be in the profession if there wasn’t a desire to do so (or a desire to produce delicious cookies, either).

So why aren’t cookies as good as they used to be? Cookies are a big part of my life, and I simply could not abandon such an important question. It’s not because of the recipe and it’s not the fault of those who bake the cookie, so what could it be? Then it hit me.

The ingredients.

Perhaps the reason bakers cannot produce a high quality cookie anymore is because they do not have access to quality ingredients in which to bake with.

But this is an even bigger problem. Bakers can only control what goes on in their kitchen. They cannot control how ingredients are prepared before being packaged and shipped to them. All they can do is bake with passion and desire – and make the best cookie they can with the ingredients that are sent to them.

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How do we Teach Future Teachers?

I remember the words of wisdom my supervising professor bestowed upon me shortly before I began student teaching as an undergraduate. He said, “you will learn more on the first day of teaching than you have during four years of college.” And you know what? He was absolutely correct.

The article, How Should we Teach our Future Teachers, released in July by the Associated Press addresses the sentiment my professor was trying to convey. New teachers are entering schools unprepared to face the job that lay before them.

The article begins by following the experiences of first year math teacher, Hemant Mehta. He explains that despite courses in pedagogy and education history, he struggled with basics like classroom management and was forced to find help on his own by means of web message boards, colleagues, and social networking sites like Twitter.

Mehta's story is not uncommon. This is because college programs focus largely on formal education and less on the “nuts and bolts” of the classroom. The article explains that this problem is difficult to solve because there is no national standard – every state is free to determine what is required of a teaching certification candidate. Fortunately, the government is beginning to get involved, and this may better align the states.

President Obama's budget includes a proposed expansion of the government's role in teacher training programs, which could infuse more than $400 million into preparing teachers for the classroom. This could be the push that could cahnge the focus from teaching education theory to teaching education craft.

This article addresses issues with teachers entering the workforce without adaquate training. This is only one part of the problem. From a district perspective, the real concern is what to do with new or newly hired teachers who have the gaps. Like my former professor explained, the best way to learn is by doing, but districts cannot afford to wait out the 2-3 year learning curve that most teachers experience. Districts need to consider this lack of skills and strategies with developing new teacher orientations and professional development.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Using MP3 Players in the Classroom

I received a box in the mail today containing 15 Coby 1GB MP3 players.

They're no iPod, but you know what? I'm okay with that. And in some cases, they may actually be better than an iPod – at least for the purpose I'm looking for them to serve. They only cost $23; far cheaper than, say, an 8GB iPod Touch. Cheap means disposable, which is a good quality to have when being handled daily by middle schoolers. Also, cheap means fewer features. While limiting in potential, it makes using the players more manageable. For example, I purposely ordered an mp3 player without a radio feature. Now when I load material and hand it over to a student, I know that is the only thing he/she will be listening to.

I had an idea exactly 362 days ago – just short of a full year. It has mutated and expanded a bit since then, but now that I have the tools, I'm ready to make my idea a reality.

Here are 3 ways I plan to use my new MP3 players in the classroom:

Audio Books – Not only is there a wealth of free audio books available through sites such as Project Gutenberg and Librivox, but students can also record books as part of a classroom audio library. If students choose to record a title that is within the public domain, it can be hosted online and shared with the world – talk about authentic audience! I currently have two students who spend their lunch period each day recording an audio book version of the famous Jack London book, Call of the Wild.

Lecture/Guided Notes – One problem that I have found with running learning centers in my middle school classroom is that the teacher turns into a living pinball, constantly bouncing between raised hands. I have yet to try it, but I plan on using the mp3 players as a station in my class. I can record a listening passage, or even a selection from whatever novel we may be studying. Included with this recording can be comprehension questions, clarifications, etc. – in short, what I would have to explain and re-explain to that station throughout the day. Students would be able to replay things they may have missed, and it will allow me to focus on other stations in the room that may need closer attention. It's about as close to cloning myself as I will ever get!

Review – Our team has a problem this year with chatty study halls. It's not all of the kids, but a few disruptive ones are all it takes to light the fuse. I mentioned the mp3 players to my Social Studies teacher, and she volunteered to record review questions and answers for her upcoming unit test. We're going to load them onto the mp3 players and hand them out to select kids during study hall. The result should be twofold – they'll be quiet, and may actually learn something in the process!

What am I missing? How else can I get the most bang for the 23 bucks spent on each of these little gadgets?

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Teachers - Beware of Your Digital Footprint

My middle school is only a few miles down the road from Niagara University, so it makes sense that we work closely with their school of education. Most of the student teachers in our building come from NU and we also participate in their Learn & Serve program. This is basically a pre-service mentoring and observation field experience opportunity that all education majors must fulfill. It's not as rigorous or time-consuming as student teaching, but the need for cooperating teachers is just as essential.

Yesterday, I received an email from an NU student who wrote to inform me that she had been assigned to my room as her Fall Learn and Serve placement. She went on to explain that even though her placement was supposed to be for a full day on a routine basis, she wanted to come for half a day on an irregular schedule because she had a full time job.

Sensing trouble, I copied and pasted this girl’s email address into Facebook and quickly discovered her account. Her wall was blocked, but this was of little use because the profile picture of her drinking with her friends was more than enough to confirm my suspicions. This was not the kind of pre-service teacher I wanted in my room.

This is not a unique story. Increasingly each year, professionals find themselves in difficult spots as a result of poor decisions with regard to their digital footprint.

So to all you pre-service teachers (all teachers, really) – be safe. And don’t take pictures of the stupid things that you do.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

99 Free URL Shortener Services

Back in June, Twitter announced they would soon be incorporating their own url shortening service,, into their microblogging network. This got me wondering just how many of these url shorteners were out there.

When I first started searching around, my goal was to make a list of 20 url shorteners. That was quickly accomplished, so I raised the bar to 50. That too proved to be a bit myopic, so I kept going. I decided to stop at 99 simply because I figured it would be the coolest sounding number in my blog post title. I'm sure there are plenty more out there, but hopefully you'll find my list sufficient. Some of them are goofy (see and, and some are just unsavory ( and, but overall, I can see legitimately using all of these services.

One quick note - I was amazed by the turnover in url shortener services. I would estimate that about 30% of the sites I found were either defunct or non-existent. I did not include those sites in this list. As of today, all of these sites are functional.
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Saturday, September 25, 2010

8 Suggestions for a Successful Open House

Exactly one year ago, I shared this brief anecdote explaining why I was intimidated by presenting at Open House.

For reasons not glaringly apparent, I went into this year's Open House without these reservations, and -belief it or not – even a little excited to speak with my students' parents. After, I got to thinking about what makes for a good Open House experience. Here's my list of suggestions.

Remember your audience
Some days when I come home from work and start a conversation with my wife, she'll interrupt me to remind me that I'm not at school and the teacher voice can be put away for the night. All teachers have this voice, although it's difficult to describe – it's somehow a combination of volume, speed, emphasis, and diction. During Open House, don't forget that you are talking to adults, not the kids that are usually sitting in front of you. Speak professionally, but save the teacher voice for their children.

Don't try to prove yourself
I had a first year colleague one year begin her Open House speech by explaining to parents that she had a master's degree in mathematics so her teaching should not be questioned since she was considered an expert on the subject. While her intentions may have been good – to establish herself as a competent and intelligent teacher – the result was a room full of parents thinking she was a pompous ass. Don't go out of your way to try and prove you are an exceptional teacher. If that really is the case, parents will realize it when their children are successful in your classroom.

Establish contact
Use Open House as an opportunity to establish some form of contact between yourself and parents. Make sure your phone/email is available. Parents who are dedicated enough to come to Open House will be the ones who are willing to contact you with a problem before it inflates to a major issue. You may also want to collect their contact info as well by using a sign in sheet with columns for an email address and phone number.

Classroom Feng Shui
I remember a conversation I had years ago with my own mother as I prepared for my first Open House as a teacher. I asked her what she wanted to get out of open houses back when she attended them for me and my brothers. She said simply that she wanted to see what a day in our shoes was like – where our lockers were, how long it took to get from one class to the next, and of course, what each room looked like. I try to keep this in mind when preparing for Open House. Make your room look nice – straighten up your desk and shelves, and maybe hang up some exemplary work. Remember that your room on Open House will be the mental image in parents' heads whenever your class in brought up at the dinner table.

Make a handout for parents, but keep it brief. Contact information, teacher website address (if applicable), general curriculum outline, etc. I knew of a teacher who made sure one of the points addressed on her Open House pamphlet was the importance of remembering to bring a writing utensil. Open House is not really the time or place for this, and it certainly does not need to to printed somewhere for parents. If you aren't sure about a handout, write an outline of what you'd like to talk about on the front board and parents can jot down whatever they think is important.

Brevity is the key
Keep the recitation to a minimum. Parents are looking for a generalized understanding of your classroom experience for their child. You don't need to be very specific to do this sufficiently.

Time to Explore
If my school's Open House schedule gives me 15 minutes with each group of parents, I make sure that I wrap up my presentation with at least 5 minutes to spare. I then encourage parents to walk around the room and look at some student work, or I put out textbooks or novels that we will be using during the year, or I call up the class website/blog on a few of the computers. This gives the parents a few minutes to explore the classroom on their own.

Avoid conferences
Open House is intended to be a time for parents to get general information about their child's classes, however, some parents try and use it as a opportunity to sneak in a quick parent-teacher conference. This is an all around terrible idea, and should be avoided at all costs. If little Jimmy's mom starts discussing his poor test grades, two things will happen. You will be stuck talking with Jimmy's mom for far longer than you'd like, and you actually run the risk of possible legal trouble because it is unethical to be discussing one child when other parents are milling about within earshot. If a parent wants to talk specifics, encourage them to schedule a conference at a later time.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

10 New Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers

I spent today scouring Delicious and Twitter for new Web 2.0 tools that I can use this year in my classroom. Some of these services aren't new in the sense that they are recent startups, but they're new to me, so I don't consider the title of this post incorrect! I hope you find these useful!

This tool creates multi-scene, animated cartoons. This is probably the most difficult resource on this list to learn, but it also yields the most impressive results. The quality and style of the cartoons remind me of Family Guy (which is either a praise for GoAnimate, or a slam to Family Guy!).

Issuu isn’t a new tool, but it’s just so cool that I had to include it on the list. Issuu allows users to upload .doc and .pdf files and creates flashy online books. This service practically begs to be used to make end-of-the-year portfolios with students.

In addition to having the coolest name among the Web 2.0 tools on this list, Sqworl is a web application that creates one page to bookmark multiple URLs. Users of Opera or Google Chrome web browsers will notice that Sqworl pages look just like their home pages. It’s a great way to share multiple links with students – excellent for webquests, research, etc.

I wrote a post about this service last week. ZooBurst creates online, interactive 3-D pop-up books. It also takes advantage of computers equipped with webcams and allows the “book” to be viewed in augmented reality, which needless to say, is really, really cool.

NumberQuotes puts large numbers into perspective by comparing it to something more tangable. For example, the Antoine Dodson Internet meme has more than 25 million views. If each view were a penny, the pile of pennies would weigh as much as 9 African elephants. How did I know that? NumberQuotes told me.

Ahead is a tool similar to Prezi, but with a much tighter, spatially-friendly presentation. I’ve used Prezi in class before, and although it is a dynamic presentation tool, I’ve found that students have a difficult time following connections between each movement. If you’ve noticed this too, I would recommend giving Ahead a try!

Last year, I wrote about using the collaborative workspace called Etherpad with students. Since then, Google has acquired the service and released the source code to the world. TypeWith.Me is more-or-less Etherpad under a new moniker.

This online slideshow/photo sharing application is similar to Animoto, but with a few added features. PhotoPeach allows for text overlays, and viewers can even leave comments that will appear in the closing credits of the slideshow. In my opinion, Animoto doesn’t fit under the umbrella of Web 2.0 because it is a one way street. PhotoPeach, on the other hand, provides a way for the viewer to interact with the project rather than just be a static observer.

Pixton creates colorful and professional online comic strips. Users can choose from a library of clip art, or they can create their own. Pixton is free for personal use, and approximately a $1 per month per user for an education account.

ToonDoo is a sub-project of online office suite powerhouse, Zoho. ToonDoo’s about us page says it was designed as “a new way of expression for those who do not have the talent to draw,” and the result is a simple comic strip generator that relies primarily on simple cartoon-style clip art. It doesn’t look as fancy as Pixton, but it is far easier to use.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Story About My Dad

This is a story I've been wanting to share on here for some time now. It's about my dad.

My dad was a band director at a rural junior/senior high school located outside of Batavia, NY. Although the school was small and the pay was meager, he loved it. During the 26 years of his career, he had become part of the community. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. I remember watching him lead the marching band during the annual town Labor Day festival. He couldn't move three strides without someone emerging from the crowd to shake his hand and join him in the walk down the parade route. Simply put, he was completely invested in his school, his students, and his community.

In the summer of 2008, with just four years until retirement, my dad passed away from a sudden and completely unexpected heart attack. He was only 51 years old.

During calling hours, it became clear that our sudden loss had not only shocked our family but the families of all my Dad's students – both former and present. After the two days of calling hours our funeral director informed us that more than a thousand people had come to pay their respects. Many of those were teenagers.

To accommodate the large volume of people, my immediate family formed something of a receiving line near my dad so people could speak with us in some semblance of order. It was incredibly difficult to talk with his students, but it revealed a part of Dad's life that we never totally understood until that point. It seemed that each student had a story about a time when Dad had gone out of his way to do something for one of his students. These stories obviously meant a lot to these kids, but my dad never said a word about his good deeds at home. I think that just shows how genuine he was – he never looked for a pat on the back.

But this is the part of the story that I wish I could share with every teacher beginning a new school year...

As the line of mourners progressed, a young girl – no older than 15 – came up to shake my mom's hand. The girl had tears streaking her face, so in an attempt to comfort her my mom thanked her for coming and then asked her what instrument she played in my dad's orchestra. The girl just looked at my mom and said, “I was never in band, but your husband smiled and said hello to me every morning when I passed him in the hallway.”

As a teacher, I just hope I can make a difference in these kids' lives like Dad did.

I love you, Dad.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Using ZooBurst in the Classroom

It seems like at the start of each school year, there's one new web app that I cannot wait to try with my students. In past years it was Glogster, or Storybird. This year, it's ZooBurst.

ZooBurst creates interactive, 3D pop-up books. In addition to this, it can also be viewed in Augmented Reality mode with the help of a webcam. After printed a special paper from the ZooBurst site, the webcam captures you and "projects" your pop-up book onto the paper you are holding. While this technology is fledgling and not without its major flaws, it is still quite fun to play with, and really lends nicely to the concept of a 3D pop-up book.

Holding my "book" in Augmented Reality

Here is a ZooBurst I made for my team's webpage. I thought this was a much nicer way to provide contact information for parents. The book can be rotated and viewed from different angles by holding down the left mouse button. Clicking on the exclamation points displays the contact info.

I made a tutorial my students when it comes time for them to start their own ZooBursts. Feel free to download and use it in your own classroom!

ZooBurst Tutorial
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Friday, September 17, 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I remember a conversation I had with my wife two summers ago.

It was August, and tensions in the house were high. In general, we rarely fight, but that summer was a series of little spats between grouchy spouses. On this particular day, my wife turned to me and said “You’re ready to go back to school, and we’re ready too.” It was then that I figured out why the summer had been such a bust.

It was the first summer since I had been 13 that I did not have a summer job.

Because I didn’t have something to keep me busy, I was slowly driving myself crazy (and I was taking my family along for the ride). Being a firm believer in the old adage “If history is forgotten, it is doomed to repeat itself,” I made damn sure I had a summer job lined up for this year.

Since I was an early teen, I’ve done everything from food service, to daycare, and even a little clerical office work. This year, however, I wanted something different – something that would get me outside and be mindless enough that I could still enjoy my summer vacation when my shift was done. This is how I found myself mowing lawns part time at a private golf course.

A rainy morning mowing the 16th green.

My shift began each morning at 6am on weekdays and 5:30am on weekends so that we could be finished by the time the first retiree hit off the first tee. The work was tedious and physically demanding. My boss, although fair and consistent, was meticulous and acute to every blade of grass on his golf course. This meant that every mistake, no matter how trivial, was noted and immediately addressed. I never realized how much work went into daily maintenance of a country club. I also didn’t realize how much of a travesty it was if I raked the sand trap in the wrong direction, or if I mowed an 1/8 of an inch into the collar of a green.

I did realize one thing though – how completely meaningless this job actually was. Did any of the golfers actually notice any of this stuff? Probably not.

Having this summer job proved valuable in three ways.

First, it kept my ADHD in check enough to allow me and my family to enjoy the summer recess. I got up early, and returned home each day feeling like I had accomplished something, all before my little ones were done eating breakfast.

Second, it made me realize how much I love teaching, and how thankful I am that it is the career path I chose to take. Some of my coworkers at the golf course were career men – they had been working the course for years. It was a sobering thought that my “recreational” summer job was their bread and butter.

Third, the golf course reminded me just how important my job as a teacher is. If I really screwed up a line while mowing one of the greens, the worst that would happen is it may throw off someone’s putt. The grass would keep growing, and 24 hours later re-mowed the correct way. Unfortunately life isn’t as forgiving for a student whose education has been misled in one way or another.

This is my first post of the 2010-2011 school year. I welcome everyone back, and may your year be as successful and rewarding as I hope mine will be!

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Best Widget for your Blog

I frequently praise the benefits of keeping a blog – to students, teachers, even my wife. Their initial fear and skepticism is the same as my own when I first started blogging more than two years ago. Simply stated, no one wants to put time and energy into a blog that no one is going to read. I even lamented about this in my first blog’s profile:
“If no one else ever stumbles across the blog, at least I’ll have it to fall back on when I’m too senile to remember even my own name. So have a look around. I hope you find my blog as profitable as I do. And leave your mark – there’s nothing worse than a lonely post without comments!”
It’s easy to peer into the crowd at a conference presentation, and see how many people are listening. It’s not so easy to do so with a blog. This fact almost discouraged me from starting a blog, until, that is, I discovered an incredibly useful tracking widget, FEEDJIT.

Feedjit is a free widget that displays a live report of all traffic arriving or departing from a blog. It tells where the visitor is located, how long he/she has stayed on your blog, and how they got there in the first place. It even gives the search terms used in the event a person arrived using a Google search!

While knowing this information may seem a bit narcissistic at first, it’s actually very helpful. I am continually amazed by my world-wide visitors (admittedly some viewing from countries I have never even heard of!), and it has helped me learn to write from more of a global perspective – or at least with a global audience in mind. Also, it’s nice to know when one of my posts gets picked up by social bookmarking sites such as Delicious or Stumpleupon. Paying attention to what type of posts become popular has helped me refine my blog, and hopefully improve its quality.

When I first started writing, nearly all of my posts were reflective in nature. This style of writing is personally important, however, other than the initial influx of visitors after it is posted, few ever favorite or revisit that post again. When I began posting how-to and tutorial pieces, traffic increased dramatically. Knowing this, I now try to keep an even number of reflective versus informative posts so that both myself and my readers can receive maximum reward from my blog.

That being said, here is a quick how-to for setting up FEEDJIT on your own blog.

1. Go to the Join page on
2. Customize the color scheme and layout so the Feedjit widget will fit seamlessly with your blog.
3. Choose your blogging platform.
4. Log in to your blog.

In four easy steps, you can have up-to-second data about your blog!
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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Taking a Technology Approach to Vocabulary

Several years ago, I taught the historical fiction book My Brother Sam is Dead. I did the obligatory vocab chart, and while the kids did well with the quiz, it was clear that they would probably never use those words again once the quiz was passed forward. But after the bell, I watched one of my boys, in a middle school attempt at flirting, knock a book out of a girl’s hand. As he sped past me with his crush in hot pursuit, he called to her “Have clemency on me!”

That was one of our vocab words, and this boy had taken it out of class and inserted it into his vocabulary. Pedagogically, vocabulary should be looked at as a skill and not content.

I used this example from 2005 to illustrate vocabulary ownership simply because I can’t think of a more recent example of this actually happening. I don’t think I’m an incompetent teacher; it’s just that there is no magic bullet for teaching vocabulary.

I have never been satisfied with students looking up definitions for unit-specific vocab words and then spitting those definitions back at me on a quiz. I’ve tried visual vocab techniques, word walls, sentence writing, etc, but nothing ever seems to embed those words into the students’ lexicon. That’s what I want – ownership of those words.

Last Friday during a required planning day for my department, I came up with a quick-and-dirty project for my students. The state science assessment is just over the horizon, so to help my team, I decided to have them review science terms.

Each student was randomly given two vocab words. They had to define these and then provide one supplemental bit of information – either a sentence in context, an example, or a description. So far, this was a typical vocabulary assignment, but the real excitement came in the form of the assessment.

Rather than a quiz, students were allowed to choose a location somewhere on the school campus to film a visual dictionary entry using my Mino Flip video camera. These were then uploaded to our team website so students could use them for review.

The results were intriguing. It was the first time I have ever seen students take an interest in vocabulary. Even more so, students could easily recall definitions because they now had an experience to pair them with. My team’s dictionary has 183 definitions, and while I doubt every student’s working vocabulary is now 180+ words richer, this was undoubtedly a better approach to vocabulary than rote memorizing.

I think I may try this with vocabulary next year and keep a running dictionary with my students. I was rushed to get my students ready to record almost 200 video clips and in some videos it shows. In the future I would push the kids to memorize their “script” rather than rely on a note card. Regardless, a Video Dictionary has some serious potential.

If you’d like to take a peek at our Video Dictionary, click here.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How to Try Ubuntu Linux for Teachers

The conversation of open source software in education came up the other day while I was talking to our school tech integrator. Always happy to further the cause, I burned a copy of the most recent Ubuntu Linux release, and left it on his desk. I figured he would pop it in, see how incredible it is, and resolve to never boot up a Windows machine again. Instead, the next day when I asked him what he thought, he looked at me blankly and said that he didn’t even know what to do with the present I had left for him.

About a year ago, I wrote this post in the hopes of sharing my love of Linux operating systems with other teachers. Notice that exactly zero people commented? Me too.

Maybe I was being too assumptive about comfort level.

Let’s start over. Instead of agreeing to take the red pill and step out of the Windows Matrix forever, will you take a few minutes to just peek into what could be? This is absolutely hassle free – you lose nothing and make no changes to your computer. Here is how to get a glimpse into the world of Linux.

Part I – Download and prepare the operating system

Linux comes in a variety of flavors (just like there are different versions of Windows) with each having specific strengths, advantages, and features. Feel free to explore many of the popular distributions at, but for this tutorial we’ll be focusing on one of the most popular, Ubuntu.

1. Go to and download the most recent release, Ubuntu 10.04. This is a fairly large file so it may take a few minutes depending on your transfer speed.

2. In order for the computer to read this as an operating system and not just a folder containing a series of files, you will need to burn it onto a cd/dvd as an image. To do so, you will need a free program called InfraRecorder. Download this and install it.

3. Insert a blank cd/dvd into your burner and then run InfraRecorder. You will see a menu option that says “Write Image.” Click on this. If you are using a dvd, you can then click on the ok button to start burning. If you are using a cd, you will need to first click on the advanced tab at the top and select “allow overburning.”

4. When burning is complete you will have an entire operating system ready to use on a single disc! So far, so good!

Part II – Taking Ubuntu for a test drive

1. The beauty of Ubuntu is that you have the ability to boot and run the operating system from the cd. This means nothing will be saved, changed, or deleted from your computer. Testing out the operating system does nothing to your current computer configuration.

2. Restart your computer. You will need to tell the computer that you want to boot the contents of the cd rather than the operating system that is stored on the hard drive. To do so, you will have to access what is called the boot menu. When your computer first reboots, you probably see a splash screen that shows the brand of the computer (Dell, HP, ect). Somewhere on that screen there is a command that, when pressed, will let you change the boot options. It is usually either the Esc key or one of the function keys (I’m using a Dell right now, and the boot menu is accessed by pressing F12). Whatever key it may be on your computer, press it as soon as the computer restarts. If you see the Windows start up screen, you’re too late. Try it again.

3. Once in the boot menu, select the option the says CD-ROM. This will begin loading the contents of your freshly burned disc.

4. At this point your computer will start to flash commands that are reminiscent of The Matrix, however there is no need to be alarmed. Just sit tight and enjoy the show. When the start screen appears, choose Try Ubuntu 10.04 LTS. Do not choose the install option unless you want to permanently change the contents of your hard drive. Choosing the Try option will run Ubuntu off of the cd.

A Quick Note: You may notice that your computer may appear to be running slowly. This is not a fault of Ubuntu – in fact I actually find it to be as fast if not faster than Windows XP; however you need to keep in mind that you are demoing an operating system from a cd/dvd.

5. It’s time to explore! You will notice that the desktop is similar to that of a PC/Mac so it should be fairly intuitive to navigate. There are plenty of software packages that come pre-installed with Ubuntu – they are located in the Applications menu at the top right.

6. Ubuntu also has a handy feature called the Download Center. Rather than scouring the Internet for applications, the Download Center acts as a database for everything that will run hassle-free in this operating environment. Feel free to “install” anything you’d like. Again, because this is a demo, those applications will not be saved either to the cd or to your hard drive.


The whole purpose of this tutorial is to remove some of the intimidation and mystique behind Linux operating systems. Once the footwork is complete and you have a chance to explore Ubuntu as a user environment, hopefully you’ll realize that it’s not all that different from what you are currently using. Therein lays the advantage – why pay for Windows when you can have Linux for free?

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Monday, May 10, 2010

How to Make Stop Motion Movies in 4 Easy Steps

Despite stop motion video reaching its peak in the long-forgotten era of Gumby and Davey and Goliath, it is a film technique that is simple and powerful. It is very cheap to produce and requires creativity and problem solving skills – all excellent reasons to use it in class with students!

For my stop motion video, I used my Flip Mino, but really any camera capable of taking videos will do the trick. Here is how to make a stop motion video in four easy steps.

Step 1 – Set the “Stage”

Before filming, decide how the stage will appear. Choose props, characters, word bubbles (if needed), and background scenery for your movie. For my sample above, I used magnets on a dry erase board. I mounted my camera parallel to the board. The below example shows another possible method for setting the stage. I used a desktop microphone stand and a flex grip camera mount to position the Flip directly over the scene. Choose whichever method is going to make filming your scene easiest.

Step 2 – Record your Scene

Back in the early days of stop motion, every frame was photographed individually. This was laborious and often riddled with mistakes – the slightest bump of the camera would create a major discrepancy in the final movie. Today, thanks to digital video, there is an easier way. Instead of taking digital pictures frame by frame, simply press record on your video camera. Now move your characters every so slightly and then remove your hand from the shot. Wait a second and repeat. Pay attention to your shadow – you don’t want it inadvertently finding its way into your finished film!

Step 3 – Create Snapshots from the Raw Footage

Once you have inched your way through the scene, it’s time to create snapshots. This can be done with any video editor, but I found it especially easy using Windows Movie Maker. Simply import the video into the timeline and press play. Stop at any point where you want to create a snapshot, then choose “take picture from preview” from the tools menu. I saved my pictures in sequential order to make it easier to import later. The raw footage for my dinosaur sample was almost 8 minutes long, but after omitting shots I didn’t want I was able to condense it down into about 60 snapshots.

Step 4 – Import Snapshots

After you have your snapshots, you can delete the raw footage from the timeline. Before importing the snapshots, you will have to determine how long you wish each one to display for. Go to options in the tools menu and change the duration to .25 seconds (feel free to experiment with the length of time). Now you can select all of your snapshots and drag them into the Movie Maker project. If there are frames that you want displayed longer than others, you can manually change the length by clicking on the outer edge of the snapshot and dragging it to the desired length. When your stop motion video is complete, save as a movie just like you would any other Windows Movie Maker project!

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Skills or Content? Which is More Important?

New York State Exam Archive
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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

We Take Technology For Granted

For other typewriter-related posts, click here, or here, or here.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

All Typewriters are not Created Equal

Below is the 2nd of my series of posts exploring the use of old manual typewriters. Read the first post, here.

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