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 Feedjit.com
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.


video


video
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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 distrowatch.com, but for this tutorial we’ll be focusing on one of the most popular, Ubuntu.

1. Go to http://www.ubuntu.com/getubuntu 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.


Conclusion


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.

video


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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Monday, May 3, 2010

Using Typewriters in the Classroom


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