Monday, June 20, 2011

It Must Be Nice

Tonight after dinner, I sat on a lawn chair in the garage and watched the kids color the driveway with chalk. They were quite absorbed in the activity, so I decided to use the time to catch up on some work. Here's a quick summary:

First I emailed the school secretary regarding a lost textbook. I received a call earlier today from an embarrassed parent who had accidentally donated it to Goodwill.

I followed that up with a reply email to the parent. Since I had my contacts up, I emailed a few other parents to give a heads up on final averages and the upcoming report cards being mailed home.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am using Edmodo to facilitate online book clubs over the summer. I logged into my account, replied to a few kids' questions, then posted links to book excerpts courtesy of Google Books. I also did a few quick comparisons and posted links to sites where the books were most affordable should they wish to purchase a copy.

Next, I realized supply orders were due today. I headed over to, ordered pens, pencils, folders, and other supplies for my students, and sent out another email confirming the order.

I still had more to do - a parent letter to be sent home regarding Edmodo, final averages to be entered into the school data software and a mix cd I had promised to a student who had bonded with me through our shared interested in punk rock music - but at this point, our neighbor interrupted my progress. She called out a greeting from across the street and asked if I was done yet with school. I told her this was my last week but there was still a lot to do before wrapping up. She shouted back, "it must be nice only working nine months out of the year."

It would be nice. But don't ask me about it. I wouldn't know.
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Using Edmodo in the Classroom

This year my school decided to implement a summer reading program, and I think it’s a fantastic idea. I’d like to naively assume that all my students read on their own during the summer, but the annual September regression suggests otherwise. The summer reading program is simple – students read two books, one from a list of “required” readings and a second of their choosing. Then, they complete a brief assignment for each book as proof of reading. It’s not a punitive program, so I do think it actually encourages reading outside of school.

My only concern, however, is that once the students leave school for the last time before break, I will have no opportunity to engage them in conversation about what they are reading. So I had an idea.

Several years ago, I discovered the educational social networking site called Edmodo. It functioned similar to Facebook, but had a lot of education-specific features and teacher controls that made it an excellent tool for online discussion and facilitation. At the time, I had no use for it, and the biggest mistake with technology is to use it just for the sake of using it, so I quietly tucked the site into my mental suitcase. But I thought of Edmodo while mulling over ways to promote the new reading club. What if I set up groups for each required book and then used it to facilitate online discussion over the summer? It’s just crazy enough to work.

I’m sure I’ll be posting on this more throughout the summer. It could be a tremendous success or an abysmal failure (although my suspicion is that the project will land somewhere in between), but itll be an interesting experiment in the ways students learn online and how teachers can further extend the school day beyond the agrarian calendar.

Here is the quick how-to I used with my students to get them set up and logged in to Edmodo. Feel free to use it with your own classes.

Edmodo Tutorial
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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Playing the Game of School

This year, I had a group of 10 8th graders as part of a special team designed to help at-risk students before they move on to high school. When describing the goal of the program, perhaps my principal put it best – Our job was to get these kids to buy into school.

The year was not without its challenges, but I enjoyed it. At night while eating dinner with my family and sharing stories of our day, the group affectionately became known as “the bad kids” by my four-year-old daughter. And by the standards of school, that’s what they were. They were always in trouble. They swore. They fought. They were late to class (if they even bothered to come to school in the first place).

Last Tuesday, we loaded the group onto a school bus and headed to a nearby state park for a field trip. We spent the day geocaching, fishing (yes, we let the “bad kids” handle sharp hooks), and cooking hotdogs. And you know what? It was the best field trip I have ever been on. The kids were an absolute delight. They were patient while we bushwhacked our way through the woods in search of hidden caches. They were supportive of each other while fishing – taking turns with the poles and helping each other get their catches off the line. We even let one girl who aspires to attend culinary school someday man the grill and cook for us.

While playing Kanjam with the group, one of the kids joked that he never realized that his teachers were actually normal people who fish and play games, and eat hotdogs. I don’t think he realized how insightful the comment was. Because it wasn’t until that moment that I realized that this wasn’t a group of bad kids. It wasn’t a group of at-risk, attendance problems. It was just a group of kids.

So what if they aren’t good at school. That doesn’t mean they aren’t smart.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Apology Accepted

At the start of the year, there was an incident where one of my students threatened me with physical harm. Our school’s zero tolerance policy kicked in and the situation was presented at a superintendent’s hearing. I never had a problem with this particular boy previous to the incident and I truly believe his words were spoken out of adolescent frustration and impulse rather than intent to harm; nonetheless, my school decided that a more restrictive environment would be in the best interest of the student. The incident quietly resolved and the student was placed in an alternative education classroom at a school down the road.

I feel like this incident has hung over me all year. I never had a chance to speak with the boy and I wasn’t involved in any of the decisions that were made afterward. Granted, he had a long line of prior offenses and this incident was what finally tipped the scales, yet I still felt somewhat accountable.

I wondered all year how he was doing at his new school. For many students, the alternative school placement is often the first step to a life of consequences to poor decisions. How many don’t graduate? How many end up incarcerated? This kid is too smart and has too much potential for either of those things to happen to him. Everyone should be accountable for their own actions and he certainly said some things that he probably shouldn’t have, but what long term price will he now have to pay?

This morning I received a call from the front office. There was a student here to see me.

I walked into the office to find the boy who had, only a few months earlier threatened to kill me, standing awkwardly with a present in his hand. He had painstakingly carved a desk placard bearing my name. It must have taken him weeks to sculpt, sand, and paint.

We spoke only briefly. His demeanor had changed; he was quiet, respectful, almost reflective. He told me he was passing all of his classes and hadn’t had a behavioral incident in months. The alternative school was a good fit for him and he had requested to stay there for next year too.

He never apologized for what he said to me at the start of the year. But after I shook his hand and left with my gift, I knew exactly what that palcard really represented.

Apology accepted.

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Monday, June 6, 2011

10 More Free iPad2 Apps for Teachers

Last month I shared 10 free iPad2 Apps for Teachers and it has become one of the most frequented posts on my blog (Over 1,000 hits in the past month). Since then I have continued to practice tightwad downloading of apps and I’m now ready to share 10 more of these awesome and completely free tools for teachers.

This simple timer is extremely easy to use and looks great on the large iPad screen (despite the banner ad at the bottom). Some might say that a timer app is a waste of such a robust device, but it’s a lot quicker than digging through your desk drawer looking for the old egg timer.

QR Reader (Scan)
I mentioned in my last post all of the possibilities QR codes bring to the classroom, and this is just the app for that! It’s free and quickly scans and recognizes QR codes.

Popplet Lite
Popplet is an easy-to-use mind mapping tool similar to proprietary software like Inspiration/Kidspiration/etc. It integrates with the iPad’s dual cameras and photos app so images can be quickly added to the popplet diagram.

I admit that this app is in need of some updates, but it’s still worth the download. GridPaper recognizes complex math problems, exponents, and even multi-step equations (kind of). It’s like a more organic version of a graphing calculator. The app still struggles with some finger gestures, but I suspect this will be one to keep an eye on in the future.

Atoms HD Lite
This is an excellent review tool for chemistry students looking to practice labeling neutrons, electrons, and protons of an atom.

MindMash is similar to Popplet but it focuses more on functionality rather than aesthetic appearance. Users can combine text, writing, and images to create mind maps, brainstorm, or take notes.

Url shorteners like and tinyurl have become so popular that the shortened address is actually becoming quite long (at least by the 140 character Twitter standard). is not a pretty name, but it’s handy on the iPad and pumps out urls that are no more than 8 characters long!

ShowOfHands is a polling app. There are a continuous stream of general opinion questions and after voting, the app displays a ton of different percentages based on demographics (age, gender, and political party, etc.). It even shows poll winners by state. Aside from this app being strangely addictive, it could be used in a history/economics/political science class to get a snapshot of varying opinions across the country. Because of the math, this could also be used to generate some interesting data for percentage or graphing lessons.

The iPad is a natural fit when it comes to assistive technology. Take for example, the $190 alternative communication tool called Proloquo2Go. It essential takes the place of an augmentative speaking device that can cost into the thousands. Unfortunately, it's still $190 more than I'd like to spend for an app. Luckily, Verbally is there to fill the void.

Pocket Pond
Every teacher needs time for quiet reflection. Pocket Pond is surprisingly cathartic. Lazily drag your fingers across the screen and watch the water ripple and fish disperse. It’s like having a koi pond in your pocket (without the obvious problems that would ultimately arise with carrying fish in your pants).
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Thursday, June 2, 2011

10 Ways to Use QR Codes in the Classroom

QR codes are 2 dimensional computer-generated codes that can be scanned and read by mobile devices or webcams. The first time a colleague showed me QR codes, I was literally giddy with excitement. I immediately recognized the potential for QR codes in my classroom.

Creating the QR code is surprisingly easy. I use - simply type in the text or url of whatever content you want the code to direct toward, and you're good to go. It's literally that easy. From there, the QR code can be downloaded, added to worksheets, emailed, etc. It can even be scanned directly from an LCD projector or computer screen!

Here are my top ten ways to use QR codes in the classroom.

1. Add a QR code to school letterhead that points to the school website.

2. Use an interactive whiteboard to record notes/math equations/brainstorming/etc. Host the video online and add a QR code to a homework assignment so students can be retaught from home.

3. Hide the answers to a study guide behind a QR code. Copy the code onto the study guide so students can check their answers.

4. Have students write children's books and then record them reading their work. Upload the audio online and add a QR code linking to the audio for each page of the book to create an interactive reading experience.

5. For open house/parent night, have each teacher in the building create a brief video introducing him/herself. Upload the videos and create QR codes that they can hang on their doors. This way parents can take a self tour of the building and get a feel for the quality teachers working in the building.

6. Have students record book reviews and attach the QR code to the inside cover of the book.

7. Create a survey using Google Forms. Print multiple codes (one for each choice in the survey) and then use it to poll the class in anonymous surveys. You'll be able to see immediately how many times a particular code was scanned.

8. Print QR codes that point to your classroom homework/events calendar. Have students attach them to their agendas or daily planners .

9. Create QR codes that link to supplemental materials and add them to the teacher edition of textbooks. This way valuable resources don't get lost in endless network folders on a forgotten flash drive.

10. During a field trip, give students a handout with multiple QR codes that provide supplemental information coinciding with different locations on the trip. Students will have a guided tour even if they are not with the teacher.

Bonus - 11. QR codes are a great way to play pranks (see below, if you dare).

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Middle School Stinks

During a conversation last night with Shawn Kibel, a teacher at Honey Grove Independent School District in Honey Grove, Texas, I causually mentioned how hot my school was. I teach just outside Buffalo, NY, and we have been experiencing a string of humid days in the mid 80s. I found it humorous that the idea of a school without central air conditioning was mind boggling to Shawn, but since I live in an area where it would only really be needed during two schools month each year, it makes sense that no schools allow the expense.

Still, the conversation got me thinking about some of the pitfalls of teaching during the last quarter of the year as spring stumbles its way into summer.

The Heat
If it’s 80 degrees outside, I can guarantee that my classroom will be approximately 20 degrees hotter. I’m on the second floor of the building, and the mass of writhing student bodies doesn’t help much either. Sometimes it gets so hot the stairs actually get wet. I’d like to think the building is weeping for my discomfort, but it’s actually because the difference in temperature is so extreme between the two floors that condensation forms. On hot days, we basically have weather patterns in our halls.

The Stink
Middle school kids smell a little funky by definition. Either they haven’t discovered the plesantries of personal care products yet, or they swim in Axe body spray before coming to school. Either way, it gets kind of stinky. Warm weather only amplifies this.

The Fights
I was talking to a teacher this morning who shared a story with me about a family member who owns a house on the shores of Lake Chautauqua. Every year, her yard floods and she literally finds fish spawning on the front lawn. Spring is the time of year when mother nature reminds us all that the future of our species needs our help. In middle schoolers, this means lots of hand-holding in the halls, and plenty of fights. It’s hard enough keeping kids’ attention even without Wrestle Mania taking place between periods. But hey, at least they aren’t spawning on the front lawn.

The Exams
Two weekends ago, I participated in a 5K walk for Hospice. Immediately following, I returned home to throw a birthday party for my sister-in-law. After the guests had left, I pulled out the push mower and cut the grass. That day was a marathon, and it didn’t end with the Hospice Walk. That’s how my students are feeling right now. New York State has just concluded its long battery of state assessments, and we still have two weeks of classes before they can run free.

So I guess I can’t blame my students if their attention is less than perfect. They’re sweaty, stinky, distracted, and exhausted. They are ready for summer. And so am I.
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