Tech Salad

With Crunchy Bits and Bytes

Month: November 2010

It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask

The students in Mrs. Abbott’s class (blog) are working on creating posters to encourage students to behave fairly and respectfully. The inspiration for their posters is Atticus Finch, the fair-minded lawyer from the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. To tie all the posters together, the students wanted to create a tag line to add at the bottom of each poster, accompanied by a picture of Atticus Finch. The problem was, all the recognizable pictures of Gregory Peck dressed as Atticus Finch are owned by the movie studios and other companies. None are free to be used by students.

I asked one of these companies, MPTV Images, for permission to use one of them. They declined stating they would not waive the fee for usage, even for educational purposes.

I did some Googling and found an illustration created by  Adran Owen displayed on his website. Mr. Owen is an illustrator who lives and works in South Africa. I found his email on the website, and asked for permission to use the image. He was very generous and gracious in his reply, and the students now have what they need.

It took no more than ten minutes of my time to give this group of students a good example of digital citizenship. I could have grabbed a screen shot and left it at that, claiming “fair use” like so many educators do.  However, that is not what Atticus Finch would do.

The Wikipedia Launching Pad


There are teachers out there who hate Wikipedia. They say Wikipedia is full of lies and cannot be a reliable source

for anything. I say it is an invaluable tool in the early stages of research at any level.

Search for almost anything on Wikipedia, and you get an article that gives you a nice overview of the topic. Usually, articles are divided into sections that could help your students plan out a research paper or narrow the focus of their research. Reading the Wikipedia article also gives students the accurate terminology they need to use in their online searches to find the most accurate results. Most importantly, there are links to outside sources at the bottom of each article.

I agree, we cannot let our students use Wikipedia as the sole source of their research, but it is a great place to start. Don’t fear Wikipedia; learn how to use it, and teach your students, too.

Geographic Goochland

This morning I spoke to Mrs. Berry and found out that, over the weekend, several of her students’ projects were added tot he 3D layer of Google Earth. Bit by bit, each year, Mrs. Berry and her students are populating the entire county with 3D structures for the entire world to enjoy. (click to download ShoppingInGoochland.kmz to view these and other 3D buildings in Goochland)

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But, Mrs. Berry is not the only teacher making good use of Google Earth. Ms. Curfman’s students will be creating a KMZ file with information about the landmarks visited during a field trip. In preparation, Ms. Curfman has taken the HTML guide provided by Google and simplified it a bit for her students to use. She is making this file available to all students on her blog.

Check back in a couple of weeks, and you too will be able to tour DC landmarks.

SketchUp Experiences

Last week I was at Peak Experiences in Midlothian, dropping my daughter off at a birthday party. On my way out, I walked past a small office and noticed the man at the desk was working on a very complex SketchUp file. I stood and watched for a while, and finally knocked on the window and asked to come inside.

Brent Quesenbery is the facilities manager at Peak Experiences. He uses SketchUp to design climbing walls for the Midlothian facility. He also designs collapsible climbing walls used for competitions. It was one of these designs that he had up on the screen. The design includes a trailer. All the components fit into the trailer, and when deployed, the trailer itself is part of the support structure. The design in progress was in the early stages, but Mr. Quesenbery showed me similar designs already in use around the country. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the capabilities of SketchUp, which is available for free, to the capabilities of other, very expensive alternatives. His conclusion is that SketchUp is a great alternative that gets the job done.

Since we use SketchUp in Mrs. Berry’s classes (blog) here at GHS, I invited Mr. Quesenbery to come speak to our students and share his ideas and SketchUp expertise. I hope Mr. Quesenbery and Mrs. Berry can work something out soon.

When Computers Become Worksheets

My primary duty at GCPS is to help teachers use technology in meaningful ways that enhance and transform instruction. Any time I meet with a teacher, my two most important questions are, “What are the learning objectives?” and “What will the students produce?”

I can answer a bunch of questions anywhere, anytime, with or without a computer. I can work a math problem on paper, even if it includes some nice color pictures and a video. The same information in the video and the pictures can be printed in a textbook. Once the novelty of the video wears off, which is pretty quickly, the issue remains: what is the advantage of using technology?

The challenge is getting students to create. Show a single example, then students can formulate their own math problems and film the video that presents all the necessary information. Students can test out their creation by exchanging videos with another group of students and working it out.

Of course, we can use technology to fit any learning objective. The challenge is taking full advantage of technology to engage kids, and I believe this is done by encouraging and allowing students to be producers, not just consumers of information. At that point where consumption and production converge, where students are active participants in the teaching and learning, aided by technology, that is where the famous 21st Century Skills happen.

Fan Fiction in the Classroom

Last August, while I was at the Scratch Conference at MIT, I got to hear Henry Jenkins (blog) discussing participatory culture as an integral aspect of what makes Scratch so great. He gave a brief history of fan fiction and its transition from “fanzines” to online publishing, and discussed several notable examples. While listening to all this, I realized that people who write fan fiction enjoy writing, and their writing is scaffolded by what is already there: the setting, the existing characters, the known events.

I realized fan fiction could be used in the classroom to help students practice their writing skills. Some people can pull a story from thin air easily. Others, like me, are intimidated by a blank page. Fan fiction fills up some of that page, but still allows writers to exercise the imagination and hone their skills.

To bring this idea to Goochland County, I held an after-school session for teachers yesterday afternoon. We got together and broke up into three teams. Each team wrote a new scene for the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs story, a non-existent scene portraying a dinner party. In less than an hour, each team had a hilarious, complicated story taking full advantage of the known characteristics and shared experiences of the dwarfs and Snow White.

After sharing our stories, we discussed the benefits of utilizing elements of fan fiction in the Language Arts classroom. We agreed that publishing student writing to give kids an authentic audience to critique their work raises the level of performance in the classroom. We also spent a lot of time looking at examples of fan fiction at various websites.

Of course, the issue of copyright versus fair use came up. I showed them where some authors like JK Rowling have expressed their delight that people care enough to write fan fiction. We read about LucasFilm, their tolerance of fan fiction, and their request that any Star Wars fan fiction be clean and family friendly. And, I showed them where some authors are appalled that readers appropriate what is not theirs and do everything in their power to stamp it out. In conclusion, when in doubt, ask before publishing online, but feel free to let students write for in-class enjoyment.

It was one of my most enjoyable after-school sessions so far this year. The teachers were engrossed in writing their shared Google Docs, wrote fantastic stories, and generated lots of very good ideas for using what they learned in their classrooms.

Grand Opening of the Eagle Café

The much-anticipated opening of the Eagle Café was a great success. Students in Ms. Edwards’s class (blog) staffed the in-school restaurant and served a scrumptious Mexican-themed lunch.

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Students took orders, prepared, and served all our food.

Students from Mrs. Barnes's Spanish class performed live.

Students from Mrs. Barnes’s class entertained diners with an original song and dance in Spanish, teaching us some new vocabulary.

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Mr. DeWeerd, Director of Secondary Education, stopped by to enjoy a quesadilla and visit with teachers and students.

This is the students’ project-based learning activity for the year. They have planned several menus to rotate during the year. Every week they will design and print their menu, take pre-orders online via Google Docs, prep, cook, wait tables, and serve lunches. The proceeds will cover all the restaurant’s expenses, and will also be used to make a donation to the Make-a-Wish foundation.

Make School a Game?

I just watched Tom Chatfield’s TED talk on how video games reward our brains, and how so much of the extensive research carried out by game developers can be applied to education. Mr. Chatfield has distilled seven elements of games that can be used in other contexts, especially education. The video is about 16 minutes long. Watch the video, or read my summarizing of his seven elements of gaming. Which could you apply to your classroom?

  1. Experience bars measuring progress: instead of giving bits of disconnected feedback here and there, give students a constant stream of feedback that shows their progress and evolution.

  2. Multiple long and short term goals: give students lots and lots of tasks, and everything counts. Get to class on time 10 times in a row. Bring all your supplies for a big project. Work well with others during a particular activity. The more achievable goals students have to work on in parallel, the more engaged and willing to achieve they are.

  3. Reward effort: Punishment for failure is the surest way to discourage effort.

  4. Rapid, frequent, clear feedback: Without feedback, we cannot link consequences to actions. Positive feedback immediately following successful action will encourage  more of the same.

  5. An element of uncertainty: It is great to get feedback, but every now and then, an unexpected bit of feedback does wonders for motivation.

  6. Windows of enhanced engagement: There is a connection between achievement, reward, and learning. Achievements and rewards make people confident and more likely to take risks and try harder tasks, which leads to more effort and more achievement.

  7. Other people: Our brains respond to collaborative work and feedback from peers. We are also wired to be more respectful of rules when they are enforced transparently and fairly by an entire community.

Fantasy SCOTUS

Last year I had loads of fun playing the “Do You Have a Right?” game from iCivics in Mrs. Yearout-Patton’s class (blog). It was a great way for the students, and for me, to apply knowledge of the Constitution and the amendments. This year we are adding a new game. The students will get a chance to be the 10th Supreme Court Justice in Fantasy SCOTUS. I hope they like it as much as I do.

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