Thursday, March 30, 2006

Big Changes-- Singapore Ahead!

I'll keep this brief, but I am excited to announce that next year I will again be in S.E. Asia. Kent and I have accepted jobs at Singapore American School. He will teach grade 4 and I will be the IT Coordinator for the intermediate school.

This is a bittersweet announcement. I have finally figured out how to do my job here in Minnesota. I work for a gifted administrator. I work with a talented and dedicated staff. I have greatly enjoyed teaching this bunch of students who have been so willing to try whatever new bit of technology I placed before them. My school district welcomed me back after my previous leave, and now I am looking to leave again. Most difficult of all is the thought of once again leaving behind family and friends.

On the flip side is this opportunity to work at such a well-regarded school in a part of the world we enjoy. I'll once again be able to focus on technology integration, working with both students and staff. (Sometimes I need to pinch myself to believe that someone is willing to pay me to do work I enjoy so much.) I'll be teaching in a place with a strong, well-supported IT infrastructure.

We'll be living in a country that the UN human development index lists as one of the top ten countries in the world based on income, life expectancy and education. It is a tiny country located on an island that is approximately 26 x 14 miles in size. It has high population density, but then half of the land is set aside for parks, so maybe that balances out the crowding. It has excellent mass transit. I could go on and on, but I won't.

I wonder how this new job will change this blog? On one hand, technology integration will be much easier to implement there, but with strong programs already in place, there may be less room for exploring such as I've done with the eMates and Blogmeister and Moodle this year. However, I'm not worried; this is a fabulous opportunity for us.

In the mean time, we need to finish up this school year, rent the house and pack out. Anyone out there have any words of advice for two Minnesotans moving to Singapore?

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Moodle/Blogging Connection

Our student blogging project has taken a serendipitous turn. Students were writing their first blog entries in Blogmeister and submitting them for my approval. I was writing them carefully thought out responses, and then the responses were disappearing. Not all of them, but most of them. Not just once, but twice. Each time it took me well over an hour to comment, and now those comments are gone. Not Good.

I contacted the ClassBlogmeister discussion group but no one was able to offer any suggestions. What to do? These were the first student blogs in the school, maybe in the district. Oversight was definitely called for, but how to proceed?

I figured our most likely solution would involve our Moodle. I decided to create a blog post forum. Students could post their draft to the forum and then not only I but the rest of the class could conference with them on the piece by leaving replies. In addition to helping the children learn to conference on their writing, this could be the tool I was searching for to move them away from the inane, "Look at me!" type of responses they were currently leaving, to more thoughtful, helpful responses.

When I introduced it to the class, I tried to help them see that this was not the place to actually respond to the writing-- we'd do that in the comments section of the blog when the piece was published. Here in the forum, we are to respond to the following questions.
  1. Does the lead grab your attention and make you want to read more?
  2. What other parts of the blog post really held your attention? Why?
  3. What questions do you have after reading their post? Ask questions that will help them improve the article.
  4. Help them edit the mechanics if you notice mistakes.
After a week, I'm pleased to say that this solution has been a success in a number of ways. Most of the children are leaving thoughtful, honest comments. Most of the comments are constructive and many are the ones I would have made to help the writers craft their articles. Many of the children are revising their writing based on the comments they received. Many of the children are reading the comments I left for other children and that has expanded the types of comments they are writing. Finally, the children are enjoying it, asking to go in and leave comments in their free time. They don't need to twist my arm on that one!

A new challenge with this solution is that the children are not able to revise their post in the forum. They could make the revisions in Appleworks and then add the revised piece to the forum as a new discussion item, but that separates the piece from the earlier comments. Another challenge is that it became difficult for me to track what I had read and what changes had been made by the writers. We needed to tweak this solution to solve these problems.

I have been playing around with wikis in another context so I decided to use the wiki module in Moodle. If the children created a new wiki page for each of their articles, the rest of the class could comment at the bottom of the page. The writer could continue to revise the article and the class could continue to comment until the piece was ready for publication. I thought tracking what needed to be read could be tricky, but this process would expose my students to a wiki, which is a goal I've had for a while.

Unfortunately, after I set up the wiki I realized that the Moodle wiki doesn't allow comments. I know that the Moodle folks are preparing to roll out a different wiki module. It was in beta testing the last time I checked.

Since the wiki wasn't solving our problem, I set up an assignment module. Now, students draft their blogs in Appleworks so that they can make use of the spell check. They post the drafts in the blog forum. They revise their drafts based on the feedback from peers and the submit the blog article in an assignment module.

Only the teacher and the writer can view the post in the assignment module, but the teacher can leave comments and the writer can make revisions right in the module. When the piece is ready for publication, they post it in Blogmeister and I publish it. It sounds ridiculously complex, but it has grown organically, so the children have been there each step of the way.

Most importantly, the children are writing and writing and writing. When they can't be in the computer lab, they are voluntarily using the eMates to draft their blogs. [They love to use the eMates.] Some children have written more in the past three weeks than they wrote for me all last term! And this doesn't take into account all the writing they are doing when they leave replies for other students. Along with this, our Moodle forum and assignment modules are allowing me to conference with each child, and for other voices to join in. It is creating a rich conversation. I'm eager to see where it goes.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Slacker's Reward

I've had a wonderfully productive weekend.

First off, I explored a visually appealing beta wiki platform called Wet Paint. Not realizing they were still in beta, I created my first real wiki right in the middle of their feedback site (oops.) Realizing my error, I cut and paste each page from Wet Paint into Wikispaces. I had poked around at Wikispaces, but not really dug in to create something. I am starting to find my way. Today I discovered that I need to use double brackets to insert html code into the wiki. That should make it easier for me to get the pictures where I want them and make other adjustments.

The wiki I created at Wikispaces, is designed to assist teachers who decide to teach overseas. From what I see, there are many resources to help teachers secure an overseas job. However, once you land the job and need to back up your old live and get settled in a new country, there are fewer resources online. My wiki is an attempt to document what needs to be done to make that move a successful one. If you have something to contribute on that topic, please help edit the wiki. In an attempt to thwart at least a few of the spambots, I've set it up so that you must be a member of Wikispaces to edit the wiki. However, membership is free, so I hope that won't deter you from taking part.

In the course of creating the wiki, I finally downloaded my first picture from the Creative Commons section of Flickr. Flickr is set up to upload photos into your blog, complete with correct attribution to the photographer. I first attempted to move it from the blog to the wiki, but that was a failure, so I downloaded the photo and uploaded it to the wiki. I didn't know how to tweak the html of a wiki page, so my first attempt is inelegant, but better than the page was without the photo.

This weekend I researched what I'd need to do to replace the fading batteries in the eMates. I was able to take part in a small way in the barn raising at the EdTechTalk Wiki. I finally caught up on the feeds in my NetNewsWire Lite. Sent overdue emails. Talked with friends overseas. Ran a bunch of errands and so on.

Unfortunately, little of what I did was what needed to be done for a successful school week. This morning I should have been facing the grim prospect of not being fully planned for the week. Instead, I awoke to the sound of ice hitting the windows and the telephone ringing to tell us it was a snow day!! Now the trees branches are outlined with seven inches of snow and I'm in my easy chair. Life is Good.

A Few Tools to Help You See Your Audience

I mentioned coComment! a few days ago. I've been playing with two other free blogging tools worth mentioning.

The first is Amazing Counters. The service has a wide variety of counters to choose from. Once you've installed the counter, the site gives you a variety site statistics, and allows you to monitor all hits or just unique hits. Another useful feature is being able to teach the counter to not count your own visits. On the down side, the counter comes with an advertisement link. Fortunately, you are able to make it very small (see the link at the very bottom of this blog).

The other tool is great fun. allows you to track visitors to your blog using a Google Map. To use it, register at the site and tell it your blog's URL. They give you a piece of javascript code to insert into the html code of your blog. For those of you using Blogger, this is easily accomplished even if you don't know anything about html. From your settings controls, click on the Template tab and paste the code into the page. It doesn't seem to matter where on the page it is, and it doesn't show on the blog.

After that, visit the link they gave you to view a world map showing the location of your visitors. You can also display the data on your blog. The free service allows you to track your 20 most recent visitors. If you donate any amount of money to them, they will expand your features, including allowing you to track the 100 most recent visitors.

After I set up a SuprGlu page to aggregate our student blogs, I'll add both a counter and a Google Map. As Mr. Kuropatwa says,
The real "blog juice" is the global audience. When kids finally realize that what they write is being read and talked about by people across the globe they are inspired to do better work; they want to make a good impression. ... This is the main reason all my class blogs have Visitor Maps. They were installed, but invisible, for the first two weeks of the semester. When the map links went live the students were able to "see" their audience immediately.
What an exciting time we are living in, when these powerful tools are free and easy to use.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Creating GIFT quizzes for Moodle

Moodle continues to be part of our classroom life.
One of the many ways we use it is for quizzes. The students tell me they prefer to take their quizzes and tests in Moodle because they get instant feedback. I prefer it because for low-level things like spelling tests, they take half the time and are scored correctly by someone besides me.

Actually, they have taken much longer, but the time has been coming out of my prep time instead of my class time. Creating the quizzes in Moodle is a fairly tedious process. It is easy and works well, but it is putzy.

I knew that the Moodle quiz module would import GIFT files, but I wasn't having much luck getting that to work. I incorrectly assumed that if I exported the files in GIFT format and opened them with TextEdit, then I could do a quick "Save As" command and voila! I'd have a template that I could quickly update and then upload each week.

It was a good idea, but it wasn't working. Actually, it worked once, but the next week the file wouldn't upload. And once a quiz has been taken by the students, I could no longer export the questions. In frustration, I've continued creating the quizzess in Moodle.

Today I finally took the time to play around with different options. Here's what I discovered.
  • Don't start with exported question. Open a new document in your text editor.
  • Make sure the text editor is set to use plain text, not any flavor of rich text.
  • Leave a blank line between each question, otherwise all the questions import as one big question.
  • Make sure the file has the suffix .txt
Following those guidelines, my short answer quizzess are importing cleanly and saving me time. What's frustrating now is that I waited so long to figure this out. Moodle has an excellent built-in help system and by following enough links within it, I found clear directions that got me started on the aforementioned discoveries. Nothing like reading the directions to get me on my way.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

eMates Save the Day!

Used by permission (Sonny Hung)
The more I play with them, the more impressed I am with the old eMates a colleague rescued for us. Their main application suite includes a word processor, a spreadsheet and a drawing program, all of which are intuitive and responsive. The eMates came loaded with an interactive tour and a training program to get you up to speed with the applications. Within 15 minutes my students were enthralled. Within 30 minutes, not only were they feeling comfortable with the machines, they were using them to write their next blog posts.

Their rugged clamshell design includes a sturdy handle so carrying them around the classroom was easy. The screens even have a backlight button which meant the pairs of students could lay on the ground under their desks-- for some reason this was a popular seating choice during this activity. I suspect it felt a bit like being in a cave or a tent with a flashlight on.

Despite charging, about half of the eMates needed to be plugged in to work. The others are still capable of retaining a battery charge. That amazes me. My classroom only has 3 outlets since 1.5 of the walls are movable. We have to charge the eMates in shifts. Fortunately, they have charging indicator lights on the top that change from orange to green when they are charged. That makes it easy for a child to monitor them and swap the plug to a different machine to get them all charged.

We tried out the eMates last fall and then haven't touched them again because of the fatal hinge problem that causes dried out old hinges to uncoil and poke through the thin cable the carries the video signal and the digitizing signals inside the computer. (The eMates have touch screens, hence the digitizing signal.) When we tested them last fall, only one showed signs of this type of damage, so I was hoping to hire my father to fix all the hinges. This is an involved process so it is slow going. I finally decided that we just needed to start using them. Our compromise is that now that we have opened them, we are not shutting them again. We figure if we don't move the hinge, no further damage will occur before we can get them fixed.

My jobs this weekend include...
  1. Buying strip outlets that accommodate the eMates' large power plugs-- a conventional 6 outlet strip can only accommodate two eMate plugs.
  2. Figuring out how to dock them with one of the Macs in my classroom.
  3. Finding a serial to USB cable that will allow us to print to the Epson printer that was donated to our class.
  4. Rewrite my lesson plans for the week to make use of these great machines.
The kindness of online techies continues to fill me with gratitude. A member of the local user group gave me the original eMate manual which is proving very useful. He is part of an amazingly supportive online community of Newton users who have been answering my newbie questions. There is an online Netwon archive and WikiWikiNet to keep me from bothering the listserv too often.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


One of my frustrations with blog comments is that when I leave them, I forget to go back and follow the conversation. That has made me hesitant to ask questions in the comments sections of blogs. Fortunately, that is all changing thanks to coComment!

Here's how it works...
  1. Go to their website.
  2. Set up a free account.
  3. Install their button on your favorites toolbar.
  4. Add your coComment feed to your RSS aggregator.
  5. Go leave comments in other people's blogs.
Now when I comment in people's blogs, I click the coComment button in my browser before I publish the comment and voilá! I can now easily track the comments to the blog posts to which I have commented.

I was so inspired by the potential of coComment that I did a bunch of blog commenting over the weekend, asking questions to my heart's content. It felt good to be conversing again.