Thursday, October 26, 2006

Thoughts on Student Web Pages

Our fourth and fifth graders create web sites using FrontPage. The focus of the page varies from class to class. Some teachers want the site to be an eportfolio. Some tie in with a science or social studies unit. Others are open to student choice.

I'm liking how enthusiastic students are about the project. They are busy creating backgrounds in Kidpix and creating logos at However, they are already comfortable using Microsoft Word and Powerpoint. They aren't learning much by creating web sites using FrontPage. It does the coding for them, so at the end of the unit, they really won't know much about creating a web page.

I've been toying with the idea of teaching them to write the pages from scratch. I see a number of benefits in this...
  • Being able to create something from nothing is empowering.
  • Coding web pages is more constructive, more generative than using a WYSIWYG editor.
  • Pages will only be as complex as students learn to make them-- this may motivate students to learn on their own, to learn by reading.
  • As motivated students learn new skills, they will become experts in the class and other students will come to them for assistance. Although it sounds like that could be destructive to a classroom community, I find it usually has the opposite effect.
  • Being able to read and write HTML source code is a transferable skill. Even though I use a tool as easy as Blogger for creating this blog, I still need to be able to read code to add items to the sidebar. Knowing basic HTML tags comes in handy when posting to bulletin boards and forums. It transfers to working with other Web 2.0 tools such as wikis and Moodle.
  • It is a programming language of sorts. Our elementary curriculum does not have any programming in it yet.
  • Microsoft Office 2007 will not use the proprietary formats we are used to such as .doc or .xls. The new Office applications will save as XML, a mark up language. It isn't the same as HTML, but from what I read about it, having experience coding HTML will make XML easier to understand. (Makes me think of the days when I used Word Perfect and would use the Reveal Codes command to troubleshoot when something wasn't working correctly.)
Of course, in this day and age, part of me says it's daft to code by hand. No one does it. It is too tedious, too easy to mistype something and then spend ages pouring through code to find the error. I'm also turning an easy to teach unit into something much more challenging to teach. I seem to do that often.

I did look at using a combination of blogs and wikis instead of creating web pages. However, that was presenting hurdles that I don't have time to resolve at the moment. For example, none of the school-friendly wiki platforms work well at my school due to how tightly the computers are locked down and because we only have Internet Explorer which often seems to play poorly with Web 2.0 apps. There are battles worth fighting in there, but I can't do it all right now.

So what do you think? Do the benefits outweigh the hassles? Is HTML a dying language or a valuable skill for the future? Is it age appropriate for 9- 11 year olds?

Free Weather Stickers For Your Site

Living in the tropics is a bit of a stretch for a Minnesotan like me. Minnesota still has many farms, and the weather in Minnesota can change drastically from day to day, even from morning to night. As a result, Minnesotans talk about the weather. Often.

When I moved to KL, I found that I didn't know how to start conversations because no one discussed the weather. No one discussed it because it was always pretty much the same.

Eventually I got over it, but now that I'm back in S.E. Asia, I found myself thinking about weather. To my delight, I discovered free weather stickers for your website from Wunderground. I've chosen a pretty basic one here with a white background so that it will be visible in my sidebar. However, they have all sorts of spiffy ones. Some are even interactive.

I'm thinking my students would really enjoy putting these on their web sites. Living overseas seems to make many children patriotic. They could put their hometown instead of Singapore.

To get your own banner ...
  1. Go to
  2. Enter your city (or country) in the search field at the top of the page.
  3. When it takes you to your place's weather page, scroll down to almost the bottom of the page to the link for Free Weather Stickers for your Homepage.
  4. Choose the style you would like.
  5. Copy the code that is generated into your blog or web site's template.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Google for Educators

I received an announcement today that Google has an outreach program for educators. To quote from their web site...
Google recognizes the central role that teachers play in breaking down the barriers between people and information, and we support educators who work each day to empower their students and expand the frontiers of human knowledge. This website is one of the ways we're working to bolster that support and explore how Google and educators can work together.
Read more about it here:

Sunday, October 08, 2006

WikiPlaces: the Essence of Your Favorite Places

Do any of your classes study a country or a city? Study your own community or neighborhood? Does your school have a photography class that needs a focus? If so, they may be interested in a free, online project titled WikiPlaces: The Essence of Your Favorite Places.

This project is open to all ages. Participants are asked to help us see the essence of a place by creating an alphabet book page for that place. For each letter, tell us a word and include a photo of that object. This may be a simple type of alphabet book with just the word and its image (e.g. M is for Mosque) or it may include information about the object (e.g. H is for Hornbill. Hornbills live in the tropical rain forests of S.E. Asia. They are important members of the rain forest ecosystem because of the role they play in seed dispersal.)

Participants are not required to address all 26 letters for their place. In fact, leaving some letters blank invites others to add to your pages. Pages are easily edited and revised.

The project is built on the WetPaint wiki platform. WetPaint was chosen because of its EasyEdit interface, its elegant page look, and its ease of working with images. No wiki programming is required. After clicking on a page's edit button, you are given a toolbar which allows you to add links, add video and images, and make formatting changes.

Registration at Wetpaint is required. Registration is free and does not lead to spam. Teachers may register a class as one user; multiple people may be logged in under the same username.

How to Take Part
(Note: If you are viewing this as plain text and cannot access the links in these directions, they are listed again at the end of the page.)
  1. Go to

  2. Explore the site, especially the home page, the Getting Started page and a page in progress, such as Egypt. If you are new to using a wiki, you may want to look at the Wetpaint help page.

  3. Choose a place. It could be a country, a region, a city, a neighborhood, a building or even a room.

  4. Brainstorm what features, elements, objects make that place unique -- or what makes it special to you.

  5. Gather images. You could take photos, use a drawing program to draw your own JPEG pictures, or find photos via Creative Commons in Flickr. Make certain your images are no larger than 400 x 500 pixels and that your file size is no larger than 500 K. If you are using someone else's images, make certain you have permission to do so. Make sure you have their URL so that you can link back to the original- that's showing good net manners.

  6. Go to and register. Registration is free and doesn't lead to spam. Teachers can create a class account-- multiple people can be logged in at one time on the same account. (Note: We are requiring registration to cut down on spam and malicious edits.)

  7. Login and start adding to WikiPlaces. If there is already a page in progress for your place, add to it. Don't worry that you are editing someone else's page. That's how wikis work. Or, if you'd rather, create another page for that place.

    If there isn't already a page, add one. You might want to copy and paste this template text onto your page to get your page going quickly.

  8. Celebrate by inviting friends and family to view and leave comments on the pages you created.

What You Need
  • digital images (from a digital camera, scanned, created in a drawing program, from an online site such as Flickr)
  • a way to reduce your images to no larger than 400 by 500 pixels. File size should be no larger than 500 k.
  • Internet access
  • a reasonably current web browser:
    • Firefox 1.0.7 and higher for PCs and Macs
    • Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 for the PC
    • Flock
    • Some functions of Wetpaint are supported on Safari, others are not.

A Word on Internet Safety

Taking part in this project should not compromise your students security in any way. Students do not sign their wiki entries. People who view the page history can see who has made edits to that page. However, they only see the user name. Since participants are not identified by name or by image, no special parental permission should be required for taking part in this project.

Please share this notice with colleagues.
WikiPlaces home page:
Getting Started page:
WikiPlaces Egypt page:
WikiPlaces template:
Wetpaint Help Page:

The Check-In Problem Solved

Bud Hunt hit it right on the head... there were ways to solve our check in problem using our existing systems. He suggested voice mail and a clipboard. That's pretty close to what we've put in place.

I brought my dilemma to our Friday IT Coordinators meeting. We bandied a few ideas back and forth until Judy said, "Just schedule it as a meeting in Outlook and invite the entire staff." Duh! I was making this more difficult than it needed to be because I had forgotten Outlook's meeting schedule feature. Most staff do not use the calendar section of Outlook, and most meetings are recurring so we don't receive invitations to them. However, that feature is built right in.

This is a brilliant solution for many reasons, including...
  • all our staff are familiar with our email system (possibly too familiar!)
  • staff can easily access their email account via our web page (so no new web address or logins to learn)
  • our staff email address book is very current; new staff members have an email address before I even know they have been hired
  • we can create mail rule filters so that all the responses sort into one folder, making them easy to tally
  • one person who is traveling with other school colleagues can inform us that all of them are safe: they do not all need to tie up Internet access contacting the school.
One weak point is that not all local staff has internet access at home. However, administration will tell all staff at our meetings this week that they need to check in if there is ever another disaster while we are on holiday. They may check in online via email or they may call the deputy principal. We all have his phone number and have been encouraged to take all the administration numbers when we travel.

Does your staff have a check in system in place? A phone tree may not work over the holidays when families are traveling.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Checking-In at Times of Danger

Yesterday, my administrator charged me with having in place by Monday's staff meeting a very simple online system that we can use for staff to check-in if we should have another disaster such as the tsunami.

It doesn't work to just have staff tell us their travel plans ahead of time because the staff is too large and plans change too easily. We need a super simple, online way for staff to quickly and easily check-in to let us know they are safe, and maybe give contact information for where they are on their holiday.

As I try to get my brain around what this should look like, We've come up with the following criteria.
  • Should be linked to our school web site or have such an easy URL that staff will remember it.
  • Should allow one person to check-in everyone they are traveling with. (Yes, this can lead to problems--everything related to user-entered data has potential for problems. It is all a balancing game.)
  • Should have a comments field.
  • Should have a password, but it should be one we all know- fortunately we have one of those.
  • Should allow administrators to easily sort to determine who is not yet checked in.
  • The basic login should take them to a form that helps them search for their record. However, users should be able to browse through the database in list view so that they can see that colleagues are safe.
I won't allow users to delete records, but I may need to allow them to add a new user since our school is large and I am not automatically notified when someone new is added to our division. However, that almost guarantees that users already in the database will re-enter themselves. Maybe users should have to option to search by name or by their school email address. Hopefully we won't have both their name and their email address incorrectly entered into the database.

I've checked out a number of applications. I first thought to use Google's spreadsheet tool, since Google's servers are so stable. However, it leaves the data too vulnerable. It's too easy for users to accidentally delete data.

Next I looked at ZohoCreator. I love the idea of that tool, but I find it terribly confusing. Every time I try to use it I watch the demo videos, and I still find myself endlessly generating views and forms and never quite getting what I expect. Despite my struggles with it, this tool could work. It allows me to create a private database and then add users to it. I can group the users and give different groups different privileges, so that staff could enter data, and administration could do more with it. ZohoCreator has the added benefit that I can embed the form on a web page or blog and still have the data stored at Zoho. We could add a page to our website and embed the form on it, making it easy for staff to use.

Then I realized that we are able to access our FileMaker server via our web site. The down side is that it is not pretty; the user is given a rather cryptic list of databases from which to choose. Another challenge is that the passwords for accessing that are already set and not as easily remembered as I want. However, I may be able to change that.

Filemaker is an appealing tool because we already have it and I've been trying to increase my abilities to create databases using it. It is powerful enough to allow us different access for different users. I can make the pages visually easy to use. I think it is the tool for the job. I can easily set up something basic, and as I have time, I can improve upon it. Wish me luck.

I welcome words of wisdom regarding the project in general or Filemaker in particular. I've taken good Filemaker courses, but I have very little experience actually creating databases.