Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Bit of Toast for My Substitute Teacher

One of the challenges of being a technology integrationalist is leaving realistic lesson plans for a substitute. Many of the subs do not feel confident enough in their tech skills to accept a sub job in a tech class. This is true even at the elementary level where I teach.

I want both the students and substitute to have a productive, enjoyable day when I am absent from school. I want the students to continue with our planned lessons whether or not I am there to teach them. I have finally found a way to do that.

The idea grew out of a past ISTE article that detailed how a team of high school teachers had turned their classroom upside using podcasts. They began to podcast their lectures in advance of the lesson being taught. Students viewed the podcast as homework and then came into class ready to discuss the lecture/demonstration and to complete the lab work. It gave them more 1:1 time with individual students, and student achievement was growing significantly.

That project is beyond the scope of what I am able to do in my classroom at this time, but the idea of podcasting my lessons in advanced seemed like the answer to the lesson plans for substitutes problems.

Most of the time, I need a way for the substitute to show the students how to do something on their computer. This lends itself nicely to using one of the online screen recording programs that are available online.

Chris Betcher makes many instructional screencast tutorials so at his recommendation I decided to try ScreenToaster.

Setting up a ScreenToaster account was quick, free and easy. After a few rehearsals, I was ready to click the big record button and create my screencast. My first attempt was done on my Lenovo X200 tablet and it was not able to render the video and the audio fast enough, so the audio lagged behind.

For my next attempt, I created a tutorial for my staff. I opted to create the screen recording without audio, and to then go back and record the audio as the recording plays back. ScreenToaster makes it very easy to do this. This method worked better. It kept the audio synced with the video.
When the video is finished, you have the choice to download the video or to upload it to various places. I choose to upload it to ScreenToaster's own site. This free option allowed me to save the video in a higher quality format that if I were putting it into You Tube. I felt that was important since a tutorial isn't much use if the screen recording is too blurry or pixelated to read.

When the videos is published, it can be viewed on the ScreenToaster website. You are also provided with an embed code so you could embed the video into a blog or other online tool. I run the video's URL through a URL shortening site such as TinyURL so that I have an easy URL to add to my lesson plans.

So far, both uses of ScreenToaster seem successful. Today will be a big test as my substitute will be using it two different screencasts with three different classes. I am eager to read her notes and to see the progress the students made.

I haven't used any other screen recording applications lately so I cannot say how ScreenToaster compares to the other options available. I do wish ScreenToaster gave an option to do some editing of the video before you post it, even to clip the ragged ends of the video but I have not found any editing tools in ScreenToaster. You can strip out the audio and try again if you don't like how it sounds.

Are you using screencasts in your school or classroom? What screen recording software have you tried? Which would you recommend? I'd appreciate hearing of your experiences and recommendations.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Better Model for Tech Professional Development

Last year my principal recognized that our schedule lacked time for tech professional development. There were few built in times, and teachers have so many commitments that they rarely can attend offerings after school.

We had just moved to a new professional development model that required staff to be in some sort of training every Monday after school. Each month those Mondays were devoted to staff meetings, collaborative project meetings, or departmental meetings. This year, she took one of those monthly meetings and devoted it to optional technology workshops and asked me to develop the model.

Right from the start, she and I knew that a one-size-fits-all model didn't work because our staff's skills varied so from one person to the next. We also knew from reading research and from experience, that one-shot workshops tend to lack impact.

To provide differentiation and avoid the one-shot problem, we created a number of three-part series workshops. Each series had an introductory workshop labelled 101, a developing-level workshop labelled 201, and more advanced workshop labelled 301.

For the most part, 101 workshops gave an introduction to the topic and suggested ways it could be used. 201 workshops were more hands on. 301 workshops were largely work times where the participants could create their own resources or projects with someone their to offer assistance as needed.

For the first term of workshops, we wanted to focus more on teacher proficiencies than on technology integration. Thanks to a number of talented teachers stepping up to teach their colleagues we offered the following workshops this semester.

  • AV - using our Vado cameras and our digital voice recorders, using that media in projects
  • Interactive Whiteboard - helping teachers create start using the new ActivInspire software to create their own IWB resources
  • OneNote - using Microsoft Office OneNote 2007, a program that is used extensively by our admin team
  • Web Presence - helping teachers create an easy to manage web presence to use with their class (e.g. a blog, a wiki)
  • Wikis - what they are, how to use them with your students, how to start one
All of the workshops were optional UNLESS someone lacked a skill they needed to do their job. Teachers were free to to attend any workshop as long as they had the pre-requisite skills. If a teacher already had basic skills, they could skip the 101 level and join for the 201 level. Likewise, if a teacher took the 101 level workshop, they were not required to take the 201 and 301 levels.

Although the workshops were optional, 31 (out of 55 possible) faculty members attended workshops on the first Monday. By our second Monday, we had people from central administration also attending the workshops. We will hold the third session next Monday.

Not all workshops were equally popular. Some had a strong showing for the 101 level but then had fewer people at the 201 level. Ideally we would have pre-surveyed staff to gauge interest, but the start of the year was so busy we didn't want to ask them to do one more thing at that time.

On post-workshop surveys staff consistently stated that the workshops were just right in terms of level of difficulty, amount of information and usefulness. A number of teachers indicated that wished they could clone themselves so that they could attend more than one at a time.

Equally importantly, many teachers went back to their rooms and put the knowledge to use. We could tell this was happening because they would ask for support during the month, or they arrived at the 201 workshop full of questions that arose from their classroom experiences during the month.

In preparation for semester two, we sent out an optional planning survey asking which (if any) of this term's workshops they would take if it were offered again, and which of the possible new workshops they would be interested in attending. It also asked if they had other topics they would like to see offered. Based on that survey, we will repeat a few workshops on one of our late start in-service days during semester two.

Equally informative to me was that fact that on the first day the survey was open, 31 staff members completed it. That tells me that despite being very busy people, our staff continue to value these workshops and want a voice in the topics offered.

Have you found a technology professional development model that works for your staff?

Looking for Blogs Written by Grade 5 or 6 Students

One of my fifth grade classes will start blogging soon. As they learn about blogging, I want them to visit well-written student blogs so they can learn what a blog is and how to comment appropriately.

If you know of student blogs that would meet these requirements, I would appreciate you leaving me their URLs in the comments.

Thank you.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

My Favorite iPhone Apps

At long last, 32 GB iPhone 3Gs are available in Singapore. I've had mine just shy of two weeks and am loving it. I received an iPod Touch last summer as part of a deal when I purchased a new Mac so I was already familiar with the operating system.

Here is a list of apps I am finding especially useful.

Todo. My previous post discussed how I was using this program in conjunction with the web-based Toodledo. Both are still working very well for me. I love having my task list always with me, and still being able to enter tasks via the keyboard when I am at a computer. Toodledoo is free. Todo is not free.

Instapaper - This program started as a web site with a browser plugin. The idea is that when you find something online that you want to read at a later time, you click the plugin button and the page is harvested and saved in your free Instapaper account. The premise is good, but I very rarely find myself online thinking, "Gee, what should I read now." Enter the iPhone app. You can sync the iphone app with your account on the website. That downloads the articles to your iphone for offline reading. I used this a bunch on my Touch since I'd often find myself in a place without wifi with a bit of time on my hands, such as in a taxi or eating lunch. However, I didn't maximize my use of this app until I found the next app...

Twittelator Pro - This is a robust Twitter client. For me, it's best feature is its integration with Instapaper. My PLN on Twitter is constantly posting links to great blog posts. In the past I ended up following the links and then bookmarking them with www.diigo.com but I rarely remembered to go back and read them. Now I find I prefer to access Twitter from my iphone. I am constantly sending Twitter links to Instapaper. I feel like I am finally back in touch. And with my Twitter PLN vetting the sites for me, it is all quality reading. This is a paid app.

Tweetie 2 - Although most iphone Twitter clients can check more than one account, I find it more convenient to keep my personal account in a different client than my tech account. Tweetie 2 is a quick app with a clean and clear interface. I like that DM discussions appear in an iChat-style of window. Tweetie is also a strong desktop client. It might be Mac only. The iphone app is a paid app.

Shopper - As you would guess, this is a program for storing shopping lists. I've made lists for different places such as the shops across the street, the nearby mall, downtown, etc. When I am at those locations, I check the list and often find items I had forgotten I needed. This app does much more than I need it to do, such as allowing you to share lists with others. It has worked well for me because it is quick to use and it is easy to add new items. This is a paid app.

1Password - I had this on my Mac and now I also have it on my iphone. The desktop program plugs into your browsers adding a button. When you visit a site that requires you to login, you can click the button and it will log you in. I also use it to store my passport details, my work permit, and other important numbers. The program can also be used to generate strong passwords.

The desktop and iphone versions can be synced across a wireless network. The iphone version doesn't plugin to Safari. Instead, you access sites using 1Password's own browser. It is handy so you don't have to try to type your logins on the iphone keyboard. Both are paid apps.

Evernote - For a while I kept a Zoho wiki as a catch all for information I needed to access at home and away. However, adding information to it was a bit tedious since I need to login, make a new page, etc. Evernote is a web based notebook for storing any and everything. You can use it at the web site. You can also download the desktop client (Mac, Windows, Linux and probably others) and access your notes from there. I have it on my Mac at home, my Windows XP machine at work, and on my phone. It syncs my notes across all my computers and with the website. Given time, the program even reads your images and can search text in them. The iphone app gives you another way to access your information. Unfortunately, you need to get online for it to do so which meant that on my Touch I often couldn't access my notes when I needed them. Now with an iPhone that is a non-issue. The app, like the website, is free for basic use.

Gym Buddy - This app stores my workouts. It has workouts and exercises already in it. It also allows you to add your own. That process is a bit tedious and has a few quirks, but the program has lots of really useful features such as workout timers, calendar and history. It is easy to edit the reps and the weights. I am finding it very useful.

When I switched from my Touch I was dreading having to enter my own exercises again. Then I poked around the app and found it could backup to your computer using SyncDocs, an Open Source project from SourceForge that lets you sync without any configuring. It was incredibly simple to use and all my exercises, workouts and logs transfered cleanly. This is a paid app.

Of course I am using Fring and Skype. A friend told me he purchased a Skype In account with a number in his home area code. Friends and family back home can dial a local number and reach him. As a result, they call more often. Since my friends and family very rarely call me, I'm thinking of giving it a try. Both Fring and Skype are free iphone apps, but a Skype In online number has a fee.

MPR Radio - I may live in Singapore, but I find I miss listening to the news back home as I get ready for work. Then we found this app which makes it easy to stream our local public radio station. Now if only there were a way to block out the pledge drives. Of course, now that I am listening again, I need to support the station financially. But after I do that, I can switch over to using the Public Radio app until the pledge drive is over. It doesn't really matter if "All Things Considered" is streaming from Minnesota, Boston or Chicago. Both apps are free.

Stanza - This ebook reader is well designed. I love that built into it is access to many free sources for ebooks. It seems each time the app updates there are more sources. It also links you to paid sources. In either case, the books download into the program. It is highly customizable in terms of font size and style. You can lock the screen so the orientation doesn't keep switching if you are leaning or laying down. It has a built in dictionary. You can add bookmarks. It remembers where you left off in each book you are reading. This app is well worth paying for. The only feature I see that it lacks is the ability to mark up the text. I don't need that since I use it for pleasure reading, but the more scholarly readers may need that.

TripIt - I've been using the free TripIt website for the past year. I love that the site can suck in my hotel reservations and airplane tickets, combining them into one neat itinerary. It will even print maps to help me find the hotel. I love being able to send my family a tidy itinerary with all my contact details for the entire trip. Now there is a free iphone app. It makes it easy for me to check my itinerary any time a question arises. On my Touch I needed to let it sync with the website when I had wifi available. After doing that the information was available offline.

Packing - To get ready for those trips, I now use Packing. As you would expect, the program helps you pack for your trip. There are numerous apps with similar features. I choose this one because it allows you to easily add your own items. I was amazed to realize that quite a few of the apps in this genre didn't allow that. I also like that it has the option to only view the items left to pack or the items already packed. It also lists handy tasks that need accomplishing that you might forget, such as storing valuables, shutting off appliances and other handy reminders. This is a paid app.

myBatteryLife - is a paid utility. It tells me the % of battery left and then goes one step further. It lists how that % translates into talk time, internet on 3G, internet on Wi-Fi, video playback, and audio playback. Rechargeable batteries are usually good for X number of recharges before their ability to hold a charge decreases too much. Ideally, you should run your batteries down rather than keeping them always topped up. That keeps the batteries in good shape. I am finding that based on the phone's own icon, I would think I should charge it, but then myBatteryLife shows me that it is really still at 60%.

Mental Case - As a specialist teacher, I work with around 340 students. Unfortunately, I am not especially good at remembering names. Last year I started using Flashcard Exchange and it helped but creating the cards was tedious. This year, I purchased Mental Case for my Mac and for my Touch. Mental Case makes it really easy to create different types of flash cards. I loved that using Mental Case I could screen capture the students' photos out of Powerschool. I made flash cards for an entire grade level in an hour. Then I used Wi-Fi to sync the stack onto my iPhone. Now I can practice when I am in taxis or waiting for a meeting to start. The desktop version can import from the Flashcard Exchange website in csv format, meaning text will transfer but images will not. Mental Case is a paid app on the iphone.

Maps -
is a built-in app but I find it so useful that I wanted to mention it here. Last summer I used it often on my Touch. When I had Wi-Fi it could figure out where I was, and then route me to where I wanted to go. If I had to go somewhere new, I would do the searching when I was home and then the directions were saved on my Touch. Once when I was out, I was able to sip from an unsecured network to grab directions. When we were driving from Chicago down to Bloomington (and back) it gave better directions than the GPS we were using. It directed us right into the driveway of the rental car station. I have only used the driving directions but it also gives walking and bus directions. Now that I have an iphone, it can save the day even when we don't have Wi-Fi available.

I have many other apps on my iphone, but these are some of the ones I use most often, or that I thought might be of use to educators. I'd appreciate hearing about the apps you are finding most useful on your Touch or iPhone.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Managing My Tasks

For years, I've used Life Balance to manage my tasks at home and at work. It is made by Llamagraphics, a company with a good philosophy towards life and work. I started using it back in the mid-1990s when I bought my first PDA, a Palm Pilot.

It has served me well so as I transitioned from my aging Palm Zire 31 to the ipod Touch, I purchased the iphone version of the program. It syncs beautifully with my MacBook Pro via wifi and has many other features I like. However, I couldn't get it syncing with my Windows XP computer at work. Further investigation reveals that the problem lies in a blocked port.

I could throw myself on the mercy of my tech director and beg to have that port opened for me, but since I am a tech coordinator, I know that is not a great solution. In a school our size, that model is not compatible with a stable and secure network. Therefore, despite my investment in money and time, I began looking for another solution.

A good starting place was this article at Lifehacker. It showed me a few of the available options and brought to my attention a syncing solution - find an iphone app that syncs via the web with an online app. That would get me around my port problem. It would also allow me to enter new tasks from the Touch or from a computer whether I was at home or at work.

Two features I really liked in LifeBalance were the subtasks and the places. Subtasking made it easy to plan and track a project. Places helped me work smarter by reminding me to pick up the dry cleaning when I was at the grocery store next door.

Applying this filter to my search, only a few programs had subtasks, places and a web app. I settled on Todo by Appigo. It is powerful and customizable. It uses color and icons well to convey a great deal of info without cluttering the screen. It allows subtasks in the form of projects. It also allows checklists so you can whip out a shopping list without having "bananas' end up on your list at the same level as "file taxes."

Todo has a number of sync options. In addition to syncing via iCal (and Outlook with a third party add-on) it syncs with Remember the Milk and Toodledo. Both are web-based task management applications.

I chose Toodledo because I liked the interface better and it is highly customizable. It also allowed me to sync with their free account. However with Toodledo, I can only sync subtasks if I have their $14.95 per year pro account. Fortunately, they let you try the pro account for free for a week to see if it works for you. (Remember the Milk requires a paid pro account to do any syncing at all.)

So far it is working well. Despite my best attempts to trip it up, it is syncing cleanly. I did find I had to switch views in Toodledo to see the subtasks in the way I was expecting. Fortunately that was easily done.

Already I am appreciating being able to use the web app at home and at school. When I am out running errands at work, it is great to have my list with me and to be able to add items on the fly as people grab me in the halls with a request.

Do you use technology to tame your to-do list? What technology do you use? How is it working for you?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Can This iPod Mini Be Saved? Yes!

I'm having a happy moment - I just replaced the battery in my ipod mini.

This is the ipod that I swim with, but one day this spring, I neglected to close the waterproof case before entering the pool. Took me half a length to figure out what was wrong. By then, the ipod had drowned. At first the display would show but the click wheel didn't work so it wouldn't play. It wasn't very interested in charging, either. Eventually the display disappeared as well, but I was hoping that was due to dead battery, not forever dead ipod.

Kent went right to the internet to research what to do. I also sent out a few tweets requesting advice. Based on what we read, I put it directly beneath the air conditioner so the condenser do its thing. We also gently blow dried it, but it didn't look good. However, people online said to give it lots of time.

I don't remember how long we waited, but I think it was after a few weeks that the ipod showed signs of convalescing. One of our attempts to charge it made the Apple logo appear on the screen. However, both the charger and the ipod became hot which I figured was a Bad Thing. We let it rest some more.

A week or two later, Kent was able to plug it into a computer and add music it it. However, the click wheel didn't spin so you could only play what it wanted to play and you couldn't adjust the volume.

At long last, (I think it was approximately two months after the accident) the click wheel began working again. The battery also quit heating up. However, the battery life was very short. Kent did some research and found that replacement batteries were easy to come by, so I brought the ipod back to the US with me when I made my summer visit.

I've been home in the USA for two and a half weeks. I listen to the mini on my Logitech speakers and in my car using the FM digital transmitter I've had for years. Both devices charge it while I listen to it. I can also use it for approximately 30 minutes on its own before the battery is completely dead and the ipod loses its memory. The ipod had made such an amazing recovery that I decided it was worth investing in a new battery.

I did some research online. Originally I was going to get a more powerful battery that would last longer. However, those are thicker than the old battery and a few people wrote that cracked the display or crushed the circuitry when they reassembled the ipod.

Based on that information, I opted for a replacement battery the same size as the original. After reading more reviews, I went with the Sonnet Technologies' Battery for iPod. I ordered it from Amazon.com for around $21.00. It came with a Phillips screw driver, a flat head screw driver and a prying tool. Reviewers had warned that the prying tool wasn't up to the task of getting the end cap off, but since Kent had already opened the ipod numerous times, that part of the process wasn't so hard.

Although the battery came with an instructional CD-ROM, reviewers hadn't found it terribly helpful, stating that better were to be found on You Tube. I Googled "How to replace an ipod mini battery" and found a great tutorial in the Modmyi.com forums that was created by ifixipodsfast.com. It was clear, showed each step, and was full of helpful tips.

After watching it through, I grabbed my ipod and watched again, stopping the video as needed. I didn't notice the time when I started, but I suspect it took only ten or fifteen minutes from start to finish. It was a great feeling when I turned it on and the Apple logo appeared on the screen. It is charging right now. I hope this gives me more time with this trusty device.

So, despite my lack of experience doing this sort of thing, I recommend it to anyone with an aging ipod mini. Of course, you do this replacement at your own risk. I hope it goes as well for you. Let me know how it goes.

Photo by Jason Prini.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Good Bye Web Pages, Hello Web 2.0!

I've been caught in the typical blogger's irony; we only have time to write when there is nothing to say. That clearly has NOT been the case for the past few months. My superintendent called for an IT Summit so we spent two very educational days looking at all things tech in our school. My students are at their capable, end-of-year best as they work on final projects. My teachers have outdone themselves with great tech integration, and we are looking at a new, and hopefully more effective professional development model for next year.

However, I'm not going to write about any of those topics. Instead, I want to look at our move away from mandatory teacher websites.

Currently, in the primary and intermediate schools, teachers were required to have a web page. In years gone by, this took a ridiculous amount of their time considering its minimal impact on student learning. A few teachers really excelled and it because a hub for the classroom. For most, it was a true burden; something that weighed them down.

A few year ago, the tech coordinator worked with the web manager to create a basic template. Other than needing the class photo inserted, everything that was required was on that page. Teachers never needed to touch it unless they had a desire to do so.

At the same time, we switched from Microsoft FrontPage for hosting teacher web pages, to Contribute. A further change was using JAlbum to generate web photo galleries. Teachers drop a folder of photos into the correct place on the server and Voila! In an hour or two they appeared in the online photo galleries.

Teachers loved the ease of this and the size of our photo galleries soared. At first the quality level was low and the volume was high. That has evened out a bit with time. Now those photo galleries also host student-created movies and podcasts. It has worked well and the photo galleries receive far more visitors than the teacher web pages.

Now we are going to make the next step and do away with teacher web pages. Other than grandfathering in one teacher who has an extensive website tied closely to his curriculum, the rest of the teacher websites will go away at the end of this year. There will no longer be a requirement that teachers have any web presence besides their photo gallery.

For those teachers who do want more of a web presence, I will work with them to find a platform that best meets their needs. For some it will be a blog. One of our art teachers has already made that leap and is making good use of a Wordpress blog. For others it will be a wiki such as those being used so effectively down in our primary school. Still others may create a Ning. In any case, we are moving away from static web sites to more dynamic, interactive tools.

We will have one blog platform and one wiki platform that we support. Teachers are welcome to use any blogging or wiki platform, but we will only support those two to for practical reasons. In the primary they have gone with Wetpaint as their wiki platform. The COPA laws have not been a hindrance for them because students are either working as a whole group with the teacher on his/her account, or they are working at home with their parent using the parent's account.

For our division, the decision is trickier since our students are able to work autonomously and are more likely to edit maliciously. We would prefer to use Wetpaint since our staff is familiar with it from our conference sign up wiki. We also prefer its looks and its features. However, the inability to create accounts for students under 13 years of age is a big stumbling block. It may drive us to Wikispaces with their very student-friendly accounts and good customer service.

Wisely, my principal is not mandating that teachers have any web presence. Teachers are very busy and for some, none of those tools fit their teaching style and needs. I suspect others will end up using many different web tools with a blog for communication, a wiki for student projects, and other tools, such as Voicethreads pulled in where appropriate.

I'm excited to see these changes roll out. I hope teachers are relieved to be released from web sites. I think it will lead to more thoughtful and powerful uses of online platforms. These platforms invite student and parent participation. I'm glad to see us officially joining the Read-Write web.

Where is your school in this process? Have you chosen an outside host for blogs or wikis? Which did you choose? Why?

Monday, April 06, 2009

Conference Registration Made Easy Using a Wiki

Strengths and Goals Conferences
In the fall our classroom teachers have three-way conferences. They meet with each student and their parents to discuss the child's strengths and to set goals. On that same day, if parents or children wish, they may also schedule a conference with any of the specialist teachers (e.g. art, Chinese, computers, library, music, P.E.)

Sibling and some support student conference are pre-scheduled. After that point, most teachers assigned conference times to the rest of their families and sent home the letter informing families of their scheduled time.

The system worked reasonably for classroom teachers, but not as well for specialists since families contacted the classroom teacher, who then contacted the specialist, who then contacted the family. It often took many phone calls.

Enter the Wiki!
In an effort to improve that process, we decided to try using a wiki so that parents could schedule their own specialist conferences. We decided to use a private Wetpaint wiki. We choose Wetpaint because it isvisually attractive, easy to use, the table feature works well, and private wikis can be accessed with a generic password account. We did not register it as an education wiki so ours had ads along the side but they were no problem since this wiki was not being used by children.

When users visit the wiki, they are greeted with a login screen. A few key users, like myself and the principal had their own account for administering the wiki. Beyond that, I created a generic teacher account and a generic parent account. At first, the teacher account and the parent accounts had the same level of access, but we decided to raise the teacher's level so that they
could lock their page if needed.

The design of the wiki is simple. The front page contains basic directions and links to each teacher.

Clicking on the teacher's link takes you to their schedule. Clicking on the EasyEdit button allows them to add their name to a timeslot on the schedule. Clicking Save records their changes and returns them to the web page.

(Note: When I shrunk my browser window to fit more into this image, the table formatting on the schedule changed appearance.)

Originally, only the specialists were taking part, but as the process moved forward, 18 classroom teachers and a few of the support teachers decided to join the pilot.

Before the wiki was opened to parents, teachers entered the sibling conferences onto their schedule. Our school pre-schedules sibling conferences to ensure those families have back-to-back conferences for their children. Teachers also entered in the pre-scheduled support students conferences to ensure that the support teacher was able to take part. Support families were asked to NOT move their child's conference without contacting the classroom teacher to ensure that the support teacher would be able to attend.

For support teachers with pull-out classes, families were not able to sign up directly for the conference due to confidentiality issues. Instead, the schedules showed which slots were open and which were already reserved, making it easier for families to find a time that worked for them when they contacted the support teacher. One support teacher reported that this was the first time ever that he wasn't double-booked between his push-in and pull-out student conferences.

Concerns and Solutions
We had many concerns at the start of the pilot. The biggest was that allowing families to add their names to the schedule actually meant they could change ANYTHING on the page. The wiki did not allow us to someone lock parts of the page while leaving the other parts available for editing. Someone could intentionally or unintentionally delete large parts of the page. Since we were using generic logins for convenience sake, we would not even know who did it.

Wetpaint (like most wikis) has a robust history section. You can roll the page back to any previous revision. If someone messed up a page, we could roll back to a point where it still had most of its data. As a further safeguard, we asked the instructional assistants to print out their teachers' pages each day during the sign up period so we could refer to them if needed.

Another concern was simultaneous edits of the same page. Fortunately, our testing showed that if two people were editing the same page at the same time, when they tried to save, it warned them. It gave them the option to overwrite or cancel. We told them to cancel and try again. Even if they chose to overwrite,
Wetpaint seemed to be cancelling.

Still other concerns were that someone might accidentally delete
someone else's name, leaving that space erroneously open for a third person to sign into. Our directions at the top of the page told families what to do if they accidentally delete someone's name. It also let them know we were printing the schedule each day so we could check our records to see who had that slot previously. Fortunately, we only received one report that a name had been deleted, and further research showed that was erroneous; the parent had originally signed up on the wrong teacher's schedule.

A final concern was that some families would be intimidated by the technology. The letter that went home told families that they could still contact the teacher via email or phone, but warned that the slot they wanted may be gone by the time the teacher got to their message.

In the month before the wiki opened to parents, I held training session for the teachers and instructional assistants so they could learn how it all worked, and so that I could help them if they needed to change the schedule, since making changes to the table was the trickiest part of this entire process. I created a handout that they could take away with them. It was also stored in our tech help One Note so they could refer to that as needed.

Both trainings went quickly and well. Most participants were surprised at how easy it was to use.

  • January: Set up wiki. Many meeting with my principal to revise the design and the directions.
  • February: Train specialists and support teachers, train instructional assistants, solicit classroom teachers to pilot the process
  • Early March: Train the classroom teachers. Enter the pre-scheduled sibling and support conferences into the classroom schedules. Letter sent home to families. Open the wiki to families.
  • March 16 -17: Strength and Goals Conferences


We were surprised that the sign up process went so smoothly. We expected confusion, mistakes, and technical problems. Fortunately, we had almost none. One teacher reported that everything went so smoothly that she didn't need to make a single phone call to parents. The biggest problem was families with multiple children mixing up their own conference times, but that had nothing to do with the wiki (and probably everything to do with busy families.)

We are in the process of surveying participants. With most of the surveys in, the response from teachers, especially specialists was overwhelming supportive. Using the wiki made the schedule process easier and in some cases, much quicker. They reported that some families who knew each other, even arranged time swaps since they could "see" the entire schedule. Other teachers reported that during the sign up week, they could see some families changing their own time repeatedly as scheduling conflicts arose. The wiki was able to accommodate their needs.

Among the families, the response was also strongly positive. One parent asked, "You aren't going to take this away from us, are you? All teachers should have to use it! It was great!" Of the 10% who did not like it, most wrote a comment regarding that it worked well, but they aren't comfortable with technology.

All in all, using a wiki to schedule strengths and goals conferences was a success. We are discussing whether or not to require it next year. The primary school is not looking at using it because their teachers prefer being able to schedule the conferences without giving families a choice so that they can maximize their own effectiveness as teachers, scheduling the challenging conferences for when they can best direct them.

Are you using technology to allow families to schedule conference times? I'd like to hear about it.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Not Only is the Jury Still Out... Court Isn't Even in Session

This is my third year at my current school. I arrived when the IWBs did. That first year I found it difficult to lead the charge because I was trying to figure out a new school, a new country, and Windows after many blissful years in Mac Land.

I thought all would be different my second year because...
- I finally had a board of my own.
- I wasn't quite so new.
- I'd been doing my reading and gathering resources.

Well, it turned out, my lab was closed most of the year and the room I taught in could accommodate the IWB or the children, but not both. And while my reading was helpful, it only took me so far. Our wonderful trainer that we brought in, Jenny Black from Tanglin Trust School, could show me excellent examples of the boards being used for higher order thinking, but I was unable to transfer those examples to my tech class.

So now we are in year three. My admin is comfortable putting boards in the rooms of teachers who want them, and has been helping me find time in next year's calendar for more training. I have a few teachers doing great things with the board. It is integral to how they teach. They aren't using it as an expensive mouse. The kids are at the board doing work. The work is captured and saved to the CMS where they can refer to it as they work on their homework. Many other teachers are using flipcharts created by a teammate. It is better than not having the board, but it is not disruptive, not leading to the revolution.

Given this history, you can see why, when someone asked me recently to explain why IWBs are so essential, I was unable to do so. It is not that I'm convinced they aren't essential, it's that we are still mostly using them in old ways to do old things. We get glimmers of new ways, but just glimmers as we scurry here and there under a pile of worthwhile but large initiatives. We spend time feeling bad we haven't put more time into IWBs.

But of course, that is just more doing old things the old way. I suspect that as long as we look at the in-service model for transformation, we'll never get there. Too often, in-services are dead ends. We need instead to look more at the Understanding by Design model, and look at where we want kids to be and work backward from there. Training staff is important, but I've found kids learn tech skills best when I don't teach them as separate skills, but embed them into projects. The point then isn't the skill, it is the project, and we get a two-for-one type of deal.

Can we do the same with IWBs and other potentially disruptive technologies? Can we quit holding in-services to get teachers up to speed, and instead, start with where we want kids to be and then pull in the tools that best help us get them there?

I don't know. I think it might work better for some. Others probably won't feel comfortable to make the shift. They'll keep wanting direct instruction, waiting until they are good enough at it to use it. Of course, they never get there.

What do you think? Could this model work better? How would you start it? I'm interested in what you have to say.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Need IWB Resources for Chinese Teachers

I'm really struggling to help our elementary Chinese teachers use their IWBs to powerfully impact student learning. They've seen people using them to present Powerpoint presentations, and they are correctly unimpressed.

I've looked through the blog posts from IWB Challenge participants and I learned a bunch from them, but my teachers are needing to see and use ready made charts.

I've check Diigo groups. I've searched Promethean Planet and found a few flipcharts that helped them. But I need more. I need to innundate them with ideas, or put them in touch with an active group. Making this more challenging, is that they don't teach writing. They are a speaking and culture class.

If you have any suggestions of where I can find the resources I'm seeking, please leave me a note in the comments.

Thank you in advance.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Last year, our school began using OneNote. It is part of our Microsoft Office bundle. One of the tech coordinators started playing with it, found it useful, and soon we were using it as a team.

OneNote is a virtual notebook. It has pages. Those pages can be in sections. You can even create subpages and subsections. Information is easily moved from one section to another, or one notebook to another. Pages can contain text, graphics, audio and other items. Items can be flagged and they show up in your Outlook to-do list. Pages can be as long as you need them to be.

Adding information is easy. No need to create text boxes. Just click anywhere on a page and type. Need a table? Just start typing the top rows contents. Tab each time you want a new column. Hit enter to go down to the next row. A full range of formatting options are available such as bullets, highlighting, strikeout.

You can add your ready made documents, such as Word documents as a link (and it appears as an icon on the page) or as a printout. In the latter case, the entire document appears on the page.

OneNote has a powerful search feature. You can search that notebooks or all of your notebooks. The search feature will even search photos. For example, if you had a photo of a business card, it could find the person's name in the photo.

Notebooks can be private or shared. If you store them on a server, you can still work locally when you can't access that server. The notebook will sync with the server the next time it is connected. If the notebook is in Sharepoint, it will even update when you work on it from home.

OneNote is proving to be a powerful tool for collaboration. We can all work on it, and it keeps all our pages synced. At a basic level, think of it for agendas and minutes. However, since more than one person can edit a page at a time, it is good for drafting documents and polishing them. Anything that needs a wiki-like environment could work well in here. However, there is no history, no ability to roll back to an earlier version.

At our school, use of OneNote has grown tremendously this year because my principal saw the power of it and began using it extensively herself. Now departments and committees that meet with her regularly each have their own OneNote notebook.

Here are a few of the ways I'm using OneNote this year.
  • I'm a tech integration teacher. This year I set up my lesson plan book as a OneNote notebook. I met with each teacher to plan the semester. I gave each teacher read only access to the notebook because I didn't want someone to add information for the next class and me not notice it in time. I can work on it from home or school. Access it from any room in the building, and I no longer need to give paper copies or even electronic copies to my principal; she just subscribed to the notebook.

  • I created a Tech Help Notebook full of step-by-step directions. For teachers who are comfortable trying new things as long as they have directions, this has worked well and they haven't needed to wait for me to come help them.

  • Budgeting. I created a tab for each department. As they contacted me during the year with requests, I'd click the "Send to OneNote" button in Outlook and then move it to the correct location. As I did research on requests, I'd paste in information from the web and other sources.

  • The Tech Coordinators meet weekly and our notebook has headings such as agenda and minutes, computer builds, policies and forms, and tabs for current projects.

All is not perfect, of course. We have found that notebooks need to be kept under 5 MB or they are prone to synchronization problems. OneNote occasionally has caching problems. OneNote is only available for Windows, not in the Mac version of Microsoft Office.

There are many other programs that offer similar functions. For example, Circus Ponies makes Notebook. Evernote is available online.

If you would like a good, quick demo of OneNote, watch it online here.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Vast Numbers and Useful Examples

The news surrounding our economic crisis, including the US stimulus package and the bailouts of the banking and auto industry, have us flinging around huge numbers that are difficult to grasp. That's why I appreciated an article that appeared in my newsreader today from CNN.

In the article Numb and Number: Is trillion the new billion? Christine Romans uses the following examples from Temple University math professor John Allen Paulos to give meaning to million, billion and trillion.
"A million seconds is about 11½ days. A billion seconds is about 32 years, and a trillion seconds is 32,000 years," Paulos said. "People tend to lump them together, perhaps because they rhyme, but if you think of it in terms of a jail sentence, do you want to go to jail for 11½ days or 32 years or maybe 32,000 years? So, they're vastly different, and people generally don't really have a real visceral grasp of the differences among them."
I find this type of example much more comprehensible than the others I've read, such as a stack of bills reaching 1/3 of the way to the moon.

I don't know that as a computer teacher in an elementary school I'm going to get to use this example in the next few days or months, but I know it will help give meaning to the news as I read it.

How do you make large numbers accessible to your students?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Weight of Unread Posts

I just spent a few hours and now my Google Reader lists zero unread posts instead of 1000+. I will not claim I read all closely; it was an exercise in skimming, and in some, such as TechCrunch, blantant marking all as read.

I wonder why I feel so much lighter now that there are no longer 1000+ posts waiting for me to read them. After all, it is MY blog roll. No one is forcing me to read them. And if the weight of the unread ones is pulling me down, why don't I delete them?

I probably do need to prune my blog roll, and occasionally I do lop a few off that no longer speak to me. However, I find I am still adding. Most of what I add are not edublogs. My blog roll now better reflects some of my hobbies and interests outside of education and technology. I'm also reading more news sites via RSS now that I let my newspaper subscription lapse.

The same is true of my podcast subscriptions. I'm spending less time listening to educational ones, and more time on my hobbies, news, science, and audio books.

Part of me really misses being as in-the-know as I used to be when I read lots of edublogs. I loved being part of the discussions. I didn't always have anything to add to it, but it let me see ideas evolve over time in the community. It let me be an early adopter of new technologies and that has served me well, making me comfortable with them before I need to be using them on the job, and letting me "see" where things were going.

It also saved me a lots of headache. For example, reading someone's post about what did and didn't go well with their class Voicethread project allowed me to avoid the pitfalls and build on the strengths. It gave me answers to my questions and to ones I hadn't yet anticipated.

Another part I miss is the substance. Facebook has been great for catching up with distant friends. Twitter is amazingly good at just-in-time answers. But neither has the depth of extended thinking. Neither makes me think in the ways a good blog post does. Neither informs my practice nor challenges me out of complacency.

I do notice that many prolific bloggers are blogging less. I don't think that means the blog will die any time soon. I hope it means that posts will be more thoughtful. I'd much rather read one good post a month from someone than having my feed reader filled up with posts that are nothing more than lists of the sites they added to Delicious.

I'm seeing I do value edublogs. I appreciate what they add to my life and my work. I guess what I really need to learn is to not let the unread ones get me down.

How has your blog roll or blog reading habits changed in the past year?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Return of Service Notice

Dear World,

We, the United States of America, your top-quality supplier of the ideals of liberty and democracy, would like to apologize for our 2001-2008 interruption in service.

The technical fault that led to this eight-year service outage has been located and the software responsible was replaced on November 4, 2008.

Early tests of the newly-installed program indicate we are now operating correctly and are fully-functional as of January 20, 2009.

We apologize for any inconvenience caused by the outage. We look forward to providing full service and hope to improve in years to come. We thank you for your patience and understanding.


The United States Of America

(A friend sent this to me. I haven't found its origin yet. If you know it, please let me know.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Movtivators and Demotivators

From the title, you might think this was going to be a post of some substance. WRONG! Instead, I want to quickly highlight a fun web tool you could use with students.

The website is Motivator from Big Huge Labs. It allows you to use a photo from your computer, Flickr, Photobucket or a URL, and turn it into a motivational poster.

I can see using FlickrCC images to allow you to create posters of character traits, themes, decision-making, vocabulary. The list goes on and on. You do need to register to upload images or link to a Flickr account. I think you can enter a photo's URL without registering.

Registration is free but requires an email address. I did not test out linked Gmail addresses to see if they worked.

If you aren't very fond of this type of motivational poster, check out the demotivational posters at Despair.com. If you've ever been part of ISO 2000 or a school accreditation review, you may especially appreciate this poster.