Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

Classroom in the Cloud

I first started using Edublogs in May of last year at the recomendation of the Instructional Technology administrator at my school. I was new to blogging, and I figured this would be a good place to learn the ropes. I scoped out the forums and Edublogs also seemed to have a stong community behind it. All was good – and then I started using the site.

First, Edublogs didn’t host images. This was a minor irritation because Photobucket and flickr are blocked at school, and I did most of my posting during free periods. Imageshack.us was the only one allowed through the filter, but it’s riddled with ads and a sketchy history of losing files. Regardless, I persevered.

Next came the weird and uncontrolable formating problems with my blog. Sometimes links would cease to exist. Other times the font would be comically large (in fact, several of my more recent posts are still this size. I never figured out how to fix that.).

The final blow came early last week after finishing an entry I was real excited about posting. I typed it up using my Zoho account, and then tried to sign in to Edublogs. Oops, page cannot be found. So I check my spelling and try again. No luck. I then try my blog address. It doesn’t exist. For about 45 minutes, Edublog disappeared.

Fortunately, that was enough time for me to create a new blogger account. So, long story short, I’m moving myself over there. If you’ve enjoyed my posts, I hope you can visit me at my new blog, along with a fitting new name – Classroom in the Cloud.

Monday, September 15th, 2008

Presenting SlideRocket

 
Technically, I don’t think this blog has been established long enough to warrant a hiatus, but it seems that summer took its toll on the posting. But, with a new school year brings plenty to talk about. To start, I present, SlideRocket.  

I actually signed up for SlideRocket during its private beta days, but not got around to using my activition code. It’s irrelevant now since it launced publically earlier this month. SlideRocket is basically a cloud application version of Microsoft’s PowerPoint, only with a few more fancy transitions and effects. As with other office-like apps, it also allows for multiple users to work on a presentation, making collaboration quite easy. 

It’s still in beta, and it shows in the design stages of a presentation. All the functions work, but I’ve noticed some lag, especially with image-heavy presentations. This seems to be a flaw when using IE, Firefox, and even Google’s new browser, Chrome. It’s not enough of a hiccup to cause data loss, so it’s tolerable for now. 

Here is a quick presentation I did in SlideRocket that I plan to use in class to introduce S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. There’s an accompanying worksheet that goes with it (which I will gladly email to anyone interested), but the presentation is mainly on stereotyping and will eventually lead into a discussion of Socs VS. Greasers in the book. 

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Visual Definition of Web 2.0

I stole/discovered this on the indexed blog and thought it had some potential for discussion. Actually, reading the posts on the blog was just as engaging as the picture itself.

Friday, July 18th, 2008

A New Approach to Grading

I’ve been on summer break for about a month now, and have enjoyed thinking of pretty much anything other than academics. But tonight I thought about the upcoming year and new group of students, and my mind started taking inventory of all the things that are needed to begin a new school year. One that I always dread is grading.

There are several common options for choosing a gradebook – all with major flaws. The most traditional teacher still has a pencil and paper gradebook. This is clumsy and can get quite messy. Others create spreadsheets using Excel (instructions how to do this are here), but since Excel was not specifically designed for this task, it can sometimes be a square peg in a round hole. There are also excellent grading programs available, if your pockets are deep enough.

But alas, there’s a new option. Engrade is a free online grading application. And it has me excited about record keeping. It has countless options, for teacher, parents, and students. Check out the video demo, here.

Friday, June 27th, 2008

Inspiration VS. Bubbl.us

As an English Language Arts teacher, I’ve always felt guilty that I didn’t advocate for the use of Inspiration software in my classroom. According to inspiration.com, “Inspiration is the essential tool students rely on to plan, research and complete projects successfully.” But I’ve never liked it. It seems cumbersome to orientate, resize and print, and my limited experience with it showed that kids spent more time choosing the shape of their thought bubbles than what goes in them. Plus, there’s so many options – arrow directions, colors, picture associations, rapid fire typing, diagram view, outline view, etc. It seems silly to spend more time teaching the tool than the skill.

I’m now beginning to rethink the use of mapping applications in my classroom. Bubbl.us is a free online app for brainstorming and organizing ideas. Once created, your organizer can be embedded, saved, printed, or emailed. Graphics can still be created and saved without an account, however, once signed up for the free service, multiple users can be given access to the same organizer, allowing for easy group collaboration.

The beauty of bubbl.us is in its simplicity. No crazy icons or extras here. Color can be changed to help identify groupings and parent/sibling relationships, but otherwise, bubbl.us is all business. It even looks better than Inspiration, whose default green bubbles and plain, one-dimensional shapes scream Web 1.0. Best of all it’s free, vs. Inspiration’s $69.00 price tag.

If you’re looking for an easy and effective way to help improve writing organization (and your pocket book is feeling a bit light), take a look at bubbl.us.

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Grow your own Sprout

Before I get to my topic on the web application called Sprout, I just wanted to say how exciting it has been to receive such positive comments to my previous posts. In such a large haystack, it’s nice to see people spotting my needle!

Monday, June 16th, 2008

May I have a Wordle with you?

I recently discovered Wordle.net on del.icio.us, and again on Holly’s blog. I commented her post, but after some thought, I decided Wordle is worth it’s own post on here as well.

According to the Wordle site:

Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends.

Aside from just being a “toy,” this site makes a sure-fire prereading activity – especially for poetry or short stories. For example, a class could prepare for a reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven by viewing a word cloud of the poem. It would be an easy way for the class to identify important vocabulary words and begin making predictions that may help them as they read.

Wordle makes some pretty cool word art as well. Good for bulletin boards and presentations (almost like a visual abstract!), and heck, I even used it to make a new title bar for this blog. I just copied and pasted my first four posts onto the site. Do you like it?

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Web 1.0 and Web 2.0

The essential difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is that content creators were few in Web 1.0 with the vast majority of users simply acting as consumers of content, while any participant can be a content creator in Web 2.0… Users are first class entities in the system…

I’ve been working steadily on a post the past few days and it’s just about ready to be published. It’s on a pretty amazing Web 2.0 app called Sprout. While working on it, I was thinking about the idea of Web 2.0 in general and realized that I dedicated a blog to something that I never bothered to define. In fact, two of my first three posts weren’t even technically about Web 2.0 services or applications. Here is the circular logic – Is Web 2.0 only a buzzword, thus making it impossible to define simply because it doesn’t really exist as a tangible product, or is the fact that it has been applied to just about everything on the net make it impossible to accurately describe?

As luck would have it, I found a great research article on del.icio.us this morning that is dedicated to the concept of Web 2.0. Written by Graham Cormode and Balachander Krishnamurthy, it attempts to define Web 2.0 – its characteristics, and its differences from the web pre-2003 (what can loosely be called “Web 1.0″). It gets a little technical in regards to how content and usage can be measured, but overall, the piece is a great start for anyone who is unsure about Web 2.0.

The article is located here. I’d love to hear your comments!

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

The Twittering Teacher

It’s amazing how fast Twitter has taken off in the past months. Defined as microblogging, users get a mere 140 characters to answer one question – what are you doing? Users create networks by “following” friends, colleagues, and others with similar interests based on their “tweets,” or posts.

This is one of those products that educators see and just know it can be used for something in the classroom – but how can it be utilized beyond that of a standard blog or message board? There are several good answers to this question, here. One thing not mentioned though is the useful application of Twitter for teachers.

I teach 8th grade in a building where students are assigned to teams consisting of five core content areas. Every morning, team teachers meet for about 40 minutes to discuss student behaviors, grades, activities, successes and defeats. It’s great to hear how students act beyond the walls of my classroom. Unfortunately, once the meeting is over, the daily race begins and all other issues/concerns must wait until the following day. Oftentimes – perhaps if a student is having a rough day because of problems at home, or there is a fist fight brewing – that is too long to wait until the next morning.

As a team, we’ve decided to implement Twitter to help curb this issue. Each teacher created an account and protected it so that only other following teachers can see. We’ve found it to be quite beneficial. Here’s why.

Communication

Between periods, every teacher on team types a quick message pertaining to an event that happened in class. It can be something as general as “class went well,” to “We had a great conversation on what characteristics makes someone a hero.” Tweets like these can then spur additional conversations and cross-curricular connections. For example, the Social Studies teacher may be able to bring that question up while discussing a political figure such as Winston Churchill or Adolf Hitler.

Why it’s better than Email

Most schools have accounts for teachers, so why not just sent out emails through that? If five teachers are sending messages after each period of the day, inboxes are going to be hit with more than 200 emails per week. And that’s not including any replies (Twitter lets you do that too). It just makes sense to use an application that is no frills and well-organized. Twitter keeps the communication going after the team meeting stops.

Documentation

Teachers constantly have to watch their backs. If it isn’t students crying wolf, it’s parents wanting to know what we did to make their kid fail. Twitter makes an excellent electronic paper trail. If a student is consistently misbehaving in every class, and these instances are posted on Twitter, a history is established. This could prove to be invaluable to validate behavioral consequences as well as to protect yourself from an irate parent who claims you are singling-out his/her child. We’ve even used it to keep track of who leaves the room every period on a lav/locker pass. After just a few days, we found several students who had a massive bladder infection – or they were scamming each teacher out of a pass so they could wander the halls.

Why it’s better than written documentation

The problem with student logs and discipline referrals is that they only offer a brief snapshot of a student. Teachers are always encouraged to document everything – but unless it can be viewed by everyone, it’s essentially useless in helping solve any issues. Twitter allows continuous monitoring of students by all teachers involved, and can be easily retrieved if the need arises.

Motivation

One of my favorite things to do with Twitter is to post positive student performances. For example, one teacher can post “Justin got a 96 on the quiz today!” Another teacher, knowing that Justin struggles, can compliment him when he enters his next class. It may seem small, but it’s good for the students to see that you know more than just what’s happening in your room.

Why it’s better than in-class praise

Especially at the middle school level, it’s important for students to realize that they are part of a larger group and that their teachers stand together and watch out and care for everyone. If every teacher treats his/her classroom like an island, that disconnect is going to affect the students. Today’s education focuses quite a bit on cross-curricular learning, so there should also be cross-curricular feedback.

Web 2.0 products like Twitter have a potential market in education because they are simple, versatile, and highly effective. It was not intended to be a community meeting for teachers, but with a few changes of settings, it becomes an essential tool for teachers.

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Web Favorites

Every teacher has a mental treasure chest filled with useful items. These can be strategies, book titles and projects – but my cache also includes little-known web gems. These are the sites that I couldn’t live without.

Web Favorite #5
iheartbeargrylls.com

It’s important for students to not be exposed to unmentionable parts of Tommy Lee and Paris Hilton, but more times than not, filtering software does its job a little too well. For example, blogs fall into the “free website” category. So, even though kids still manage to skirt around filtering blocks and download the latest trial of Halo, I can’t browse readwriteweb while at school. I try to play by the rules, but sometimes playing the game is outweighed by doing what’s best for my students. What if a science teacher needs to look up rock cleavage? Or if an Social Studies teacher wants the kids to research the love canal? Normally these topics are blocked for sexual connotation. This is where proxies come into play.

There’s nothing illegal about web proxies, but the IT department would probably issue a slap on the wrist should they ever dig into my browsing history. A proxy is a “server that provides the resource by connecting to the specified server and requesting the service on behalf of the client” (wikipedia). Basically, it makes the filtering software think you’re visiting a site that isn’t blocked. There are countless proxies on the Internet, however most filtering applications block them as soon as they are discovered. Perhaps because of it’s name, this is not the case with iheartbeargrylls.com. No, it’s not a tribute to the legend who eats anything put in front of him. However, if it was, I’d probably still support it.

Web Favorite #4
chatzy.com

Blogs and message boards have become the standard for creating online student conversations and dialogues. People forget, though that these concepts started in 1996 with the creation of ICQ. So why not go full circle and bring chat rooms into the classroom?

That’s basically what Chatzy does. Teachers can create password protected, encrypted rooms for students to discuss class topics. And at the end of the session, for a small registration fee, teachers can print out the conversation. Instead of having a class where only one student can have a say at a time, Chatzy turns class into a social gathering where students are free to start side conversations with each other while still participating in the large group discussion.

Web Favorite #3
media-convert.com

A kid started a project at home using WordPerfect but your school only runs Microsoft Word? No problem. You want to use a .wma file in Audacity, which does not support proprietary formats? No problem. You’ve updated to Word 2007, and are plagued by constant .docx compatibility issues. Yes, it can even convert that. It can even create screen shots and send images, movies, and sound files to your mobile device. This is the Swiss Army knife of file conversion sites.

It should probably be mentioned, however, that this site isn’t the most student friendly. Since it’s free, the service generates revenue through selling adspace and allowing pop-ups. Many of these are of scantily-clad models praising the results of dieting pills – not exactly the message you wish to promote in class. Similarly, it may take some explaining if you are using the site, and a student happens to glance at your computer screen.

Web Favorite #2
keepvid.com

Ridiculous media frenzies and legal troubles can really scar popular sites such as myspace* and youtube* rendering them unacceptable for school use. Even though there may be valuable content, the muck that must be waded through outweighs the argument to keep them unblocked at school. While you could risk penalty and use my web favorite #5, a much safer approach is keepvid.com

Keepvid allows the option to save video files from more than 40 video hosting sites that do not typically offer download links. From there, they can be inserted into presentations, sent through email, or shown on computers that lack an Internet connection. You get to save what you want, and leave the questionable content behind.

Videos are saved as .flv files which require a program such as FLV player or VLC player. If you’d rather work with a more familiar format, use the every-handy media-convert.com to change it to a .wmv, .mpeg, or .mp4 file.

Web Favorite #1
freeplaymusic.com

As media-rich projects become more common in schools, so does the demand for quality free content. Whether it’s for presentations, podcasts, or video productions, freeplaymusic is a one stop source for royalty free audio. This is certainly not the only place to find audio clips free of royalties, but few others can compete with the quantity available on freeplaymusic.

Because of its popularity and the needed bandwidth to host such a large number of files, the site often experiences some server lag. Once it loads, music can be chosen by feel, style, or keyword, making it extremely easy to find the file that best suits your needs. Each audio file is available at different lengths and download formats (mp3 or AAC) and offers a streaming preview as well. Nearly all the clips are instrumental which is perfect for unobtrusive background music. (Of course, if you really must have that popular top 40 hit and you don’t want to download Kazaa or Limewire, Google may be of some service.)

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