Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Strike Up the Banned

Media Specialists and Librarians: Considering that librarians regularly safeguard liberty and intellectual freedom (just take a look at the Library Bill of Rights, for example), you might want to be especially watchful this week. Yep, you guessed it. It's Banned Books Week.

Essential questions related to this topic:
  • Are there any times when ideas should be censored?
  • What is the best argument for/against censorship?
  • What's the best way to safeguard intellectual freedom while simultaneously protecting children?
  • Does the availability of technology enhance or erode intellectual freedom?
  • Who is the best judge of what ideas ae helpful/harmful to society and/or individuals.
  • What's more destructive in the long run: banning books or allowing anyone to read/access any kind of information?
  • What are the most disturbing unintended consequences of censorship and/or unrestricted access to information?


Monday, September 29, 2008

Sweet Home, Alabama: At Home with AETA

Today I've had the distinct pleasure of attending the 9th annual Alabama Educational Technology Association symposium/conference in Perdido Beach. What a wonderful spot for exploring new ideas, techniques, and resources for integrating technology! I arrived here late in the afternoon yesterday and was greeted by a wonderful confluence of pleasant Gulf Coast breezes, a lovely sunset, and amiable AETA members. The folks here have an friendly organization that is genuinely excited about welcoming everyone who is interested in making education worthwhile for students. Being around these folks is like wandering around at a family reunion. That’s how it felt to me last night as I sat down to dine with the gracious men and women who power this organization. I think AETA President Davis Brock captured the mood best when he said, “We’re family here.”

After spending a day with the people who comprise AETA it was easy for me to understand exactly what Davis was talking about. AETA really is like a family. Everywhere I went today, men and women greeted me as if I were a long-lost cousin they were dying to see. I felt welcomed, like I belonged. Amidst the fun, food, and fellowship, I made many new friends today and learned so many new ways to integrate technology. For example, I spent a very productive session absorbing ideas from Elizabeth Sessions who has a killer wiki called Tech Tools for Teaching Reading that Language Arts teachers will love. This is how a conference ought to feel. I hope Davis and his pals will allow me to return next year.

I also had a blast sharing ideas and resources with the AETA attendees who kindly spent two hours with me during my presentation. Despite having only 120 minutes to impart some useful tools and techniques for learning, we delved into all manner of topics, things like...

I can only hope that the participants found something useful from my ramblings. Maybe they did. I do know one thing for certain: I couldn't have done a thing without all the help I got from some amazing wonderful people. The first person is my good pal Joe Strickland who originally helped me compile and refine the content for my presentation when I first delivered it all at NECC 2008. Joe, a teacher's teacher and valued friend, tirelessly allows me to pitch my crazy ideas and helps me polish them up to a brilliant shine. I also appreciated the kind assistance of the Technology in Motion (TIM) Program's very own Robert Mayben from the In-Service Education Center at the University of Alabama and his associate Megan. Without their hard work and help I'd have been hopelessly lost. These two angels tirelessly assembled a hardy network, loaded software, and maintained a smoothly running lab of twenty or more laptops. Thank you, my friends! I owe all of you big time.

Related links:

Friday, September 26, 2008

On the Clock

Elapsed time often frustrates students. It's a concept that consumes a great deal of patience along with the time needed to comprehend it. Quite often, it’s difficult for youngsters to connect the passage of time with the numbers orbiting the face of an analog clock. Why not help pupils get acclimated to exploring and explaining the passage of time through the artful use of technology? Need some examples?

Jesson Yip, a London based freelance digital designer who specializes in web, interaction and visualization, has created a simple, yet elegant way to help temporal novices grasp the concept of telling time. Take a few moments to see his creation, Analogy.

Telling time is an essential skill so it's important to help students learn how. Don't give pupils the cold shoulder when it comes to chronicling chronology. Show them Pixelbreaker's Polar Clock instead.

Essential questions related to this topic:
  • When did time begin?
  • Will time ever stop?
  • Does time work the same way everywhere in the universe?
  • Is it possible to slow down, speed up, or stop time?
  • What's the most reliable way to measure the passage of time?
  • If there are atomic particles that are responsible for energy and matter, are there particles responsible for time? If so, how would/could we prove it?

Related resources:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Well Read? If Not, ReadTheWords!

Many student learn by listening. They like to have information read to them. There's a nifty resource that this group of individuals will most assuredly want to explore. It's a free site designed to supply learners with new ways of processing written information. Known as ReadTheWords, it's a web-based tool for learning that employs Text To Speech (TTS) technology. Visitors to the site can generate a pretty impressive audio file from just about any kind of written material (for example, text taken from any Microsoft office document, Adobe PDF, txt file, or HTML document). Users supply the content and, after choosing a designated reader--the site has 15 to choose from--ReadTheWords generates a voice that reads the words aloud.

To begin using this resource, register for an account.
After registering, log in.

After successfully logging in, click on the CREATE A NEW READING button.

Give the new recording a title.

Grab some text to be read. In this case, I'm visiting The Literature Network where I've copied a chunk of the introductory chapter of one of my favorite works, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Afterward, return to ReadTheWords, and paste the text into the INPUT TEXT box.

As some TTS readers are too fast for many listeners, ReadTheWords makes it possible for users to slow their digital readers down a bit.

Want a British work of literature to be read by a British narrator? No problem! ReadTheWords allows users to choose a particular voice (such as Charles, a UK male).

Next, press the red READ button.

After the "recording" phase of the work is over, users see a screen that allows them to play the recorded text.

Note that users may also download an mp3 file of the text.

This is something that makes all of the effort worthwhile. Why? Notes, words from a webpage, words from any file where copying text is possible can be converted into an mp3 file. The resulting mp3 file can be loaded on an iPod or any other mp3 player. Information taht was once locked up in text can be listened to anytime the user wishes to reconnect with it. This resource gives students another means of accessing and processing content.

Yes, the voice is not a natural human voice. It does sound somewhat robotic. That said, this service is free. For many pupils who learn by listening, ReadTheWords is a no-cost way of drawing upon the strength of their particular learning style.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Let Me See What's On Your Mind

Recently, an elementary Language Arts teacher asked me if I knew of any good, free resources for helping her students generate cognitive maps. She was particularly interested in any resource that didn't require downloading and/or installation of software. Without missing a beat I suggested she check out Text2MindMap, a web-based resource that quickly converts text outlines into pretty spiffy mind maps. All a user has to do is create an outline in the box on the screen and click the CONVERT TO MIND MAP button. That's it!

What makes this resource so handy is that it can be used beyond the Language Arts classroom, any place where an outline is being explored. For example, if, in a Science classroom, a group of students are discussing the structure of the Solar System, an outline could be generated and typed in the box.

After a general consensus about the information, the students click the CONVERT TO MIND MAP BUTTON.
Within a few seconds, the group of students has a mind map of the topic.

The group can tinker with the mind map by working with the CONTROLS features.
Best of all, the mind map can be SAVED and used offline!
A click of the SAVE MAP button yields a jpg image that can be used in a slideshow or word processing document.

Why not have your students check out and use this snappy tool for learning?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Know Your Rights: Constitution Day

On September 17th, 1787, attendees at the U.S. Constitutional Convention made history by signing the one of the most important documents in the world. Now, some 221 years later, America proudly recognizes the ratification of the United States Constitution (as well as all individuals who've become citizens by either coming of age or through the process of naturalization). Today is Constitution Day. Does this matter to your students? Do they know their rights? How informed are they about their liberties? Integrate a little technology: listen to a digital audio recitation of the Constitution as read by David P. Currie, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of University of Chicago Law School.

Essential questions related to this topic:
  • What's the best/worst way to interpret the Constitution?
  • Is the Constitution the best means of resolving the struggle between security and liberty?
  • What (if anything) is the most important reason to understand or support the continued use of the Constitution?
  • How can the Constitution be improved?
  • What's the best evidence of the power of the Constitution?
  • What is the most good the Constitution has done for any individual in the history of our nation?
  • What is the weakest part of the Constitution?
  • What is the single, most important right insured by the Constitution?
  • What is the most compelling reason to deny and/or suspend an individual's or group's rights as guaranteed by the Constitution? Should these rights ever be suspended?
  • Which individual is the epitome of the ideals expressed in the Constitution (i.e., who is a role model for the ideals expressed in the document)?
  • How can/could the Constitution be reworded so as to express the same (or even more noble) ideals for a larger audience?

Related links:

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Braving the Elements

For students who are beginning to explore the complexities of matter, an introduction to the subtleties of the Periodic Table of Elements can be something of a revelatory experience, akin to finding an operating manual for atoms. The Periodic Table is a valuable tool for understanding reveals the underlying architechure of matter and prepares novices for a better grasp of the principles of chemistry. Rather than relegating pupils to textbooks when it comes to exploring the elements, encourage learners to make use of web-based sources of information. Take, for example, the Dynamic Periodic Table. Although it contains much the same information found in an exhaustive textbook, the information is much easier to access.

Want to immediately grab the attention of students? Swing by Parallel Graphic's eye-popping 3D Periodic Table. This resource is great when combined with an interactive whiteboard or slate. Note: you'll need to use Internet Explorer and download Cortona, a 3D viewer for IE. The effort will will be well worth it.

By integrating hyperlinked, multimedia-rich resources, students are more likely to discover opportunities for creating meaningful associations between the material being learned and their own experiences. To make in-roads to learning, consider exposing learners to image-rich resources. Want proof? If so, simply look up the work of Theodore Gray, one of the founders of Wolfram Research (creators of the awe-inspiring Mathematica). Gray is also a columnist for Popular Science’s Gray Matter and an element collector extraordinaire who has crafted an exquisite Periodic Table of the Elements. His craftsmanship and obsession with elements makes his version of the Periodic Table a veritable feast for the eyes that learners and instructors are sure to enjoy.

In the same vein, the Periodic Table of Videos provided by the University of Nottingham moves users beyond mere words and dishes up engaging images that stick in the mind longer after vistors leave the web.

Essential questions related to this topic:
  • What is the most (or least important) element on the Periodic Table?
  • What is the best/most truthful way to explain the structure of matter? For example, what's the best way to create models of something we can’t see--like atoms?
  • In what ways can the current Periodic Table be significantly improved for younger and/or non-scientific users?
  • Is the natural world significantly affected by the actions of individuals/societies who don't know or care about the Periodic Table? In other words, what so important about this bit of science that makes it worth learning?
  • What universal rules govern matter and its processes?
  • Which is more important matter or energy?
  • Why exactly should scientists bother getting information about something as small as electrons in atoms?
  • What's the most important reason for the way the Periodic Table is organized the way it is? Given advancements in technology, what might make it possible for future scientists to rewrite the rules for the way the Period Table is organized?

Related Links:

Monday, September 15, 2008

All Together Now: International Day of Democracy

By combining a couple of Greek root words (demos meaning "the people," and kratein which means "to rule") we get a vocabulary term that describes an idea that originated in the Aegean world. That term is democracy. Government by the people was (and, in some places, continues to be) viewed as a revolutionary idea. Acknowledging the resilience and universality of the principles of democracy, the United Nations has declared today-- the 15th of September--the International Day of Democracy.

Essential questions (as described by Grant P. Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design) are the "big ideas" wrapped up in questions that humans continue to ponder over the course of a lifetime. Such questions lack easy answers. They can be used to engage students and encourage them to seriously ponder the core or the essence of a topic being studied. Essential questions are extremely useful in revealing what pupils think about a topic. A few such questions related to the topic of democracy are listed below. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list.
  • Why do we need government?
  • Why can't we just all agree?
  • What gives anyone--whether a person or group--the authority to decide for others?
  • What is the absolute best/worst form of government?
  • Will humans ever design a sustainable, humane form of government? If so, why, how, where or when?
  • What are the most important factors to consider when constructing any form of government?
  • Who is most qualified to be our leader?
  • What is the best (i.e., equitable, efficient, effective, lasting, et cetera) way to improve democracy (or other forms of government)?
  • Should there be one form of government that all humans should abide by?
  • Is a lack of government (i.e., peaceful anarchy) possible?
  • When do (or should) the needs of the many trump the rights of the individual?
  • What are the characteristics of an active citizen?
  • How is it possible for everyone in a society to retain the greatest amount of autonomy (individual freedom) and still enjoy the benefits of government?
  • What methods of political action promote or inhibit change?
  • Is democracy the best form of government or an outdated idea?

Related links:

Friday, September 12, 2008

Get in the Zone...the NGAkids Art Zone!

These days, many administrators and educators are finally beginning to realize the value of art in learning. It's about time, too! Constructing learning experiences in which pupils are allowed and expected to be academically and artistically creative is a wise investment in improving education. For example, check out the National Gallery of Art's wildly interactive NGAkids Art Zone. It's a wonderfully robust resource where adults and students can spend time exploring the site’s excellent tools. They are specifically designed for creating online art. When combined with innovative approaches to education and interactive whiteboards like those produced by GTCO, Promethean, and SMARTBoard, learning becomes fun--almost addictive! In addition to the excellent online resources available at the National Gallery of Art is the institution's NGA Classroom (complete with featured lessons) and an Art Loan Program.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Fearlessly Doing Good: Tolerance.org

When discussing the events of 9-11, consider talking about how students can gather the tools needed to break the cycle of violence and fear. Remind them that liberty is just as important and security.Help them learn to be capable of doing good. Help them learn to do it in the name of peace. Teach them tolerance. For ideas on how, visit Tolerance.org.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Have You Heard (and Seen the Word)?--Lexipedia

If you teach Language Arts, English, Writing, and/or Reading, take a few minutes to swing by Lexipedia. This nifty site is a place where "words have meaning" and it shows. Lexipedia demonstrates the fact by taking given terms and generating semantic relationships in animated word webs. This kind of tool is great for pupils who are trying to ferret the meaning on new vocabulary terms. Used in conjunction with the rich, interactive student materials at ReadWriteThink, the robust resources that Lexipedia brings into play will help both beginning and advanced learners build for better comprehension across all manner of disciplines.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Storm Info is Only a Heartbeat Away: Stormpulse

Do you teach concepts related to weather? Are your students interested in hurricanes? If so, read on.

I know I should have posted this resource for Science teachers earlier but I've been all but swept away in a deluge of email and other administrivia. Anyone interested in meteorology or hurricane-related information will want to explore Stormpulse. For example, the site allows visitors to view hurricanes and hurricane seasons dating back to 1851! Simply enter the name of a prominent storm (like Katrina) in a URL such as: http://www.stormpulse.com/katrina or the year of a hurricane season such as http://www.stormpulse.com/1966. For more features guaranteed to blow you away, review all of Stormpulse's cool features.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hidden Treasures

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to work with a generous group of educators here in southeast Georgia. All of the gracious folks in my audience were in attendance in order to learn how to make better use of a Promethean Activboard. Those attending my day-long presentation were very excited at the prospect of finally discovering how to employ a technology resource that had essentially been sitting idle in their respective classrooms. My attendees, like many other educators I work with on a daily basis, had been given a powerful tool for teaching and learning but, due to a lack of funding for professional development and/or an administrative oversight, found themselves waiting for an explanation as to how the device worked or could be integrated into instruction.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens with far more frequency than should be tolerated. In many ways, it's tantamount to making a delivery to overworked doctors in the middle of an epidemic, leaving them with an incredibly powerful medical tool for combating illness, and subsequently giving them absolutely no information about what the tool is, how it can be used, or the kinds of results it will generate. In such a scenario, most doctors concerned with treating the immediate needs of their patients would probably toss the new tool aside in favor of doing what they already know to do. Administrators, teachers, and other educators are no different. We can supply them with unbelievably powerful resources and expect improvements. Without the accompanying professional development, however, it's unlikely that anything--either teaching practices or student achievement--is going change for the better.

Thankfully, though, the individuals I worked with yesterday were thirsty for knowledge about using their interactive whiteboards. I was only too happy to oblige. I took them through the basics of using the Activboard, facilitating their exploration of its robust tools and resource library. They loved the features of the interactive whiteboard and its software. Many were somewhat distraught that such an engaging tool for learning had been at their fingertips all along and they hadn't even realized it. I did my best to help them make up for lost time.

During the 8 hours we spent together I tried to help my audience gain a deeper understanding of the incredible potential for using interactive whiteboards to make concepts, processes, and skills more visiual and doable. In addition to directing them to Promethean Planet, I showed them all manner of free, interactive resources (Thinkfinity.org, a list of Thinkfinity "WOW" sites, Exploratorium and it's favorite picks, et cetera) and repositories for content-specific pictures. "It's not enough to lecture about a topic or concept," I explained, "You've got access to a tool for helping your pupils create a clearer mental image of what you're exploring in your classroom. Even if you choose not to make use of your Activstudio software, you can still use imagery to engage your students and help them latch onto an idea."

Afterward, one of my participants explained that even though she had an Activboard, others at here school did not. "Are there any more projectors and other interactive whiteboards--not necessisarily Promethean--at your school?" I asked, betting I'd hear a familiar response. Sure enough, the lady responded, "Yes, we do have other projectors. They're in the media center but no one ever checks them out. We also have some other kind of interactive whiteboard but it doesn't have an Activpen with it like mine does so the other teachers aren't sure they can use it."

"Hmmm," I said, "I'll bet it's a SMARTBoard," and I asked her to describe the board. After listening to her description there was no doubt in my mind that such was the case. I explained how she and others at her school could be using the newest, resource-rich SMARTBoard software with their old SMARTBoards. The lady was delighted and quickly opened her cell phone to call her school and share the good news.

On a recent trip in one school, a school with a desire to improve student math performance, I just happened to stumble across an unopened pack of resources from a great series called Math Exemplars. It's a program that (when implemented properly) successfully addresses student engagement and performance in math classes. It helps students become masterful problem-posers and solvers. Here was a school struggling with math and not using a resource that would help the pupil. When I asked why the folks there had no idea what Math Exemplars were or what to do with them.

I wonder how many unused technology resources are lying around in classrooms and media centers because no one knows what all the stuff is or how to use it? Why not take a look around in your own school and see what you turn up when you do. You might be surprised.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Puttin' on the Ritz

You might think I'm crackers but everything really is better on a Ritz. Yes, cheese applied atop a Ritz is absolutely delicious (but to be fair, the addition of cheese makes just about anything worth nibbling). Go a little further and add a slice of ham or turkey and the flavor increases. Heck, even Science is tastier when blended with Ritz. How so? Allow me to tell you a story.

Once upon a time, a thoroughly scientific instrument ended up as a beloved toy. It was the year 1816, and a clever Scottish physicist by the name of Sir David Brewster (as in Brewster’s Angle) was all agog about color. In order to explore the qualities and (chromatic) nature of light, Brewster became enthralled playing with mirrors. He subsequently invented the kaleidoscope (as well as the word, too–from the Greek Kalos, beautiful + eidos, form; + skopos to view). Brewster’s contributions to the study of light (along with an impressive body of knowledge amassed by others) eventually resulted in a better understanding of the dual nature of light and one very cool toy.

Technology, toys, and time to think ideas through–all of these components (along with the propensity to add a little fun to Science)--promote better understanding and lifelong learning. Teachers who wish to help their students understand concepts surrounding the properties of light as well as reflection and refraction, would do well to allow pupils to play with kaleidoscopes. With a little patience, access to the internet, and some inexpensive materials, most learners can find and follow directions for making a kaleidoscope. To extend the learning experience, and have more than a modest helping of fun, educators can direct learners to appreciate a taste for experimentation at the Ritz Cracker site. Once there, pupils can tinker with the Ritz kaleidoscope and make more than a few observations about how and why they see the patterns that emerge.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Chrome Really Shines

Well, I've downloaded Google Chrome, installed it, and taken it for a quick test run. My first impression was, "Wow! This thing flies!" The way my pages are loading is enough to make me want to continue using this new browser. I like it and intend to put this new browser to work for the next week or so. In fact, I just made this post using it.

Related links:

Monday, September 1, 2008

New Browser Demonstrates Its Precious Mettle: Google Chrome

According to what I've read at the Official Google Blog, it seems that Google's long-awaited and soon-to-be-released web browser, Chrome, is going to have some stamina that other browsers are currently lacking. In typical Google style, Chrome is going to an open source browser. Big G is giving back to the community! As if to add whipped cream and a cherry on top, one of my favorite illustrators, Scott McCloud, has an online comic book explaining the rich features of Chrome. Spiffy!
It'll be available tomorrow, September 2nd. I can't wait!