My Session on E-Portfolios with Staff and Students


Slide Credit: Dr. Helen Barrett
I have had several inquiries as to how my poster session went that was centered on using free online tools (Web 2.0) in creating, organizing, and maintaining electronic portfolios for staff and students. Well, in a word, great! I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to speak with so many others trying to do the same thing we are. While I am in a better situation than most due to a technology department and curriculum department that plays VERY well together, we still have our struggles. Training is one of them. There is so much to building effective
eportfolios that one person relatively new to the concept cannot learn and regurgitate it all back to staff in a productive way.

Thankfully, someone I admire for her knowledge and ability to share and teach stepped up to my session. Dr. Helen Barrett appeared in the corner of my booth. Fortunately, I saw her arrive and noted to everyone there that she was THE one to talk to about all things eportfolios. Anything I have to share about eportfolios would pale in comparison to this wonderfully read and prepared professor.  Another awesome piece of luck was that my curriculum director walked up behind me about the same time. I put the two of them together quickly to schedule some training in our district. If/When we are lucky enough to get Dr. Barrett in White Oak, our staff and students will never be the same again. We will be fully on track to creating portable archives of learning and teaching that all should be proud of. Exporting the eportfolio from the WordPress blog right to a flash drive will be a common happening for our students in the near future to allow them to take their representative work with them to college interviews, job interviews, competitions, etc. 

Another piece of luck came along when I ran into Sue Waters from Edublogs. After a lengthy conversation with Sue in the Blogger’s Cafe, my chief of technology and I decided it was time to move our entire WPMU blogging system to Edublogs Campus Ultimate where it will get the care and support it deserves. James Farmer, Sue Waters, and company will do more to keep up our system than we ever could. We know that this will now be the Cadillac version of our goals that we have wanted and needed all along. I have already noticed an unprecedented increase in speed in initial loading and navigating within and between blogs. Thank you, Edublogs! Our staff and students are going to be overjoyed when they log back in.


Photo Credit: AJC1 (Hartnell-Young, E. et al. (2007) Impact study of e-portfolios on learning partners.)
Another advantage for me in the move to Edublogs Campus Ultimate is the ability to batch create blogs and users. This was a headache when our system was at SiteGround because having a class or two of kids hitting the server at the same time never ended with anything but timeouts and 404 errors. It was what pushed us into seeking out a better host of our system. Considering we went from a Gig of traffic a month to over a Gig a day by the end of the year, we had to do something proactive before it all crashed down around us. You can go read for yourself all the benefits of making the move to Edublogs Campus Ultimate, but I can see this relationship being a very good one for all of us in White Oak ISD.

Stay tuned as we ramp up our electronic portfolio process with training by Dr. Helen Barrett and implementation by our staff and students this school year.

Want a blogging system for your class/campus/district? On the cheap?

photo credit: INCSUB

I have to say, James Farmer has done everyone in education an outstanding service by offering this new program of his. For just $195, he and his crew will have you set-up with your own personal WordPress MU site (you provide the URL) without all of the frustrations of doing it yourself (or trying, anyway). Then, for $25 a month, pSek will provide the hosting. That’s a steal for WPMU hosting.

Now, if you are serious about growing a much larger WPMU system, maybe this is a great start with a move to more bandwidth in the future. I kept looking for pSek’s plan for that type of growth. I do have to say, though, that with our bloggers using embed codes instead of storing media on our server, it has helped in many areas, not to mention embeding is a good skill for them to learn anyway. Maybe James will leave a comment below or blog a little of his own about how many blogs he thinks this platform will handle at pSek before you need to look for some increased power on the server and bandwidth. This might actually be all anyone needs.

What I do know for sure is that James can and will provide top notch support. There is no doubt about that.

If I were a classroom teacher just now looking to start blogging with my kids in a serious fashion and lots of control, this would be money well spent.

Using the “Bible” as the Ultimate Electronic Textbook Template

Photo Credit: Americo Nunes

I recently got a second generation iPod Touch. While reloading my content and adding a few new apps, I found a new Bible app that interested me. It requires the Internet, but it still is really awesome. You might wonder why I am blogging this on an educational blog. Well, it is because the textbook companies can take some cues from this handy little app. The features are very useful in studying this content, so I know it would benefit students in the classroom.

Some of the cool features I have found in it are:

Text Highlight – Once you find a passage you like, if you hold your fingertip on the passage for a second or so, a box pops up. It gives you several options:

  • Email to a Friend or Self – type in the address and it sends it
  • Bookmark Verse – just like it says, it bookmarks it
  • View Contribution – shows additional information one might find useful to aid in the understanding

Search – Full search of the text; the results are short links with summaries.

Daily Read – This is a daily devotional.

Languages – MANY, MANY languages. For English readers, there are nine translations of the Bible; but you will find 16 other languages with multiple translations available for the reader. This is so useful for our classrooms today. Imagine all of these translations in one easy to switch format. Two finger taps and you can go from any language to one of fifteen additional languages. Our ESL teachers would love it.

Table of Contents – It’s easy to search by Book and then Chapter. It’s even separated into the major sections of the Bible (books of Law, Books of History, Books of Poetry, etc).

Photo Credit: Me

Cool features it could use to be a functional eTextbook:

Daily Read – Turn the daily devotional into daily tips/hints based on the topic currently being studied. Even short Pop Quizzes would be cool.

Portable – It is a must that it be designed with the portable technologies in mind (ie. iPod Touch, iPhone, Smart Phones, PDA’s, Flash Drive).

Read
– It should read the text to you. This would help in many situations with students (hearing impaired, ADD/ADHD, dyslexic, etc). Since the Gen 2 Touch has a small speaker built-in, this would be nice.

Graphics
– The Bible app does not have any, but it is an easy add-on for the programmers.

Video
– Take advantage of the video abilities of the Touch with informational and tutorial videos.

Hyperlinks
– Since Safari is built-in to the Touch, as is wireless, this is a no-brainer. Link to outside reliable sources. If the URL’s go dead over time, no biggie. Apps can be updated easily anytime via iTunes. Heck, iTunes even tells you if there is an update available.

Zoom
– Take advantage of the touch screen for the visually impaired.

Print
– Allow it to wirelessly print important information. One thought here is that the ability to email the important information allows this as well, just with a few more steps.

Quizzes
– Practices quizzes would be a really cool addition.

Tests
– Links to secure, online, graded tests would be a nice add-on for the teacher. Short answer, multiple choice, and matching are good options.

What else am I missing? What do you think should be a part of real electronic textbooks? Consider all of your needs as an educator and the needs of your diverse student population.

A Dynamic Celebration of Learning

“The portfolio is a laboratory where students construct meaning from their accumulated experience.” – Pearl and Leon Paulson

With our district’s website overhaul out of the way, our sights are now set on ePortfolios. Our goals:

    * 100% coverage of certified staff by the end of the 09-10 school year
    * 100% of our students at the middle school maintaining them with the transfer to high school as 8th graders promote each year
    * Utilization of ePortfolios as evidence of staff mastery of state and federal technology application standards; future reporting to SBEC
    * Utilization of ePortfolios as evidence of student mastery of state and federal technology application standards; current reporting to TEA for NCLB

Before we started considering different platforms for this project, we needed to nail down what we felt were important attributes of any software solution. After multiple meetings, conversations, and general mulling it over, we decided on these:
Opensource – This was not a have-to, but is was one we wanted to work toward. There are some nice commercial choices out there, but we did not want our staff and students tied to a paid source due to the next characteristic. Also, many opensource softwares can be stored and launched completely from a flash drive. This means our ePortfolios can be carried around on a keychain or in a pocket if so desired.

  • Portability – This was a must have. Our goal is to create a system our students can take with them when they leave the high school to improve their chances of college entrance or job placement. Much like paper portfolios, the students need to be able to show them off at will.  We also felt it was a priority that our staff had them as well for two reasons; One, we are on the cusp of our state education department requiring our teachers to prove technology mastery to maintain certification, and two, if our teachers are familiar with the platform then they can help our students design and maintain high quality portfolios.
  • Usability – The platform must be easy to use and personalize. Each of our staff and students have different personalities and qualities. The ePortfolio should represent them as such. With multiple, customizable templates and plugins, they should be well on their way to the end product of their choosing.
  • Popular – This sounds like a stupid characteristic, but a popular solution is one that enjoys more support by a larger community. With opensource software, the community depends on each other to make the product better. We will also rely on it to keep ours afloat.
  • Flexible – We knew there were several items the users would need for this tool to be effective. It needed to provide:
  1. privacy – Not all items are meant to be published, but the learner (for this post, learner = students and teachers) still needs to flesh out the content. There might be a time the content should be made public, but not always.
  2. ownership – This relates directly back to the usability listed above. The learner should be the ultimate decision-maker as to the appropriate content to be published and how it is presented.
  3. reflection – Learners should reflect on their learning. They need a place to post, edit, re-post, and so on. Alvin Toffler shares, “The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Reflection in an ePortfolio will help our learners adapt to this.
  4. collaboration – Barbara Harrell Carson, Thirty Years of Stories, shares this: “Students learn what they care about, from people they care about and who, they know, care about them.” Collaboration is imperative for them to become lifelong learners. If they enjoy the learning process because of who they can work with, then they will enjoy learning as a habit, not a requirement.
  5. linkable – Our learners need to know how to link to content stored in various forms and locations. The solution should allow for this while also offering local storage of files. As Dr. Helen Barrett shares from Portland State University studies, hyperlinking leads to metacognition which leads to deeper learning.
  • Durable – We need a solution that was not buggy, but more importantly we need one that will be around for a long while. This kind of lends itself back to being popular. If there is a large community built around the software, chances are it will sustain a long life.

We set off to discover a solution with these needs in mind. Considering the conversation around the idea of us implementing ePortfolios has been ongoing for well over a year, we have had the chance to preview a number of ideas, theories, and  examples. Blogs was one of our early thoughts, but we did not want to pigeon-hole the entire program right off the bat.

Wikis were considered, but it seemed like it would be just an electronic paper folder. While that might be attractive to some, we wanted our users to have more flexibility in organization and presentation without having to know lots of coding.

HTML sites is always an option, but we would rely on our users learning HTML. So, it wasn’t an option.

Moodle was another option, but I think it does not have the portability nor the nice appearance many of our users would be after. It is broadly used and even has hosts offering the use for free. It just was not exactly a good fit with our users.

Mahara is fairly new on the scene these days. While it looks promising, it lacks the portability and usability. Portability really ranks high on our list, so this left Mahara out of the final cut.

We ended up back where we began: blogs. Blogs give the user the chance to customize the final product. They can also be hosted on the Internet both in paid and free hosting services. I wish I could say that we looked at tons of options here, but the truth is that the easy choice was WordPress. More specifically, WordPress MU (WPMU). WordPress is a very popular platform that enjoys a worldwide fan base of users who eagerly work to improve both its main coding as well as new templates and add-on extensions. We also knew that WPMU gave us plenty of extra options as a useful communication tool and learning center within our school district. Administrators and teachers can utilize them to share information with students and parents. Teachers can also use them to create epicenters of learning in sharing, reflective, and collaborative formats.

Our choice was further solidified at NECC when I was able to sit down with Dr. Helen Barrett, the Godmother of the ePortfolio. Seeing her sitting in the Blogger’s Cafe was like spotting a movie star. Her reaction, though, was unlike most stars out there. She was very welcoming, open, honest, and sincere in her thoughts and comments and treated me like an equal colleague. She was more than interested in our project and willing to help in anyway she could. Her more than fifteen years of ePortfolio work is very impressive.  We talked about her new book that she was working on that even supported our plans. I recommended her as a feature presenter at TCEA. I can only hope she is able to make it. She is the type of professor that you could sit and have great conversations with. I hope to do more of that in the future.

Now that we had our software solution, we had to look for a host. We could house it internally, but that would require more from us in tech support than we are equipped to handle.  Outside hosting would cost more per month than typical hosting because WPMU requires a VPS server. Not a problem, but it was something to keep in mind. We chose SiteGround as our host because of the superior tech support they have provided us in hosting our district website. Let me tell you, I cannot say enough good things about the work SiteGround has done for us. Our website is based on the Joomla platform, so they are not worried about the opensource nature of what we will use.  Kudos to those guys and gals.

So we had a solution and a host. The next thing was all of the coding to make it look and act just right. Twitter to the rescue. While I was online following the conversations one evening, I saw Kim Estes commenting on several WPMU sites she was working on. A quick trip over to the Burleson ISD site showed some very impressive work. I asked for some tips and tricks from Kim, and I got all of that and more. I will not go into detail (I’ll leave it to Kim to share her work with you), but I will tell you that she is one talented individual that I am proud to have connected with. Her BISD site was nearly exactly what we were looking for on ours, and she was more than happy to help out. I was so impressed that I talked her into letting me hire her for a day to work with our middle school staff. Her training was so popular that other campus teachers and administrators sneaked in for a little small group assistance from her. I cannot overstate this about Kim. She is a talented, hard working educator who sees nothing but what is the best for ALL kids. That is the type of person I love to work with. Heck, I even have her lined up to Skype into a presentation I am giving in the spring. Her experience and knowledge is just too vast to hide in Burleson.

There you have it. The process to go from idea to implementation has been a long one. With the advice of folks like Dr. Helen Barrett and Elizabeth A. Hebert, our work will move forward. I will blog about our hopes and dreams, beliefs and choices, and our successes and failures. I hope that you will follow along and offer advice.

While it might be lonely being one of the few (the only ones?) in Texas making a leap of faith into a project like this, it will be a wonderful learning experience. Even a Texas legislator that I had the opportunity to meet with last week in Austin called it brave. We are putting ourselves out there for criticism, but I feel our staff and students are prepared. They do such great work academically, this is just a logical next step for them to take. They deserve the chance to showcase their hard work. We do know one thing. When Texas decides that it is time for students to be assessed authentically and educators to present their technology proficiency in an authentic manner, White Oak ISD will be ready.

Visit the Roughneck Blog and ePortfolio server today and see what’s going on. We are in the early stages, so come back here and share your feedback. We are happy to have you be a part of the process.

PS – The title of this blog post is a snippet of a metaphor Dr. Barrett uses for ePortfolios. Here it is in its entirety:

“An electronic portfolio has the potential to
become a dynamic celebration of learning that documents a teacher’s
professional development across his or her career.”

Lead, follow, collaborate, or get out of the way.


Photo Credit: notanalternative

[Background: For some insight into the argument presented below, let me
share this. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) uses a government subset organization called Texas Education Telecommunications Network (TETN) to share TEA updates and other material via a distance learning network. School districts must pay to receive those connections. As budgets have been crunched due to continued shortfall funding by Texas leadership, school districts have had to trim away even the important things. You know, the things you should be getting for free like state mandated updates. This is not a plea for TETN to be free for all of their services. They also offer DL sessions for classrooms that many find very useful.]

Notes from TECSIG, October 2 & 3, 2008:

TEA – Let me begin by saying, I truly respect Anita Givens. Her work on behalf of public education and technology has been tremendous. We are lucky to have her in the new position she now holds. But I believe respect between two professionals is appreciated most when there is some honest pushback and not just a bunch of agreement. (It is the reason I like Gary Stager and the work he does.)

While TEA may rest on the idea/reason/excuse of cash-strapped and man-power lean, the rest of us are in the same boat but are utilizing the free technologies that are out there for us. Government is not thinking that way. Government wants to place a high price tag on what it does because it makes it seem more important, I presume. As a public school district employee, I find it extremely important to have timely policy and program updates from my governing body. Cost should not be an inhibitor.

A few years back I blogged about how another state passed a bill requiring all government offices to consider free, opensource options when looking at alternatives. Texas does not do that. For too many years we have listened to our state’s leadership talk about how transparent school districts need to be. Texas government doesn’t do that either.

So, to TEA, my suggestion is a simple, classic line heard many times: Lead, follow, or get out of the way. And let me add one more to that. Consider this turn of that phrase: Lead, follow, collaborate, or get out of the way. If you cannot make the system better for any of a long list of reasons, let us help. Somehow we are able to harness the free resources that are out there for our schools and classrooms. Let us use those same systems to get the word out about new programs, policy changes, and important deadlines. Don’t claim some false statement of copyright (which you do not have in this instance anyway thanks to Texas Sunshine Laws) and slow down the information superhighway. We are not talking about private conversations here. We are talking about large group policy and program updates. You know, the stuff you and the tax payers expect us to live up to.

While we can go ahead and repost the information without repercussions, it would be nice for TEA to step up and applaud the fact that Texas educators care enough about their state system and local school districts that they are willing to be a part of the solution to make it the best it can be. Why anyone would think or do otherwise is incomprehensible. We do not extend our personal learning just to aggravate the state. We’ve better things to do.

As an aside: Please don’t tell me that TEA has been “telling you for eight years” about a tech literacy assessment. We both know that is a cop out. Sure, NCLB came out then and it is a part of that, but there has never even been a hint of holding anyone accountable until May 9th when you folks shared it with the limited number of people in attendance that day. Even still, the limited funds that MIGHT be lost by ignoring the mandate is not enough to move many districts to act. Why districts would choose to defy assessment now in as an important area as any is ridiculous, with our without the consequences. But I digress. I know it was a statement made as more of a defensive measure than one that was thought out.

TETN – These folks are in a bubble of sorts. They want to be relevant. They need the money stream to stay afloat. Yet, they have become an old version of what we use now with online tools. They are the land line compared to the cell phone. The HBO to NetFlix and iTunes. The post office to email.

What if you propose to place Marco Torres’s decision-making self-reflection on it: “Complain, Innovate, or Quit.” TETN is in the Complain stage. The problem with that? They’re a vendor. How long will they survive in that spot? Relevance is a limited state of being. Remember that. Go for Marco’s second option in that list. Please.

Yes, there was more to those two days in Austin than TEA and TETN, but let’s face it. We all go there to hear what is expected of us next. Yes, Apple did a fine job of professional development the first day. Maria Henderson is always pure genius (even if her old links are dead due to the Mobile.me upgrade. Sigh.). So, if you want to know more about them, go to one of their offerings for school district administrators.

But, if you want to be a part of TEA opening the virtual doors to their massive amounts of information, become part of the solution. If you want to stand in the way because you have nothing productive to do, you’re wasting your time. You cannot hold up progress. The Texas Legislature meets in January. I’ve started my game plan. Have you?

In the Middle and Working Our Way Out

Okay. So it wasn’t the wallpaper of Miguel Guhlin on a computer that got my middle school teachers engaged and excited on Thursday. It was something better.

MacBooks, iPod Nanos, two 165 quart all terrain Igloo coolers, and plenty of Pasco science probes. So it cost a bit to get them going, but it worked. As we rolled in the two huge coolers with boxes stacked on top of each and two rolling carts with a dozen Higher Ground laptop cases, I felt like Vanna White as I unveiled the new tools these educators have at their disposal this year. For the record, all of this was planned and ordered months before my wife ever was hired to teach 6th grade ELA (which I am extremely proud to have her in our school district now). I am already getting the “She is way better than you ever were” comments, and they are right.  🙂

Anyway…..We began with 4 GB flash drives. Each teacher received one with his or her name engraved onto it. We felt like that gave them the true ownership each of them needed to feel free to utilize the thing without fear of it being taken away or whatever. It was a hit to say the least. Michael and I had some grant funds we used for them, and the teachers thoroughly appreciated it.

Next, I handed out iPod Nanos to each table. No, it wasn’t for them to keep. They did get to help me unwrap them and got to play with them for a little bit while we discussed possible uses in the classroom. With two 15 unit docking/synch stations, they should see plenty of action even with being new to teachers. My hope is that they become in such high demand that we must buy more. This is, of course, meaning that they are being utilized in the classroom to improve content knowledge, deeper understanding, and a higher level of student engagement in the entire learning process. See, Gary Stager. I was paying attention.

Then we opened the coolers up and shared some information about the probes inside. Some may wonder why we put them in coolers. Well, we are building a 23 acre nature center (behind our elementary schools in the picture above) for all campuses to use. The coolers will make it easier to tote the tools out to the learning site while also giving some heavy duty protection to the equipment. The pneumatic tires will make them easy to roll over even big brush, rocks, and what have you. For the most part, the only folks worked up here were the science teachers, but that’s okay. I was excited, and I am an English teacher. Well, and a techy (and all of the probes had USB jacks, so that made it click for me). For me, the highlight of this part was having the sixth grade science teacher figure out what the nearly six foot long physics probe bundle was all about. Something about inertia, speed, something, and some other somethings. Truly, that baby is on its way to the high school since they are the real physics folks. That will be true of other probes we bought as well. Our middle school science teachers will be working their way through all of the science probes and helping us move them to the appropriate campus for other teachers to use. Thank goodness for those ladies, because I would have been lost on that sorting deal. I do plan to stick close and learn more about it, though.

Finally, after about thirty minutes of the other stuff, we hit the MacBooks. I had each person grab a laptop, battery (fully charged from the battery dock), and a comfy chair. Since Macs are new to our staff, I spent plenty of time walking them through the basics (icons, Finder, shortcuts, the cool Ctrl+two finger zoom function). We spent a few minutes in each of the iWorks apps: Numbers, Keynote, and Pages. Then we hit the popular suite of iLife: iMovie (I downloaded HD since no one can figure out 08 anyway), iPhoto, iTunes, and Garageband. I showed them how easy it was to record a lecture in Garageband, add a quick audio clip to the beginning as if it were a news show, and export it out as an MP3 file. Then we uploaded it to the Apple podcast blogs we use. I think they were relieved seeing that it was as simple as sending an email. I showed them how easy it was to do the same thing in iMovie with the built-in iSight camera to make a video podcast. Cool enough. They really enjoyed the part where I had one of the teachers use iChat in the back of the room and call into my session. Once they saw how easy that was, I think their attention got even stronger with the Mac. Everyone loves a good video chat.

Throughout the session, I stuck to the same mantra: You now have a very powerful tool in your hands to create, captivate, engage, enthrall, and any other snazzy verb you can think of. You can capture priceless learning with the students. You can provide resources for absent students or those needing remediation. You can allow the kids to teach you.  You can allow yourself AND the students to publish. They NEED a creative outlet to do this.

That is my son. Give him a MacBook (or Legos or piles of scrap whatever) and a little instruction, and he can create like crazy. He will show you how his understanding goes beyond what he might could show you on paper or on a state test. That is my son. He will show you how the right brain can engage in ways the left never can by sharing beautiful bits of himself that his teachers, his mother, and I helped to create by teaching and loving him. That’s my son. He will WOW you with his awesomeness of a sponge-like brain, not by regurgitating facts on a score sheet, but by composing his own score sheet to share with the world. That is my son.

It’s also your son (or daughter). We must provide new outlets for kids to practice and publish their learning. They need to showcase their content knowledge in some way other than a bubble sheet, a test proctor, and a newspaper article reporting the results. When they publish personally in these new ways, there is immediate feedback and reflection and relearning. When their knowledge is judged by one day and a few hours on a test, the only thing they get there is a snapshot result. They do not use that to motivate themselves to learn more, to discuss the successes and failures with peers, or as an opportunity to find a mentor to further their knowledge. The most they get is either a party or extra tutoring (my rant on the state, by the way, not the teachers).

This is the driving force behind what we are doing at our middle school. We are working toward building electronic portfolios (WordPress MU) that the students can upload these types of products to where they can showcase their learning and skills. They can build on them and add new ones. They will be able to edit, recreate, share, and even take the portfolio with them when they leave our district. They will be the models for the campuses they left and the ones they head to. Their expectations will be higher than ever before when they enter a new classroom. They need the freedom to produce, reflect, rethink, and react in their learning. This is their chance. This is an opportunity to collaborate with peers and teaching faculty at a whole new level.

While we work through this process, I will share more of my reflections in this blog.

I want to leave you with the same video I left my middle school staff with (and I shared back in June on this blog). My wife said it tied everything together beautifully (not consciously planned on my part).  My lead in (off the cuff) was that we are the ultimate force in the classroom. How we prepare and present ourselves to our students is ultimately how they decide whether they turn themselves on or off for learning when they enter our doors. Is our focus on teaching the same year of instruction for thirty plus years? Or is it to refocus how we perceive actual learning with today’s youth and offer and foster an environment that promotes their full participation in the process with an open mind and an innovative spirit?

intro_me

Photo Credits: (1) Miguel Wallpaper – me, taken at TCEA office in Austin during Thinkfinity training; (2) Google Earth snapshot of WOISD – me in Google Earth; (3) “I like my voice” – Peter H. Reynolds, scribbled on a napkin if I remember the story correctly.

Pick your author, any author

Okay, reading teachers and librarians. This site is just neat in so many ways, yet it only does one thing. It finds you an author.

The premise is simple. Go to Literature Map. Type in the name of an author you (your students actually) like to read. Literature Map goes out and does some crazy style of mapping and finds authors that write like your chosen author and about topics similar to the ones your chosen author writes about. Not sure how it does it.

It seemed to do a pretty good job of nearly all I entered (one or two children’s book authors were not in there). The funniest response I found was when I put in Eric Carle (not one of my fav’s, by the way) and it suggested Stephen King as one of the options. I could not agree more, because Carle’s story lines bore me to death (get it? Death, Stephen King…insert cricket chirp). Sorry. I know it is more about the art than the words in his case.

Anyway, here is what it looked like when I did Lois Lowry. Consider that the closer the author name is to your chosen author in the center of the screen, the more alike the writing styles and other attributes. In this case, Judy Blume was closest. It may not be perfect, but it will get kids reading new authors. Neat stuff. Should have one computer in the library just with this turned on.

Jacques Cousteau is sitting in your classroom and you just don’t know it!

Let’s face it. Your students love nature. They love computers. They love media. Why not have them create short documentaries about cheetahs, water lizards, polar bears, and more using real video footage, authentic sounds, and background music?

What? Your kids don’t know how to make videos? You don’t know where to get the media for the film? Well, let Nat Geo step in and save the day. Enter the Wildlife Filmmaker. Your kids do not need to be professionals, but they just might turn into them. Using drag and drop technology, National Geographic has done a wonderful job of simplifying the process for teachers (I say ‘teachers’ because the detail could kill us if we had to walk our younger students through the process in MovieMaker or iMovie).

The students will be given a code to write down when they are through to allow them to retrieve the video once they are completed. Now, retrieve means it will bring it back up and play it in the Nat Geo site. I did not see a way to download the video yet, but I am sure it will not be long. A teacher could very easily write the numbers down to create links on his/her web page for parents and students to view their creations.

So, if you are lucky enough to have an administrator order you to teach the things you wanted the students to learn but testing got in the way of, then try this out. The students can preview the animal clips and make a short video or two to try the site out. Then, once they are comfortable with it, they can do some research on the animal of choice and return to the site to make their own Animal Planet documentary short. The side benefit of this is that they will gain some great skills using the video timeline window on the site. It is very much like the software programs such as Windows MovieMaker, Apple’s iMovie, or the more advanced Apple Final Cut Studio we use in our high school.

Awesome tools for science and literacy (digital storytelling), so go give it a try! Let me know what you think about it.

Don’t be an academic Uncle Rico!

You remember how smart you were in high school? You know, headed to Ivy League if it weren’t for that one teacher who hated you or that one bad test day, or not enough money or ….. Yet, you were every bit as smart as any Ivy Leaguer. Right, Uncle Rico?

Well, now is your chance to prove it. You are older, wiser, more self-controlled. What better time is there? Derek Baird over at the Blended Edu blog reminded me that Yale University had joined the OpenCourseWare (OCW) movement. They announced it in September of 2006, but they are now stocking the system with courses. Seven departments at Yale offer courses: Astronomy, English, Philosophy, Physics, Political Science, Psychology, and Religious Studies.

The best thing about this system is that you have free access to the lectures and course material through the Open Yale site. You get the chance to virtually audit the course. How cool is that? You never leave your (insert where you are on the computer, with iPod, etc.). You choose when to study. You challenge your friends and co-workers to see if they can handle the rigor of an Ivy League course. Or, you impress them by doing it anyway when they say no thanks. You can’t necessarily move your family to Yale, but you sure can take advantage of this.

Open Yale is the direction schools are headed with content (minus the “free” attached to ALL of it). The OCW movement is but one group offering the ability to be a lifelong learner from talented, brilliant, academic minds. Consider iTunes U. Harvard, Yale, Texas A&M, Stanford, and more are filling your iPod with academic lectures, videos, and notes just in case you want to take advantage of them during your self-directed learning. Once again, it is free. These schools are also using the iTunes portal for students who show up in person, so consider the fact that the information you are getting is current and you have one heck of a deal on your hands.

Here is what I am thinking. You have a few high school students who are very bright. They are ready for the D1 university challenge, so they think. Why not corral up a few of them and put together a PLN that meets before school, after school, during a study period, or even virtually. Work through a course with them so they can see what university work is all about. They will either prove their muster or realize it is time to step it up. Regardless, what the Open Yale site says is the goal of the project stands very true in this instance:

This approach goes beyond the acquisition of facts and concepts to cultivate skills and habits of rigorous, independent thought: the ability to analyze, to ask the next question, and to begin the search for an answer.

We hope these courses will be a resource for critical thinking, creative imagination, and intellectual exploration.

I could not say it better myself.

This is learning for the love of learning. Challenge for the intrinsic motivation. Intellectual stimulation as a voluntary mental workout. When did these things get left out of the standards in school? Oh, yeah. When they were not on the test. What an opportunity this is!

So, anyone up for the challenge? I think the Philosophy course PHIL 176 – Death is out for me. Will it be Poli Sci or Religious Studies? RLST 145 – Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). Hmm. I think I might have found a winner.
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Google Docs Uploader A.K.A. Easy way to upload your files

Our district recently switched to Google Apps for Your Domain to host our email and more. One of the tools we now have for every teacher is Google Docs. Now our staff is fairly use to saving to the “S Drive” since we have Deep Freeze. But this new uploader tool will make their lives even easier since it will store their documents (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) where they can access them from any Internet connection, just like their email, all in the same place.  Here is what the Google Tutor has to say:

After downloading the tool, you just have to double-click it and the application starts working right away (my note: works on Windows PCs running the .NET Framework 2.0 or higher). You don’t have to install anything on your computer to make this work. So this would be an excellent tool to have on your USB stick if you upload files to Google Docs from various computer locations.

When you open it for the first time, you will be asked to log in and afterwards, the list of files currently stored in your Google Docs account will be shown :

You can then go to the file location on your PC and drag it into the main window. It will then be instantly uploaded to your Google account.

Or, as the screenshot also shows, you can enable a feature that will add a “Send to Google Docs” option in your Windows Explorer right-click menu :

Both options work equally well.

Thanks to Google Tutor for laying it out so easily for us. This will be a super add-on to our already powerful Google Suite.

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