"If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow." --John Dewey

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Go Bananas for Mail Chimp

It is certainly no secret that frequent, regular communication with families is important to the success of your students.  I know plenty of teachers who spend countless hours typing up weekly or monthly newsletters, and decorating them with lovely clipart images or even class pictures.  Then they dutifully copy enough for every family and have their students put them carefully into their backpacks so that their parents will be sure to get them. The trouble is, there really isn't any way of knowing when, or even if the parents read those beautifully designed, carefully-worded newsletters at all.  So now what?

Posting important information to a class web page is helpful, I suppose.  Still, you have no way of know who's actually reading the information.  Wouldn't it be great to know exactly who is taking the time to read your literary endeavors?  Get yourself a Mail Chimp and know for sure.

Create a free account at MailChimp.com and you can easily send professional looking email newsletters and reminders, and get detailed reports as to how many of your recipients are opening the messages.

Mail Chimp has loads of pre-formatted templates from which to choose, all of which can be used as is, or customized with logos and color combinations of your choice.  Import recipient information from your online address book or an Excel spreadsheet, and choose to send your emails to your entire list, or a specific segment of your list.  Your newsletters can include images and text, of course, and can be personalized by merging "subscriber" information into the body of your message.  How much nicer would it be for parents to see news addressed to Dear Mr. & Mrs. Jones, as opposed to Dear Parent(s)?

Once complete, your emails can be scheduled to go out on a specific date and time, after which you can check reports to see exactly which recipients have opened your communication, and whether or not they've checked out any links you may have provided.  The point?  Well, we all know the importance of documenting . . . just about everything that involves communication with parents, right?  Mail Chimp reports provide important documentation of your efforts to communicate.  And, more importantly, give you the information you need, to know who you may need to reach out to more personally.

Check out this sample Mail Chimp email http://tinyurl.com/mail-chimp-demo, and then try creating one of your own.  Perhaps you can send a nice end of the year message of thanks to parents, with links for summer activities and even a year-end online slideshow.  Or, just get your feet wet so that you can begin next year with an informational newsletter introducing yourself to your new students and their families.  Go on.  Get a little feedback from your first message, and you'll go bananas for Mail Chimp.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Wild About Wikis!

Have you discovered the wonderful world of wikis?  A classroom wiki can be likened to one of those infommercial gadgets that has a million and one uses, except that you can get this amazing tool without even shelling out one red cent.

Whether your goal is to improve communication with parents, incorporate more cooperative learning projects for your class, more easily collaborate with colleagues, or simply integrate more technology into your curriculum, wikis are your answer.  Start by creating an account at any one of a number of free sites:  www.wikispaces.com, www.pbworks.com, www.wetpaint.com, www.pikiwiki.com, education.weebly.com, www.wix.com, just to name a few.  All are free, hosted sites that you can use online from any computer (no downloads).

Wikis can be used to easily share textual information, since the text editor in most wikis looks very much like your favorite word procesing program--no learning curve here.  Uploading images, including animated images, is usually a pretty simple task as well, making wikis easy for you and your students to use.  But, wikis allow for so much more than just text and images.  Using the html or javascript code provided by many websites, you can embed an almost limitless number of interactive elements into your wiki.

Myspace Generators & Toys

If you maintain a Google calendar, for example, you can embed your calendar into a wiki page so that important dates and events are readily available for students and parents to view.  Embed videos that your students can watch at home, or interactive maps (scribblemaps.com) that already contain images and/or videos.  Embed interactive games (classtools.net) for a fun way to get your students to practice vocabulary or math skills, or embed entire ebooks for your students who need practice reading.  You can even use a site like www.recordmp3.org/ to record the narration to the story to differentiate for those students who would benefit from hearing pronunciations while they read along.  Give your students some fun alternatives to traditional book reports by having them create projects at blabberize.com, or xtranormal.com and embed the finished product in your wiki for all to see.  Use tools like wallwisher.com, or answergarden.ch or dabbleboard.com to encourage collaboration between your students or between your colleagues.

Your classroom wiki is very much like a ball of clay, waiting to take on whatever shape or purpose that you design.  There are so many wonderful ways to use a classroom wiki, and so many wonderful elements that you can include.  Still not convinced?  Check out this blog post for a host of ideas for using a classroom wiki, and give it a try.  Before you know it you'll wonder how you ever got along without one, and you, too, will be wild about wikis!

Orkut Scrap Toys

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Do You Stream on UStream?

You know, I work with very talented teachers who do some very remarkable things in their classrooms.  The trouble is, I didn't always hear about these remarkable things, because we didn't have a vehicle for sharing that kind of information.  And, if a teacher who is in school every day isn't aware of the wonderful things happening in classrooms other than his or her own, you can bet that parents are missing out on a lot of that information as well.  So, we've started taking advantage of the free streaming service at UStream.com to broadcast a weekly news program to share information with the members of our school community, and, by golly, it's catching on!

Each Friday afternoon, members of our 8th grade Tech Team become our school newscasters.  While our on-air personality reads the news from various classrooms, our behind-the-scenes techie mans the UStream controls, and changes from live video to still pics and pre-recorded videos (usually student-made iMovies) all while monitoring sound levels.  While our first few broadcasts were, admittedly, rough around the edges, they are certainly improving with each week's endeavor.  Our newscast generally includes special projects from various classrooms, school sports news, special announcements from teachers and/or administrators, and a list of students and teachers celebrating birthdays.

At first, I was very grateful that our classroom teachers were being good sports about accommodating my newest tech project at the expense of precious instructional time.  I've since some to find out from many of those teachers that their students look forward to each week's broadcast, and are more attentive during those ten minutes than any other time of the day.  So, while I'm still grateful, I'm also so happy that this project has become such an important part of our school culture that the story details I once had to seek out from teachers are now regularly being brought to my attention with requests to be included in the Friday News.  Don't you just love it when you realize that your hard work actually matters?!

Here's the scoop on how you can try your hand at newscasting with your class.
Sign up for a free account at http://ustream.tv.  Set up your channel by providing some basic information about what you plan to broadcast, your program name, and your channel name, and even upload a logo for your channel.  If you choose to use the online broadcaster, you can then be "on the air" in a matter of minutes, using just your webcam and microphone.

Once you're ready to be a little more adventurous, download the free desktop application at http://www.ustream.tv/producer, and you can plan a more multi-faceted program by uploading still images, videos and music for inclusion in your live broadcast.  UStream Producer will even give you the option of recording your live broadcast so it can be viewed on the UStream website at a later date by anyone who may have missed the original broadcast, or who simply wants a rerun.  You can even upload a series of images to run as a slide show any time your channel is offline.  Worried about security?  UStream will allow you to password protect your channel, so you don't have to be concerned about who's seeing what you're putting online.

Now, as with any free service, there will be limitations as to how fancy you can get.  For example, with UStream using two cameras or creating a picture in picture broadcast is just for paid subscribers.  Too bad, you're thinking, right?  Not to worry--there's a work around for that.  Download the free program CamTwist at http://camtwist.en.softonic.com/mac (I think PC's use manycam.com) and you can create some pretty sophisticated newscasts.  Include weather data at the bottom or your screen.  Add a logo or message while broadcasting live video.  Even show a movie as a picture in picture while your anchorman reads the news story.

I can't stress enough how fun and exciting this will be for your students.  While adding the extras can be a little intimidating, and will require some practice, a basic webcast can be done quickly and easily.  Even your most reluctant writers and readers will want to step up to the plate to be a part of your news broadcast!  And best of all, everyone in your school community will know about the wonderful things your students are learning.  How cool is that?!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Edmodo Makes Educating Easier

You know, sometimes I get so accustomed to relying on a particular resource that it just becomes part of my normal daily routine, and I forget that it may still be completely foreign to teachers who aren't tethered to a computer all day long.  Such is the case with one of my very favorite web resources.  If you haven't already discovered the wonderful world of Edmodo.com, prepare to be intrigued, excited, and ultimately delighted.

Edmodo offers a secure platform through which you can interact with your colleagues, students, and if you choose, their parents as well.  Create your free account, and the site will generate a class code that you can share with your students.  You will be able to use the site to post assignments for the whole group, or differentiate and send specialized instructions to individual students.  You will be provided a calendar on which you can post due dates and other important information your whole group will need, and registered students can customize for themselves with their own important dates.  There is also a library feature that will allow you to post documents, images, links and even embedded videos and podcasts, etc., so that your students can immediately access the resources they will need for a particular assignment, without ever leaving the Edmodo website.  Additionally, students can upload their own documents to a personal "backpack," eliminating the need for carrying those flash drives that are so easily lost or left in the wrong place.  Depending on the settings that you select, you can also use Edmodo to conduct class discussions and polls, build and assign quizzes, and post grades online.

One of the most versatile features of this site, I think, is the ability to not only attach files and links, but to embed html as well.  This means that you can also embed interactive elements that will take your Edmodo site from useful to extraordinary!  If you are a language teacher, for example, you can use a site like Vocaroo.com to record yourself speaking the vocabulary lesson, and embed it in Edmodo so your students can hear the correct pronunciations while they study at home.


As if all of that wasn't reason enough to give Edmodo a try, consider this.  When your students complete any digital assignment, whether word processing document, slide show, podcast, movie . . . whatever, they can turn their finished assignment in to you through Edmodo, so you can eliminate carrying piles of unnecessary printouts and your own oh-so-easy to misplace flash drive.  And, if you happen to be lucky enough to team teach a class, Edmodo provides one of the simplest ways to share everything with your partner teacher and make life a little easier for both of you.

I highly recommend giving Edmodo a try.  I'm sure you will come to appreciate a resource that is simple to use, yet robust enough to handle just about all of your instructional needs.  And, your social-media savvy students will undoubtedly appreciate the instant familiarity of a classroom resource that looks and feels so much like one that they would not normally associate with school work.

Click here to access an excellent guide to using Edmodo in your classroom.  Perfect for new users!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Get Your Group Grokking

Is there anyone who got through their elementary school years without the frustration of asking a parent or teacher for help spelling a tricky word, only to be told to "look it up"?  While I understand the idea of teaching someone to be resourceful and independent, in some respects determining who would know the answer to your question is being rather resourceful, don't you think?  In any case, sometimes it's nice to be able to get a straight answer from Grandma, instead of a dictionary from Mom.

Searching for information online very often becomes an equally frustrating situation.  We direct our students to a favorite search engine, which in turn shows them other places to search for their answers.  Then, instead of sorting through information, they are sorting through websites, often times skipping the most useful sites because it's simply too arduous of a chore to read a page dense with text to find the one or two facts that would be useful.  Don't get me wrong--searching and reading for details are wonderful, necessary skills, no doubt.  They're just not always the skills we're trying to teach or practice in a particular lesson.  Sometimes we shop through every aisle of the store to see what looks good, and sometimes we simply need to grab the milk and get out.

When you need your students to quickly gather facts for a lesson or project, try directing them to instaGrok.com.  Using instaGrok to find information will have your students spending less time searching, and more time learning.  And, it offers some pretty handy tools for both you and your students to help keep everyone on track and well organized.  Let's take a look.

Enter your search term and the program will immediately begin "grokking."  What you'll get when the grokking is done is a mind-map of topics related to your search term, and lists of facts, websites, videos and images to help you fill in the blanks.  (Be sure to click on More in any category to see LOTS more!)  If you take a few minutes to create a teacher account at the site, your students can register as members of your class, and have access to a handy journal where they can pin the facts and images they need, as well as a list of websites they've visited so they can revisit if necessary.  The website will also maintain a history of searches so your students can be working on their Social Studies project one period, their Science project the next, and have the ability to quickly and easily switch between the two at the same site.  Not sure that little Javier in the back row is still on task?  Check your My Class tab and see exactly what each student in your class has been doing, and where they've been searching.  Take a look at their journal entries, and even make notes/comments for each student to see.

As if all of that isn't enough, instaGrok also allows the user to adjust the difficulty level (grade school, high school or college level) with a simple "flip of a switch," and will generate appropriately leveled multiple-choice quiz questions based on the user's research activity.

This website will put an unbelievable amount of information at the fingertips of your students in a very short amount of time.  Be sure to direct your students to instGrok.com the next time you want them to spend their time grokking instead of searching.  You'll be very glad you did.

BTW:  Just because this was posted on April Fool's Day, please don't assume that talk of "grokking" is a lame attempt at pulling your leg.  Check the dictionary, really, and see if you can begin to grok the meaning of the word grokking.