Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Take your kids on a Dinosaur Dig

This is a fun site I used recently in class with my 3rd graders as we were studying fossils - it's called Dinosaurs and it's on the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History site. This tidy looking little site is actually jam packed with information about dinosaurs that is very accessible to kids from 2nd grade through high school.

On the Dinosaurs site, kids can learn just about anything they ever wanted to know (and never knew they wanted to know) about dinosaurs. There are tons of great pictures from the museum's archives as well as the many digs and expeditions that supplied the information.

There are some slideshows documenting some of the various digs, as well as some of the more prominent dinosaur collections at the Smithsonian NMNH.

What my 3rd graders were enamored with was an interactive "dinosaur dig". After we studied fossils, looked at some real ones, and then did a little play simulation with some clay and toy skeletons, they were ready for the dinosaur dig. The interactive takes kids through the basic procedures of a dig - from the first clearing of the surface to determine how big the site is, to the use of finer and finer tools to carefully get to the skeleton, to the plastering and transportation of the bones to the museum. Once they have successfully cleared, covered, and transported their "specimen", they then clean it and protect it in the museum's lab. After that they are ready to assemble the skeleton - they can use the clues about the various bones to help them find the proper placement. Once their model is finished, they can see different drawings and representations of what that dinosaur (a Stegosaurus) might have looked like.

This is a really engaging site and very easy for kids and their teachers to navigate. What I really liked was that none of the links take you away from the site - they are all built by the Smithsonian NMNH, so all of the information flows and connects really well.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Look out it's....TIMEZ ATTACKS!

If you happen to be looking, you will know how hard it is to find a really good simulation game that is educational for younger kids. There are obviously the Sims games (SimAnt, SimEarth, SimFarm) and the like, but they are so multifaceted they require a lot of time investment for teachers and students. We know these games are engaging, but our inner critic is not crazy about letting kids spend a lot of time on them unless we know there will be a definite academic benefit too.

I think I have found a good one - Timez Attacks. Timez Attacks is a simulation developed by Big Brain Software. It is usually available for purchase, however, they are offering free downloads to teachers for multiplication facts 2 to 12. Teachers get one free download per email address (so I have actually gotten 3).

In Timez Attacks you (the player) are this little mutant-ish creature who is in some castle-type thing. The object is for you to always be trying to get out of the chamber you are in. To do this, you must master some multiplication facts. The cool thing about Timez Attacks is that it is not merely fact memorization - your character is presented with a troll or something bearing the symbolic representation of the problem, say 2 x 2. It then releases 2 snails. Your player must catch each snail. When you catch the first snail you will see a "2", and when you catch the second snail you will see an "4". Your player can then throw the snails and when you do, 2 items will splat on the cave wall. Each will be a box containing 2 dots - you are now conceptualizing the multiplication problem as "2 two times". You may then post the answer "4" on the troll's chest or the dungeon wall or whatever.

It's actually quite simple - and fun! Kids love this and it goes beyond just memorization of facts. As you learn more facts and break through more chambers, you are constantly challenged on the facts you have already learned.

For teachers who have students learning multiplication facts (anywhere between 2nd grade to middle school kids who still need practice), Timez Attacks is great - they will BEG you to let them practice their math facts! I have a few third graders who are already getting addicted!

The free download only takes a couple of minutes and then that little green creature head on your desktop will always be there - ready to play!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A model of the solar system - better than papier-mache!

Gunn Interactive Web Design has built a fantastic visualization of the solar system. Simply begin this Planets site and the clock starts to tick! The slide arrows at the bottom give information about what is happening and explain how the model shows different perspectives of the solar system. As this commentary is going, the model is still moving along with the time and date ticker going.

Planets would be a great visualization to use with any class from elementary to high school that is studying any aspect of astronomy or the solar system. For elementary students it is a great way to see how the earth and the other planets orbit the sun. For other students it can present lots of great problem solving "quests" where the students can use the model to try to determine how many rotations other planets make in comparison to earth, and other such relative questions about orbits, speed, and time.

Planets is one of the best visualizations of the solar system I have seen online - you can control lots of elements about the model, such as the speed of the orbits, the scale of the planets, and best of all, which object you are following. This really will give some great perspective on the movement of the planets relative to each other and to the sun.

You have to try this - as soon as you get to the Planets site the visualization begins!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Read this for me! Quick tools for text-to-speech help

Do you have younger students who need to have things other than stories (like certain texts or class info) read to them? Do you have older students who still struggle with reading independently? Do you have students who need to have directions read to them?

Those of you who have ever experienced these situations in your classroom understand the frustration a teacher may face because ultimately, we can't be 10 places at once. As much as we may want to individualize our instruction, it's not possible to always do it to the extent we would like all the time.

Well - as you might expect - I'm going to tell you about a couple of tools that can help you out with this reading dilemma a little bit.

The first is an extremely simple online text reader called ItCanSay. Simply copy and paste the text you want aloud into the box and click the "read" button. A fairly boring sounding computer voice will read it in a surprisingly understandable way. You can even download it as an mp3 file with the click of a button. ItCanSay is a site created for English language learners, but I'm sure it's obvious it has many other applications. There is nothing fancy about the sight - and I've just described it's only bells and whistles. There some ads on the page for wrinkle removers, but if you don't like that, just download the mp3 file to your computer to avoid it.

The second option is another online text reader called Expressivo. Expressivo uses text-to-speech technology called Ivona Voice. You can actually choose different voices (male or female with different accents) that you want to read your text. Same thing as ItCanSay, but slightly nicer computer voice. For short pieces of text - up to 200 characters - Expressivo is free - just use section #1 and go no further. If you want it to do long pieces you have to purchase it.

Of course there are other options for text-to-speech that are fancier, but I found these two in particular to be about as simple as possible, and FREE.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New history textbook =$60: ushistory.org=free

We've surely all seen this day coming - the day when our textbooks become obsolete. Not just in the sense that they are old or outdated, but obsolete as in GONE - we don't need them any more.

I think that, theoretically, we could teach courses now without texts, but that would be a pretty big leap for some people who are still not comfortable with the technology. However, comfortable or not, I think that day is coming - and it will arrive more quickly than we probably ever guessed.

Many teachers already rely heavily on web resources to supplement their texts. In some cases the web IS already the text - the teacher must be a critical reader, compiler, and organizer of a wide range of information - but it is completely possible to put together a rich course curriculum this way.

A year or so ago I became aware of a site called Connexions. People (educators mostly) can contribute and freely use all of the content there. It is set up so that it is mostly scholarly in nature and meant to be used as a textbook type resource comprised of "modules". When it was first developed, there were were very few such sites of that magnitude. However, during the past couple of years, these types of shared sites have exploded. The content - and most of it very good content - is free and there for the taking.

A good example I recently heard about is ushistory.org. Their website has expanded considerably since first put up in 1995 and serves approximately 3 million page views monthly to almost 1 million visitors. The site receives approximately 22 million hits monthly.

Their latest addition is the U.S. History Online Textbook, which includes 60 chapters "From Pre-Columbian to the New Millenium".

This is a well-reviewed resource, and quite frankly, I have trouble seeing why schools and districts strapped for cash would be dishing out $60 for a quickly outdated textbook when all of this is FREE FREE FREE!

The current economic conditions may push schools and districts in this direction faster than any technology initiative ever could!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How well do we know our own minds?

Awhile back, while reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, I was introduced to the IAT - the Implicit Association Test. The IAT is a kind of test that measures implicit attitudes or beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report. Here is an excerpt about the background:

Psychologists understand that people may not say what's on their minds either because they are unwilling or because they are unable to do so. The unwilling-unable distinction is like the difference between purposely hiding something from others and unconsciously hiding something from yourself. The Implicit Association Test makes it possible to penetrate both of these types of hiding.

Gladwell discusses the IAT in Blink to illustrate some points about "thin slicing" - those split second assumptions or conclusions we come to almost unconsciously. He discusses in particular the "Race IAT" because people who take it and say they do not have a preference for one race over another are often surprised or disturbed to find after taking the test that the data indicate they do in fact have some preference, even if it is on an unconscious level.

There are other IAT tests too, such as the "weight IAT", the "religion IAT", the "gender IAT", the "Native American IAT", and several others - even an "Obama/McCain IAT"!

These sets of IAT's that Gladwell refers to are from the Project Implicit site. You can read more about that at their site.

How can you use this in your classroom? This, to me, is really fascinating - and I think that high school students could definitely benefit from the discussion this would generate. Some carefully structured lessons, debates, or role plays and discussions, along with an IAT test, would really be a rich study for students in exploring not only the attitudes of the particular society and culture in which they live in (American, Alaskan, community, family, affiliations, race, etc), but how that has shaped their own attitudes, whether they think it has or not. In junior high and high school, it is not uncommon for our coursework, somewhere along the way, to come across the issue of stereotypes. This is an opportune time (teachable moment) to use the IAT as a springboard for that discussion.

You can take any IAT as many times as you wish - the results usually don't vary much with re-takes. If you answer too slowly the test will simply say the results are not valid.

CAUTION - although I would really encourage the type of discussion, tied in with some relevant curricular study that this would generate, I would strongly recommend that teachers follow these guidelines;

1. Don't require students to take the IAT, although they can certainly participate in the discussion. They can always take it privately at home if they wish.

2. Don't publicize results of anyone's IAT. I personally think it's best if you tell the students specifically NOT to share their results with anyone - even you.

3. Coach students on how to discuss and respond without being judgmental. This is a good time to reinforce the idea behind the IAT - to bring out attitudes that we sometimes don't know ourselves that we have.

4. Don't dwell on it - the main point is the self-awareness and further thinking this will generate. Know that even though the activity and discussion may be short, those wheels are a-turning!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

No Really - How much is a trillion???

We all know that a trillion of anything is quite a lot - and I for one just love when someone comes up with a good analogy, metaphor, or visualization that really brings those kinds of numbers home. I used to have a professor in college who always had one of those in his back pocket - about how many times a million dollars would circle the earth, or go to the moon and back.

A few years back, Paul Harvey had a good one that explained the difference between a million and a billion, but I haven't heard or seen anything new or interesting since - until now.

I happened upon this little gem called "What does one TRILLION dollars look like?"

In these times of a tumultous economy and the words "billion" and "trillion" being thrown around so often - it is difficult for adults to really get our minds around this concept - let alone our students. Pop this slide show up on the overhead or the SmartBoard and have a good discussion!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Got an identity problem? Try using a Voki!

Vokis are like an avatar on steriods! Voki is a free web tool where you can select a "Voki" - they can be people, weird cartoon characters, animals, digimons, etc. Once you pick your little alter-ego, you can customize them a little - with the people you can change hair color, skin color, eye color, nose and eye size and also pick out clothing. For all Vokis you can pick from a wide selection of backgrounds. Kids absolutely love creating their own Vokis. The best thing about Vokis is that they will speak either computerized text that you type in, or your recorded voice for 1 full minute. Their lips move, their heads move - it's hilarious! Making a voice recording on Voki is called an "oddcast". What in the world would you ever use a Voki for? Well, I've included my own Voki here - note - be sure to roll the cursor around her even when she's not talking. See what she does:

I use them with my third graders so that they can give oral reports without having their faces appear on our blog - here are links to some of the Vokis my students have made - Check out Voki's from Allen, Kiara, Kade, Kevin, Megan, Melissa, Marrin, Jessie, or Hunter. (I had to list them all or there would have been hurt feelings!). Take it from any of them - Vokis are great. Now for every project we do the first question is "Are we going to get to make a Voki for it?".

That's what I call motivation!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Animoto: The end of slideshows

First of all, let me just say this - if you have dial-up and decide to use Animoto, you are officially the most patient person in the world. Ok, that being said, Animoto speeds along just fine on our school connections, so as long as you do Animoto projects at school you shouldn't have any problems.

What is Animoto? It is a "video" program (for lack of a better word) that will take your photos to make either a beefed up movie clip or a not-so-boring slideshow. Here is a sample I made pretty quickly using some pics (not great pics) I snapped at my daughter's Choral Society performances this year:

Animoto was created by video and film makers, so there are lots of special features you can use. But the most basic features (the simple ones I used to make the above video) are Upload, Add Text, Add Music, Finalize. That's it. I made a video short which is 30 seconds and requires about 10 to 15 images. No two videos are ever the same. It analyzes the images and music you choose to orchestrate a custom video. You can also Remix it so it will change.

Animoto takes what would be an ordinary slide show and makes it a professional quality video. Animoto in the classroom is a fun and easy way for kids to use digital photos to express their stories.

Be sure to watch some of the many samples they have on the site to get a better idea of what they can be used for. You have to sign in with an email to register, but it is free.

Anyone can write stories or poems!

Remember those fun kits of refrigerator magnets? They have a ton of words or phrases, people put them all over their fridge and everyone plays with them to make stories, poems, phrases, etc.?

Well, Magnetic Poetry has put their kits online for your virtual refrigerator writing fun! They work pretty much the same as the actual kits - on the left hand side of the screen is your fridge - you can pick the background. And on the right hand side is all of your magnets you have to work with.

The kids section has a poetry kit, a first words kit, a best friends kit, and a story writing kit.

This is great for kids who are still struggling with writing, but can read at a basic level. It's also a good tool for practicing sentence structures and playing around with poetry - a very risk-free environment to compose in!

Students can save their creations too. No registration or sign in. Simple to use, ready to go as soon as you go to the page, and very self-explanatory - kids can dive right in and start playing with Magnetic Poetry.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

It's Iditarod time again!

Those of us here in Alaska Gateway know dog mushing season is here again. On Saturday, March 7, Tanacross had their big dog races, the Great North American is coming up next week, and the last weekend in March is Race of Champions - and that's just in our neck of the woods!

As most of you are well aware, the biggie, The Iditarod, had its official start this weekend in Anchorage and then the restart in Wasilla. I know there are many classrooms here in AGSD that follow the race and run lesson plans and learning activities to coincide with the race.

For the EdTech portion of your classroom Iditarod experience, here are a few extra resources.

Of course there is the Official Site of the Iditarod complete with history, photos, live broadcasts, and current race standings. For classrooms who are doing activities with mapping race progress or graphing distance and speed of certain racers, this is race central - check it daily or several times a day as the information is always current.

For some ready made lesson plans and their accompanying resources, check out the Alaska Educational Program's "Alaska: Learning Taken to Extremes". They have a great Mushing in Alaska Unit with some nice looking resources.

The Discovery Channel Site has a nice selection of video shorts on the Iditarod. Last time I checked, there were over 30 of them to choose from - checkpoint info, caring for the dogs, interviews with the mushers, trail conditions, etc.

One other nice online classroom resource I will list here is Idita-Read. I know several teachers in AGSD have used this over the last couple of years and reported that the kids really enjoyed the competitive reading activities and the tie-in with the race. Idita-Read students rely on reading minutes to travel the distance along the trail from Anchorage to Nome.

*Flickr photo of husky by ozczecho

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How much do YOU know about the Nobel Prize?

We hear about Nobel Prize winners once in awhile - we might even be able to name a few if we think about it for a minute. But many adults and most kids don't really understand what the Nobel Prize is or what kinds of people get it. NobelPrize.org is a pretty cool site that breaks down the actual prizes (physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, economics, and peace - the one we probably hear the most about), includes information about past winners, and features many educational games associated with the prize winners and their fields.

Here is a little blurb about the actual founder:
At the age of 17, Swedish Alfred Nobel spoke five languages fluently. Nobel became an inventor and businessman, and at the time of his death on 10 December 1896, he had 355 patents worldwide – one of them was the patent on dynamite. Furthermore, he had started 87 companies all over the world. According to his will, Alfred Nobel's enormous fortune was to be used to establish prizes to award those who had done their best to benefit mankind in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, five years after Nobel's death.

The rest of the NobelPrize.org site is the really interesting part - the games! These are not just silly games either - they are interesting for junior high and high school students, as well as adults. All of the games have to do with ideas developed and promoted by Nobel Prize winners. One that I checked out was, of course, Lord of the Flies - one of my very favorite books! The game brings out the themes that the author, William Golding, was celebrated for when he won his Nobel Prize. I played and guess what? I do know that book pretty well! The other was Pavlov's Dog - it was a pretty simple demonstration of how his experiment worked but included a lot of other interesting information about his experiments.
There are a lot of games on the site like The Blood Typing Game, Tuburculosis, The DNA double helix game, The Electrocardiogram game and the Malaria game, just to name a few. As you can tell by their titles, there is a lot more "educational" than "game" going on here.
This is a really interesting way to engage students in the field of study pursued by any particular Nobel Winner, and to introduce kids to the Prize itself and the kinds of innovation, creativity, and possibility it promotes.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A way to get students interested in the news

I never thought it would come to this, but I have to give credit where credit is due. A free video site called "The Week in Rap" is up and running. Their billing reads "A week's worth of news, rapped. New every Friday." And they are not kidding. You can subscribe to these video feeds, watch them right on their site, or embed them in a blog (as I am doing here). Most of them are just 2 or 3 minutes long, focus on one or two big serious headlines and a few lighter issues, have good visuals (actual newsfile pictures) with the rap playing over. Unlike other rap, there are no "no-no" words, and it's very understandable.

The Week in Rap is good. It would be a fun way to inject a little current events on a Friday afternoon (or any day). Teachers could review the rap before-hand, give a brief overview of the current event(s) addressed in the rap, or even tie it in with another web/current events tool like Newsmap. Then you could play the rap on an overhead or your Smartboard for your students. Or, it could be used as a quick activity to begin or end class.

There is a print version available of each rap with the click of a button, so students can follow along. It's definitely the kind of news students will listen to.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Dr. Seuss is Everywhere!

Noticed anything funny about your Google searches lately? It seems Dr. Suess characters are everywhere - for good reason. March 2nd marked the beginning of Read Across America week - which kicks off with Theodore Geisel's birthday (aka Dr. Seuss). He would have been 105 today.
There are events going on at bookstores across the country (unfortunately not in Alaska) hosting events to celebrating reading and children's literature.

Just because we have no bookstores in our state hosting RAA events does not mean we cannot partake in the fun activities that celebrate reading and Dr. Seuss. For starters, you can visit the Seussville Playground for Dr. Seuss click and play games. Students who are familiar with the Seuss characters can enjoy games like The Grinch Grow Your Heart game, Sneetchball, Sam I Am Says, Fox in Sox Matching game, and others.

One of the highlights on the Seussville site is the Seussville Story Maker, with characters from Horton Hears a Who. Students can choose Seuss-like settings, characters, theme music, scenes for their plot, and very quickly create a fun Seuss-ish digital story.

For more Dr. Seuss integration/celebration, check out the lesson ideas on ReadWriteThink (the site hosted by NCTE and IRA).

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A cautionary tale for your students about their social networks...

This is a post copied from Seth Godin's Blog. Seth Godin is a sort of internet and marketing guru and author of several books, including the recent bestseller, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (it applies to lots more than business and I highly recommend it).

We know that many of our students have social network spaces on services like MySpace and FaceBook. Many of us don't know enough about how these social sites work, but it seems as though we should be giving our students some guidance regarding their use.

This recent blog post from Seth Godin is an excellent starting point for discussion with your students. It is a story that illustrates so many points about social networking perfectly. There is nothing wrong with social networking - but kids need to be aware just how "out there" their information really is. There are a lot of positives to be gained from social networking, but like anything else, kids need to use it responsibly.

Do your students a favor - share this story with them:

Personal branding in the age of Google

A friend advertised on Craigslist for a housekeeper.

Three interesting resumes came to the top. She googled each person's name.

The first search turned up a MySpace page. There was a picture of the applicant, drinking beer from a funnel. Under hobbies, the first entry was, "binge drinking."

The second search turned up a personal blog (a good one, actually). The most recent entry said something like, "I am applying for some menial jobs that are below me, and I'm annoyed by it. I'll certainly quit the minute I sell a few paintings."

And the third? There were only six matches, and the sixth was from the local police department, indicating that the applicant had been arrested for shoplifting two years earlier.

Three for three.

Google never forgets.

Of course, you don't have to be a drunk, a thief or a bitter failure for this to backfire. Everything you do now ends up in your permanent record. The best plan is to overload Google with a long tail of good stuff and to always act as if you're on Candid Camera, because you are.

This post is a demonstration of Blogger Mobile. What that means in a nutshell is that I am writing this blog post via text message from my cell phone and posting it to my blog. This EdTechSec blog is written on Google's blogging tool called Blogger. With Blogger I can use their service called Blogger Mobile. I simply text the body of my post - what I'm doing right now - to 256-447 (that's the number correlation of "bloggr"). And there it is! A post made right from my cell phone.

For those of you who have your own blogs, the reasons this will be handy are numerous. First and foremost being that you don't need Internet access to post - just phone service. If your students have their own blogs, they can keep up on their posts too - even if they don't have computer access!
This is the kind of "tech" I like - it's not extra, it makes your life easier!