Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Have Internet Will Travel

Maybe I’m getting spoiled, but I find it harder and harder not to gripe and complain when I go to a conference and find out that I can't get online. I can’t say I blame the conference committee for not providing Internet access when the conference center (in this case the Long Beach Convention Center) charges astronomical prices to provide web access in conference rooms. ($600 for a 256K connection, per room!)

This year rather than complaining, I used the lack of connectivity as an opportunity - or should I say excuse - to upgrade my phone to the new Blackberry Storm with it’s Internet tethering capabilities. Since I was presenting I really, really, needed to be able to get online. You understand, right?

So last Friday morning I got up extra early to wait in line at my local Verizon store and was one of the lucky few to get my hands on the new Storm. I’ve had it for a couple days now and still have lots to learn but here are a few first impressions.

It’s Clickable
I know it sounds gimmicky, but I really like the clickable screen. Essentially the whole screen is a big button. You position your finger on the touch screen where you want click and push down. The feedback on a click is really nice, although positioning my fingers on exactly the right place on the screen can be a little tricky.
The onscreen keyboard is really nice too. In landscape mode, you get a full keyboard. In portrait mode you get a half keyboard in which each key has two letters on it. I’m amazed by the interpretive ability of this keyboard to know the words or web sites I’m trying to type.
One annoying feature - when typing numbers you have to click the number key to make the keypad appear. When you type a number it goes back to letters and you have to press the number key again to make the numbers come back up again. This is a pain if you have to type in any number higher than 9.

This feature was not an option for me, and Verizon seemed to be the only company that actually didn’t make tethering your laptop to your phone a violation of their terms of service. Although they do charge $15 to turn this feature on for a month. This is one reason I stayed away from the iPhone. I checked online and the only way I could find to tether an iPhone was to jailbreak it and hope that AT&T doesn’t catch you and charge you overages, or cancel your service. I know lots of people do it, but I didn’t want to go that route.
Since I got the phone on Friday and was presenting on Monday, one of the first things I wanted to try when I got home was connecting the phone to my Mac and going online with it. Imagine my dismay when I inserted the CD only to discover that there was NO MAC SOFTWARE!!! The VZAccess Manager Software is Windows only. Thankfully, after about an hour of online searching I found this video by Landon Stuckey that explained how to tether your Blackberry to a Mac using bluetooth. I tried it. It worked flawlessly and I didn’t even have to install any software. (Way to go Mac!)

Web Browser and Other Apps
Compared to the web browser on my iPod touch, the one on the Storm is a not as smooth. I’ve grown used to the iPod's multi-touch zoom and the smooth scrolling. The Blackberry is not as clean. The accelerometer also doesn’t appear to be as sensitive. Switching from portrait to landscape does not have the snappy response my iPod does and sometimes I have to turn it sideways and back again to trigger it.
I did manage to install Google sync to connect the Storm to my Google Calendar, ans was able to connect to my Yahoo mail account with no problems. The Blackberry Facebook app helps me keep track all my FB friends. There’s also a cool little brick game that reminiscent of the one on my old Atari game console. I have yet to play with apps like VZ Navigator, Word to Go, and many others. Guess what I’ll be doing over Thanksgiving break?
The list of available applications isn't nearly as extensive as the iPhone, but I'm sure they'll get more. This thing is still pretty new. Although I'm hoping they add a Pandora music app soon!

One feature I was anxious to try was the visual voicemail - until I clicked on the app and it told me I needed to subscribe to the service for another $2.99/month. Bummer! Hey Verizon, doesn’t the iPhone include this for free?

Okay, So Why Not an iPhone?
Beyond the fact that I’d have to jailbreak an iPhone to use it for tethering, the AT&T service at school is really spotty. Teachers who have it complain that there are only certain spots on campus where they can get a signal. The same is true in my neighborhood. If not for that, I’m sure the iPhone would have been my first pick. For now, Verizon is my best choice given the reliability of the service in my area. We’ll see what things are like in two years when it’s time to renew.

Oh, and if you're wondering, the phone worked great for my presentation on Monday. The 3G connection was almost as fast as my home DSL.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Picasa Web Albums & Google Earth

Here's a quick and easy way to do use your own pictures for a place-based learning project using Picasa Web Albums and Google Earth. It's as easy as uploading your pictures to a Picasa Web Album and entering the location information. Once you do that, creating a Google Earth KML file with all your pictures is just a simple mouse click. Here's how it works...

First, upload your pictures to a new Picasa Web Album. Add captions and then click Edit Location. (Click images to see a larger view.)

Drag the placemark to where the picture was taken and click SAVE.

Repeat this process for each picture in your album. When you're all done, click "View in Google Earth. This will download a Google Earth KML file.

When the KML file opens in Google Earth, your pictures appear as placemarks along with your captions.

Clicking the the placemark opens an information bubble with a larger version of your picture and your caption.

Something like this would be a great way to follow up a class field trip or outdoor education experience. The example above was created with pictures from our 7th grade trip to Catalina Island. You could also share your own personal vacation photos with your class and add historical and geographic information relevant to your curriculum.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Get Web-Inspired

Inspiration is now a Web 2.0 tool. The past few days I've been playing with Webspiration Beta, which looks a lot like Inspiration but works in a web browser. The best thing about this new tool - it's collaborative. Like wikis and Google Docs, you can share your document and invite friends and colleagues to work on it too.

Above is a picture of a document I shared with some fellow teachers. I was pleased to see Webspiration gives me a couple of different ways to track the changes. You can Show History to see the progression of changes and who made them. Just like a wiki, you can view and rollback to a previous version.

Click on the Show Changes tool in the tool bar and little pop-ups will appear as you move over different parts of the document. These let you know who added that part and when the change was made. This tool can also be modified to show only the new changes since the last edit.

When you Manage Sharing you get to decide if those you invite are collaborators or simply viewers. You can also add tags to your document to help you find and organize your work or work that others have shared with you.

What would I like to see?
I think Inspiration is a great tool and that this web version takes a good tool and makes it even better. To make it work for me in a classroom I'd like to see a way to add student users without having to invite them with an e-mail address. An education version that lets a teacher create and manage student usernames and passwords would be great.

I like that you can import/export documents to Inspiration 8, but I couldn't find a way to export the outlines as a text or Word document. I suppose I could always copy and paste. It would also be nice to be able to have a URL to your document for easy sharing with others.

The great thing about Webspiration right now is that it is FREE. I'm not sure how long it will stay this way but I hope to take advantage of it while it lasts.

Go ahead and check it out and if you'd like to share a document with me, just let me know.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Hey, you guyyyyys!!

If you were in elementary school in the 70's, you probably recognize that call as the voice of Rita Moreno yelling to let you know it's time for another episode of the Electric Company. If you're like me public television was a big part of your education too - from Sesame Street, Mister Roger's Neighborhood, and The Electric Company to science shows like Nova. I wonder how many of you in the classroom today use PBS programming and resources with your students?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Okay then, imagine my voice yelling "HEY YOU GUYYYYYS!!" to let you know about some of the great resources available now at www.pbs.org/teachers.

The people at PBS have been busy working to tag, catalog, and make "searchable" their vast online collection of resources. The result is the new PBS Teachers web site.

You can search by keyword, use the advanced search, or start with a subject area and drill down by selecting a grade level and a topic. For example, when I performed a keyword search for "sceintific method" my results included 24 lesson plans, 63 offline activities, 5 interactives, and 115 audio/video clips.

Trying to be more specific, I tried search for the Native American "Lakota" tribe. The results included 4 lesson plans including two from the Lewis and Clark Mini-Series, an interactive web site of Native American Storytellers, and a video clip from Antiques Roadshow telling the history of some Lakota artifacts.

As you start using this site more often, you'll probably want to register with PBS Teachers Connect and become a PBS Teacher. By signing in you can save and add your own tags to the resources you find for easy retrieval later.

You'll also become a part of a community of PBS Teachers where you can ask questions and participate in discussions.

For those of you searching for video resources keep in mind that this site is not a single repository, rather it provides links to the various PBS web sites where these resources reside. Depending on the program, videos formats may vary between Flash, RealPlayer, Quicktime, or Windows Media. Some clips, like those from Nova ScienceNow, can be downloaded and even transferred to an iPod, others can only be streamed from their web site.

Also keep in mind that this site is still in "beta". Look for new features and enhacements as they continue working to improve it.

Oh, and if you're a fan of the original Electric Company you might be interested to know that a new version of the show be premiering this January. Although I'm told that Morgan Freeman will not be appearing in the new show, it might still be worth checking out.

Have fun exploring the vast resources available at PBS Teachers.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Two Cool Tools

Don't have a lot of time? Here's a short blog post with two cool tools that you can start using right away.

Online Stopwatch (www.online-stopwatch.com)
It is what it says it is. Couldn't get much simpler than this. Choose from several different types of countdowns. My personal favorite is the bomb. (Pictured below)

Create A Graph (nces.ed.gov/nceskids/createagraph)
Teach your students all about graphing. This tool lets them select a type of graph, enter their data on the form, and select colors and text styles. The final graph can be printed or saved as a PDF, JPEG, or various other types of image formats.

Here's a sample bar graph I made in just minutes...

Monday, September 08, 2008

Follow Up - Professional Development Meme

Back in June I was tagged by Jen Wagner to participate in the Professional Development Meme. The challenge was to set three professional development goals and commit to them this summer. The deadline to complete it was September 1st. Let’s see how I did...

GOAL #1: Learn how to work with SQL Queries.

Did pretty well with this one. Our Angel Learning Management System is built on SQL tables and being able to search them and manipulate data directly has been a tremendous time saver as I had to create new courses and enroll students for the new school year. Ryan Sweany from Angel Tech Support was quite helpful with this (and patient with me) as I learned how to pull data from tables, update fields, and batch import class & user data. I now know enough to get myself into all sorts of trouble.

GOAL #2: Take one new idea from both NECC and the Discovery National Institute and make a plan to implement it sometime this school year.
I think I’ve got this one covered as well. At NECC I learned about using Webkins as virtual class pets and already have our three first grades giving it a try. From Hall Davidson I learned about the power of cell phones and shared some ideas with our teachers. I planned to set up and embed my own GCast podcast on my site - one that I could update from my cell phone, but one of my teachers actually beat me to it. Way to go Yvette!
There were so many good ideas shared at the Discovery National Institute. One that I started using right away - and the reason I haven’t been blogging as much - is Plurk! Plurk is like Twitter on steroids. It displays all messages on timeline and keeps responses to each message together so its much easier to follow a particular thread. Individual message threads can be bookmarked for future reference. I’ve already participated in some great discussions and picked up numerous great ideas and resources.

GOAL #3: Keep a positive attitude and "Do everything without grumbling or complaining." (Philippians 2:14)
This has been difficult. You know how they say “Never pray for patience because if you do, God will put you in situations that force you to be patient”? Well, this goal seems to have opened the door to all sorts of situations that are just ripe for grumbling and complaining. As I write this, we are still waiting for our tablet PC’s to arrive. They are now more than a month late. Our plans for starting the year with 1:1 in 6th grade have been scribbled out and re-written each week as we receive yet another reason for the delay. Currently our tablets are only 36 miles away, but are stuck in some warehouse waiting to clear US Customs.
Originally, our plan was to have students and parents meet in small groups for a tablet orientation where they would go over tablet basics, acceptable use, and care & maintenance. They were also to receive an “About Me” digital story project that would be shared on the first day of school. Seemed like a great plan.
As it turns out, the tablet delay has been a bit of a blessing in disguise. Sixth grade is a big change for these kids and there’s a lot of anxiety at the start of middle school. A new building, new teachers, new procedures, finding where classes are, learning how to open their locker are just a few stresses these kids deal with at the start of the year. Starting the year with new tablets would have added even more anxiety. We’re learning that it may be a better idea to start the year without tablets and get them used to the routine first. So I’ve got nothing to complain about, right?

Like I said, it’s been difficult.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Amtrak Adventure - Part 4

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.
July 18th - California Zephyr

Slept much better last night. After waking up and enjoying a nice hot shower we learned that delays and rail work overnight now had us running more than 2 hours behind schedule.

A morning stop in Omaha gave us a chance to stretch our legs for a few minutes and take a look at the beautiful old abandoned Omaha train station. This must have been quite a sight back in the days when rail travel was a primary mode of transportation. According to Bob, its been boarded up for more than 20 years, but the building is still here so there’s hope it might someday be restored to some of it’s former glory.

Here in Omaha, Bob also took the opportunity poll us on what we thought was the most scenic part our trip so far. I’ll let you experience a little bit of Bob for yourself...

After our last breakfast on the train, Dad & I retreated to our compartment for a lazy day of reading and watching the Iowa farms pass by our window. Bob told us that our engineer would try to make up some time along the route, but that we would likely be delayed another 15 minutes as we pass through the flood area in Iowa and Illinois. After we crossed the Mississippi at Burlington, Iowa I was surprised to see how much water was still around even after 3 weeks. Many of these farmers must be devastated.

Once past the flood area we were running about 3 hours behind schedule. Stopping in Galesburg, Illinois we said goodbye to some of our Zephyr friends who’d been traveling with us since Emeryville. For the rest of us, it was on to Chicago.

The Chicago skyline was a bit of a contrast to the farms and small towns we’d been seeing all day. It was also clear that our Chicago-based Zephyr crew, who started here 6 days ago was glad to be coming home. They seemed anxious to see their families and take a few well-deserved days off.

We pulled into Chicago at 6:20 pm, only 2 1/2 hours behind schedule, and in plenty of time for Dad and me to catch the 8:05 Hiawatha train to Milwaukee. It also gave us time to explore the cathedral-like great hall of Chicago’s Union Station.

The Hiawatha was a fast commuter train that zipped us up to Milwaukee airport in only 80 minutes. At the airport we picked up a rental car and headed out to stay with family for a few days. Our Amtrak Adventure was officially over.

Overall, it was a great trip. I’ll definitely have to try this again. Next time I might take the Coast Starlight all the way up to Portland or Seattle. I hear the ride through the Oregon Cascades is really beautiful in the winter. We’ll see.

Surprises and Advice
If you’re thinking about trying a train trip yourself here a few things I learned...

1) Go first class. If you’re taking an overnight trip and can afford it, get a sleeper. Traveling this way is more expensive than air travel, but if you compare the cost of driving, hotels, and meals, you’ll find you might just save a few bucks.

2) Throw out the time schedule. If you find yourself worrying about why the train has stopped, or focusing on your destination you won’t enjoy the beauty that is around you. On the train it’s all about the journey and having a “we’ll get there when we get there” attitude. Besides, arriving 2 1/2 hours late after 4 days is not bad. I’ve had flights that are delayed even more than that.

3) It’s all about the people. One of the biggest surprises for me was all the interesting people I got to meet. Our Amtrak crew was great. I’ve already shared about Bob, but I must also mention Frank, the lounge car attendant/bartender, who looked like Dean Martin and sounded like Al Pacino. His regular intercom announcements always had us smiling. I was also surprised by all the interesting people we met at meals and in the observation car. Some were seasoned rail travelers who shared stories of other rail adventures and others were first-timers just like us. Don’t just sit in your room all day. Take the time to introduce yourself and get to know the people traveling with you. It might just be the best part of your trip.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Amtrak Adventure - Part 3

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

July 17 - California Zephyr

The upper bunk was a little narrower than I expected. Thankfully there were safety straps from the edge of the bunk clipped to ceiling of the compartment that kept me from rolling out during the night. The rocking of the train took a bit of getting used to, but eventually sleep found me. I think I dreamed I was in that old “I Love Lucy” episode where they slept in the upper berth on the train from Hollywood to New York.

During the night we passed through the Utah salt flats, Salt Lake City, and Provo.
Morning included another first - a shower on the train. Nothing glamorous here. Think of a tiny tent trailer or RV shower. Were not talking about the Hilton suites but there were plenty of clean towels.

Breakfast was an added surprise as Dad discovered that the people sitting across form us were Iowa relatives of one of his best friends. As soon as I can get a WiFi signal Dad plans to e-mail Jules and tell him we had breakfast with Chick & Opal.

The ride through Utah, Glenwood Canyon, and the Colorado Rockies was stunning. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. We rode through some beautiful canyons and valleys that can only be seen by train passengers and backpackers, following the Colorado River all the way to the town of Granby. You might remember this little town was in the news about 4 years ago when a disgruntled citizen built his own “tank” out of a bulldozer and destroyed a 13 town buildings including the Granby City Hall.

The Moffat Tunnel was our passage under the continental divide. This 6.2 mile long tunnel takes about 12 minutes for the train to go through. During that time, passengers are warned stay in their own cars and not open the doors between cars in order to keep out the diesel fumes and coal dust.

Dinner included a very interesting conversation with a man from the Canadian Coast guard. He shared his first hand experience with the staggering effects of global warming on the Arctic ice pack. “Icebergs used to break off in the summer and reform in the winter, but now they’re not reforming,” he shared noting that estimates predict that by next year the ice may have thinned out enough to create a shipping lane from Greenland to the Bering Strait. We also discussed the drastic effects a minute change in ocean temperature, salinity, and acidity could have on algae growth, fish population, and the formation of coral. Its amazing to think about how all these seemingly separate systems are actually connected and dependent on each other. I just hope we haven’t figured all this out before its too late to do anything about it.

Sunset brought us to Denver’s Union Station and a last chance to get out and stretch our legs before turning in for the night.

CLICK HERE for Part 4

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Still No WiFi?
I tried to locate wireless access point at every station stop today, but I think I’ll just have to accept the fact that I won’t be able to get online until arriving in Chicago or Milwaukee.

Amtrak Adventure - Part 2

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

July 16 - California Zephyr

The horn blast of an early morning freight train was our wake up call this morning. The balcony of our hotel room overlooked the Emeryville station. At 7:55am the California Zephyr, our home for the next 3 days, pulled up to the platform. We found sleeping car 632 and met Bob, our 6 foot 6 1/2 attendant. He had hot coffee already for us in the car and not long after had we settled down in our room, he popped his head in our compartment and invited us to breakfast in the dining car. Our dining companions were a couple of musicians from the Bay Area. We shared stories and had a great discussion about the need to teach our kids how to find truth and validity in the glut of information available online, and promote creativity and innovation in the classroom. We chatted until the attendants politely kicked us out of the dining car, encouraging us to continue to solve the world’s problems, but to work at it in a different car.

After a brief stop to stretch our legs in Sacramento, the Zephyr started chugging uphill into the Sierras following pretty much the same route as the original Transcontinental Railroad. From here to Reno we were joined by two history experts from the Sacramento Railroad Museum who narrated the journey and answered passenger questions in the observation car. They were more than willing to fill me in on the history of the railroad and it’s construction, along with great bits of Sierra history and little know facts. I was even able to pry one of them for some information about a great spot on the Truckee River for catching native brown trout (but was sworn to secrecy).

The view from the observation car was spectacular as we climbed through Emigrant Gap & Donner Pass, then followed the Truckee River down to Reno. Lunch in the dining car was accompanied by a view of Donner Lake and the Eastern Sierras, along with some nice conversation with some Zephyr regulars who served as personal tour guides during the meal.

What About Bob?
I’m learning that train travel is a much about the people as it is the scenery. One of the joys of this trip so far is Bob Heath, our sleeping car attendant. Bob is a 35 year Amtrak veteran and Chicago native. Car 632 is HIS car, and we are HIS people. He’s always ready to serve with a warm and friendly smile and makes an extra effort to get to know his passengers.

In the evening he can convert a 2 seat roomette into upper and lower bunk beds in less than 2 minutes flat - complete with fresh linens and mints on the pillow. Dad and I had a great time getting to know him on this trip and hear about some of his experiences working on the train for the last quarter century. And yes, after 35 years, he still bumps his head occasionally as he maneuvers his 6 foot 6 1/2 inch frame through the train corridors.

Evening brought us into the relatively flatter part of western Nevada and dinner with a couple from New Zealand traveling across country to Connecticut. Their idea was to use cross country train trip to work off the jet lag of a 12 hour flight to San Francisco. Interesting idea.

Tonight is our first night of sleeping on the train. I’ll have to let you know how that goes tomorrow.

CLICK HERE for Part 3

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Amtrak Adventure - Part 1

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

I got this hair-brained idea standing with my shoes off in an airport security line muttering to myself, “There’s got to be a better way!” I knew that I needed to get to Washington DC for the Discovery National Institute by July 21st. I knew that I didn’t want to take a “red eye” flight and arrive in DC at 5:30 in the morning. I also knew that driving from LA to DC with motels, food, and $4.50 per gallon gasoline was also not a desirable option.

Why not take the train? According to those “Great Rail Excursion” shows on PBS, the California Zephyr is one of the most scenic rail journeys in the US. Booking a sleeping compartment would not only gave me a private room to sleep in, but also included all meals in the dining car and first class treatment on board and at train stations. It seemed like a no-brainer.

So rather than take a “red eye” from LA to DC, here’s what I chose instead.

Coast Starlight from LA to Emeryville, CA (near Berkeley).
California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago.
Hiawatha commuter train from Chicago to Milwaukee.
Visit with family for a few days then fly from Milwaukee to DC for the National Institute.

We’ll see as these blog posts progress if this was a good idea.

July 15 - Coast Starlight

As we boarded the train we met Howard, our sleeping car attendant, who showed us to our compartment, explained how to work all the gadgets in our “roomette”, and told us where to find the dining, lounge, and observation cars. Leaving Los Angeles the first thing I noticed was the quiet. The superliner compartment was blissfully silent. No loud jet hum, coughing or sneezing passengers, or crying babies. I didn’t have to be told for the 100th time how to put on my seltbelt because there aren’t any. And there was no talk of oxygen masks falling from the ceiling or reminders that my seat cushion also serves as a flotation device in the event of a water landing - which in my mind is still called a “crash”.

Shortly after we were underway, Chris, the dining car steward, popped his head in our room and asked what time we would like to reserve seating for lunch. Meals are included for sleeping car passengers. Then, just before lunch Howard came back to deliver our complimentary champagne. (I think I’m starting to like this.)

For lunch Dad and I shared a table with a husband and wife who were traveling to Oregon to check out colleges for his graduate studies. Wonderful conversation - along with a nice plug for the DEN - was accompanied a fine meal with real silverware! Did I mention to beautiful ocean view right outside the window?

At San Luis Obispo, the train headed inland and the rest of the afternoon was spent reading in the observation car and enjoying the peace & quiet of our “roomette”. I took advantage of the time to make a few phone calls just because I didn’t have to shut off my cellular phone - or any electronic devices for that matter. We even had a standard electric outlet in our room for plugging in the laptop computer. Internet access is another issue. There is no WiFi or ethernet connections on the train and I’m too cheap to buy one of those mobile wireless cards so I’m dependent on whatever free WiFi I can find. No luck today.

At 7:30 Chris announced over the intercom that it was time for us to head up to the dining car for dinner. I had the steak and dad had half of a roasted game hen. Another fine meal.

We pulled into Emeryville at about 10:20pm, just a few minutes behind schedule. Ack! No free wireless at the hotel across from the train station - should have checked that when I made the reservation. Not sure when I’ll get to post this or what kind of access I’ll be able to find for the next few days on the train to Chicago. We’ll see what happens...

CLICK HERE for Part 2

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The NECC Buffet - Part 3

Part 3: Dessert!

Remember to save room for dessert? No trip to the buffet would be complete without it. Forget about counting calories - just dive in! My favorite part of a buffet is the dessert and my favorite part of the NECC buffet was the opportunity to spend time and have fun with some amazing people. I'll have to admit that one of my primary reasons for attending was to renew friendships with many of the Discovery Educators I met at the DEN National Institute last year. Just knowing that these people would be in San Antonio made my first NECC experience a lot less intimidating.

In addition to spending time with DEN friends, I was delighted to meet many others I only knew online through Twitter, the Discovery Educator Network, or Second Life. I owe a big thanks to Anne Truger and Tom Turner (both NECC veterans) for helping me make connections and friendships with some wonderful tech educators. My personal learning network continues to grow.

Hats Off To Discovery
If one group has done more than any other to help me connect, grow, and learn it would be the folks at Discovery. I like to think of Scott, Steve, Hall, Lance, Matt, Joe, Brad, Justin, and of course mother-to-be Jannita as good friends and education professionals who just happen to work for an awesome company. The DEN event at Enchanted Springs Ranch was yet another opportunity to learn, connect, and have fun with other teachers. Here I finally got to meet Martha Thornburgh, a teacher I've collaborated with online but never met in person. Thanks DEN.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Teachers That Play Together...
Not only is NECC an a great opportunity to collaborate and exchange ideas with other teachers on a professional level, its also a great place to play together as well. And play we did! As I mentioned in my previous post, its all about relationships. I feel so fortunate that I had a chance to meet and get to know teachers like Lee "@Teachakidd" Kolbert, Darcy White, Tim Childers, Chad "IMC Guy" Lehman, and the infamous Riptide Furse! It was fun to get pulled out onto the dance floor by Anne Truger & Teryl Magee, to find out what SL's Lori Abrahams is doing in RL, and to catch up with fellow "Academic Excursion" cruisers Jennifer Gingerich, Elaine Plybon, Tanya Gray, Heather Hurley, and of course Howard Martin - the voice of Igneous Rock himself. I really hope that we can keep communication open through Skype, Twitter, and other online tools.

The Jen W Factor
Finally, I need to share another NECC treat on my dessert tray. Even though Jen Wagner was not able to attend NECC, she was busy at home Ustreaming, Skyping, and using any other means possible to connect to the conference. For me, having Jen there virtually was like having a little Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder guiding me through my first national conference. I really appreciated her reminders to, "Make sure you go and see a presentation from someone you don't know", and "Don't just be a sponge, also be a watering can." Jen helped alert me to opportunities I shouldn't miss and people I should try to meet. It was my pleasure to be a small part of the crew that helped keep her connected to the conference. I still have fun telling people she sat on my lap during Jakes & Shareski's "One Hour Power Point" session. Thanks Jen.

PHOTO CREDIT: Dean Shareski on Flickr (Modified by Me)

Lessons Learned
Just writing these last three blog entries have helped me review and organize many of the things I learned at NECC this year, but if I had to pick one major lesson I learned it would be this: "Its not what you use its how you use it." This message is nothing new of course, but it was reinforced while talking to teachers and visiting the poster sessions over my 5 days at NECC. We are blessed with an abundance of technology tools at my school in Orange, CA. It was humbling to see how some teachers are doing more with so much less. Therefore I'm resolved this year to do my best and make the most out of the technology we've been given and use it to help our students become powerful thinkers, creators, and problem solvers.

That's about it. Thanks for taking time to read about my NECC buffet experience. There's so much more I would have liked to try. I'll definately have to make it back for NECC next year in Washington DC. I'm sure my plate will once again be piled high with great presentations and conversations. Then again, maybe I'll skip all that and just go for the dessert.

Can I offer anyone a "wafer thin mint"? :)

Monday, July 07, 2008

The NECC Buffet - Part 2

Part 2: The Entree

The Entree is the reason you go to the buffet in the first place. It's the main course of the meal. Here's where you pile your plate high with everything you like or have been been dying to try.

For many people the concurrent sessions at NECC were their entree. That was not the case for me. The main reason I attended NECC was for the conversations - the chance to talk and exchange ideas with other technology educators. This is why a arrived (at the buffet) in San Antonio a day early to attend EduBloggerCon 2008 so I could have an extra day to engage in conversations.

PHOTO CREDIT: by elemenous on Flickr (Modified by Me)
Between EduBloggerCon, the Bloggers Cafe, and random meetings throughout the convention center, my NECC experience was filled with great idea exchanges and brainstorming. Here are a few morsels I brought home with me.

Why Didn't I Think of That?
After any professional development, Kevin Honeycutt sets out a "buffet" of laminated key tags - just like those grocery store club tags. Each one lists a tool that was discussed on one side and a web site address for that tool on the other. Under the web site is the name of a school or district contact who has agreed to serve as a mentor to support teachers and help them learn to use that tool.

Think of these like collectors cards for all your professional development topics. Kevin discovered that his teachers like to collect tags and will even trade them with other teachers. It even becomes a little competitive as teachers try to see who can collect the most tags. Besides, "If you laminate it, teachers won't throw it away."

Virtual Class Pets
Real class pets teach kids responsibility. Virtual pets can do the same and also help them learn responsibility and good online habits. Maria Knee uses a Webkin as a virtual class pet. Kids take turns caring for their class webkin, decorating it's house, doing chores, earning Kinzcash to buy new things, and communicating with other Webkins. Along the way they're learning to be good online citizens. Guess I'll have to work making an exception for this site on our school web filter.

We All Scream for Ustream!
Strangely enough, one of the best sessions I attended at NECC, I attended virtually. I caught most of Chris Lehmann's School 2.0 session from the Global Connections lounge and followed along with backchannel chat as well. Chris did a great job demonstrating how to build a collaborative unit plan with audience participation. Participating in the chat and sitting a few feet away from me in the lounge was Jeff Utecht. As an added bonus, after the session I was able to talk with him and learn how he uses Google Apps for Education at his school in Shanghai.

Meaningful Change
How does it happen? Rushton Hurley led this discussion at EduBloggerCon. What an amazing opportunity to meet and share with other Edubloggers! The topic: What needs to be done at the school/classroom level to bring about a meaningful change in day-to-day learning?

PHOTO CREDIT: Teachandlearn on Flickr
If we're right, and technology has the potential to change learning from passive to active, we can't simply bemoan being inundated by complacency, what do we do?
- Rushton
Everyone at NECC seems to have a passion and energy for technology & learning, but that excitement loses something when you try to bring it back home to your school. In my opinion, it's all about having conversations and developing relationships with your teachers. Identify those who have a passion, whether or not it's a technology passion, and partner with them. Help them take that first step. Celebrate their successes. When things go wrong, help them figure out what to do better next time. To ensure that the change is permanent, its important that teachers see added value the technology brings to the project, but its also important that you make it inconvenient for them to go back to doing things the old way. This is where an administration can help by defining policies that take the "old way" option out of the equation. Even if you don't have administrative support you can encourage change by publicizing student success and work products among parents and the community. Once word gets out that this is the type of work being done in their class, it puts a little social pressure on the teacher to keep these technology projects going.

Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?
There were many other conversation morsels at NECC. Unfortunately that's what they were - morsels. My NECC plate was so full that I regret not having time to really sit down and enjoy a full portion of some conversations. "Let's talk more later," was a recurring phrase. Too bad the conference ended before many of these "laters" came about. Thankfully we have online tools so I can go back for seconds.

NEXT POST: Part 3 - Dessert!

OTHER PHOTO CREDITS: Keytags (www.edubloggercon.com/Web+2.0+Smackdown)

The NECC Buffet - Part 1

I attended NECC for the first time this year. While many attendees have already blogged about their experiences - as I write this Technorati already has over 500 blogs tagged "NECC2008" - it's taken a while for me to process everything and gather my thoughts enough to put text to screen and share my impressions.

To say NECC is big doesn't quite capture it. My thesaurus suggests words like monumental, immense, ginormous, and elephantine, but those don't seem to paint an accurate picture either. For me, NECC was a chance to attend the worlds largest most extravagant buffet for the very first time. I wanted to load my plate with a little of everything. Not knowing if I would ever make it back, I tried to devour as many small morsels as I could but quickly discovered there was no possible way to digest it all without making myself sick. In the end, I had to make choices. I'll leave it up to you to determine the wisdom of my decisions.

Part 1: The Salad Bar

The salad bar contains all that stuff that's healthy for you. It's not the real reason you came to the buffet, but you feel obligated to partake because it helps you balance out the guilt you feel for indulging in the next two courses. The concurrent sessions at NECC were my salad bar - and what an AMAZING salad bar it was!
  • Ian Jukes is one of those "sit down, fasten your seatbelts, and hold on" presenters. I love his energetic, in-your-face style and powerful visual images. While his session about Learning in the Digital Landscape did not give me anything I haven't already heard, nobody preaches it and gets you fired up to teach "digital kids" like Ian Jukes.
  • I've been a big fan of Lego Mindstorms for years and used them at my previous school so I was anxious to hear Mitchel Resnick speak about some of the new technologies they've been developing at the MIT Media Lab. Thanks to Wesley Fryer for taking such copious notes - Grassroots Creativity: Helping Everyone Become a Creative Thinker.
  • Rushton Hurley has a wonderful presentation style and his now famous "Who Can Make a Video in 10 Minutes?" session gave me many ideas that I hope to incorporate into future staff trainings. His non-profit NextVista for Learning web site promotes student and teacher made instructional videos and seeks to encourage global understanding through digital media. He also gave me the challenge to contribute some video to his site. (If you're reading this blog you can help keep me accountable to do this!)
  • Finally, what can I say about Hall Davidson that hasn't already been said? From exploding bottles of Dr. Pepper to his "I've never tried this before, but do you want to see if it works?" style, it's clear that Hall is a guy who doesn't play by the rules. His "HTML for Non-Wizards" presentation was just what my inner tech-geek needed, plus it gave me some extra techie tid-bits to feed to my middle schoolers who like to push the limits. (Click here if you'd like to download the 36MB pdf version of his presentation.)
NOTE: Several of these sessions and a few that I missed are now available at the NECC Webcast site. Here you can see presentations from Chris Dede, Mitchel Resnick, Hall Davidson and several other NECC Spotlight speakers. You need to register with an e-mail address to view the webcast but you also get to join the chat with anyone else who happens to be watching it with you.
Hmmm. Want to train your teachers how a back channel works? This might make a good practice playground.

NEXT POST: Part 2 - The Entree

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Professional Development Meme

I've been tagged! Normally the introverted rebel in me tends to ignore these Meme challenges, but I couldn't let this one go unanswered. Why? First, because this challenge comes from well respected colleague and friend Jen Wagner (who I know will check up on me to make sure I do it.) Second, it forces me to practice what I preach. Lately I've been leading a lot of professional development to prepare our middle school teachers for our 1 to 1 program which starts with 6th grade this Fall. I've been having them do a lot of project planning and goal setting. This is a good way to keep me accountable to do the same. So here goes...

Section 1: The Obligatory Posting of the Meme Rules
  1. Pick 3 professional development goals and commit to achieving them this summer.
  2. For the purposes of this activity the end of summer will be Labor Day (09/01/08).
  3. Post the above directions along with your 3 goals on your blog.
  4. Title your post Professional Development Meme and link back/trackback to http://clifmims.com/blog/archives/353.
  5. Use the following tag/ keyword/ category on your post: pdmeme.
  6. Tag 8 others to participate in the meme.
  7. Achieve your goals and “develop professionally.”
  8. Commit to sharing your results on your blog during early or mid-September.
Section 2: My Goals
  1. Learn how to work with SQL Queries. Our Angel VLE is built on SQL tables. Knowing how to find and manipulate data with this powerful tool will make my life significantly easier.
  2. Take one new idea from both NECC and the Discovery National Institute and make a plan to implement it sometime this school year.
  3. 2:14 it! Putting a Tablet PC in the hands of every 6th grader poses some significant new challenges this summer. My final goal is to keep a positive attitude and "Do everything without grumbling or complaining." (Philippians 2:14).

Section 3: Tag! You're It!
If you see your name below, you know what to do.
  1. Bridget Belardi
  2. Rob Jacklin
  3. Genny Kahlweiss
  4. Alan Lutz
  5. Jonathon Orr
  6. Martha Thornburgh
  7. Tom Turner
  8. Trevor VanBlarcom (Maybe this will encourage you to start your own blog. You KNOW you want to.)

Friday, June 13, 2008

1000 Words for Father's Day

They say a picture is worth 1000 words, but sometimes words are not enough to capture the power or summon the emotion present in a photograph. That image becomes even more powerful when you have a connection to the subject of the photo. Those of you who have seen my Digital Storytelling presentation have also heard me mention my ongoing project to scan and archive family photos. So far I've digitized over 1400 of them.

What I've found fascinating about this project is the incredible detail in many of the oldest pictures. While many of these pictures are quite small, some only an inch or two square, most are contact prints and are incredibly detailed. Scanning and enlarging these prints reveal things one might not notice looking at the original photo.

I found this to be true yesterday as I was looking at one particular photo. The picture above is one of the only photographs of my great grandfather.

According to my grandpa, who will be 97 this month, it was taken in 1914. His father was working at a sheep ranch near Yakima, Washington. He recalls early childhood memories of watching the ranchers drive the sheep down the main street of town. Looking at the photo brings back fond memories of his father.

The original photo was not much bigger than a standard print, but because the photo was so detailed it was quite easy to zoom in and crop it to reveal a portrait of grandpa's dad. Yesterday when he was handed the enlarged print I was not totally prepared for his reaction.

Grandpa joined the Navy in 1931 and his father passed away while he was stationed in in the Pacific. It's been many years since he has looked at his father's face and been able to see his eyes. What took just a few minutes to crop and print turned out to be quite a Father's Day gift. Why didn't I do this sooner?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tide Pool Adventure

Every May our 5th graders take a field trip to the tide pools at Corona Del Mar to learn about marine life. Part of the follow up for that trip includes some sort of assignment about various tide pool animals that reside in our local marine habitat.

This year as part of my effort to promote creativity and digital storytelling, we decided to shake things up a bit. Each child was to select a creature from the tidepools and make a story about that creature. They would give it a name, talk about it's life in the tidepool, or tell a story about their creature's little adventure. Stories must be factually accurate and cannot include any plot elements that go beyond the creature's natural abilities, real life predators, or physical environment. (i.e. No "Sea Slugs in Space" stories.)

The project began with students sketching out their stories in class on a storyboard template. (Storyboard.pdf courtesy of Hall Davidson) Storyboards included the story's "script" - what the student would say for each image. Next, they began to work on their pictures in the computer lab. Pictures could be drawn in KidPix, created in PowerPoint and exported as a jpeg file, imported from the Internet (properly cited, of course), or any combination of the three.

Finished pictures were imported to PhotoStory3. Students recorded their narration and added music and titles. When the stories were finished, they were exported to a Windows Media file and submitted electronically to their teacher for grading using our school LMS.

Were we crazy to start a project like this with only 8 1/2 days left in the school year? Maybe, but nearly all the kids were able to complete and submit their projects by this morning's deadline. (School ends this Friday!) They will be sharing them in class this afternoon.

Here is one about Brittle Stars.

This is a story about two crabs that sneak out to do some "TP-ing" with seaweed.

NOTE: Because of the limited time available to complete the assignment, students were limited to three pictures for their stories. But even with that restriction, they were still able to come up with some pretty good projects. Hopefully next year we'll be able to give them a little more time.

PHOTO CREDIT: Judykay (flickr.com/photos/judykay/290095974)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Energy Crisis

The energy crisis has hit here at school. You can feel it just about anywhere you go on campus, but I'm not talking about the price of gas or power, I'm talking about that complete lack of energy on the part of the students and many of our staff - including me.

May has got to be one of the toughest months of the year. The end of the school year is so close you can almost touch it. (Our year ends on June 6th.) The terms "home stretch" and "spring fever" are heard more often in staff conversations and everyone seems to be complaining about the total lack of motivation in our students. Missed assignments, sloppy and careless work, and the oft repeated question, "Can I be done?" are a daily reality.

There must be something in the Spring air that interrupts the thinking process. This is exemplified by the number of raised hands in the room all waiting to ask the same thing - "I don't get it." Never mind that "I don't get it" is not a question, and that the directions you just gave not more than a minute ago are still hanging in the air. What's not to get?! It's hard to keep your head from exploding.

Yes, the demand for energy this May greatly outweighs the supply. This is the time of year when we need to tap into as many resources and creative ideas as we can to keep students' engaged, but how can we be expected to motivate students when we feel so unmotivated ourselves? From a technology coordinator's point of view, May is a tough time to get teachers to try new, creative projects. It's not that they don't want to learn, they just don't want to learn right now. Not when their focus is to "just make it through the next few weeks."

Funny that this little inspirational story should make its way to my inbox this morning. I wish I knew who to attribute it to, but its just one of those things that's been making it's way around through forwarded attachments.

In ancient times, a king had a boulder placed on a roadway. Then he hid himself and watched to see if anyone would remove the huge rock. Some of the king's wealthiest merchants and courtiers came by and complained about the boulder and then simply walked around it. Many loudly blamed the king for not keeping the roads clear, but none did anything about getting the stone out of the way.

Then a peasant came along carrying a load of vegetables. Upon approaching the boulder, the peasant laid down his burden and tried to move the stone to the side of the road. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded. After the peasant picked up his load of vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been.

The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the king indicating that the gold was for the person who had removed the boulder from the roadway. The peasant learned what many of us never understand. Every obstacle presents an opportunity to improve our condition.

It's easy to sit here and complain to the world through though this blog. Complaining takes much less energy, but it doesn't make the situation any better. It doesn't motivate our students - in fact I think makes the situation worse because it gives us a poor attitude that rubs off on the kids. If they perceive that we're not giving our best, why should they be any different? We (I) need to push, strain, and apply that extra effort to come up with creative and innovative ideas. I need to work on always answering students' questions with more questions to guide their thinking rather than just handing them an easy answer. Finally, I need to let them know in no uncertain terms that I'm not going to coast through to the end of the year, and that any coasting from them will not be accepted.

Okay, enough writing. Now back to work.

Note to the reader: Normally I use this blog space for tech tips and ideas, rather than personal journalling, but today I just felt the need to write and put my thoughts out there to help get my head back in the right place. Writing today's post has helped me refocus. Hopefully it will help others too.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Place-Based Learning at MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has set up a new place-based learning system for their exhibits. Anyone with an iPhone or iPod Touch can access audio programs for selected art works and various places around the museum. There's even a section for kids! Visitors to the museum use the free wireless Internet to access the site and the audio. I was able to connect to the site using my wireless at home and pretend I was touring the museum. Although I'm sure the experience would be richer if I were standing in front of the actual exhibit as I listened, I found the audio clips - especially the ones recorded for kids - to be interesting and engaging even without the visuals.
If you want to check it out for yourself, visit www.moma.org/wifi/audio/. Since the site was designed for iPhones it may look a little weird but you'll get the idea.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Can't Buy Me Love

Today’s Limerick Challenge
(Inspired by NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”)

Our kids’ spending habits aren’t funny,
And their financial future ain’t sunny.
If they spend more than they get,
They’ll be buried in debt.
We must teach them to manage their _______.
Record numbers of home foreclosures. Over $4.00 for a gallon of gas. Food prices skyrocketing. Listen to the news and you wonder how much worse it’ll get before it starts to get better. When your money doesn’t go as far as it used to, you really need to learn to use it wisely. Think about the decisions you make when you spend money. Not just for big ticket items like a car and a house, either. Stop and think how much you spend every month at Starbucks too. Now stop and think what kind of example we are setting for our kids.

One of the problems we have when it comes to spending is that technology has made it so much easier to separate us from our cash. In fact, cash seems to be less and less visible in favor of electronic and plastic currency. Why fumble with cash when you can just swipe a card? You’ve seen those Visa Check Card commercials where everything comes to a stop when some poor unenlightened soul tries to pay with cash? But do we really pay as much attention to our spending habits when our real money is reduced to plastic cards and numbers on a computer screen? According to author Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), this degree of separation from actual money can actually have an effect on our behavior - and our honesty. Listen to his comments on the recent Bear Stearns debacle.

At school we use manipulatives and computer software to teach kids how to recognize and count coins and bills, and how to make change. But I wonder if we are preparing them deal with a real world of debit/credit cards, online banking, and one-click shopping. Do they truly understand that those numbers on the screen are a real and just as important as cash in their pocket? How do we get them to think about good money management and sound financial decision making.

One great media resource I like to use is BizKid$. This PBS series, made by the same team that produced Bill Nye-The Science Guy, is packed full of great lessons and positive examples of kids who understand proper money management. It’s fast paced and funny - I particularly like the Star Trek parodies - but it also teaches some simple and not-so-simple money management concepts in a way that connects with kids. The series is aimed at grades 4-7 and covers a variety of topics from “What is Money?” (Episode 2) to the “Global Economy” (Episode 20).

Their web site has video clips and a synopsis of each episode. Complete a free registration process and you’ll have access to teacher guides and classroom lessons developed by Junior Achievement. Check with your local PBS station to see about recording rights for your classroom.

Other sites/resources for money education:
  • Hands On Banking - an interactive web site sponsored by Wells Fargo.
  • Elementary Video Adventures: Money: Kids & Cash - Available to those of you with Discovery Streaming. (Log in and search for “Kids and Cash”.) It is a collection of 23 video segments for kids in grades 3-5.
If you have any great tools that you use for money education please leave a comment and link. Thanks.

Oh, and if the Dan Ariely clip caught your attention, check out his web site and his book, Predictably Irrational. I was fascinated by his thoughts on how we make decisions and the tricks our mind plays on us. Some of this will definitely come in handy dealing with kids in the classroom.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Adventures in Google Apps

Over the past several weeks we've been exploring Google Apps for Education here at St. John's. I really like the way Google Docs allows for collaborating on projects, but the biggest hurdle that prevented us from using it in our middle school was a registration process that requires users to sign-up with an e-mail address. We can't require our students to have internet e-mail accounts. This is why we decided to try Google Apps for Education.

The process began with signing up our school, registering our domain, and setting up our site. Our reward came this week we when we actually started using it with 6th Grade.

Signing Up/Registering Our Domain
Signing up for Google Apps for Education begins at their site. This is where the process got a little confusing for me. Thankfully our school network administrator was there to help me through the process. The first thing they ask for is your domain name. We had a couple of domain names registered to our school that we were not using so we chose one of those.
Next we had to prove to Google that we actually owned our domain. This involved either uploading a unique HTML file they supplied to our site, or by changing something called the CNAME to redirect our site to Google. Since the name we selected to use was registered to us but not an active web site, we could not upload anything to it, so we had to change the CNAME. If this part sounds confusing to you, rest assured it was confusing to me too. Thankfully our network guy knew what to do. He had to go to the site where we registered our domain and make these changes.

It took almost a week for Google to verify that we had ownership of the domain, but once it was done we could go to our site and a custom Google start page (think - iGoogle) would appear. The page included links to Google Docs, GMail, GoogleTalk, Google Calendar, and any other modules I chose to add.

NOTE: Going to www.yourdomain.com would take you to your custom start page. You can go straight to Google Docs by typing docs.yourdomain.com.

Set-Up & Adding Users
The default settings in Google Apps for Education automatically creates GMail accounts for each of your users (Think: username@yourdomain.com). Since we did not want our students to have GMail accounts, we chose to disable the GMail feature, along with GoogleTalk (Chat is blocked by our firewall anyway) and Calendar (our school site already has a calendar). This basically left Google Docs.

To get our students into the system I was able to export their usernames from our learning system into an Excel CSV file, tweak the spreadsheet a little so it looks like the one below, and upload them to our Google site. For student passwords I just assigned them a generic password and checked a box that requires them to change it the first time they login.

Our First Project
Our 6th grade history teacher wanted his students to collaborate on their class notes for his lesson on the Age of Pericles. He created a Google Presentation with a single question on each slide. We decided it would be easier for a first project to have students each working on their own slide as opposed to editing over each other on the same text document. That presentation was copied multiple times - one for each group of 4 or 5 students. Students were were then invited to collaborate on their copy of the presentation.

For the introductory lesson we just showed students how to login and access the presentation. Even though their usernames had already been imported to our Google system, for their first login they still had to do two levels of "type the squiggly word" and click on the "agree to terms" button to verify their account. We showed them the Common Craft Google Docs video to give the kids an idea how Google Docs work. Then we showed them how to open & edit their copy of the presentation. Student groups had to decide who was going to work on which slide. Their assignment was to go home and work on their questions so their answers could be shared in class the next day.

What was the first thing they all started doing? Changing the themes and watching the screen change on each of the PC's in their group. I've to to admit, that is kind of empowering - and fun. The next day, out of three class periods, all but 2 or 3 students had completed their assignment.

NOTE: The ones that didn't finish had copied the web site incorrectly in their assignment book.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Every Place Has a Story

Imagine this...
  • You're on visiting a historic Civil War battlefield. You're carrying a GPS enabled PDA with you. As you walk into a particular area your PDA starts playing a recorded story of what happened on that spot. Old photos appear on the screen showing what you might have seen had you been standing there 145 years ago. As you leave that area, the audio fades out. You continue exploring and as you do different voices, sounds, and images appear specific to those locations. It's as if those places are reaching through history to tell you their story.
  • You're walking through a park near your home with that same PDA. Suddenly a voice prompts you to stop and look around. It points out specific geological or natural features visible from where you are standing.
  • You're strolling through the neighborhood near your school. As you walk through certain areas you hear poetry, music, or stories written by your students who were inspired by those locations.
You've just experienced place-based learning. This weekend I had a chance to attend a workshop at KQED in San Francisco. Leslie Rule of KQED led the discussion as we shared ideas and brainstormed ways that place and space can be used to add an extra dimension to learning.

Many of us have seen how tools like Google Maps and Google Earth can connect us virtually with just about any place on the planet. Google Lit Trips takes events from books and links them to places. Imagine following the journey of the Joad family from Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, or the story of gold seekers traveling from Boston to California in Sid Fleishman's The Great Horn Spoon.

Google Maps is valuable tool for organizing data and information by location. During the California wildfires last fall KPBS used Google Maps to share place-specific information with the public and alert communities of evacuation areas and road closures.

Using Google Street-View you can virtually stand in Dealy Plaza and survey the scene where JFK was shot, look up at the 6th story window where Oswald was perched waiting for the motorcade to pass by, and click down the street to the spot where the fatal shot struck the President.

While these types of place-based learning can all be done from the comfort of your own computer screen, the real power of place-based learning happens when you step outside the classroom and into the real world. You experience the content while standing in the actual spot - seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling it for yourself. This is where things really start to get fun.

Using GPS enabled PDA's and Mediascape software Leslie showed us how to actually create a simple version of the imagined projects described above. We pulled in a picture from Google Earth of the area just outside KQED and programmed in the longitude and latitude coordinates. Then we created zones on certain areas of the map and imported pre-recorded audio that would play when the device entered those zones. Once the "mediascape" was created it was downloaded to the PDA and we ran outside to test it out.

We turned on the PDA's, waited for the GPS to acquire our position, and opened our downloaded file. The map and zones appeared on the screen we started walking. Upon entering a zone an audio clip started to play. As we stepped out of that zone the clip stopped. Errors in the GPS positioning meant that different PDA's were triggered in different spots, but for the most part, the experiment worked!

Admittedly, the technology we used was a little glitchy and it may be a while before this type of project becomes practical. The software we used only works with Windows and Windows Mobile enabled devices. Since not many PDA's are equipped with GPS capability, we had to use a separate bluetooth GPS unit to feed our position to the PDA's. It worked for some and not for others, but everyone did get a vision of how powerful this type of learning could be.

Even if you don't have all the equipment you need right now, you can still start thinking about and creating place-based content with technology you already possess. For example, you or your students could record content and upload it to your web site. That information could be downloaded to an iPod or mp3 player. Your students could use handheld GPS units or even paper maps to indicate where to play certain tracks. Then, in the future if you do get PDA's , that recorded information would be ready-made and easily moved to a GPS enabled hand-held device.

If you have no equipment at all, you can still create an educational "treasure hunt" called an EdTrek. KQED's Quest web site has an example and instructions for creating your own.

However you choose to implement it, the important thing to remember about place-based learning is that every place has a story. It could be geological, historical, personal, or inspirational. For your students it could be a specific place that works like a trigger to get them writing.
  • Tell about something that happened here.
  • How does this place make you feel?
  • Use your words to describe the sights, sounds, textures, and smells.
For those making the learning journey through those places it will give them a new perspective as they experience that place through the words of another.

Place-Based Learning Resources:
Create-A-Scape - Software to create a mediascape.
KQED Sample Quest
Lesson Plan for Creating an Ed-Trek Activity
"No Student Left Indoors" by Jane Kirkland
Google Lit Trips

NOTE: I would not have been able to attend this workshop without a generous invitation from Janet English of KOCE. Thanks Janet for the invite and for all you do to support teachers and technology in Orange County.