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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Rock and Roll Science

Apparently I am the last teacher on Earth to learn of They Might Be Giants, a really cool band whose song "Science is Real" is featured below. Lots of other great, more topic-related videos by that same group can be found on YouTube. (If you double-click the video below, it will open in the YouTube page, and additional vids by this group will appear to the right).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Good Enough!

Good enough! I usually cringe at that expression, since it's typically an excuse for substandard work. But in the case of Alternative To, it's high praise!

Alternative To is a site where you can enter the name of any popular desktop program or mobile app, and the site search will return a list of free applications which are close alternatives.

For example, my daughter recently informed me that a trial version of Microsoft Office had expired on her computer and she wanted me to purchase the whole program. It is, after all, a great program (my attempt to avoid being sued).

Enter Alternative To. I typed Microsoft Word into the Search bar and was instantly presented with over a dozen alternatives. I instantly recognized the name Open Office. While Google Docs (another listed alternative) contains a lot of cool features and functionality, my daughter simply needed a platform that looked and acted like Word.

A little more exploration at the Open Office site (Alternative To provides direct downloads as well as links to source sites) revealed that in addition to word processing, the Open Office program also contained applications for presentations, spreadsheets, graphics, and more.

A one click download, a simple installation, and we were all set! Not only does Open Office look and act like Word, but it can actually save my daughter's work in Word formats.

So before you spend another penny of your hard earned money, I recommend you visit Alternative To. You might just find the perfect alternative for personal or school use.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Chess Rumble: Life Lessons from Chess

The English language is peppered with chess idioms: stalemate (a position of impasse), gambit (a risky tactic, often involving a sacrifice), checkmate (a measured response, leaving your opponent with no way out), rank and file (literally, the rows and columns on a chess board; often used to name the "lesser players" in an organization), pawns in a game (bit players), and endgame (the final phase of an operation or story). Movies, television shows, theater, literature, and even video games widely use chess as a metaphor for human interactions. In The Lord Of The Rings, for example, Gandalf describes the coming war in chess terms:
The board is set, and the pieces are moving [...] But the Enemy has the move, and he is about to open his full game. And pawns are likely to see as much of it as any, Peregrin son of Paladin, soldier of Gondor. Sharpen your blade!
Chess as a metaphor for critical thinking and decision making is the central theme of Chess Rumble, written by G. Neri and illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson. From the book jacket: "Inspired by inner-city school chess enrichment programs, Chess Rumble explores the ways this strategic game empowers young people with the skills they need to anticipate and calculate their moves through life." Told in free verse, this book has a rich, authentic voice and a truly plausible story line.

Here G. Neri and Jesse Joshua Watson reflect upon their respective roles as author and illustrator, and the phenomenon that is chess:

As an educator once faced with designing an academic curriculum for inner-city youth at a summer camp, I chose chess as a center piece for that program (center piece is also a chess derived idiom). Sixth and seventh graders who otherwise had difficulty following directions and sitting still would immerse themselves for hours in tabletop warfare.

In one memorable game, a student made a reckless attack which cost him a rook (a valuable piece, outranked only by the Queen). My counselor responded to the student's dismay by saying, "You made a move from anger. When I took your piece, your first thought was to get revenge. But if you had looked a move or two ahead, you would have seen a bettter way." That exchange was just one of many that came from our games. (In later years I even taught a chess course at church called The King is the Thing, which taught life lessons through chess).

Chess Rumble is a fabulous book for your classroom library or as a read-aloud. The authentic voice and plentiful black and white illustrations make it a stand out for the middle school group.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

10 Places to Find and Share Lesson Plans Online

The following is a guest post from education writer Karen Schweitzer. Her previous guest post, 15 Free Resources for Young Readers, was a big hit, so I'm pleased to have her with us again.

Finding and sharing lesson plans online can help teachers save time and engage students in new ways. There are several sites that have been set up specifically for this purpose. Here are ten quality lesson plans sites for teachers to try throughout the school year.

Thinkfinity - More than 55,000 lesson plans from sites like ReadWriteThink, EDSITEment, Illuminations, and Xpeditions can be located through this digital learning platform. Lesson plans can be located by subject, grade level, and keyword.

Discovery Lesson Plans Library - This lesson plan library from Discovery Education offers hundreds of original lesson plans for K-12 students. New lesson plans are featured each week.

Teachers Network - Teachers Network provides lesson plans that have been designed by teachers for teachers. Site visitors can choose from lesson plans created by new teachers or veteran teachers.

Learning to Give - Learning to Give develops free lesson plans that focus on volunteerism and civic engagement. More than 1,400 lesson plans for K-12 students are available through the Learning to Give site.

The Learning Network - The Learning Network is a special site from The New York Times that makes it easy for teachers to find lesson plans and other teaching resources directly related to recent news headlines. Specific resources on The Learning Network include a blog, a daily news quiz, a lesson plan search engine, and a student opinion section.

The Educator's Reference Desk - The Educator's Reference Desk has a large collection of more than 2,000 lesson plans written by teachers all over the country. Users can search the collection to find lessons by subject, grade level, or keyword.

Shmoop - Shmoop provides engaging study guides for literature, history, civics, and music. The site also has a special section for teachers that explains how the guides can be incorporated into daily lessons.

We the Teachers - We the Teachers (WTT) combines social networking with aspects of teachers resource sites. Educators can use WTT to create and upload lesson plans or find lesson plans created by other teachers.

Teachade - This community of educators allows teachers to contribute their own lesson plans and search for resources that have been created by other teachers. Teachade also allows users to upload files and links from existing class resources.

Tapped In - Tapped In is an online community of K-16 teachers. The site encourages educators to plan learning projects with colleagues, mentor other teachers, and share classroom resources.

Thanks, Karen, for these terrific resources! Karen Schweitzer is the Guide to Business School, and she also writes about online degree programs for

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Black History Interactive has a terrific interactive site featuring Black History Milestones (this link takes you to the page on Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier). Perfect if you're looking for a reliable yet accessible starting point for Black History Month!

You'll especially appreciate the slider which allows you to move from early events such as the introduction of slavery in the Americas to more recent events including the election of President Obama. The site includes archival images and video to supplement the article accompanying each milestone. Additional resources including maps and biographical profiles can be found on the site's Black History homepage.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Using Edmodo in the Classroom: Five Days Later

I recently posted about Edmodo, comparing it to Ning for kids. The fact is, it looks and acts more like a Facebook/Twitter hybrid, but the fact that students can choose to post and interact in groups gives it a Ning feel as well.

Before I tell you how it went, here are the guidelines I provided to students via our class newsletter:
  • Do not reveal any personal information on Edmodo. No telephone numbers, addresses, or other students’ names. To check someone’s username, click on their class group (schoch12, schoch56, etc.).
  • Do not post photos or videos showing yourself or classmates.
  • Keep conversations on topic. There is a proper place (group) for almost anything you’d like to share.
  • Use appropriate language. If you’re not sure if a word or joke is okay, then it’s not.
  • Refrain from posts that tease, bully, annoy, spam, or gossip about any other member.
  • If someone posts an inappropriate remark, kindly ask them to edit or remove it.
These guidelines were in no way a surprise to students. They fully understood the reason for each. We then spent a good deal of time discussing how students would always use coded names to interact (initials, class periods, student number). All students were then required to join all fifteen groups, even if they thought they wouldn't interact in a group (the reason being: once students joined all groups, I changed the access codes).

Our discussion groups include Artwork, Cool Videos (curriculum related), Count Me In (surveys), Discuss Monthly Projects, Fun Stuff (videos and links unrelated to curriculum), My Status, Recommended Sites, Reminders, Stories and Poems, Sound Off (prompted discussions based upon class topics and themes), Vocabulary (lists and related links), What Are You Reading, and three groups designated by period numbers. In retrospect, Cool Videos was an entirely misleading group name (they kep throwing their random funny videos in there) and Vocab simply wasn't needed.

After five days, about fifteen (of sixty) students are the power users. Always on, interacting, and uploading content. An equal number has only logged on when required to respond to a prompt in the Sound Off section. The rest are somewhere in between.

So what's been learned? Surprisingly, a lot.

Technically, students learned how to:
  • follow and contribute to a threaded conversation, rather than firing off comments into the great abyss;
  • consider audience when choosing a group with which to share a given message, link, or video;
  • tag comments for friends to find;
  • use a filter to sort through collected postings to find what was needed; and
  • change avatars to match their personalities, while at the same time protecting their identities.
Socially, students learned to
  • think before posting, and edit remarks when peers disapproved;
  • refrain from certain conventions and language which, while acceptable with friends outside of the school setting, are considered inappropriate in school;
  • select hyperlinks and videos which would be enjoyable and appropriate for everyone in the group; and
  • disagree with ideas without attacking the students who posted them.
We did tweak the guidelines a bit. When one student posted a dozen videos in the first ten minutes, it was decided that each student should post just one at a time. When a student wants to share another, he/she would need to remove the first video. Students also agreed that music videos were too hard to monitor for appropriateness given that the lyrics were often unintelligible, so music videos were temporarily voted down. Temporarily, because other students argued (somewhat successfully) that show tunes and other songs were certainly appropriate, and actually uplifting. We agreed to return to that topic after a week or two.

Overall, students are very excited about this community, and they've been conscientious in its use. While our experiment is thus far successful, I would urge potential users to draft a parental consent form for Edmodo. While our district Internet policy covers the activity in a blanket statement, I think teachers should further protect themselves by getting explicit parental consent for students to participate, while at the same requiring students to agree to established guidelines for conduct.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Upcoming Workshops

If you're in Central New Jersey in late February with absolutely nothing to do, you might consider joining me for my How to Teach a Novel Workshop.

This free workshop, sponsored by New Jersey ASCD, will be held from 4:00 to 5:30 at Bedminster School in Bedminster, NJ. More details are available via this brochure.

In addition to being free, the event will include refreshments and door prizes, plus credit hours to those who need them. Come join us for a great time! Can't make it? Be sure to check out my How to Teach a Novel blog.

Note: Donut pictured here is for illustrative purposes only. Your refreshment experience may vary.


Most recently I presented at Techspo in Atlantic City, NJ. Techspo is an annual conference sponsored by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. If you’re interested in integrating technology into your teaching as well as keeping up with the latest information and tools, this is a good conference to catch next year.

My remaining public events for this year include:

How to Teach a Novel Workshop
Sponsored by the New Jersey ASCD (Free of Charge!)
February 24, 2010
4:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Bedminster Township School
Bedminster, New Jersey
More details available in this brochure.
(I’ll be presenting on How to Teach a Novel for teachers in grades 3-8).

Teacher Talk Radio
Facilitated by Jen Schneider, host of Teacher Talk Radio
March 3, 2010 (UPDATE: Rescheduled to April; details to follow).
8:00 - 8:30 p.m.
(You can also listen to the talk in the archives if you miss it live).

Integrating Technology Into Content Area Instruction
Sponsored by New Jersey ASCD
Secondary Level: March 9, 2010
Elementary Level: March 16, 2010
(I’ll be at the Elementary Level Day only).
9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
FEA Conference Center
Monroe Township, New Jersey
(I’ll be presenting on Interactive Reading and Writing Sites).

10th Annual from My Classroom to Yours Conference
Sponsored by Southern Regional Institute & ETTC
March 17, 2010
8:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
Pomona, New Jersey
(Still awaiting confirmation for this conference).

2010 NJMSA Statewide Annual Conference
Sponsored by the New Jersey Middle School Association
March 19, 2010
(see site for times)
Kean University
Union, NJ
(I’ll be presenting on How to Teach a Novel).

NELMS Annual Conference
Sponsored by the New England League of Middle Schools
April 8-10, 2010
(see site for times)
Providence, Rhode Island
(Still awaiting confirmation for this conference).

2010 Spring Conference: 21st Century Learning for ELLs
Sponsored by NJTESOL/NJBE
May 18, 19 2010
(see site for times)
DoubleTree and Garden State Exhibit Center
Somerset, New Jersey
(I’ll be presenting on Interactive Reading and Writing Tools).