Thursday, January 31, 2008

Where did my work go?

I was very frustrated at a number of students going into what I call "Cow - Mode". This is where they just blindly do what they always have done without thinking is this what I have been told to do, are these the instructions. I am sure we have all faced these problems as teachers. These mistakes in my computer class, however, have had some students in the verge of tears.

I have tried to help a number of grade 4 and 5 students learn how to save files, and how to open files up when using the "File" menu common to pretty much every application. What frustrates me is when students open up a program, like MS Word, and then clicking file -> save instead of file -> open. They have just overwritten their work with a blank document. Undo does not work in this case (or hasn't in our version of MS Word). I don't have access to server logs, and I can't go back in time. What to do? Some students have done this 3 times, despite having been taught the proper way to open, save, and close your work. I have to teach the students to read messages and think about what the computer is asking them to do before just clicking "yes" , "no", when to hit "cancel" and think some more, and when it's ok to hit "Ok."

Thus I have begun teaching computer education classes that are still engaging and creative lessons, but whose Learning Intentions are teaching them BASIC FILE MANAGEMENT skills, or BFM. BTW "learning intentions" just mean THE BIG IDEA of why we are doing this lesson. And I am starting at grade 1.

What I hope to accomplish is this - make a lesson that is so interesting, that students have to follow the steps exactly in order to "enjoy" the lesson. Our lesson with grade 1 and 2 students today was to take a picture of them using the new web camera, and put it in their student folder on our server. Students would then have to:

1 - open up the paint program

2 - browse to the file, and this involves using a drop down menu so that they can select "all files". Otherwise, their picture file (a jpeg) won't show up in their folder. When browsing to the file, the paint program in question is searching for .bmp or "bitmap" files.

3 - open their picture (it has their name on it)

4 - draw on the picture using paint tools - we are making disguises.

5 - after each drawing is complete use "save-as". I have taught them that this creates a new version of your picture, so that your "clean copy" stays clean.

So the Learning Intention is to learn how to create versions of files, and use save and save-as commands for different tasks. If they just hit save after making a disguise, then they will not have their original photo, and can't make more disguise - pictures. Of course I have the originals safely kept in another file, but I don't want them to know that!

Here are some of the teaching examples I have used:


Me with a cool mustache, glasses and missing tooth

Me as a bandit. The grade 1's and 2's were really interested now!

I will create another post next week to say whether or not the grade 1's and 2's are able to better manage files, and navigate the file system.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Third Party in our Schools

YouTube is here to stay. For quite some time I imagine, and I am happy about this. I think YouTube is great. I just don't want my students searching it for content at school. I definitely think that embedding videos into your school site or blog is the way to go.
Google Docs could be a great tool for organization. It allows people who don't have microsoft word, powerpoint or excel to create documents that will work or operate like the aforementioned apps. Free. And, those absent-minded professor types won't lose their work because it can't be left at home/school/work/on the bus. It is on the 'net which means it is everywhere they are.
There are tons of online applications like, bubbleshare,, and more that allow students to put work online. Often there are even more ways to protect the privacy of their work, but there is a catch. Third party services like these are out of school's control. Once you upload stuff to them, they could do things to student work such as use it for advertising purposes. And by agreeing to use their services you are already agreeing with them doing this with student work if you wish.

I! (With a brief, somewhat apathetic shrug thrown in). The chances the FBI and Homeland Security will be interested in my grade 3's report on ants and the brazillian rainforest is pretty small. Nope, not that interesting to national security. The benefits of services like YouTube and VoiceThread far outweigh the risks. The best thing I can do is make sure parents and students are informed, but also to give my professional opinion that I think we can make good educational use of these sites, and to not worry. Just take precautions, like those I have mentioned on previous posts.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

What Children Want...

Students want the full media experience using computers. One of the teachers at my school has found a way to use headphones on computers. I know, I know everyone is thinking one word ..... LICE! Fear not, these headphones are smooth plastic, and do not present a lice friendly environment. They are not often used, and the actual incidence of lice in my school is really low.

Today we put our usual All The Right Type away, and are using a free online program by BBC schools called "Dance Mat Typing."

This is a great site. It has cartoony graphics (I love the goat's accent, Scottish I think), and how they illustrate the correct finger positions. I have been using it with students as young as grade 2, but they are more interested in completing levels than they are about good finger positioning. One step at a time, I suppose.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

My SharePoint Presentation and Twitter

I am now twittering. Thanks for the suggestion, Vicki Davis. I am asking some questions about technology and education on twitter, but I have not gotten a lot of responses yet. Perhaps I need to ask at a different time of day?

This is my presentation on SharePoint websites that I will be presenting to teachers in the Gifted Ed. program this month, and teachers in the regular program next month. The slides by themselves are not all that earth-shaking, but I will be presenting them with some hands activites. I never liked computer lessons where I just watched stuff, and didn't get to try it out.

I have just gone through this workshop on a small scale, and the questions were flying. Some prefer to watch you put a page together, while others want to do it while I am explaining the steps on How To. Either way, I will be posting follow up screen casts on YouTube which show how to do most of these steps. Just go to YouTube and search "mrjagill" which is me. I wonder if any other school districts out there are using SharePoint websites with their schools? I wonder if there are any out there using SharePoint with elementary students?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Its all about makin' stuff and movin' it

I swear, I am a digital native. Honest..would I lie? None of my friends text each other. It appears that only single people text each other. Young single people under the age of 30. Depressing, since it is pretty cool. What it seems the digital native likes is the ability to make stuff (content) and move it from where they are to their fellow tribesman, or tribeswoman as the case may be (share it with an audience). This is important. Communicating with the tribe has always been important.

Dave Sands, a principal, father, and digital native remarked that his daughter in high school will talk with her friends at a coffee shop, but then go home and message these same friends on an instant messaging program (take your pick). When asked why they would message each other when she just spent an hour at a coffee shop visting with them, she explains that that is only talking with one person at a time. Here she can talk to all ten at one time, and have many conversations going at once. This is where our students are, unless they are too young. In which case, this is where they are going. This is what is different between the digital natives, and the digital immigrants. At this same conference where Dave Sands was discussing the Internet and today's student, he asked a high school student who was helping to hand out papers if he messages his friends using his cell phones. This student replied that he gets dozens upon dozens of messages a day. He texts more than he calls.

I just re-signed with my cell phone provider. My motivation was to get a better cell phone which I did. It has a camera, and can do pics and video. It has 1 Gb of memory on a memory card. And, I just discovered that I have 3 months of unlimited text, picture, and video messaging. Thank you Telus! What I would like is some comments from you guys about how I could apply text, picture, and video messaging to education. Here we have students who are more than adept at messaging; it's an unconscious skill. How can I tap into that for educational purposes? I await your suggestions. Here is the question I posed to YouTube viewers:

PS. I know some of you out there are going to say that students with cell phones is the root of all evil in schools. I would argue that the cell phone is a tool. Perhaps it is up to us to teach them to use this tool for good.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008 and Inspiration

No, I don't mean that I am inspired today....although I am inspired today. What is is a day without inspiration? I am referring to the graphic organizer program called Inspiration. At my school, we have "Kidspiration" which does much the same thing, but we don't have Inspiration. Also, I don't have inspiration at home, and having spent money on a new computer, I don't have a lot of budget for a lot of software. So I use on the Internet. is an online planning program, but I use it to teach writing by creating graphic organizers for my students. I can create any shape or configuration I like. I then use the aging classroom projector I have procured to teach the lesson on our overhead projector screen. I am looking forward to a pen pals project with another class, in another school in the US. Because they are located in the southern United States, I thought that I would like to have our students share with them what our life is like here in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Here is how we started:

I can print off these sheets for students with writing output problems, and export the file as an XML document or as an html file. And as you can see, I can embed it. Later I am going to put this project into my class' secure website so that the parents at home can check out today's lesson, and help their kids with homework.

I would like to use this program in my 9 week course to have students collaboratively plan joint projects. We can control who gets access to which projects, invite other people in (especially the teacher), and best of all it is free. It works on different browsers, and on different operating systems. I give it a big thumbs up.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Computer Programming - who needs it?

Students need to be exposed to computer programming. I have been working with some students as young as grade 1 and 2, playing wiht the program "Scratch" from MIT. Scratch is a free program (free for educational use), and it is a hit with our students. I have been teaching the grade 2's how to do things like use the cat icon (called a sprite) to make a line, make turns, start and stop. This has led to a discussion of angles. We needed to talk about what are angles, and how angles and lines are used to make shapes.

Grade 3's are working on making specific shapes. We are learning through experimentation how squares are different than rectangles. The students in grade 3 can draw rectangles, and most of them can describe how a square is different than a rectangle. But there is a big "Ah-HA!" moment when it comes to programming a cartoon character to draw a square and a rectangle. "Oh...I have to make two sides longer, and two sides shorter.." , or some discovery about how all the corners are the same angle.

The Grade 4's and 5's are making more complex shapes. I asked them how to make flowers, and then put a straight line on them for the stem. They program the sprite to go around and around making a shape reminiscient of the old etch-a-sketch game I played with as a child. But how to make that straight line? Lots of thinking, and for an entire 45 minute period, all the students are on task. All of the students are talking in the computer lab (a practice many frown on), but all of them are talking about their programming. Not one student off task. I wish all my Math lessons were this interesting.

I then show all grades the scratch website at MIT. This is where they can view other students' work. Some of my students have expressed an interest in posting their project there. This confirms my belief that many students want to share their work with an audience.

So what's next? I think we have the primary students work on creating pictures with simple shapes, and we have the intermediates create more work having the sprite move across the screen, and use cartoon speech bubbles to teach others about a favourite school topic. If anyone else has some good ideas on how to use Scratch with elementary students (k-5), I would love to hear them!

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Voice Thread and Aboriginal Education

I was just talking to our Aboriginal Education teacher. He and I go way back, and he has taught me a lot about the First Nations' culture in British Columbia. One of the things we have talked about is how much of the First Nations' culture is based on their oral history. Also, how many of his students have difficulties with writing and literacy based activities. I think we will be doing a Voice Thread project in the future, so that he can use this to help his students show what they are learning; whether it is for their regular program, or something they have learned through their studies in the Aboriginal Pull-Out program.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Computer Projectors Poetry Writing - Staircase Poems

This is not a computer lesson, but is a lesson I used a computer to teach. I have managed to wrangle a computer projector for my classroom. No big deal you say? In the elementary classrooms in my district, this kind of thing is rare. By using the computer and projector to teach my lesson I was able to:

1.) Save my lesson for the future -why re-invent the wheel
2.) E-mail it to an absent student (ok, not yet, but once I get their parent's email, no problem)
3.) Print it off and give it as a fill in the blanks note-taking practice to students who find writing a challenging experience.
4.) Share the lesson with another teacher (our Student Services teacher who walked in and said she liked the lesson and wanted a copy)

5.) Had this been a Science lesson, I could have taken the classroom notes, and by blanking out key words, I could have used sections of it for a test. This saves time, and ensures that the content that students study is closely tied to the tests they take.

Staircase Writing

Today we are practicing adding more details to our writing. We are going to make a sentence more interesting by adding one detail (an adjective) to the line for each new line. The end result is a kind of poem that looks like a staircase.

My pen.
My red pen.
My skinny, red pen.
My smooth, skinny, red pen.
My favourite, smooth, skinny, red pen.
My pen.

Here is another sample, which I left blank.

A dog.
A ____ dog
A____, ____ dog
A ____ , ____,____ dog
A____, ____ , ____, ____ dog
A dog.

This lesson was well recieved by my class of grade 3's, and the students with writing difficulites who were given print-offs of the notes and samples were able to keep pace with the rest of the class. Many of the students wanted to show off their creativity when the lesson was over, and all seemed to enjoy the lesson.

It is my hope that more computer projectors trickle down to the elementary level as time goes by. They are an invaluable teaching tool.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
2007 James J. Gill

The "Hey Joe" technical support line

We are always our own best source of help and technical support. I am not speaking of the royal "we" here, nor do I mean "we" as in us as individuals. I mean we as groups of teachers. I think we need to create a grassroots movement of technical support. Before any of us writes a work order up, or calls someone in the IT department, we often look for someone nearby and ask them "Hey Joe (or Joanne), how do you...." What if we took a more proactive approach to technical support.

When people ask me how do you ________(perform some task on a computer) , now I take a few extra minutes and say to them "I am happy to help you, but can we do this at my desktop computer?" I have downloaded a free program called CamStudio. When I show someone how to do a task (once I have figured it out), we "screencast" it. This is where we make a screen capture video, which we narrate using my computer microphone. Then we save the file on our school server, and upload it to YouTube. Now whether you are at work or at home, you can access the video. Also, if anyone else has the same question, they can see a video on it.

My goal is to inspire other staff members to screencast when they know how to do a task that someone else has asked them about. I haven't had any takers yet, but I have noticed some staff members helping others with computer tasks. I think this is encouraging. I think screencasting is the next step in ongoing professional development in computer education.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Discuss it - Forums

Sometimes forums on the Internet can be like the wild west of the old days; lawless and untamed. At our school, we use SharePoint websites, and one of it's features is the discussion forum. Here is an example of how I have used it with a class of Grade 4 students.

First I had the students read 3 pages of a textbook on water. It covered topics such as fresh vs. salt water, the water cycle, and water pollution. In a previous lesson we had learned how to take notes of the important points of a textbook page, and we used those skills to make a page of notes. After class I create a series of 9 questions based on these 3 pages in a discussion forum on our classroom website. There were three questions per subtopic. The questions only took me a few minutes to create. The students were going to answer these questions by clicking on each question, reading it, and then clicking on "post reply" to type their answer in.

The next day, I had the students bring only their notes in, and they answered these questions. I noticed that there were a lot of answers for the first 7 questions, but only a couple of people answered the last two questions on pollution. This tells me that I needed to review pollution in class, but not spend a lot of time on salt vs. fresh water or the topic of the water cycle. I also had all the students stand up, and when I called out their name (when I saw they had posted an answer), they sat down. This enabled me to see by who was left standing, who was answering questions, and who might be needing help. I refer to this as playing a game of "stand-up, sit-down" and no student ever takes offense to this process.

On day 3 we were back in the computer lab. I had the students read the answers other kids had given in the forum. Then I asked "who needs to add to their notes something they have just learned, or just realized was important to study about water?" 11 out of 21 students said they needed to add to their notes, and did so on the spot. I then showed the students how to click on each others' answers, and with a little discussion of how to speak respectfully on-line, I had them add to other students answers, question them, or at times correct them. No student's answers were changed, but had comments attached to them. Kids were calling out to each other in the lab, "hey, I replied to your answer to number 7", or "read what I wrote this time."

Only once did I have to correct someone for adding something off topic, and the rest of the time students were on task, and engaged in the "grand conversations" we as teacher long for our students to have. One of the most interesting examples was when two of my students with severe learning disabilities were having a conversation online

Question: What are two of the 4 ways outlined in the text where people create water pollution problems?

ans child1) When peopl por oil down the drane (When people pour oil down the drain)

child2)- You re sapposed to tel 2 ways. What else can yo thik of? (You are supposed to tell two ways. What else can you think of?)

These two kids demonstrated the kind of thinking I want all my students to do in my class. Child 2 in my opinion showed a great deal of respect when speaking to child1. I don't always see this kind of respect in adults on forums, and these kids are 10 years old!

I think that I could use forums the same way with older students. The advantages are that it offers students more time to respond to questions, and to be able to respond at school and at home. It encourages discussion between students. It encourages critical thinking. It provides the opportunity to teach how to speak or even offer criticism in a socially responsible way. One necessary item in the forum is that it must be set up so that students are identified by their login, and that each comment they make has their ID next to it. This holds people accountable for what they say. Just like in the real world.

I definitely want to have academic forums in the course that I am designing.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Middle School Course Outline - Learn to Type

In addition to the questions I pose on the first day, I would begin with the learning intention for keyboarding. Vicki Davis pointed out the benefit for students to be able to type proficiently. They are able to accomplish more, and a greater variety of tasks when they are proficient touch-typists. But how do I balance drills with real work so that the students use the drills to become more proficient at genuine tasks? I think we must begin with a good reason (the learning intention) for becoming a proficient typist in the first place.

I myself have terrible handwriting and printing (for a teacher), so early in my life my mom (also a teacher) taught me how to type and made me practice. I learned on one of the old ibm electric typewriters. I think I was around 11 or 12 at the time. Then we got a computer, then a better computer, etc. I thought that these typing skills would only be good for doing "polished" work for school.

I went through different jobs starting when I was 13, bagging potting soil. I waited tables, and worked at a gas station...and then I got a job at the phone company main cellular office. I went from making around $10 an hour (a couple bucks above minimum wage) to around $17 dollars an hour! And to get this job, I had to go through some interviews, a math test, a few other tests, and.... a typing test. If I couldn't type 35 words per minute, I couldn't have gotten the job. I think that many young people would be motivated at the prospect of getting highly paid part time work indoors. I also made friends with other people at the phone company whom I keep in touch with today.

These are all good reasons to learn how to type.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Corn - what to do with it?

Not an educational blog, but an enviornmental question. What to do with all that American corn? It's not always very nutritious, and High Fructose Corn Syrup is not a healthy thing to have in your diet. Today, at the Vancouver Aquarium, I had a drink served in a beverage cup that was made of cornstarch.

Plastic is a petroleum product, right? We are going to run out of oil someday? Why not start subsidizing development of these plastic-looking, plastic-feeling cups that are not made of plastic. Sounds better than subsidizing corn based ethanol fuels. From what little research I have done, ethanol from corn may not be the enviornment saving fuel we had hoped for, as it costs a lot to make. So, make cups.

My two bits.

Voice Thread

This is one powerful educational tool. Jennifer Wagner (hope I got your name right) a teacher from California introduced me to it. It allows people from all over the world to gather around a photo and make either a voice recording of what they wish to tell about the photo, or to type a comment in the event they don't have a microphone. Here is an example:

I hope to get a lot of students gathered around a series of pictures discussing what they mean to them.

Lesson idea: What about showing pictures of events that happened around the world, and have people from different cultures share their perspective, i.e. the fall of the berlin wall, or Vancouver winning the 2010 olympic bid? What about different symbols or icons from around the world, and how they mean different things to different people depending on your language or culture?

A lesson for my elementary students- how about constructing the history of your school, or sharing a science report from photos taken from a field trip. I think I will tackle this one on February's field trip to science world. Let's see what a bunch of 2nd and 3rd Graders learn and report from Science World based on comments on a Voice Thread project.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


If you read my previous blog entry about privacy and embedding stuff onto a secure website, you understand my dilema.  Whatever the host, they have to be able to embed an object (for instance a video), on a webpage without it being available to the public. does this for slide shows.  I stumbled onto this site when I was looking for a way just to put a slideshow (PowerPoint in this case) into our staff website.   All the advice I could get from colleagues was the same - you have to convert each slide to a .jpg (digital picture) and then put it into a movie (using something like iMovie or Windows Movie Maker).  Then I could put it on YouTube

 Although it was for staff only, there was a concern that putting this slideshow on a off site website host (like YouTube) with staff member's names on it would enable people to find out information about our staff on the host site.  

Turns out, you can put slideshows on the 'net and embed them.  SlideShare will put their own little slideshow app,  just like YouTube does.  They also have the ability to embed a "private" slideshow.  Now it is safe on both ends (slideshow host site and password-protected staff website).  This means you could also create slides with pictures of students, save it as a private slideshow on, and then embed it into a secure website (like our SharePoint site).  Brilliant!

Vimeo - Safer for Classrooms than YouTube

While there are many good resources to be found on YouTube, there is a lot of junk also. I love the content on, however there was still something missing. How can I embed something to protect my students' privacy? Enter

At my school we operate SharePoint websites. For those of you who don't use this product, its by Microsoft, and it gives each of its "clients" (teaching staff and students) a unique login and password. This helps to create a more secure environment where kids can put stuff on the web. The teacher/administrator can choose which kids or groups of kids can read/edit existing documents /add documents or create content. These websites can embed objects similar to how a blog embeds stuff (audio and video).

I can embed a public-domain YouTube video (like a student play that we video taped) onto our classroom website. I don't want to do this, because while the classroom website is protected, the YouTube video is available to the public. I could embed a "private" video (a setting available in your YouTube account), but in order for it to be viewed online, I must be logged into YouTube somewhere. I don't want to stay logged in all the time.

Enter Vimeo. This is the only free, video hosting site where I can embed videos that are password protected. All you see is a generic screen that says "Vimeo" and "password". You set the password to be whatever you want, however many numerals/letters you want. Now the kids can create movies with themselves as the star, I upload it and password protect it, and then embed it into our secure website. Now it is secure at both ends (video host and classroom website). I am trying to get the word out, as many people have been asking this same question, but all searches up until now have said it can't be done. Good news, it can; and it's free. Did I ever mention I am a big fan of the word "free".....

Description of a Nine Week Program

In my bid to get a job teaching computers to middle school students, I have decided to plan my course in the open.  If you are a teacher, or a student, or someone who uses computers (which if you are reading this...duh!) and you feel you have something you would like considered for educational purposes, mail me.  If you want to give me feedback on the course I have designed, then by all means mail me.  If you want to sell me cheap prescription medications....take a hike!   I'm workin' here.
Guiding principals or Learning Intentions of this course:

1.)  To use the computer to sharpen critical thinking skills

2.)  To use the computer to produce work of equal or higher quality than that which can be produced using non-computer methods - Why use the computer when a paintbrush would be better.  Use the right tool for the job.  But then again, who is to say a paintbrush would be better*(see links below)

3.)   To seek out and discuss ethical issuses - I say discuss because issues have two sides.  Students have to feel no fear of speaking their mind.  Otherwise we cannot have an open discussion, and we cannot change the way people think.  I also say discuss because sometimes we cannot find the black and white answer; perhaps though we can at least agree on what shade of grey an issue is and agree to abide by a code of ethics accordingly.  For instance - is it wrong to take the picture of a teacher and edit it with imaging software, and then post it?  It may depend on the intent of the person editing and posting the photo.  But perhaps we can agree to avoid this situation by agreeing to ask permission before taking a teacher's photo, and explaining what we would like to do with it before starting.  

4.)  To develop competency in using a variety of applications - art, science and math.  Music skills, and of course literacy skills.  After all it is a course on computer skills.  James McConville introduced me years ago to the term "digital pencil."  I think of the computer as the next tool in a student's creative toolbox.

I would like to advocate for free web based applications, and open source applications.  This is a different approach from the norm.  They are free applications, (free in the sense that you can use them for personal or educational use without paying), however there are drawbacks.  They are not under district control, they could be discontinued for student use, terms of service could change, there are concerns about technical support being available.  However I feel that web based apps and open source software offer two distinct advantages:

a) They are free
b) Lots of people are using them, and when students leave our doors, they will likely use some of these types of applications.  Let's teach their proper use while we have their attention.

Next: The Lessons