Friday, February 29, 2008

Want help with your kids homework? Just "Ask"

But don't ask me. I like I like it way better than google for kids doing research on the Province of Saskatchewan. I still have to teach my kids about "sponsored results", in a recent search for 'facts about Saskatchewan' I turned up the sponsored link "Meet Saskatchewan Singles"! My heart was all a-twitter! Don't worry, no kids present, just adults from the Parent Association for my school. They didn't seem as interested in meeting singles from Saskatchewan either, but they did like the "narrow your search" feature on the right of the browser window, and the "expand your search" options. Both turned up good results that the kids could use (facts about Saskatchewan's history, facts about Manitoba, etc.). Also, it came up with some handy images, and the wikipedia entry. Jury's out on Wikipedia for many teachers, but I think if your student's can read it, then it is worth a look.

I tried out the, which I didn't like at all. I found a search for Saskatchewan turned up nothing as the first hit, and the other searches that it hit were completely un-readable for kids. Not going there again., not Saskatchewan. Been to Saskatchewan in fact.


Very nice people

A bit on the flat side.

I digress. Murray Peters, a vice-principal and all around smart guy agrees. Ask is the better search engine. So, if you want homework help for your kid, just "Ask."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Extra! Extra! Voice in the Wilderness Gets Heard!

This is no post bemoaning how I wish more people thought like me. I've read lots of blogs like that and I don't think it's very useful. Not for me, anyways. I have tried to maintain a positive blog. No, rather this is about how people need to be willing to just jump in and try stuff when it comes to the Internet. And by "people" I mean me.

Two years ago, a teacher whose opinion I value saw a blogsite I was using and asked if I had tried using our district's SharePoint license to set up a SharePoint virtual classroom (SharePoint is a Microsoft web page making product that allows you to share documents, stream video, etc). I said "no, I had never heard of it", and so I put off learning about it for months. I did get around to trying it, and now I teach workshops for beginners on how to setup virtual classrooms on SharePoint.

Two months ago, a teacher asked me if I knew about "feedburner"(a tool that helps people subscribe to your site, and gives you get stats about numbers of people who subscribe to your site, or how many click on links you put on your site). I still don't fully utilize all its features, and I only have a beginner's understanding of what makes Feedburner work. But I now know I have at least 6 subscribers, (and thanks for subscribing). I was hesitant to start, because when I asked people I knew about feedburner, I got a lot of nebulous answers. But, courage in the computer age is the willingness to give stuff a shot, and its free. No harm in trying, right?

Two days ago I parent asked me if I tried "", and I had never heard about it. It's like twitter (a micro blog, sort of), but you can phone it in, or record it on the Internet. I checked it out. Great privacy policy, very simple (they don't give out private information ever). And, while they have a Vancouver number, I just did my first "utter" over the Internet, "what will be tomorrow's problem?" . I think I did it late last night, and this morning I see 13 people have listened to it. Someone actually responded to my question and it was quite a good response. If you want to check me out on, I am " jagill." I tried to post it to my blog here, but it didn't work. Yet. I'll figure it out as I go. Keep moving forward.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

I'll take some good ideas to go, please...

How can I get some help for myself and my staff on literacy, when the teacher who could teach the latest techniques is not able to come to our school? Send me and a camera. All we need is 10 mintues.

We have a great couple of teachers who are doing sample lessons on writing techniques for primary students in other teachers' classrooms on the other side of town. We can't all go; substitute teachers cost money. So just send me. I need the first 10 minutes of the lesson, where the literacy teacher explains and models some technique in teaching writing. I record it on my camera, and then with a little work on Windows Movie Maker (I can hear people groaning out there but it's not bad and it is free for me to use at my school), and then I can burn it to DVD. I can add still shots of student work samples (with permission). I could have students narrate these still shots with what they were thinking and learning when they were doing their writing. This would not take time. All we need is a camera, a video camera, a mike if the kids are going to narrate their work, Audacity (for capturing and editing sound clips) which is free, Windows Movie Maker (or iMovie as I am a Mac guy at home) and a $.35 blank dvd. We could put several lessons on each dvd, or just one. It wouldn't be polished. I don't do hollywood. Just the facts ma'am.

The question is, will the district be interested in giving me a substitute teacher for the 1/2 day it would take to record and make the dvd. I have to prove it can be done starting at 9, and finished before lunch. I think it can be done. I also have to prove that this would be a worthwhile investment as substitute teachers are expensive. Perhaps others may be able to use the DVD? Perhaps this could be the start of a bigger project which would be worth investing in? Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Like making soup without a pot.

Tonight was my second presentation on computer use in education. I was doing a presentation on how computers can be used to help students with learning disabilities. Then the Internet went down in my network. It was down the next day too. Ack! What now. What about my presentation that I had prepared online with google docs?

I backed up my presentation as a pdf file on my flash drive. Why google docs doesn't let me save it as a ppt file is beyond me, as their other document programs save files as MS word .doc and excel spreadsheets. Then I did the presentation using programs that were on the local machines, and offered some hands on activities. The best was using Audacity. This program records sounds, and lets you turn it into MP3's (with the help of another program). Furthermore it lets you edit the sound, add other sounds. I demonstrated how to make an audio story, and add royalty free sound effects. Below is an embed of my presentation:

The parents were all very receptive. They asked me questions for about 45 minutes. Some were visibly frustrated by how their child is not progressing at school. Some blamed the school and the teachers and made disparaging remarks (which I stated up front that I cannot allow in my computer lab, and in my school). Others said that their school and their district just didn't know enough about their child's condition. Some parents felt that they were the doing all the advocating, and that they had to be the ones to go to the teacher, and that the teachers never sought them out.

I feel their frustration. Every parent wants to know that their child will succeed in education, and have the keys to a successful life. But, we have always been our children's best advocate. They are more than a genetic investment in the future. They are the physical proof of love and the existence of God if you ask me. We will look after them, long after they have become adults. When I asked my student services person about this, she said many parents feel frustration today and are looking for a way to fix the problem. But, sometimes you can't fix a disability. A disability is for life.
Instead let's arm ourselves and our children with knowledge. Knowledge first of what the disability is, what it means, and what it DOESN't mean. Second, let's get creative and find more tools to solve the problem. Like one of those swiss army knives that can't fit in your pocket because it is so jam packed with options.

Finally, let's not lose perspective of what the final goal is. For kids of all abilities to become happy and self-fulfilled people. What better goal can there be for education than to give kids the power to be happy when they grow up.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

How not to Scare off Substitute Teachers

In our district, an automated system calls TOC's (teacher on call, AKA substitute teacher). When a TOC hears a job description they don't feel is suitable for their talents, they can hang up, and the system calls someone else. So, I thought, what happens if I tell the person who is coming in for me that they have to teach a couple blocks of music. Maybe I get a lot of hang ups, and I HAVE to get to the dentist. Furthermore, no canned lesson this time. The kids need to practice guitar. There is a guitar test coming up.

So I remembered something I read in a recent blog (probably Vicki Davis flagged this one), and I did my lesson over recess time. I talked and strummed my guitar in front of the webcam on top of the computer. Then I burned it onto DVD with the external DVD burner that the school district has given to our school. I wrote the instructions on the DVD (being cheeky):

1.) Guitar lesson - step 1 - don't panic

2.) Insert DVD into DVD player

3.) Hit play. Hit pause when the guy on the screen says so.

Here it is:

Guitar Lesson from James Gill on Vimeo.

I told the TOC to pause the DVD at different times to let the kids practice. I didn't write out a script. I didn't practice what I was going to say. I didn't edit anything, including when the PA announcements came on in my room right at the start of my lesson. Talk, burn, dentist.

I came back to school just as the TOC was leaving for the day. She had no prior music experience. She thought that the lesson went really well, and that she will remember what this idea for the future.

Burning a DVD works really well from a webcam. The file sizes are usually small, you never have to film it first, then put it onto the computer, and then burn it. There is even an option in the DVD creating program that allows you to capture your film right from your webcam.

I told a few teachers how it had worked. All of them said they would never want to step in front of a camera and record themselves for anything....however one teacher said she might use the unobtrusive webcam to make a recording of the special needs child in her class so specialists familiar with the child's condition can make recommendations as to how to help create a plan for success for that child. I hope it works.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sorry kid, you're not supposed to be Gifted yet!

What do you do when you have students that are very young and Gifted with a capital "G?" In our province this is a Designated Special Needs label, which is accompanied by funding. Gifted is not the same as bright. Bright kids learn, gifted kids already know. Bright kids are creative sometimes; gifted kids have wild silly ideas. Bright kids get good grades and stay in school; gifted kids...not always. This is a serious matter.

It is common practice to test students for giftedness around the third grade. But what about those kids who really need more when they are in the earlier grades? We can't tell students "wait two more years, then we can do something about you being gifted." That would not be best practice.

I think that technology can provide some low-text activities that can challenge students, and give them a chance to creatively express themselves. To that effect I have begun planning a course for Primary students with a Gifted designation. Here is what I have so far.

The embedded mind map above was done on a site called "". In the upper right corner you can zoom in and out with the plus and minus sign. Also, you can click and drag the mind map around.

I have tried to create activities that are not as text based, however some Grade 1 gifted students are great readers. I just thought that less text and more multi-media would allow their gifted thinking to come through easier, and that they could produce work that better reflects their thinking. You may notice I have included keyboarding in the course, however it is not to be so strict with teaching fingering, but to orient young kids with the keyboard. I would definitely use Dance Mat Typing, a typing website for kids brought to you by BBC schools.

Some of the other programs are opensource or freeware. Some suggestions for activities are web 2.0 applications. My goal is to provide age appropriate technology activities for gifted kids for very little money. What little money we have in such precious programs is best spent in my opinion in providing as much people support and real people involvement in these kids' programs. If I can provide them with really cheap, if not free engaging technology activities, then so much the better.

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Gladiators, dinosaurs, and a three headed dog named 'Fluffy'

Here is a sample of my students' stop motion animation project. We used StopMojo (a free for educational use program) and a fairly inexpensive webcam. They wrote the script, they placed the characters. I helped install the program and showed them how to use it. I am very proud of their work, and I think they are too. It is a story of a Three Headed dog attacking ancient rome. Several gladiators and a trained dinosaur meet their end until a brave man with a boat oar vanquish the three headed dog (named 'Fluffy'). Ok, the dinosaur was not historically accurate, but we didn't have the right lego set with us, and the kids were mostly just learning how to use the program to make a movie. Soon, we will edit the movie with something like Windows Movie Maker (because we have it already), and add sound effects, music, and subtitles.

Battles in Ancient Mythology from James Gill on Vimeo.

To get into the movie, you must enter the password "Fluffy." Normally I don't provide passwords but this shows how you can use to create embedded movies with password protection. With informed parent consent, I think I can start making some student videos, and embedding them on my secure-virtual classroom (a SharePoint website which is password protected also).

Friday, February 15, 2008

Oh crackers - I talked to long again!

I gave my first district level workshop on Friday. It was for people to get started using SharePoint websites. SharePoint websites offer students the ability to add things to websites, and work collaboratively, while still being held accountable for their actions. Because everything a student does or says is tagged on the website automatically, they have to be socially responsible in word and deed. Also, because it is password protected, the wrong kind of people can't go onto my virtual classroom website, and access my students' work or their pictures.

There were so many people in the first session, and I was really pleased that some of them had already started creating virtual classrooms with SharePoint version 2. There were many things that didn't go according to plan:

I lost temporary access to the internet (couldn't be helped though, and it always came back)

I was asked some questions I couldn't answer, especially about SharePoint version 3. Same-same, but different.

One computer booted up, and the desktop was upside down, and the mouse was oriented backwards.

One computer didn't bootup at all. Argh.

It was nice to share what I find most exciting with other educators that think the same, and see the same educational opportunities. Some people had new ideas that I might be able to use in my own classroom. But, I had lots to share, and didn't give enough time for people to just play (only 20 minutes). In the future, I must stop giving examples sooner, and leave more time to play. I talked as long as I did however so that people could see a variety of ways to use SharePoint websites for educational purposes.

So what is more valuable - the examples to get people thinking about their own classrooms, or the playtime to practice learning the skills?

People seemed to like the presentation, but will the slideshow that I published online using google documents be helpful? That's the beauty of google docs and working with teachers. If I get some feedback from a teacher who wants me to alter the directions on the slideshow on working with SharePoint, then I can edit it in it's published state. It becomes a living document, but not like a wiki (where the community controls it). I welcome feedback, but I still want to retain editing control over my workshop materials.

I hope this leads to me working with small groups of teachers who are interested in creating virtual classrooms.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How to Drive a Herd of Cats Across the Open Prarie

I have been teaching technology to a variety of grades. I provide their prep period and teach their students computer classes. Most tell me that they are content with what curriculum I cover, and I think they say this to show they trust me and respect my autonomy. I really like it when teachers tell me what's going on in their class, and ask me to make some connections to their curriculum. After all, that's what computers are really for.

I don't have a Ministry of Education mandated curriculum. This is interesting, as I can then say "this is what I think students need to be successful computer users." But this also means I don't have as much direction as in my other courses. Not a problem. I can do this. But how do I keep them moving forward.

Computer Ed. is a non-graded course. I give feedback constantly, set criteria, have discussions and share-outs from students about their work. Students show their work to others, and we have had some successful collaboration. I am now teaching them the idea that they don't look to me first for help. There are 27 teachers in the room. Go to a fellow student first, because there is a longer wait to talk to me. I am pleased with the progress they are making and the critical thinking they exhibit. But how do I keep them moving forward?

It's hard to set deadlines when there is a great deal of difference when it comes to output using a computer. Some are better on the keyboard. Some are better at thinking creatively with a computer in front of them as opposed to pencil and paper. Some students don't work that fast when they are having fun exploring. Some students don't work that hard because it is not in their nature, and that is the truth. I don't want to keep accepting half finished work from students for a variety of reasons. So how do I keep them moving forward?

Self-paced work. I don't have the "stick" of report card grades behind me. Therefore I use a lot of "carrots." I try to create really interesting and creative lessons. Students often are interested in the lessons from the outset. I set loose timelines, and let them know that generally we don't spend more than 2-4 weeks on a project, (2-4 lessons of 45 minutes in length). Around the 3rd week when some are showing signs of completion, I dangle the next carrot. Showmanship and salesmanship. You need to show lessons that have some pretty interesting bells and whistles, and say that they can move on to these lessons when you are done the last one to a satisfactory degree.

We are currently completing an assignment where the intermediate students have completed surveys on topics they find interesting (i.e. what's the most popular game console? Which is the most entertaining female pop singer? Which is the most interesting sport?) Then, they are entering the data into a spreadsheet, they turn their data into a graph to show what they have found in a "mathematical picture" designed to convince other people what they have found. Finally, the kids craft a letter to a company that would be interested in knowing this info (i.e. the President of Best Buy, Nike), embeds their graph into the letter, writes some conclusions about their data, and hits them up for a job to boot! This was great to start, but some of the kids have started to lose speed as the typing is proving to be a little arduous. Today I showed them that when they finished they can use a sound editor, Audacity, to create an audio story with some royalty-free sound effects I have downloaded from the Internet. Cool sound effects like a squeaking door, a crowd cheering, car noises, and an evil laugh.

One problem. Its been a long time since I requested that Audacity be added to our lab computers. I don't have the ability to add programs to our lab, as that is the responsibility of a different department. The district tech people are really overworked, and I feel more than a bit understaffed. I also don't know how to create a common folder for students to copy their sound effects from. I don't even know if I have administrative authority to create such a folder on the server. So now what?

Keep moving forward. Leap and the net shall appear. This is a good project, and there is some way to work around the current situation, and complete the project. The kids want to do it and so do I. I'll just keep telling myself, keep moving forward.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Grade 1's and 2's messing with their faces

Warning, I may have to clean this post up a bit after the fact. I am in a rush to get my ideas down.

This is a follow up post to a previous article where I was going to teach basic file management to grade 1 and 2 students. I had taken pics with a webcam of each kid I used the webcam because it a pre-set small photo which is useful when working with MS Paint, and it is already attached to the computer. So far so good. I kept a copy of each kid's picture, in case something went wrong.

Here is the list of the skills kids were going to open up MS Paint.
  1. They were going to use "File-> open" and then chose their folder from a list of locations. 
  2. They then had to use the file type drop down box to say search for "all files", because MS Paint by default is looking for *.bmp files (Bitmap files which is what you make with MS Paint). 
  3. They were then going to choose their file, open it, and then use the tools to paint a 'disguise' on themselves. 
  4. Then ...wait for it...they were going to use "save as" instead of save to create versions of their picture, and save their original photo. They could then repeat the step of "file -> open" to open up their original picture and create a new disguise. 

I thought I was teaching kids the difference between "open", "save", and "save as". How did the lesson go?

Very nearly,

just about,

almost a success.

It seems that it was all the steps in between opening a file, saving a file, etc. that created the steep learning curve. About 5 kids in the class of 22 got the lesson well. This provided some real insight, and now I am creating a course for adults and children on BFM - basic file management. People get lost when they have to not only know how to use menus, but know how to use drop down menus to figure out their file types, and navigate their directory tree (C: is the hard drive with everything on it, E: is your flash drive that, D: might be a different drive).

      I would love to see programs that do less. Programs that cost less, and only do a few tasks well. Put these kinds of programs in schools, and teach the basics of file management to kids. Adults need the same thing. Fewer variables in programs when they are learning how to use computers.  Its really hard learning how to navigate a directory tree, learn file types, learn how folders work, and learn the different items in each menu, all at the same time.  No wonder so many teachers I know are not very enthused about getting started learning to use computers.     

     I have a question for anyone reading this. In addition to explaining some of the items in menus, and explaining how to browse for a file, what are some other skills people need to have in order to just manage their files, and get around the computer finding what they want, when they want it?

      A follow up question would be, how can I create a set of lessons that will teach the skills of open, save, save as, cut, copy and paste, and browsing for files that people can use to teach themselves?  If they have to go to special classes to learn, then only the most motivated individuals will learn.  We have to make learning the basics of file management something that is easy for teachers to do at their own pace.  Success must be at the end of each step. 

     In the meantime, I think the grade 1's and 2's are going to teach me something they have learned in school this year using the online comic strip creating website I mentioned in a previous post. 

Friday, February 8, 2008

The utter futility of the teacher's job

In the course of my job, teaching almost every student in the school at some point in my year, I can't help but hear some stories. Some of them just make my heart ache. I hear about families with illness, families in poverty, families with abusive parents... No child starts out thinking this is what their life is like, but some begin to think that this is all there is. Sometimes these children can become troublesome in school, and is it any wonder? It is easy to just to look at the microcosm of the child in your classroom, because that's all we have control over, and that's all we can be responsible for. Its easy to complain about the children who make our lives harder when we are sitting in the staffroom. These kids seem to be on the wrong path, and that nothing we will do will get them to turn their lives around and become good students, and good citizens. I think it is a mistake to expect to turn them around single-handedly.

I prefer to think of the child on a bad path as a boulder, rolling down a hill (not too steep, but enough to keep the boulder rolling). That boulder is rolling towards a cliff. If you stand in front of a rolling boulder, you get crushed. Instead, I would approach it from the side, and throw my whole weight at it, in the hopes that I can nudge it a bit from its course. Then, after the boulder has out run me, I must have faith that there will be other people along the way who will throw their weight into it, and if enough people do so, perhaps we can divert the course of the boulder before it goes off the cliff.

Its a good plan, but we all take these kids home with us in our thoughts, and wonder what's going to happen.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

I take comics very seriously - as should all teachers!

I loved comic books as a kid. My faves were Archie, Spiderman, Sgt. Rock, Daredevil, Superman, and Conan the Barbarian. I know, Conan is definitely not rated "G", but hey I was a pre-teen boy once!

But there is a lot we can teach kids using comic books. I am using this website:

I am going to use this page with two classes, acting as "buddy classes". Both classes will go into the lab, and create a simple 3 frame comic together. They will be a class of Grade 3's (the big buddies), and a class of Kindergarteners. Using click and drag, the K's will select and place the characters, and the grade 3's will support their writing. We will teach:

  1. How stories have a beginning, middle and end.

  2. That you must plan the ending before you plan the middle. How else will you know where to go with your story?

  3. That when you are writing a story, the authour can show the audience what all the characters are saying AND what they are thinking, but other characters are not allowed to know what each other are thinking.

Here is a sample:

This is a lot of deep thinking about writing. And, we could tackle all sorts of social or academic topics, even at the middle school level and beyond. Comics are powerful. Just don't read them for silent reading class every day. Hey you! Get a chapter book for tomorrow.....

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

How to Start an Uproar - 9 week course

Here are a few questions I would ask middle school students at the start of their course in Computer Education:

  1. How can I find what I need on the Internet, and sift it out of the millions of websites that I find?
  2. How can I judge how valuable information is?
  3. How can I judge if it is true or not?
  4. Is it OK to take someone's picture without permission?
  5. Is it OK to take a teacher's picture without their permission and change it with a graphics program, and post it on the Internet?
  6. Can we say anything we want about someone?
  7. Can we write anything we want about a person / people on the Internet?
  8. How can I tell what is true and what is not on tv/in the newspaper / on the Internet?
  9. What should I do when I find that something on the internet is not true, but is being reported as true?
  10. What should I do if someone writes something about me that is not true on their website?
  11. What is the difference between a person expressing something that is an opinion that I don't like / agree with, and what is a lie?
  12. What are the possible effects about writing something that is not true about someone else on the Internet?
  13. Are there things that I should not openly reveal about myself on the Internet?

    We should not shy away from these things in schools. We should prepare our students for them.

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

It's Alive! Alive ! (Insert insane laughter here)....

It's Sunday night, and I just got an email. My little experiment worked! A parent went to the classroom website, (only a day old) and reviewed a lesson with their child that I posted as an attachment to the blog about what the kids learned that day in school They are now confident that they have clarified some of the science ideas with their child, and that their child will now be better able to articulate her ideas on reasons why some objects sink, and some float (the topic of the science lesson). This is it! This is the whole point, and I just wanted to share it with someone. So, to whomever reads this blog, in keeping with the spirit of super-bowl Sunday, I say......TOUCHDOWN!