Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Making Things Harder Than Necessary

Keep it simple. Adults and teachers especially want to keep it simple. With kids though, sometimes to do something cool, or something that will save them time, it pays to make an activity more difficult.

In our buddy class today, we learned about butterflies. I played a great video I found on YouTube:

I used MS Paint to teach students how to create pictures of butterflies using MS Paint. We could just draw a picture of a butterfly and print it, but instead I taught the students how to create a symmetrical butterfly. We first drew half of the butterfly; one wing and the body. Then we used the rectanglar select tool to select the wing. We copied it, by going edit -> copy, and then hit edit -> paste. Now we had two wings on the page, but the second wing was facing the wrong way. Then I taught the students to go Image ->flip/rotate, and taught what it meant to flip something horizontally, and what it meant to flip vertically, and what symmetry means. The kindergarteners we work with did the artistic drawing, but the grade 3's did all the selecting and flipping. All in all, it was a lesson that really "took flight!"

Samples of symmetrical butterflies to follow.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Keeping it 'In House"

I was at an excellent meeting yesterday, where computer contacts around the district are taking a very business oriented tool, the Microsoft SharePoint website program, and applying it to education. The new version of SharePoint has more features that mean less use of 3rd party services and software. For example, I like bubbleshare for making online picture slideshows. But once you put the photos out into the public space, then you give up control of them. They are the "property" of the third-party host. Third party stuff, (like this blog) is fine I think if you are an adult, however whenever possible schools should do their internet projects within direct control of the districts.

If my district didn't have SharePoint websites, would I use some other third-party web 2.0 host for student work? Yes, I would. It is important to teach kids how to be good digital citizens, and I think they should learn about this in their schools. In fact I still use some 3rd party hosts like VoiceThread for kids projects, however I go to great lengths to ensure the privacy of the student is protected, and that parents are making informed choices when they give permission for their students to do these kinds of projects. And by continuing to use these new and exciting applications, my district is responding by adding more functionality to our SharePoint websites. My two bits - keep internet projects in house when possible, but don't stop moving forward.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Heard it through the grapevine - Science 9

Oh I heard it through the grapevine, I think I'm teachin' Science 9...for summer school. I have a degree in Biology, and I think that I will do well with this course. I will be teaching students who didn't pass during the regular year, and so I have to cover a year's worth of Science in one month. what is the best way to cover some very abstract science concepts with struggling students?

The Superintendent for the Coquitlam School district, Tom Grant, took time out of his schedule to email me a list of free printable worksheets for a variety of high school subjects. Well, he didn't send it to me personally, but rather to all the principals, and my principal in turn passed it on to me. These great high school resources are found at Turns out that although is an Ontario based educational website, it closely aligns with the NEW science 9 curriculum. How lucky is that?

My plan for each lessons will be to create each new lesson to be of the same format as the next.

1.) Have the students copy out the learning intentions for the day. Make sure they understand what it means. Put it on a blogsite made just for this course.

2.) Pre-teach the vocabulary (as much as possible) before beginning the lesson. Don't do all the vocabulary, maybe just 5 words per lesson. The goal is that they pass. Keep these 5 posted through the lesson. Refer to them - have the students make a "Woot Woot!" sound (or something) when we say the word reading aloud from the text so that it is fun and they are actively looking for this word. Perhaps even throw candy at them for being the first to locate these words in the text, and put it into their own words. Put these 5 words a day on the blogsite.

3.) Whenever possible, show a short 1-4 minute video from YouTube explaining the content. Embed the video in the course blogsite.

4.) Read the text. Answer questions from text, or fill in blackline master. Link to blackline master on blogsite.

5.) Students turn in short blackline master assignments or multiple choice / short answer assignments during class. Homework assignments only once every couple of days. Complete in class assignments are a must in order to pass.

6.) Give the class red, yellow, and green signs. When doing lesson, reading aloud from text, students hold up signs at the end of a subtopic or concept.
Green = I get it
Yellow = I sort of get it
Red = I don't understand it.

Greens help yellows, and I help reds. People need to get up and move. This will precede "complete in class" assignments. Off task behaviour = go work by yourself as you are interfering with other people's education. Summer plans are jeopardized by these actions. So are next year's plans.

7.) Have the students repeat the learning intentions for the day before they leave the class. It is their ticket out the door.

8.) Allow students to make comments or ask questions about homework on the blogsite. Specify what kinds of questions get posted, who will answer them, and how they are answered.

I will need a computer or laptop, and a projector. I will teach much of my lesson from the projector, and the day's notes go onto a blog for the end of the day. Stay tuned to see if I am actually teaching this course.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hey, you can't take the blocks home..or can you?

My students in grade 3 are learning how to do subtraction with some regrouping. One of my students came to me and said he needs help understanding his 1's, 10's and 100's. He was using base ten blocks, (click here to see a picture from a math supply store if you don't know what base 10 blocks are)

So I got some advice from a friend of mine about finding some good math sites on line, and she referred me to this site:

It covers a lot of different grades, but requires that the teacher play around with it first. I especially liked the base ten blocks exercises for teaching adding and subtracting with regrouping. When you use base 10 blocks in the classroom, students need to exchange 10 one's for every stick of 10 when doing regrouping (carrying or borrowing). On the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, the stick of 10 blocks come apart before the children's eyes, so they can see what it really means to borrow from the 10's column when doing subtraction.

I just can't do it justice with words. Go to the site, and try it yourself. I don't think it need replace the blocks, however before introducing the topic of regrouping with base 10 blocks with the actual blocks themselves, I would consider doing it virtually. Try it yourself; this is one of the times I would say I like the virtual manipulative as much as I like the real deal.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Who couldn't do with a little phun in their life?

I wish, I wish. I wish my students could have "phun" in class.

This is a free program that simulates a lot of the physical features of our real world. With this program I could teach about gravity, mass, density, buoyancy, the three states of matter (or at least two of them), balance and center of gravity, shape and space, tessalations and patterns, simple machines, friction and more. However our computers don't have 3D accelleration I think (this may be a feature of having a graphics card). Apparently the program needs to have a graphics card, and all our refurbished dell computers use on-board audio and video.

I showed this video to my 3 year old, and he wanted to watch it twice. Then he went straight for his blocks. I showed it to the kids of a grade 4 and 5 class, and they were mesmerized! I told them that with parent permission they can get the program, and install it themselves at home if they have a newer computer (with parent permission of course). I guess I will have to put a pin in this one!

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Monday, May 12, 2008

I'll take some YouTube to go, please

My iPod touch. Has there ever been a greater sign that a woman loves her man than electronics? Yes, but only if you include shiny electronics! A word of mouth company (Matchstick) contacted me through my blog here, and have asked me if I would test out a product for one of the companies they represent, Energizer. The product is called Energi, and it is a portable iPod recharger, running on two double AA rechargeable batteries. I think the iPod touch burns more energy on wireless video streaming. I was listening to a David Ford song on YouTube while doing the dishes, and after listening to some other songs, I had drained a lot of battery. Fortunately I was home to charge it up.

But what about when I am out, and teaching with my iPod. Lets say I am in a wireless area, and I have the ability to stream videos from YouTube to my iPod, and play sound out of some portable speakers. Then I can take kids on field trips to places and show them even more enriching content on site. What if I was at the Vancouver Aquarium, and the staff gave me temporary permission to use my iPod on their wireless network. Then we could walk to somewhere like the frog exhibit and read the signs, see the frogs, etc. But, I could also show them this video:

By going to the page in YouTube and clicking on the "more info" link, I could read out some really important facts about the global crisis of the loss of many species of frogs due to human impact on the environment. Having a source of power to ensure I can show the kids this video would be crucial. So would getting permission to be on someone else's wireless network, but hey those guys and gals of the Vancouver Aquarium are all about the learning, so I bet they'd do it in a heartbeat.

If you want to check out this video yourself, it is content put on YouTube by the Vancouver aquarium here.

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Justin Timberlake Lookout!

Introducing, the latest dancing talent to hit the Vancouver scene - some stickfigure-guy-thing....Here he is the Funky Robot Dancer!

Robot Dance with Pivot Animator from James Gill on Vimeo.

When doing this lesson, I asked the students to limit the options available and really concentrate on getting smooth realistic movements first. Later, when the students have shown a really good understanding of realistic animation action, I will allow them to add other elements. Its like typing in a word processor; lots of kids want to play with the font and colours, but at the end of the period if they don't have more than their name on the page, then they haven't completed their task for their school work.

So the first lesson where I introduce pivot I always:

1.) Show them an example of a finished product similar to what they will be creating
2.) Show them the basics, and show them some of the "optional" features of a program
3.) Give them one block to play with the options. Its not a waste of time. This is how they learn. We don't save anything from that first block.
4.) Outline the criteria for the project in the next block, set limitations if needed, and hold the students to their agreement to do their best work within the parameters you have setup.

From time to time, someone doesn't stay within boundaries. They get to do something less cool, and I make something like the video above with students who stay on task. That is the reward that all the students want. Since starting this project, 1/4 of one class has downloaded pivot, and is playing with it at home. I couldn't be happier.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Like Money in the Bank

Today, my students began an investment portfolio- a literary one, not a literal one! We created a word bank but with a twist.

We did a lesson on the six traits of writing last week, where we wrote about ourselves as "renaissance" people (we have more than one talent). I encouraged my authors to find their "voice" in their writing by making sure they described how they feel when they are doing things they considered their talents. I tried to steer them away from words like "cool" and "good", by giving them a "price tag". "Cool" and "good" were only worth 5 cents. Excellent was worth $1, proud was worth 25 cents, and trustworthy was worth $2! But I found when I marked their work, some still used "cool" and "good", while others used $2 words incorrectly. I thought that in today's writing class, we should create a word bank.

The students wrote on a paper different words that they would use to describe themselves, feelings, actions or situations, (I later called these words adjectives and adverbs). Then, they attached price tags to these words, and grouped them according to value. We discussed that you shouldn't overspend by using a $2 word all the time (When I got up in the morning, I felt trustworthy, then I went to my trustworthy school. My teacher said I looked trustworthy today...). We described some short words that are very powerful like "do" and "love" and "yes" (or NO). The criteria was that students will be allowed to keep their words and their price tags, but only if they have spelled them correctly, and can describe what they mean. Otherwise I get to cross them off in class, and take their "money" for that word.

As a follow up to this lesson, we will create this word bank on a larger piece of paper, cut and paste appropriate coins next to these words (or do crayon rubbings of coins, or use coin stamps), and then I will bring out the play money and "pay" them for some good words. We will keep our Word Banks in our LA books, and refer to them as needed in future writing.

As an afterthought, one way I could use this lesson in middle school would be to go to places like and use the online thesaurus. We could then use a graphics program, and superimpose words like these on pictures of canadian coins and bills.

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Break-dancing in the Computer Lab!

Today's class was very exciting. Special thanks to the IS and IT departments of Coquitlam for making today's lesson possible. We have Pivot- the stick figure annimation program installed on nearly every machine in our lab. Kids use it to make a "flip-book" style animation. Our learning intention was to use a simple animation program to create figures that move in the same way computer generated images in movies and video games move. This is a big field in BC, as we are known as Hollywood North, and we are also home to Electronic Arts, the computer game giant! This really caught the kids attention.

When I started to teach this program to the students I let them be completely silly, as long as they were not inappropriate. There are some examples of pivot on YouTube, but many are not appropriate for school, what with all the beheadings, and shooting, and blood.

One of my students created a stickfigure animation doing a perfect "robot" breakdance sequence. We then saved the file in pivot as an animated GIF file. I helped him find some royalty free music, and showed him how to put it all together using Windows Movie Maker. I had to do this for two reasons:

1.) I knew how, and he was just learning.

2.) All our machines have Windows 2000. Windows 2000 does not come with Windows Movie Maker. This is too bad, as it is an easy to use program that kids can use to click and drag stuff in to make movies. This is what kids want to do.

My evidence that kids want to do this is that there were zero behaviour problems in the class. None. All kids were working on task. All students asked to be partnered together, and were working within the parameters of the lesson. The students had to:

Create a stick figure that can dance.

Use only physically achieveable moves.

Make it long enough to last the song.

Students saw the breakdancing stick figure, and heard the music, and they were hooked! Students began asking me how to inject sound effects, or to change music so that they can change the kind of dancing style they were using. I said yes, they could mix and add to their music if they used Audacity, the sound/music editing program we have installed on all computers. Perhaps that will have to be the next step in the lesson. Stay tuned for more updates on our animation projects. I will embed the breakdance video after I have uploaded it.

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Bootup Camp

Here is the outline for my adult course. I have posted it here for my adult students planning on taking this course to get a sneak preview, and to see if they like it. Comment or e-mail me with feedback if you like what you see, or want to see something changed.

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

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The iPod Touch

My wife just bought me an iPod touch 16G (we used our air miles, because it's hard for us to use them for travel). This is wonderful! I have many wireless places around my community, so I can take advantage of them. I brought it into work, and the first thing I heard from many of the teachers around the staff room was "Boys and their toys!", and "What a nice toy for you." That's not how I see it. Where they see toy, I see tool.

So I decided to ask my students what they thought they could use an iPod touch for.

- one girl said she could watch videos of my lessons that I put on youtube to help her with her math homework in her room, without bothering her parents
- one boy said that a teacher or student could make a recording with Audacity or some other mp3 recording program, and put it on the ipod to listen to on field trips. He thought that he could listen to facts about what he is seeing on a field trip, by selecting and playing the tracks that match what he is looking at and learning about
- another kid though it would be good for writing your journal on and sending to school when you are on the way home from a field trip.

I had lots of suggestions from these kids. I think that as students get older, a higher percentage of them will have these devices. Perhaps someday we will have class sets of them, and utilize them on field trips, lab experiments, or just for studying and reviewing what students have learned. So, you decide

iPod Touch: Toy or Tool!