Festive, Fun, and Free

Yes, it’s true! Christmas Break is just hours away,
And when that last school bell rings you will jump up and say,
“No more lesson planning, or staying up late
grading papers! (At least until 2008.)”
Instead of watching the kids deck the classroom and halls,
You’ll be fighting adults as you dash through the malls.
Grabbing last minute gifts to put under the tree.
Hoping maybe you might get that last Christmas Wii.
But in the midst of this spending spell you’ve been put under
You suddenly stop, shake your head, then you wonder…
Perhaps the best gifts have no paper or bow.
Maybe these gifts come from Web 2.0
They’re posted online, so at the press of a key.
You’ve got holiday fun that’s both festive and free.
So when you escape from the malls and the stores,
And finish all your 200 pre-Christmas chores,
Take a minute to check out these holiday sites.
I hope they give you and yours some joys and delights.

Make Your Own SnowFlake

Remember back in school when you folded paper and cut out snowflakes? Here and online version without the mess. Thanks to fellow Twitterer mrmartinsclass. Note: I also spent way too much time playing that TimezAttack game he mentioned this morning.

Gingerbread House

Remember those Highlights magazines you used to read as a kid while waiting at the dentist’s office? Here is a holiday activity from their web site. You get to decorate your own gingerbread house. If the music gets annoying, you can always turn it off. (Thanks to jgingerich for mentioning this one on your blog.)


Use this great free site to create your own custom “e-cards”. They’ve got some great Christmas templates to get you started. Just add your own photos, videos, or sounds. When you’re done, you can e-mail your family and friends a link to your scrapbook, embed it in your blog or wiki, or share it on MySpace or Facebook.

Do you have any other fun Holiday sites to share? Please post a comment and let me know.

A Not So Simple Solution

Sorry if this post gets a little more technical than usual. Sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be a simple solution.

I really like Microsoft PhotoStory. It’s a simple, easy tool that lets teachers and students create digital stories. What’s not simple is trying to play these stories on a Mac. This has become a problem because some of our teachers like to post their PhotoStory files on their class web site. Parents with Macs at home can’t view them.

Flip4Mac is a free Quicktime plugin that allows the Mac Quicktime player to play Windows Media files (wmv’s) but for some reason it will not seem to play files created by PhotoStory. Real Player for Mac won’t play them either.

After a some research I discovered something about the PhotoStory Video Codec. Apparently Microsoft PhotoStory 3 does NOT use the standard Windows Media Video (WMV) codec but a special codec developed for compressing still images: Windows Media Video 9 Image v2.

One solution for playing these files on a Mac is to convert them to .mov files. I’ve used Zamzar and that seems to work but the file size increases. My 6.5MB Photostory file converted to a 16.2MB .mov file. Even though the file size more than doubles, the picture quality of the converted file doesn’t seem to be as good.

Another solution is to use use Windows Media Encoder (another free download from Microsoft) to convert your PhotoStory file to a file that will play on Quicktime with the Flip4Mac plug-in.

When you convert your file using Windows Media Encoder, use the following settings:

  1. For “Content Distribution” select – File Download (Computer Playback)
  2. For “Encoding Options” select…
  • Video – VHS Quality (250 Kbps VBR)
  • Audio – CD Quality (VBR)

My 6.5MB photostory file converted to a 11.3MB wmv file that plays on my Mac.

Using media encoder seems to give me a better quality conversion and lower file size than using Zamzar and converting to a .mov file.

Now I just have to train our teachers to convert their completed video file before they post it online AND tell our Mac using parents that they need to download and install the Flip4Mac plug-in to view their class videos.

As I said, sometimes the solution is not that simple.

Fight Plagiarism with Creativity

Right now my school is on the verge of a new technology adventure. Next fall we hope to be starting a one-to-one program in our sixth grade, expanding that program to our whole middle school over the next three years. Currently we’re hip deep in implementation meetings and discussions over how we’re going to present the program to parents and how we plan to train our teachers. One of the big concerns is how this new technology is (or isn’t) going to change the way we teach.

If every student has a notebook computer and access to all the information and communication tools that it offers, then our teachers need to be able to design lessons and projects that engage the students and force them not only to find information, but to evaluate it, check it for accuracy and bias, and use it in a meaningful and creative way. We don’t want our teacher training to focus primarily on specific software packages or hardware tools without addressing ways in which they can be used to encourage students’ critical thinking and creativity in core curriculum areas. Otherwise these new notebooks become just a high-tech version of what we’ve always done. The machines just become nothing more than an electronic textbook. Instead of paper worksheets and tests, students will have electronic worksheets and tests and instead of writing their reports on paper they’ll be typing them in a word processor. If students aren’t given opportunities to be creative, the truly creative kids will quickly get over the novelty of the technology and start looking for the quickest, easiest ways possible to give the teacher what they want so they can “be done”. Cheating and plagiarizing begin to look really attractive.

Thinking about all this brought me back to an article I wrote in 2004. (I knew some of this stuff sounded familiar.) I don’t know if the publication is available online so here it is again for your reading pleasure. (Am I plagiarizing from myself now?)


Fight Plagiarism with Creativity (from May 2004)

It’s confession time. We all have our dirty little secrets and this one has been weighing on my conscience for far too many years — since 5th grade, in fact. I want admit now and confess publicly that most, if not all, of my state report on Oregon was copied from the encyclopedia. It’s not something I’m proud of, but those words scribbled on my paper were not my own. They belonged to the writers and editors of the World Book Encyclopedia. Yes, it’s true. I am a plagiarist.

For 27 years now I have had to live with the guilt that I was given a grade I did not deserve. Although I suspect my teacher probably knew that I had copied my work, I was never confronted about it. It would have been easy for her to prove that I had plagiarized. The encyclopedias were right there in the back of the room. All she would have had to do is look up Oregon and it would be plain that I was passing someone else’s work off as my own. She didn’t, and I have been suffering ever since. (Perhaps that was her intention all along.)

What brought me to this miserable state? Why did I decide to come clean now? Recently a teacher at my school brought me a paper that was allegedly written by one of his students — two pages, double-spaced, with the student’s name at the top and no cited references whatsoever. “I’m pretty sure this paper was not written by the student.” He explained. “You’re the computer teacher. Do you think you can prove this was copied from the Internet?”

After scanning the paper and noticing several words that even I would need a dictionary to define, I agreed to give it a try. I went to www.google.com, took the first six words from the student’s second paragraph, and typed them in the keyword search box, putting them in quotes to search for an exact phrase. I could have chosen the first paragraph, but I figured the student might have been smart enough to change the wording of the first sentence. When I clicked “Search”, the first web site on the list caught my eye. I clicked the link and viola! There it was, word for word.

“We got him!” I whispered to myself, with the same exuberance of the Marines who captured Saddam Hussein. I hit the print button to get a hard copy of the evidence, but while I listened to the whir of the inkjet my mind went back to my fifth grade state report. It was so easy to prove that he had plagiarized. My excitement quickly evaporated and was replaced by guilt and remorse.

In my defense, when I copied my report 27 years ago I had to actually read all the material and then write the information word for word. So I was learning about my state as I was copying, right? Using the Internet, this student didn’t even have to read the article. All he had to do was copy, paste, and print. I seriously doubt that any learning about the subject matter occurred at all. It probably took me over an hour to plagiarize my report. This student did it in a matter of minutes. Isn’t technology wonderful?

If the whole point of letting our students use the Internet for educational research is that they actually learn about the subject, then maybe the traditional assignment to “write a report” is not the right approach. It makes plagiarism very tempting. If I can complete my assignment in a matter of minutes, why spend hours writing the same thing in my own words? Recently, I attended a Computer Using Educators conference where Ted McCain, a teacher and speaker for the Thornburg Center for Education offered a different, more creative alternative to report writing. Here is his example.

What if, instead of having your students write a report on Japan, they take on the role of travel agents, with you as their client? You tell them you want to visit several places with historic significance, try eating various local delicacies, and learn about the major industries so your company can do business with them. Your students would then be assigned to write up a travel proposal with the information you requested, along with travel time and weather (so you know what clothes to pack). You could even ask them to suggest several hotels near some of the places you wish to visit and maybe list several different airlines that fly to your destination.

Let’s see your students try to plagiarize an assignment like that. Not only will they learn about Japan, but they will gain “real world” research skills as well. Their task is specific, and their objectives are clear. It may take a little work on your part to create the assignment and develop a scoring rubric for their work, but I’m sure the results will be well worth the effort.

Of course your assignment does not always have to be in the form of a written report. This spring our seventh graders were studying human anatomy. Rather than writing a report, they created Power Point presentations describing how to take care their pet liver, spleen, stomach, etc. In their presentations they explained what “tricks” their pet organ could do, why it is important, and what needs to be done in order to keep it healthy. At the end of the presentation they were also required to have a slide that listed the web pages they used for all their information and pictures. If they did not list the web site it came from, they could not use it. It’s amazing what the kids were able to accomplish because they were motivated and allowed to be creative. Best of all, the work they produced was their own, not something copied from a web page. If you are interested in learning more about this project, you can download a copy of the assignment sheet and scoring rubric (pet_organ-1.pdf). Thanks to Yvette Stuewe for allowing me to post her assignment sheet.

It’s been said one of the best ways to keep from sinning is to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you might be tempted. By adding an aspect of creativity to your assignments, not only do you make it difficult for your students to plagiarize, you also provide them with an opportunity to exercise their own creativity. All the while, they are actually learning about the subject, not just copying information.

VoiceThread Update

Okay, I’m really becoming a fan of VoiceThread. In fact I’ll even be including it in a Digital Storytelling workshop I’m presenting later this month. Last week VoiceThread updated it’s site and added a few new features. One big difference is that there are now two versions of VoiceThread – the free version and the Pro version. Those of us who signed up for the free version are now limited to creating only 3 voicethreads with a maximum of 50 slides each. The pro version, which costs $29.95/year, gives you unlimited VoiceThreads and storage and also give you the ability to upload mp3 files for your comments. So pro users can, for example, record, mix, and edit their audio comments using something like Audacity to create more professional sounding presentations.

Here’s the good news. K-12 educators can sign up for a special pro account for free. First you need to register for a free account and login. Next you find and click where it says “Go Pro”. At the bottom of the page will be a link that says “K-12 Educators Click Here”. That will take you to the educator application form.

How is the new VoiceThread site different from the old one? Here’s a look at some of the changes.

When you view a VoiceThread the screen looks a little different.

If you have trouble reading my comments, click the image to make it larger.

When uploading and rearranging pictures they’ve made things a little easier and given you a few more options.

Click image to make it larger.

When you click SHARE to add friends to your VoiceThread account or invite friends to view or edit your presentations, you can now see each friend and their edit rights all on one screen. Note: The button to add new friends is now located at the very bottom of your friends list. It took me a little while to find this.

Click the image to make it larger.

When setting my sharing options, I like to set my VoiceThreads to “Public, no comments”. This allows anyone to see my presentations, but only those people I invite can comment or edit it. Since I generally trust those who I invite, I turn comment moderation off so when my friends comment, their comment is posted immediately. If you are working with students and concerned about privacy issues, you may want to keep your VoiceThread private and turn the moderation on so you can check what your students say before the rest of the class can hear it.

Want to participate in a VoiceThread. I’ve created one for an elementary project called Seasons. I’m looking for students or teachers to post pictures and share what the seasons are like where they live. Please comment or e-mail me if you would like to participate. Click on my profile for my e-mail link. Here is how the project looks so far:

If you can’t view the embedded presentation, here is a link to it at the VoiceThread site: http://voicethread.com/#b10538

Happy storytelling.

Your Pictures Tell A Story

It’s Sunday night and I’m sitting at home watching the new Ken Burns series “The War” on my local PBS station. If you’ve seen Ken Burns work before- like the Civil War series – you know that he is a master of telling a story using still pictures. His combination of pictures and voices, often from the very people in the pictures themselves, not only tell a compelling story but they often reach down and grab you emotionally as well. There’s something about adding a human voice that brings the photos to life.

One great tool for doing this yourself is Microsoft’s Photo Story3, but you’re limited to working on your own project and your own computer. One person, one idea. If you really want your stories to take on a life of their own look at VoiceThread. It adds a unique collaborative element to photos and voices by allowing others to add their own voice comments to your photos or upload their own photos and comments. Imagine the collaborative possibilities!

Here’s how it works. First you go to VoiceThread and register. Your ID is your e-mail address. Next you create a new VoiceThread, give it a title and a description, and even add some tags for searching.

Now you’re ready to start uploading pictures. Pictures can be from your computer or brought in from your Flickr account.

Then it’s time to start adding your voice comments to your pictures. All you need to do is go to “View and Comment” and click the record button to start adding your voice.

Now that you’ve got your thread started, it’s time to share it with others. Click on Share VoiceThread and you can invite others to view and comment on your pictures. Once you invite someone you can grant them edit rights, giving them the ability to upload their own pictures. By default, your VoiceThread is private – only those you invite can see it or comment. You can make it public two different ways. 1) Allowing anyone to view and comment. 2) Anyone can view but only those you invite can comment.
NOTE: If you want to be able to embed your VoiceThread on a blog or web page, it needs to be public.

To try out some of the collaborative capabilities of VoiceThread, I created a test project about the Discovery National Institute I attended this summer. I invited several of my fellow shipmates to participate, asking them to add a picture and share a story from our “Academic Excursion”. Here’s a what the project looks like so far… (If you click on the photo you can zoom in and out.)

If you can’t see the embedded VoiceThread, follow this link:

After some experimenting we discovered that pictures brought in from Flickr seem to work more reliably than those that were uploaded directly. I also noticed that the audio quality varied depending on the microphone and audio settings on different machines, but overall I was quite pleased with how easy it was to create a collaborative project.

If you want to use VoiceThread with your students and don’t want them to have to register with an e-mail address, you can go to Yahoo or HotMail and create a generic class e-mail address that you can use as your VoiceThread ID. Then you can add additional identities for your students to use when commenting on photos. Since VoiceThreads can be private, only those who know the e-mail address and the password will be able to see the students pictures or hear their voices. VoiceThread has posted directions for teachers that explain how to do this.

Would you like to participate in a VoiceThread project? Amy Lundstrom has started one called Landforms Where We Live. Take a look at it and if you’d like to participate, leave me a comment.

Or go ahead a start your own VoiceThread. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

  • If you teach 5th Grade, perhaps you could try to get students from different states to post a picture and information about their state.
  • Have students scan an old picture of their grandparents and asj them share what happened in that picture – a living history.
  • Younger children may be interested to see what the seasons look like in different parts of the country. Have students upload a picture of what Fall is like in their area and describe the scenery and the weather.

What ideas do you have? Any thoughts or questions, please let me know.

BWAIN (Blog Without an Interesting Name)

Normally I try to come up with some sort of catchy title for my blog posts. For some reason I just blanked on this one. Sorry ’bout that.

To make up for it though, I thought I’d share a few interesting lesson ideas and web resources that I’ve sent out to our teachers during the first two weeks of school. Here goes…

Futures Channel (www.futureschannel.com)
Ever have kids in your science and math classes ask you, “Why do I need to know this stuff?” Here’s your answer. This site has videos of real people using real math and real science in real life! The videos also have printable (PDF) classroom activities.

Math Playground (www.mathplayground.com)
Need an activity for your students in the computer lab? Or would you like to recommend something they could use to practice their math skills at home? This is it. I actually met creator Colleen King, or rather her Second Life alter ego Kristy Flanagan, while chatting at the Bloggers Cafe. (NOTE: Second Lifers should also check out the Math Playground Virtual Math Center on EduIsland II)

HM Technology Resources (hmtech.wikispaces.com)
For those of you using Houghton Mifflin’s Reading series, here’s a site with links to supporting web resources compiled by Eva Wagner.

ReadWrite Think: Student Materials (www.readwritethink.org/student_mat)

This site contains a whole collection of online activities for your students to work on at school or at home. Browse through this rather extensive list and try out a few that look interesting. When you click on the tool, you’ll get a list of grade specific lessons that could be used with it. See how these tools might fit into your Language Arts or Literature curriculum.

Back to School PhotoStory3 Project (web.mac.com/jennifergingerich)
Jennifer Gingerich comes up with yet another one of those “its so simple why didn’t I think of it” ideas. This great project for primary grades can be created using a digital camera and Microsoft’s PhotoStory3 or Apple’s iMovie. I love hearing the kids’ voices on the video.

Now the race is on! Who will be the first to use one of these ideas or resources in their classroom this year? Will it be one of our teachers? Or will it be you? If it’s you, please post a comment and let me know how it went.

The "Secret Society" of Bloggers

For the last few weeks, I’ve been struggling with this question. “How do I get teachers excited about blogging?” Well, I could write a blog that explains how valuable blogs can be as a teaching and learning tool. But then I realized that would be about as effective as handing someone a DVD called “How to play a DVD”. If they could play it, they wouldn’t need to watch it. And if you’re reading a blog about blogging you’re probably already aware of the value. Okay, so blogging about blogging is out. What else can I try?

Can we reach those non-bloggers by blogging? Obviously, no. – Webloge-Ed, January 2007

Essentially there are two kinds of people, those who blog and those who don’t. Happily I’m a member of those who blog, but I’m in the minority. Those who don’t blog, seem to look at those of us who do like we’re members of some secret society. We have this mysterious network and communicate in strange and cryptic ways. Want to see an example of the gap between the do’s and don’ts? Walk into a teacher meeting and tell your colleagues, “I’m sorry I was late. I was tweeting with one of my Second Life friends about a Webinar we had last week and was trying to set up time when we could Skype about it.” I’m guessing you’ll lose most of them after, “Sorry I was late.”

It’s obvious that training is needed. But watch out! While the corporate world can force technology change on it’s employees, trying to do that with experienced, tenured, educators invites disaster. A different approach is needed.

Why do we treat teachers so delicately? Why do we forgive them year after year for not adopting contemporary information and communication tools? Why are we satisfied with small steps? Well, the answer is simple. Teachers are special. They are smart, resourceful, incredibly accomplished, and they work miracles — they make a difference. They influence so many lives and they are revered. It’s clear. How can we treat them with anything but awe and respect… David Warlick, September 3rd, 2007

It looks like a step backward is necessary. How much sense does it make to tell a teacher they should be making a blog when they’re not even reading blogs? Look how I got started. Someone told me about a great blog (Weblogg-ed) and at first I treated it like a web page. Then I began bookmarking interesting blogs and checking them periodically. Later I discovered that I could add live bookmarks to my Firefox toolbar using the RSS link. Now I’m using an aggregator, Google Reader, to keep track of the dozen or so blogs I follow. I was reading blogs for months before I even considered making my own, but it was a process.

So the first step is to get teachers reading blogs. I like to pick pick out a few teachers and start by sending them links to some blogs that might be appeal to their discipline or grade level. The goal is to get them excited and let their enthusiasm generate interest among their colleagues. Here’s a good place to start. (Thanks to Amy Lundstrom for the link.)

If they like one or more of the blogs, I show them how to subscribe to it using RSS. Here’s a great little video clip that explains RSS in plain English.

Once teachers have started taking control of their information using RSS, they’ve reached the first step – they’ve become consumers. They have also taken their first peek into our secret society of bloggers. To get them in the rest of the way, you want to encourage them to start commenting on other people’s blogs and eventually try creating one of their own.

I really like how this graphic explains the 4 C’s of online communities.
Source: Participation Online – The Four C’s

Blogs are just one of many tools available to teachers on the read/write web. To learn more about others, I suggest you check out Jennifer Dorman’s course wiki called Online Connections, a recent Cool Cat Teacher Award winner. Even if you’re not enrolled in the class, the site is a great resource for learning more about for wikis, podcasting, social networking, social bookmarking, and online collaboration.

Pecha Kucha

I’ve seen a lot of bad Power Point. I’ve been through the agony of bulleted lists in which the presenter read exactly what they wrote, or droned on and on and stretched 5 slides to 60 minutes pointless examples and enough tangents to give a calculus teacher a headache.

What I read in David Warlick’s blog today intrigued me. Pecha Kucha is a structured presentation format developed in Japan back in 2003.

Each presenter is allowed 20 images, each shown for 20 seconds each – giving 6 minutes 40 seconds of fame before the next presenter is up. This keeps presentations concise, the interest level up, and gives more people the chance to show. http://www.pecha-kucha.org/

It was originally designed for use by those in the creative fields – art, photography, design, architecture – (see Wikipedia Article) but I believe this type of format could have some useful education applications as well.

What struck me first was the structure. It’s like visual poetry. Remember back in high school when you had to write poems? Some types, like haiku, had a very specific structure that you were forced to follow. I remember struggling to be creative while at the same time, sticking to the rules. I hated it, but it really made me focus. How can I say what I want to say effectively within the parameters I’ve been given?

Pecha Kucha takes that kind of structure and applies it to visual presentations. It forces you to edit what you say so that you are concise and to the point. You also need to make sure you select meaningful visuals – visuals that give impact and emphasis to your words.

Imagine using this format for in-class presentations. Tell your students that their history reports need to be presented in Pecha Kucha format – 20 slides, shown for 20 seconds each. Make a Pecha Kucha describing he fall of the Roman Empire. Make one that shows why we need to recycle, or explains the importance of preserving a local wetland. If 20 slides is too much for the assignment you can, as David Warlick suggests, assign Half Kuchas (10 slides) or Quarter Kuchas (5 slides).

I’d love to hear any Pecha Kucha assignment or project ideas you have.

Free to YouTube

Maybe this has happened to you. You’re online at home and you run across a great video on YouTube. “This would be a great video to show my students!” You exclaim, ignoring for a moment that fact that you are talking to yourself again.

Problem is, you get to school the next morning and discover that your Internet filter blocks YouTube. You sink into depression. That great lesson you were planning is now ruined. “It’s not fair!” You cry.

Stop right there! Before you give up and decide to drown your sorrows in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, consider this possible solution…

Zamzar to the rescue!

Zamzar is a handy little Web 2.0 tool that converts files and e-mails them to you. You can upload files to Zamzar, select the file format you want it to be, and Zamzar will e-mail you the converted file. But Zamzar also converts online videos!

Every YouTube video has a URL. Copy this URL and go to Zamzar.


You’ll see a progress bar as the video is uploaded to Zamzar. Then you’ll get a message telling you that once the video is converted it will be sent to your e-mail. A few minutes later, check your e-mail. The message will link you back to Zamzar where you can download a copy of the video to your computer.

Once you have the video downloaded, you can show that file to your class or put it in your Power Point presentations. (Be sure to give proper credit.) Since it is now a file on your computer, you don’t even need to have an Internet connection to view it.

A Digital Story

Digital Storytelling is a powerful way for your students to express their creativity. It’s more than just a product, it’s also about the process. Let me explain…

My grandfather, Roy Grice (I call him “Grampa”), is 96 years old. Last week I had a unique opportunity to travel with him down to San Diego to see the USS Midway, a retired aircraft carrier, now turned into a floating museum at the Navy Pier in San Diego, CA.

While we explored the ship, it brought back memories of his days in the Navy. Thankfully I was able to record some of his recollections and put them together into the podcast embedded below. While the recording probably has more value to me and my family, it also offers a glimpse into one man’s view of history – as he experienced it.

It’s important to me, that his stories live on after he is gone. With the digital tools available today, recording and sharing those stories is now easier than ever.

While editing this podcast together I must have listened to it more than a dozen times. By going through this process I know I’ll retain much more of what Grampa told me – more than I ever would have just listening to him tell it to me once. Plus, I’ll be able to go back to it as often as I want.

What digital stories could your students share?

Listen to Grandpa’s Story…

Grandpa’s Story

The USS Midway Museum

“Grampa” next to a milling machine in the USS Midway machine shop.
Technical Info:

  • Audio edited using iMovie and exported as a .aif file. (I didn’t have a voice recorder, so I used a camcorder to capture the audio.)
  • Converted to .mp3 using Audacity.