English/Language Arts

You Say Potatoe…

Posted on September 23, 2009. Filed under: Elementary School, English/Language Arts, Foreign Language, General, High School, Mathematics, Middle School, Science, Social Studies/History |

by Tim Van Heule
Distance Learning Coordinator

Education always has some great buzzwords… developmentally appropriate, instructional time, differentiated instruction, etc. But what about virtual field trip?

As the economy continues its downward spiral, virtual field trip is a buzzword that continues to gain popularity. If you can’t take your students to a location, take them via a virtual field trip! But are all virtual field trips created equal? Are there different versions of the virtual field trip, maybe an e-field trip? Are they the same thing, or if there are differences, what are they?

The difference between the two is more a difference in the language. Both allow teachers to take there students to destinations outside of the classroom; however, one is highly interactive while the other is not. What I term as the virtual field trip involves the use of videoconference, incorporating live audio and video communication. This type of virtual field trip is highly engaging, allowing students to speak and interact with content experts (content providers). Does this mean that what I term is the e-field trip is a lesser activity? Absolutely not, both of these activities provide students with valuable  opportunities that enhance the curriculum.

This link (please note this video plays best in Internet Explorer) is an example of a virtual field trip that one of our schools participated in during the 2008-2009 school year. WYFF, our local NBC affiliate, produced this video as they highlighted how teachers are becoming more creative to provide opportunities in the classroom in light of a poor economy. The students connected with the Discovery Center of Springfield as they learned more about magnets during a program titled, Magnet Mania! While I agree that teachers are finding ways to be more creative in light of the current economic situation, I don’t agree that the use of a virtual field trip such as this is only due to economics. Through virtual field trips such as these, our students are able to connect with an expert in the field who reinforces the standards being taught in the classroom.

Unfortunately, not everyone has access to this equipment that allows these connections to occur. You have to ask yourself, “What can I do with my students if we do not have videoconferencing equipment in my school and/or district?” This is where the e-field trip comes in. I’ve always been impressed with eFieldTrips. I think they do a great job of producing interactive web-based content. There programs contain great visuals, appropriate use of audio clips, and the content is appropriate in length. While doing a little research for this post, I also found the Utah Education Network and their Virtual Field Trips.  One thing I really like about this site is that you can tour anything in any of the content areas, and if the content you are searching for is not available, there are links and tutorials for you to create your own virtual field trip that you can share with others. This is a great project that students would find meaningful.

Again, this is just a difference in the meaning of the terminology. I don’t consider one to be more correct than the other. The important thing is that they both provide opportunities to enhance the curriculum while providing engaging opportunities for the students.

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How do I get students to read? Look no further, this is a great new site!

Posted on September 13, 2009. Filed under: English/Language Arts, General, High School, Middle School, Teachers |

by Cathy Arnold

Any of you that know me knows that I hate to read!  I know, I know…I’m an educator and I need to foster that desire to read and to learn in students.  We need to encourage students to read the great classics!  I agree, but for me this never came easy!  Ugh…I’m a math geek and I could never figure out why some people could sit for days and read those hundreds and thousands of pages of text called literature.  Reading is hard for me and frankly when I was young my parents had to practically bribe me to read (…or threaten …whichever way one looks at it!  🙂  )   Being mathematically inclined, everything is literal to me.  I absolutely cannot read between the lines.  Why then should I read something I do not understand?

Well, here comes Miss Havisham!   I came across this article in the USA Today http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2009-09-07-jenny-sawyer-60-second-recap-classics_N.htm which explains that a young, very tech-savvy and very smart woman is opening doors for those students like myself to actually understand the reasons behind those long, long novels.   This is a huge task to accomplish, but from the samples on her site that I’ve seen so far, this idea is a winner!   Hey…she even has tempted someone like me to want to read!

For almost all of the books listed, she has 60 second clips of the overview, plot, cast, theme(s), symbols, motifs and conclusion.  Unlike SparkNotes or CliffNotes, these clips do not seem to give enough information for a student to attempt to take a test without reading the book.  However, it does explain enough to entice students to read or clarify information.   It seems to direct students to the correct train of thought.  Of course, don’t listen to this non-reader, watch and listen to Gabby, a student, responding to Great Expectations on this 60second club recap –  ( http://www.60secondrecap.com/club/thread/50/  ).

Keep in mind, I’m not an English major and not a huge reader, so I would love to hear thoughts from those of you that are English teachers and/or avid readers.   Has Jenny Sawyer (Miss Havisham) created something that can be used in your classroom to entice young readers?  Is her information about the books on target?  Do you think this is something needed today?  Let me know. 

Visit the 60 Second Recap at http://www.60secondrecap.com/ .  


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We’re going on a field trip…

Posted on November 14, 2008. Filed under: Elementary School, English/Language Arts, High School, Instructional Coaches, Middle School, Science, Teachers | Tags: , |

by Tim Van Heule
Coordinator of Distance Learning

Who doesn’t love a good field trip?

Field trips are vital to education, providing opportunities to see how the curriculum applies to the real world.

For example, in first grade, students learn about apples and pumpkins – how they grow, their uses, etc. Of course, it’s only logical for the students to visit an apple orchard at the end of the unit. This example makes it really easy to see the real world application, but what about geometry, or advanced biology? How can we show real world application for these subjects, while being practical and realistic?

The cost of travel makes it difficult, often impossible, to visit the museums, centers, etc. that reinforce the curriculum. Local venues are easier to attend, but the addition of meals, accommodations, and admission fees to venues at a distance cause the costs to increase dramatically. The cost of fuel is dropping rapidly while I write this post, but we have seen fuel prices soar in the past few years, a trend that is likely to continue as global demand increases.

This is where the Virtual Field Trip comes in. While it would be ideal to visit the museum, cultural center, etc. the Virtual Field Trip allows us the opportunity to experience the next best thing – an interactive visit to the venue while saving money and valuable instructional time.

In the past few weeks Greenville County Students have been to science centers in Ohio (CoSI) and Missouri (Discovery Center of Springfield), cultural centers in Georgia (Center for Puppetry Arts), as well as museums (National Baseball Hall of Fame). We are utilizing higher-end videoconferencing equipment from Tandberg to make these opportunities a reality. Some readers would probably wonder why we aren’t using Skype, but many content providers at museums and centers connect through dedicated ISDN lines or through IP, providing a higher quality call with superb audio and video.

WYFF, one of our local media outlets, featured Virtual Field Trips in a recent story, highlighting the reasons for the increase of these opportunities. Some of the reasons cited in the WYFF piece have already been discussed at length in this post, including the rising cost of fuel, and opportunities to reinforce the learning in the classroom.

There are great free Virtual Field Trips available, but there are costs associated with many others. However, these associated costs are minimal in comparison to actually attending the museum or center. For example, content providers may charge between $50-$250 per program. Additional fees may include the use of the ISDN lines and/or bridge that connects the school and the content provider. Overall, these associated costs are outweighed by the benefits of utilizing Virtual Field Trips within the curriculum as we provide our students opportunities that reinforce learning.

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Interactive Whiteboard Lessons – Best Practices

Posted on August 10, 2008. Filed under: Elementary School, English/Language Arts, High School, Instructional Coaches, Interactive Whiteboards, Middle School, Teachers |

by Tim Van Heule

Freshly waxed floors, sharpened pencils, and back-to-school packets… it’s that time of year, again.

It’s also time to start thinking about elements, basic or advanced, that can be present in your interactive whiteboard lessons – Promethean, SMART, etc.

There are some misnomers regarding interactive whiteboard lessons; I hear them often. “Oh, those colorful lessons may work well in the elementary classroom, but I don’t think they will work with my secondary students.” Or, “This works really well in my secondary classroom, but I’m not sure that the elementary students would be able to handle it.”

I’m not one for trick questions, but I do like to ask one question when I work with people on interactive whiteboards – “What elements of an elementary or secondary lesson are proprietary to their respective levels?” In my opinion, elements in an elementary lesson should also be present in the secondary lesson, and vice-versa.

Sharing written information, objectives or notes, with the students on the interactive whiteboard is the best way to get started, but the goal should be not to use the interactive whiteboard as a glorified overhead projector. Again displayed information is an easy way to get started using the board in the classroom, but it shouldn’t be the end goal. Filling the board up with notes and information can overload the students, and takes a great interactive classroom tool and turns it into nothing more than a static board.

Lessons on interactive whiteboards need to be “interactive.” Lessons can contain teacher made activities, or activities that are part of the software. Both Promethean and SMART have vast resources available, therefore, there is no reason to “reinvent the wheel.” Matching and sorting activities can be easily created, and information can be hidden and revealed using shapes or flash-based content, all of which can be found in either Promethean or SMART’s resources. Both companies have their own tricks that can also increase the interactivity of the lessons.

I’m not claiming to the be the expert on the presentation of information on interactive whiteboards, I just know what worked well in my classroom. I took a varied approach, beginning with brief displays of information, guided practice and independent activities, and finished with some form of assessment. Students should be up at the board, working independently, in groups, as a class, etc. The teacher should never be in full control of the board throughout the lesson. It’s important to ask yourself,”how have I engaged my student’s today?”

Example lessons are available upon request for those who are interested.

Here’s to a great 2008-2009 school year…

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SMART’s Notebook Software Version 10

Posted on July 13, 2008. Filed under: Elementary School, English/Language Arts, General, High School, Instructional Coaches, Interactive Whiteboards, Middle School, Science, Teachers | Tags: , , , |

by Tim Van Heule

I recently downloaded Notebook Software Version 10 from SMART Technologies. As a SMART Exemplary Educator, and a former Peer Educator, I like to make sure that the training and support I provide on SMART products is current and knowledgeable.

There are many great features that have been added or improved upon. The “Alignment Tool” is one that many teachers have been most excited about – aligning objects on the page is easy now. And the “Properties Tab” has combined all of the object options in one place, including new object action additions. Of course there are new pens – the “Magic Pen” and the “Shape Recognition Pen.” The “Table Tool” is also a welcome addition, including features for text and screen shades in each cell.

The only concern I have relates to the inital installation of the software. You have to enter in the serial number from the board in order to receive the product key needed to activate the software. Finding the serial number is not difficult; depending on the model of the board, the serial number is either on the bottom of the pen tray or on the back of the board. The serial number also always starts with “SB” for SMART Board. The product key is emailed to the user. My concern arose because I imagined teachers across the county struggling at they tried to locate their serial number, getting the email and then entering in the product key. I have since learned that the product key can be used multiple times, even throughout the entire school. So, if the product key can be used throughout the school, why do you need it anyway?

Any previous versions of SMART Notebook also need to be removed, along with the driver, but do not remove the gallery.

I’ve been using SMART products for the past five years, and I think that this release is one of the more exciting software upgrades from SMART. Have your serial number available and download Version 10 at this link today.

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Musopen! Copyright Free Music

Posted on May 2, 2008. Filed under: Elementary School, English/Language Arts, General, High School, Instructional Coaches, Middle School, Teachers | Tags: |

by Tim Cushman

MusOpen! (www.musopen.com) is a growing collection of online music, completely free of all copyright restrictions. MusOpen! is maintained by a non-profit organization with the express goal of “setting music free” by making recordings of sheet music in the public domain. In short, MusOpen! works with artists that are interested in making copyright-free music available to everyone. You can read more on the legal stuff here if you are the curious type.

The quality of the songs is surprisingly good (320kbps bit rate) and is available for streaming or download. Sheet music is also available for download and may be of interest to music teachers and students alike.

MusOpen! is “setting music free” as claimed, but it is hardly a large scale jailbreak. The collection is currently limited to roughly one hundred, classical performances. The sparse library is a bit disappointing, but the idea is innovative and has potential.

I am pleased to see sites like MusOpen popping up on the Internet. It is difficult to find no-cost, legal audio sources to direct students to as they create technology-based projects. You can read more about sources for multimedia in the classroom in a previous posting.

You may also have occasion to use a copyrighted work for instruction or in some way to promote your school. Copyright law still applies, regardless of your intentions. There are several good sources on the web for educating yourself on your legal limits of fair use. I found one good site here.

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Read the Words

Posted on April 17, 2008. Filed under: Elementary School, English/Language Arts, General, High School, Instructional Coaches, Interactive Whiteboards, Middle School, Teachers |

by Tim Cushman

Read the Words is a fabulous, FREE web service for converting text into speech. Instantly, many teachers will think of using this site for their special education and non-English speaking students. I would argue that the applications for this web tool is far wider.

Think about the flow of the normal school day. Hectic? How about making more of your teacher notes or other handouts available as an audio recording instead of paper handouts (be mindful of copyright)? Creating a digital reading and distributing the file to your class takes less time then running photocopies and saves precious school resources.

Read the Words has potential for some unique student projects. For example, you might want to translate student writing pieces to an “audiobook” that could be posted on your classroom web site with different voices for each character. The audio file could add some extra flair to traditional projects like Interactive PowerPoint to relay information or give directions.

Read the Words is a singularly-purposed app that does its job well. You can copy and paste text to the site or upload a PDF, Word doc, HTML file, RSS feed, or website address. Read the Words will convert the text into an MP3 file that can be loaded on your iPod or MP3 player as well as giving you a URL for embedding the audio file into a website. Don’t worry about losing your recordings. All conversions will be saved for your exclusive use on the Read the Words website under the “My Recordings” tab.

It only gets better. Read the Words will read in English, Spanish, and French in fifteen different voice and at a user-controlled speed. Worried about conversion speed? Read the Words will convert an hour’s worth of audio in literally 60 seconds. Trouble with mispronounced text in your recording? Type the problem words phonetically.

Text to speech technology has a mixed history – mostly disappointing. I admit that the voice quality from Read the Words aspires to be at the level of KITT from the old Knight Rider series, but that is not exactly an equitable comparison since KITT had an actor doing voice-over AND David Hasselhoff riding in the driver’s seat. Try it out for yourself. I used Read the Words to convert this post to speech.  However, I could not get the code to work properly within WordPress (and yes, I did follow the directions).  Read the Words was very fast in converting this post to MP3, with a processing time of exactly four seconds.

What are your ideas and experiences with Read the Words?

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Quizlet. Learn it fast.

Posted on April 4, 2008. Filed under: Elementary School, English/Language Arts, Foreign Language, General, High School, Instructional Coaches, Interactive Whiteboards, Uncategorized |

by Tim Cushman


I did a lot of memorizing as a kid. At least, I was assigned to do a lot of memorizing as a kid. No “Fact Left Behind” could have been the unofficial tag-line of my primary education. How did I deal with all of the memorizing? My strategy was simple. I would procrastinate until the day of the test or quiz and then fake a dire attack of the stomach flu. If I would have only had Quizlet. I at least may have had classmates willing to play with me at recess without fear of a sudden flare up of “my condition.”

All joking aside, Quizlet really is a useful tool for learning vocabulary. I am a firm believer in teaching problem solving and applying logic to real-world problems, but I also believe there are times where memorization is a necessity. In fact, Quizlet was created by a 15 year old high school student struggling to learn French vocabulary (read the story here). This is one example of what can happen when we put technology in the hands of our students and make them responsible for their own learning. I will not get up on my soapbox at this time…

Quizlet is easy to use for multiple reasons. It starts with the ease of adding information that you would like to learn. Any digital text can be pasted into Quizlet with the standard copy/paste commands. This information is then transformed into individualized flashcards, a quiz style game, or a test with questions in a variety of formats. Please watch the short demo movie by clicking here.

The real beauty of this website is the inate social aspect of the modern Internet. Any data being studied, called a “set” on Quizlet, can be shared with any other Quizlet user or group of users. This means that instead of wasting valuable instructional time having students copy down important terms, the instructor could create a Quizlet set and let students work at their own pace at school during non-instructional time or own their own at home. Students could also create their own sets and easily collaborate with their classmates outside of the classroom.

Don’t want to create a set? You can search for sets created by others and take the quiz…err…quizlet and just get started. I have linked to a word and definition set as an example of some of the sets already available.

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Flickr and the Very Short Story

Posted on December 26, 2007. Filed under: English/Language Arts, Teachers | Tags: |

by Tim Cushman

Getting students to create original writing pieces that represent their “best thinking” is difficult.  One of the teacher’s challenges is framing an assignment that is interesting and unique.  Teachers using the power of the web have been able to tap into tools like blogs and wikis in producing more conscientious writers.  The advantage of the Web lies in the access the average user has to present and interact with a global audience instead of being constrained to writing for one’s instructor and fellow classmates.  Blogs and wikis are both excellent tools, but the Web has much more to offer evolving writers.

As with all things in life, the “law of diminishing returns” applies to Web 2.0 as well.  Consider something different in the upcoming semester by making use of a Flickr “group” known as the 6 Word Story.  A one sentence, six-word story as a writing assignment you may wonder?  Definitely.  Just think of it as the equivalent of the haiku poem – structured and compact.  The history of the 6 Word Story supposedly can be traced back to Ernest Hemingway when he was pressed to create a complete story composed of a mere six words.  (Sources: http://www.flickr.com/groups/sixwordstory/ and http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/sixwords.html)  Hemingway’s concise response was, “For sale: baby shoes, never used.”  Several more examples can be found here: http://www.caterina.net/archive/001008.html and http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/sixwords.html.   

The natural response for students when beginning this type of assignment is to simply write a description of the image and unflinchingly await their easy “A”.  However, a good 6 Word Story should read more like a newspaper headline in the New York Times then a caption in the school yearbook.  This is much harder than you think and requires a great deal of creativity and mental effort.  Try composing a few 6 Word Stories of your own with the pictures below.  Click on the photos to see the actual 6 Word Story posted on Flickr.

Bucky     Girl

You can view 6 Word Stories from the Flickr community as well as pair a photo with a story.  There are several pictures awaiting a story at http://www.flickr.com/groups/sixwordstory/.    When searching Flickr, bear in mind that the 6 Word Story is often tagged as sixwordstory or 6WS. 

Be sure to post your classroom 6 Word Story experiences to this blog.

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    The School District of Greenville County – Instructional Technology Department


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