Instructional Coaches

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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Professional Development in a Flash

Posted on August 19, 2008. Filed under: Elementary School, General, High School, Instructional Coaches, Middle School, Teachers |

by Tim Cushman

The primary challenge in the successful implementation of technology in the classroom is the buy-in from the individual teacher.  Many districts elect to channel all of their technology funds into the purchase of hardware and software at the expense of end-user training.  This short-sighted approach leaves many teachers floundering to learn the new technology on their own time, often with limited access to self-study materials.  This frustration is enough of a roadblock for many teachers to ignore technology tools all together or to use them only at a very basic level.

I do have to wonder, at one point do we as professional educators include the pursuit of learning technology under the umbrella of personal growth?  I am not referring to simply staying current with a variety of new products in order to continually “wow” a group of students as a means of crowd control (listen to Wesley Fryer’s “Strive to Engage, Not Enthrall”).

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Technology is a tool that serves as a powerful conduit to learning in the hands of the master teacher.  A colleague of mine, Tim Van Heule, often quips that, “the effective use of technology makes a good teacher better, but the misuse of technology makes a good teacher poor.”  Like a master craftsman building a house, it is about using the right tool in the right way.

I recommend the following method for staying current: read blogs, listen to podcasts, watch video tutorials.

Start Here
David Jakes provides an excellent resource on his wiki for teachers interesting in deepening their understanding of an array of technologies.  The tasks are straightforward and can easily be completed in fifteen minutes.  David’s site is full of great resources and is worth a thorough examination.  Do this if nothing else.

Click here for a clear explanation of blogs and here to learn how to get blogs automatically delivered to your computer.

A few of my favorite blogs are dy/dan, edu.blogs, Ian Jukes, Steve Hargadon, The Strength of Weak Ties, and 2 Cents.

Click here for a clear explanation of podcasts.  iTunes is a great way to manage your podcasts.  Click here for a video tutorial on how to subscribe to podcasts through iTunes.

Video Tutorials
More video tutorials on the use of hardware and software packages are being posted online thanks in large part to the YouTube revolution.  Atomic Learning is well worth the money if you can afford it because of the volume of tutorials and the speed at which they load.  You can find some decent user content on sites like YouTube or TeacherTube if you don’t mind putting in extra time searching.

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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! ( 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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Real Time

Posted on November 8, 2007. Filed under: EdTech, Elementary School, General, High School, Instructional Coaches, Interactive Whiteboards |

 I’m headed out to a middle school to support a teacher who is using video conferencing technology for the first time and got to thinking…do other teachers in Greenville County know what IVC is and that we’ve got it for them to use? 🙂

Interactive Video Conferencing (IVC) is comprised of two-way audio and video, which allows the instructor  and students to talk to and see one another  simultaneously.  Instructors can pose questions and call on students  who raise their hands, just as if the instructors and students were in the same classroom. Our district began using IVC with Roper Mt. Science Center as a way to provide Sexuality Education to 7th graders. This alone saved valuable instructional time, not to mention gas for schools that are quite a distance from the center.

Last year we piloted the use of video conferencing with a little younger crowd…our 4th graders. RMSC and elementary lab instructors collaborated on the sun’s effect on plant life and growth. Students were able to conference virtually in the science center’s rain forest. What an amazing experience that was for them. In expanding our 4th grade program, all 4th graders are currently participating in a RMSC lesson focused on telescopes live from the Daniel Observatory.

We’ve started small in Greenville, but are excited about the potential that interactive video conferencing has for our students. We are ready to branch outside the boundaries of the district to interact and collaborate with students from other schools and experts from across the world. Anyone interested?   

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    The School District of Greenville County – Instructional Technology Department


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