Prospecting For Treasure

Always prospecting for the next treasure of an idea.

Independent Study


During the final weeks of school, my students conducted independent studies.  They picked the subject area.  The rules were that it had to be school appropriate, it had to be something that they could find both books and internet resources about, and it had to be okay with their parents.  If it was about a sport, it had to be about an athlete, or new information that helped them to learn something.

Along with picking their own topic, they also got to choose how to show us their learning.  It could be on-line; creating a Glog, a Storybird or blog post, or it could be with pencils, markers and paper.  I thought most of the class would choose on-line work, so I was surprised when only nine chose to use technology.  The rest either created posters or made books.

The independent study was in-class seatwork as well as homework.  During the last two weeks of school everyone presented their learning to the class.  After their presentation, we took time for questions and comments from the class.

Students presented on all kinds of subjects, including Pigs, Hamsters, Indonesia, Hawaii, Mexico, and dogs.  If their work was on-line, they used the Elmo to show their work.  Posters and books were displayed in the room.  We even had a hamster guest.

This was a great way to end the year, and I really wish I had done it earlier in the year, because I learned new things about my students by learning about their interests.  The kids learned new things about each other as well.  One of my students presented on Mexico.  Even though most of my students have gone to school together since kindergarten, they were unaware that she is bilingual and speaks only Spanish at home.  They were in awe of her knowledge and experiences.

This was not an original idea on my part.  I was inspired by the Identity Day that George Couras created at the school where he was Principal.  Other educators have held similar events.  With all the the demands of district curriculum, testing and standards, I just wasn’t sure where and how to fit it in.  So we squeezed it in during these final weeks of the school year.  My goal was to give students an opportunity to choose something they were interested in to read and study about.  I hadn’t counted on the additional benefits of letting them be the leaders and teachers.  They were very proud of the work they did, and it was a great time for students to be able to appreciate and celebrate the talents and accomplishments of others.

Next year, I would like to try this twice.  Early in the year, I want my students to share something closely linked to their own identity; their heritage, a special interest or hobby, something they believe in.  Later in the year, I’d like them to choose an area of study as we did this year.  Kids need more opportunities to take center stage and shape the learning in our classroom, and it gave me the chance to step back and enjoy their talents and gifts.

June 5, 2012 Posted by | Education, Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Getting to Know the iPad

I have been a fan of my netbooks since I got one a year ago. This summer I am learning to use the iPad. Which one is better?

Yesterday, on my photo blog, I posted a photo of my Acer Netbook and the iPad, with excerpts of this post. I immediately received responses on Twitter, so I decided it’s time to finish pulling this piece together and get on with it. 

My school purchased a ten pack of iPads to be used in the classroom, and we received them just days before school was dismissed for summer vacation.  I checked one out for the summer, and I have been trying to work with it as much as possible.  A friend told me that I would fall in love with it the moment I touched it, and I want to love it, but I just don’t yet. Frustration has prevented that from happening. 

I love the ease of carrying it with me. It is thinner and even more lightweight than my little Acer netbooks, so it can easily slip into my bag.  At this point in time, however, I still find my netbooks much easier to negotiate. The familiar is always easier, so I have forced myself to use the iPad, and through use, things are definitely getting easier.  I still have some serious concerns, however, about its adaptability to the academic tasks I need it to do

For classroom projects, I often place shortcuts on the desktop to make things easier for the kids and myself. You can put shortcuts on the desktop with the iPad, and it appears that we could use it to write on our blogs at  Some of the websites we like to use, however, like Storybird, require flash and do not work on the iPad. The Animotos on our class wiki do not show up or work, and neither do some videos, however I have discovered that if you use the app for Animoto, you can view an Animoto.

I am struggling with logistics of making the iPads work with our other available equipment. How do you print from iPad if you don’t have a wireless printer?  We have Pages installed on them, which is a word processing app, and I wrote most of this blogpost using the iPad.  While this app does not have the number of options that more sophisticated word processing programs offer, my students would be unlikely to utilize those anyway.  I was able to e-mail the document to myself in a word format, and then open and save it to one of my other computers, where I can print it.  This isn’t, however,  an easy or practical way to handle documents written by 29 students.  I’m also concerned that It does seem kind of sensitive, and I found myself ending up places that I hadn’t intended.  I am worried about students losing the work that they have spent time writing.

I thought that maybe using Google Docs would be a better idea, but I discovered that while you can open and view a Google doc, you cannot edit it or create a new one.  

If I put a Word document in dropbox, will I be able to work on it on the iPad?  I am excited that I can download an app for on it. That would enable me to make photos and other documents available for kids to use.   But first I have to convince my school district to unblock dropbox.

I do think additional apps will add to the usability. Since it does not belong to me, I have to have permission to add apps and download books onto it.  I am trying to select apps that support our academic goals.  I am planning to add the following:

  1. Multiplication by Sierra Skyware, Inc
  2. Math Master by Tapware
  3. Math Quizzer
  4. School Notes Pro
  5. Textropolis
  6. Spell & Listen
  7. Popmath Basic Math by popsoft
  8. Monster Mix and Match, by Critical Matter
  9. Things for Ipad


You can read more about these apps by reading: 

FREE iPad Apps for Educators and Parents

40 Amazing Ipad Apps for Kids

20 Amazing Ipad Apps for Educators

And thank you very much to Joe Fahs,( @Mpondo on Twitter) and other members of my PLN who shared these with me.

I do enjoy reading my Google Reader on the iPad, and if I had any good books downloaded to it, I’m sure I would enjoy that.  One thing I can tell you.  Even though I may have mixed feelings about the iPad, the kids will love it.  Twice now I have had people approach me at Caribou Coffee, my favorite hangout, and ask about my iPad.  I put it in the hands of a fifth grade girl who came over with her mom, and she absolutely lit up.

I’m writing at Caribou Coffee right now.  When I was deciding which computer to bring with me, I settled on my Acer Netbook.  I knew it would be easier to write, edit, and add photos and links.  So I’m still not in love with the iPad.  I’m having fun with it, and it’s okay as a supplemental computer, but it certainly isn’t the most versatile one that I own.

In the photo above, the design you see on the iPad was made using the Glow Doodle app.  This is one that I know the kids will like.

June 30, 2010 Posted by | Education, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

School District Finance 101– As Understood By Me

We had a very disturbing staff meeting after school on Friday.  We had already been hearing rumblings of things to come.  During the past few months, state budgets have been slashed by 10%.  This has resulted in cuts to every government agency in the State of Iowa, including unpaid furloughs and layoffs.  With the trickle down effect, it also meant a 10% budget cut for local school districts.  That 10% cut was for the 2009/2010 school year.  Contracts were already in place, so there were no layoffs in our school district.  The cuts have come from other places, and some reserves have been dipped into to ease the pain.
The outlook for the 2010/2011 school year is much more dismal.  We were informed on Friday that there would be a $33,000,000 shortfall.  This time there will be layoffs, to the tune of a 15% across the board staff cut.  This means 450 positions in all, including 302 teachers.  I am a veteran teacher, I know I’ll have a job, but none of us will go unscathed, if in fact, this really comes to pass.  I felt terrible for my student teacher who will graduate in May.  It was a very discouraging meeting for a young teacher just entering the workforce.  I worry for my colleagues who are in their early years of teaching.  If this happens, the biggest losers of all, will be the kids.  It will mean larger class sizes and the loss of great teaching talent, not to mention an educational environment with substandard technology, equipment, books, and supplies, since all budgets are already frozen.
Our meeting was orchestrated by the top administration in the district.  Our principal presented a prepared powerpoint to us, outlining the funding for the district, and budget concerns, and the fact that 85% of the budget goes to salaries.  We learned that this same powerpoint was presented the previous evening to DMEA, our teacher’s union.  It was stressed several times that the final outcome was dependent on many factors, including funding and negotiations.  It was suggested that we contact our legislators and DMEA.
Later in the evening, I watched the local news, where this situation was described as “worst case scenario.”  It was at this point that my skepticism began to set in.  I can’t help but think of the last time we had teacher layoffs in our district.  That was six years ago.  I remember the tears and grief after two of the teachers in my building received layoff notices.  Loyal to our school, they were left with no choice but to seek employment elsewhere.
Funny thing was, that by the end of the school year, and after negotiations were completed, somehow district administration discovered money in the budget, and those layoff notices were rescinded.   In the mean time, our very talented kindergarten teacher, who had received notice, was offered a better job in another school district, for more money and closer to her home.  So, ultimately, our kids lost out. They lost a great teacher.
As expected, our staff left the meeting and school extremely upset.  This is a different time, with a far worse world economy, than the last time.  We are surrounded by both state and local budget shortfalls.  I believe that our school district is in financial trouble, but I certainly hope these dire  predictions  are not  a part of posturing for a better position in negotiations.

January 16, 2010 Posted by | Education | , , | 2 Comments

Teach Your Conscience: Keeping Integrity and the Basics in Education

Earlier this week a few of the teachers in my building were chatting, after the kids left.  I stopped to talk, and in the course of the conversation, it came out that these teachers aren’t really teaching spelling, grammar, or handwriting anymore, and they weren’t really sure what to do with writer’s workshop, because these things aren’t on “the test”.  I really kind of lost it at this point and reminded them they need to be teaching what the kids need, not teaching to a test.  I know where this came from, because I too sat in meetings last year, where my principal questioned whether teaching spelling was a good use of our time.  She wants to have students spend more time on writing.  My reaction was to explain to her exactly why it is a good use of our time.  It is the only area with our reading series that word study and word attack skills are taught in third through fifth grades.  Words are selected based on a particular spelling or phonics pattern.  Our list this week was spelling patterns for words with –ing or –ed endings, other weeks it might be certain vowel sounds, or prefixes and suffixes.  Understanding spelling patterns helps children to learn decoding skills, so they can read words that are unfamiliar to them.  It also adds to their understanding of word meanings.  Without the mechanics, it is difficult for students to be good writers or readers.  After presenting my arguments, the subject was dropped, and to be honest, it had never occurred to me that anyone had actually stopped teaching spelling. 

In the past year, I have also been told not to spend time on teaching handwriting, and about a month ago, it was suggested to my grade level colleague and I,  that we shouldn’t worry when kids don’t know their basic math facts.  We should just hand them a multiplication chart.  At this point I erupted with a firm “No!” (Let me say that if I didn’t have the great principal that I do, this might have caused problems for me, but she continues to welcome my opinions.) 

I do not understand what is going on in education here, but I am not going to give these kids less than I have given others.  I am not going to give up on them and just hand them a fact chart instead or doing my job and helping them to master those facts!  How can you have any kind of math sense if you don’t know the basics?  How can you ever look at an answer and have any idea whether it is logical or not, if you have to look at a chart to know your math facts?  How can I send them into the world without having done my best to teach them how to write a complete sentence with words spelled correctly?

You may be thinking, well she’s just an older teacher who doesn’t want to let go of the way she’s always done things.  I am an older teacher, but I’m not boasting when I say that I am also the most innovative teacher in my building.  I am the only one using technology to any extent in instruction. Teaching basic skills and using technology are not mutually exclusive.  The more we use technology, the more I see the need to help my students develop stronger basic skills in reading, writing and math.  It is when my kids are writing on our blog or for Wallwisher that it becomes apparent that we need to take time to talk about grammar, sentence structure, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, usage, and so many other very basic skills. 

I am not advocating that we should sit with a language book and diagram sentences, like I grew up doing.  But we need to be very careful before abandoning necessary and basic skills in order to make more time in our schedule for other things.  We cannot assume that students will just pick these skills up along the way.  They need to be taught explicitly, but in an authentic way.  I have always had my kids doing research, reading great books, and excited about learning.  When students are reading and writing about information they are interested in, they are eager to learn more and to master the skills that make them more successful.

Two of the teachers in the hall are fairly new to teaching, and the other has been at it almost as long as I have.  My message to them and to others is that teachers need to stand up for what is right.  We need to say no, when administrators suggest new directions that defy logic.  These kids are not ours.  We only have them on loan.  What would their parents say if they were privy to some of the conversations taking place in education?  Be open to new ideas, but be selective.  We as teachers, must have integrity.  This is the only shot many of these kids get at an education.

January 8, 2010 Posted by | Education, Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment