Friday, May 29, 2009

Computers and Video Games in the Classroom, How To Set It Up and Keep it Going

This past school year, I had set up four older computers in my classroom with video games (strategy games), including Free Civ, an open source version of Civilization, and Zoo Tycoon, an interesting game in which the player builds a zoo and takes care of the animals. As this was the first time I was using games in the classroom, I didn't build too many learning objectives around them. I offered my students coupons that bought them time to play the games.

Right from the start, Zoo Tycoon became very popular. Free Civ was popular among a few of my more analytical students, but it is definitely an advanced game for elementary students. I allowed them to continue to "buy time" to play these games, and would monitor their progress. I asked them to take their game seriously and act as if it were an assignment, and most of them did, they took their zoo or civilization seriously.

This got me to thinking about the next steps here. Of course, most teachers are limited in their classroom by the number of computers. This past year I had 18 students and 7 working computers (8 if you count the laptop, which they usually used only for research). This upcoming year, I will have 28 students and 8 computers (9 if you count the laptop). So there has to be some creative planning.

The way I planned computer usage last year is I incorporated it into the classroom environment. The first way I did this is by making the computers a station in my literacy groupings. My literacy groupings this past year (under the guided reading model, a requirement of my school district) had students rotate on a daily basis through four different stations (they would do one station a day for a period of 45 minutes) including vocabulary, book productions (brochures, dioramas, etc.), silent time, teacher time, group reading, scholastic newsletters, and computers. In computers, they were given various tasks to complete that went with our current book or their current individual choice. During the course of the year, they did powerpoints, video projects, webquests, blogging through Moodle, reviews, and many many other tasks.

I am going to incorporate something similar this upcoming year to include the video games in the classroom. I see valuable learning opportunities in playing strategy/simulation games. I would like to have my students complete tasks when the play Zoo Tycoon, tasks that could be science related (biomes for example), math related (they could keep a log of money spent and do some long term graphing), and reading (have them find books or information about the animals in the game and study them).

Oddly enough, what got me thinking about this was Roller Coaster Tycoon. That's right, THE original RCT. I pulled it out last night and was playing it, thinking about how cool it would be for students to get a shot at building a theme park. Of course, I don't want to overwhelm them, so I think I'll start with Zoo Tycoon, and when most of the class is getting tired of it, maybe move to Roller Coaster.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Multiple Intelligences in the Literacy Classroom

Howard Gardner's theory on Multiple Intelligences has sparked a mini-revolution in certain areas of public education. Multiple Intelligence (MI) theory rejects the notions of learning simply as a linear, reasoning and conceptualization, process. The implications that arise from MI theory include individual learning styles and students taking control of their own learning.

There are some great article in Edutopia magazine about MI theory (I highly recommend this magazine to educators all across the world, it's one of the best there is), and a good starting point would be with the article The Multiple Intelligences Redefine Smart. I don't want to get caught up defining the theory here and all of its details, so check out that link for more information on that. What I did want to discuss very briefly here are the uses in the classrooms.

There have been schools, especially over the last 13 years or so, that have made full use of MI theory and have created MI schools. Most of the schools that have implemented this program only were able to last anywhere from 3-5 years. So I'm thinking more practical, for classroom teachers to implement this, specifically in literacy.

I have managed to embrace parts of the Guided Reading Model of reading instruction into my intermediate grade level classroom. Using guided reading in a limited capacity (45 minutes per day the way I did it) gives students a chance to work individually, or in small groups, on projects over an extended period of time, and it offers them more choice in their reading as well.

It seems that multiple intelligences fits well into this model. By giving students choices that fit along the lines of the intelligences (i.e. art projects that are book based for those Visual-Spatial learners) and letting them use their group time to work on projects that fit their intelligences or their likes at that moment would give students choice, would be allowing them the chance to work in an area of strength, and would be fitting the guided reading model (something I'm required to do in my school district) all at once.

I have every intention of doing this in my classroom, and as I get some more solid ideas, I'll pass them along here on this blog. For now, a good starting point would be to find out what your intelligences are. You can also have your students take this quiz and get a look at their own learning styles. CLICK HERE to take the quiz on Edutopia. Here is what your results will look like (this is my profile):

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The World At Your Fingertips (Or Not): kgb_ 542 and Literacy

It may be stretching a little bit here, but I wanted to discuss the uses of text messaging "answer your question" services like Cha Cha and kgb_ 542. I finally gave in to life without a cell phone back in February (I tried, but it was too hard not being in touch with everybody) and went to the extreme by getting a Blackberry. I don't really find much of a need for services like Cha Cha and kgb_542 because I have the internet at my fingertips pretty much anywhere I am, which is a new concept for me.

I've had times where I'm out, and need to know the number to a place, or need to check on something, and I can look it up on the spot and find out what I need to know, without having to call directory assistance or my wife at home to look it up on the computer. So this is a novel concept that is revolutionary in many ways. For a lot of people who don't carry a "smart phone," they're beginning to rely on these text message answer services.

So I decided to sign up to become a kgb_542 "agent," someone who sits on the computer and finds the answers to peoples questions and sends them out to their cell phones via SMS text. The first thing I noticed is that the legitimate questions are pretty straight forward, things like "I'm looking to buy a 2003 Ford Ranger, what kind of gas mileage does it get?" These are the types of questions that owners of smart phones like Blackberry or iPhone would just jump online and find, so this is a valuable service in that respect.

The vast majority of those seeking answers seem to be teenagers just blowing time. They ask novelty questions, or attempt to antagonize the agents at work (which doesn't make sense, because if you continue a line of questioning, the same person won't get it). So working for them was somewhat interesting for a few days. I made a few bucks, and decided it was a neat experience, but it was pretty tedious and boring after a few days.

Now, for the implications on education. The whole "world at your fingertips" thing is the next logical step in the internet. It was a revolutionary idea when the internet started up and search engines like Yahoo! started indexing the web. Most classrooms have some sort of internet access, pretty much making encyclopedias obsolete (unless the individual teacher decides, as I do, to have students still use book based information on top of computers). But now, we are able to carry the world in our pockets.

The argument could be that this changes the world because there's unlimited information out there for anyone to get at any time. But who is actually seeking that information? Is it really changing the world? Text messaging services don't have educational implications, mainly because they're expensive ($1 a text at kgb_542, and only 4 texts every two days at Cha Cha) and because the answers the agents offer are often incorrect or very lacking in their substance.

I do intend on taking a step next year to incorporate texting into the classroom. I already use online classroom tools (Moodle and, and have students keep portfolios online. My gradebook ( is online and parents can access grades and reports at anytime online. I am going to offer, to my parents next year, the ability to subscribe to text message alerts from me. I will send out important announcements and such this way. I think this is a good first step for incorporating this technology, at least on the elementary level (I'm a 4th grade teacher next year).

So as far as kgb_542 and Cha Cha goes, they're neat, sure, but they're novelty. They're very shallow and aren't reliable resources for education. I'm sure many students use them to get a quick answer to homework problems, but considering that homework is pretty worthless to begin with, that doesn't change much.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sometimes a Break is Good

Over the first few days of summer vacation (our last day of school here was Wednesday, May 20th), I've been watching a lot of movies with my family and have not done much reading. Let me change that, I have not done any reading. Although I am a voracious reader who can put away a dozen books in a week if I so please, I have found that it's good to take a break sometimes. Part of it is that my eyes start to hurt (I have horrible vision), and part of it is that I start to over-read and have nothing else in the house left to read.

I tend to read by grabbing a stack of things I want to read, sitting them on the shelf, and plucking them off one at a time. I'm sure I will start attacking my stack sometime later this week, but it's good to get a chance to relax and enjoy some movies.

Of course, if you hold a similar definition of literacy as I do, then movies are literacy, but most of you know what I mean when I say that watching a movie is different than reading a book.

This extends into the world of the classroom by knowing that this is magnified in the lives of children, most of whom aren't big time readers the way that we are (I'm assuming that a lot of my readers are big "literacy people"). Kids need a break sometimes, and it's easy to gauge this. Give the child some free time, and if they pick a book, fine, if they don't, let them get away from it for awhile. It is difficult, coming back to a new school year, seeing a little regression in skills, but this is natural. School years are long and hard (for students and for teachers), and everyone needs a break.

There isn't really any greater purpose today other than that, sometimes a break is good.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

My Take on Watchmen

I had never read Watchmen, the highly popular graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (artist). When the movie came out a few months ago, the book gained in popularity again, and I finally caved and got a copy to see what all the hype was about.

I am by no means a graphic novel aficionado, I have just read a few things that have caught my interest over the years, so I'm not one who feeds on these types of books. I have, however, started branching out and trying to read more, and have found it to be a varied experience.

My first thought when I began reading Watchmen was "wow, this is just a big giant comic book." I was drawing back on my childhood experiences, reading X Men and Superman comics, among others. However, when looking at this book through a historical lens, knowing that it was written during the later years of the Cold War, there was a lot to this book. The cynicism, the disillusionment, and the tongue-in-cheek dialogue, especially from the narrator Rorschach, made this a great adult reading experience.

I'll admit that some of the Dr. Manhattan stuff got a little "out there," but I enjoyed the metaphor that lied behind it. That's a good way to describe my overall experience with this book. It was out there, but was a great story that kept having me go "ah yes, I got that, very nice."

Now, does this book have potential in the classroom? First off, if you're talking anything below AP English Literature for Seniors or really insightful Juniors, forget it, don't even bother. If this book fits some kind of unit of study on, say, the Cold War, or in a greater survey of graphic novels, comic books, or something along those lines, then sure, I can see it fitting in terms of its content along those subject lines.

It is a very witty, very multi-dimensional story. There is a lot more sophistication than I was anticipating, and I'm not saying that in a snooty, "those darn kids won't get it, they're just not smart enough," kind of way. I am saying that it simply might go over their heads and end up being just another comic book with an adult theme.

This is a great piece of literature that has aged well, but is an adult piece of literature. I commend anyone who has managed to use this in the classroom and go deeper than surface level with it. Personally, I say it's more of an adult read, but if you've had experiences teaching with this, please share.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Lightning Thief - A Book Review

I'm always interested in finding new books that seem to resonate with my students. Up through winter break this past school year, I had read aloud The Castle in the Attic (Elizabeth Winthrop), Coraline (Neil Gaiman), The City of Ember (Jeanne DuPrau), The Giver (Lois Lowry), and had read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Barbara Robinson) right before the break. So coming back, I wanted to start things off with a bang.

Luckily, over the vacation, I had run across Rick Riordan's popular Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, namely the first book, The Lightning Thief. It was an interesting book, if not one obviously written for the pre-adolescent set (ages 10-13). It definitely wasn't a young adult or children's book that surpassed most adult books in quality, at least not from an adult perspective. But I was anxious to try it out with my class.

First off, The Lightning Thief clocks in at 375 pages, so it does require a commitment on the part of the read aloud teacher to really stick with it and read for at least 30 minutes every day. What my students loved about this book was its action, how it basically went from one monster to the next, and that the main character, Percy Jackson, is just "some kid."

This book lends itself extremely well to studying Greek Mythology. I had the class do companion projects where they studied a Greek God and presented a report on them, either using technology (like power point) or doing a poster board based presentation (for those artists who like to use their skills with pencil and paper).

This book resonated quite well with my 5th graders. It did take a little time to get through it. I made the commitment to read no less than 20 pages in each sitting. And even at that pace, it took a month to finish the book. By the time we reached the end, the class was very excited, had felt a sense of accomplishment by finishing such a large book, and many of them went on in the series. This series is currently at its fifth book, with more surely coming.

There are great reasons to read large books with your class. Too often read aloud turns into small books that can be finished in a few sittings or a couple of weeks (if the teacher even reads books in the first place, too many teachers still rely heavily on textbook basal readers). The amount of time involved with this book shows to those students who aren't used to sitting down with a large book the payoffs to reading something so big, and that it's ok to sit with one book for an extended period of time.

Right after we finished The Lightning Thief, my school had its book fair, and sure enough, they were selling the entire series. I bought a few copies of each, and followed the course of these books, as well as my students who bought their own copies, and believe it or not, out of a class of 18 students, 7 finished the second book, 4 went on to the third, and 2 also read the fourth by the end of the year. Finding a series that gets kids excited about reading, takes them into the world of mythology, and has them begging for more is a very exciting thing. Although it didn't really hold me as an adult reader, it is a great book (and series) for students. I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Tribute To My Students

So here I sit, in the beginning hours of another summer vacation. This was my last year in my four year tenure as a 5th grade teacher, at least for now. Next year I'll be venturing down the hallway (a journey that started this morning with many hours of boxing, taping, and moving items from one room to the other) into the world of 4th grade. I will be looping my future 4th graders, all 28+ of them, to 5th grade, and couldn't be more excited about the challenge that awaits.

Yesterday I cried. It's hard to believe, but with about 30 minutes left in the day, I gave my traditional end of the year speech to my outgoing 5th graders, and found myself looking in the faces of mature young people who grew up before my very eyes this year, and I lost it. In past years, I've choked up a little, but this year the tears flowed.

Something I've always known about myself is that I form deep attachments to the people I care about. My students become like members of my family, at least for the time that they're with me. Of course they move on, and many of them, most of them actually, get on with their lives and will soon forget the majority of our time together, but many of them come back to visit and seem to look back on our time together with fond memories. After I stopped the water works and finished my speech, they cried as well. We had a fitting last few minutes together, and they went on their way. It was a great year, the best of my career, and now it's time to head home for some rest.

I also said goodbye to my student teacher yesterday. Although he could have left the class at the first of May, he stayed to finish the year out with us. I know that he felt the attachment to the students in our class as deeply as I did. He became a close friend during this semester, and I am deeply saddened by the fact that we will no longer be working together.

Now I sit here, just one day later, looking out into the yard, smelling the rain and feeling the coolness on my face, thinking back on the latest group of young men and women who are ready for the next steps in their lives, and already thinking ahead to what awaits me in August, and I'll tell you, this is why I became a teacher. For those of you who share my passion for teaching and cry on the last day of school when you say goodbye to your students, I stand with you.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My Selection to the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teaching Academy

It took me awhile to get around to this, but I wanted to share my joy with everyone who reads. I was chosen last month to attend the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy this July in Jersey City, New Jersey (it's across the Hudson from Manhattan). I was one of 200 teachers (3rd through 5th) in the United States, and one of two in New Mexico chosen to go. I was nominated by one of my amazing 5th grade students, and get to spend a week of math and science professional development with 199 of my colleagues from the United States.

This honor is overwhelming, and I'm already excited. I've always considered myself a literacy teacher first and foremost (that's kind of the point of this blog), but as an elementary teacher, I'm always working on making myself the best teacher I can be in all subject areas, so it's great to get recognized for my math and science teaching. I'm going to be taking my wife with me on the trip. We're going to enjoy a week in New York City, because neither of us have ever been.

Here are some links you can go to in order to see what this is all about:

SEND MY TEACHER: At the bottom, you can click the link to see the names of all those chosen to attend. Also, you can do some nominating for next years academy.

News Release From My School District: This one will give away my true identity (holy snack cakes Batman!), but that's ok.

The write up that made the AP rounds: (I think the link explains it)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Welcome to the Future

Next year, it appears that I will be making the move to 4th grade (I've been in 5th grade for four years now). I'll be going there, and then looping to 5th with the class. I'm excited about the opportunity, and am seeking out research, information, etc. One of my topics this summer will be on how to teach a loop (if you're not familiar with the terminology here, looping involves staying with the same group of students for two or more years).

I've also got quite a few books to catch you up on, and I'll also focus on that this summer as well. So please, stick around, and be glad that I in fact wasn't dead, just busy.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Where Have I Been?

I haven't posted in pretty much four months. It's been a very hectic and busy semester. Between my full time teaching job, my doctoral studies, and having a family, I taught a course at NMSU this semester, which was a great experience that I'll be doing again this coming fall. In any case, I got really busy with all of that and had to decide to put this blog on the back burner. I do intend on coming back into it now that things are settling down. My last class at NMSU meets this week, and there's only two and a half weeks of school left in the year at work (unless swine flu shuts us down). I have been reading a lot of great books lately that I'd like to share here, and I also need to get out and start catering to my old blogging friends and pulling them back in.

Sorry about the hiatus, I'm glad to be back.