Convert that old hard copy with OCR

Despite my love for computers, I’m not strong when it comes to typing. The idea of retyping something makes me cringe.

That’s why I was so happy to stumble upon Online OCR.

Out with the old and in with the new
Out with the old and in with the new

Using optical character recognition (OCR), this site will take any old document that you’ve scanned in as a PDF and convert it to editable text.

10 helpful keys when grading on a laptop

It appears that more and more people are buying laptops over desktop PCs.  With feature-rich laptops selling for less than $500, I can see why. But there is one thing my laptop is missing- the numeric keypad. I didn’t even miss it until I started enter grades one afternoon.

Trying to enter grades on a laptop is a nightmare and it really slows you down. But never fear, there’s always a gadget to the rescue.

Pick up one of these keypads to give your fingers the extra space they need. (more…)

My experience with an interactive board

Interactive BoardAt the start of the school year I was fortunate to have an Interwrite Board installed in my classroom. The Interwrite Board is an interactive board (IB) that works in concert with an LCD projector. Another well known IB product line is produced by Smart Technologies. Both allow teachers to control a computer by marking on the board. My board uses a pen that doesn’t leave behind real ink but it can allow me to draw, move objects around and control any software on my computer.

Here’s how I’ve been using it so far:

  1. demonstrating software: Teaching science demands the use of software for data collection, data analysis, graphical analysis, and video analysis. The IB has helped students become familiar with new software. They seem to pick up new software much faster once they had a chance to manipulate and control it with the interactive pen.
  2. practice problems go digital: My students in physics often work in small groups to solve and then present assigned problems using a white board and dry erase markers. This process has always had tremendous pedagogical advantages. Now the process has improved even more because I take pictures of their white boards and project them onto the IB for discussion.
    There are several advantages to this process:

    • the white board is bigger
    • the work is saved for continuing the next day, an absent student or review at a later date
    • while the students can annotate their white board in front of class with the interactive pens, I can interact from the back with mine (I also have the AirLiner from Smart Technologies)
  3. Create Podcasts: Work done on the IB can be recorded (audio and video) and posted to the web for further discussion and review. You can see examples of my videos here.

Here are a few reasons I like using the interactive board:

  1. I can look at my audience when using it. In the past, when I needed to demonstrate software for example, I was forced to look at the computer screen. I wasn’t looking where the students were looking. There is a disconnect here that is similar to the one when you are staring at the top of an overhead projector while your students eyes are focused behind you. Now all of us are looking at the same thing.
  2. The ability to save, go back and start over. I save so much time with the IB because I don’t have to erase things. If problem seven brings up new questions in problem one I can pull up question one in a flash. New questions come up? Click new page and off we go. It’s like an endless chalkboard that doesn’t show the faint, half-erased work of the hours before. I still have a chalkboard- over twice the area of the IB. I use this for things I want to keep up long-term, quick calculations for students in lab, and of course the “please see me” notes.
  3. It is a better drawer than me. I use the lines, shapes, clip art and endless colors to drive home our discussions. When I teach vectors, the colored arrows can be copied and slid around to explain things like vector addition. This is a huge time saver and something I never could have done with chalk.
  4. Students are eager to use the interactive board and feel privileged to have it in their classroom. I know that these sensations will probably subside as the technology becomes more commonplace but right now I have students asking to use it. Having students proud of what their school is providing is a good thing.

21st century skills- show us your best

Take a trip back in time in the archives of Google News and you can find all sorts of papers, books and headlines with the following themes about education:

  • education needs to be more relevant to life
  • we need to foster more creativity in the classroom
  • we’re failing to teach our students technology skills
  • students aren’t asked to think critically
  • the U.S. will fall behind because of our education
  • student learning needs to be more hands-on

Sound familiar? Talking about the future of education seems like a national pasttime that often predicts gloom and doom scenarios.

The craze for the past five years has been the idea of teaching 21st century skills. Many people have made a career by talking and writing about these new skills. But take a look at them. Is there really anything new here? The Partnership for 21st Century Skills lists media literacy, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and civic literacy as just a few 21st century skills that will “…align classroom environments with real world environments.”

But haven’t these skills always been taught in school? The only new thing on the list seems to be global awareness. However, this topic has been misrepresented with nationalistic chatter that tried to scare every teacher and student with images of construction companies in China and India.

I don’t think that we should ever stop stressing the skills that are now being called 21st century skills. I just find it insulting to consider that these skills are new. This is an insult to all the excellent educators who have made the U.S. what it is today.

The fear mongering also needs to stop. We are not going to motivate our students with a laundry list of over-hyped statistics.

The best way to improve education is to improve the teacher in the classroom. Instead of providing examples of what should be done, show us the real thing. Join a professional organization and present lessons that worked in the classroom. Get on a social network (like Twitter or Facebook) and share a successful activity.

Let’s make showing off our finest teachers, and more importantly their work, the real 21st century skill.

18 technologies every teacher should know about

18 TechnologiesYou don’t have to use them all, but I think every teacher should become familiar with the technologies on this list.

Many things, such as RSS feeds, Skype and wikis, are powerful tools that will save you time and allow you to do remarkable things in the classroom.

Knowing about these technologies may also help you learn more about your students. Some items on this list, like iTunes, instant messaging and social networks, are becoming a part of every student’s entertainment and social life.

  1. Audacity: a free and easy to use audio recording and editing program
  2. blog: they started as online diaries, but blogs have become an easy way to create websites
  3. Firefox: an Internet browser that is better than the one that comes preinstalled on your computer
  4. Extensions: little applications that make Firefox do just about whatever you want
  5. Creative Commons: licenses that provide a variety of protections and freedoms for artists, authors, and educators
  6. Google Earth: this is a map on steroids, it allows you to fly around a virtual Earth; download it and check out the Grand Canyon
  7. IM: instant messaging allows you to chat with a group of people; it’s like real-time email
  8. iTunes: buy music and movies, download podcasts using iTunes; iPod owners need this program to put files on their device
  9. iPod: the most popular portable media player; this is a pocket entertainment system
  10. mp3: a file type that is used for audio; mp3 files can be relatively small in size because the technology removes the frequencies of sound that we don’t need
  11. PDF: the most common way to share documents online that are usually printed; typically used for things like manuals, prospectuses, newsletters and forms
  12. podcast: an audio or video program that is set up to be downloaded automatically to your computer on a regular basis
  13. RSS (News Feed): a way to allow websites to deliver their new content to your computer without you having to visit each site
  14. Skype: this program allows you to talk to anyone in the world for free; it also does chat and video conferencing
  15. social network: when you’re online this label refers to websites that have create an easy way for you to share your favorite pictures, websites, music, recipes and much more with others; MySpace and Facebook are two of the most popular social networks
  16. TiVo: like ‘Kleenex’ for facial tissue, the word ‘TiVo’ refers to the technology that allows you to save your TV shows to a hard drive so you can watch them on demand; TiVo is just one brand of digital video recorders or DVRs
  17. Wi-Fi: this allows you to connect to the Internet wirelessly; laptops come standard with this technology but other devices with Wi-Fi, such as printers, are popping up more and more
  18. wiki: a website technology made famous by Wikipedia; wikis allow users to edit the content of a webpage; a great way to work collaboratively on projects

Of course, I don’t claim that this list is exclusive. I’m sure I’ve missed a few. I welcome you to make suggestions in the comments.

Plan your lessons in Google Calendar

Each year I begin with every intention to write out my lesson plans for each day of the school year. For eight years, I started with the lesson plan book. I labeled the dates for the entire school year, added important school events, and began penciling in my lessons. Somewhere around mid-October the wheels fall off. Somehow this task gets pushed way down on my to-do list.

Google CalendarLast year was different. I decided to throw out the lesson plan book and use Google’s Calendar instead. For the first time, I maintained my lesson plans for the entire school year.

Here are the three reasons why Google Calendar works so well for my lesson plans:

  1. I can see the big picture. With Google Calendar, switching views from day to week to month is a snap. I can also add other calendars. I can see if the lesson plan for Physics conflicts with what I’m planning to do in Physical Science. I also compare the lesson plans to my personal calendar and my wife’s work schedule. You can even import your school’s sports schedule to plan around the big game.
  2. Google CalendarUpdating is a breeze. If Tuesday’s lab takes longer than I expect, I can drag the next activity over to Wednesday. No more erasing and recopying. In the description field I can put notes about the on-the-fly changes I made to the activity.
  3. Students and parents can follow along. Google let’s you share your calendar so others can subscribe to it or just view it on your website. Now students who were absent come to class knowing exactly what they missed because they read it online the night before.  Nothing motivates you more to keep the calendar up to date when you know others are going to see if you fall behind.

If you’re looking for a way to create lesson plans that are sharable, easy to use and provide access from anywhere, give Google Calendar a try.

I know what you did this summer

Elmo SprinklerI relaxed this summer and I’m not ashamed of it. I spent time playing in the sprinkler with my children. I enjoyed the fine weather from my back patio. Some mornings I watched the Today Show while enjoying my morning coffee. There, my secret is out. I’m a teacher and I like the summer break.

For a long time, I found myself going on the defensive when I talked about my summer with non-teachers. As if I was being audited, I’d go into a long list of all the education related tasks I did during June, July and August.

A story from NPR’s All Thing’s Considered shows that other teachers do the same. Their four minute clip presents teachers who are taking extra courses and attending workshops. One teacher is actually working as a waitress to supplement her income.

Many teachers work hard during the summer. I myself attended a few workshops and conferences. Yet, we should not be ashamed if we enjoy some much needed time off. After all, we’re not being paid to work the full year.

NPR implies that summer is the busiest time of the year for teachers. I disagree. Our work, like several other fields, is seasonal. We have a peak time and we have an off-season. The summer is our off-season.

I grew up on a farm. In the summer, we spent long hours on the job but during the winter the work slowed down. My parents would plan for the next growing season by setting up seed vendors and preparing equipment for another summer in the fields. No one ever asked my parents, “What did you do this winter?”

During my summer, I do all the things I want to do during the school year but can’t find the time for because my desk is always full of papers to grade or lessons to prepare. I think about what worked and what didn’t. I learn new material and teaching strategies for the next year. Teachers need the down time that the summer break provides. It provides us time for the important job of reflecting on the past school year.

In my subject area, science, we’re having a harder time recruiting new people to become teachers. I wonder if we’re underselling the summer break. Do we really want to send the message to the potential educators out there that this job is a rat race year-round?