Monday, June 30, 2008

Camp Box

When I was a kid back in the dark ages, my dad would come home and announce that we were going camping. Mom gathered up the needed supplies and off we went for anywhere from a couple of days to a week of living in the back country. I don't remember much of what mom had to do to prepare except that she had a wooden camp box with all the essential items. She added a few days worth of food and away we went. I've camped off and on as an adult and I've tried a couple of times to recreate a usable camp box. So far, I've not quite managed it. Either my mom and dad were really organized or I'm being too picky about what I want to take. My box is way to small for all the things I think I need.

I had a friend tell me that last time she went camping, she had a cooler and a plastic sack of supplies. Everything was cooked off the grill at the campsite or suspended above the fire with a green stick. She mocked my camp box as I loaded it into the car for our simple overnight trip. It worked out OK although I don't think I've convinced her of the logic of the thing yet.

We were at a site with no tables, big rocks or handy stumps so all tasks had to be done on the ground. I had everything I needed to prepare our meals and clean up but my old crickety back was complaining about all the stooping. Now I am thinking a small folding table might be handy.

Will my list of necessities ever end? Will I eventually give up my quest for the perfect camp box and just buying a Winnebago?

[Image: Picture of my camp box]

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dog Prosthesis

While driving through a back street in Boulder, Colorado last week on my way to a hiking trail, a dog ran in front of our car. That wasn't all that unusual and we braked to keep from hitting him. The unusual part was that he had a home made prosthesis built from what looked like old bicycle wheels to hold him upright. I couldn't tell if he was missing his legs or if they were damaged but he seemed to be able to move just fine.

I wondered if it was this kind of behavior that got him into that doggy wheel chair in the first place.

This article made me think of that back street dog. Her prosthesis is more sophisticated and a little more polished but they both get the job done. [Note: The video doesn't show Hope using her prosthesis....wish they had included a little footage of her in action.]

[Image: captured from]

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hang up and Drive

Interesting video on multi-tasking by John Medina,the guy who wrote Brain Rules. I haven't read the book but I've seen several little snippits about his work and am thinking it needs to go on my to-read list. For years I've had students (and adults) tell me they could do two things at once. I've always argued that they were really just switching focus. Sometimes really fast. Research may support my opinion for a change. (I'm marking this date on my calendar!)

Medina says that talking on a cell phone while you are driving is like driving drunk in that it decreases your ability to make fast decisions in the same way. (I am paraphrasing here so please watch the video and don't quote me as your source...even though I was right this time....did I mention that I was right?)

So, the question in my mind is not that we immediately stop kids and adults from multitasking but how do we utilize our ability to switch tasks to the best of our brains ability. We need a new word here to describe quickly changing tasks. Something catchy like speed-task, sequa-task, task-task, fast-task or tasoogle!

"Mom, today in tech class we learned to tasoogle between google and yahoo while building a collaborative wiki in our moodle space."
My only question after this, is why do I doodle and draw pictures while I am listening and taking notes? What is it about my learning style that drives me to draw? Am I switching between the two tasks of drawing and listening or is the drawing enhancing my listening? Maybe I'll read the book to find out.

[Image:"Shut up and drive";Uploaded on September 5, 2007 by Schodts;]

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Lessig Style

I'm a fan of Stanford professor Larry Lessig. Both his presentations and the way he designs them. I first stumbled across one of his talks at the TED site, How Creativity is being Strangled by the Law. I tried to explain the power of his talks to a friend and the best I could come up with were two words: minimal and compelling.

A physicist, Chris Tunnell, wrote a nice piece about the Lessig Style. The author discusses how using these same methods have made his own presentations more popular. He listed the following keypoints of the Lessig Style.
  • Minimal Text
  • XML Tags
  • Re-using images
  • Knowing your next slide
  • Blank slides
I might add only one item to the list and that is that the presentation is driven by the content. In most cases I feel like Lessig could lose the slides altogether and I would still listen. The slides support him not the other way around. The only thing I don't think I will use in my own presentations are the XML Tags. It works for him. The tags create his "style".

There are lots of Lessig presentations on the web but what I like about the TED presentation I've linked to is that you can see Lessig as he is talking. It's more like what I would expect in a classroom. You don't have to agree with him to appreciate his craftsmanship. Check him out.

[Image captured from TED talk: How Creativity is being Strangled by the Law:]

Friday, June 13, 2008

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Puppet building

Gryphern has created a cool DIY video on making a puppet that uses some internal linkages to control mouth movement and to wag it's tail. The action is run by your hand on the under-belly of the puppet. There are some nice illustrations to show how the linkages are put together along with some close-up shots of the tricky parts. The puppet takes little in the way of tools so is accessible to most folks, even with limited resources.

Puppet making is one of those seemingly simple activities that can teach multiple lessons and skills. Design. Simple machines. Construction.

Then when the puppet is done, a whole new set of lessons and skills can be developed. Writing. Storytelling. Drama. Oral Presentation.

I loved getting my middle schoolers to build puppets. They complained at the start as it being "for little kids" but as the projects went on, they always got more into it.

[Image captured from "How to make a puppet that bites and wags when held": Youtube:]

Monday, June 9, 2008

Slowing down for the summer

School is out in my neck of the woods.

Since my audience is mostly educators, I am assuming, that like me, a lot of you will be taking summer classes and starting those summer projects.

I'm going to cut back on the number of times I post a week to just a couple times a week. Probably Mondays and Wednesdays.

No promises though!

I'll start blogging more often in mid august when I return to school and the demands of life take on a different flavor.

Relax and enjoy the slower pace.

[Image: "Garden Contemplation" taken by Lari]

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Quick Forms using Google Docs

I read about this Form function in Google Docs, then watched the embedded video below and was blown away. I know that I got here a few months after the party started (it was released in January) but it looks like it is going to be a great tool for educators. Right off the top of my head I can think of the following uses:
  • Collect student information on first day of class
  • Collect information from staff
  • Create a fast survey
  • Create a quick quiz
  • Collect data from friends and family (birthdays, anniversaries, etc)

I'll share my progress as I experiment with this over the next couple of months and prepare some things to start the 2008 school year. I am jumping in with a quick one question survey for my readers as my first try at creating a form.

I'll post the information I gathered in a week and give some feedback on how well it worked.

[Image: Flickr: "Survey Says..."; hfabulous:]

Powers of Ten

Cool video from the 70's demonstrating scale first by zooming out and then by zooming in. Neat way to look at huge numbers and the relative size of things. The film stops at the subatomic layer with the mention of quarks. I wondered what it would look like based on today's understanding of the atom so I did a quick search and came up with all kinds of visualizations of the different types of quarks.

I left school (K-12) with a picture in my mind of an atom that looked like planets circling the sun. Any of you who went to school in the fifties or sixties will remember this. (The picture above is close to what I remember in my high school text book.) I had this image as a working frame of reference for years until I sat down with a science teacher at a conference once and he explained that my "planetary" model wasn't really current. He gave me a short description of current thinking and never laughed at me once.

This demoed two things to me. One, knowledge changes (possibly expands would be a better word). We hear about information learned in a science class being obsolete by the time a college student graduates. My world view in terms of this particular bit of science was out of date and I didn't know it. I don't know if this changed anything in my life?

The second thing this experience helped me realize is the power of a good illustration or visual. I am a strong visual learner. If I can see it, it helps me to understand it. At the time I was taught the first illustration, science had already moved beyond that picture. I know why textbooks liked it. It was clear. It was concise. You could label the parts on a quiz. The second illustration is not quite so simple. It's a little harder to label. But, it does give me a better way to visualize an atom.

For all I know, my science teacher told me that the first picture wasn't a perfect illustration. He may have even talked about the current understanding of an atom. He may have drawn other pictures on the board. But, it was the first one that I remembered and used in my mind on those occasions that I thought about atoms.

As teachers we need to remind ourselves often that the "Map is not the territory." Illustrations are good. Visuals are important. But they are abstract and sometimes young concrete thinkers confuse the symbol with the reality.

[Image captured from Wikipedia: Atom:]
[Image captured from "Rust never sleeps": http://

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I took a part-time job recently scoring written responses to a state test. The task was challenging and tedious. I worked in a large room with several hundred people broken up into smaller groups. Cell phones had to be turned off. We were asked to talk in our "library voices." We couldn't wear headphones or any kind of music player.

The music player thing made sense to me as a teacher. I don't allow my students to listen to their players except for very specific circumstances. I know that some classrooms ban them completely. In the middle school where I used to work, if we saw them, we were required to confiscate them. Actually, all the rules about noise made sense. We were reading and thinking and the quiet atmosphere made sense.

Here's the thing.

I had a hard time concentrating. Once I was competent in scoring a response and I had done over fifty or so, my mind wanted to wander. Any noise. Any laugh, cough or sneeze was enough to pull me out of my head into the world in which I sat. When there was appropriate discussion between our supervisor with someone, I listened. If there was inappropriate discussion about the traffic, the job or the air conditioner, I listened. I didn't have to be part of the discussion. It could be the two folks next to me or at the table behind me or across the room. I stopped scoring and attended to the distraction. Then I'd have to rein in my roaming attention and bring it back to the task I was being paid to do.

At home, I can control my environment to the point that I can sit for 3-4 hours and concentrate on a task. I don't do this with the TV on as I end up watching and not working. I can listen to music as long as it has no words or I stop working and start singing. If I really need to shut out the world and focus completely, I listen to white noise through my iPod. When I have control of my environment, I'm able to attend to a task for long periods of time. So, my experience with this scoring job has got me to thinking about kids and their music players. Maybe it's not that they are always trying to do more than one thing at a time or trying to block us out. Maybe they are trying to limit their inputs so they can focus? (At least some of the time.)

Rather than telling kids what they can't do, maybe I need to spend some time telling them how to better utilize the tools they have. I know I 'll share my experiences with my students next year when we talk about appropriate use of personal electronics. We all can learn to work smarter. It just may not look the same for everyone.

[Image: "distraction": Al Gunn]

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Thumb Piano

Saw this idea for using a grounding block to make a thumb piano somewhere last spring but I only got as far as pricing the pieces at my local hardware store before getting sidetracked by other things (not unusual for me). Forgot about it until this posting on Make about a cool looking thumb piano.

There are lots of good shots of the builder's finished instruments and some modifications he made to add some buzzing to the sound on his flickr photostream.

While searching for some information on grounding blocks, I found what I think is the first post I saw last year on Instructables. It is by the same guy who made the one shown.

When I went looking for a grounding bar, I had a few difficult moments explaining to the gentleman at the hardware store what I wanted. It didn't help that I needed one to build a musical instrument and really didn't know the real use of the item except that vaguely it was used for "grounding". After searching the electrical section of the store he eventually helped me find it.

To save you some time I captured a picture of a grounding bar in the package and a link to Ace Hardware. This link may not last forever and if it gets changed just go to Ace and search for "ground bar kit". Or print this picture out before heading off to the store. Maybe you can avoid having your hardware clerks whisper about you and draw straws to see who has to wait on you while you wander the aisles.

[Image from flicker: Uploaded on May 13, 2008 by yapruder:]

[2nd Image captured from ACE Hardware Site: 1&origkw=grounding+bar&kw=grounding+bar&parentPage=search&searchId=35421302134]

Monday, June 2, 2008

Low Tech Palm Pilot

Before I ever had a PDA, I had my hand to jot down phone numbers, call numbers for books at the library, addresses and names. Sometimes they lasted long enough for me to make a hard copy at home. Usually they lasted long enough for me to complete my task. Here is a company who has made the process better (?) by giving you a template of a blank to-do list you can tattoo onto your hand. They include a handy marker that you can use to fill in the blanks. The company that makes these tattoos (markets them?) is called Fred & Friends.

By the way, in case you were wondering what my second most common place is to take notes? Fast food napkins. Numerous story ideas, sketches and the usual phone number/address info got their start on a paper napkin while eating lunch at any number of hamburger joints. Numerous bits of these data memes also ended up as little glumps of useless paper after going through the wash. Any day some enterprising young entrepreneur will start offering grainy, flimsy napkins in a handy notepad pack. Just perfect for capturing that million dollar idea! Possibly water resistant so those brilliant thoughts won't be destroyed by the rinse cycle. But I digress.

Fred & Friends has a bunch of items I've seen referenced on the web before but never bothered to follow up on. Like a delete fly swatter (wacker shaped like a delete key), Holy Toast Makers (make your toast a religious experience) and Pick Your Nose cups (cups with noses on them that look like they belong to you when you drink). The embedded video highlights the Pick Your Nose cup. It is hard to explain but makes perfect sense once you see it in use!

Look through their catalog and you'll find at least one silly-gag or possibly unbelievably useful gift item. I've not bought anything from them (yet) so can't vouch for the company, but I am already writing up a wish list. Maybe by the time I get my order ready, they will have that whole waterproof/napkin/notepad idea worked out and on the market?

[Image captured from Amazon: