Thursday, January 25, 2007

Penmanship or Keyboarding? Is there a difference?

At the beginning of this school year, I had 5 working recycled K12LTSP machines. So, using the computers was manageable for small group work. (Unfortunately, I'm down to 2 working machines. We need technical expertise.)

I organize my classroom so that penmanship practice is first thing in the morning. As I thought about using the Linux machines during that time, I realized that keyboarding is as essential a skill as penmanship. I created a rotating schedule so that each student had keyboarding practice at least twice a week during penmanship time. In my book, the skills are similar - fine motor, efficiency, fluency, visual and spatial organization. I required my class to use TuxType. They had to use practice mode for about 1/2 the time and then could play one of the games for the second half. I stressed the use of both hands. None of the students will win any speed typing competitions but, there is a small amount of carry-over with the skills when they are using the computers for other tasks. My personal penmanship philosophy is "legible and efficient" and I feel the same way about keyboarding. Both take practice, require a certain amount of muscle control, and will take time to develop fluent skills.

TuxType can be found under the Edutainment label under Applications. A student with disabilities in my classroom enjoys changing the language it is presented in. He thinks it is quite funny to practice typing in Armenian or Russian. The rest of the class does too.

Does your school or classroom teach formal keyboarding? What age/grade does that occur? Who teaches it? Who decides how it is taught? Is anyone using standards or benchmarks or assessments at any particular level? Like any subject, fundamentals need to be taught. In K-2, we teach letter formation as well as how to write a good story. If we teach with computers, we need to teach the physical skills of tool manipulation as well as the critical thinking skills of particular applications and resources.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Directing Student Use (or misdirecting it?) and Teacher Friendly Directions for Childsplay

After my students learned how to log on (and log off), and change their desktop backgrounds, I moved on to using some of the applications. I had envisioned and planned a slow, methodical process for each student to learn how to navigate to a program and use it. Fortunately, my students knew better and I had enough sense to let the synergy of the learning process take over.

I gathered the class in front of the workstations and had them walk me through the log on procedure. Then I demonstrated going to Applications in the upper left hand corner of the screen and sliding down to the Games menu. I showed how to slide the mouse over to the programs and directed them, no, told them, that they could "ONLY go to Childsplay or GCompris" (which is actually labeled Educational Suite GCompris). I then demonstrated the basics tools and buttons of each program. The first group of 5 started to work. It was NOT a quiet work time and the rest of the class kept drifting up to the bank of workstations to observe and comment. But the level of engagement and the conversations about what they were doing was exciting. Each student contributed. Each student observed. Each student thought. And by the end of the morning, each student had tried stuff out.

At the beginning of that week, I insisted that everyone continue to ONLY use Childsplay or GCompris. However, two things happened that reminded me I was wrong for insisting. The first was a technical problem. For, the most part, our recycled workstations weren't producing sound and since our technical help is extremely limited, sound was not going to be fixed that first week. Both of the programs I had limited my students to had sound, and a few of the activities within those programs depended upon sound to interact meaningfully with the user. Secondly, I had made the rest of the applications seem extra-desirable by limiting my students. It wasn't long before individual students took the risk to try out the other games. Soon, every single student had tried other games despite my constant reminding that I wanted them to ONLY use Childsplay or GCompris. I had planned that I would introduce each application slowly and thoroughly. What a boring plan! My students knew better and engaged themselves in learning the other games and helping each other learn the other games. The dynamics of learning around the workstations transcended all the other pre-determined social strata in the classroom. Every student was new, every student discovered something, every student shared their knowledge and skill.

I was reminded, once again, to stand out of the way when students take control of their learning.

Here is my initial attempt to explain Childsplay to the rest of my team of K-2 teachers. My colleagues wanted non-technical information about what they were having their students use. This was what I gave them. They were appreciative. Several of them used it as a resource for parent volunteers. Hope it helps you!

Go to Applications and click on Games. Slide down to Childsplay and
click on it. The Childsplay window will open. It will show a cow
while the program is loading. The next screen is mostly blue with a
series of icons.

~The first icon of 2 blue pegs and 2 red pegs can not be played right
now because it requires sound. It is a version of Memory using sounds
instead of images. Hopefully, we will have sound soon.

~The second icon is letters and numbers with a speaker. This also
requires sound. It is a matching game.

~The third icon is a windmill scene with a penguin and falling
letters. This does NOT require sound so you can use it now. The
object of the game is to type the falling letters before they touch
the ground. This is good for letter recognition and keyboard
orientation. Clicking on the elephant gives you a screen with the
aim, the suggested age group, and the # of levels. Clicking on the
trophy gives you the high scores and clicking on the stop sign takes
you back to the icon screen.

~The fourth icon shows 2 airplanes and two cards. This is the game of
Memory. It does not require sound. The aim of the game is to find
matching pairs of images. If you are successful, you get to enter
your name on the high score list. Clicking on the elephant gives you
a screen with the aim, the suggested age group, and the # of levels.
Clicking on the trophy gives you the high scores and clicking on the
stop sign takes you back to the icon screen.

~The fifth icon is of an air hockey table. This is basically a game
of air hockey. The player can choose to play by themselves, with a
friend, or against the computer. It's a good eye-hand coordination
activity and develops the skills of controlling movement on the
monitor by using keys rather than the mouse. Clicking on the elephant
gives you a screen with the aim, the suggested age group, and the # of
levels. Clicking on the trophy gives you the high scores and clicking
on the stop sign takes you back to the icon screen.

~The sixth icon is another sound based one. I'll give you more
information about this when we get sound.

~The second row of icons begins with a group of green letters. The
first level of this game shows a picture, a word, and indicates that
the player should spell that word. Subsequent levels leave out some
of the letters. This helps with sight word recognition, spelling, and
keyboard orientation. Clicking on the elephant gives you a screen
with the aim, the suggested age group, and the # of levels. Clicking
on the trophy gives you the high scores and clicking on the stop sign
takes you back to the icon screen.

~The next icon is a group of red numbers. It is an activity where the
user needs to put the right numerical operation (+, -, x, /) on the ?
in the number sentence. This is done by dragging the correct symbol
to the question mark. This is hard. But, it doesn't let you place
the wrong symbol. Clicking on the elephant gives you a screen with
the aim, the suggested age group, and the # of levels. Clicking on
the trophy gives you the high scores and clicking on the stop sign
takes you back to the icon screen.

~The third icon in the second row is a game of Billiards. It involves
using both the right and left mouse keys to be successful. The right
key is for aiming and the left button is for hitting the ball. The
longer you hold the left button down, the harder it will hit the ball.
Fewer hits to get the ball in the hole gets you higher points.
Clicking on the elephant gives you a screen with the aim, the
suggested age group, and the # of levels. Clicking on the trophy
gives you the high scores and clicking on the stop sign takes you back
to the icon screen

~The fourth icon is a Pacman. This is a game of Pacman only you have
to collect letters in order to spell the given words. My class is
really enjoying this game! You also need to use the arrow keys to
maneuver through this maze. Clicking on the elephant gives you a
screen with the aim, the suggested age group, and the # of levels.
Clicking on the trophy gives you the high scores and clicking on the
stop sign takes you back to the icon screen

~The last icon in the second row is another sound one. Watch for updates.

In order to Quit Childsplay, you need to be on the menu page with the
icons. Click on the stop sign. A translucent message will pop up
asking you if you really want to quit. You need to type Y for yes and
N for no. If you type Y, the game will close and the desktop will

Monday, January 22, 2007

Linus Torvalds

The family spent a cold Maine afternoon browsing at our local Borders. (I know, local and Borders is an oxymoron.) I collected a diversity of books to peruse while having a cup of something warm. My pile included texts on low-fat vegan recipes (a GREAT way to lose weight!), knitting, Barack Obama, and Linux. Of the four books on Linux I chose to peruse, only one was non-techie friendly. I ended up buying it because it is an AMAZING story. Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond is readable, insightful, and fun. The authors even warn you when there is a significantly technical section between pages 39-119. It is technical but if you can read for the story and not for understanding every technical detail you can get a lot out of this section. This memoir of Linus Torvalds' makes the image of a technogeek human. Anyone who uses computers in any fashion should read this story to gain insight into this world.

I was especially struck by one particular section last night and shared it with my class of second-graders this morning. The section is V in Birth of an Operating System. In this section, Linus Torvalds explains how programming can be beautiful. My liberal arts mind was sceptical but I read on and TA DA! I got it! A possible apocryphal story is related about a German math class that had Carl Friedrich Gauss ( a future mathematician) as a student. The teacher was bored and supposedly assigned his students the task of adding up all the numbers from 1 to 100. The teacher assumed this would take a very long time. Gauss reportedly solved the problem in 5 minutes. How did he do this? By recognizing the pattern and using it!
At circle this morning, (I like to gather my students close for big learnings. Learning becomes personal that way and I can engage everyone.) I wrote on the dry erase board.

"Mathematics is recognizing patterns and using them.
There is always a hard way and an easy way to solve a problem.
~Add the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
~What's the answer?
~How did you figure it out?"

Then I told my class about my trip to Borders and how I couldn't find any books on teaching with Linux but I did find
Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond. I told them a teensy bit about Mr. Torvalds and made a connection between him and the K12LTSP workstations in our classroom. We read the dry erase board aloud. One student said, "Oh, so you add 10 + 9 + 8 + 7 + 6 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 2 + 1." Another student blurted, "It's 54!" Before the blurting got out of hand, I wrote out 10 + 9 = 19 + 8 =etc. with the class supplying the answers. Obviously, we calculated 55. Then I asked them if they thought that this was the easy way or the hard way. They all answered "hard". I asked what the easy way would be and a girl who had been relatively quiet up til now said, "There must be a pattern . . .what could it be . . .?" The class already knew that adding can be done in any direction so I asked them to use that idea to look for a pattern. My quiet girl's eyes lit up with excitement. She was babbling so fast, the rest of the class didn't get what she was saying. So I had to write it out for the class~1 + 10 = 11, 2 + 9 = 11, etc and you end up with 5 11's to add up. We tried it with adding up the numbers to 50 and with adding up the numbers to 200. We did use a calculator to do the last bit of math since we haven't quite gotten to multiplication yet but the rest was mental calculations. It was an exciting teaching moment for the class and for me. My quiet student probably got far more out of it than the other students but they got to hear and experience a new idea. We'll go back and look at that idea again and again.

In the meantime, get a copy of Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond from your local library or your local bookstore. It's well worth reading.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

First Things First

Let's assume that you have Linux-based workstations in your classroom. These may be recycled equipment that is big, bulky, but free or relatively free in cost or it may be spiffy, sleek, and comparatively inexpensive when looking at the cost of a new PC or Mac product. In either case, you need to get on the machine and start trying things out. The version our district is using is K12LTSP (Kindergarten through grade 12 Linux Terminal Server Project). More information about this can be found at:
Our network administrator created usernames and passwords for all of us--staff and students. The student passwords are simple 6 character words or phrases like horses, 4worms, 2birds, bigdog, puppies. These are simple enough for the youngest users (Kindergarten) to learn in a relatively short period of time. Our usernames are also easy (and help the K-2 crew learn to spell their last names). They are just first initials and last names.

Initially, I posted a sign over the workstations that read (the italics are not on my sign :) ):
1. Turn the monitor on. (Our old recycled monitors eat up a lot of energy, so I turn the cpu's on in the morning and the kids turn on the monitors when it is time for them to work.)
2. Type your username.
3. Click "OK" or press "Enter".
4. Type your password.
5. Click "OK" or press "Enter".
6. Do the assignment.
(These are usually given orally but I am in the process of getting my students used to looking in a folder that is on their desktop and labeled "To-Do". Our network administrator set one up on my desktop that allows me to put assignments there. She also set up a "Turn-in" folder for them to drag and drop or save to that lets me look at their work.)

The first assignment I gave my class was to talk 3 of them through how to change their desktop background. Then those 3 taught the next group. And the routine continued until everyone was set. The kids love choosing desktop backgrounds. As you might expect some change it daily and others a little less frequently. Why do I encourage this? It's the first step in teaching them that they have some control over the machine. It also helps them get comfortable navigating through the dropdown menus. So, how do you change the desktop backgrounds? It's easy, even a 7 year old can do it. :)

1. Go under System and find the Preferences. Then look for Desktop Background. Click on it.
2. A medium-sized rectangle should appear on your screen.
3. Click on an image and it should appear as a background on your desktop.
4. Click on close and TADA! you are done.

If you want to get fancier, try this:

1. Follow steps #1 and #2 above.
2. Click on Add Wallpaper.
3. This brings you to another screen.
4. Click on a folder in the center box. Click open.
5. There should be a list of images in the center box with a preview of each one on the left hand side.
6. Choose one. Click Open. It will take you back to your first screen and load the image into your choices as well as loading it onto your desktop.
7. If you like the picture but don't like the colors, experiment with the colors at the bottom of the box. My students were much more creative than me with this and had lots of fun while developing their artistic visual skills.

This reads as if its very complicated. Trust me, you can do it.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Learning the Jargon

Before the techie-types put Linux-based computers in your classroom, you may be sitting through meetings or reading emails that contain new vocabulary. It's helpful to learn some of the new vocabulary before those workstations appear in your classroom. I found that by familiarizing myself with the terminology and concepts my learning curve was faster and I was better equipped to ask questions that got me answers I "kindofsorta" understood. Check these links out and remember the "Schoolhouse Rock" motto: "Knowledge is Power!"

A Jargon-Busting Glossary

What’s the Fuss About FOSS?Part 1: An Intro to Free and Open Source Software by Andy Carvin An article from PBS Teacher Source:

What’s the Fuss About FOSS? Part 2 A Chat with David Thornburg An article from PBS Teacher Source:

Why Should Open Source Be Used in Classrooms?

T.H.E. Journal: (Technology Horizons in K-12 Education) There is both an online AND a print version of this magazine. Subscriptions are available for free for employees of K-12 institutions and organizations.

Archives & Weekly Skypecast Interviews about using Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in schools

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Purpose of this Blog

Why am I doing this? This blog is for non-technical types who want to use (or are being mandated to use) Linux/Open Source technology in the classroom. I have spent the last year searching the web and joining lists for a non-technical resource to help me understand how I can use this to be a more effective teacher. I couldn't find a resource that was specifically for teachers. I was looking for content that included:
~classroom management
~programs that aligned with standards
~how to use programs with specific lesson plans
~how to set-up student projects
~how to customize programs for my students/curriculum
~info on what I could set up/troubleshoot on the desktop and what I need to refer to the Network Administrator types including exactly what I need to ask them to do
~examples of what other teachers are doing in their classrooms
~grants and other funding mechanisms for classroom teachers
~an easy to access reference tool
~a way to teach teachers once Linux was in their classroom

Since I didn't find anything that even came close to meeting my needs, I thought I would try to create my own site to provide this information. So help me out! If you have a good student project using Open Source or a classroom management system that works for you, post a comment, or email. We can build a great resource!

What is Linux?

What is Linux? Linux (pronouned with a short i) is a computer operating system. One of its advantages over Windows and Macintosh is that it is able to run on a wide variety of hardware. Other advantages include its cost, its freedom from viruses, and its flexibility. It's free!, the source code is available to any and all. This means that literally thousands of programmer-types have worked on this code with the result that there are few bugs to foul up the works. These same programmer types have also created a variety of software that is comparable to commercial software. And like the OS, the software is also free.