Saturday, February 28, 2009

Schools & Kids Flock To Gaggle Blogs

What Is A Gaggle?
A gaggle is a flock of geese, but when you type into your web browser, you discover that Gaggle is also the name of an amazing communications tool for students, teachers, and parents. Although there are several features of Gaggle that make it a truly outstanding online resource, including e-mail, chat rooms, parent accounts, and homework drop boxes, this post will focus mainly on Gaggle's blogging feature. My sixth grade students are the first and (at the time of this writing) the only elementary school in our district to take advantage of's blogging capabilities. All of my students have created their own blog and they maintain their blog on a weekly basis. At this point, some readers may ask, "What is a blog?" You are reading one now, but for a more detailed definition, Wikipedia suggests that:
A blog (a contraction of the term weblog) is a website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order. "Blog" can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog.
Built In Safety Features
One amazing feature that I appreciate, both as a teacher, and parent, is the built-in safety controls. If a student attempts to publish a questionable word or image, Gaggle immediately blocks the post from publishing and generates an e-mail to me with a link to the potentially offensive post. I can then review the post and choose to either block or unblock it. I've never had a student try to slip in a curse word or suggestive image, but one time a student was blogging about a video game in which the main character could "pimp" his ride. Gaggle caught the word "pimp" and blocked the post from happening and immediately sent me an e-mail indicating the questionable word. I then e-mailed my student and suggested that she not use the slang word "pimp," but instead find another way to explain it: maybe the video game character could "decorate" his ride, or "paint and apply designs" to his ride. This safety feature is one major reason the whole Gaggle eco-system works.

Total Control
Another great feature about's admin privileges is the ability to you peer into your student's account any time. My students are fully aware that I can look into their blogs, make changes, read e-mails, visit chat rooms, and inspect all digital lockers, anytime. I tell them to never post anything that could potentially embarrass them. I see everything!!! Then I usually let out one of those sinister Hollywood-style laughs, moowahahahahahaha... All my students understand and respect these boundaries.

How To Get Started
Begin by setting up an admin account for yourself at and indicate how many student accounts you would like to manage. I asked for 34. Gaggle will then confirm your e-mail address and school at which you teach, and give you permission to set up an account for as many students as you request. Before I set up my students' unique usernames and passwords, I set up my own blog and published my first post, just as a warm-up exercise. This made it easier to teach my own students how to do it. At the time of this writing, my students are using the free service, which means we all see ads on our blogs. There is also a paid plan without ads. I just tell my students to ignore the ads for the most part, but once in a while- to go ahead and click an ad so Gaggle can make a few cents in ad revenue- granted, it's worth more than a few cents, but with State budget cuts as they are, we really appreciate free accounts!

Set Usernames and Passwords
Next, create a username and password for your students. I used the first name and last initial to generate them. For example, John Doe is "johnd" or Sally Mae is "sallym." If the username you first pick is taken, you may have to dip down into more letters in their last name, or you can just add a number. For example: John Doe may be "johnd1," etc. There is no right or wrong way about this- just generate a system for coming up with usernames that works for you. It's easier to set up their passwords: you can create one generic password for everyone. Once a student logs into their account for the first time, they are given the opportunity to create their own unique password. If a students forgets it, your administrative rights allows you to let them reset it. There are other choices you have regarding controls. For example, you can allow students to comment on each others blog. You can also restrict or allow people from the outside world to make comments.

In an upcoming blog post, I will detail how I got my own students blogging: from setting up a classroom blog schedule to exploring the effective use of blogging as a way to meet content standards for Language Arts. I'll cover how to help students come up with catchy blog topics, titles, and blog post ideas, as well as share ideas for keeping them motivated to blog. Now, fly on over to Gaggle.Net and get your students blogging!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Send Them To Geek Camp!

My two children get to learn computer skills anytime they want to. All they need to do is ask, and I'm always more than happy to unload what I know. But not all children have someone willing or able to teach them the necessary technology skills that have become so important in today's information age. No, it's not really called Geek Camp, but that's essentially what it is. It's called Giant Campus. I found this fascinating quote today:

Giant Campus offers summer programs in everything from 3D modeling and robotics to Web design and C++, and more. They also offer immersion programs in game development, movie making and a program for young entrepreneurs called Project CEO.

If only they had camps like this when I was a kid! Imagine your child walking away from summer camp with the skills to produce a film, create a video game, build a website, or run a small start-up company? These are the kind of real-life skills I want my students to have.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What Is Student Engagement?

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. If this is true, and if the video you are about to see is about five minutes long, with each frame compressed to 15 frames per second, quick- how many words is that? Answer: 4.5 million.

The sixth grade teachers at Coronita Elementary: Mr. K, Mrs. McKeon, and I -- Mr. Garwood, decided to show what student engagement looks like for a sixth grader during a typical day at our school.