Monday, September 21, 2009

Write That Novel This November

Can't wait! I know it's going to be crazy, but I'm really into the book "No Plot? No Problem!" by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo "National Novel Writing Month." It's the kick in the pants I need to crank out my first rough draft of my first novel. November will mark the beginning of a 30-day adventure and I'm really looking forward to it. If you have "Write a Novel" on your life's to do list, then I recommend jumping in and going for it with me this November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, which is between 1,600 and 1,700 words per day - every day - for 30 days. The key is to write a lot and not be overly critical of your prose. Chris mentions the importance of choosing quantity over quality during this month of craziness. First drafts are never perfect novels the first time, anyway, so Chris encourages writers to just write - even if at first you have no plot, no characters, or no setting. The imagination can come up with these things as you go.
There's even a NaNoWriMo for kids, which I'm encouraging my own sixth grade students to participate in along side me. As a teacher, I don't want to be one of those teachers for whom someone coined the phrase, "Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach." When it comes to writing, I want to teach from the point of view of one who has written a novel himself, and therefore, teach with some degree of authority on the subject.
To learn more about NaNoWriMo for kids, click here.
If you're an adult, and want to jump in with me, click here for more info. Talk back. Let me know if you're inspired, like me, to write that novel.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Web Grading Made Easy -- And Free!

Every year, I flip back and forth between whether or not I should use a paper-based gradebook or a software one. Around the beginning of the month, I started asking my colleagues what they use, and a couple of them (Thanks, Teri and Christine) told me how happy they are using SnapGrades for their grading system. I've tried many options -- from the government-issue brown (why are they brown, anyway?) paper-based gradebooks, to computer software solutions, including Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. I've tried MicroGrade, Gradebook, and even a Google Docs Gradebook template. Until this week, none have impressed me as much (and as quickly) as SnapGrades. I am hooked on SnapGrades for several reasons.

But first, what is it? SnapGrades is an Online "Web-based" application that lets teachers create and maintain an Online gradebook that is customizable to meet their own personal grading needs. There's a little work involved: you have to first input your students' names, set up the classes or subjects you teach, and that's about it. The best part is: it's free. The site constantly updates, so there's no "save" button required, which is a huge headache reducer.

There is a paid membership available. $49.99 for the year buys you a single user license. For about the price of one Mocha Frappuccino per month, you can give parents and students Web access to grades 24/7. You also get the ability to send Email alerts, Spanish translation, administrative access, and report cards school-wide. A word of caution: bear in mind that when you give parents and students Web access to their grades, you're placing an expectation upon yourself that you will be current with your gradebook maintenance (which may or may not be realistic). For example, there are times when you may want to factor in classroom participation points (which can have a positive or negative impact on a your students' grades) and you may not wish to factor in those points until you get closer to your grading deadline.

You had me at iPhone. The idea that I can add an assignment, input students' scores, and have it automatically update my gradebook, all from my iPhone! is truly remarkable. Another notable feature is the ability to weight assignments in a straightforward way. For example, in my Math class, I choose to make quizzes worth one assignment; exams are worth two assignments; midterm exams are worth three assignments, etc...

If you aren't committed to a gradebook solution, or are unhappy with your current one, do yourself a favor and try it. Visit

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Kindle 2: Why Schools Aren't On Board...Yet

As a proud owner of the PRS 500 e-reader, I commend Sony on their integration of e-ink before the Amazon Kindle. It's truly a remarkable piece of technology and the PRS 500 has served me well: it has forever changed the way I purchase and read books, much the same way the Palm Pilot changed the way I organized my life.

But there's a new kid on the block, and it's called the Amazon Kindle 2. Being able to download a book, magazine, newspaper, or blog while soaking in the sun at the beach feels like a magical experience. That sounds great, coming from a teacher during his summer break, but what about the average student in the classroom? What are the educational implications? Most kids I talk to would love to trade in their 30+ pound backpacks, filled with outdated, over-priced text books for a portable, flexible, lightweight e-book reader such as the Kindle 2, but is the world ready for this? Is it time?

Not yet. Three big obstacles stand in the way: Price, Publishing Considerations, and Color. First, the price of the device needs to come down -- way down. Amazon dropped the price of the Kindle 2 back in July, 2009 from a whopping $359 to $299. This was a great move for people who were on the fence, but in order to get schools on board, there needs to be a sub-$100 consumable device in this space -- one that won't make teachers paranoid to let it go back and forth from school to home.

As for publishing agreements, education leaders need to create some kind of licensing agreement with publishers and perhaps even invent a system whereby kids can digitally "check out" books from a "cloud" library.

Color. I don't know what kind of technology would be required to pull off a color e-reader, but the world is in color and it's hard to convince people they should be content with black and white, no matter how crisp and clear it is (and the text and images do indeed jump off the screen on the Kindle 2). In fact, novels, newspapers, blogs, and even the content of most magazines are a pleasure to read on the Kindle 2, but compared to an eye-popping, full color image in a social studies or science text book, it pales in comparison.

I'll post a more detailed look at the Kindle 2 in an upcoming review, but for now, suffice it to say: Fix these three issues and you'll see a huge move towards e-book readers in the education sector.