Journaling Collaboratively

Thanks to a new book on the project, I’ve been reminded of the 1000 journals project. The idea is simple: an artist going by the moniker “Someguy” sent one thousand blank journal books into the world. They would travel from place to place, from person to person, collecting stories. It’s being called a collaborative art project.

For younger folks, the Flat Stanley Project has a similar feel.

I think both are really cool offline ways to engage kids in a worldwide discussion.

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Engineering in the Classroom

Susan Dunn’s book, Design Technology: Children’s Engineering, provides me with great ideas for bringing engineering design into the classroom. The book appears to be out of print, but I had no problem finding a used copy on Amazon’s marketplace.

Last spring, I built cam operated toys because of the book. We investigated how cams operate and how you can build simple motion into a toy by rotating a knob. Our cam toys were built out of reused household products, including film cannisters and jar lids.

One helpful bit for me as a newer teacher was that the author spends time on planning strategies for scheduling design projects. Only after reading this book was I able to allot the right amount of time to a building project with my students.

This book rocks!

Sci-fi Movie Springboard

I showed the movie Gattaca today at school as a vehicle for a day of ethics conversations. The film was released in 1997 and tells the story of a man who masquerades as genetically modified in a society where it’s the only way to the best jobs — including that of navigating a space mission to Titan. I’ve included the movie’s preview below.

Our day was incredibly successful. Students debated the issue from 8am until 3pm. Here is the lesson plan I followed.

  1. Without explanation, give each student either a “Valid” or “In-Valid” sticker to wear. Leave a Valid sticker out in plain sight and in front of one In-Valid. Wink at or otherwise non-verbally encourage the In-Valid to become a “borrowed ladder”.
  2. Give a definition of ethics. Discuss what ethics means to an individual, a family, and a community. Especially: Are ethics absolute? (15-30 minutes)
  3. Watch the movie Gattaca. (105 minutes)
  4. Divide the Valids from the In-Valids. Send each group to separate rooms to answer questions. Allow both sides to hear your introductions. Give a positive spin to the Valids (hiring the best and the brightest, etc.) and a negative spin to the In-Valids. Ask that all students stay in character to answer the questions. 1) Are Gattaca Space Corporation’s hiring practices ethical? 2) Are they legal? And 3) How do you feel about it as a Valid or In-Valid? (20 minutes)
  5. Bring the groups back together and have each group’s spokesperson present their answers. In the process, encourage and allow intra-group pride. As is appropriate, expose the masquerading In-Valid. (20 minutes)
  6. Provide the group with several discussion questions to be answered in small groups. My questions were: 1) Name some well-known ethics of American society. 2) The society in Gattaca has been called a dystopia because the society looks like a utopia but is built on a fatal flaw. Explore the flaw. 3) Did Vincent compromise his own ethics by taking on Jerome’s identity? And 4) How does the look/style of the film comment on the ethical situation contained in it? (15 minutes)
  7. Bring the groups back together and have each group’s spokesperson present their answers. (20 minutes)

I had an entire day to devote to ethics because about half the high school is currently on a camping trip. With only about 30 high school students in attendance, the faculty and I decided to teach day-long units to all rather than go about the regular schedule with 2-3 students per class.
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Club Penguin at School

Last fall, I used Club Penguin to teach internet safety to my students in grades 4 to 6. These students introduced me to the wildly popular social networking site for tweens so it was only fitting that I find a way for them to use it at school.

What is Club Penguin?

In Club Penguin, users take on a penguin persona and waddle around a frozen world, making friends and earning coins to buy virtual schwag. The makers have taken lots of time to make a safe site where kids can interact and play. CP is like World of Warcraft or Second Life for kids.

Some features of Club Penguin:

  • Free accounts allow plenty of room for fun. But it’s the paid accounts that unlock lots of features such as buying furniture for your penguin’s igloo and clothes for your penguin.
  • CP is a Flash game that runs in your web browser.
  • There’s an option that prevents free form text chatting. Kids can choose pre-written messages like “boy or girl?”.
  • Two player games like mancala encourage interaction with other penguins.
  • The community newspaper is popular with the kids.

Gearing Up

I planned to use the NetSmartz program to teach internet safety to my students. Meanwhile, my students showed me Club Penguin. In a moment of free time, the kids showed me how it works and invited me to an igloo party after school. I joined them for a few minutes. The kids were ecstatic the next day!

“Ms. Megan came to my igloo party!”

That’s when I decided to welcome Club Penguin into my internet safety unit.

Getting Permission

About 75% of my students already had Club Penguin accounts. I contacted all my parents to get permission for Club Penguin at school. A short note sent home with the kids got me approval.

The Plan

Day 1: Create accounts, log on, and explore. I gave two guiding rules to start: 1) Chat only with penguins of people in this classroom and 2) don’t add any buddies unless they’re also in the classroom.

Day 2: Huddle up with the students and get their reactions about the previous day’s activities. Ask them the following questions:

  • What did you discover in Club Penguin?
  • Who did you talk with?
  • What did strangers say to you? How did you react?
  • Did you see any inappropriate language in Club Penguin?
  • How could you fool someone into thinking you’re someone you’re not?

Day 3: Return to Club Penguin, especially looking for instances of following or breaking common sense safety guidelines. This time I logged on and interacted with the students as “just another penguin”. The kids enjoyed the opportunity to chat with me — I was so popular that I was led from igloo to igloo as kids showed off their stuff.

Day 4: Return to the class huddle to create a list of rules for behaving safely in Club Penguin.

Thanks to Will Richardson who got me thinking again about Club Penguin in an educational context.

I *Heart* Cory Doctorow

Cover picture of Overclocked bookSince reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I’ve been a fan of Cory Doctorow’s writing. Now, there’s Overclocked, a collection of short stories. The Kirkus review bills these books as “computer-related and bulging with knowing SF references”.

Overclocked is available for purchase at traditional booksellers and for free download. Each short story is available in several formats, notably as PDFs and podcasts.

What a great foundation for a lesson in Creative Commons! Here’s writing that’s also packaged as a dead-trees format, that presumably will make money for Mr. Doctorow, and he’s also giving it away. It defies all that I ever learned about making a living in this world. Yet, by most measures, Doctorow’s incredibly successful.


By the by, I’m always looking for computer-related writing to use with my computer classes so this collection is going on my list. To use at school, I look for short writing (full length novels are too difficult to include in a class not devoted to the topic) Other writings I like to use with computer classes:

  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (excellent lessons on a life lived online & social networking)
  • Wired magazine articles (especially “Mother Earth Motherboard” by Neal Stephenson that chronicles the construction of a fiber optic Internet cable around the world: great writing and great lessons on how data flows on the Internet)
  • Takedown by Tsutomu Shimomura (the story of Kevin Mitnick’s capture for hacking, used with pro-Mitnick web sources to go along with Internet security lessons)
  • All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward (ok, so I cheat on this one and show the Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford movie, which gets teens excited about Watergate and journalism’s role)

Draw Diagrams Like Visio

I just signed up for a free account at Gliffy, which bills itself as a web based diagramming program that feels like desktop software. It works a lot like Visio.

Signup requires an email address, so I probably won’t use Gliffy with my middle school students — which is a shame. I continue to struggle with how to handle signups that require email addresses for my youngest students (approx. age 9). But that’s a separate issue.

On to features I like in Gliffy:

  • share a drawing with collaborators
  • publish drawings to the web easily
  • loads fast (it’s Flash based)

Below is a sample drawing I whipped up in about three minutes (and that includes the “publish to web” bit).
My Sample Gliffy Image

I bet that Google buys Gliffy to add to the Docs and Spreadsheets tools they already have.