Friday, February 20, 2009

35 Cent laptop

This is a 35 cent laptop. Don't laugh. It has a simple input device (a pencil) and a memory-card-come-display (an index card). It uses the best software in the world - your brain.

It is extremely portable, requires no power and can be used anywhere. You can also add components (an eraser?) or expand the memory by adding more cards.

The software is infinitely flexible and can learn, adapt and undertake a multitude of tasks, sometimes simultaneously.

Any laptop is only a glorified pencil anyway. The quality of the end result is still reliant on the quality of the user.

Vladimir Nabokov used a similar system (index cards, pencil) to write his most famous books - Lolita and Pale Fire. This is Nabokov using a 35 cent laptop in his car (Life photo). While his software was probably better than yours and mine, the language he used is the one we share - the same alphabet, the same grammar, the same words. The quality of any writing is not dependent on the size of the hard-drive or the speed of the processor but on the quality of the ideas. And these ideas can be recorded as easily on a 35c laptop as a $3,500 one.

The great architects, the great composers, even the great blues singers didn't need an expensive laptop to achieve great things. Nor did Pythagoras, Gallileo, or Spike Milligan.

It is an important lesson for kids to see what can be achieved with simple technology. Challenge them to make up a game on a 35 cent laptop. Start with an old one - hangman, battleships, noughts and crosses. Write a poem, a memoir, a recipe, a shopping list, a song. Draw a picture, a map, a plan, a wiring diagram...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Having fun with OE-Cake

I've been playing with OE-Cake a 2D physics-come-fluid-dynamics engine. There are some great examples of what you can do with it on youtube ranging from spectacular to plain crazy (and worse - some adult supervision might be required when searching at primary age-level). There is also a iPhone - ipod touch version called Aqua Forrest.

This description from the OctaveEngine site: OE-CAKE! is demonstration software for 2D-based multi-physics simulation. In a way similar to drawing images using paint software, users create objects and can see them move according to the laws of physics. 
This software supports various physical materials with real life properties such as fluids, gases, rigid (hard) objects and elasticity (soft) objects as building blocks. Users can combine these objects to create and play with more complex objects and mechanisms such as cars, gears and moving dolls. Users can also attach pictures and photos to objects and change their shape, break them apart, or melt them. Use your imagination to create your own unique world! Note: OE-CAKE! is software that makes it easy for users to experience the capabilities of OctaveEngine™ Casual, a physics engine for game development.

Download page for Mac (MediaFire)
Download page for PC (4shared)

Here's a screen capture of a string thing I made:

Check out the instructions on how to make a string-thing on YouTube

How to make a wii-remote interactive whiteboard

Even though interactive whiteboards suck here's a cool project for senior primary or junior secondary students (and all teachers). A wii remote costs about NZ$90 and the components for a IR pen are about NZ$10 - so for NZ$100 (plus a data projector) you can make your own interactive whiteboard.

Johnny Lee's original youtube video:

Johnny Lee's TedTalks presentation on YouTube

You need this software:
Johnny Lee's site for PC wii remote whiteboard software.
Uwe Schmidt's site for Mac wii remote whiteboard software.

How to make a IR pen for a wii remote interactive whiteboard:
A movie by students at Auckland Point School, Nelson, NZ.

Note that there is a step missing in this video. The second terminal of the switch is soldered to the side of the switch. The + terminal of the battery touches the side of the switch to complete the circuit once the pen is assembled.

Why interactive whiteboards suck

There are a number of 19th century classroom practices that we've tried hard to eliminate during the 20th century. These include whole-class teaching from the front of the room, seeing learning as the transfer of information from the knowledgeable teacher to the ignorant students, and seeing knowledge as discrete - as facts to be learned. I'd suggest that interactive whiteboards encourage teachers to revert to these 19th century practices and that their use runs counter to the direction set in the new New Zealand Curriculum, which emphasises self management and personalised or co-constructed learning.

We forget that technology massages us into behaving in certain ways: the car, the telephone, the electric plug, television, the Internet, have all dramatically changed the way we behave. The interactive whiteboard encourages us to teach in particular ways and these may not actually be a good thing. We need to think through how this technology changes our behaviour and the messages about learning interactive whiteboards encourage.

And I'm always suspicious of "products" that teachers need to be better teachers. To be better, teachers seldom need products - they don't need a Smartboard, they just need to be smart.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Serendipity is one of the most neglected aspects of learning and I think that we should run courses in encouraging it. I was reading Donald Murray recently (on writing research papers) where I discovered this: "Practice the art of serendipity, discovering one thing while looking for another. [Students] should be encouraged to glance at the books on the shelf below the one they are looking for, at the article on the page following the one they have found in the directory."

This is especially true on the internet. Often the initial search leads to something entirely different, and way more interesting. We should value these journeys and encourage students to see their value too. Many great discoveries have been made when someone set out to find something else, but there is also a skill in recognising the worth of the new thing discovered.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why teachers should write - Pt 2

Would we trust a cooking teacher who didn't cook? Or a fishing instructor who didn't fish? So why do we have teachers teaching writing who don't write?

It's different, I hear you say. All teachers can write (and read) so they are well qualified to teach writing (and reading). But do they write? What do they write? How do we define 'writing'? (Let's not get onto reading!)

I suggest that very few teachers 'write' - sit down and compose, craft, a piece of writing. I think they should. Regularly. I think it would change how they think about writing and teaching writing.

In the 1980s New Zealand schools flirted with "Process Writing", then found it wanting and abandoned it. But I think we got it all wrong. It was never "Process Writing". Donald Graves talked about "the writing process" which is what it is, a process. Teachers interpreted this as a process that goes: draft, revise, edit, publish. Process as production line. That is not the process of writing and it is little wonder that "Process Writing" failed here. It is not what Graves meant. But in dismissing "Process Writing" we neglected to see what Graves and others were really saying about teaching writing. More fool us.

I think we misunderstood because we don't write. So teachers don't think of the writing process as a thinking process, as a process that helps us find out what we know, what we think, and helps us find out how language works (and doesn't work).

Let's encourage teachers to keep journals. We don't have time, I hear. Let's write with the class when they write. Twenty minutes flat-stick writing. If we are writing personal narrative this term then the teacher writes personal narrative. If the theme is poetry, the teacher writes poetry. And the teacher shares her writing in the same way she expects the students to share their writing. Think about how this would improve how teachers would approach feedback to students, approach conferencing with students. Think, also, about the insights the teacher would get into the writing process, into what it feels like to be a writer, to be scrutinised, to have to put your thoughts and ideas out there for all to see.

Donald Murray's thoughts on this posted below are spot on. "The best preparation for the writing class, workshop or conference is at least a few minutes at the writing desk, saying what you did not expect to say." I especially like the bit about "saying what you did not expect to say," which is what happens while writing. Writing is a process of discovery; of discovering what you know, what you think. These are the very things that we want students to learn; that what they know and think is important and that they can discover it through writing.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why Teachers should write

Teachers should write, first of all, because it is fun. It is a satisfyingly human activity that extends both the brain and the soul. It stimulates the intellect, deepens the experience of living, and is good therapy. As Graham Green says, "Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation."

Teachers should write so they understand the process of writing from within. They should know the territory intellectually and emotionally: how you have to think to write, how you feel when writing. Teachers of writing do not have to be great writers, but they should have frequent and recent experience of writing. The best preparation for the writing class, workshop or conference is at least a few minutes at the writing desk, saying what you did not expect to say. If you experience the despair, the joy, the failure, the success, the work, the fun, the drudgery, the surprise of writing you will be able to understand the composing experiences of your students and therefore help them understand how they are learning to write.

From A Writer Teaches Writing Revised
by Donald M Murray