Project Based Learning Resources

There is so much that can be said about project based learning. It provides a way for students to learn by doing and often a real world connection that makes learning relevant and interesting. The largest barriers to a successful project are inspiration, funding, and instructions about implementation.

I hope the following resources help to remove these barriers and help you implement some great projects that your students will love.

Getting Started with Project Based Learning
Work that Matters - The collected wisdom and best practices of project based learning.
Creating Beautiful Work - Such valuable insights. Learn from Ron Berger how students can create a culture of high standards and quality through peer feedback and refinement.

Inspiration for projects
BoingBoing - Eclectic collection of stories about culture. Updated often.
MythBusters - The infamous show that explores myths as well as the science behind them. Often useful to show when you are unable to recreate the situation.
Exploratorium - An incredible science museum in San Francisco which has an interactive website full of great demonstrations.
Hack-a-Day - Electronics projects and inventions. Useful and fun.
MagatopiaMagazine DirectoryOnline MagazinesOnline Newspapers - There are magazines about every topic imaginable. Many of them provide free online content.
Ted Talks - Speakers from around the world on a wide variety of topics speak about their passions. Very often you and your students will leave this videos crying and inspired.
Tinkering School - The obsession with "safety" is preventing children from learning fun and important skills. This camp provides 10 year olds with power tools and helps them to create incredible projects and opportunities for learning.
Wired - Stay up to date with the cutting edge information regarding Science, Medicine, Technology, and more.

Kickstarter - A novel new way of generating funding. You provide the information about the project and the amount you need. People from all over the world can make "micro" payments to help you raise hundreds or thousands of dollars. Lots of projects of all kinds have been funded and yours can too.
American Science and Surplus - A way to obtain scientific and various equipment at the cheapest possible price.

Instructions (browsing these are also a source of inspiration)
Craft MagazineMake Magazine - I highly encourage you to get the daily newsletter from either of these. 
Instructables - A community built repository of free instructions on everything from food to computers. I highly encourage you to read the comments as there is helpful feedback and ideas about how to improve. 
MIT Machine Shop Videos - Extremely helpful if would like to become more knowledgeable about the tools and practices you will find in a shop with expensive and potentially dangerous tools.

Staying Connected to Parents, Friends, and finding Others to Collaborate With

We are given an incredible amount of trust. Parents who have spent years loving and raising their children are handing them over to us for 8 hours a day. Placing their hopes and dreams in our hands, allowing us the opportunity to help students grow and mature.

Multiply this situation many times over and you will have the modern day teacher's great responsibility. With so much at stake it is critical that we keep in contact with our parents so we can best understand how to help their children as well as keep them informed. It is my belief that parents will do everything they can to help their students get the best possible education they can. Parents can support with time, talent, and resources only when they best know how they can do so.

There are many great resources for communicating with your parents, each with their strengths depending on the situation. Here is a list of ways you can keep in touch with your parents.
  • School Phone/Phone Call Home
  • Email
  • Newsletters/Letters home
  • Text messages/Texting with Gmail (free)
  • FacebookTwitter, and other social media (free) note: make sure to keep a separate account from your personal account
  • Skype Internet Phone 
    • Strengths: Not giving out your personal number, can be used anywhere you have a computer and some phones. Video conferences are possible.
    • Weakness: Only free if you are calling another Skype user.
  • Google Voice
    • Strengths: Not giving out your personal number, can be used anywhere you have a computer and some phones.  Video conferences are possible and calls are free in the US and Canada (confirmed until the end of the year).
      • As of now you can make phone calls from within Gmail. This is the best option as of now. It should be interesting to see how this develops. Personally, I see this as a huge game changer in the communications market. 
      • After installing the plugin from the link, go back to Gmail and in the chat window you will see the button Call Phone.
    • Weakness: There is no assurance as to how long this will remain a service or be free for US and Canada. This service is not available for Google Apps.
  • Google Translate
    • While not a communication medium in and of itself it is important to be able to try and communicate across language barriers.
    • Note, all translators are imperfect in its translation so do not rely to heavily upon it.

    Back to School Teachers Resources on BrokenAirplane

    It's here! The students are coming back and it is going to be a great year. If you have recently found you might have missed out on some helpful posts. Here is a summary of what has been posted with links.
    There is much more to come! BrokenAirplane is moving to Monday, Wednesday, and now Fridays so more resources and information to help you in the classroom.

    You can find BrokenAirplane on Facebook and Twitter, and Email.

    This blog serves the community so be sure to connect and let me know how and what I can do to help. Enjoy and welcome back!

    Using Bloom's Taxonomy to Influence Curriculum

    Do you remember learning Blooms Taxonomy when studying to be a teacher? When it comes to the cognitive domain the theory is that Memorization is the foundation of learning but the least likely to be "sticky" and be retained (thanks to Ted for the phrase). The next is understanding, as in Why the Civil War ended as it did as opposed to knowing the dates and states in the North and the South. Or how increasing the height a ball is dropped from will increase its final velocity.

    Application is using this information in a real world situation. Every week thousands of students conduct some sort of Lab in science where they recreate a famous experiment and if the intended data and results are collected, the student receives full credit.

    The highest level of learning according to Bloom's Taxonomy involves Analyzing, Evaluation, and Synthesis (creation)....let that set in for a second.

    We have state and federal standards that we are expected to teach and therefore the students to learn. If you look at those standards, they involve some form of memorization (identify, know) or understanding (explain, describe). Why? Because the best a standardized test can assess by its very nature is memorized facts (multiple choice) and understanding  (extended response/essay).

    With so much to teach, so little time, and so much riding on the student's score on these High Stakes Exams, it is no wonder that our students are doing poorly according to International Criterion. We have set the bar at the minimum and even if our students retain everything the best they can hope for is good test scores.

    When they leave, will they be able to use that knowledge? Do they even care about using that information anymore? Facts and trivia are great for winning Jeopardy but they fail at inspiring excitement and interest.

    As we plan this year fellow teachers, I ask that you consider how you might teach to the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Application, Evaluation, and Synthesis. You would be surprised how much more students will want to learn and how much more they will have learned, when they have built, debated, repurposed, drawn, animated, ignited, and every other word that when uttered to a child evokes a smile.

    Is it messy? Yes. Is it hard to assess? Not really. It just doesn't fall under the choices of A,B,C,D. Will you cover less? Perhaps a little, but think of how far a little depth would go. If we are teaching them to synthesize and apply, then they will certainly be able to do so on a test question that they do not understand.

    The test makers call it an educated guess, we call it critical thinking.

    Please, do not be too hard on yourself if you cannot immediately figure out a way to do this. Any little steps you can take will lead to bigger ones. For some inspiration I recommend the following:

    Watch Gever Tulley as he speaks about his Tinkering School where 10 year olds create with power tools.

    Imagine what your kids could do if given the opportunity to freely express their creative energy. Tulley has a book out with even more ideas: Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)

    Watch Sir Ken Robinson's comedic take on how schools are killing creativity (and how you can stop it). Thanks Marisol for showing this to our staff today!

    Finally, if you did not catch my first post about it. Watch Waiting for Superman on September 24th for a compelling tale about our school system and what we can do about it.

    Teachers, we have an incredible opportunity to inspire and excite our population. While it may seem daunting, it will result in more fun and learning than ever before. Please be mindful as you plan your curriculum to encourage application, analyzing, evaluation, and creativity.

    Any thoughts on the matter? Agree, disagree? What prevents us from doing this everyday and how can we overcome these obstacles?

    Tags: , ,

    Site Updates

    The site went through some massive updating this weekend. The major difference you will see is that the links changed. Unfortunately, when I made some changes, I lost all of my posts and had to repost them today. So if you are looking for a post, look in the archives on the right.

    Sorry for the inconvenience, I appreciate your understanding.


    Snopes for Critical Thinking

    How many times have you received an email that was alerting you that Coca Cola will pay you $25 to send this link to all of your friends or that Texas is going to secede from the US.? These are called chain mails and they are a powerful way of spreading myths, legends, and memes.

    People of all ages are swept up in these which fuels them all the more to send them to their friends. They range from the interesting to the defamatory. More and more, students need to be aware of how to critically think in this day and age. Media is so powerful a presence in our lives with advertisements and opinions being sent to us in a constant stream, without the ability to distinguish between truth and fabrication we hand control to a very small group of people which can be dangerous to any society.

    Snopes is the brainchild of Barbara and David Mikkelson who do an incredible job of researching and extrapolating truth from fiction. Whenever I hear about one of these urban legends I always ask, "Have you checked Snopes?" Almost every time, there is a post with research and links describing whether or not the point in question is correct or a fabrication.

    When I use this in the classroom, I provide a few stories that I think might be useful. Some of them are not true, and some are true but equally absurd. Then I ask the students to underline which parts of the article provide evidence to the claims of the author, then write an analysis of whether this article resonates with their understanding of the world and common sense. Finally, we reveal the false articles and discuss what were the common parts that could be red flags that they were not true (e.g. sensationalism, fallacies, exaggerated numbers).

    I could see humanities teachers being able to spend even more time analyzing and researching the media advertisements and Op-Ed articles. With elections always around the corner and so much mudslinging happening there is never a shortage of information to look through. It can be a lifelong lesson and skill to be able to research and ascertain what is truth and what is not.

    The site is fun to browse through and see what legends are disproved. You will be surprised to find out that you have believed something for years which was simply a very powerful urban myth. I am grateful for the work done at Snopes to help the world fight ignorance, please share this resource with as many people and students as you can. 

    Programming in the classroom - More Examples and Ideas

    I debated whether or not to provide actual code of different types of programs you could write and I have decided against it for a couple of reasons. First, there are different ways of creating a program that work and I would prefer not to keep you from discovering and learning your own method. Second, there is no need for exact code as the intention of programming in the classroom is not to create "THE" program, but to more deeply understand a particular concept or achieve a certain goal.

    That being said, I will gladly provide examples if requested in the comments or by email.

    Before we do that, though you might be wondering how to fit this into your classroom. I would say that it comes up in my classroom every time I want to describe an algorithm or concept  more deeply with them. First we talk about the process and then we create pseudocode. Which is a fancy way of saying that we just write down what the program should do even if we don't know the exact syntax for it.

    For example in our Gaussian addition problem earlier this week, the pseudocode would look like this:
    sum = 0
    Go through a loop from 1 to 100
    Add the current number in the loop to sum
    When the loop is finished print sum to the screen.

    This demonstrates that the student understands the concept and there is no need to actually go program it in Python but it is extremely satisfying to do so. Whenever I am asking the students to use pseudocode before they actually program it, I say to them, "What are the steps necessary to make this happen". When they think they have their code, they pass it to another student who essentially runs through the program line by line on paper or in their head and checks to make sure that this is what the computer would actually need to accomplish the task.

    If you have the class time because of video tutorials or maybe you have some time you would have otherwise spent on a worksheet or movie, then this is a perfect time to do it. The reinforcement and deeper understanding your students will get is well worth the time devoted to it.

    Otherwise I know teachers have had success by assigning it for homework (just make sure your instructions and support are there or students will get frustrated) and/or extra credit. Sometimes the best way is to create a lunchtime or after school program, as you can really dig in deep and work primarily with those who are interested. Ironically, those students came back to the classroom and demonstrated what they were able to do and others who might not have initially done it were excited to try once they knew that it could be done.

    Here are some examples or ideas to get you going. Remember, you can use the python tutorials and resouces to create these programs, or use pseudocode to get the concept down with your students.

    DNA to Protein program which takes a line of DNA code and through the process of transcription and translation turns it into amino acids. While this program reinforces the concepts, it also is a powerful way of showing how a deletion or insertion into the DNA by mutation or copying error can dramatically effect the outcome of the protein.

    Evolution: While reading Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, he mentions that the anecdote of the million monkeys typing away to produce Hamlet, could not likely happen if it were purely random. However,  in the biological world, that which works is retained while the rest is discarded. In order to illustrate this point, I created a program that would have a "monkey" randomly typing letters, but every time he would get a letter that matched with the correct letter and placement in Shakespeare's story, it would keep it and throw the rest away. When I run this program, it typically takes under an hour and says that it would take a thousand attempts or so. Powerful demonstration, especially when discussed along with Hox Genes and other "toolbox" genes that make it relatively easy for an organism to become another one entirely.

    Projectile Motion programs are great fun because of the many variables for students to modify. There is a great bit of add on software to Python called Vpython which allows you to have visual objects move on the screen according to the data (you can also create graphs and such). If you go to the documentation example on the VPython page, it will actually walk you through an example of a bouncing ball to get you started. I used this in my Physics of the Absurd project where the students created projectile motion animations of crazy word problems that they had made up (e.g. Superman jumping to the moon). Students also enjoy creating artillary games where the goal is to input the right angle, and exit velocity to hit a certain target.

    Factoring is an excellent concept to adapt to programming as it is one of the most well known applications of math in programming. For example our security encryption and transactions are safe because no one has created a program that can quickly factor a large composite number. Euclid's algorithm is a great example of an algorithm for factoring, but perhaps your students will create a new more efficient one. Maybe they will prove the Riemann Hypothesis and collect the one million dollar prize from the Clay Institute (and share it with their former teacher).

    Slope Art is a project I do every year because the students have a lot of fun and learn a great deal about the concept of slope from doing it. I will post more about this project later as I am refining it from last year. It involves creating string art by using Vpython and inputting the slopes and equations. This project is perfect because it is self correcting (i.e. if the code does not match their picture then they determine where they went wrong).

    A program worth mentioning especially if you wish to implement Python into your classroom. It not only contains Python but additional functions and libraries in math that can take you from basic algebra to graduate school mathematics. My favorite part of it, and why I am recommending it to you is if your students sign up for a free account, they will have access to a "notebook" which will save their programs and allow them to work anywhere they have access to an Internet Browser, so there is no need to install Python. This is especially helpful if you need to work on school laptops that do not have Python installed on them or work a bit at school, save it and then continue at home.

    Calculation and Conversion:
    This is what got me into programming my TI calculator back in High School and I suspect will have the greatest practical value to your students. There are many times where it would be nice to have a program that could do the work for me (e.g. quadratic equation, conversion from inches to meters, pH, etc). I tell the students they can use programs on their graphing calculators but only if they can prove to me that they wrote them or if we have created one in class.

    Personally, I think all of these examples are fun but I have a lot more background in this and your students might get frustrated or lose interest. It is a great idea to start off with something to hook them in and keep them coming back for more. A lot of students love creating those RPG games using print and input (example: "you are standing in a dark forest, you have a flashlight and a pencil, what would you like to do?") or having discussions with the computer like, "Hello, what is your name?" the student types in their name, and then the computer says, "Hello Phil!"

    Another easy way to get them hooked is the Turtle module built into Python. If you remember Logo from the older days then you will recognize the familiar look. It is basically a drawing program with commands like "Forward 100" and "Right 90". Here are all of the commands from the Python Documentation. Students will begin learning Geometry right before your eyes. Here is another great resource for Python Turtle but you will need to use Google Translate if you do not speak Spanish.

    For really advanced/motivated students you could offer them Project Euler which has many types of problems that if they can solve them would be well on their way to a successful job in mathematics or computer programming.

    Blender is not for the faint of heart, and I will eventually devote a whole post to it, but your students could create their own Python scripts to make their 3D cars move, or create a domino effect.

    Don't count these out. They teach a ton of programming concepts and keep your students' interest high. One of the best and easiest resources I have seen is Invent with Python which is a free resource that walks you through making fun games like Hangman, Tic Tac Toe and more.

    You never know where inspiration will come. My suggestion to you is to go through tutorials or resources until you become comfortable enough with the language that you can create a demonstration in a few minutes in the classroom. However, you use computer science in the classroom, your students will benefit from it so I encourage you to take that first step a go for it! Good luck.

    If you would like code for any of the programs I have mentioned, would like help writing your own, need additional resources, or anything else; please leave a comment or email me.

    Introducing Computer Programming to High School Students Using Python

    Add up all of the numbers from 1-100. 

    There is a story that has been told in many different ways of a young man named Carl Gauss who was assigned, along with all of his fellow students to do the above task. Most of the tellings of this story portray the teacher as drunk, tired, or simply wanting to keep his students busy. Then after just a couple of minutes, Carl astonished everyone by raising his hand and announcing the answer.

    The age of information did not take off because we could use computers to make pretty spreadsheets or documents, it was because we could now be superheroes. The ability to calculate at lightning fast speeds changed what humans were able to do forever. We could now go to the moon or perform bank transactions instantaneously. We were on the brink of utopia, there was talk that computers would cut the workweek down to 20 hours a week (why it in fact increased is for another post, another time). 

    Computers are fast and if you can harness that power you can control the universe.

    Gauss took a couple of minutes to discover that 1+100 = 101, 2+99 = 101, 3+98= 101, and so on creating 50 pairs of 101 and therefore the sum of the numbers from 1-100 was (50 x 101) = 5050. Ironically, a student could Google "Gauss 1-100 sum" then find, read, and understand in the same amount of time it took Gauss to do it from scratch. Isn't technology grand?

    We can ask computers to do all kinds of things if we speak their language. In this case we will use the language Python.

    If you have not downloaded it yet, here is the link: Python. I would encourage you to download version 2.7 as it is more widely compatible. 

    You can open Python through IDLE or the Command Prompt, it will work either way.

    Before we get to our Gauss problem, lets initiate ourselves into the world of programming.

    Type in the following: print('Hello World') so the command line looks like:

    print('Hello World')

    When you press enter, you will see the response.

    Hello World

    Congratulations, you and the computer are now on speaking terms. The print function will output to the screen anything you put inside its parenthesis.

    Try this:


    We are going to leap ahead to looping. This is where the computer truly excels, when you can ask the computer to do something over and over and over again with accuracy and speed.

    Lets say you wanted the computer to say 'Math is fun' 5 times. 

    for i in range(1,6):
    ...    print('Math is fun')

    Make sure you don't forget the colon, and then hit enter. On the next line Python you will see 3 dots. This means that you wish to create a "for loop". Hit the spacebar to indent 4 spaces to indicate what will be looped.

    Hit enter twice, once to break out of the loop and another to run the program. Python will run through the loop 5 times (the range 1,6 means 1,2,3,4,5 and stop at 6) printing Math is Fun.

    Math is Fun
    Math is Fun
    Math is Fun
    Math is Fun
    Math is Fun

    What you said was, "for every number in the range of 1-6, output to the screen Math is Fun". 

    Finally, regarding our Gauss situation. Lets create a variable, which we know from math stores a number.

    answer = 0

    Type that and hit enter. Now you have told the computer to set aside some memory with the number zero in a place called 'sum'.

    Let's create the loop which will go through the numbers 1-100 and add them to the sum.

    for answer in range(1,101):
    ...       answer = answer + number

    Hit enter twice, and you are done! In less than a second, the computer did what we could not have done in minutes or hours. 

    Hey wait, I don't see anything. Ahh, while the computer is finished, it has not told you anything, but that was because you never asked.

    Type in print(sum) and see what the answer to all of the numbers from 1-100. Did you get 5050? Awesome!

    Modify the program to add up all of the numbers from 1-1000 or have it print out the result of 10! (Factorial - the product of the numbers, e.g. 1*2*3*4*5, don't do this for a large number or your computer will run out of memory and crash!)

    This is one way of using programming to save you time. Consider all of those bank transactions that were at one time done by hand or librarians who manually would catalog and find books on a particular subject. What about calculating the shortest way around the traffic jam on the freeway. The possibilities are truly limitless.

    I will continue to provide some more examples but as you get more and more acquainted with programming languages like Python you can use your own creativity to adapt to your needs and interests as I have. As programming tends to be a teach yourself kind of thing, you will need to find what tutorials work best for you. If you prefer books, Amazon and other book stores have plenty. The number of tutorials online are at least twice as much. Many of my students benefit from YouTube Videos from authors like thenewboston

    Programming is an art, not just a science. If you are having problems installing, getting a program to work, hearing more of my recommendations for resources, helping you to create your own programs, or how to implement in the classroom; leave a comment or email me at

    Computer Science in High School is Critical for the 21st Century Student

    It is an amazing world isn't it? We have so much technology that exceed our science fiction fantasies. The question is, who is and will be making this stuff? Will it be your students? There has been an exponential boom in the demand for electronics, and unless we are talking about your basic appliances, those electronics require programming.

    More and more, there is a need for our students to be literate in Computer Programming. Every field in science and mathematics requires an understanding of how computers work and those who speak the language of computers will be ahead of the game. My mother who has been a Nurse for over 30 years has seen the face of the medical field change dramatically in the last few years. In fact her department now has a need for a Bioinformatician, who is a person qualified in both nursing and computer science.

    One of the most important articles I have ever read was published in June of 2008 entitled The End of Theory (accompanying diagram) and it described how we are collecting information about our Universe and ourselves so quickly that we do not have time or enough resources to interpret it so it can be used. This is why distributed computing platforms have been so successful, as they allow millions to share in the work of the scientists (e.g. BOINCFold It). Google has made billions in searching data quickly. Facebook and MySpace have likewise connected data in ways never before and in doing so connected people from around the World.

    Computer science is a mystery to most. Very few K-12 schools offer it and those who do not major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) will not likely take it. This means that the majority of our population is and will remain completely illiterate in that which is truly our most universal language. It will be those who can program who will, according to Marc Prensky, truly have the upper hand.

    Computer Science majors are on the rise so there will be someone to do the job. Will it be your students?

    How does one get interested in Computer Science? For me, it started with my Dad and I sitting around and learning how to program our Apple IIc in BASIC. Then I learned C++ from my Mom's friend. I taught myself how to program the TI Graphing Calculator in High School (much to my benefit), and I was brought to love Pascal and Python from my teacher and friend, Michel Paul.  The point is that in all of this, I was encouraged to learn programming by others. Some of them knew how to program well, some of them were learning along with me, but they were all excited to teach and/or learn. Since the opportunities to learn how to program are very few (currently), we must be creative and innovative in getting this to our students.

    I hope I have your attention. You have the potential to give your students one of the most valuable skills they will ever have (next to reading and writing). Yet your next thought might be one of doubt:

    • My students wouldn't be interested
    • There is no time with my already full schedule to teach this
    • I don't know how to program
    For all of these doubts, I ask you to trust me. Many of your fellow educators around the world are already using programming in their math, science, and humanities (???) classroom. Those I have helped, were able to begin right away. As with anything your students will be only as motivated as you are and what their assignments are (link to relevant article). I have students who are interpreting genetic data, creating scientific video games, art, and going deeper in understanding of math and science every day and you can too.

    In the next couple of posts, I will show you give you some tutorials and examples that I have used in the classroom. Once we have a few items, I will compile all of this together so it is easy to find and share. 

    There are many different programming languages out there and they all have their advantages. In my classroom, and therefore my examples, we will be using Python. The reason for this is:
    • 100% free and open source
    • it is a very popular language used by Google, Blender, NASA, and many others so your students will have a directly transferable skill.
    • for its ease and succinct syntax
    • Python was designed from the ground up to be used in the classroom (link to the DARPA Proposal)
    If you would like to begin looking through some great resources on learning Python before the next post here are my recommendations:

    Python - I would strongly encourage you to download version 2.7 instead of 3.0 as it is more compatible.
    How to Think Like a Computer Scientist with Python - How I learned Python basics, and still the best tutorial  for beginners I have found.
    EDU-SIG - The mailing list for those who discuss Python and education. It can be overwhelming at times but it is always inspiring.
    Mathematics for the Digital Age and Programming in Python - An excellent textbook already used by many teachers to integrate programming into their STEM Classroom.

    *If you are a Humanities teacher and would like to inspire your students with programming as well, I have seen it done very well using a program called Alice. It was designed by Randy Pausch (of The Last Lecture fame) and others at Carnegie Mellon University, and has been an exciting opportunity for students at middle school and older to create stories while learning how to program. This software is also free and there are many great examples and tutorials available on the Alice website.

    I look forward to bringing you into this exciting world that will help you and your students go deeper in understanding and enjoyment of science and mathematics. Stay tuned for the tutorials and examples.

    Technology that Makes Teachers Happy

    Educators are asked to stand up, sit down, talk at length, everyday and I wouldn't trade it for the world. That being said, anything that can be done to make our jobs easier is much appreciated.

    Here are my technology suggestions. I know I already have a list of software but technology is not just about computer software. These are items that have made my day more manageable and because I live off a teacher's salary, they are affordable to all.

    If I suggest a particular product that is only based on my experience but please select the product that best suits your needs and share in the comments what you chose.

    E-reader: The revolution has begun, not since Gutenberg's printing press have we seen a dramatic change in how people read but with the recent developments in technology, e-readers have the potential to be an important part of your life. I have read on everything since it was possible to hold a computer in your hand (Calculator, Newton, Personal Assistant, etc). Reading is my favorite thing to do in the world but I would always read on an e-Reader because I needed to or was bored, not because I wanted to. The screen was too small or it would hurt your eyes and hands. Later in the military I suffered a dramatic back injury that made holding a physical book painful no matter what position I tried. 

    The Kindle is made reading enjoyable for me again. It is so light but well made. The Ergonomics are     incredibly well thought out, the battery lasts forever, and I was able to surf the Internet and download books even while I was on vacation in a very rural area with the Whispernet Network.  You can upload PDFs, Audiobooks, and even have it read to you if you wish. There is even an application for your iPhone, Android Phone, or computer so you can read anywhere.

    While the technology is incredible, the only drawback I have found is that the books are not dramatically cheaper. Additionally, while the iPad has the ability to read eBooks, there is a glare that you would not have with the other e-readers like the Kindle.

    Wireless Keyboard: If you ever come to my classroom (and you are always welcome), I am rarely seated. Whether at the white board or working with students, I often need the ability to replay a video, pull up a document, send a student an email, click through a presentation, and the list continues. With a wireless keyboard you plug the USB dongle into your computer and then you are free to take the keyboard/mouse with you wherever you go. The one I use is a few years old and not sold anymore but you can find them for about $30. I would encourage you to go in the store or online and search for one that meets your needs. Here  are links to the top three. LogitechHPMicrosoft

    USB Flash Drive: You might think, this not worth mentioning. USB Flash Drives are so common and relatively inexpensive that almost anyone can get one. Plus with Google Docs and free Online storage sites like adrive Dropbox, and Mozy who needs to carry files with them anymore? But there are so many things you can do with a Flash Drive like run your own browser complete with bookmarks, and many other programs from any computer (PortableApps), plus you never know when the Internet will be out. Being able to pass a few of these around to get your files to the students can be a lifesaver when Murphy's Law goes into effect. The cost of these starts at $5 and goes up from there. The only reason I point out the SanDisk Flash Drives is to call attention to their practical design. Many of these drives come with a cap which you will lose within a week. The SanDisk Flash drives retract.

    Multi-Tool: This is one of those items that I simply "don't leave home without it". There just never seems to be scissors or a screwdriver when you need it. I have had my Leatherman Squirt E4 for years now and every day I am using it. It currently sells for about $20. The Squirt P4 model has pliers instead of the Wire Strippers.

    Ergonomic Laptop Support: Laptops are great, don't get me wrong. But they are miserable for your back and neck. If you are relatively young and free from pain you  might think this is unnecessary for you to concern yourself with now, but many older teachers I know suffer from some kind of occupational hazard from all of the varied roles we serve. I love the Swedish and their practical and frugal designs. IKEA sells a wonderful Laptop rest called the Brada for a measly $3! It sits on your desk or lap and is light enough for carrying from room to room but wide enough for a laptop and perhaps a phone or PDA. I have also heard wonderful things about the Dave from IKEA on Cool Tools which sells for under $20. If you do not have an IKEA near you (I am truly sorry) then order it online as the shipping is reasonable.
    Workbench: Educators work in such varied settings. There is never enough storage or workspace and no one size fits all. I am grateful to my colleagues Ted and Jon for pointing these Simpson Strong Tie Workbench Kits out to me. The kit is about $50 and then you purchase about $30 of lumber. The best part about this kit over other prebuilt kits is the ability to customize the height, number of shelves, and more. You are limited only by your imagination.

    Science Specific Recommendations:

    Stopwatches: It seems whenever I need stopwatches for a lab, the batteries are all dead. Most stopwatches neglect to put a on/off button on them (battery maker conspiracy)! These made by Ward Scientific do have the power button and are a pretty good deal. Myself and other teachers swear by them.

    I'll add to this page as more great products emerge. However, I am committed to only sharing those products that I myself have used, can afford, and love. 

    Do you know a must have technology that will enrich all of our lives? Please leave it in the comments or send me an email at phil at

    Gmail Ninja or How to Have an Empty Inbox

    Do you fear signing into your email box because it looks like this?

    Are you missing important emails because they just keep piling up?

    Whenever I give training one-on-one or in groups, someone always stops me and says, "How do you keep your Gmail Inbox empty?"

    Yes folks, I am a Gmail Ninja. I am also a huge fan of David Allen's Getting Things Done philosophy. All of us are busy and most likely we are getting emails from friends, family, colleagues and it is enough to go crazy and give up. Yet, is here to save the day!

    Keeping your Gmail (or email in general) manageable does not require you to sit and read emails all day. In fact if you know how to use Google Search then you can find peace once again and rule email instead of the other way around.

    Step 1: Open your Inbox. Sounds silly, but you would be surprised how many people are avoiding it because it is so overwhelming. Take a nice deep cleansing breath, it's going to be ok.

    Step 2: Decide if you need to create labels (link to earlier post on Labels), which are like Google's Filling System. You might create labels like "Parent Emails, Funny Emails, Student Work, etc". These are completely optional, but they do help many to organize their email.

    Step 3: You may wish to set up some filters. I use them when my students send me homework so they automatically go to my "Student Work" folder. Here is a link on how to setup your own filter in Gmail.

    Step 4: Now the fun begins, read the first email and decide what needs to be done with it. In my opinion there are three options:
    1. Delete it because it is just quick information and you no longer need it (e.g. meeting changed to 3pm, or Jimmy will be absent today). If you decide to delete an email, don't worry as Gmail will still save your deleted emails for up to 30 days before it goes away. I'll show you how to get it back in a minute.
    2. File it away in a label or archive it if you will need the email later but it no longer needs to be in your inbox. (e.g. parent email, receipt from vacation airline booking, etc). In order to do this, either click Archive which saves your email in your Gmail storage but removes it from your Inbox. Or click the Move To menu button and select which label you want to file the email away to. Once again, I'll show you how to retrieve your emails in a second. Keep in mind that this process takes the email out of your Inbox but it is still stored in your Gmail as opposed to deleting it.

    3. Add it to your tasks. Tasks is Gmail's built in ToDo list. I use this for those situations where I need to be reminded to do what is in the email. (e.g. grant proposal instructions, project notes to refine, Agenda for All Staff Meeting).
      • Click on the Tasks button on the left to activate your Gmail Tasks.
      • Now select an email that you want to add to your GTasks by checking the box next to the email.
      • Click on the menu that says More Actions and then click on Add to Tasks. This will add it to your tasks with the subject of the email being the reminder. You can click on the smaller link Related Email in your tasks if you want to quickly refer to the email.
      • Finally, archive the email unless you need to keep it in your Inbox.

    If you have a lot of emails this initial process will take some time. However, once you have processed all of your old emails you can make the decision to delete, archive, or add to tasks in seconds without distracting yourself from your primary focus.

    How to Retrieve Emails

    So you have archived your emails and are biting your nails wondering where in the world did my email go? Now it is time to realize the power of having Google power your email. Once your email is archived, retrieve it by searching for it.

    Right next to the big Gmail icon in the upper left is the familiar Google Search bar. Try searching for the subject, sender, text in the email, or anything else that you can remember. Gmail will quickly search through your emails and find anything that relates to your search. The more specific you are, the less results you will get so if you can't find it at first, try being more broad.

    So that's it. Ok, well there is a ton more you could uncover but these steps will get you to that heavenly state called "The Empty Inbox".

    If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or otherwise leave a comment.

    Learning Online - Become an Expert in Anything for Free

    A couple of years ago, I was working on the creation of an online/hybrid High School. Here are a few of the resources that we found. I will update this post as more emerge.

    Make your own games

    Create your own online classroom
    Moodle - One of the easiest and versatile ways to create an online classroom.
    Project Foundry - Create Student guided, educator directed Project Based Learning
    Teach Mate - Find someone to learn or teach. 

    Khan Academy - Quality tutorials created by Salman Khan on a variety of topics. Popular with teachers all over the world!
    TED Talks - Hear inspirational and informative talks from people around the world on a variety of fascinating topics.