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Friday Freebee: America, the Teachers’ Guide

America b Is the tired American history textbook you’ve been using not getting through to the imaginations of your students? The History Channel’s “America, The Story of Us” is a great way to get kids to absorb and understand American history and a rare opportunity to build a curriculum around a TV show. The network’s Classroom section has a variety of teaching materials.  There’s a 10-page set of lesson plans as well as an 8-page Classroom Activity Guide.

Between the two booklets, there are breakdowns of each episode, from the rise of the revolution against Britain to Barack Obama’s election as the first African-American president. There are activities to do with the class before viewing the show as well as multimedia activities along with links to online supplementary America story content. Too bad the online content doesn’t include the actual shows, which are available on DVDs. The History Channel is offering to give your school a set of the DVDs. All the principal has to do is register. Hurry, the offer expires during the summer.

Stay tuned because the History channel is putting together a Webcast with the Smithsonian Institution that will show and explain a variety of historical documents and artifacts. It will be broadcast on May 6th at noon, eastern time, and is a rare chance to see these objects and have experts explain them to you and your class.  

Bright and Big

PLC-WM5500_front-2-1 Big classrooms, auditoriums and even cafeterias require bigger and brighter projectors or some won’t be able to see. Sanyo’s PLC-WM5500 not only puts out an astounding 5,500 lumens of light and can show two different things with picture-in-picture but its 1,280 by 800 resolution is perfect for movies and wide-screen notebooks. It uses a trio of new inorganic liquid crystal display panels that has an active roll of filters that needs to be replaced every 10,000 hours of use; in other words it probably will never need to be changed. While it can fill a screen as big as 33-feet and the PLC-WM5500 has a power zoom as well as horizontal and vertical keystone correction. It may have enough light to give you a tan but the PLC-WM5500 weighs 21 pounds.

See and Say

Nuance The tried and true technique of teaching reading and writing via the letters, syllables and then words works for most, but not all early learners. Nuance Speak & See provides a shortcut for those with disabilities by having the computer speak a passage to students as it is displayed on-screen. Based on Dragon’s NaturallySpeaking software, Speak & See shows kids the relationship between the written and spoken language with an advanced text-to-speech engine. Kids can have the program read them material or listen to them dictate anything from an email to an essay. The software comes with a scree-magnifier that can make anything six-times bigger and easier to read. Speak & See sells for $250.

Science and Math’s Launch Pad

TI_nspire_wkstation-v[1] Rarely does the arrangement of a calculator’s keypad get me excited, but when it’s a new pad for TI’s Nspire education calculator it’s a big deal. That’s because Nspire is the rare calculator where you can swap keypads.

The third keypad in the series, the Touchpad Handheld device snaps into place below the system’s screen. It works on the latest version of the calculator as well as the first generation Nspire device. Colored dark blue and white, the new keypad has a rectangular touch pad with a center activation switch and a thumb keyboard below.

All told, I found the new keypad less cluttered and easier to navigate than the original keypad, which had its alphabetic keys embedded among the larger number and function buttons. Using the old keypad I found that I often hit the letters by accident or hit the wrong ones.

I found the touchpad to be hard to get a feel for with me over- or undershooting the target for awhile. After a week of use, using it felt intuitive. TI also sells a keypad that emulates the TI-84 calculator so the same set of base calculators can do double duty in the math and science classrooms.

A big part of the revamping of the Nspire is a new round of software. The downloadable OS 2.0 provides a better home screen that opens up the world of the calculators abilities with a click. My favorite is the Scratchpad that provides teachers or students with an open space for making calculations or quickly graphing a line. It works well with a variety of mathematical operations, including functions, parametrics, polar and scatter plots.

TI-Nspire_with_Touchpad_RA[1] There’s a key dedicated to getting to the Scratchpad, so the whole class can put it on screen in a matter of seconds. I was able to graph a simple polynomial in about 5 seconds and then show how changing the parameters of the function affects the graph, a great lesson for an algebra class that would take quite some time to set up on the board.

A big bonus is that the new keypad and Nspire calculator work with TI’s Navigator wireless cradles. Kids or teachers can move projects to and from a PC or Macintosh computer via the included USB cable. The Nspire has the software for directly connecting it to Vernier sensors and probes already installed for an instant physics or biology lab. 

Each calculator comes with SmartView emulation software that can mimic the look, feel and abilities of the Nspire on a PC for presenting to the class with a projector or big-screen monitor. The big difference is that unlike the 3.7-inch monochrome screen on the device, the software shows functions in color so that, for instance, a student can color code different lines of a function’s family of curves.

Ti nspire screen graph The teacher’s edition of the SmartView software takes this a step further with the ability to send assignments and quiz questions to students. The program works with PCs and Macs and has several lesson plans installed. TI offers more online, including a seasonal newsletter that has more ideas and activities as well as tricks and tips for getting the most out of the Nspire hardware.

Like earlier models, the calculator is still permitted on the major national high-school exams, including ACT, AP, IB and PSAT/NSMQT and SAT. Look for TI to offer a rechargeable battery pack for the Nspire sometime this summer that will replace the 4 AA disposable batteries it currently uses.

Still, the Nspire weighs more than 11-ounces and is among the largest devices of its kind. It positively dwarfs smaller devices, like Casio’s fold open fx-9860G Slim. At $150 for the calculator and keypad, $10 for the keypad alone and new software that’s free for the downloading, the Nspire does exactly what its name implies: inspires a generation of math teachers and students.


TI-Nspire with Touchpad Handheld
$10 for keypad
$160 for calculator

+ Inexpensive upgrade for Nspire users
+ New OS software
+ Scratchpad workspace
+ New keypad works on older Nspire calculator

- Hard to get the feel of touchpad
- Calculator is huge and heavy



Algebra, the PC Way

Algebrator Completing and simplifying algebra equations is an acquired skill that takes a lot of practice, but homework can be intimidating. Algebrator software can help those who need help getting through all those polynomials and quadratics. The program provides lots of practice examples that include hints and how to complete them for those that need it. Just type in the problem and let Algebrator do the hard part. The software covers everything from solving two or three linear equations and logarithms and trigonometry. The program costs $40.

A Digital Science Teacher

Bio tutor By breaking down the curriculum in Biology, Physics and Chemistry into two dozen targeted tutorials, Interactive Learning’s Tutor Excalibur series can help kids get ready for finals or the AP exams. Chock full of interactive features and practice quizzes, Chem, Bio and Physics Tutor cost $40 each, two for $70 or all three for $105. There are discounts for site licenses.

Junior Workstation

Little tikes deska After seeing the Little Tikes Young Explorer desk I have to say that I’m mightily jealous that they don’t make one of these for grownups. The plastic workstation is perfect for those up to 7-years old, has a flat desk big enough for a keyboard and mouse and wrap-around wings so that adjacent kiddie workstations don’t bother each other.

It measures 47- by 34- by 43-inches and has a bench that’s big enough to accommodate two kids sharing the screen. Its seat flips up to reveal a storage area for everything from Crayons to software. I really like that there are no exposed wires and the computer has its own ventilated cabinet that can be locked shut.

Little tikes desk b3 Inside is a Lenovo ThinkCentre PC with 1GB of RAM, 160GB hard drive, a pair of speakers and a DVD drive. There’s a 19-inch flat screen and a very colorful matching keyboard and mouse. It comes with early learning programs like Millie's Math House, Sammy's Science House, Bailey's Book House, Trudy's Time and Place and Thinkin' Things. With Windows and a 1-year warranty, the Young Explorer desk sells for $2,600.

Freebee Friday: Finger Fun

CollageScreen_full Got a bunch of Windows 7 tablet systems and looking for some apps just to play around and maybe learn something? Microsoft’s Touch Pack is now online for a free download. The 240MB file has six separate programs that range from a 3-D representation of the globe that lets you zoom in and out and mark places with pushpins to a way to creatively arrange photos and images by moving them around with your finger. Every tablet should have this software.

Friday Freebee: Making Beautiful Music

Musescore If you’re tired of writing music for students on a blackboard and going through pads of score paper, MuseScore may be just the thing to get you and your class making beautiful music together. It’s still a beta, but version 0.9.5 is well executed, professional looking and the software is free for the download. It’s available in 20 languages and works with PCs, Macs and Linux computers, and kids can be writing music in a matter of minutes.

Just Right School Management

QuickSchools - Gradebook Most administration programs are too much for small schools and doing nothing about digitizing the school’s operations is not an option these days. QuickSchools may be just right for small schools and districts because you don’t have to hire a programmer to make it suit your schools’ needs. Constructed of pre-made modules for setting up class schedules, tracking students and teachers, a grade book and a Web portal for parents to connect, QuickSchools is a good start. Next year, the company plans to add sections for finance, payroll and online banking to round out the suite. Everything is encrypted so security shouldn’t be an issue and all of its work is done via a Web browser so you don’t need to load any software onto computers. QuickSchools costs between $1 and $1.50 per student, depending on what features are needed. Check out the free trial.



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