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Stand Up For School

Alphabetter aWhile a standing desk can be a better way to learn, just about every piece of school furniture requires kids (and teachers) to sit in the classroom. Not Safco’s AlphaBetter Desk, which can be set for between 26- and 42-inches above the floor. It has two shelves as well as a footrest and can be ordered with a matching stool. The desk is durable and available in a variety of colors.

Freebee Friday: Keeping Your Cool at School

Logo_carrier_ttte_leaf_pngIf your school’s cooling bill is making you hot under the collar, Carrier’s Energy Assessment Program can help with a way to keep the temperature comfortable while saving energy. The assessment is done to ASHRAE Level I Energy Assessment standards and is carried out by local dealers. At the end, the district will get a report that can help plan any remedial work that needs to be done.

Freebee Friday: STEM Maneuvers

Discovery nuclearDiscovery’s latest free lesson plans are sponsored by the Navy, focus on STEM education and are aimed at high school science classrooms. In addition to nuclear power and robotics, the topics include sonar and GPS. Each has an outline, key academic subjects covered as well as a PowerPoint slide show.

An End to Security Tapes

IPCorder-KNR-10002Forget about fumbling with video tapes from your school’s security cams with an IPcorder Network Video Recorder. The company’s KNR series are small and range from a 4IP channel unit that holds 3TB to a 40-channel unit that holds 5 drives and tops out at 15TB of accumulated video. Everything can be viewed with the company’s Web-based software on a computer, phone or tablet.

The Cure for Writer’s Block

StoryStarterWriter’s block is an all-too common malady that afflicts early and experienced writers, but LEGO Education’s StoryStarter presents a great way to get ideas to flow from the writer’s brain onto a computer screen. By combining hardware and software, StoryStarter does the hard part by stimulating creative thinking, getting the juices flowing and turning ideas into completed class projects.

StoryStarter is a combination of an assortment of LEGO’s unique plastic building bricks and its StoryVisualizer program that can help kids model and carry-out a story. Aimed at grades two through five, StoryStarter makes learning seem like play. Basically, students build a model of part of the story to help think through its details and flow. They then write all about it in a familiar comic book format.

It can turn just about any kid into an instant writer. On the other hand, it really only works with fiction and creative writing projects rather than more formal critical or non-fiction essays.

The $235 Center Pack comes with five square bases to build onto along with more than 1,000 building pieces that range from animals, people, and trees to a good assortment of LEGO general purpose bricks. It’s just like one of the company’s play sets but without any preset notion as to what the child is expected to make. And, that’s the beauty of StoryStarter’s ability to let a child’s imagination run wild.

45100_three_scene_jack_and_the_beanstalkTo emphasize action and a storyline, the kit includes witches hats, crossbows and plastic chains. Students can augment these with pieces they bring from home or all sorts of objects from pictures to small objects.

Each Center Pack should be good for four or five individual or small group story dioramas and LEGO sells them in 5-packs for $690 for the typical class. Each kit comes in a large plastic storage container so that when all is said, done and written, the kids can put the pieces back into bins so they’re ready for the next class. At least, that’s the idea. I suspect that many of the pieces will end up in pockets, the trash and mouths.

If this was all that StoryStarter did, it would be a fine classroom teaching tool. But, building a LEGO representation of the story’s idea is just the start. The kit’s StoryVisualizer software is for turning the surge of creativity into a written project before the details are forgotten. Happily, it comes with a site license for the entire school to use the software, making it a multi-purpose teaching tool.

After registering, you open the software in a Web browser. Because the software resides online, there’s no installation or upgrading the program and it can run on just about any computer that can handle Flash 11.4. This allows older systems to be recycled for this purpose and students to work on their projects at home.

StoryVisualizer cUnfortunately, StoryVisualizer didn’t work with iPads (which doesn’t support Flash) or Android tablets (which doesn’t have an 11.4 version of Flash at this point). It, however, worked fine with a Chromebook. 

 You can set up a new writing project in portrait or landscape modes with a variety of preset designs that provide spaces for writing. If you like, create your own format from scratch. First, you drop in an appropriate background that fits your story and place the character in the scene. The characters can be imported images or even taken on the spot with a computer’s Web cam, but the program can’t paste images directly into the frame.

It’s a DIY effort because the program doesn’t include images of the LEGO bricks or characters the dioramas are made from. I took several close-up pictures of the most interesting plastic characters of a story and supplemented that with images dug up from the Internet.

While you can size and position the image and even change the color of the background scenes, the software doesn’t include even the most basic image editing abilities, like rotating or silhouetting. On the other hand, you can use Windows’ Paint or an easily downloaded program to do these image-prep tasks. 

In addition to an ample amount of comic-book action words like “Pop” or “Beep,” the kit includes a way to enter freeform text. As is the case with comics, you can add thought clouds and dialogue balloons. Just put it in the frame and pull the edge to near the character’s face and you’re ready to type in their comments.

StoryVisualizer aAt any time you can add an extra page or change their order. The left side has a Pages area that shows all the pages that have been worked on. If you make a mistake, it’s all editable and the program can undo any action. It doesn’t, however, respond to the Control-Z key combination for going back.

In addition to the expected text justification choices, the program, offers 10 different type sizes. It doesn’t use the system’s fonts, but StoryVisualizer has eight suitably informal fonts that can be used in any of 12 colors. There are also text effects, like a drop shadow and a blurring effect that can convey movement.

A small group of kids created a 10-page book about a bored boy who goes on a rocket trip to Mars. It was all done in two 45-minute periods. It was amazing how a story almost wrote itself once we made the LEGO model and got it started. When done, you can print, save and export it as a .pdf file suitable for emailing to a parent or compiling into a classroom-wide project, but it prints the project in single sheets, not a fold-together booklet.

While I like the way it can make writer’s block disappear, there’s no way to turn the text from the program into a file as the start of a more formal writing project or turn the comic book format into a video sequence with the student recording a voice-over of the dialogue and description.

The package comes with 24-specific projects as well as a 110-page curriculum guide that aligns key concepts with common core standards and lots of real-world suggestions of how to make the most of the system. It can even be made into a classroom game with the help of a spinner to build story-telling skills.                      

An excellent way to get kids writing and produce imaginative stories, StoryStarter is aptly named because it has the power to make classroom writer’s block a thing of the past and make the words flow freely. It’s a creative and intriguing way to teach and master language.

StoryStarter Center Pack

Price: $235

+ Great for getting a writing project started

+ Online software

+ Good selection of Lego parts

+ Common Core aware

+ Includes curriculum guide

+ Software site license


- Easy to lose parts

- Not able to use iPad or Android tablet

- Lacks basic image editing




Slide in Storage

Belkin Store and Charge - front viewForget everything you know about storing notebooks and tablets when they’re not in use because Belkin’s Store and Charge has an open top allowing kids and teachers to easily slide the systems in and out. Store and Charge holds up to 10 systems that are 1.2-inches thick or less and has a surge protected power strip that comes with a $15,000 lifetime warranty against electrical damage. It will go on sale in June and cost $199, much less than a traditional storage system.


Kestrel_Stage_Motorize_smallNeed a high-quality screen in a hurry? Elite Screens’ Kestrel is a free-standing projection screen that breaks down into three easy to move and store boxes. Available in 8.3- or 10-foot sizes, the Kestrel has a 16:9 aspect ratio for HD programming and wide-screen notebooks. It has a built-in motor that quickly extends the screen when the show is ready to start. It sells for $2,500 and $3,600 and comes with a three-year warranty for schools.

The Chrome Compass

Odyssey aCompass Learning’s Odyssey classroom content is now available for use on Chromebooks, expanding its usefulness as schools consider Google’s platform. All of Compass’s pre-K through 12 content is available, including six Advanced Placement courses. The best part is that the material looks and acts just like it does on a PC or Mac.

Odyssey bStudents get access to a wide variety of lessons that are paced to their individual learning styles as well as assessments that include fill-in, multiple choice, drag and drop as well as written material. Teachers can share lessons, set up community forums for online discussions and get to just about any item with a well-designed Dashboard. They can see who is leading and lagging in their lessons as well as compile a variety of reports for administrators. The program costs roughly $90 per student for a school of 250.


Freebee Friday: High Fives

Geta5Getting ready for an AP exam can be an anxiety-ridden process for both teacher and student. GetAFive (the highest AP exam grade) can help with free online prep classes. Studying starts with a diagnostic test to see what the kids know and –- more importantly –- don’t know. The instructional material is arranged in 15-minute videos that treat an entire topic completely along with quizzes and full practice AP tests. There are classes for Calculus AB, US and World History AP exams that are free until the AP exam. After that, they cost $50 per exam.


Big Screen

V652_rt2000x2666_GRPHSIf you’re tired of squinting at a projected image that gets washed out by overhead or sunlight, NEC’s MultiSyncV652 screen measures 65-inches (diagonally), displays super-bright images in full 1,920 by 1,080 HD resolution. The display is has a pair of 10-watt speakers built in and can even accommodate a single board PC built-in. The screen costs $5,000.



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Tech Tools are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.