Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Drill and Thrill- Rocket Math Free

These days, educational practice is taking a swing away from what is considered traditional education. Proponents of education are speaking about engagement, authentic activities, real-world experience, and other wonderful terms.  It is actually a pretty cool time to be a teacher and/or a student. 

That said, I am a fairly traditional guy.  Now, you may be thinking, This guy blogs on the web about using cutting edge technology in the classroom. How is that traditional? 

Well, being a math teacher, I firmly base my instruction on the premise that students not only need to know how to use the skills taught, but they also need to be fluent in using those skills.  To clarify, I will use an analogy using foreign language.  If you only taught a student the mechanics of correct sentence structure in Spanish, they would know how to structure sentences and create language in Spanish, but if they don't actually practice speaking, they will never become fluent at speaking and understanding Spanish.  They need to practice. 

I am of the mindset that this applies to most subject areas, especially Mathematics. That said, I don't think that we should only use "drill and kill" activities.  Those don't capture the minds of our students.  They don't teach the value of the skills being taught.  However, there comes a time when a student is well versed in a concept and they need to become fluent in their computation.  For instance, as a 4th grade Math teacher, I come across students who simply can't multiply basic facts without using fingers, singing a song, or drawing a picture.  While all of these methods will get you an answer, and in many cases a correct answer, they won't do it in any kind of efficient manner.  Thus, drill and practice activities are of key importance in growing strong practical knowledge of a concept.

To this end, I am going to put together a series of articles called Drill and Thrill.  The idea is to provide activities that are fun for students to do and have built-in elements of engagement, but that drill concepts that students need to build fluency in. 

In this first article, I want to talk about Rocket Math Free.  This is yet another iPod app that allows students to explore various math concepts in a timed manner using a custom designed rocket ship!  The student creates their account and builds their rocket ship.  Once completed, the ship is taken to various missions where it is launched into space.  When it launches the student is given a task to complete before the rocket stalls out and falls back to earth.  For instance, one task I was given when touring the app was to select all of the clocks that showed a time of 4:15.  So, in the time that my rocket made it to outerspace and began to fall, I had to select as many clocks that showed 4;15 as I could.  I was positively going crazy trying to select my way around a cloud of clocks, try to pick the correct clocks while avoiding others that might get in the way. 

Once the student is done, the rocket falls back to earth and, based on it position while falling, does some excellent flips! 

This particular app tests a variety of math related topics from telling time to basic multiplication.  Students are able to go back and try select missions multiple times if they need additional practice in a specific concept. As the student gains more points, he or she can also further modify their rocket. 

I recommend this particular app for students in grades 3 and 4.  The variety of concepts can be a bit tough for younger students while the simplicity of each task can be a bit easy for older students.  All-in-all I would give this app a solid B+.  All for the bargain price of FREE!  Check Rocket Math Free by downloading it from your App Store. 


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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Using Geocaching to Build Map Skills and Student Engagement

I have recently become very intrigued by the idea of Geocaching.  For those of you who don't know what this interesting hobby is, take a look at  Simply put, Geocaching is the hobby of using GPS to discover hidden caches of interesting good that people have hidden in manner of places.  I live in the Dallas area and there are about 100 geocaches within 15-20 minutes of my house.  Caches are hidden to varying degrees of camoflauge and take varying degrees of expertise and fitness to find.  They also can have a variety of loot in them, sometimes even money!  The catch is that you have to put something in when you take something out. 

What's better is that I have found an app for locating and identifying the difficulty and rewards of various caches in your areas.  Even better still is that it's free!  The app is call OpenCaching and it links to .  You can easily find caches in your local area or range far and wide in search of caches in destinations that you might be going to in the future.  The site is free to use and once you create an account (also free) you can search for, log, and register your own hidden caches! 

I may just be a nerdy teacher type, but this sounds like a ton of fun.  It's kind of like being a pirate looking for buried treasure.  For those of you with children, this could be a great activity to get you out of the house and spend some quality time with the boys and girls. 

It doesn't take a world-class teacher to see that this hobby has a ton of implications for the classroom. Here are a few ideas for some lesson ideas that you can utilize with Geocaching.

1) In order to develop map skills like cardinal direction knowledge, map reading, and direction/instruction writing, hide a cache on campus and register it with Allow students to use the Opencaching app on an iPod Touch to search out the cache.  When they are done, they need to be able to write a detailed instruction sheet using cardinal directions and approximate distances so that another student can find the cache.  Here's an example of an activity that I put together that utilizes map skills.  Feel free to use it.  Geocaching Activity.

2) Use the cache itself as an engagement tool.  As in #1, hide a cache on your school campus and register it.  Allow students to use the Opencaching app to find it.  Inside should be some sort of academic activity, such as a puzzle using recently taugh mathematics concepts.  Upon finishing the activity correctly, students are allowed to take a treasure out of the cache.

3) Have a class create their own cache and fill it with objects that symbolize and tell about what they are learning in class.  Have them decide on a location (from a predetermined list of locations that you set) to hide the cache off-campus and ask them to devise a means of camoflaging the cache.  Then go and hide it!

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  If you have used, are using, or want to use Geocaching in your classroom, leave a comment and share your ideas and experiences here.  I would love to hear how this is being used to enrich students' educational experience. 


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Monday, July 11, 2011

Questionaut: Using Fun to Develop Problem Solving and Academic Skills

If you haven't been to BBC's Bitesize education site yet, you simply need to go.  Run don't walk.  It is put together extremely well and the material covered is very closely related to national and state standards here in the US and Texas.  I really enjoy the science lessons as they provide exciting experiment-style activities that are engaging while also containing enough information for them to be considered a learning experience and not simply play. 

Questionaut is a flash based game from BBC and requires the player to take the Questionaut through multiple floating islands in a surreal cartoon landscape in order to find his friend's hat.  Along the way, the player must identify how to manipulate each environment to gain access to questions that will fill his balloon and allow him to climb higher to each new level. 

Questionaut is great for helping students build problem solving and critical thinking skills while at the same time testing basic academic concepts.  The beautifully rendered graphics and wild, surreal landscapes and characters will keep students engaged to the point where they won't even realize they are working. 

A word of caution seems necessary though.  As this is a British site, there are some odd language differences such as variant spelling on words and alternate meanings for words than found here in the US.  Also, you will sometimes encounter concepts that may not seem grade level appropriate based on state and national standards, but most questions are close enough. 

I recommend Questionaut for higher level 3rd grade students through 5th grade students.


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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Using an iPod Touch in the Classroom

For my inaugural post, I wanted to outline a project that I am working on for the summer for use this year in my classroom.  I am taking a look at using the iPod Touch in the classroom.  Now, I know what you are saying. This may not sound too original.  Then again, to some this may sound pretty cool. I think this media device has a lot of potential in the classroom. 

Apple products have a very unique, kinesthetic method of operation.  This proves interesting because the kinesthetic method for operation for iPods and iPads is fairly intuitive to children. It's us old fogeys who have a harder time connecting with the devices, but I digress.  Due to this quality, iPods are highly desirable and engaging amongst students.  As a matter of fact, many of my students over the years have owned their own and were adept at using them for a plethora of pursuits.

It is with the iPod Touch that I am going to experiment incorporating some free time activities and projects in my math classes as well as finding some activities for my fellow teammates on the fourth grade team.

A great way to find uses for an iPod is to take a look at the App Store in iTunes.  This is a catalog of various applications (apps) that you can use on an iPod.  Some cost money while some are free.

As a matter of fact, just today I came across a free app called Flashcardlet.  This is a flashcard generation and review app.  Based on my initial investigation, it seems to be a neat way to create and review your own flashcard creations. 

You can also download previously made and share flashcard collections from The beauty of this is that you can create your own sets of flashcards on Quizlet and then download them onto multiple iPods in your classroom.  You can even add pictures!  Imagine having students who actually want to look at and practice multiplication or states and capitals flashcards.  Cool, right?  You can also create groups and allow students to make their own flashcards.  Then, share them either on the iPod app or online at Quizlet.

Check out this quick introduction to Quizlet recorded by a teacher in California. 

I will investigate further into how the site and app integrate and get back with a product review soon.  In the meantime, check out the App Store and if you have any neat ideas for Flashcardlet or other flashcard apps for the iPod, feel free to post a comment and share them.  Thanks for reading!