Monthly Archives: May 2010

Projects Roundup: Create A Social Network For Your Class Using Buddypress

This project was one that proved to be very rewarding for me and I would encourage any of you that have the resources to set this up to do so. I have been using WordPress for a long time, and I am not ashamed to admit that I have a big old nerd crush on it. I have always found the platform to be feature rich and the community to be very friendly and helpful. I have been looking for a way to get students to want to blog, beyond it being required for a grade Buddypress seemed to be the perfect fit.

What you will need:

  1. A webhost. There are many webhosts available out there with reasonable rates. The benefits of purchasing your own web space are great, including total freedom in terms of customization and ownership of your own data.
  2. Once you have gotten yourself a web host, download and install WPMU. If you are familiar with self-hosted WordPress installations the process is exactly the same. If you have never done it here is a tutorial I made. With the last few WordPress installations the installation process has gotten even easier given that you no longer need to alter any files. You just upload the directory and go. By the way, if you are serious about using Buddypress with your class and think the installation process might be too difficult for you I will set it up for you via Skype, no sweat. I recently helped Silvia Tolisano set up this site using this process and it worked very well.

So you’ve got Buddypress up and running, now what? Well, Buddypress is essentially WordPress with a social networking layer added on top of it. You can do all of the great things that teachers have been doing with student blogs for years. The added benefits of using Buddypress with your students are these:

  • The default theme looks like Facebook. Ok, this is a little superficial I know but I have noticed that students at least seem a little more interested merely because it looks like something else they use, that they enjoy.
  • The activity stream. This is a great feature that looks and behaves very much like the activity streams in Facebook or Twitter. Everything that is happening on the site ends up in the stream in the order it happens. The stream also has its own RSS feed which makes it extremely handy to see what is happening on the site all in one place. With the addition of a plugin you can add a thumbs up or down feature so that users can rate events in the stream. Users can also comment on any entry that appears within the stream without leaving the page. All of these things enhance the interactivity of the site, hopefully sparking student interest.
  • Students have as much control over their blogging experience as you want them too. WPMU and Buddypress both have pretty robust control panels allowing you to tweak the experience to your liking. I allow students to select their own themes (that I install for them) and set up their own widgets so that there blogging space really becomes their own.
  • Users can create and maintain their own groups. Once groups are created users can be invited to and join the groups, these groups are then allocated their own space and members of the group can post content to that space.

So, who do I recommend this setup for? Anyone who is familiar with WordPress can use this system without much difficulty. You will need to find a webhost, so if this is something that is not doable financially for your district I would research a free web-based alternative. I ended up paying for my own hosting. If you are feeling super brave, I can envision this system being set up for an entire district with students, teachers, parents and everyone involved.

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Pass It On! Some Great Blogs to Take a Look At.

When I started this blog in September I wasn’t sure anyone would read it, so I was thrilled and humbled to be given the Pass It On blog award by Lisa Sanderson. Now it is my turn to pass it on and mention some blogs that I find informative, inspiring or entertaining.

The rules of this award:

1- Copy and display the picture of the award given to you;

2- Link back to the blog that nominated you;

3- Nominate 10 different blogs yourself;

4- Inform the people you nominated, so they can in turn, continue the chain and spread the word about other great blogs out there.

And the nominees are:

I had a hard time selecting ten blogs from the sixty or so that are fed to my Google reader daily. For this list I tried to select the ones that challenge me most, either intellectually and philisophically, or by giving great examples of amazing projects that I need to step up to the plate and try for myself.

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Step by Step Guide to Installing BuddyPress

At the request of my friend Silvia Tolisano I have decided to put together a step by step tutorial for installing Buddypress for you do-it-yourselfers out there. However, if this process seems to complicated to even attempt I will help anyone, that’s right anyone install Buddypress via a Skype session or two. That’s how much I am committed to open-source! If you are interested in having me help you set up Buddypress just contact me.

Browse to http://mu.wordpress.org. Click the download button on the front page.

Download the latest copy to your computer.

Open upyour web host’s Cpanel and open the file manager. Once you are in the file manager, browse to the public_html directory.
Now click upload and browse to the file that you just downloaded
Find the .zip file in the public_html directory. Check the box next to the file and click the extract button on the top tool bar. This will extract the contents of the .zip file into its own directory.
Find the directory that you just extracted and rename it to whatever you want, something like IAMUNBELIEVABLYCOOL would make a pretty cool URL.
Now that you have the folder in the correct place, you need to create a database for the information to live. Go back to the Cpanel and click on MySQL Databases.
Create a new database for your installation. Be sure to give it a name that makes sense to you and that you will remember.
Add your database user to the database you just made. If you don’t have any users set up you will need to make one, which you can do from the same page.
Give this user full control over the database by checking the All Privileges box.
Now everything is set up on the backend and you just need to tell your WPMU installation the information it needs. So now browse to the URL of the directory you created. It will be whatever name you gave to the WordPress-mu folder.
I recommend you chose the sub-directories option because it is the easier set up. If you want your addresses to be sub-domains you will have to a a wildcard record to your domain using the IP address of your server. Sound complicated? Use subdirectories. Fill in the information about your database. Remember that there will be a prefix related to your primary address that you have. Look at my screenshot.
The server address should be filled in for you. Change the site title and add your email, then click submit.
Login to the backend of the WordPress installation by clicking on the button and entering the password that was generated for you. On the left hand side of the dashboard you will see a tab marked Plugins. Click it, then click add new. Type Buddypress into the search bar and find the Buddypress plugin. Click install.
Select the Buddypress theme from the themes page and you are running BP!
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Projects Roundup: Poetry Portfolio with Carbonmade

I have been doing a poetry portfolio for years. Each year students produce a collection of original works as part of a unit where we learn about verse. Students are encouraged to express themselves while they create this collection and include original artwork, photography and other artifacts. When they are completed these collections have traditionally been something to behold and something that students could take with them. This year I really wanted to move the project into the digital realm for a couple of reasons: 1. I thought that more kids, including the ones who are not traditionally engaged in this exercise might get interested, 2. the digital portfolio is quite a bit more portable than the paper version, given that students only need to share a URL. So the first step in the process for me was to find the proper medium, and I had a few requirements.

  1. I wanted the collection to look and behave like a book, meaning that students would be able to virtually ‘flip’ through the collection.
  2. I wanted the collections to have a URL that was simple so that students could easily share it.
  3. I wanted the technology to be web-based, so that it was platform neutral and easy to use with any computer.

After considering many options and consulting with my PLN I settled upon Carbonmade, mainly because it met those requirements above but also because of their quirky design aesthetic. I looked at some of the exemplars that were posted on the website and thought they looked great, also the folks at Carbonmade were also quite receptive to the project when I tweeted about it so I was sold.

The only issue I had with the project is that I was asking the website to do something it wasn’t intended to do. Carbonmade’s primary cliental are artists and photographers, so at the moment the site is only equipped to handle picture files. The process of converting words to pictures is a somewhat complicated one, even for some digital natives but there are a number of different ways to do it. Here are some of the methods we used.

  • If you are using a word processor on a Mac you can print to .pdf, then open the .pdf with Preview and save as a .jpeg.
  • You can use Notebook from Smarttech on any platform, then file/export/image files.
  • If you are using Windows you can use MS Publisher and save as .jpeg.
  • You can use OpenOffice Draw on any platform then file/export/jpeg
  • I have also used an online tool called Zamzar with a lot of success. This website will convert nearly every file type there is.

Other than some of the hiccups students had with converting the words into images I think the project was a success. Here are some examples of student projects.

http://myportfolioofcharacters.carbonmade.com/

http://josephspoems.carbonmade.com/

http://mypoemsonline.carbonmade.com/

Just like any paper project, just make sure that students know what your expectations for them are by giving them a rubric and examples. If you have any questions about this project let me know.

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Should I Abandon Public Education?

Last week was a hard week to be a public educator. Between what is happening locally and nationally my frustration level is at an all time high. At a local level, my school like many other schools across the country has been hit by extraordinary cuts in state aide. I teach in a very small and rural school that is heavily dependent on that aid because of a small tax base. In the ten years I have been here I have seen a technology program go from two teachers to one, an art program go from two teachers to one, a home and careers program go from two teachers to one half-time teacher, and I have seen this district hire and fire at least three different physics teachers because of budget constraints. Beyond the budget woes, there have been a slew of other news items that have dishearted this normally stalwart advocate for public education. Take a look at this ad:

The tagline of this ad is “Stop listening to teacher’s unions“, and it ends with the line: “and make decisions that are gonna benefit the kids.” Put these two line together and you come up with teachers (who are represented by unions) do not make decisions that benefit kids. Maybe I’m feeling over sensitive, but this ad punched me in the gut. This ad follows on the coat tails of a front page story that was run in the Syracuse newspaper entitled: Recession doesn’t hold back Central New York teachers’ raises , normally I could have just shrugged this off as inflammatory yellow journalism written to sell copies, but look at the comments that appear below the article. Here is an example of one.

Unions are powerfull ------Better take a look around -----Who's going to pay taxes when all the business go south or go out of business .Oh by the way I think there should be a new law ----like school kids who don't own property or pay taxes shouldn't be voting on issues of school taxes. Teachers butter up the kids and get them out to vote. Same kids who vote get educated here and leave town.

These are the opinions of my neighbors who feel free to express their honest opinions under the protection of anonymity, and it seems that the only comments coming to the defense of teachers are written by teachers.

Where am I going with this rant you might ask? Certainly teachers have been under fire before as spoiled over paid babysitters. Well now I am a dad. My son is two and a half and I have begun to contemplate his education. These sentiments that I have mentioned above, coupled with the budget constraints, coupled with accountability pressures on the state and national level, coupled with unreasonable moral expectations are driving talented young teaching prospects away from the profession. All of us know that greatest variable to have an impact on a child’s education is the classroom teacher and passionate teachers take this stuff personally, how many will be left in 2 1/2 years? My son loves art and music and these seem to be the first programs to get the axe when school budgets get tight, will I have to pay for private lessons? Does this mean that arts programs become the exclusive purview of the rich?

Should I abandon public education and home school my son?

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