Category Archives: How-Tos

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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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 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.

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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Digital Storytelling with Animoto: My Teachmeet Presentation

This past Friday I delivered my first virtual presentation via Skype at Teechmeet Nashville 2010. My presentation was about digital storytelling using Animoto. Here are the resources if you are interested in using the project or adapting it for your class.

Here is the project and the rubric. – the students don’t create the story per se, instead they make judgements about what they have read by choosing media that reflect their interpretation. The most important part of the project is for the students to explain these judgements.

Here are two examples of the finished project. Students were required to present the project and explain the choices they made.

This is one that a student made after reading The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.

This is one that a student made after reading The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant.

I thought that the presentation went alright, I was a little nervous about it because it was my first virtual presentation and I was never really sure how the audience was responding. But I think it went over well and I heard someone mention Animoto during Steven Anderson’s speech so someone thought it was useful. I really think I have witnessed the future of professional development with Teachmeet. Everyone was there because they wanted to be there, neither the presenters, nor the participants got any money. It was clear that everyone that was there was willing and eager to learn something. I was completely inspired.

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More #Edchat Tips: Surviving the Maelstrom

After reflecting on it for a while, I have come to the conclusion that nothing has has a more profound impact on my development as an educator this year than my participation in #edchat (if you don’t know about #edchat click here and check it out). Although the chats themselves are quite stimulating, the more important thing to me has been the connections and relationships that have developed as a result of my participation. These relationships display what is best about Web 2.0 technologies, like minded people who share common passions are able to work together regardless of proximity. A few weeks ago I was able to act as a judge for a poetry contest (click here to see the winner of that contest) at a high school in Burlington, Mass. through an online interaction I had with Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal), in early June I will be making a presentation at a TeachMeet in Nashville, TN because of a connection that I made with Jason Bedell (@jasontbedell). I never would have been able to do these things had I not met these people, and I never would have met these people without the #edchat conversation.

That being said, the #edchat conversation can be quite overwhelming especially at first. The Twitter platform is an interesting place to hold any conversation because of it’s innate constraints, it is built for speed and economy. When I first started participating in #edchat I compared the experience to being in a gymnasium filled with educators shouting out there opinions about a topic. Sometimes I am able to hear individuals from out of the noise, then I would engage with those I heard. The #edchat community seems to have grown exponentially since then and the metaphor is more like a sports arena filled with educators shouting their opinions, but the previous philosophy still works.

So here are my tips for making #edchat a more rewarding experience for you.

  1. Pick a client program that works for you. I personally use Tweetdeck with columns set up to follow the hashtag and certain people. Others I know prefer to use Tweetgrid (here is a great tutorial), still others use the web interface. Use whatever medium works for you, the important thing is that it refreshes frequently to keep up with the conversation.
  2. More important than the client you choose, is HOW you participate, this is what I do:
    1. Follow the moderators! The moderators for the conversation will be announced before the chat begins. Pay attention to the #edchat hashtag before the conversation starts to learn who the moderators are. Follow the moderators by creating a search for them. The moderators do a great job of keeping the conversation moving by asking questions. When they ask a question reply directly to them with an answer.
    2. Pick a few people to interact with. Realize that you are not going to be able to interact with everyone in the #edchat gymnasium. Follow the conversation an pick a few tweets that you find particularly interesting and respond to them. If the person who sent the original tweet replies to your reply you have started a conversation. Likewise if someone replies to one of your tweets, reply back to them to continue the conversation.
    3. Don’t share links during the conversation. The #edchat hashtag has become more than a weekly conversation. It is used all the time to tag something that might be useful for educators. But speed is of the essence during the conversation itself and links slow the conversation down. If you take the time to find a link and post it you will miss something, if you click on a link during the conversation you are missing something. Save your links until after the conversation is over.
    4. Follow the people who you interacted with. This is a great way to build your PLN. You want to fill your PLN with people who are willing to engage with you and I have found this to be an extremely effective method of discovering great people.
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How to Have a Nearly Synchronous Discussion With Your WP Blog

I have discovered some neat ways to use a blog in a classroom and I thought I would share them with you here. Using a few plugins you can facilitate a pretty engaging online conversation with your students while still maintaining a reasonable level of security. I use this technique to discuss literature that I assign to students, but I could be applied to any topic.

Step 1: Technical Preparation

You will need to have a computer for every student as well as one for yourself, you can either use a 1 to 1 laptop set up or a traditional computer lab.

You will need to have a WordPress self-hosted blog set up (I suppose you could use or another blogging platform, but my experience is with WP). Once your blog is up and running install the following plugins (for instructions on installing plugins click here).

  • Admin Management Xtended – this plugin allows you to quickly edit, approve, delete or reply to comments in-line without a page refresh which is essential for moving quickly.
  • WP Comment Remix – this plugin adds some useful functionality to comments including a quote button and a link to all comments that you haven’t yet replied to.
  • ReloadEvery Plugin for Firefox – this plugin for Firefox will make a page reload at a certain interval that you set.

The following plugins are nice but not essential.

  • Minimum Comment Length – this plugin does what it says, allowing you to set a minimum character length for comments.
  • GD Star Rating – a pretty comprehensive set of rating tools. Lets users give star or thumb ratings to nearly every aspect of the blog including posts and comments. Great for enhancing interactivity.

Step 2: Content Preparation

Assign a reading to your students in advance. It can be anything and in an format. Be sure to tell your students that they will be expected to answer questions on the reading in the future. Next before you begin the activity write at least three new posts containing questions about the reading. The more open ended you leave the questions, the more discussion you will generate.

Step 3: Running the Conversation

Open the comments administration page of your blog, you should see a vertical list of all of your comments here. Right click on the page and set the ReloadEvery time (see video). I like to set it at 1 minute because I am kind of a slow typist and if the page reloads while you are responding to a comment you will lose it, but if you are a faster typist set it at 30 seconds.

Now simply moderate and respond to the comments as they come in.

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