Category Archives: Classroom

Converting images to text

Tech Tips for Tuesday

You’ve snapped a couple paragraphs out of an online source and saved it to your hard drive as a JPEG. You need the text — your students are expected to copy and paste it into their document to edit and annotate — but you don’t want to re-type it.

Is there a magic app that will take an image of text and turn it into editable text? Yes, and it’s already on your computer and your Chromebook. There is an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) option in the upload settings in Google Drive.
To convert an image into text using Google Drive…
  1. Click the cog icon in the top right of Google Drive, and hover on the Upload Settings sub-menu.
  2. Enable “Convert text from uploaded PDF and image files”
  3. Use the Upload icon in Google Drive (upward-pointing arrow in the red box next to Create), and select the file from your hard drive.
  4. The new file in Google Drive will be a PDF containing the image and the OCRed text.



Group work

I want to address a chronic problem that I’ve been overlooking, regarding group work. The assignments are too casual, generally along the lines of “OK, now turn to your partner and discuss how to solve quadratic equations.” (To be fair to myself, sometimes it’s actually a bit more specific than that.)

This year I’m going to assign specific roles and publish the tasks that make up each role. There will be one set of roles for pairs and another set for teams of four. (The students sit in teams of four. It’s easy to instantly work as four or as two.) The details:


Scribe keeps notes and writes summary. Reporter summarizes findings for whole group.


Captain facilitates discussions, including monitoring deadlines.  Manager of Quality Control inspects written work for clarity, accuracy, completeness, and is also responsible for collecting and distributing materials. Scribe takes notes and writes summary of work. Reporter summarizes findings of whole group.

In teams of four, roles are associated with specific seating assignments. Students are assigned numbered seats within each group, with the numbers 1-4  matching the quadrants in a coordinate plane. Team captain sits in top-right seat (of group of four), with other roles following counter-clockwise.

Additionally, in my class these quadrants are mapped to the four suits in standard playing cards, for purposes of randomly calling on individual students. (Spade=1; heart=2; club=3; diamond=4.) When I randomly pull the eight of clubs from my deck, this represents the student sitting in Team 8, seat #3.

Beats “you don’t belong here” — right?

Just wrote this on a student’s latest test:

Time to face the reality that to succeed this semester you will need to spend more time on the new material and polish up your Algebra 1 skills. I recommend doing all assignments twice. (The second time through should be neat and clear enough that it could go in a textbook.) Call/email/text a buddy at night to compare even-numbered answers. You will be ready for the next day if your homework is perfect and so complete and legible that someone in this class could learn from it, even if they missed the lesson.

I also added a note, with an arrow pointing to the paragraph above: “Please show this to your parents.”

If the kid were a behavior issue, I might take a more direct approach: “Please find another class. Here’s a pass to your counselor.” I don’t think he has a hope. This is an Algebra 2 Honors class, and he’s missing all kinds of basics. He failed to pick up the crucial difference of squares pattern when we reviewed it, and it’s hurting him now.

His homework is a mess. He never asks questions or shows up for tutoring. The class has 41, so if he chooses escape (without my prodding), it might be best for all.

Student teacher

My student teacher began this week.

(This is semi-astounding, considering that it was only ten years ago that I started taking math classes, motivated primarily by the desire to stay ahead of my kids as they began high-school math. My interest evolved into an inkling that I might want to do this for a living and then into a new career. I now have a teaching credential and a master’s degree — plus the student loans that go with them — a student teacher, a health academy, and a math department to chair. And I’m starting a competitive robotics club on campus.)

The student teacher completely took over two periods for me today while I attended meetings on campus. She’s even doing her own planning. I’m almost bored!

JK. We cruise different parts of the room, pull out groups of kids for special remediation, discuss upcoming lessons, …. I’m still busy. But it’s always nice to have another adult in the room, even if it’s only to roll eyes with.

Obfuscatory elucidation

What is it about this email that kept me irritated all night? Something more than the verbosity, I’m sure.

This is from one of my 8th graders who always needs to be the exception:

  • I shouldn’t have to re-take the test because I just made dumb little errors.
  • Sorry I’m late (for the 10th time this semester). Can you check my homework now?
  • Can I turn in the assignment late since we had to drive to San Diego over the weekend?

In this latest example, it’s “can I use different software since my computer plus my browser won’t do what you’re asking?” (For the record, every one of my Internet assignments includes the warning, “Do this wherever you can. If your system at home isn’t working, use the one at the school library/your friend’s house/my classroom.”)

It seems to me that my server or browser is of the “lesser-compatible side of the scale” next to the lucidcharts system. I believe that the creator(s) are aware of the software’s slow-speed and inability for Internet explorer, thus I have taken notice to a window in the top left corner of the screen advertising to “run lucidcharts 20% faster”. Most, if not all of these options are highly unlikely to take effect on my computer, due to recent computer crashes from foreign software (my father had grown rather cautious, thus he is reluctant to install unknown software onto our desktops.) With your permission, I would think it more efficient to create a powerpoint “lucidchart” and to email you the file link early tomorrow as my rough-draft, rather than use the lucid chart system. The final item of business that I am uncertain of is the time the file must be emailed by. Must it be emailed by late tonight, or by early tomorrow morning? Either way makes no difference to me, because it will be done by then.

Also, I think that I should raise the fact that I need to take my chapter test, as well as retake a few quizzes that might help my grade. I figured I would do these tasks after school at the high school, with your convenience and permission. As the last item of work to be brought up, I never requested you to stamp the homework I did over my absence. Would it be possible to receive full credit for completing it, even though it wasn’t stamped right away?

Thank You.

I think this warrants the direct approach: “Little Johnny, as you go through life, you’ll find people don’t appreciate this. You may have noticed that I don’t appreciate this. This will be the last exception I make for you.”

How long will it take?

Wow. This is fascinating and obvious: rather than providing all the links and scaffolding, present the problem completely stripped down.

A photograph of an octagonal, lucite water tank, being filled by a water hose. Ask the class, “How long will it take to fill the tank?” Without all the math notation — coordinate plane, labeled vertices and angles, formulas — everyone in the class gets involved in the conversation, including the kids who instinctively step back and let the “smart kids” do the work.

Students have to (and do, according to Meyer) ask the questions that are normally supplied by the textbook: how fast is the water running? how tall is the tank? how wide is the tank? what’s the shape of the tank? is there a formula that applies?

My students can’t add 1+1

Literally. (Sort of.)

I’ve given my Algebra 2 students (mostly sophomores) several quizzes over the last few weeks, testing their ability to add and subtract integers. Many of them repeatedly got the wrong answer for this problem:

1 – (-1) = [a box for the answer]

I became incensed one night in October when I recognized the horrible state of their arithmetic fundamentals. Although in California this is a 7th grade standard — which puts them only three years behind — the basics of this should have been building in them since about 3rd grade. Subtraction is the inverse of addition, the left half of the number line contains the negative numbers, etc.

What did I do with my anger? I announced in class that no one would pass the semester without being able to demonstrate competency in integer arithmetic. I said I would talk to an assistant principal and decided whether to give an F or an I for the final grade of those who couldn’t subtract. The response was predictable:

  • “You can’t do that.”
  • “We couldn’t have gotten this far in math without being able to subtract.”
  • “How are you going to decide whether or not we can subtract?”
  • “Will we give an F or an I?”

The second response was especially funny because it came from a girl who got a 7 out of 20 on her most recent integer subtraction quiz. (In fact, she escalated the discussion to the point of rudeness. I ended up showing her the quiz — while her classmates watched — in order to end the discussion.)

I’ve developed a set of 20-question quizzes and a very handy answer key that makes it possible for my TA to grade 40 quizzes in about 10 minutes. I administer the quizzes every few days, during class, to the students who haven’t reach 15 points.

Note: it’s now several weeks since my announcement. I’ve spoken to two APs. Both said, “You can’t do that.” I haven’t told the students I can’t do that, so as far as they know I can and will.

You’re on your own

I had an especially fidgety Geometry class a few weeks ago, and so I threatened them with removing all the support systems that have been handicapping them. “From your behavior, you’re telling me you don’t need me.” Specifically, beginning next semester, I would no longer teach.

The new, improved, more useful, more productive class would run like this:

  1. There will be a test for each chapter on a pre-announced date.
  2. There will be a practice test available for you well in advance.
  3. I will assign homework, for those of you who want to do it, but I won’t check it or give a grade for it.
  4. I will not lecture. I will sit in the back of the room, drinking coffee. If you want my help for anything, I will be there.

Other than the coffee part, I will follow through on this for the first unit. (This unit, Transformations, is relatively self-contained. A good place to experiment.)

There were three reactions from the students:

  1. “Great! I’m an independent learner, and I’ve been frustrated by the stupid questions my classmates ask.”
  2. “Oh no! I can’t learn unless I’m in a traditional lecture/homework/quiz/test environment.”
  3. “Sweet! I won’t have to do any homework or take any notes.”

We all know the students in Group 3 are kidding themselves. I also believe that some individuals in the other groups will be surprised by how things actually turn out. Some of them will be pleasantly surprised, and some will be disappointed.

Is this irresponsible of me? Maybe, but there should be plenty of time in the semester for their grades to recover, and I will allow re-takes of the test. I think we’ll all learn something.

Spiral notebooks

I require the students to own spiral binders. I give one out to each student on the first day. (I teach five classes. Each has 40 students. I can get spiral binders for about $0.30 each if I’m lucky. You do the math.)

Students do primary work on right-hand pages (of spiral binder) only. This is for notes and homework. Left-hand pages are for miscellaneous: arithmetic, drawings, quick tables, other real-time work, etc.

On the homework log — a separate piece of paper — students track a month’s worth of homework. I examine it at the beginning of each period. Each student. Every day.

I travel with an assistant who mans the stamp. I announce the number of points. If the points are fewer than 10, I also announce a code or codes explaining why they missed points. (There is a legend on the back of the homework log.) The assistant stamps the homework and the log. At the end of the week, I do all this and record the number of points for the week.

It’s a lot of work, but in an organized class I can do it in about six minutes. I will not visit a student twice or wait for them to get their things out.

Cell Phones for Learning


The cell phone debate rages in classrooms, staff lounges and kitchens around the world: How can we keep these devices of the devil from derailing learning? Cell phones have the power to disrupt a classroom in many ways: students forget to turn them off and they ring in class, students use them for sending and receiving text messages (whose content may be innocuous and social or may sometimes be more serious, such as personal threats or drug deals), they get stolen or lost and instruction time is lost to their retrieval.

Literature Review

A review of the literature reveals two sides to the discussion. On the first side are the people who reluctantly admit that campus security requires that students have cell phones with them turned off and inactive except in emergencies. Opposing this view are the people who believe cell phones should be embraced as classroom tools that can engage and motivate students better than traditional methods and tools.

Historically, as cell phones became smaller, cheaper and more commonplace over the last 15 years, phones were clearly disruptive in the classroom and had no redeeming value; schools throughout the country banned them outright. After the events of Columbine and 9/11, Beth Lynne points out in her essay “Cell Phones and the Classroom: Schools and Parents Should Adopt Clear Policies to Benefit All,” parents and students began to push for more moderate policies, recognizing the safety benefits of having personal devices for instant communication (Lynne, 2007). However, the school districts’ limited acceptance of cell phones in schools raised as many questions as it resolved. Lynne’s article enumerates a few of these:

  • Should students be able to call their parents during class and have them listen in on the teacher’s reprimands to the class?
  • Should camera phones be allowed?
  • Should students be required to leave phones at home during state-mandated testing (makes cheating easier)?
  • Have there really been emergencies in which a student’s cell phone has been the savior?

Collette Georgii (2007) recommends the simple step of checking in phones with the teacher on entrance to the classroom, the purpose of which is to minimize disruptions due to confiscation or students’ sneaking phone activity. Apparently, this is practical for her, with cell phones previously labeled with name, address and homeroom.

As some teachers have noticed, although we block YouTube and confiscate MP3 players, there is a lot of truly dangerous technology that we allow students to work with, including rulers, solvent-loaded markers, and pencils. In an essay in, Wesley Fryer (2007) lists the rules we have developed over the years to accommodate having scissors in the classroom:

“No one (regardless of age) is permitted to run with scissors. Use of scissors to threaten or injure others is not tolerated. We keep scissors available in our classrooms to use at need, but we recognize the menu of uses for that tool must be limited by the attitudes, language, and actions of multiple stakeholders in the educational learning culture, not merely the teacher of record in the classroom.”

Outside the U.S., restrictions against classroom cell-phone use have fallen; in fact, many countries have embraced the new technology, especially in the university setting (Chinnery, 2006). Pilot programs in Korea, New Zealand, Australia, China and Japan have used SMS (text messaging) for polling and, most commonly, for second-language learners.

In contrast to the American teachers and administrators who reflexively restrict cell-phone possession and use, many teachers have made themselves into cell-phone proselytes. One of these is Marc Prensky, who has built an entire industry (web site, online persona, consultancy, dozens of articles throughout the web) around his own personality of Web 2.0 expertise (Prensky, 2006). Among other cell-phone ideas, Prensky suggests poetry games, phone-in caption contests, and classes conducted only via text messaging.

Probably the queen of cell-phone proponents is Liz Kolb, a former classroom teacher, district technology coordinator and current university professor. In her one-hour presentation, “Cell Phones as Classroom Learning Tools” (2007), she makes the case that cell phones have the capability to become the “Swiss Army Knife” of technological tools for the 21st-century classroom. Among the many creative cell-phone applications Kolb discusses on her blog, are the following:

  • “buzzers” (as used in classroom performance systems such as Qwizdom) where individual students or teams text messages to a special email account set up by the teacher;
  • cameras to be used in scavenger hunts (especially over winter and spring breaks);
  • clients for Powerpoint presentations;
  • mini-recording studios for oral history and other audio projects;
  • instant recording and upload devices for video projects (in conjunction with free video-storage sites such as YouTube and Eyespot.

Position Statement

Kolb’s enthusiasm and creativity is infectious. Her presentation takes viewers through many examples of integrated cell-phone use, in full detail. I was able to set up and use a free account at Gabcast in less than five minutes; I then called an 800 number from my cell phone and recorded an “episode” on Gabcast that was automatically published with a simple URL. She even addresses what you would do when you have a classroom with less than 100% cell phone ownership (give group assignments) and makes suggestions about minimizing families’ costs for cell phone use.

Unfortunately, Kolb doesn’t address two huge issues:

  • How will you get administration buy-in for in-classroom cell phone use?
  • With students using cell phones in the classroom, how can you keep them on the assignment, vs. playing around?

I suspect, the first issue would be simpler to address. You could begin by integrating cell phone assignments into your plans where phone use is only outside the classroom and work your way toward in-class use. When you’re ready to use phones in the classroom, you could either not mention the cell-phone use to the administration or fully document past use and your upcoming plans, overwhelming the administration with your massive organizational skills.

Regarding the second issue, how do we keep students on task currently? Whatever the system is, we know it’s imperfect: students continue to pass notes, throw paper airplanes, chat with each other, and … yes, even discreetly use cell phones for texting.


Chinnery, G. (2007). EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES. Going to the MALL: Mobile Assisted Language Learning. Language Learning & Technology. 10(1). 9-16.

Freyer, W. (2007). Scissors and Cell Phones. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from

Georgii, C. (2007). Teacher tips: How to deal with student cell phones in the classroom. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from

Lynne, B. (2007). Cell Phones and the Classroom. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from

Kolb, L. (2007). Teen Content Creators and Consumers. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from

Kolb, L. (2007). From Toy to Tool: Cell Phones in Schools. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from

Prensky, M. (2006). Using Cell Phones in School for Learning. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from