It’s a Widget

tips Wolfram Alpha

 Sunday Sit, Sip, and “Sync” ~ 1-29-2012

One of our favorite resources across any curriculum at any level is


Within the Wolfram|Alpha site, you will find a Widget Gallery that includes 29 categories.

What is a widget?

According to Wolfram|Alpha’s “Definition Widget”,
it is “…a device or control that is very useful for a particular job.”

A “widget” is described in the introduction to their tour as “A free, personalized mini-app that leverages the depth and breadth of the Wolfram|Alpha computational knowledge engine.”

To learn more about Wolfram|Alpha’s Widgets,
we invite you to take “The Tour”.

And if you’re feeling very confident and are up to the challenge,
you might want to try your hand at creating your own custom-made widget that works just for your unit of study or curriculum.

I did…


Homework Day

Conferences reflections Wolfram Alpha

The term “Homework Day” conjures up several images in my mind.

  • Students with overwhelmed looks on their faces
  • Bulging backpacks taking on rectangular shaped outlines
  • Frustrated parents bent over kitchen tables helping their children

When I think of “Homework Day”, I definitely don’t think of the phrase, “Lights, Camera, Action”.  But that is exactly what Wolfram Alpha’s Live Web Event entitled “Homework Day” had in mind.

Mom and I were lucky enough to be asked to participate in this live web event after word got out that we have been using in our classrooms with our students.  Not only have we been successfully using this site with our students, we have had rave reviews about it from educators with whom we have shared it during our workshops and presentations.

The Internet Cafe - Photo by Megan Bearder

We took a half day off from our respective 4th and 5th grade classrooms to drive to Wolfram Alpha Headquarters for our world-wide debut.  Did I just type, “world-wide”?  While we have done a ton of presentations for a ton of teachers, we have never participated in a global event.  This was EXCITING!

After entering “The Set” I was immediately mic’d and placed in front of the SMARTBoard in order to go live within 15 minutes for a demonstration of how I have been using Wolfram Alpha in the classroom.  It was just like I imagine TV personalities are queued.  A number of cameras from a number of different locations all pointed and ready, a producer counting down, the host getting ready to hop in to crack a joke or ask a question, it was all surrounding me.

All of a sudden I didn’t feel too well.  Nerves?  Uhhhh….yes!

But something funny happened…as soon as the cameras started rolling and I picked up the SMARTBoard pen, it was like I was presenting at a workshop, or teaching my kiddos.  I felt totally at home.

I was thrilled to show the ways I have been using this site with my students.  I made sure to include a variety of examples for a variety of curricular areas…just like we do in our workshops.  The host actually spoke with me briefly before we went live to make sure he knew what I was showing. “Math examples right?”

On a side note, the developers of Wolfram Alpha also happen to be the creators of Mathematica.  This extraordinary software is used globally for upper level math.  So obviously I would be showing math examples…right?

Wrong.  Recess TEC prides itself in showcasing the use of technology across all different curricular areas, learning modalities, and ability levels…and I mean ALL.  This demonstration was no different.  I made sure to show how I have been using the site for Social Studies, English, Spelling, Reading, Science and Math.  I even had a music example up my sleeve but didn’t show it only because they asked me to show how I use it in my class and I am not the music teacher.  But if I WERE the music teacher, I would still be using this site…because there is something for everyone…which is truly the Recess TEC mantra!

After my demo, Mom and I were escorted by a young intern to the kitchen to make sure we had everything we needed.

Something to eat? Drink?

An autograph session with Richard Dreyfuss?

That’s right…not 10 feet from the potato salad bowl sat Richard Dreyfuss waiting for his interview segment.

Was this really happening?

I felt much better and my nerves were gone.  I just had the residual high from presenting something about which I am passionate with anyone who will listen. What to do?  Get something to eat.

I turned to Mom and asked her if she wanted to eat…the look on her face told me her answer.  She was experiencing my same nervousness.  Her interview was still an hour away.

During that hour, we had the opportunity to meet and speak with some of the friendliest people in education.  It was fabulous…and sort of surreal.

I will let Mom tell you about her interview and experience during Homework Day from her point of view.  But I can’t help but point out that she was awesome!  The ever so calm and collected veteran educator who answers questions from the heart and continues to find new and exciting ways to motivate and challenge her students did just that during her Q and A session with Eric. (A.K.A the Conan look alike…according to the web chat that was rolling all day).

As Shannon described, this day was beyond exciting. It ranked up there above my skydive and… almost everything else. To sit and watch your daughter present at a global event and to feel the pride that only a parent would understand ranked up there with her birth. Shannon did a wonderful job and she did justice as a spokesperson for the “product” that is truly our future.

I did have a tiny butterfly fluttering before my interview, but I don’t think it was my nerves so much as the adrenalin that was picked up from the excitement that permeated the whole atmosphere. Even the “audio guy” who mic’d me up told me he was genuinely excited about the day, the event, and even seeing Richard Dreyfuss.

As I was placed shoulder-to-shoulder with the host on the “X”…  even an “X” on the ground, “surreal” truly is the only word to have described it.

The host asked me if I was nervous, and I told him I was not.

I asked him if he was, and he said he was not.

I asked him if he was having fun, and he said he could not possibly be having more fun.

He asked me if I was feeling “anticipation” and I sang that one word of Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” because, as I told him, there is always a song in my head.

So it went as the producer with her headset and clipboard counted down to my global debut. And then the fun began. I was able to talk about teaching, my students, our passion for technology, and this wonderful new addition to our students’ lives and future.

I have always told my students that I will make as many oppotunities for them to present in front of their classmates, but to remember that when they talk about those things that excite them, they will not feel as nervous. They will only want to deliver their message. This was our day, and how could I have had, as the host told me, any more fun?

The next day I had to return to reality. My students knew where I was going. They had seen the Homework Day icon on Wolfram Alpha’s website, and I am not gone very often. They were mesmerized listening as I described my day and truly excited to see the pictures from the Wolfram Alpha’s site on the SMARTBoard.

My return day continued into the night as we are also in the middle of parent-teacher conferences.

Then it happened. That thing that summarizes the reason for the whole event.

One of my parents said that his daughter had asked him to ask me about my day with Wolfram Alpha. I tried to put it into words thankful I had a small break before my next conference so I could share the experience. Then he described to me the day his daughter had forgotten her Science book and he was concerned whether or not she would be able to complete her assignment.

“That’s okay, Dad. I can just go to Wolfram Alpha”.

She did and she did.

Wolfram Alpha, thank you for making all of this happen.

Wolfram Alpha’s Homework Day did not resemble ANY of the earlier images to which I alluded.  This Homework Day was the essence of 21st Century tech integration to help students work smarter, not harder.

Homework Day – Now the teacher’s best friend, the student’s saviour, the parent’s support system.

It was an awesome day!

Enough said.

And the Winner is…

reflections tips workshops

tech_idol_blogIt happens every year, a large group forms to reunite, socialize, be entertained, and exchange the latest and greatest in their field.  No, I am not actually writing about American Idol, but instead the Regional Office of Education’s Fall Classic Teachers’ Institute Day.  This year was hands-down one of the best for Mom and me.  Actually I can’t speak for Mom, but I thought it was GREAT!.

We decided to make our main technology integration session interactive this year. “Technology Idol”.  We compiled a list of our favorite classroom ideas, gathered teacher and student examples, and made them compete against each other for the title of 2009 Technology Idol. 

Since we use the Turning Point Student Response System in our classrooms to engage students as well as receive immediate feedback, we decided to place them around the room and have the audience vote for their favorite technology integration ideas as we presented them during the session.  There was only one problem…we have 32 clickers and there were easily over 100 people packed into a high school social studies classroom.  Don’t get me wrong, we were thrilled that the room was PACKED and bursting (sorry to those who couldn’t get in…maybe the ROE will have us do the session again in the upcoming months after school one day), we just wish we could have put a clicker in every hand! Nevertheless, we were able to gather responses from a fabulous audience cross section!

Round 1: Glogster Vs. Etherpad

These two resources are fun, student-centered, and highly motivating for students to use. 

Glogster is an interactive digital poster that allows students to mix curricular-related content with their own personal styles to achieve a 21st century poster report.

Etherpad allows students to collaboratively write on a REAL TIME notepad.  REAL TIME.  Students can work on reports, essays, take notes, or even exchange ideas online in REAL TIME.  Did I mention REAL TIME?

Round 1 Winner: Glogster

Round 2: Glogster Vs. Wolfram Alpha 

Since Glogster had won the first round, it was time to give it a new contender. 

Enter Wolfram Alpha.

This informational website is the teachers’, parents’ and students’ new best friend.  I am here to tell you!  We demonstrated how we have been using this online “brain” in our classrooms and the audience was blown away.  We easily defined a word by typing in “word duo”.  Not only do the definitions of duo come up on an easy-to-read chart, but this site also gives the word origin, synonyms, pronunciation and other “dictionary” related information.  All WITHOUT the drama of using the dictionary or thesaurus. 

We also showed its ability to factor numbers, give nutritional information on various foods, locate destinations using lines of latitude/longitude, generate words based on spelling patterns and phonics, as well as graph advanced mathematical formulas.

The gasps were audible. The buzz in the room was electrifying.  Teachers were DEFINITELY excited about this one.

Do I even need to tell you who won Round 2?

Ok I will…

Round 2 Winner: Wolfram Alpha

Round 3: Wolfram Alpha Vs. Prezi 

Prezi is one of my new favorite presentation tools.  It is just that, a tool.  It is not something that will make the kids understand content any better.  But it is pretty cool and ranks high among my motivators when asking kids to do an oral report with a visual aid.  PowerPoint is maybe a bit overused and a little lame for the kiddos. (Sorry Microsoft…I still love you!)  I showed a lesson on Author’s Purpose using Prezi that generated pleasant smiles from the audience, and they thought it was pretty cool that the presentation was online (no use of memory or flash drives here) as well as the fact that it was all on one screen, even though it didn’t first appear to be during the “show” mode.

I made sure to forewarn the teachers that while Prezi isn’t exactly the EASIEST presentation tool to quickly pick-up, the kids would have no problem and would more than likely enjoy doing reports in this format.

Winner of Round 3: Wolfram Alpha

Round 4: Wolfram Alpha Vs. Multimedia as Writing Prompts

Having difficulty motivating kids to write in a journal?  Do you need new ideas and prompts?  Why not use multimedia to spark a new story?  We showed a series of videos and images as well as what types of prompts could be generated through the use of these two media forms.  Teachers were in agreement that the kids would definitely like this twist on journaling.  They seemed to enjoy the videos (lots of laughter and note taking and questioning us about where to get the multimedia).  Therefore I thought for sure we would have a new leader.


Round 4 Winner: Wolfram Alpha

Round 5: Wolfram Alpha Vs. Google Earth

We know Google Earth is O-L-D.  We know it has been shown at many conferences.  BUT…we also have been known to use it as an interactive learning tool and that is exactly what we showed.  HOW to integrate Google Earth into interactive learning field trips with all levels of students and across all curricular areas.  We also showed how to let students use it to build their own field trips as alternative forms of assessments.  We love Google Earth and the audience seemed to enjoy it as well but….

evidently not as much as they enjoyed Wolfram Alpha.

Winner of round 5: Wolfram Alpha

Round 6 (final round): Wolfram Alpha Vs. Wordle

Wordle is an online word cloud generator that can be used across a variety of content areas.  We showed several student examples and gave additional ideas for using this fabulous web 2.0 tool.

And while the teachers thought it looked pretty useful and some who had already used it shared some of their own success story ideas…

it didn’t win.


The winner of Technology Idol 2009: WOLFRAM ALPHA…

…the site we have used in our classrooms, showed the parents of students how to use for homework help, introduced to teachers from across the region and call the Online Brain, Tutor, and One-Stop-Shop for homework help.

Thank you Wolfram Alpha for being such a motivating and exciting part of our presentation at ROE 11’s Fall Classic Teachers’ Institute Day.

Final Note:  Since this blog is also used as a way to reflect on workshops/presentations that we have provided, I want to take a moment to explain something that I learned today.  While I am constantly looking for new ways to excite, motivate and engage the students in my classroom, it seems that I often share with teachers the tools that I have my students successfully use to accomplish those things.  However, today I had a light bulb moment.  Not only do educators want ideas and resources for their students to use.  They also want ideas and resources THEY can use to help their students.  I think that is probably why Wolfram Alpha was the winner.  A lot of the ideas we showed are pretty cool (in my opinion) with a lot of “wow” factor (also my opinion but since this is my blog I get to express that one-sided opinion).  But the winner was a simple, easy-to-use and integrate, yet HIGHLY effective online learning tool.  Interesting.

I share all of Shannon’s reflections and thoughts here. This day was truly rewarding. I was worried as it began. Car troubles had me arriving just as Shannon finished unloading her car, and she had lost her cell phone (since found), so I couldn’t call her. It was raining, and both of us were more than tired from a full week of school and evening presentations. Then the teachers began to fill the room very early so, as they explained, to make sure they had a seat. This was going to be fun! And it was, as Shannon described it above. The two presentations, we agreed, are now our favorites. I walked over to Shannon after “Technology Idol” as we were waiting for the next session to begin and asked, “Would you have predicted that?” I felt that human nature would have changed the vote as we presented new, fun, and more “glitzy” Web 2.0 applications. No, not so. As the room emptied, a young man walked in, took a seat, and asked what all of the excitement was about. An administrator who had remained from the previous session to attend our next presentation explained, “It’s called ‘Wolfram Alpha’ and it’s going to replace textbooks.” How exciting for us to be part of Wolfram Alpha and its introduction to the educational community. I had to notice some of the difficulty that a few of the teachers had pronouncing the name. Not me. I’ve mentioned before that I am an “army brat”, grew up in Germany, and that my mother was a German “war bride”. When her brother (my uncle) was married, we hosted a huge celebration in our home. The bride’s younger brother’s name was “Wolfram”, and it was at that event I received my first kiss. And I’m sure if my younger sister were to read this, her only comment would be, “Eww…” Even though “That Wolfram” did not end in love forever, Wolfram Alpha is one new site that we will all grow to love in a much more practical way. It really IS a “winner”!