Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fun with Time and Date (dot com)

I use this handy-dandy little website every once in a while, and it's nice to see that an old stand-by gets more useful with time by adding new applications and goodies.

It started out with basic things like time zone maps, a service to look up the time in major world cities (very handy when making overseas phone calls and you're too jet lagged to remember if you're ahead or behind of your loved ones' time - and too tired to read a time zone map), and another to build custom monthly or yearly calendars. Of course, it still does those useful things, but you can also look up sunrise and sunset times, count down to the New Year (also available as an iPhone app!), figure out meeting times across times zones (nice for webinars with people from the East Coast, West Coast, and Midwest altogether), calculate the distance between two cities, such as Minneapolis, MN and Albequerque, NM, and look up the phases of the moon.

So if you and your learners are working on geography, calendar reading, learning about time zones, or any of the other functions on this site, you might find it useful - even if it's just to print out a monthly calendar for your class.

Here's the website again: Enjoy!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lessons from Christmases Past

The first years I worked in ABE, I taught in an evening computer lab with students of all levels and backgrounds. Each class in the program had one time slot a week for computer time, rotating through for 45-60 minutes each. Most of the classes were English language classes, but there was also one basic skills class and one GED class. For whatever reason, most of the ABE and GED students (and their teachers) weren't really interested in learning computer skills, and made very little use of the computer time allotted to them. But there was one student in that group who came down to my lab every week for several months, and of all the hundreds (maybe thousands) of adult learners I have worked with through the years, he's one that I will never forget.

His name was Greg, and he was a Native American man of indeterminate age (I was just a young mid-twenties - anybody over 30 seemed "middle aged" to me then!), possessed of a quiet, calm demeanor and a serious lack of confidence in himself. He had been in treatment for alcohol abuse, but was now living in a half-way house, trying to make his way towards a better future for himself. He had already gotten his GED but was brushing up on some skills before trying to get into technical college.

Being somewhat older, wiser, and more emotionally stable than his peers at the halfway house, he had come to be in something of a leadership position there. One of his responsibilities was keeping minutes of meetings and ledgers of expenses. The reason he came to the computer lab was so that he could learn how to do these tasks on the computer instead of writing things longhand. So I taught him how to use word processing software: how to use "tab" to line income and expenses up into neat rows, how to save to a disk, find his file from the previous week, print his work, etc.

At first he was pretty shy, and he always was a quiet and reserved sort of person. But as the months went by we struck up a real friendship. While we worked together on his computer skills we chatted about all sorts of other topics, and got to know each other pretty well. He really was a sweet guy, and I enjoyed working with him a lot.

For both of us, it was a great experience. For me as a teacher, it was really refreshing to work with someone who was so motivated, really liked learning, and was generally just easy to get along with. Besides that, all my other classes were full groups of 12-20 non-native speakers of English, which are super fun to teach but really wear me out. Working one-to-one was dream! And for Greg it was a chance to learn in a really safe environment, where he could ask any question he wanted and get as much or as little help as he needed. I could tell he was really excited by what he was learning, and it made him feel like a real leader in his house when he could demonstrate to some of the younger and wilder young men he lived with how he was improving himself and learning "cool" computer skills. It was obvious how proud he was of himself. For me it was really rewarding to watch his confidence grow as he became more and more proficient.

Around the end of the year, he decided to move back to North Dakota (where he was originally from) and apply to a local technical college. On the last evening of class before winter break he brought me a little Christmas present - small package of chocolates. I'll never forget what he said when he gave them to me: "Thank you for teaching me this year. You make me feel like I can do anything." I almost cried, right there in the computer lab. And to this day, it ranks up there with one of the most sincere, most touching, and nicest things anyone has ever said to me.

Every year since then I think about Greg when winter break approaches. I wonder what ever happened to him - if he made it in college and continued on the upward spiral he was on when I last saw him. I sure hope so. He deserves a good, stable life and I hope he got it. When I think of him I remember how powerful our work as ABE teachers really can be - how we can truly share the power of learning with the individuals we serve, and change lives forever. The computer skills I taught Greg were simple to me, something many of us take for granted. But to him they were exciting, powerful symbols of his own competence and intelligence. To the toughest audience in the world - the internal one - together we proved that he could do anything he set his mind to do.

Though your students might not have the language skills or the ability to overcome their shyness and tell you this themselves, trust me - you're doing this job too. Everyday you help adults develop their own pride, self-confidence, and innate abilities.

Happy holidays, ABE teachers and volunteers everywhere!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Podcasting: a Piece of Cake?

In preparation for an upcoming workshop on podcasting and audio tools for the ABE/ESL classroom, I've been testing out a free tool from CLEAR called Broadcasts. CLEAR is a federally funded language resource center, and they create, host, and share free tools for language educators. Broadcasts is intended to give teachers a simple, hassle-free, no special software required way to produce a podcast.

In a nutshell, it's podcasting made quick-and-dirty: easy to use, but no bells and whistles. Which is just right, I think, for the average teacher who doesn't need bells and whistles, and doesn't have much time for creative projects like podcasting! Using Broadcasts, teachers can get up and running and publishing a podcast in a matter of minutes, rather than hours or days. Here's how to use it:

Step 1: Go to and sign up for a free account.
Step 2: Test your audio recording setup using CLEAR's built-in Flash recording tool.
Step 3: From the list of applications, choose Broadcasts.
Step 4: Click Documentation to get step-by-step instructions. Print, and read!
Step 5: Or, skip that and just try it out! Click New Channel, then New Episode and dive right in to recording.
Step 6: Click Publish this Channel.
Step 7: Click the RSS icon next to your channel's name to view your channel's feed. The URL for this page is what you want to give to your students so they can subscribe via iTunes or Google Reader. Make a note of this because it's not always easy to find it again, especially if you subscribe using iTunes yourself.

So, now you've published your first podcast! How do your students subscribe so they can listen to you?

These instructions are for iTunes, and they will take you to my first podcast! You can listen to me testing out the Broadcasts tool.

Step 1: Get iTunes (if you don't already have it) from:
Step 2: Click Advanced then Subscribe to Podcast. In the pop-up window, enter the url for the podcast. Mine is: (If you already use iTunes to subscribe to podcasts, this may pop up automatically if you click on the link.)
Step 3: iTunes will download the podcast. Double-click to listen.

Please check out my first podcast and give me some feedback. I hope I'll be able to continue podcasting in the new year. Let me know if you would enjoy getting tech teaching tips this way.

PS: The web address for Broadcasts that I gave in my podcast was not quite correct. Use the one above instead!

English for Work Interactive Goes Online

The English for Work Interactive Video Series, created by former MLC - Arlington Hills Learning Center teacher Bethany Gustafson, was designed to give students the vocabulary and language to succeed at work they were already doing in the hopes this would help prepare them for supervisory positions. Previously only available on a Windows-Compatible CD-ROM, the videos and accompanying lesson planning aids are now available for download and on-demand streaming on the Minneapolis ABE web server.

Their new home on the web is:

The English for Work videos and accompanying materials were developed through a Minnesota Literacy Council technology curriculum mini-grant. For more information on the technology mini-grants, including links to other FREE materials and updates about this year's projects, go to:

Monday, December 7, 2009

Visualizing Word Relationships

From a young age I've had a fascination with "word books." I'll admit to being one of those kids who sometimes sat down and read the dictionary... you know the ones who are just infatuated with words? My older brother gave me a hard cover thesaurus for a high school graduation gift. It was one of the best gifts I got, and probably the only one (except for the Samsonite luggage my parents gave me) that I still own and use.

If I were a kid today, I'd probably be just as fascinated with the new "visual thesaurus" online tools that are springing up on the Internet. These tools represent word relationships in a sort of web, showing the connections that are close as a knot of tightly grouped words, the loose connections sort of drifting away on a tether, the antonyms in an opposing color, and so on. By displaying information visually, they tell us something about words and the relationships among them that I don't think I can quite get from my old thesaurus. For this reason I think they might make a helpful tool for adult learners, especially those who are grappling with complicated vocabulary.

There are several tools available online. The simplest is the "Lightweight Visual Thesaurus" at It's free and has a really clean, simple interface. The most elaborate is probably, but sadly, it's not free (except for a two-week trial). My personal favorite is It's free and it has several really sweet features, including: zooming in on words using the scroll button on your mouse, displaying different kinds of relationships with different styles of color-coded connectors (dashed lines, arrows, etc.) and also showing the parts of speech using color coding.

Try them out and let me know what you think! If you know of another visual thesaurus that I missed, please let me know and I'll include it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Minneapolis' ABE Online Activity List has Moved

If you were a fan of the Minneapolis ABE Online Activity List ( I'm sure you have discovered that it's gone!

The content, however, has not disappeared forever. It is being reorganized and republished on a new site:

As my friend Nathan at Minneapolis ABE said in his FaceBook announcement:

You may have used our on line activity list in the past. In fact, it is our number one hit on google. (
It is a wonderful resource, but has been a behemoth to maintain. In fact, I don't believe it has been updated since 2007. We are testing an itty bitty page driven by an itty bitty database, that will hopefully be easier to update and maintain. Take a look:, and feel free to give feed back [there], or on the FaceBook group page.
So please update your Favorites/Bookmarks and keep the online learning going!