Reitz High School

Reitz High School
Evansville, IN

Thursday, January 23, 2014

ePals--Electronic Pen Pals

Christopher Combs--HPSA
This week I am featuring a great teacher and friend of mine, Christopher Combs.  He teaches a Digital Communications class at one of the middle schools that I work with.  He uses ePals with his classes and I asked him to share what he did and how he used it with his students.  In this article he does an excellent job of what a teacher needs to do in order to get their classes up and running with ePals.

In 2012 I started teaching the Digital Communications class at Helfrich Park STEM Academy.  Our Principal, Mr. McIntosh had recently returned from a trip to China where he visited our sister school.  I wanted to capitalize on the connections Mr. McIntosh had made while on his visit to China, so we worked on starting an electronic pen-pal program with that school.  After having little success with consistent communications between our students and the school in China, I decided to check out a program called e-Pals that was mentioned at the 2012 e-Revolution Conference. 
During my research, I gained valuable information on how to get the program started in our school.  First, you have to join the e-Pals Global Community (  This is a fairly short and entirely free process.  The website will need some basic information about your class such as the number of students in your class, their ages, and a brief description of your goals for this program.  The next step in the process is to simply wait to have your group membership approved.  Once you are approved, it is time to start looking for other classes in the U.S. or abroad that match your needs.  There are over 130,000 classrooms in the database, so you will need to narrow your search parameters by language, age, key word, region or country, numbers of students, and method of contact.  Once you have selected a class, you will contact the teacher through email to see if he/she is interested in your project.  It is at that time that you can begin to work out the fine details with the other teacher. 
Communication for the e-pal program is almost entirely through email.  E-pals can provide up to 100 email accounts for your students that a teacher can monitor.  I, however, decided to use the email that the EVSC provides for our students instead.  I have each student write an initial letter to a non-specific person that I keep on file.  Once arrangements have been made with another classroom, I forward the letters and email addresses to the corresponding teacher.  This is when the fun begins.  The students are free to email back and forth as they have time.  About every 10-15 days, I give my students extra class time to respond to their e-pals.  I instruct the students to copy me as well as the other teacher on all communication.  Our students are required to have a signed parent permission form stating that they are allowed to send pictures and/or Skype their e-pal.  We have not utilized Skype yet due to the time differences between our school and our partnering school.  This is a program that utilizes self-motivation in our students.  Honestly, the students will get out of it what they put into it.  I am finding that some students will write a half a page response to their e-pal while others are doing the bare minimum of three sentences.
We currently have e-pals in Colorado, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Italy, Romania, and Uganda.  Many of our e-pals from foreign countries are in the process of learning English as a second language.  It shows our students a little piece of the world right in our own classroom.
While I could go on and on about how fantastic this program has been, I wanted you to be able to hear from the students themselves.  I have included comments from a few of my students regarding the e-pal program.  As you will see, it is something the students are growing to love.

Here are some comments from students that were in my first semester class this year. 

Dear Mr. Mac,

 i want you to know how much i like the pen-pal project. I like it so much because we confined kids get to connect the world out side of Indiana and make even more new friend from Africa to Denver,Colorado.     

                                                                                                                          Jakob Z. 7th Grader

I like to do this because it is fun so i can meat new people and learn about them.

                                                                                                                          Montana D. 7th Grader

Dear Mr. Mac,

                  This project is so amazing! I really like it! I like it, because people get to know knew people from around the world. In this program, it is possible find out other cultures, or different things they do, rather than here. People get to learn new things also, such as the person’s favorite foods, what the person likes to do, what he or she does on their free time, or if they have any siblings. People can learn new things on this program, and it is really fun. I personally enjoy this program, because it’s fun. I like to meet new people, even if it’s on the computer, you still get to meet new people. It’s a different way to meet new people, and it is fun. In this program you have different opportunities, such as different places. The letter that the person makes goes out to whoever the teacher sends it too, and then you can meet several different people all at once. I enjoy typing back and forth to learn about different cultures or different people in general. I think it’s cool, but that’s my opinion.
                  In general, you get to meet new people. You get the chance to talk about other people in a more formal way or professional way. You get to have fun, and it’s just an easy way to get to know someone. Other people don’t have this chance, like us, to meet new people on the computer. I think we are lucky to be able to do this. It’s fun, entertaining, awesome, fantastic, and just simply amazing! I think everyone should get the chance to do this amazing program. It’s actually really. All you really have to do is type a letter about yourself, and then answer questions that you are asks by whoever it is sent to. I think you would very much enjoy this program too!
                  Concluding with what was said above, it’s awesome! I have met several people on this program. They’re really nice, and I have learned so much about new people, and what they like. I’m sure you would like this program too. It’s a way to meet new people without all the hassle! I don’t really like to tell people about myself or even talk to new people on the computer, because I would rather talk in person, but I enjoy it on this program. It’s so amazing and fantastic. I like the people I have met, and I have learned so much about different people and how they live. Some live the exact same way we do today, but others, not so much. I have met people from Colorado to New Hampshire, and they both live totally different. It’s cool to learn about. You would most definitely enjoy this program, so try it out. It’s awesome, amazing, fantastic, marvelous, spectacular, and terrific!
                                                                                                                            Maddix M. 7th Grader

Dear Mr. Macintosh,

                  The pen pal writing program was a good use of time in the school. It has let us learn about people from around the world. Three pen pals have been exported to each 9th period student in Mr. Comb’s class. This program has allowed are class to learn about locations and the people living there through series of messages. We have received pen pals from Colorado, New Hampshire, and Uganda. Colorado and New Hampshire have many things that are alike to us. They aren’t very different than us. Uganda has many different cultures and beliefs than us. They have different sports, games and foods, along with items we would consider strange. They are different in many ways but, we have not had a chance to reply back to them. Overall, I believe that the time and effort the school and the teachers put into this project were worth it. This project has been a fun experience.
                                                                                                                           Tanner B. 7th Grader

                  Digital Communications is a great class to participate in, and now it has just gotten better. By emailing people who are across the country or even a couple states away can be very exciting. The pen pal program gives us a chance to see what it’s like in places besides our neighborhood. To be able to communicate with kids our age is so much fun, because it allows us to experience what their lives are like, and how different they are from ours.  Pen pals can also influence us in a good way. This program is lots of fun to do, because it’s very exciting to see what your pen pal will respond or even tell you!
                                                                                                                            Carlie H. 7th Grader

                I really like the pen pal program because, we get to communicate with others from different places. I like being able to meet new people. The pen pal program is also a great program, because we get to learn about people we have never met before. The pen pal program gives kids that might not have many friends, and get to talk to others. The pen pal program shouldn’t be something that you participate in for just a week, and then never talk to the person again, people should continue on with pen pals for a longer time. Pen pals give positive influences to everyone. Pen pals are a lot of fun!
                                                                                                                             Alaina F. 7th Grader

I love E-Pals, because its fun to get to know people from around the world. I like it, because you can see how they live in their culture. Its very interesting to see if you and your pen pal have the same hobbies. But to me its teaches that you can compare and contrast! For example you compare and contrast what you do or like maybe, you like something and they don't. Also you learn about different personalities in the student, and just their normal background!
                                                                                                                            Caitlyn J. 7th Grader

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Venture on the Treadmill

As I woke up bright and early the other morning for my venture on the treadmill, I pondered some ideas for this week’s blog post.  I didn’t really make a New Years resolution this year, but sent out an eviction notice via Facebook to my stomach. My stomach over the last 22 years of life has gotten much larger than I care for.  To help give me a little motivation, I pulled out an old photo of myself and taped it to the treadmill.  So as I was walking and hoping to someday resemble this guy in the picture, I thought how much I had changed.  Not just my physical appearance, but how I do things on a daily basis since this picture was taken.

Jeff Tron 1990
When this picture was taken, I had never owned a cell phone.  I had never visited a web site.  I had never Googled something to find and answer or information.  I had never streamed a movie.  I had never texted someone.  I had never checked my email or contacted someone through email.  I had never taken a picture and posted it or sent it to a friend.  I had never taken a digital photo at all.  I had never Skyped, done a Google hangout, or Face timed with anyone.  I had never watched a movie on a laptop or played a game on my cell phone.  I had never tweeted or posted my status on any type of social media.  I had never downloaded a song or taken a selfie.   I had never asked Siri how to get someplace and listen to her voice guide me to a destination.  These are all things that I do on a regular basis at home and for my job.

It is hard for my 12 and 15-year-old daughters to imagine a world where all of the items listed above were not available.  They have pretty much grown up with that technology.  The same is true for our students.  This is their world.  They do all of those things without even thinking about it.  Information is at their fingertips 24 hours a day; 7 days a week.  How much have our schools and education changed?  Not as much as you think.  Why?  Why is education stuck in this time warp, full of people that are scared and resistant to change?  Or should I say, scared to keep up?  They are afraid of getting out of their comfort zone where they may actually have to teach a lesson on how to be a good digital citizen.  This is real reality, not The Bachelor or Honey Boo Boo.  The standardized tests our students’ take today are not much different than they were when I started teaching 21 years ago.  Why?  I hardly think the list of essential skills then, should be the same list of skills needed today.  The world wide web is kind of like the old west.  It can get a little wild and crazy sometimes.  We have to educate our students on how to use it properly.  We need to equip them with online and offline social skills.  If we don't, no one will.  We now have a whole new set of 21st Century essential skills that have to be taught along side of mathematics, science, history, and language arts.

Phil Robertson from the show Duck Dynasty said, “I am a low tech man living in a high tech world.”  I believe that is where many of our test designers, some teachers and some school leaders are as well.  I feel like I have preached this sermon to death.  I have had enough of everyone viewing teachers and the American Education system as a failure.  Unfortunately, the way it is set up at the moment by state officials, it is a system set up for failure.  To understand that better, check out the previous post:  We have got to stop teaching our kids in America like it is still 1955!  It is time to wake up and change our whole philosophy of education.  There are some corporations trying to make that change, but we are all so restricted, and are a slave to these standardized tests, that many teachers say there isn't time for anything else.

Classroom in 1950
Unlike today, the 1980s were full of high paying industrial jobs such as those in the auto industry.  Many of these were high paying factory jobs.   Top jobs of the 1990's were retail, computer programmer and repair, real estate agent, nurse, accountant and trades such as carpenter, plumber, and electrician.  Currently, we now have good, high paying jobs that didn’t exist ten years ago.  They are social media marketer, website builder, search engine specialist, online teacher, app designer, and YouTube partner.  What jobs will exist in the future that we need to be preparing are students for?

Lastly, society needs to stop treating educators like second-class citizens.  We need to pay them and give them the respect they deserve.  We don’t and should not determine police officers’ salaries by the amount of crime that takes place.  We don’t and should not determine fire fighters’ salaries by the number of fires that break out in a certain area.  We don’t and shouldn’t determine politicians’ and lawmakers’ salaries by how many people do or do not follow the laws they pass.  Doctors’ salaries are not determined by how healthy their patients are or how many of them die.  In the same sense we should not determine administrators' and teachers' salaries by how well students perform on a standardized test they take for a few days out of the school year.  We simply do not have control of all the factors and circumstances that each student faces.  We cannot control all of the decisions that people make, but we can let our voices be heard.  Vote for the people that are going to help and do the right thing for education.  Get these people dictating and ruining our education system out!  These people haven't a clue of what goes on in a school room.  Until we get a new set of politicians that really understand and care about education, many of us that want to make progress are just spinning our wheels!


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Big Huge Labs, A Tool for Creativity

Big Huge Labs is a great website to unleash some teacher and student creativity.  Take your digital photos and turn them into personalized motivational posters, calendars, movie posters, magazine covers, badges, mosaics, collages, trading cards, and much more!

All you have to do is go to  From there you will be able to see a variety of utilities to choose from.  You don't have to, but I recommend that you create an account.  That way photos that you upload and any creations you make will be saved.  With creation of a free account, the quality of pictures that you save as projects is not bad.  If you are only going to print out small cards or pics that are smaller than a standard piece of paper, you will be OK.  

If you want your posters to be high resolution, then you should probably sign up for a pro membership.  The pricing plans are very reasonable.  They have three price options.  You can join and download high-resolution projects for a week, a month, or for a year.  I went ahead and signed up for the year.  That only cost me a total of $25 and I can now create and download all I want for a year.  After you have created a motivator or movie poster, just take the downloaded hi-res photo files that are in jpg format to Sam's Club, Wal-mart, CVS, or Walgreen's and get them printed out in the size you want.

For more about Big Huge Labs and how it could be utilized in the classroom, go to my website that highlights several tools that will bring out your creative side.  I will do more posts on several of these tools.  Click on this link and then click "creativity tools."

Big Huge Labs is very user friendly.  Imagine the following in your school or classroom:

  1. Create Trading cards at the beginning of the year for students to get to know each other. Some teachers make copies of each card and give a class pack to each student.
  2. Comic pages can be created.
  3. Students can make magazine covers for famous people reports.
  4. Students can create posters for different messages such as drug prevention week, fire safety day, or Earth Day.
  5. Create Trading cards for characters in a book and use them in a book report assignment.
  6. Students can create a mosaic for the chapter or unit they are studying.
  7. For new students at your school, you could create faculty trading cards so students can get familiar with the staff without actually meeting each one.
  8. Students can create inspirational/motivator posters for your school.  Some examples could be cooperation, pride, teamwork, success, unity, kindness, and achievement.
  9. Students could create magazine covers with headlines stating facts from the unit or chapter they are studying.
  10. Students could create a movie poster for their favorite novel and give a book report.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Blogging Challenge

Ok, this blogging challenge/homework has been going around for a little while now and it got around to me thanks to my friend and former colleague, Brett Clark!

1.  Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
2.  Share 11 random facts about yourself.
3.  Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.

4.  List 11 bloggers. They should be bloggers you believe deserve a little recognition and a little blogging love!
5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they’ve been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.) (Don't feel obligated to do this.  You won't hurt my feelings if you don't.) 

11 Random Facts

1) When I was four years old, I got my finger stuck in a gumball machine.  It took the police and fire department to finally break the machine apart to get my finger out.
2) I have a Barbie collection.  I started it when my wife was pregnant with our first daughter 16 years ago.
3) I used to sing bass in a gospel quartet and we recorded two CD's.
4) Facts about my daughter's best friend:  Her mother and my wife are from the same town in West Virginia.  Her dad and I have known each other since elementary school.  We now live four houses apart.  How weird is that?
5) You may unfollow me after this one.  I have seen a UFO and believe it is possible for Bigfoot, aka Sasquatch, to exist.
6) I am a huge Disney, Star Wars, and Hobbit/Lord of the Rings Fan.
7) I am now a fan of the two High School teams that my Alma Mater rivaled the most.  I work at one and my daughter attends the other.  It is funny how things work out.
8) I want to write a book about eLearning, sort of an eLearning for Dummies book.
9) I love my job.  I love teaching adults.  They are so much like the kids I used to teach.  I love to watch a group of teachers get excited about wanting to go back and try something new I have shown them, in their classrooms.
10) I collect military, police, and fire department memorabilia.  I love and respect those that help and protect others.  Along with great teachers, they are true heroes.
11) I won the Senior Business Student Award in High School.  I declared my major of accounting in college.  After my first semester in college, I realized that was NOT what I wanted to do.

My 11 questions from Brett

1) What is the most rewarding professional experience you've ever had? 

My position as an eLearning coach has allowed me to help teachers make classrooms more engaging and exciting for students.  As I visit the rooms, and see the excitement transferred to the students, that is most rewarding for me.

2) If you were made the emperor of education, what would be the first 3 things you would change? 

1. Make classrooms as paperless as possible.  2. Find a way to evaluate students/teachers/schools without standardized testing.  3. Encourage creativity among teachers and students in order to make school a place kids want to be, not dread coming to. 

3) What was the last book you read for fun? The Wild Blue (It is about George McGovern's pilot missions in WWII)  for work?  I read blog posts and professional articles daily, not much time for books.  :(

4) Who is your favorite director?  

J.J. Abrams

5) If you could be on any TV show, what show would you want to be on? 

 Finding Bigfoot

6) Paperback, hardback, or eBooks?  

It depends on the topic.  Generally eBooks.  For references with a lot of pictures, like WWII uniforms, I like hardback.

7) Who's your favorite celebrity to follow on twitter? 

Jase Roberston
8) How close or far away are you right now from where you thought you would be at this point in your life when you were a kid?  

For my career, I love where I am right now.  I wish I would have made it here sooner.  It took 18 years, but at year 21, I am very excited and passionate about what I do.  Life in general, I have the most amazing wife and awesome daughters a man could ever have.  I am blessed way more than I deserve.  I guess in those departments, I am further along than I ever thought I would be.

9) What's the most embarrassing hair style you've ever had? Bonus points if you include a pic!  

No pic at the moment, but in 5th grade I started parting my hair down the middle.  It was pretty humorous as I see old pictures of it.   Pics to come in the future.

10) I always loved how baseball players have a song they walk up to when they bat. What song would you pick? 

Either Back in Black or Darth Vader's Imperial March.

11) What's your favorite browser and how many tabs do you have open? (I'm really looking for affirmation that I'm not the only one with an addiction to tabs.)  

Firefox and I have around 11 tabs open on a normal basis.

11 Bloggers I Nominate

Tim Wilhelmus
Brian Bennett
Michelle Green
Jason Bailey
Candice Dodson
Allie Holland
JD Ferries-Rowe
Bill Ferriter
Ira Socal
Tom Whitby
DeLyn Beard

My 11 questions for you.

1.  What is your favorite thing about your job?
2.  What does your ideal classroom look like?
3.  How can students/teachers/schools be held accountable without being a slave to "The Test"
4.  What are your hobbies/interests?  How did you get interested in them?
5.  What is your favorite song and why?
6.  What is your favorite movie and why?
7.  What do you want to be when you grow up or are you reached it?  Explain.
8.  How has technology changed your life in the last 5 years?
9.  How should technology change education in the next 5 years?
10.   What are you passionate about?  You can list more than one.
11.  Who or what has had the most influence on you as a person and where you are now?