Monday, September 14, 2020

A Word about Wifi

This piece originally appeared on my @HeathcoteTech class blog


Mesh is the word. A mesh network is a more reliable, stronger home wifi network, and a key asset in 2020.

What is a mesh network?

A mesh network is multiple wifi access points for your home to ensure fewer dead zones, faster connection, and overall better reliability

You mean like a network extender?

No. An extender takes the signal from your modem and extends it out, but at a downgraded level. Think of a ball of dough, pinch a bit and stretch it out. The further you get away from the original mass, the thinner the dough becomes. Same with a wifi extender, yes it will stretch your network range, but as a progressively thinner level.

So how is a mesh network different?

Mesh networks set aside a channel of communication between the access points, that is only for the access points, so the satellite that is far away from the original modem is broadcasting the same strength signal as the original base. No loss of strength.

Are they hard to set up?

Nope. Just plug it in to your existing Verizon/Comcast/etc modem and it's a few steps and you're good to go. Most systems have an app and 3-5 steps to get going, plus you can manage the devices from the app.

But why? If I have crazy fast FIOS, why do I need this thing?

Because your crazy fast FIOS service is being managed by an average piece of hardware. The wifi routers that come for free with service are mediocre at best when it comes to managing traffic. And the further you get from them, physically, the weaker the signal.

But seriously, I have crazy fast FIOS, why do I need this?

Think of your FIOS connection like a smooth, open road, as far as the eye can see. Fast. Your devices are that race-tuned V8 car hungry to tear down the road. Your router is like the like the on-ramp. Specifically a Brooklyn-Queens Expressway type on-ramp. Sometimes closed, sometimes under construction. Pothole filled and a slog to get through. A mesh system is a smoother, more managed on-ramp. In fact, it's like having multiple on-ramps in a system that gets you on the highway fast and smooth.

A real-world example...

I've had a mesh network for years. I moved into a new apartment 1 week before the March 9th Covid lockdown. The apartment had Verizon FIOS. On the first day of remote learning our router got jammed. Only 1 person could be on a Zoom at a time. I dug my mesh system out of the moving box and plugged it in to the Verizon modem, and instantly all four of us could Zoom, watch Netflix, etc.

Why? Because mesh wifi systems do a much better job at managing the data traffic and balancing the signal

Home WiFi and Mesh WiFi filled house

So, if last Spring you experienced difficulty with Zoom, slow connections, inability to connect, and so forth, it wasn't Google, or the Chromebook, or Zoom. It was most likely the generic wifi router getting jammed with data.

What do I actually know about mesh systems?

I have the Netgear Orbi RBK 50. This summer I installed the Netgear RBK 753 system for an Inn in Maine. The Inn is in the western Maine mountains and only has a DSL connection. After installing the RBK 753 device connections speeds were faster, more people could be on the Inn's wifi without it jamming, and we didn't nee to reboot the router anymore. All we did was plug it in to the DSL modem and configure the Orbi name. That's it. Took us less than 1 hour to set up.

Mesh network options are:

Netgear Orbi

Linksys Velop

Google Nest Wifi

Points of note

First point of note, if you buy one of these, don't unplug your VerizonComcast/etc modem/router. Those power your tv's on-screen channel guide. Just plug the mesh system into your existing hardware, give the mesh system a new name, and then move your devices over to it. It takes about an hour to do it all from opening the box to adding the new network to your devices, but you'll be amazed at the difference.

Second point of note, the apps that you use to set these systems up are free ad awesome. With my Orbi I can see every device connected to my network and I can turn off an individual device's access with a single tap. So when my kids aren't listening to me, and wont get off YouTube, I just launch the app and turn off their wifi access... the subtle joys of parenting in 2020...


Mesh. It will change your hybrid, virtual, and e-learning experience. The expense is paid for in far fewer headaches. Not to mention it'll make your streaming services run better too.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Create Editable Worksheets out of PDF Files

This piece originally appeared on my @HeathcoteTech class blog

In this era of e-learning there is the difficulty of students using PDF worksheets. 

In the past we would print those out, Xerox them in bulk, and have the students write directly on them. That isn't possible right now. 

So, lately, the solution has been to give students the PDFs, have them print at home, work on them, then take a picture of the finished sheet, or scan it, and send it back to the teacher... 

... that is laborious and has many spots for failure along the way. 

So, how do we use PDF worksheets in a paperless environment? Make the PDFs into Google Slides files so the students can add annotations like arrow, lines and shapes, as well as type answers directly onto the pages. shapes, text boxes. By doing this you can turn your PDF inso a Slides file, share it with students, and they can fill it out directly in the Slides file which you already have access too! No downloading, no printing, no scanning, no sending back... 

Below are two versions of the same tutorial, one a step-by-step visual, the other is a video screencast of the steps. Take a look and give it a try... 

Step-by-step tutorial

Video screencast of the steps

Please remember that the original PDF files you are working with are most likely copyrighted, so you can not re-create an entire book, can can convert select pages. The 10% rule is good to remember, meaning you can print/share 10% of a total piece of copyrighted material. If the book has 100 pages, you can print/share 10.   

Let me know if you have any problems or questions.   


Thursday, March 26, 2020

iOS Document Camera

If you have a Mac and you have a iPad or iPhone you have a document camera!

Here is a quick tutorial on how to set it up...

And a 1-page poster with the same steps...

You can also download the Stage app to have some annotation features, but it is not necessary.

Happy document camera-ing!

Friday, November 15, 2019

Fall 2019 Chromebook Buyers Guide

I originally wrote this for my class blog @HeathcoteTech. After receiving multiple emails from parents with personal device/Chromebook questions I figured I'd turn my email replies into a more structured "buyers guide" of sorts. The thoughts and opinions in this post are my own and crafted with 2nd-5th graders in mind, as that is the population I teach. This is in no way meant to be a comprehensive list of the "best" Chromebooks on the market.

This is the second annual Chromebook Buyers Guide. Chromebooks are great devices for elementary school students and beyond. There are lots of options and hopefully this guide will give you a sense of why go Chromebook and which models(s) to check out. Enjoy...

As the years have progressed there has been an ever increasing interest from parents to purchase Chromebooks for home use. Awesome!
I think it's an excellent idea and a great investment, we use them every day at school and I have four in my home.
Before I get into some device specifics I want to touch on a few common points of interest from parents...
By Koman90 [BSD (, CC BY 2.5  ( or GPL (], from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Interactive Whiteboard Alternatives

One of the biggest, literally, things in edtech is the interactive whiteboard. Smartboards, Promethean, there are a few manufacturers.

My district uses Smartboards. I'm not a fan. This post isn't a rant on why I don't like them, the purpose of this post is to outline an alternative, but to give some context, here is why I'm not a fan, and never have been, of interactive whiteboards...
  • they are expensive. $3k+ is a lot to spend on a single item
  • they are a central focal point... but classes should be flexible and fluid, a large fixed object like an interactive white board take up a lot of classroom real estate and are only used a small portion of the day
  • most users only use a fraction of capabilities
    • that may be due to lack of training, or that those features are bells and whistles and don't fit seamlessly into a teacher's workflow.. either way it's an issue
  • they only do one thing
    • ok, so not literally one thing, but a large, fixed object, no matter how "flexible" or "versatile" it's still a piece of furniture

So, what's the alternative?

Saturday, October 12, 2019

ACTEM 2019 Reflections

ACTEM is the Association of Computer Technology Educators of Maine. I had the pleasure of attending their fall conference this year and it was a blast.

Maine is doing some great things with technology, with state support and the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI)...

In 2002, Maine became the first state to provide a personal portable computer device to each 7th and 8th grade student and teacher, along with the software, wireless networks, technical support, and professional development needed to effectively use the technology for teaching and learning.  Read more about the groundbreaking MLTI program on the History page.

The program has changed somewhat over the years, but the goal remains the same:  to provide State support for access to technology-enhanced educational experiences for all students. In the 2018-19 school year, the State will be helping over 300 schools obtain educational technology and the professional learning necessary to take advantages of all that technology offers.
The conference had the usual slate of featured keynotes and breakout sessions. What I found so valuable was for the relative small size of the conference (a few hundred attendees) the quality of the presentations, and skill/knowledge of the presenters, was amazing.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Student headphones: an overview and some recommendations - 2019-2020 edition

This piece originally appeared on my @HeathcoteTech class blog

At the start of the 2018-2019 school I wrote the first blog post regarding student headphones. This edition is essentially the same, has the same rational and overview with updated links. Headphones for children don't change as frequently as high-end adult models, so this post is almost identical to last year's post, with updated links.

I often get asked about headphones for students. It’s a difficult question to answer on many fronts. Price is one concern, but so is durability. A microphone is an important consideration since students use apps like Seesaw to record their learning. And their age. A kindergartner has different needs than a 5th grader in terms of size, fit, and functionality.

Here is a breakdown of how I approach the K-5 headphone question…

Monday, July 15, 2019

CapCon! 2019 is in the books

Every year the 5th graders of Scarsdale participate in Capstone. Capstone is the last two months of school, post-standardized testing. Students choose a topic, research it, and create a final product. It is designed to be a self-directed, passion/interest based assignment. And it used to end with a tri-fold board... But not since 2016!
This post was originally written for the @HeathcoteTech blog and first appeared at
Once again the 5th graders were amazing and rocked the CapCon! Capstone event.
The students documented the process on their own blogs. The blogs can be accessed via the classroom teacher’s blogs (look for the “My class” menu on the sidebar).
Check out all of their speeches and movies here:

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Basecamp 2019

June 27th, 2019. The first day of summer vacation. But it was also #Basecamp2019 hosted by Chappaqua Schools!

It was a great way to end the school year and kick off summer; reconnecting with colleagues and friends, meeting new ones, sharing, learning... it was a great finish to the year and a perfect way to start the summer.

One of my favorite moments of the day was the Symposium Session run by Daniel Valentin and Valerie Brunow. They created a NCAA-style bracket challenge around poetry and crowning a "best poem." It was great to look at something like poetry in that way, since poetry isn't something you can easily say is best or worst, especially across different genres and the different ways to experience it (reading it, having it read to you, or watching a video of the poet read the poem as they intended).

It was a great session that got me thinking differently about poetry as well as how I might have some fun with a tech-focused bracket challenge.

In addition to watching a number of sessions, I presented a few things during the conference and this blog posts will serve as the central repository for all the things I rambled on about.

And a big thanks for Ellen Moskowitz for capturing my finest summer shirt during my Adobe Spark roundtable discussion

Adobe Spark blog posts
Poetry with Adobe Spark
Social Studies with Adobe Spark Video

Ignite the Student Presentation: Ditch the TriFold and Ignite Passion and Creativity
This is the 4th year we've done CapCon! with TED and Ignite Talks and every year is a new challenge and a new success, and it was great to share it with the folks at Basecamp mere days away from the event.

Check out all the Ignite and CapCon! blogs posts from previous years to see how we've evolved the process.

Thank you to everyone I connected with, reconnected with, came to my session, sat at the roundtable, or just said hello to. I had a great day!

And of course, big thanks to Chappaqua Schools for hosting!

4th Grade Ignite Talks

In 2018 we tried the Ignite Talks format with a single 4th grade class. This year we did it with the entire grade.

Before we dive into the awesomeness that is the 4th grade Ignites allow me to define Ignite Talks and how we use them…

Ignite Talks originated in Seattle as a new style of presenting. The format is: “5 minutes, 20 slides, auto-advancing every 15 seconds… enlighten us but make it quick.” 

We have modified that format for 4th grades;

“7 slides, 15 seconds per slide, 1:45 to tell us your story.” For the 4th grade we took the social studies unit The American Revolution and centered the Ignite Talks around that idea and area of study.

Last year the Ignites were a reflective presentation on their Colonial America unit of study. This year their Ignites are all about their study of the American Revolution. Their unit of study around the American Revolution was a 6+ weeks history experience. They researched, read novels, created period-inspired political cartoons and diary entries, and looked at the major factors, from both sides, of the start of the American Revolutionary Way. Their Ignite Talks are a summary of their experience. We gave them 7 slides and 1:45 to tell about their learning experience, in their own words. It is the ultimate reflective assignment, they had to look back at the full experience and think about the different assignments and projects and how they connected, or didn’t, with each. These Ignites are their literal final project for this unit, summing up everything they did, learned, experienced, and how they felt about it all. All in one minute and 45 seconds…