Category Archives: Pimping

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Tips On Tracking Unschooling Activities With Evernote

For the last 11 months, we’ve been pretty diligent about recording educational activities in Evernote. When I say “we”, I mostly mean The Missus. She has a lot more access to the kids on a day-to-day basis to capture photos and write quick descriptions of what they’re doing.

Even with our efforts to stay on top of it, it’s next to impossible to capture everything they are learning.

That’s a good thing.

When you change your perspective and realize that learning is something that is always happening (not just between the hours of 8 am to 3 pm during the months of August-May), you realize you can’t even begin to truly document it.

We just had our annual teacher evaluation for our first grader 6 year old learner. It was the first time we’ve gone through the official evaluation for the state of Florida, and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Mostly, we wanted to make sure that we had not only enough hard samples, but also lots of information stored digitally to demonstrate the wide range of subjects and interests she’s explored during the “school year”.

The Missus is an organization freak, and I’m an information hoarder, so we should have known we’d done enough. Still, we were relieved to find we had plenty of hard samples of work, and what we’ve been doing in Evernote made it super easy to demonstrate the fact that our kids are learning a ton.

Our approach to using Evernote to track the kids’ education is constantly evolving and being tweaked, but I thought I’d document a few of the tips and tricks we’ve developed along the way.

Buy the Premium version of Evernote

Homeschoolers are notorious for seeking out good deals and using as many free resources as possible. Not criticizing that at all…I’m all about it! But this is one place I’d recommend spending the extra money. You won’t be sorry. At $45/year, Evernote is an insanely good deal. Some of the benefits of Premium are:

  • 100 Mb notes, and 1 Gb/month of storage. You’ll need it for the photos you take on field trips with your mobile device
  • Search within photos. Again, this works great for field trips. You won’t have to annotate nearly as much, because you can just take photos of all the informational signs you see, and search will help you easily navigate to these signs later.
Searching for "Greek" in Evernote finds the word in the photo of an informational plaque at The Parthenon in Nashville.

Searching for “Greek” in Evernote finds the word in the photo of an informational plaque at The Parthenon in Nashville.

  • Sharing notes. More about this in the next section, but our strategy depends heavily on both parents having access to the Notebooks we use.

If you aren’t sure about this purchase, the free version is still extremely useful and highly recommended!

Get Both Parents Involved

My favorite thing about using Evernote is that I get to see what the kids are doing and learning without being there. I only get to go to a few of their out-of-the-house activities because of the pesky work thing, but they are constantly out doing stuff. I have Evernote open all day for my own notes, and since Evernote allows The Missus to record notes on her mobile device and they are shared with my account, I can see what’s going on semi-real time. If they’re out for a program at a nature center, I can check in at lunch and see what they’ve been up to. When we sit down to dinner, I have a bunch of specific questions about their trip.

“Did you get to see any critters on your field trip?” is a much better conversation starter than “So…what did you learn today?”

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I also use Evernote to add notes for things I do with them, and it gives us a central location to track everything. For example, I taught them a game they love a few weeks ago.  To tell me which coloring pages they want me to print from Google Images, they give me the column number and row number of the picture. To them, that’s just a cool “code” to tell me what they want, but it gets recorded in Evernote as a math activity–the Cartesian coordinate system.

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I do the majority of bedtime reading around here, and as the kids are getting older the subject matter is getting a little deeper. So we are now able to have history discussions based on what we read in the “Little House” series and science discussions prompted by books about snakes and sea creatures.

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Minimize Notebooks

Your first inclination may be to create separate Notebooks for every subject, but when you think about it, that will soon put you in a position of having to choose between at least two Notebooks, maybe more. For example, let’s say you’re reading the “Magic Tree House” series of books and your child starts asking questions about mummies–what they are, how people were mummified, how long ago this happened (all based on a real conversation we had by the way).

This is exactly how self-directed education works! It’s working! You definitely want to make a note about this! But does it go into the “Reading” Notebook, the “History” Notebook, or the “Science” Notebook? After all, you’ve hit on all these things.

The answer is to forget about trying to drop stuff into Notebooks (basically folders) based on subjects and use tags instead. You can only put a note into a single Notebook, but you can tag it with as many things as you’d like.

(more on our tagging system in the next section)

That doesn’t mean Notebooks aren’t useful though. We use a pretty simple system of Notebooks to keep up with the new notes we create–a “To Be Processed” Notebook, a “Current Academic Year” Notebook, and (as of next month) a Notebook for each archived academic year.

evernote_notebooks

The default Notebook is “To Be Processed”. Every note we create goes here automatically. It stays there until we have both had a chance to tag it, review it, and annotate it if necessary. Once that’s finished (processed), we move it over to the “Current School Year”. And once the academic year has ended and we’re ready to start a new “year”, we’ll move all the notes in that Notebook to the archive Notebook for the past year.

Since school learning never stops for us, we’re continuing to add notes to the “Current School Year”, even though it’s summer. In August, we’ll empty out the “Current School Year” Notebook, moving all of these notes over to the “2013-2014 Academic Year Archive”, just so we can stay in sync with the timing of regular school.

Tags, Tags, Tags

This is the real payoff in my opionion. The ability to tag your notes is huge for unschoolers. Since we don’t have “subjects” in the traditional sense as part of our every day learning, it would be really difficult (as mentioned above) to categorize notes into separate Notebooks the way traditional education systems break down classes and subject matter. Still, we need a way to make the evaluation process run smoothly and to show that we’re making progress in specific subjects.

And, let’s be honest, some unschoolers get a little anxious now and then they aren’t “doing” enough, especially when it comes to math. By tagging notes, it’s easy to go back and review what’s been going on and quickly see progress. More often than not, you’re able to put your mind at ease when you find there’s actually a lot of math going on, just not in the sense of filling out worksheets at a desk.

Forty six notes as shown below may not seem like much, but when you consider that these are just the moments you were able to capture and document, you realize they are doing a ton of math all the time!

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So how do we organize tags? This is the part of our system we’ve developed by trial and error. What we’ve tried to do is determine what we’d like to know about each note, and develop a way to organize the tagging:

  • What subject?
  • Who? Which kid(s)?
  • What area of interest (specifically)?
  • Where did this happen?
  • When (automatically taken care of in Evernote…cool!!!)

Here’s where we got fancy out of necessity. When you go to tag a note, Evernote tries to assist you with an auto-complete feature.  Great feature! The problem is that you’ll probably end up with a ton of tags in the four different areas mentioned above, and that makes the auto-complete not as handy.

For instance, if your kid’s name starts with an ‘S’ and you want to tag them in a note, as soon as you type ‘S’ you’re going to get a long list of possible tags and (from experience) you’ll end up hitting “enter” prematurely and tagging them with an incorrect spelling that you can’t find later.

To make it easier to tag notes quickly, we came up with a prefixing system to make things super-easy to see at a glance.

For traditional subject categories, which are useful when it’s time to do evaluations, we use the ‘$’ (it looks like an ‘S’, get it?) as a prefix. So if we’re doing something related to history, we tag it as “$History”. There are very few of these tags, but again, most of our notes have more than one “subject” tag.

When we go to tag the subject(s) of a note, all we have to do is type the ‘$’ symbol, and Evernote automatically filters our tags down to those few subjects.

evernote_subjects

For the “who” type tags, we just use our kids’ names, but with a ‘+’ at the beginning. So you may tag a note with “+Johnny”, “+Sally”, and “+OtherKid”. This allows you to go back later and look at a what a single child has been up to, or even see what activities they’ve been doing with their brothers and sisters by searching on multiple tags.

When we want to tag the kids in a note, we enter the ‘+’ symbol, and all of our tags are immediately filtered to the only the kids’ names–just three tags.

IMPORTANT–Since our kids are “free-range learners”, a large number of the notes we take are things we just happen to catch them doing during “play”. We’re constantly stumbling upon them doing things like observing bees and counting/sorting rocks. Lots of these activities are things they’re doing together!

For “where” we preface all of the tags with “loc”. Again, not a ton of these, but they look like locHome, locClasses, locMuseum, etc. Admittedly, we don’t use the location tags for a lot of our notes because the photos make the location obvious and Evernote can actually keep up with the precise location for you. Still, it’s nice to quickly be able to use “locBeach” to quickly see all the notes about things they’ve learned there.

By far, the most varied tag type we use is our set of “interests”. We preface these with a ‘!’ (like an ‘i’). Tons and tons of these: !Tessalations, !WaterCycle, !Sewing, !RevolutionaryWar….the list goes on and on. Unlike the others, this set of tags is constantly growing, depending on what the kids are interested in at the time.

We also use the !interest tags to get more specific information about a $subject. For example, if the two year old is sorting game chips by color and counting them, we’ll tag it as $Math, !Sorting, and !Counting.

Here’s a really great example of how we tagged a note for an activity that came about after reading a book on Pompeii. The 6 year old became interested in volcanoes, and read some other books before making one of her own.

I’ll save my remarks about how amazing it is that this was all self-directed for another day, but you get the idea here. Lots of subjects were involved, and specific interests give us more detail about the activity.

evernote_volcanoes

I feel like the real benefit to using Evernote for unschooling is going to come at a later date. Maybe in a few years, after they’ve learned to use a tool like Evernote for themselves, they’ll come across some information about Pompeii and wonder, “that sounds familiar–have I ever learned anything about Pompeii?” They’ll be able to easily filter through these notes and see what they’ve already learned.

Maybe it will trigger something for them and it will all come rushing back. Maybe it won’t. But they have the foundation for a personal knowledge base they can continue to build on their own in whatever format they like.

At the very least, Evernote makes it easy for us to keep up with all the amazing things they are doing!

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Chromecast Missing One Big Easy Win

I just unboxed and set up my Chromecast. It took about 5 minutes, and the Missus is downstairs right now listening to No Doubt on my Google Music dime…probably going to have to get a paid account for her now too.

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I watched a couple of Ric Flair promo videos and one of the famous Knoxville Rugby Street Skiing incident just to check out how the YouTube app worked. Pretty sweet!


This thing is an absolute bargain at $35, just for what it already does with YouTube, Play, and Netflix. So yes…you should definitely click on the link and buy one for every TV in your house. This thing is incredibly slick. If it’s on backorder, go ahead and reserve one. It may be awhile before they are just sitting on shelves.

However there’s one thing I think Google should have had ready when Chromecast shipped–one thing I think could have been a big win for them in a big space. I’m sure it’s coming, probably within the next couple of weeks, but…

Why can’t I open up the Google Plus app on my mobile device and start a slideshow from there, then broadcast that to my TV?

For example, we just got back from vacationing in Colombia, and all of our photos are sitting in my Plus account. Everything I snap with my phone is pushed up there automatically, and I’ve already gone through the process up posting the SLR pics too.

We have friends coming to visit this week, and it would be really cool to just open up the album from my phone and show them a slideshow on the TV.

Next weekend, my parents are coming for a visit. We have videos in Google Plus (not YouTube) of all the kids’ “Happy Birthday To You” moments–shouldn’t I be able to show them those videos?

I know what you’re thinking–why not just share with them on Google Plus? Well, you’re right…and I can do that. But they probably wouldn’t notice.

The problem is, Google doesn’t have the participation on Plus it wants/needs. What better way to convert people than to have those of us who do use it show them this unbelievable functionality they can get with a free Plus account and a $35 piece of hardware.

Missed opportunity.

Payback Time!

If I’ve ever done anything to tick you off (and that’s pretty much all of you), now’s your chance to get me back.

I’m doing the Space Coast Marathon again this year, even though I said I’d never do another marathon. I’m doing this to raise money for Miles of Love, which is a local charity a friend of mine started. The MOL mission is to provide support to local families who have sick kids. What I love about this organization is that it’s local, and it’s super-efficient. MOL has set up relationships with bigger organizations to vet recipients to help eliminate waste and fraud. They do all kinds of things for these families–anything from providing gas cards to help them get back and forth to the hospital to buying gifts for the kids themselves.

So the big question is, how can you use this situation to dole out punishment to me? Here’s how it works…

Every day, from not until ???? I’ll be doing a burpee* for every dollar I receive in donations. $20 = 20 burpees. $100 = 100 burpees. If you’ve ever done 100 burpees, you know that’s some serious punishment. I’ll video these and make long-distance dedications Casey Kasem style to those who help me raise funds.

So let me have it. You can click here to make a donation. Click early, click often.

* Burpees will be without the pushup at the bottom, but will include a jump and over-the-head hand clap.

 

A Reason To Race – Annabelle’s Dad – Eleonore Rocks

I have some friends coming in to race Rocketman 70.3 with me–one from California, one from Tennessee, and two from North Carolina. Actually, I’ve never met one of the guys from NC, Adam.

Adam is coming down with Dirty Matt. And a friend of Dirty Matt’s is a friend of mine.

Just to stir the pot, I sent out an email asking how everyone’s training was going and where everyone logged/shared their workouts. Obviously, my only intention here was to get some trash talk and good-natured insults started.

Adam was the first to respond. Like just about every other triathlete, he has a blog.

But his blog is different. A lot different.

On October 31st, 2010 my beautiful wife and I became parents for the first time. That’s the day I became Annabelle’s dad. Annabelle was a beautiful, delicate, incredibly tough little girl. She was born with a neural tube defect called anencephaly, cutting her short life to a beautiful 41 minutes.

I had to stop right there the first time I read it. I’ve re-read it several times since, and it gets me every time.

Annabelle

That’s simply unfathomable.

Now Adam races to honor the memory of Annabelle. The charity he supports, Eleonore Rocks, provides rocking chairs to parents of terminally ill children. They aren’t engaged in a multi-year effort to cure anything. They just want to bring a little bit of comfort to families who have limited time with their kids.

Adam isn’t raising money for a free race entry or to win a new bike. His goal is to raise $4,100–$1 for each of Annabelle’s heartbeats he and his wife got to share with her.

Please consider sponsoring “One Minute” to honor Annabelle’s memory–more if you can. Adam is committing hours and hours of blood, sweat, and tears.

I know not everyone has the means to make a contribution. But you can still help:

  • Share Adam’s story with your friends and family using Facebook, Twitter, Google+, email, fax machine, whatever
  • If you have healthy children of your own, never forget how fortunate you are.
  • If you are physically active, take a minute during your next swim/bike/run to appreciate your own health.
  • If you aren’t physically active but have been thinking about getting started, do it. Today.

 

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Heart-Throb Rob Fundraising

The whole fam made it out on Saturday for the inaugural Surf Your Heart Out fundraiser for my buddy Rob “Munch” Munchbach who is awaiting a heart transplant. The turnout was great, and it was the perfect morning for a run on the beach and the waves were tasty for everyone who brought a board.

There are more events scheduled for the year, including a “Stroke Your Heart Out” Paddling Challenge and a rugby tournament some time in November. In keeping with rugby traditions, details of that event are still sketchy.

Even if you can’t make it out to participate, please consider helping Rob out in any way you can and like his Facebook page. He needs help pre-transplant with medication and health care costs.

I didn’t race the run, which is probably a good thing since it was perfectly situated on a rest day, so I won’t report any times. I rushed through a 5 mile tempo workout on Friday and needed to loosen up though, so it was great to jog out the first mile and a half.

At that point I picked up a couple of squirmy bodies, one of which was not at all interested in running and stopped several times to clean the sand off her feet. The other was wrapped around my neck until the finish.

But the oldest got to “finish” her first race and was super excited! Kids tri coming up on September 30, and she’s pretty amped about the prospects of placing in her age group!

If You’re Healthy And You Know It, Give Munch Money!

Ok, hope that got your attention…

My buddy Munch is in need of a heart transplant, and right now he’s in desperate need of assistance paying for the drugs to help him survive until a new heart comes through.

His condition was caused by a virus, not lifestyle–definitely not the kind of guy who got here because he wasn’t taking care of himself if that’s what you are wondering. He’s a rugby player, surfer, and sometimes professional fisherman who was still showing up for training wearing a pacemaker when I met him. He just made sure we knew he wasn’t available for tackling. Plus, the guy already gave ass cancer a beat down, so you know he’s a real fighter.

I know many people who land on this site appreciate their own health and live active lifestyles. Let’s show our appreciation by helping a guy like us get back to doing what he loves!

Featured Team Members: AnyBody Fitness

I have some big fitness goals for the next year, and meeting big goals of any kind means having a great team supporting you. This is probably going to end up reading like some sort of paid post, but it isn’t. It’s just some recognition of what my friends Sean and Jay at AnyBody Fitness have been doing to help me reach my goals. I try to help these guys out with computer/technical stuff when they need it to show my appreciation, but I also wanted to publicly thank them for their help.

One of the toughest things about training for long distance races is the amount of training time that’s involved, especially on the bike. Running in the dark is no problem, but I don’t feel especially safe riding the bike in the daylight, much less at night. So two big challenges for me are finding daylight hours to train when it isn’t brutally hot outside and maintaining my bike with all of those miles (I’m not a great bike mechanic). My solution was to change over to a spin bike for most of my training. Sean and Jay worked with me to pick out a bike with all the features I needed and none of the ones I didn’t. Another plus of a spin bike is that other people (aka The Missus) have it at their disposal. That’s something I could not achieve with a trainer.

I couldn’t be happier with the bike. It allows me to train indoors (out of the sun), at any time of the day, and safely (no cars). I can also watch Ken Burns documentaries or Coach Troy’s Spinervals videos the whole time I’m riding. And last week when I called and asked if there were specific SPD pedals I needed for the bike they were able to get me a set with SPD on one side and toe clips on the other in just a couple of days.

These guys are pros at fitting out large facilities with commercial grade equipment, but they also sell the same equipment to the public. This makes them a really good choice for people who are looking to outfit a home gym. They also buy and sell used equipment, so if you’re local to Knoxville or Nashville and looking for a good deal on a treadmill or bike that has been checked out by a professional before you buy they are a great place to start. No yard-sale-grade stuff here.

Do yourself a favor and check these guys out…they will treat you right!

Enjoying the Silence Once Again

I’m happy to say that Michael Silence is blogging once again.

For some of us who were (and still are) D-list Z-list bloggers, one of the first major milestones of our endeavors online was getting linked to by Michael. I’ve always appreciated the fact that he was out there bringing attention to the stuff us weeds growing among the tall trees of the internet had to offer to the blogosphere, specifically in East Tennessee. As if that isn’t enough, he’s a guy they bigger guys actually pay attention to. For example, I’ve received exactly two Instalanches in my blogging career exploits efforts time served, and they both came about because he was the first to bring attention to the posts.

Back a few years ago, there were several blogs in Tennessee aggregating smaller voices, and it fostered some great discussion. Slowly but surely, and with no small amount of drama, these all disappeared. The one thing that was different about Michael’s blog was that it was consistent, unbiased, and completely void of public drama.

Glad to have you back!!!

Amazon’s Table Announcement…Let’s Get To The Important Part

Pricing.

The E-Ink Kindle is now only $79. Yeah…$79. That’s with “special offers.” For me, upgrading to the $100 version seems worth it because you can play mp3s and it has a touch screen.

And what about their new Android tablet?

The Kindle Fire 7″ tablet is $200. That’s right…a high functioning Android tablet for $200. That’s less than 50% of what the iPad costs. I was excited to get the Acer Iconia for $300 with a coupon earlier this summer. It seems like Amazon is going to basically give these things away knowing they can make it up on the back end by selling content through the stores that are tightly integrated with the device.

If I didn’t already have a tablet, I’d jump all over one of these. They are going to be great little media consumption devices. All the other things you can do with them are just going to be bonuses. I think Amazon is making a great bet here by leaving off the stuff most people don’t really care about for a tablet. I’ve never even considered using the camera on my tablet for instance.

iPad killer? No.

iPad competitor? I don’t think so.

I think Amazon just put this device out at a crazy low price with a strong brand behind it that will expand the market for tablet devices, and I think they are going to own the lion’s share of the new market growth.

Save Your Own Football Season!

Remember paper football? It’s that game we played in middle school where we’d fold paper into a triangle and bump it back and forth across the table until part of the “ball” was over the edge of the table but not falling off. That game curbed much violence at lunch time.

Now you can get one of these table top kits and play for real…as real as paper football gets.  They even come with the logos of your favorite NFL teams. I know. What a shocker.

I know what you are thinking…”Can’t I just play with the paper football app on my iPhone?”, “What about the risk of paper cuts?”, “What if I’m not able to reach up to the fast food window to get my dinner because I’m sore from playing paper football?”

These are all legitimate concerns, but there’s no other way to get the thrill of paper football without throwing all caution to the wind and jumping into the game.

Possible uses:

  • Team building money at work purchases one for your office. You can run tournaments at lunch time.
  • Share the joys of paper football with your children. This way, you won’t have to go outside or move your body too much, but can still claim quality sports time.
  • Drinking game at what used to be a Super Bowl party. Loser has to do a shot when he gets scored on and has to stay at the table.
  • Perfect gift for someone who is committed to sitting in a chair every Sunday from August to December no matter what.

Don’t be surprised to find many athletes from the professional leagues turning to paper football to stay sharp during the lockout.