Creating a Free Web Site For K-4

I teach at University School of Nashville, a thriving K-12 independent school at the edge of downtown Nashville, Tennessee. On four days each week children from grades K - 4 more or less quietly file into my 21-machine computer lab and more or less calmly take their positions seated on the carpet before a projector screen. More or less ready for each and every one of the over 350 children I see every week, I take a few minutes at a demonstration computer to describe and model the task of the day and then I send them forth to their assigned computer to complete it.

To prepare these little assignments, I consult with my K-4 scope and sequence, my computer curricula, and/or my grade level month-by-month Year-At-a-Glance documents, all of which are available to me either freely viewable online or on my school’s secure network. I also subscribe to a plethora of electronic newsletters and listservs, and I maintain a strong personal network of technology savvy educators with whom I correspond regularly.

None of these personal resources has been more rewarding to me, or more valuable to the planning of my instruction, than the friendship that I have developed with a big blue dog who lives on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. His name is Boowa.

Okay, his real name is Jason. In many real ways, however, he really is the big blue dog that his creative imagination has developed over the past eight years. He has now opened his premium subscription website to schools and teachers for no fee, annual or otherwise, and this article is to point teachers — technology teachers especially — to this invaluable resource.

Teachers can begin by visiting the main site at UpToTen and requesting a free password-protected school account. They then simply set up their classroom or lab computers with the password and tick off a checkmark to automatically log the computer into the Premium@School start page whenever the site’s Premium banner is clicked at that particular computer. It should be noted that it is important to emphasize to students that this site may not be accessed from home, but that the UpToTen free offerings will always remain free. I once jokingly characterized this approach to Jason as “enlightened commerce,” a design that maintains a spirit of openness but allows for the possibility of supportive income should parents choose to subscribe to the Premium service at home. The Premium@School start page features a drop-down menu of “200 activities in 50 lessons,” and students can select any particular lesson that the teacher chooses.

This generous offering has been a long time in the making, which a quick review of the site history, “The Story So Far”, will serve to illustrate. Borrowing copiously from that online timeline, here’s a brief synopsis:

In 1997, Veronique and Jason Barnard, she of French origin and he hailing from the British Isles, wanted to create a CD-book of stories for small children. Their daughter’s recent birth had caused them, like so many other new parents, to begin to look for learning resources, and they were not happy that the available media did not reflect their own values.

There was an initially daunting obstacle to overcome. They couldn’t convince any commercial publisher to support their efforts. Convinced that their concept was both viable and important, they decided that the Internet might be the way to go. Perhaps their notions of kindness, mutual nurturing and support, and gentleness were not flashy enough for publishers. No matter: Time would prove the Barnards right.

Thus UpToTen was born. This was the beginning of a long process that would lead to the recent release of “UpToTen Premium @ School.”

In January, 1999, Version 1 of the site went online. Filled with age-appropriate stories, songs and games — all created with Macromedia Flash — the site launched to critical acclaim. In May, 1999 UpToTen was a finalist at Macromedia's UCON 99 Gallery in San Francisco, alongside offerings from Disney and the BBC. Later that same year, renowned French cartoonist Philippe Mounier joined the team, bringing into the fold a wealth of characters from his popular television cartoon series. The site continued to grow, adding online coloring pages and more and more activities. In December, 1999 Version 2 was released.

By the middle of the following year, the site had been translated into five languages and contained over 450 activities. Children the world over regularly submitted Email messages to the site’s two main characters, Boowa the big blue dog and Kwala the little yellow koala bear. They sent in ideas for games, which the team translated into workable Flash activities, and they submitted their own drawings, both computer-generated and done with plain old crayon or marker, which were displayed in a growing collection of picture galleries.

In June 2003 Version 3 was released, allowing clearer navigation, a site plan, and a search engine that made accessing the 600 activities more fun and much simpler. By September of that year more than two million people a month were visiting the site, viewing over 45 million pages. In October 2003, UpToTen signed an exclusive deal for France to provide content to Wanadoo, the French Internet Service Provider, which maintains a 60% national market share. Over the next two years, the site developed into a premium subscription service but retained every single previously developed game, song, and activity at its still completely free site, supported by a relatively unobtrusive advertising sidebar.

Skip to October 2005, to the part of the story that now makes my own life as a teacher a bit easier. As I mentioned in the beginning, whether you’re a classroom teacher or a technology lab instructor, go to it. Teachers all over Europe and Canada are already doing so.

Let’s look a sample lesson to see how they are organized. Just this past week, my kindergarteners and first-graders made their way through lesson 31, with some of the first graders moving on to its companion lesson, number 32. They have already worked through early lessons on topics like “Mouse Over,” “Click and Action,” and “Simple Keyboard Arrows.” Lessons 31 and 32 both come under the heading, “Spot the Differences.” As with many other Internet based activities, much of the learning takes place just getting there! Students begin by clicking on the customized “Kindergarten and First Grade Technology Lab icon I maintain on each desktop. This points to a Webpage on our school’s server, placed there to allow my students to access it from their home computers should family policy allow for that.

The simple little portal looks like this:

Most of the four “centers” on the page may be modified at will. Currently the other centers include:

BBC’s “Little Animals Activity Centre”’s “Connect-the-Dots”

“Little Explorers Picture Dictionary”

“Lil’ Fingers Storybooks”

The only one of the four centers that never changes is Number 2, which links to UpToTen itself. What has changed is that now when a student clicks on it from within school it takes them to the Premium@School site. At home, without the teacher password having been entered, it takes them to a page where they can simply click “Enter Here” and continue to enjoy hundreds of offerings accompanied by a modest advertising sidebar.

Once into the @School site, students absorb more “collateral learning,” such as drop-down menu manipulation. Sure, you and I know how to use ‘drop-down’ menus, ‘fly-out’ menus, and all of the other space-saving approaches that program designers devise. But the educator of young children knows that familiarity with these is a learned skill, one which practice makes better and better. To see how @School helps children acquire these skills, click on the drop down menu to view a scrollable (another learned skill/concept set) list from which to choose, in this case, Lesson 31: Observation, Spot the Difference – Level 1.

The activities in this set are those that, for me at least, mirror fond childhood memories of Highlights magazine’s activities in which two pictures, side by side, challenge the user to circle the image details in one picture different from the other. I would spend quite a bit of time on those as a child; and this is an activity which can be found in those wonderful automobile-trip-saver activity books I buy my own kids. I believe that they help students develop observation muscles, discrimination (the good kind) skills, and when tackled on a computer also encourage correct and accurate mouse manipulation and hand-eye coordination.

Once the lesson appears, the screen contains a manila-folder type tabbed interface containing a brief introduction for teachers, a How-to (if applicable) and a description of the four activities. In this lesson there’s “Samurai spot the difference,” “Swimming pool differences,”7 differences in the mirror,” and “Family photo spot the difference.” They all work a little differently. The Samurai activity, for instance, responds by circling each found difference with a bold green outline. As the differences are identified by clicking on the right-hand picture, Boowa counts them off cleverly, “One difference, two differenceses, three differenceseses,” and so on. The second activity adds the changes into the corrected picture with a bright white arrow pointing to each one. The third is more challenging, introducing a mirror-image look, so that the user needs to take that into consideration, and once the difference is identified it remains unchanged after a clever noise sounds and a bright green arrow points to it. The final activity has seven different sets of pictures and Boowa returns to count the differences. Once the three differences are found and counted by Boowa, Kwala leans out to interject her signature “Laaaaaaaaaa.”

Once my students have successfully “solved” all the differences, they learn that they can click on the little crown-like icon in the upper right corner of the interface for “More>>” games at the unrestricted UpToTenPremium website. That’s a great motivation for them, and, because of that, the challenge sometimes can be to keep them involved in each activity. Luckily, I have their classroom teacher or teaching assistant in the lab with me when we do these activities, so that we both are free to move up and down my two aisles of computers to help, to comment, and to encourage. Actually, not much of any of this help is very necessary: However, continued monitoring and continued respectful verbal interchange is yet another benefit of using these fine activities in the computer lab.

So there it is, a brief introduction to the UpToTen@SchoolPremium free-to-teachers website. Fresh off the virtual presses, it is there for any teacher who requests a password for classroom or school. As long as these free accounts are respectfully handled I predict that they will remain just so—free. I also predict that as more teachers use these and make suggestions, the site will grow even more useful! Enjoy, all! And please feel free to email me with comments or suggestions. Sharing is good.

Email:Scott Merrick