Forum Friday – Create your own Reference Website

Each Friday I like to pull a topic or resource out of the forum and share it with a wider audience. This week’s post to receive it’s 15 minutes of fame is an old post made by BionicTeacher (aka Tom) in the General Technology Forum. A while back, Tom shared how he was using databases to help his teachers track test questions and organize lesson plans. Since most reference websites are driven by databases, especially the websites I’ve been mentioning this week, I thought it might be worthwhile to share Tom’s thoughts on databases with anyone else curious about databases in the classroom:

I have really just started using databases in a teaching capacity. I had used Access before becoming a teacher to track student attendance and when work was due at the collegiate level. It was useful but I am now starting to see the potential power for the everyday teacher.

Right now I am using FileMaker Pro to work on three projects.
1. A way for teachers to breakdown and analyze tests on a question by question basis.

2. A test question bank for Language Arts that allows teachers to simply click to select questions and then it compiles a SOL format test and answer sheet for them. We already have these banks for the other three subject areas.

3. A lesson plan tracker for our technology trainers that lets them keep track of who they have visited at what schools and what they did. It also generates reports to submit to our supervisor as well as individual principals.

The power of this type of application is pretty much limitless and continues to impress me on a daily basis (and I’m not even that good Smile). It is well worth the time it takes to learn and though the learning curve is fairly steep for more advanced uses, simple databases can be set up by just about anyone who is familiar with spreadsheets.

I have to admit that database creation is something that continues to mystify me, but I know how to use them well enough to gather any information I might need. True, this website is powered by a database, but I still don’t understand how it all works “under the hood”. I just login, type, and with a little bit of whiz-bang magic my words appear here. Alright, so I understand it a little better than that, but what I’m getting at is databases are all around us. Those online stores and auction sites you shop at (Amazon, Ebay, Newegg) are all databases. The reference sites I’ve been mentioning this week are all databases, and heck, even the search engines that we use (Google, MSN, Yahoo) are databases too. They allow us to find information quickly, in an organized fashion, without having to know any code or special commands to access the information. Any word we want to look up, fact we want to know, or image we want to look at can be brought up with a simple query like “interactive math games” and viola, you have a list of popular math games to play online.

What am I getting at? Why can’t teachers start using online databases to create their own reference websites? Rather than use a simple list of links on a webpage (which I use far too often), find a way to organize those links using search-able categories like the ones running down the left hand column of my site. Required readings in English could be labeled under multiple categories making them easier to find, data that students need for a Chemistry lab could be posted and safely archived for easier retrieval later. And it doesn’t have to be done with MS Access or some other database software. It can be done online, with a blog, or a social bookmarking website.

Tom maintains an excellent example of a self-made reference site that is both easy to navigate and retrieve links from since he uses a clever “folksonomy” for his categories. Any website that fits both History and English gets put into both of those categories, or into further categories like World War II or British Literature. His modest post about the reference site he’s created also points out how much safer it is to use a teacher created reference site or database instead of one on the “open web” by searching with Google:

As has been blocked by our county (yes I’ve petitioned all the people involved) I’ve decided I need to create my own version and I think this will work well -minus the worldwide community of course Sad. With the press it bookmarklet it’s as easy as and I can even tag things with a little more flexibility. The fact that it is just for this site also makes it a good bit “safer” in a school setting.

I’ve got it started and figure I’ll grant author rights to certain people in the building/school system and start building the link collection again. You might recognize the links as being stolen from the fresh hot links list here.

The Ultimate Tag Warrior plug in for WP is pretty nice and written by someone who seems very interesting.

Now I just need to figure an easy way to import all the sites I’ve already tagged in

Now, I know there are plenty of educators out there still struggling to wrap their heads around what a blog is, let alone actually use one the way Tom is, but with the availability of free blogs at,, or many of the other free blogging sites out there, it’s definitely worth signing up for an account and playing around to see what you can come up with. In fact, pick a couple of trustworthy and technically savvy students to give you a hand and see what they could do given a simple mission; create a search-able reference site of spelling words, with the definitions as the main entries, or create a reference site of story starters (each post is the first paragraph of a story). You could even create a reference site of vocabulary words or study aids, so students can re-use the materials each year and add new ones to those already existing.

There’s so much to do with this concept, and I’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg. There’s much more discussion to be had about it on the forum or in the comments below.


  1. It’s sad databases get such a bad name for being boring and dull. In reality so many cool things are made with databases focusing on allowing flexible viewing/sorting of data.

    I really liked the idea of dabbledb as it made it all look so easy and fun but with it costing money I haven’t really tried it out.

    Our school’s still stuck on FileMaker 6 but it looks like the newer versions integrate google maps and other really cool ideas.

  2. I wouldn’t consider myself technically savvy. Tom’s projects seem interesting to me, but at the same time intimidate me because I don’t know anything about creating a database.

    I would love to learn how to use and or set up a test question bank for math so that I can click on questions to compile a format test. I feel that if a lot of teachers learned how to use databases and felt comfortable with creating them that we could help one another with by sharing our ideas and questions for both lessons and exams.

  3. I am in no way a tech savvy educator but the thought of setting up a test question bank for math would be so helpful. Organization by key concepts and easy navigation would be helpful and time saving. If we could get a group of teachers creating databases, imagine the great resources that would be at our fingertips.

  4. Alexis: You’ve really hit the nail on the head. Databases are scary to many people, not just educators. Tom is right, they have a bad rep for being boring and potentially complicated. While I know there is plenty of database creation software out there, some of the free stuff (like Open Office) is often too non-user friendly for teachers to just “pick up and go”.

    Kathy: It’s nice to know that teachers who don’t consider themselves to be tech-savvy still recognize the powerful tool databases can be, both for teachers and students. Chances are you’re probably more tech-savvy than you give yourself credit for; you are commenting on a blog post, one of those new-fangled technologies that many teachers still don’t get. 🙂

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