30 October 2012

5 Reasons I Was A Better Teacher My First Year

I was a better* teacher my first year. Here's why.

Such enthusiasm. A world where I still flipped up my hair in the front (and pulled it off.) 

1. First year teachers will try anything.

If you were anything like me, you were always willing to lend an ear to someone with a different strategy for illustrating properties of equality, tactfully contacting parents of difficult students, increasing engagement, or establishing routines. The further I get into my teaching career, the less willing I feel to take a new tip.

2. First year teachers don't have bad experiences and classroom baggage.

Remember that first student who tried to drive you bananas? The first time you felt like an administrator didn't support you? The first time your perfect lesson bombed? The first time your students disappointed you? The first time you disappointed your students? Ever wish you didn't? The longer we teach, the more we have to forgive, the shorter memory we require, and the greater courage we muster to put ourselves out there again.

3. First year teachers "wing it" less.

Before you start to feel like a vet, there are those 1,2,3 years where you don't. Where planning ahead isn't a luxury and "good professional practice" - it's a necessity just to get through your lessons.

Now that the level of structure and planning is on my terms, I know that proper planning for instruction really is best, and that my worst days teaching usually come on the days I'm least prepared. My students are less focused, my transitions take longer, and fewer students are engaged. Granted, winging it is helpful for the days you're distracted by family demands at home or you're a bit under the weather, but prepping like a rookie usually keeps my teaching fresh.

4. First year teachers follow policies. (For better or worse).

As ridiculous, redundant, or reactionary as some of the bureaucratic hoops we have to jump through may be, by George, I was minding my ps and qs my first year. Some teachers are more likely to take one for the team and go through the motions than others, but even the most defiantly natured first year teacher will follow more policies. And sometimes (often?) following these policies really is best for maintaining school environment and student expectations.

5. First year teachers don't know what doesn't work.

This is connected some to #1, but because I didn't know what strategies "didn't" work, I was willing to try. I was amazed at the (proven) effective strategies from the Marzano group. I expected everything I picked up from PD expert my school brought in to work. (Sadly) I believed then that every PD my district would offer me was going to change me life. (And maybe it did because I believed it would.) This sometimes results in ineffective lessons I can avoid with more experience, but there's something to be said for the power of a positive attitude and an open mind.

We entered the city golf-cart Christmas Parade for Math Club. I'd label that under "crazy" these days. We're not Minnesota, but golf-carts on December 5th is still too cold.
*I say "better" because these are qualities of a good teacher that are inherent to new teachers that overcome other inadequacies. If we keep these qualities as we add experience, we slide into that professional growth sweet-spot. Master teachers are made.

What about your first year experience do you wish you'd hung on to? What are you most glad is over?

29 October 2012

"I Secretly Agree When My Students Think They Shouldn't Be Writing in Math"

Have you ever felt that way? It's certainly easier to believe it?
"My job is to get these kids to perfect their arithmetic, solve equations, and make graphs for the ACT or state tests."
Writing has come back to the forefront the past year with the technical emphasis in the Common Core. The Missouri Algebra I End of Course Exam is reintroducing a required performance event this year, and its something that worried more than one of my colleagues. I had an opportunity to spend 5 days last semester in a writing PD with other teachers from North County, and it really helped to change my outlook on why and how to write in math class.

Where I'm Coming From

The training, sponsored by the Gateway Writing Project (which is the local effort of the National Writing Project), focused essentially on two tenets: writing for assessment and writing for learning.

I had a love/hate relationship with this training and our instructors, veteran/retired teachers from around St. Louis, most of which had spent some time in my district. Any time you go to a professional development with mixed subject areas led by someone not from math, they always will have several examples and takeaways reading for other subjects, and then I always hear this:
"I'm excited to see what you come up with on applying this to your math classroom."
You only need about 2 years of experience in the classroom before you just expect that will happen at 75% of PD opportunities. But at the same time its frustrating, it also forces the issue. How will I use this in my math classroom? And fortunately, most days, I was happy with the answer I found.

What I Learned 

Your students have opportunities for writing in the math classroom almost every day. Writing doesn't only have to happen in solutions to word problems, but (I think) is most useful in the learning process. I had already developed a practice of asking my "why" to my students after they responded to my questions, but writing those types of responses took that understanding to the next level (and got the introverts involved, too).

Tips for Getting Started:

1. Have your students explain steps to the problem they just solved, using relevant vocabulary to the lesson/chapter, and properties or laws they used. The first time you do this you'll get lots of "this" and "thats." My preferred response to generic language is always to ask the students how helpful it would be if I delivered my own examples to them like that. When my students stop moving "this" and "that," they make fewer errors of omission or inconsistency.

2. Have students describe their problem-solving process. Even better than "show all your work" is "explain all your work." When kids write down what each bit of their work is representing or in the solution for, they will often find their own errors in logic or process.

3. Have students reflect on success/failure/questions on the lesson of the day, share with a small group, and then combine their thoughts concisely. They might answer each other's questions, they'll better articulate where they have confusion, and its a good opportunity to wrap up/summarize learning goals for the day.

Have Courageous Conversations with other Teachers

Chances are, you or someone you know (kind of) really believes they we shouldn't be teaching writing. Challenge that, and (humbly) start a dialogue or brainstorm. Here's what I put together for my colleagues.

Where are you in your attitude toward writing in math class? Do you believe it enough to make your students do it?

25 October 2012

I'm Never Using Another Scantron Again (But I Still Love Feedback))

Anyone else hate scantrons? No, not the idea of multiple-choice assessments - those have their place. I just mean the actual slips of paper and machine. I don't know how I thought those got graded when I was in high school, but I certainly had no idea it was this.

And as a teacher I certainly never feel like this when I'm waiting in line for the ONE machine in the building.
The only role of scantron machine is to count #2 pencil marks on a piece of paper. The only role of scantron slips is to fill in bubbles to be scored by hand (bleh.) or run through the scanner. As I've blogged before, uni-taskers shouldn't have a place in organizations that require flexibility and adaptability of resources.

So, I've stopped using scantrons. Two things have emerged as more useful than a scantron ever was because feedback is much more quickly available, and item analysis is automatically figured for me. On the iPads, I use an app called Socrative, which allows for MC and free-response items, and even allows for immediate feedback on MC items if I want. The other approach, which I think I like even better, is to create a blank Google Form with about 50 items and choices that just say "A, B, C, D."

Advantages with Socrative:

  • Exit slips are ready made
  • Interactive, animated buttons/screens make it "game-y"
  • Embedded images
  • Easy sharing/accessing of survey/assessment through the app interface
  • Real-time results graph

Advantages with the Google Form:
  • I can use the current district curriculum without digitizing everything
  • A method accessible to any computing scenario (lab, laptops cart, iPad cart, 1:1)
  • If my wireless cuts out kids can still work until it comes back on
  • Students can go back, skip, and work around as they please (Socrative makes the student work sequentially).
I grade those Google Form bubblesheets with an app script called Flubaroo. Here's a tutorial on using integrating Flubaroo with your current forms.

My students like using the Socrative app for more formative, informal assessments when it doesn't really matter if they tap the wrong square and are whisked to the next question, but I got a lot of positive feedback from the "bubblesheet" this August, too (They'd used both tools by then.)

Bottom line

Flubaroo scoring is fast, reliable, and easy (and not app or device dependent. Another thing I'm big on.) I had a couple of my classes' finals completely "graded" about 2 minutes after the final student was done last spring. Quick feedback is a high-yield strategy for developing goal-setters.

24 October 2012

Tech Skills Your Students (Probably) Don't Have and You (Probably) Do - Part 3: Sharing/Getting Ideas

"Digital Native" doesn't mean your students have technology skills in their DNA - just that they pick them up more quickly. They still need you to guide them! With this page from the Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction that our district is using as a model for our integration plan, I've been picking out skills we often believe our students possess, but often do not.

Part 1: Research Skills
Part 2: Work/Productivity

In part three, we'll look at 4 idea sharing/gathering skills you can model for your students.

1. Editing photos with anything other than Instagram

My wife and I use PicMonkey for most of our photo blogging needs, but for heavier web and graphic design (custom backgrounds, specified dimensions, merging images, cutouts, vectors) you're going to photo-editing skills beyond "apply filter." Tate Foley, visiting art professor at Webster University, specializes in print-making, but relevance in the 21st century requires a digital presence, even for traditional arts. Photoshop is obviously the industry standard, but I've gotten a ton of use out of open-source Gimp, and web-based Pixlr.

2. Getting real-world examples of the math, literature, science, business, or social studies principals you're studying with RSS feeds and an aggregator. 

Is there a current events type assignment you routinely give? Want to get your students up-to-date examples of your field in practice? Skip the Popular Mechanics stacks at the library. Skip the Google Search. Have your students subscribe to a blog related to your curriculum and they have a readily available archive whenever its assignment time. Extra Credit: Do this yourself for ideas for classroom management, tech tools, parenting, or lesson plans.

Top Blogs Lists:
What to do with them:

3. Using your mobile phone to take photos of the whiteboard to save for later

Even if you don't have a SMARTboard or other IWB, your students don't have to miss out on having class notes uploaded to your website or hosted LMS (Blackboard, Moodle, etc). With a smartphone, use a scanner app (Genius Scan, CamScanner) for best results. Even with a "feature" phone, you can still get get results following these tips I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

YOU can use them for your own posterity. Your students can use it to snap a picture of their homework, get that example they're running behind on copying, or share notes with an absent friend.

4. (Intelligently) debating a topic you're passionate about on social media, wiki, blog, or discussion forum

One year in what was essentially a freshman study hall, my co-teachers and I discovered that our kids were supremely interested in the Illuminati. All of there favorite rappers and media moguls were "in." They had video "proof." We went with it and our Illuminati project became the object of obsession for these kids for an entire week. They were great at random web searches for "jay-z illuminati devil," and naive about analyzing those sources, and even worse at articulating their arguments.

Sound like anyone on Facebook during an election cycle? Nurture your budding research journalists by taking the debate to the web.

Tech Adaptations for YOU:

Are any of these things you can already do? Depending on the age of your students, you have so many professional and/or creative skills that they need, but don't yet have! If nothing I've shared is in your wheelhouse, do some reflection and find something you can share. It might be 21st century or it might be 19th - either way I'm sure your students will appreciate you sharing. History of technology lessons are interesting, too. ;)

23 October 2012

Tip Tuesday: Skip the Video or Slideshow, Make an Animated GIF

You remember animated GIFs, right? If you're about 25 or older you first saw them this way. This was really the only way to get "video" at 56kbps speeds.
They had a renaissance a couple years ago and people started using them for new media.
Why should artists and web designers have all of the fun? Animated GIFs are perfectly suited for short, procedural based instruction that is often unavoidable.

Advantages Over Video

Shooting quick video will, in fact sometimes be quicker than creating an animated GIF, but think about these advantages, first.

1. Animated GIFs run the same across desktop and mobile browsers, PC/Mac, and IE/Safari/Chrome/Firefox. Having your students with easy access to internet-ready devices is handy in enhancing their opportunities and extending your classroom, but opening your lesson plan to that many more devices, connection speeds, and architectures is asking for some compatibility issues. Since GIFs have been around so long, you don't have to worry if a student is on a 2002 iMac running IE 5 - they'll be seeing your content.

2. Connection speeds don't matter - there is no buffering. I often have to forgo playing a video for students during class because I don't want to wait for it to buffer. If I can't play a video, I know I've got no chance of 20-something kids all attempting at once via my wireless network.

3. Camera shy teachers (and students) can create animated GIFs without having their faces or voices included. Ever stutter? Voice crack? Are you a perfectionist that doesn't want any misspoken lines or "uhs" in your video? I feel you - I have one YouTube video that for some reason gets crazy play, and my voice cracks right from the get go.

How do I create an animated GIF?

If you can take a photo, you can create an animated GIF. There are several creation avenues to choose from:

I choose myspacegens... Now What?

I chose MySpaceGens because I wanted a tool ALL of my students (and you) would have access to no matter if they were at school or home, and I hate downloading new software.
  1. Take step-by-step images of your procedure
  2. Fine-tune your images for brightness, contrast, and cropping
  3. Upload your images to www.myspacegens.com
  4. Arrange your photos
  5. Set the transition timing speed. Since you want your students to be able to read most of the slide on a pass through, set this as long as possible. My example is set at 3000 ms.
  6. Generate GIF
  7. Save and upload to your website, social media, or LMS!

How'd You Do?

These images taken with my phone. Best case would be with a doc camera or screenshots.

Adaptations for YOU:

Honestly, GIF animation is much easier with the app I use, GifBoom, but I'm glad I've got several more options at my disposal.

Besides using this for steps of a math or science problem, you could use an animated GIF for...
  • slideshow of student work
  • lyrics to a song
  • parsing phrases and other grammar constructions
  • digital flipbook
  • comic strip

22 October 2012

Tech Skills Your Students (Probably) Don't Have and You (Probably) Do - Part 2: Work

"Digital Native" doesn't mean your students have technology skills in their DNA - just that they pick them up more quickly. They still need you to guide them! With this page from the Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction that our district is using as a model for our integration plan, part 1 in the series had 4 research tips for your students that you are (probably) familiar with.

In part two, we'll look at 3 work-specific skills you can model for your students.

1. Entering datasets and creating a graph with spreadsheet software.

I found this deficiency the first time I tried to do this project with scatter plots. Although the scatter plot is much faster and accurate via spreadsheet, the majority of my students felt like learning excel was going to be too daunting a task and drew theirs by hand.

2. Typing "properly" with speed.

In the interest of getting our students more exposure to Office and to align with career-track courses for Perkins grants, my school has eliminated "keyboarding" and mostly teach it in a word processing course. They know more about PowerPoint animations and setting margins, but at the expense of home row and speed drills. Virtual keyboards on smartphones are only making the skill gap wider. As computers evolve, it might not matter, but its still a relevant skill in 2012.

Make typing skills a social game with these websites or Facebook apps.

Typing Manic on Facebook becomes social

3. Work on a group project without emailing back and forth

Amongst my co-teachers and students, this one is perhaps most known about and least utilized. Maybe I just love it more than others, but I completed an entire 30 page instructional design plan in Google Docs with two partners in grad school. It was fantastic discussing edits as we made them. When everyone in a group has a Google account, especially in 1:1 environments, a group can collaboratively work on a presentation, word document, or spreadsheet at the same time, and communicate on changes via the integrated chat. With Google Hangouts, the collaboration becomes even easier.

Tech Adaptations for YOU:

Are any of these things you can already do? Depending on the age of your students, you have so many professional and/or creative skills that they need, but don't yet have! Come back Wednesday for part 3, or reflect on some things of your own you might be able to share!

21 October 2012

Tech Tip: Get More Out Of Your SMARTBoard By Changing Defaults

This SMARTBoard tip really upped the customization factor for me.

Did you know you can change the default colors of your pens and backgrounds? I stumbled upon this by accident one day and kept with it because I was inspired by the white text on black (or dark) backgrounds that Salman Khan uses on all of his Khan Academy videos.

I found out after the fact that my default changes did not only apply to my profile on the server, but to anyone logging in to that machine with that SMARTBoard, so my friend that was sharing the room with me that year was in for quite a surprise the next hour when she went to write with what she thought was a black pen on the default white background. So if you're sharing the hardware, inform your colleagues, and make sure its a change you can all agree on.

Tech Skills Your Students (Probably) Don't Have and You (Probably) Do - Part 1: Research

Your students have a wide variety of technology skill sets coming into your classroom. "Digital Native" does not mean that millennials inherently know how to use any and all of the technology you charge them to, but rather, that they are usually more willing to try because of the way technology is a natural part of their lives.

I've seen tons of students come through my classroom in these 5 years of teaching that would probably say, "I love technology," but the only professional-type skills they possess are in sending an email and putting some pizazz into a PowerPoint.

Where do we start? This page from the Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction begins with the ISTE NETS-S standards, breaks them down, and suggests ways for students to meet the standards. We're using it in our district as the bones of our on integration plan. From the doc, I've picked out several of those skills you're likely proficient or near-proficient with.

In part one, we'll look at 4 research/study skills you can model for your students.

1. Finding reputable sources of online articles for research papers.

You've just finished your anti-Wikipedia monologue; now what? I'm sure your library-media specialist has the know-how, but why shouldn't you?

2. Using Advanced Search to get results at particular reading level, file type (jpg, pdf, doc, ppt), or usage right (creative commons)

Ever feel like your searching students are getting a ton of results that are over their heads? You're probably most certain when you wind up with reports from your students with words you know they'd never use. Ever hunt through pages of results looking for a particular PowerPoint or PDF file that you found "that one time"? Advanced options (available after you perform an initial search on the gear cog at the top right of the results page) allow you to refine your search with more than just Boolean operators.

3.  Easing the stress over MLA or APA format and allowing a computer to get it right for you. 

Even 12 years ago, when I was writing senior papers in high school, we were slave to the MLA handbook, left only to hope we were categorizing our source correctly and interpreting the examples the same way our teachers would. I think a lot of teachers still want to do these "by hand", and its probably for the same reason we still often graph lines by hand in math class. Please tell me when you find out what that reason is. Let your student do citations the quick, easier way and go to KnightCite, the Purdue O.W.L center, try one from this list by Central Oregon Community College, or take the citation straight from the Ebsco or Google Scholar page. The computers aren't disappearing anytime soon, and if they do, I'm sure using the actual MLA Handbook for writing citations will be the least of our worries.

4. Using other sources of knowledge than just the textbook for help.

Do you only use your teacher edition for examples, notes, scaffolding questions, and activity ideas? Of course, not! You're a blog reader! I hope you're not (intentionally) expecting the same of your students! Reading the textbook is a very important skill that our students lack (particularly for college readiness), and its a growth I see in my AP Stats students every year, but we're really closing our students' worlds if we aren't intentional about modeling the use of different sources of knowledge. Having your students think you (and only you) know everything is great for the ego, but damaging to kids when they need additional help from others ("I don't want you to teach it to me wrong") or when your delivery methods aren't getting through. They need to know that you may be unorthodox in some of your methods, but that your content is consistent and reliable with other texts and instructors.

Ways to Get the Sage Off The Stage:
  • Play a YouTube video from a channel you have previewed and trust (in class or as homework). If you choose well, the star of the video will end of saying many of the things kids have already heard from you. Having established this practice saved a lesson of mine one day.
  • If you have a special ed co-teacher, have them lead for small segments every day or most of the class once or twice a week. 
  • Establish a small reference library of relevant subject texts (math/history/science/grammar/foreign language/etc.) and have students refer to them when they have a question
  • Link to a handful of generic subject area websites on your own site. Kids will have a place on the web to trust outside of blindly searching (and you'll know the examples they might come back with will be reliable)

Tech Adaptations for YOU:

Are any of these things you can already do? Depending on the age of your students, you have so many professional and/or creative skills that they need, but don't yet have! Come back tomorrow for part 2 on skills for work and productivity, or reflect on some things of your own you might be able to share!

16 October 2012

Writing with Tech: Marzano "Chalk Talk" for Summarizing, Similarities and Differences

We've recently just finished solving systems of inequalities in my Algebra 2 class. Without really know what that means, its only important to know that there are many similarities between systems of inequalities and systems of equations in the manner with which you set them up to solve, and only a few distinct, but important, differences.

I knew several of my students felt like the inequalities was another example of the course seemingly doing something "new" every week or two, and I knew some of my students were really making the connection between the two, so I took a day to take advantage of the knowledge gap and practice some summarizing skills in small groups.

This activity was loosely based on what I thought I saw as a Marzano high-yield strategy called "Chalk Talk." I can no longer find any linked reference between "Marzano strategies" and "chalk talk," but here's a document that IS somewhat similar in explanation from The League of Professional Schools.


Day 3 of Solving Systems of Inequalities
This would have been Day 2, but I had not previously reviewed graphing linear inequalities yet in this course (where it was supposed to be in Chapter 2), so I tacked on a day here in Chapter 3 because I always felt like I was reteaching them anyway.

Do Now: (about 7 minutes)
Students came in, took out what was supposed to be their homework from the night before on systems of inequalities, and I played this video in which I'd worked out some solutions.
A couple of hours I just let the video play and allowed some talking amongst the kids about things they were noticing while I took care of administrative things, a couple hours I stopped it every once in awhile and had kids respond with what the next step would be.

Chalk Talk: (5 minutes)
Because this was the first time trying it out, I didn't want to invest too much technology-time getting the kids set up, so I did this step with Post-Its. Accomplishing this step with each group in a Google Doc would be simple as well.

There were two things I loved about this activity. I randomly distributed the group numbers around the room, forcing at least half of the class to move in order to sit with their numbers, and many students who had never worked together shared wonderfully together. It disappointed me that I hadn't switched them up sooner. Secondly, the last, summarizing step was a happy accident of scaffolding. Some of the groups basically regurgitated back a list of things they had all compiled, and some groups' writers spent several minutes writing wonderful paragraphs and being very thoughtful about using descriptive, math vocabulary.

Sharing and Conclusion: (10 minutes)
As the groups read, I put things I was hearing up on the SMARTboard.

You'll probably notice that a few things would up on both sides of the chart - a confusion I wasn't even aware of. It was helpful for me to see that and for the group that put it (incorrectly) on the similarities side to have the uh-oh moment after the other groups put it as a difference.

Tech Adaptations for YOU:

Charting the class list of similarities differences could have been done as a Google Doc, on the SMARTboard, with a document camera and a projector, or even just a whiteboard/big poster (but then the kids wouldn't be able to access later.)

A good conclusion activity for interactive notebooks/portfolios could be a reflective piece on how/why some things ended up on both sides, or something the student learned/strengthened as a result of seeing others' thoughts

This could serve as an introduction to systems of inequalities with a webquest, book reading assignment, or video completed prior to the post-it note silent writing time.

Tip Tuesday: 5 Effective Ways to Get the Homework Monkey Off Your Back

File this one in the "admittedly a smidge more work, but with a big payoff" category, readers.

I'm speculating here, but I'm guessing unless you teach at some super competitive private school or only have AP/Honors super students, you've got more than your share of homework hassles. So you've probably tried one, several, or all of these tactics:

  • smaller assignments
  • leaving books at home/class set in the room
  • only worksheets
  • no homework - only classwork
  • flipping the class - video note-taking at home, practice at school
I've found two things about the effectiveness of this strategies for my classroom - lots of students think they'll be effective, and none of them really ever are at motivating the homework-ne'er-doer to do his assignments. Haven't you heard some (all) of these?
"My book was in my locker and I had to catch the bus."
"I lost the worksheet."
"I had too much other homework to do."
"I didn't write down the page number."

Have I riled up enough frustration yet? :) Here's 5 strategies that I've found to legitimately give more of my students more opportunities to complete their practice (because sometimes they really do want to get it done but need opportunities that fit into super busy teen lifestyles)

1. Get a classroom social media account and tweet/share an update on the day and the page numbers for bookwork or any handouts.

I have a class Twitter account, Facebook page, and have previously used Edmodo. Different students like each one for different reasons, I guess, so I wish I could advise you to just pick one, but that would go against my experience. The best I can say is that you're safe with Twitter/Facebook, and you should use a third-party client like Hootsuite or TweetDeck to manage both networks simultaneously.

2. Use a Dropbox account to create a shared folder and give all of your students access to the folder. Drag any rubrics, worksheets, notes, or project outlines that you want to share with your students to the folder, save the stuff you want hidden in a different folder for that class.

3. Get a Google Voice number for students to text (to your email) whenever they get stuck on something. They're more likely to use it because they don't have to TALK to you, and its more convenient for you because you can fire off a response in between checking your friends' Facebook updates. You can also connect this number to the phone in your classroom - when parents use this number to call that line, you can send it to voicemail and then listen later while checking your email, at school OR at home. My students like this one a lot.

If your district is on Google Apps, this is especially convenient because they'll have automatic monitoring access. You can communicate knowing you're probably well within your district's policies. (But of course, you should still confirm that.)

4. Use a document camera to put up a shot on your projector or SMARTboard of the practice exercises or reading passage from the text book that students can quickly copy into their notebooks or snap a picture of with their mobile devices.

5. If your school has some form of a LMS (Learning Management System) in place, utilize it to post homework pages, notes, practice tests, or assignments. How often are you glad that companies and the government dump everything you need to know on the web? Can you imagine still limiting interaction with the DMV, IRS, shopping, or contacting your bank/utilities exclusively in person or by mail? Imagine now, that you've never known a world where the web wasn't the way we paid our bills, looked up information.

Extra Credit -
If you're feeling overwhelmed at the thought of converting everything you're currently doing by hand to  digital media that you have to put online and manage, have your students do it! Knowing that their notes will be seen by others will help your special helpers with summarizing and note-taking skills, and the students get more ownership of their classroom. I often hear kids say to each other, "Hey, text me that later," even without these procedures in place.

14 October 2012

What Alton Brown Taught Me About Education Technology

No uni-taskers in this kitchen

About six years ago, while trying to build my grown-up skills, my wife and I watched a lot of Food Network, particularly Good Eats with Alton Brown. Alton has made a career for himself by sticking to one basic formula: keep a kitchen stocked with flexible, quality tools, and know why (scientifically) you're doing what you're doing in that recipe. In many episodes, there’ll be some preparation task that often is accomplish by a uni-tasker (something like a garlic press, avocado scooper or these), an educational segment featuring kitchen tools or the science behind the day’s dish, and always an emphasis on quality.

I think those same principles easily apply to the application of technology in schools for teachers AND students.  Choose quality, versatile tools, and make sure people know how and why to use them.


Alton Brown doesn’t want you wasting your time with kitchen appliances that are going to break, and food that is only filling. We owe it to our kids to always have the technology in their classrooms functioning. Teachers have enough to do with their plan time than troubleshoot devices and relearn/rework devices every other day.  Spending a little more money often means a better user experience/interface, better design, and fewer headaches in the end. The example in my building is between one set of Turning Technologies clickers we were piloting and sharing in the math department, and sets of iRespond clickers that were purchased for every classroom in the school district. (a HUGE capital investment). Ultimately, both models provided the same functionality (run in PowerPoints, get data of student responses), but the user (teachers and students) experience was so much better with the Turning Technology clickers, that most of our teachers left the iRespond in the storage room and continued sharing the others. I understand going lowest bidder on a product rolling out to hundreds of classrooms, but from my observations it was a waste, because no one wants to use them. This is also a reason you usually see Apple products in schools. I'm not an Apple fanboy by any means, but I've NEVER heard anyone tell me how much they hate their iMac/iPad/MacBook


How does yeast work? Why do I cook my syrup at that temp? Why blend instead of pulse? Answering these questions in Good Eats episodes, Alton equips his disciples of cooks with the know-how to use these ingredients correctly, and creatively. Using the software and hardware tools in any given classroom requires click-training to instruct on the “how” of the system, but also a ton of “why”. Most companies have resource and best practice sections on the support pages of their websites; they do their part. The problem is that I think schools and districts often rely on this alone, expecting that teachers will all run to those pages on their plan times (and secretly hoping on their free time) to learn, train, and reflect on their new technology. The wonder of the internet age is that anyone can learn anything. The weight of the internet age is that there is more to learn and more to process. How do we choose?

We could all use a little Alton Brown on our shoulder, reminding us of that website, introducing that use of Google Docs, or playing around with that magic app, so we don’t have to. Twitter has been helpful for me and other teachers to bridge that gap, but it still requires boatloads of time that I have less of.

No Uni-taskers:

So give teachers fewer things to learn! There are several reasons for keeping uni-taskers out of the kitchen. In the classroom, its important for technology in classrooms to be versatile in application to make it easier on budgets, professional development and clutter. I'm currently trying out a "formative instruction system" for my district that has a lot of cool functionality - integrates well with current software, easy for students to pick up, several different ways for the teacher and the student to use it. However, just the teacher device for driving the clicker questions and/or annotating costs about the same as an iPad, and they've developed an app to (somewhat) replicate the experience. So instead of training all of our teachers on setting up and using this new system, why not use the clickers already in the schools, buy the iPads, and buy a $20 app that does the same annotation.

A couple bad lower-tech examples:

Equation vest builder - They’re cheap enough, I guess, but aren’t most uni-taskers? Couldn’t this just be done with tape and paper/index cards? How often are these really going to come out of the storage tub?

Noise Control Stoplights - The idea of these is helpful for students learning proper noise levels, but for the cost, it seems like a website or this free app always on the SMARTboard would be just as effective. (In my research, I came across this convincing article from Education World about the effectiveness of these lights, but I still think they’re not worth the price.)

Bottom Line:

Give a teacher a ton they can easily implement into the flow of their classroom, and guide them along the journey - they’ll thank you for it and use it. Give a teacher something else to try and figure out how to use - they’ll ignore you and continue using what already works for them.

12 October 2012

Guns Don't Kill, People Do (or... How It Should NEVER Be About the Device)

"Interesting how students really are involved when you throw a device in their hands."
I hear, read, or see something similar often from policy makers, parents, or teachers, or admin. Don't let them know, but I disagree. Not that technology and mobile devices aren't an iceberg of opportunity to enhance instruction, increase efficiency, and expand spheres of influence, but that the devices themselves bring it.

I feel like the entirety of my Master's program of study was an emphasis on that point. Computers don't help kids learn, teachers using software with clear directions, goals, and feedback do. Calculators don't help kids do math, teachers refining analytical minds do. Tablets, smartphones, clickers, and iPods don't inherently engage students in the lesson, a teacher that invites them to the learning and delivers content on the devices does.

If you're using (or investing) in classroom tech only b/c, "Kids get more engaged with a device" you're headed down an expensive road. Teenagers have short memories and fickle tastes - they'll be bored with the device itself before you're even done with the final stage of your implementation plan.

Devices come here, but YOU don't.
Think about it this way - think of the greatest lesson you've ever delivered. Think about the non-tech materials you used in the instructional plan. Was there a reading out of a book? Did students write together? When you were reflecting on how amazingly well that lesson went, and how much your students learned, did you praise the pencil? 
"I got some Ticonderogas from Target for my class, and man... those kids were so involved with their writing today."
Of course, not! High-yield instructional strategies will always be founded upon what the students are doing with the tools, not the mere existence of them.

New devices DO get kids' attention, and there is always a new level of excitement when we have some new tech toys out in class, but its all pointless if all your students got out of the day was, "We played on the iPads." The same way you can sit in front of the TV, or browse your Twitter/Facebook feed for hours "being productive," I often see a numbing effect on my students of "on-task" behavior being whittled down to not talking to anyone else or distracting others.

iPads, clickers, Smartboards, wireless tablets, and video equipment is exciting to have in the classroom, and I'm so blessed and thankful that I get to play with them so often and experiment, but the danger for me always in instructional planning is focusing too much on the tech and not enough on learning outcomes. I must take a moment to reflect on my lesson and analyze what my students need the tech for in that lesson, and what they'll be learning as a result (and communicating that expectation to the students as well.)

Agree, or disagree? What have you seen with your kids/students?

10 October 2012

Using Old Stuff: Neglected Towers and Laptops

It's technology, so you're familiar with the inevitable march towards obsolescence, but you're nostalgic, too, so you don't want to just chuck the old machines out with the garbage (or try to recycle them). Why not get some use out of them?!

Here's just a few ideas that I've utilized, and the glorious machines that made it all possible.

1998 PowerMac G3  

  • Offline Notes Sharer
  • Document Creating
  • (small) Reference Library
  • Crowd(classroom)sourced Knowledge Creation Station (silent conversations, classwide KWL charts, etc.)
I recovered this old machine in 2008 from the back of the library in the A/V graveyard. After inquiring to A/V and the tech department about what I would need to do to "legally" take it home, I was met mostly with confusion about my motives for taking that super old tower. Translation - it was so old no one cared.

I had to buy a DVD drive for it so I could install my personal copy of OS X over the OS 9 living on the 7 gb (?!!) harddrive, and upgraded the RAM an embarrassingly small 256 MB, but alas, she was mine. My first goal for this Mac was as a media center to stream Hulu to my TV, but... this computer was from 1998. Surprisingly, it WAS able to stream Pandora.

This Mac returned to school after my wife (and I?) eventually decided we didn't need a bondi blue  Pandora machine sitting on the floor in our living room. And at school, it solved a problem for me! I felt like kids coming back from illness, field trip, or suspension and needing previous day's notes was becoming a daily occurrence, so the Mac eventually became my yesterday's-notes, type papers, and use the dictionary widget machine in the back of my class. 

Because the harddrive was so small, I had to be judicious, but I was also able to some helpful software on there, as well. 
  • To most efficiently conduct my notes-sharing, I installed a slightly older, smaller-than-current version of SMART Notebook. If I were doing this now, I would probably just use Notebook Express.
  • Open Office for document creation
  • The newest iTunes version I could get on the old (pre-Intel) PowerPC architecture
This tower is officially retired now that I have a class set of iPads since the kids could use those for every role the Mac had filled.

2004 Generic Dell Laptop 

  • Mobile offline notes station 
  • Small group work log (at the desk, which made it less obtrusive to the usual classroom environment than 4 people moving chairs to the back table)
  • Document Creation
  • (small) Reference Library
  • Crowd(classroom)sourced Knowledge Creation Station (silent conversations, class-wide KWL charts, etc.)
  • Classroom sign out spreadsheet
I don't even remember the specs on this laptop except that it has no internal wireless card and the install of Windows XP that was on there when I inherited it from my parents was trashed. To put it more positively, I finally had a machine I could (potentially) destroy by going all-in with a small Ubuntu Linux install. This was made EXPONENTIALLY more difficult without the internal wireless card (although, chances are it would not have played well with linux anyway), so every time I wanted to update software or retrieve a new package, I had to dig a network patch cable out of the basement and sit on the floor next to my TV (where the modem and router are). 

This harddrive was a little more manageable, but the processor is incredibly sluggish, so I soon realized the prospects for this machine were actually pretty similar to the Mac previously mentioned. I could run Notebook software (this time, Express). Video streaming was still pretty much a no go, but if I was patient enough, I could buffer some YouTube.

Again, because of the iPads, this laptop had no more of its current roles to fulfill. On a whim the first week of school, I made it my sign-out/sign-in sheet. I can leave it by the door with only one thing to plug in (instead of monitor and CPU), and its still out and present for other uses. I was a little concerned about theft, but since I got it free and don't really use it, I wouldn't really be missing it. I like having that record available right by the door for easy reference.

Anything interesting you're doing with your old machines? Budget-crunched schools are dying to know!