31 December 2015

Do You Make Room for Teaching INefficiently?

We all love how efficiently technology helps us find, recall, and create information, right? I can more efficiently contact the parents of my students through our online Student Information System. I can recall and edit old documents and lessons plans from my Google Drive just by searching. I can grade assessments more efficiently through my MasteryConnect GradeCam, Google Forms, and/or any number of apps and websites set up to give our students fast, formative, differentiated practice and feedback. (We use Renaissance Learning's, Accelerated Math most in my district, I just saw MathSpace at the St. Louis EdSurge event, Khan Academy has a coaching/practice element, and FrontRow has contacted me before - seems like a good product.)

But sometimes, in our hussle to meet and assess our power standards, track students progress and remediate/differentiate, or run class through our time-tested, "this works best for me" classroom procedures, we get TOO efficient. 

I have an old friend from college, Matt Inman (now a private-practice therapist in Austin), who started a podcast and blog this year titled, Inefficiency. His motto is, "Going out of our way, for that which we love most." The idea has really resonated with me personally as I've binge-listened to past episodes this month, but the idea that is sticking with me professionally came from episode 6 with psychotherapist, Dr. Roy Barsness. Dr. Barsness was describing a patient he had invested a lot of time and energy with, spent a lot of "inefficiency" on, who wound up becoming inappropriately attracted to him - to the point of suicide if he would not go to bed with her. He recounts his experience with this difficult patient:
"Many people would have dropped her...what i hated was the difficultly of working with a borderline patient, and that the patient was the problem. All I knew was my patient wasn't my problem. The problem in that room I was me - I didn't know how to be with that patient. And so I tell my students, be really careful with psychopathology, because this is the only way the patient knows how to be, and YOU have to learn how to be with that and to discover together where there's a different way of being. And so I hated that blaming of the patient, and especially of the borderline during my training... I thought, "I can work with her. The problem is... she needs a lot more than I can even give yet, but I was scrambling like crazy to find out if I could find it..." - Dr. Roy Barsness, Inefficiency Podcast, Ep. 6
My wife and I joke(?) a lot at home about how often on TV and in movies that teachers end up sleeping with their students, so lets steer away from that as NOT the point of this example. Think about those students in your school who bounce from teacher to teacher, never really connecting with anyone. How often do we talk with out colleagues that, "if she would only figure out ______," or "I really need his parents to ______ before he can be successful in my class."

Don't these kids get the most lost when we rigidly stick to the efficiencies that technology afford us in our classroom? Flipping out classrooms is a terrific use of video and so transformative for many students' ability to better understand lecture content, but I've seen a lot of students turned away at some of their neediest moments with, "Go watch the video." Its inefficient to say something that they should have gotten from that lesson's video, but it might be most caring. We go to great lengths to set up our class websites, and get all of our handouts/content online. It's quite efficient to always directly dismiss students to the class website or Google Classroom when they need something we've put on there, but sometimes, I think the right thing is to just stop what you're doing and serve that student.  It's inefficient, but our students matter, right?

"But you're just dismissing their immature behaviors and lack of responsibility." You were just thinking that, weren't you? I'm not writing this to excuse irresponsibility from 16/17/18 year olds that should really know better (and often DO better at their after-school jobs, or even in other teachers' classrooms). The key to building that relationship with that difficult, needy student is, as Dr. Barsness put it, "to discover together where there's a different way of being." Whether they are or not, I think our default assumption as teachers has to be one our best intentions from our students. That on most days, most of the time, they're giving us the best of what they have to work with in the situation.

As much as legislatures across the states want to make clear the evidences of our work after just a few months, education is a marathon. You might get thanked by a great lecture or a particularly interesting/engaging project/lesson/activity, but the things that matter most for our students happen after they leave us. in the NEXT math class, they pull that nugget of knowledge out and apply it to a project. In someone else's class they come up with a creative inquiry question to drive a project and then see it through. Our students that end up learning the most from us are the ones that needest us and we were able to give - we inspired or gave to them more than others.

I think finding moments to teach inefficiently in the midst of all the efficient technologies we build around us makes all the difference in finding satisfaction, purpose, and reward in our work. Nothing about scanning a bubblesheet makes me want to go back to class everyday, but taking time for creatively engage my students or reflect on one more thing to try with my students gets me there often.

Where is your well? In order to continue coming back, again and again for our students, we must have more to give. What are you filled with? How do you renew? ONE important life-giving activity is reflection and looking forward.

Matt posted a 2015 Year End Review on the Inefficiency website that I would wholeheartedly encourage you to fill out before returning to school. Don't pressure yourself to do it all at once, though. I think I took 3 different sessions of sitting for about 20 minutes to get through it, but it was great for thinking back and on setting personal AND professional priorities for 2016.

21 December 2015

Data suggests print books making a comeback - does it matter for classrooms?

Just picked up this article in Quartz reporting Neilsen data suggesting the print books made a comeback last year, specifically buoyed by Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, adult coloring books, and (I don't understand this one) books authored by YouTube stars. http://qz.com/578025/against-all-odds-print-books-are-on-the-rise-again-in-the-us/

What's that mean for education? For the classroom? Is the next wave of innovation going to be a rejection of tech, where we all throw out our iPads and Chromebooks?

I think this change is in part a natural reaction to new technology - everyone bought a Kindle in the last decade, lots of people starts buying e-books, and then some users realized they didn't like the experience most of the time. Ever tried sharing an ebook with your friend? "Hey, I just read Malcom Gladwell's new book; so good! You oughta check it out! Want to borrow it?" Ebooks as a format aren't so great for reading to kids or as gifts for kids, either. Don't get me wrong, my kids LOVE interactive books/stories and their Leapfrog LeapReader books, but "I downloaded this book to my iPad for you" just doesn't give my daughter the same experience as going to the library and clutching tight her borrowed copy of Barbie Super Sparkle. 

I believe the increase in sales of physical books this past year represents a maturation of the digital, ebook market because it means that users and producers have figured out what digital books are and are not good for. With every new technology, there is a period where we kick the tires a bit (typing out everything on an iPad screen several years ago, for instance), and then decide the added cost/adaption/complication of implementation is not worth the gain. If the only reason you have your kids reading texts in the classroom on screens instead of paper is the savings on printing costs, I don't know if that's worth the loss in value of marking up and making a text your own as a reader. Users that bought an e-reader several years ago just to read (not annotate, share links, and highlight) their ebook might be going back they miss dog-earred pages, rustling pages, and the satisfaction of closing the book on that last page.

A few years ago when iPads were new in classrooms, I went to a session on apps for literacy for K-3 kids at a tech conference and was introduced to an app that was going to revolutionize letter-practice because kids could use their finger to change colors and even use a multi-color or sparkle "pen". You know what else kindergartens love? Real glitter, and tape, and markers, and stickers, and paint, and stuff they can bring home to their parents. It was a fun addition, but like this app, the bounce-back of print books is indicative that in some settings, we end up trying to use tech to fix things that we don't need to or shouldn't fix.

In summary, it makes sense to me (a person that much prefers reading books to print) that people are buying books again. And I also believe that physical textbooks will continue to be replaced as 1:1 device environments and e-texts become ubiquitous in the modern classroom. Why? It's because of what we need textbooks to be. 

The textbook was a great invention last century. One book with all of the info a student might conceivably need (for that course.) If all you want from a textbook for your students is examples, practice problems, and the answers to the odds in the back, you're probably going to be fine with any textbook from the last 20 years (so the book will at least acknowledge graphing calculators and the Internet), but we need more from our educational resources!

Our students need:
a resource with all the information that they need - some will need more or less supplemental or prior-skill material out of their "book"
a resource that brings in multimedia as the norm, not an add-on
a resource with tools kids can manipulate, be it geometric shapes on a coodinate plane, simple machines and force, or chunks of texts they can rechunk or number
a resource that is (almost) never outdated or obsolete because the district budget couldn't afford the new edition
a resource students can add to and collaborate with others to chronicle their learning alongside the "official" content
I do not believe that a desire for "experience" will ever be absent from the act of reading, so books might never disappear. However, the information communication demands in the classroom have and are changing, so while we will continue to build reading nooks in classrooms, our educational resources must change to reflect the speed, immersion, and flexibility with which we consume and publish in this century.

23 October 2015

UnGoogleable Question - Oct 19, 2015 - Approximating Circle Area

I started the "Circles and Trigonometry" unit on my Applied Math class this week, so to get them triggering on some prior circles knowledge form Geometry, I threw up some basic circle area questions for the Do Now. I expected they would be able to do them, but my goal for the activity was mostly just to get them thinking about radii, diameters, and angles.

This first photo was as difficult as those Do Now questions got. Where the conversation got interesting was when a student called me over for a question.

"Hey, can just make a triangle in here and use the Pythagorean Theorem? Would that be close enough?"

What a great question! What's so good about it?

  1. We'd done Pythagorean Theorem last week, so she was attempting to use a mathematical tool she was familiar and comfortable with in solving the problem.
  2. She made a connection that triangles quite comfortably co-exist with circles.
  3. She was trying to make a judgement on the reasonableness of her potential answer.

She didn't know it, but I think that's THREE of the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice she's exhibiting or about to exhibit!

One of the most important things you can do to present your students with UnGoogle-able questions is to be open to opportunities for them!

Instead of reacting negatively to this student and telling her to just use the area formula, I made sure to celebrate that question.

"Hey, that's a great idea, but I don't think that's going to be close enough. I like that you're thinking, though!"

What made this question worthy of UnGoogle-able status, however, was that her question stuck with me through class and into lunch that day. I knew that one triangle wouldn't cut it, but how many might it take? I spent lunch doing some calculations on my chalkboard.

This question got better the longer I thought about, and the more I talked about it with my colleagues.

As I was playing with the triangles myself, I started getting annoyed with all the radicals in my calculations. I wondered, "Does it even to be RIGHT triangles? Does it even have to be TRIANGLES?"

Once I landed on that thought, I knew I was ready to enshrine this question because it had several of my "UnGoogle-able" characteristics.

  1. It was a question I myself was interested in. (and did not know the answer.)
  2. It came from a student, so I was more  confident the class would buy-in to the question.
  3. It was approachable from several levels, from draw on a graph paper and literally count boxes to using angle and circle properties expertly and keeping your numbers in radical form.
  4. Students would be able to have conversations about it.
  5. Students would be able to write about their solution and then analyze the reasoning of others. (Another Standard for Mathematical Practice!)
  6. There are multiple solutions depending on your priorities. (I suspect that triangles would ultimately get you the closest, but area calculations for quadrilaterals would be much easier. "Best method" could be either of those in different settings.)
I can't wait to see what my students do with this question!

What about you? Where else would you take this idea?

07 October 2015

3-Act Math Images - Circular Farms

I really like this satellite image from NASA of center-pivot irrigated farm in Kansas - it looks like hundreds of pennies to me.

What questions could we ask with this image?
Image: Dalhart Texas, NASA Visualization
Some of my ideas:
  • How much land goes unused in this image because the fields are planted as circles?
  • If you could add smaller center-pivot sprinklers in the corners of the fields (and therefore, smaller circles) to cover some of the unused land, how many sprinklers would you need to cover over 98% of a field?
  • What proportion of this land is covered in dark farms, and in light colored farms?
  • Assuming irrigation costs were the same for both fields, how much more money could a farm make that planted in rectangular plots instead of circular plots of wheat?
  • Which setup would best maximize use of the land - one big center pivot sprinkler (one circle on a square plot, two sprinklers that do a half rotation (two hemispheres on a square plot), or four smaller sprinklers that do full rotations (four circles on a square plot)?

05 October 2015

UnGoogleable Question - Oct 5, 2015

This question is not high on the "UnGoogleable" scale, but another important aspect of real questions for our students is that they are timely.

When freshman came in this morning talking about who all had been drinking over the weekend and embellishing stories of "the best way" to sober up, after taking a minute to get over my frustration/anger at the absurdity of the chatter, I wrote this problem on our whiteboard for their Do Now.

More than the math our kids can perform (which several kids "successfully" calculated to be 2.5), it matters who they are now and what they are becoming. I don't mean to imply that kids drinking at a party is the end of all sins, but I think it is important that my students know that I care about what they do when they aren't with me. I'm not a math robot, so I refuse to teach like one either. :)

03 September 2015

24 Ways for Schools and Educators to TWEET

I'm leading a session at our district PD day on Twitter, so I made up a "bingo" for the attendees to play on their own as they explore their own tweeting identity.

"bingo" image by @chuckcbaker
Which is your favorite?

27 August 2015

Kids > Your Professional Learning or Goals

As we wrap up professional development plan season in teacher-land, let us remember that it's the little things we do as PEOPLE that make all the difference to the children in our care. 

Just because I have a passion for X doesn't mean that doing X is going to advance my skill and proficiency at helping students do Y. X might look good on a resume, and be good for career advancement to adminstration, but making hard decisions that make the adults in our schools uncomfortable often are the most student-friendly. 

As a couple examples...

If you are hyper-focised on classroom management and eliminating distractions, you might target locking-up student devices as a strategy to ensure attention and engagement.  We give up a lot of control when we allow students the freedom to use their electronic devices as they choose in the hallway or commons, but we trade it some for more convenient opportunities for kids to complete school work or communicate with their teachers or classmates. You may end up coming looking like you don't have "control," but if you've coached your students in appropriate usage and times for usage, the KIDS are better off. 
It's certainly not sexy, and not usually effective in promoting and engaging higher-order thinking, but can you leave room in your professional planning that some days students might need a worksheet (with answers/solutions) to gain practice and feedback?

 My own goal on my professional development plan is related to engaging kids in vague, "ungoogle-able" questions that require them to find and sort through information and then choose from procedural skills to apply in their problem-solving process. I'm really excited about this goal, and in the long term its best for kids to have these skills, but I know some days I'm going to need to step back and give more support than I really want to or think they need. In the Disney version of your classroom, kids always respond well to your efforts and initiatives, and always appreciate higher standards for learning. That often happens in reality, but there are also those kids with those days that need a relationship more  than they need rigor. 

Our goals can sometimes stand in opposition to students' legitimate will to learn - on those days its important to remember that my relationship with a student endures in my legacy far longer than the lesson for the week.

13 August 2015

My Syllabus, in Emojis

One of the most basic rules of writing is to use only as many words as you must, and I think this especially holds true for syllabi. The denser they are, I imagine the less they get read, right? 

There's a cute version that my son's teacher gave him tonight that involved lots of tabs and you can download and edit for yourself here: Mrs. D's Editable Parent Handbook Flapbook. (You may have already had your first day of school, but maybe you could wow all of your friends with this flapbook next open house or parent-teacher conference night?)

Anyway, I'm not here to talk about flapbooks, because while I think they are good for notes in class, they aren't so much my thing for simply conveying information. 

This idea was borne today when a colleague of mine was trying to think about how to be represent the Teach Like a Champion strategy "100%". You figure you want some imagery that the students would really internalize, right? Thinking through how much our students communicate solely through emojis on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, I knew that the "100" emoji was just what she needed.

But why stop there? 

Tomorrow's syllabus will be supplemented with text as needed, but I mostly want my students to remember my procedures and expectations through emoji this year. 

Can you guess what each one represents? 

10 August 2015

10 Questions for Finding Your Classroom Theme

Yesterday I shared about my theme for this school year and reflected on past years. As I was writing that post, I thought it might be helpful to generate a list of reflection questions for processing through what YOUR classroom theme might be if you're feeling uninspired.

  1. What's the most important aspect of your educational philosophy?
  2. What do you MOST want kids to know after leaving your class?
  3. What is your community currently rallying around?
  4. What's the character trait you wish your students had more of but need some guidance acquiring?
  5. What piece of professional learning is most transformative to your teaching right now?
  6. What are your students most interested in (that you can wrap most of your curriculum around for relevance)?
  7. Is there a new tool you're super excited about implementing this year? (chromebooks/tablets, Google Apps, Google Classroom, PBL, etc)
  8. What's your favorite inspirational quote or scripture?
  9. What role as a teacher do you most identify with? (coach, brother/sister figure, mother/father figure, counselor, friend, etc)
  10. Are there any commonalities between the major projects/learning experiences in your class that your theme could connect to enhance the engagement/memory of both?

The last tip I'd have for you in finding your theme is to rephrase it this way?
What are you about as a teacher?

09 August 2015

What's the Theme for Your Classroom?

Anyone else like to have a “theme” or a mission for each school year to help you and your students wrap your minds around the goals you have for each other in that classroom?

In longer musical pieces, a theme is an underlying melody that returns again and again, weaving its way through the score to interact in different tempos, timbres, and volume with the rest of the piece. In a classroom, your theme would be what you use most of the year as you make instructional decisions, what interactions you value in the classroom, and how you respond in success and adversity.

Because our schedules often change some even at semester, I will often have different themes each semester, but here’s the my recollection of some of the themes I’ve had in my 7 years in the classroom.

The Prove You Belong Here Year
I went to the University of Missouri to teach social studies and later added on math and science certifications, so a lot of my first year was about proving to myself and others that it wasn’t a mistake to hire me. But even if you went to school for what you end up teaching, isn’t this really the theme of everyone’s first year? You do your best to love your students (for as naive as you are coming into it), but its really hard to not just make sure you keep your head above water and do the very very best you can with your inexperience dealing (as an adult) with teenage hormones.

The Standards-Based Grading Year
After a day of in-service from 2 Biology teachers in my building that had implemented standards-based grading into their curriculum, I jumped headfirst into feeling my way through doing the same with my students. There was a lot of (in my opinion) superflous data tracking on spreadsheets that they did (and the legacy continues upstairs in the science department), but the retake-prove you know what you know methodology behind it had me hooked. I spent a lot of this year convincing counselors, parents, and students that it really was for the best for the kids, and that yes, even though a kid with a 58% and a 20% on an assignment got the same grade in the gradebook, the 58% kid just has a little to remediate before improving their score, and that they would get rounded up in spots, too. The blog of Shawn Cornally was invaluable that year as I paved the SBG path (in the math department at least) on my own

The iPad Year
I got my class set of iPad 2s in January of 2011, so this year was really a year and a half. In this year, I completely rearranged my room to facilitate more collaborative work and as many tables as I could squeeze into my tiny room so that kids could spread out their materials without worrying about knocking the iPads on the floor.

I also went out of my way to use the iPads as much as I possibly could, figuring out what did and did not work for tablets in a math class. There was some wasted instructional days this year from doing things on the iPads that were awkward because the technology just wasn’t quite there yet or because I under/overestimated my students’ ability to seamlessly use the technology, but overall I think I took away valuable lessons to share with other teachers in my district that were starting to roll out some carts in their buildings

The kids in this class were also overwhelming flexible with me making mistakes because as the only one in the building with iPads, they knew they were privileged and that I was kind of making it up as I went along. :)

The Reading and Writing Years
Part of my iPad training was to get a semester long graduate credit through a 6 session course with the Gateway Writing Project and UM-St. Louis called, “Writing That Works” (That’s right, my IPAD training was about writing.) It was actually a transformative experience in my teaching however, because it was the first time I had REALLY been able to take some things I’d learned in my social studies teacher education (reading for understanding, group brainstorming, analyzing arguments, offering critique) and think through how those ideas can work in a math class.

This most often manifested in having kids explain their reasoning and tirelessly working on improving working vocabulary from “move that over here” to something more like, “add 4 to both sides to isolate the variable using the addition property of equality,” but it was baby steps toward behind more comfortable with having kids write longer pieces in my Stats classes as they explained experimental designs and analyzed data.

One of my METC sessions in this period was about using tech to get “The Daily 5” literacy techniques (1) in a math class, and (2) facilitated by technology.

The Ask Questions that Aren’t Google-able Years
This is my current quest that is carrying over from last year. Spring and summer of 2014 I had a great opportunity to work with Pathways to Prosperity in their teacher program aimed at getting educators up-close experiences in different facets of industry in order to go back and better craft PBL lessons aimed at replicating those experiences as best they could and reinforcing “soft” skills that NCLB kids are seriously lacking as the first generation of multiple-choiced-to-death-tested graduates.

Out of that experience I resolved that I wanted to work with data (real or made up) as often as possible in algebra when modeling and solving equations, that deriving and memorizing formulas was not nearly as important as being able to know when and how to flexibly apply them, and that whenever my kids begged for worksheets back, I was probably doing exactly what I needed to. I think the kid that begs for a worksheet is almost primed for a learning breakthrough - they want to be successful, and they think that’s the answer because its a little safer and more familiar to their experiences.

The Beta Years
A sub-theme to spring 2015 and this coming school year is the idea of “being beta.” I laid it out here in more detail last January, but its the idea (supported by the methodologies of standards-based grading,) that NO ONE is ever a finished product, and that the ways we grow fastest and more frequently improve ourselves with new “features” is to have an attitude that failure is just an opportunity to figure out what mistake to not repeat.
The best thing I did to reinforce this last year was to have students reflect toward the end of the year on what “beta” things they did that semester to improve and to then share the list I had compiled for myself. The worst thing I did related to this theme was waiting until the end of April to do it. :) There were a few kids that I had lost while doing non-traditional projects or treatments to content that understood the whole process and my heart in it after I’d shared my own list.

So what’s your theme for this year?

For me and my colleagues (besides what I just listed above), the spectre of #Ferguson and social justice continues to hover over us, but in a good way. We all understand our students a little bit better and want now, more than ever, to do the very best we can for them as a matter of equality than just professional code or intrinsic motives to "change the world."

24 July 2015

Stop Reading Blog Posts - Go Read a Book! (Okay, Finish This Post First.)

The St. Louis County Library summer reading program is giving out free +Chipotle Mexican Grill for completion of the requirements, so a month or so ago, I was gently encouraged by +Beth Baker that I would definitely be pulling my weight around here and make sure to read 6 books by her birthday (Aug 1st).

I always characterize myself as a reader, but I spend a lot of time reading from from digital magazines and/or blogs over time reading ebooks or actual books, so the commitment (and light) required of me this summer completing the reading plan was a good stretching exercise!

Here's my shelf for the summer:

The CONTENT of these books is not necessarily anything different than what I would read typically from a blog post I found on social media, but the way you INTERACT with a book is different, in my opinion.

This isn't an argument for physical books, just long-form reading. I think its important for adults and for our students to take a break sometimes from the pace of social media and ICYMI (in case you missed it) internet publishing of the 21st century and settle longer on a book.

Here's what I've noticed that gives BOOK reading more transformative power on your attitudes, opinions, and beliefs:

  • You're more likely to take on a book at the suggestion of an close friend than someone you casually know on social media, so you prepare yourself mentally/emotionally to be able to discuss this book with that person in the future (which lends to the book having a greater impact on you)
  • Especially in physical books, we write in the margins, we take notes to make sure we remember parts that we liked. We remember so we can talk about it or think about it later on when the book is no longer with us
  • Because reading a book takes longer than a 5 minute blog post, you spend more time chewing on/meditating on the ideas in the book. The ideas I reflect on in books end up being "themes" for my summer/semester/winter break. The things I pick up in blogs I more frequently file away for later into a "someday" folder in my brain
  • Reading a book gives a more complete, detailed representation of an idea than a single (or even a few) blog posts might. Where we blog writers might lean toward publishing our own opinions on a topic and then moving on, filling a book requires the author to round out their thesis with counter-arguments. 
  • The internet is awesome, and blogs have democratized the ability to use your voice and tell your story, but getting a book published is still a cultural benchmark of having "made it" as a credible source of expertise, giving more reliability to what you're reading. 
  • There's an army of editors and copywriters making sure that what leaves the publishing house for the printers is the best possible product, so you could argue that book reading is word-for-word a more valuable use of your time. You know how many editors this blog has? 1 1/4 - sometimes I make my wife pre-read my posts. 

What's this mean for our students?

For as much as you're reading blog posts like this one, your students...probably aren't. I think we need to continue to TEACH them to value books (not so much the physical artifact, but the idea of a book as long-form reading), and we need to challenge them to form ideas and opinions that are book-worthy.

A book-worthy idea probably has several quotes that makes for a great tweet on Twitter or a grainy image with text over it on Instagram, but its more nuanced than that. It's going to be fuller, more round, more complete. A book-worthy idea is one that you as the author have dedicated the time to and poured out the passion to write, rewrite, edit, and revise into a work that is more enduring than a tweet in someone's feed.

In science class, this is the analysis of an experiment and data set that you've spent weeks designing, implementing, compiling, computing, and interpreting.
In film and literature, its an analysis of many themes throughout an author's work
In math, its the solution to a real problem that the student has identified, determined the variables in the situation, and begun to model with equations and graphs
In history, its exploring and relating to narratives from a dynamic range of sources, then reflecting on what it all means.

I believe we only maintain an appreciation for these deeper, richer, slower ideas and works as we read and write them. Tweets are good, let us continue to connect! You and I obviously both appreciate blogs, too, but educators have a concurrent responsibility of modeling and encouraging this appreciation and thoughtfulness of book-worthy ideas.

11 June 2015

Creating Memes as Modern-Day Political Cartoons

Finding or drawing political cartoons to express the absurdity or irony of a historical perspective has long been a staple of history class. I remember creating a political cartoon in my study of Romeo and Juliet 18 years ago and one of the first lessons I wrote in undergrad social studies ed classes revolved around this cartoon, published after China's first manned spaceflight:

During my planning for my summer school government class last week, I wanted to think through the idea of filibuster, but I was looking for something that my students (and myself) would relate to contextually. As the print newspaper has declined in readership and influence informing the public, we've of course seen a concurrent rise in digital media and freedom/ease of expression through social media. (I did a precursory Google search before I wrote this post to see if anyone else had already written it and found this piece from journalism professor John Schacht - "Why Internet Memes May Replace Editorial Cartoons" - it didn't suggest any role in the classroom, but it exactly expressed the increasing prominence of memes beyond picture of grumpy cat.

Recently, Senator Ted Cruz gained some notoriety for reading Seuss's Green Eggs & Ham while holding the floor with a filibuster to delay vote of a funding bill for the Affordable Healthcare Act. I played this video from CSPAN of the reading, and then asked my students to create memes showing their understanding of the concept of a filibuster as part of our study of the legislative branch.

Most of my students used createameme.org - it worked well enough on the iPads - but you could use any app/website that allowed you to layer text over an image. Here's what they came up with:

The best/worst part of this activity was the giggles that ensued the rest of class because students didn't want to get off of the meme websites. :)

07 June 2015

Give Your Students "College Ready" Texts They'll WANT To Read

Its no secret that the ACT (and success in college as a whole) is dependent upon a high-level of reading comprehension. The science section on the ACT has much, much more to do with reading and understanding a non-fiction, technical text than it does your memory of mitosis or Newton's 3rd law.

That being said, it be hard to avoid the importance of raising reading skills in my ACT Prep class this summer. I haven't looked at my students' benchmarked reading scores from the school year, but given the
"don't-you-dare-call-on-me" silence of death I've gotten our 2 days of class when I asked for a reader, I'd be willing to bet they are not high. I don't think the students at my school WANT to be poor readers, and most of our low readers probably carry some shame about and would put in work to raise their skills, but putting in the hard work of catching up using reading texts that are not of personal interest to them creates a mental barrier. Rather than hurdle/climb/scratch/claw over it, many of our readers go the easier route of blaming something/someone else for their deficiencies, or they resign to "I'm not a good reader."

As I was perusing the Chrome Web Store this week looking for more utility to add to my Chromebook, I ran into Newsela, a news aggregator that promises to give my students articles that will be of interest to them at a lexile/grade level score that I can set to best support them.

I had really hoped Newsela ran on some super platform that used some fancy coding to take any article a student could throw at and replace synonyms, interpret meaning, and chunk long passages into shorter ones, but apparently I live in the future.

Newsela DOES have a respectable amount of articles to choose from (updated daily), and I was even able to find one about the dance team from a school in my district that the +St Louis Post-Dispatch profiled last fall.

Here's what Newsela allows you to do with any of the articles on the site:

  • Assign to students for reading. From their student account, they pull up their "binder" to find what you have curated for them.
  • Set a lexile level for them to scaffold vocabulary weaknesses while focusing on comprehension
  • Assess comprehension with a quiz that they put together or a writing prompt
  • Highlight and annotate passages to give your students extra insight or further scaffold their reading.

To share some of how it works, here's a few screenshots of my perusing that article:

This is the layout of an article on Newsela. You have options to assign the article (or to hide it) at the top, the text in the main column with sharing buttons above the title, and choices to differentiate reading levels and assessment on the right in blue.

Newsela doesn't ONLY replace "higher" words for lower, the editorial staff also provides subtitles and headings the lower you go down lexicles. This is the same paragraph on the 5th grade and 12th grade reading level.

Is it a PERFECT tool for getting your students relatable content? Probably not, but it gets you a long way in its ability to provide choice and scaffolding for your readers, and its faster than a classroom trip to the library for students to find and choose books on the appropriate level.

05 June 2015

Using Visual Notes for Memory and Understanding

Are you an doodler? Associating notes and terms with images is helpful for recalling information later, so doodling (or finding images that relate and then pasting in) is a good strategy for taking something mundane like note-taking and creating an "experience" that will be easier to call upon during test time. I still remember the tank I drew with icicles hanging from it in 10th grade on my Cold War notes.

This brings me to today's use of visual notes. As much as it pains me to say, "victory" on the ACT does not always go to the "smartest" students, but instead, to those who can best play the game. In a bubble, I'd much rather teach math concepts and skills, but when it comes to gaming the ACT, sometimes those get in the way.

This is best exemplified in my experience from my 2 experiences taking the ACT as a student. The first time, I had a TI-83 at my side, checking every graph and solution I could, searching for just the right formula. I didn't finish that section - I don't even remember being that close. The second time I took the ACT, I did not have the graphing calculator (I have no idea where the graphing calculator I'd been using went) - I didn't even have a scientific calculator! I told my dad on the way to the test that I needed to get a calculator, so we stopped at a supermarket, bought a 2 dollar four function calculator. The magic of my 2 dollar calculator test was that I HAD to skip around to the things I could do easiest. I was much more agile in my thinking, skipped around more quickly when I felt stuck, and actually did 5 points higher that time. My "knowledge" got in the way the first time from me showing what I definitely knew, and there were probably some questions I could have done that I never got to.

I found a list of strategies for each section of the ACT on sparknotes.com for my students and I've tasked them to make a "poster" for each section and the included strategies. My skill set and interest leans toward illustrating in any whiteboard or drawing app, but I left open the option for using the PicCollage app to bring in images and text or Haiku Deck to make a slide show with an image for each strategy.

Here's the example I created using the Paper app based on tips from this video that I showed earlier in class:

Here's a preliminary student example:
My favorite part of this one is the crossed arms emoji for "eliminate answers". :)
More visual notes resources:
6 Apps To Visualize Notes on iPad
Sketchnotes and Visual Thinking Note-taking - This page summarizes and links to many OTHER resources
Show with Media: Visual Note-taking

Happy note-taking!

04 June 2015

Enrich Class Discussions by Podcasting Them

This post describes the rationale and some nuts and bolts of the Government class podcast I'm working on this summer. You can read more about that class and listen to the episodes at governmentclass.mrcbaker.com.

This summer school I am delighted to be teaching a 2 week "credit recovery" course for Government, something I taught in my student teaching in 2005, but have not worked with since.

One of the things I'm looking most forward to is the class discussion. There are opportunities for these in math class the deeper you go with relevance, 3 Act Math Stories, and or project-based learning, but because much of studying the social sciences is how everything that has (or may) happen relates to you or others, class discussions are something that I like to do several times a week.

I used today's first podcast as a way to get the kids to reflect on what they see as the role of the federal government, if they think the government is doing well in that role, and to think of or research specific cases that exemplify their stance. Here's a link to the prewriting doc I put in Google Classroom for them.

I gave them 15 minutes to think through the doc and get some of their answers down, stressing that the idea does not have to be at its fullest fruition since we were prewriting. I moved around the room, talking through some ideas with students, clarifying questions, and encouraging that putting good effort in the prewriting was going to make them sound really smart when we started recording.

After their prewriting time was up, ordinarily, that's where you would have a class discussion, right? You, the teacher would throw out a question, the students would share their responses, you would counter with follow-up questions to help clarify their statements and summarize for everyone else, and students would respond to each other. And then with the exception perhaps of some stellar note-taking from some student, the discussion would die as soon as the bell rang, living only as a memory, and only for the benefit of the people in the room.

But if you record it, the discussion lives on! Why record (and why podcast specifically)?

  1. Recording the discussion archives it for students who were absent or want to review it later when studying
  2. Recording and pushing it out as a podcast invites parents into the classroom without having to be IN the classroom.
  3. An audio recording is less intimidating to students who may not want to be on video and less intrusive to the normal flow of the discussion. I set my Chromebook in the middle of the circle, pressed record, and then left it alone.
  4. Podcasting the discussion creates an audience for your students beyond their classmates and you, their teacher. A class discussion may have gotten blown off, but everyone was on their best behavior and best engagement while we were recording. 
  5. Letting kids know you trust and value what they say to put it on the internet is a message of trust and value in them as people. Who doesn't love to hear that?

But HOW do I do this, Chuck?

1. Get a voice recorder app for your iOS or Android device, or open up an online audio recorder. Today I used online-voice-recorder.com. When you save/export these, it will save as an .mp3 file.

2. What if you can't hear my students on the playback? I used twistedwave.com to edit individual files with fade in/fade in or cutting out any period of more than like, 5 seconds of silence, but MUCH more useful was the "normalize' tool, that allowed me to highlight the quiet sound signature from a quiet student, "normalize" it to the rest of the audio, and turn up the volume just in that one segment.
3. Ideally, things will go great and everything your students say will get recorded. :) If that doesn't happen, or you need to separate the recording between different hours (or any other reason you may have two separate .mp3 files that you want together) I used http://audio-joiner.com/ to put my files together after I had them edited how I liked.
4. Do you have the .mp3 file how you want it now? What should you do with it? You could do something like attach the file to your website, Google Classroom, Edmodo, or other LMS, or even share the link from Google Drive via email or Remind. That's by far the simplest solution. If you want to try posting your audio as a real life, honest-to-goodness podcast, you'll need a blog post the files to, generate an RSS feed, and get yourself submitted to iTunes. Here are tutorials for that.
When deciding if you need the extra layer of complication submitting to iTunes, consider your audience. Are you podcasting your class discussions for the stakeholders of your school and/or district, or are you hoping to share with a larger audience? If your answer is the former, you don't really have a need for iTunes - people you want to share with can just get the file as an .mp3 shared via email or Google Drive.

However, as I said in the Why Podcast section, I sensed that my students stepped up their game knowing that other people were going to be turning in as well, so it is worth the steps to host the podcast on iTunes and this blog.

MY next step is to start to train the students to be able to record, facilitate, save the .mp3 files themselves. My government class is less than 10 students this summer - I don't think it would have been as successful an experience if we were trying to get a "regular" class size all engaged in the same discussion at the same time. In that case, I would hope to split it into at least 2 concurrent recording sessions. The obvious advantage here is that then the teacher steps even further into the background and can just sit in a guide/contribute rather than driving the discussion. 

31 May 2015

Is it Tech-Ready? 3D Solids Town Project

A large part of my job as self-appointed edtech evangelist in my building is seeking out opportunities for my colleagues to take something they are already doing that works well and take it to an even higher level with technology enabling them to learn more, share more, or show more.

Last week I was inspired by a 3D solids project my mentee and another Geometry teacher did earlier in the semester. I did a Google Sketchup project last year to assess 2D area, and one of the greatest tools in Sketchup is its ability to easily create 3D solids, so I asked Colleen and Emily if we could have a chat about their project.

Our discussion was centered on these 4 questions:
  • What were you assessing with this project?
  • Why did you choose to assess those goals this way?
  • How do you feel your project went?
  • Would using the technology bring added value to this project?

So is this project tech-ready? As far as simply evaluating ability to calculate surface area, volume, and write linear equations, I think it translates nicely, however (and I think this was a surprise to Emily), you do lose the physical, tangible skill reinforcement of measuring a physical object if you take this project into Sketchup. With the emphasis we're trying to place on graduating kids that have and/or are ready to gain technical skills, I think it might be worth it to keep this as a paper-based project, or at most provided Sketchup as an option.

I have really enjoyed seeing these projects on the walls the past month, and I'm impressed at the evolution it represented in instructional design from the last project these Geometry classes. It was a good integration of some Algebra concepts that are sometimes hard to put in the Geometry curriculum, particularly in this unit. However, since this is an ed tech AND math blog, let's explore some ways we could go further next year.

What are some things we could do to keep the tangible skills but still enhance the learning experience with this project?
  • We were talking about having kids check the workability of their word problems by having their classmates solve them - you could generate a rich feedback loop having kids post their problems on Google Classroom, a student blog, or Voicethread and require kids to respond and give feedback to a set number of their classmates. You could do the same on chart paper in the room, I think, but moving that opportunity online keeps the feedback more easily accessible (instead of a giant piece of chart paper), and opening up the number of people who could comment on any one student's problem.
  • Have students decide the surface area or volume they want for each 3d solid and then create and print the net for the solid themselves using image editing software. Even MS Paint would work. :)
  • Students chart the lines of their streets on an online graphing utility like Desmos, and just enter the placement of their physical 3d solids on their poster as coordinate points. This option would keep a map-making element to the project with a tool more approachable (and accessible) than Sketchup. 
What other ideas do you have, readers? Do you think the physical measuring skills are not worth the limitations they place on the type of product the kids can make and share? Is there something else we can use technology to enrich and enhance the experience while keeping the physical manipulatives?

27 May 2015

My PBIS Lottery System

I initially came up with idea of using a lottery system in your class as a universal, Tier 1 support for PBIS one year ago this week, but never felt the "need" to implement it until this semester. I got to a point where I felt like I had a handful of students negatively influencing a large percentage of my class to act out in ways that they did not usually exhibit in one-to-one interactions with me.

Let me address some criticisms that I had to address for myself first:
1. Kids should not have to be rewarded for good behavior. 

While I probably still believe that's true, my PBIS lottery system (to me at least) was far less about the reward and much more about being able to catch students doing good. It changes my attitude toward my students when I'm walking around the classroom looking for opportunities to hand out a ticket, than when I'm patrolling for off-task things to come down on. I, the TEACHER, feels better about my class as a whole on the days I give out more tickets, and I think the STUDENTS feel better about their relationship to me.

2. I don't want to spend a ton of money on this.

I had a mixture of monetary and privilege rewards. Over the 6 or 7 weeks I ran the lottery this semester, I think I ended up spending less than 15 dollars on candy that I bought at the dollar store. On "normal" weeks (the weeks I remembered to do the drawing on Friday and/or I felt like I had passed out a "fair" amount of tickets), I gave out ONE $1 candy bar/box of candy between all of my students. There were 2 Fridays in which I gave out a box in each of my hours because I had missed one (or two) lottery drawings on previous Fridays. Buying it all at once sort of felt like a lot because I have a general policy of never buying treats for my students, but spread out over the entire semester, it was money well spent.

Privilege rewards started as one kid per classing winning the right to listen to music on their headphones all week (which is, sort of (?) against the rules in our building, but worth the trouble it may have cost me for ONE kid in the room). After the first week, I added in privileges that made the tickets work more like class "money," which I'll discuss in the next bullet.

3. Kids aren't going to care about a small chance at candy.

For some kids, this did end up being true, for a couple of reasons. I had some students that I think legitimately valued me noticing them more than they valued candy. They didn't increase their positive behaviors because they wanted candy - they increased because they wanted me to notice. Those kids were a total win for this. For the other set of kids, after the first week, I added in the right to a hallpass, or a brand new pen/pencil for any kid that needed one for the price of one ticket. This actually made the tickets much more valuable, and solved a huge problem for me that I don't like NOT allowing kids to have the freedom to use the restroom, but had set up an environment for myself in which I was making the decision for a kid dozens of times a day. For my own sanity and free cognitive capacity to actually TEACH, I let any kid go (during an appropriate point in the lesson) if they had a ticket.

So, should YOU try out a classroom lottery?
Yes, yes, you definitely should. There were several kids that I think the lottery ended up saving our relationship this semester from being terrible to at least civil, but more so, for the change in ME that I felt/experienced.

I felt a lot of joy being able to reward the behaviors/actions I was trying to encourage without feeling like I was taking money from my family or giving away too much of myself emotionally. I noticed a difference in my attitude toward my students even period to period if I forgot to have my tickets ready for one of my classes.

(As some of my students pointed out on my end of semester survey), it really gets under my skin some days when my level of care for my students' learning/character was much higher than their own. While I can hope that eventually those problems will iron out with wisdom and/or maturity, even if they never do, I can control MY attitude, and on many days, this lottery was the tool that got me through the hour with my sanity.

Logistical concerns:
The first thing I did was draw up some tickets with the design tool on Canva.com (which I also often use for graphics on this blog and my school's website. It's awesome.)
You can export from Canva as a PDF or PNG - the PDF version of this page provided a MUCH nicer product. The PNG wound up with a lot of pixelation.

To keep kids from potentially photocopying the tickets, after I printed a sheet, I numbered them by hand in series. A couple times I forgot what number I had left off on - that didn't really matter so much as that they were numbered at all. The two times I had no idea what number I was on, I just started at the next whole hundred. (I left off somewhere in 04**, but couldn't remember exactly, so the next time, I just started at 0500).

This is how they ended up looking when passed out.
For the drawings, I used a random Halloween bucket that a teacher had left in the back of my room at some point in the past. It wasn't secure, so I had to just take the tickets immediately before the drawing, but it was good for getting your hand in their and shuffling the tickets.

My Next Steps
I definitely plan to continue my lottery during summer school this year, although I may have to increase the frequency of drawings since the whole "term" is only 2 weeks for one of my classes.

The most PBIS-y component of lottery that was missing was that I never posted an official list of positive things students could do to earn tickets. Most students picked up on the implicit messages of "Do your work," "Volunteer for something," "have your scientific calculator," and "ask a good question," but posting a list was something that I know I SHOULD do, but never got around to. Its a matter of equity in knowing the classroom procedures.

26 May 2015

The Worst Way A Student Makes You Feel Uncompassionate

 A student makes several mistakes of effort, attitude, or has just struggled with the content and is certain for a failing grade, yet comes to you right before the end of the term asking if they "still have a chance of passing." 

You've provided numerous retake opportunities, assessed in multiple formats, and taken other late work in an attempt to get as many kids over the hump, but you STILL feel like crap telling a kid they aren't going to get credit.

I'm sure this is a sign of compassion for my students, but it's super frustrating, right? As teachers, we can spot these situations coming by midterms, we try the things WE can to save the ship, but until the light bulb comes on for the student, our hands are tied.

How do we recover from this (to face the torture with just as much heart and compassion next year):
1. Expect continual improvement from yourself.

What leaves me open to guilt about these students is self-doubt that there was something else I could have done to save this student. "If only I'd..." If you can find peace with yourself that you continued to perfect your practice in the art and science of teaching, then I think you can silence a lot of your own what-ifs.

2. Conference with the student about the course failure.

You''re hoping they at least learn something from the experience, right? I had a reflection piece in my final this semester that asked the students what content skills and academic skills they learned this semester. With the particular student that prompted the image above, after giving her 2 more chances at a retake test over semester material, she said, "but I can't do any better - I don't know this stuff." My next point to her was that her statement told ME that the grade was a good reflection of what she had learned. "But I need my credit..." Maybe she could use more conferencing. ;)

3. Find a way to make someone else's day. 

The reason you teach is to care for children, change their lives, and make someone's day. So you didn't shine rainbows for this student on this day, but finding another student to share with might leave you with a more even scorecard.