It’s not you, it’s me

I had a nice conversation with a colleague here … chatting with teachers in the summer is always fun because everyone is relaxed but at this time there is also the anticipation of getting back into the classroom, so there’s a great energy. He mentioned my new job and said something like “it’s a great opportunity for you to bring your vision in to the classrooms.”

And I had to stop him… because that’s exactly the opposite of what I want to do with this job. Sure, I have a vision of what classrooms should look like — but I’d much rather help teachers bring _their vision_ of what their classroom should look like. There are a multitude of ways to make teaching and learning better (and I’m not going to define what that means at this point) — and if I just march on with what I think is best, it’s not going to initiate any real change in the classroom.
Change has to be personal, individual, differentiated.
It has to come from whatever space the teacher is working in.
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Allowing for change

When I was interviewing for this position, one of the things I wanted to make clear was that when it comes to teacher-change, I wouldn’t proceed too aggressively until I had dealt with the issue of time-and-space. Teachers at our school are extraordinarily busy; they wear many hats (teacher, coach, club leader, service trip organizer, residence staff … and then they have lives) and tend to be over-scheduled during the school day. Yes we get great holidays but during the time we’re in school, it’s an 8-5:30 day followed by planning and marking overnight, not to mention the evening and weekend responsibilities as part of our academic and co-curricular components. So, if we’re going to ask these folks to think deeply about their practice, we need to find the time by making their present work easier and more efficient. All those situations where they run in to an impediment, when they don’t have the information they need at the time they need it or if they have to repeat a task that could be automated … those are what I’m looking for right now. If I can save 1 minute out of their day, that’s almost three hours over the year that I can than give to them as learning time. My push for maximizing time goes back to an old book: “Every minute counts” So far, I think I’ve saved about 5 minutes per teacher per year — when we do our report cards, some of our students get letter grades rather than numeric (for a variety of reasons). The Academic Head kept a list and posted it every reporting period. Teacher would have to continually check against the list and adjust the report card manually. But the report card system would keep resetting it back to numeric at any mark change or addition — and the teachers would be embarrassed when the number showed up on the report if they didn’t continually check and double-check. No more… the AH’s list is now on the student database and the report system checks against it and replaces the number with the appropriate letter. Frustration lessened and time saved. _There is time to change… but you have to make it._ Image: == Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  emilywjones  ==

Changing directions

(I thought I should squeeze this in given a link from a popular blog, Continuous Everywhere.)
I closed off my teaching this June for a year; in the fall I’ll be returning to life as a PhD student at OISE, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. I’ll be working in the Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development program — two big areas of interest for me. Stay tuned for updates.
I’ll hopefully have considerably more time to write & reflect. The only external responsibilities I’ve kept are the Auxiliary, the ECOO conference in November and PCMI, of course. For me, that’s not a lot. And I’ll be commuting in on the GO train (public transit) so there will be about 90 minutes of downtime each day in which to put pen to paper (electronic, that is).
I’m looking forward to have the time to “think deeply of simple things”. My focus will be on teacher development, an interest developed over my time with the folks at PCMI. It’s so energizing being around these folks — how do we capture the experience at PCMI and make it more accessible to math teachers everywhere, efficiently & effectively?

Made the paper!


Okay, I didn’t quite make it into print… but the electronic version isn’t half-bad. I was working on the waterfront when, during one of those brief-but-violent thunderstorms, a sign fell onto the walkway, narrowly missing a number of pedestrians. So I got to stand in the rain to make sure no one else would get hurt until they managed to get the sign removed and the other reinforced.
Working with the police is a great experience 95% of the time. Even getting soaked in the rain just standing there has a charm of its own although most of the time it’s just helping the public with questions and concerns. Halton is a pretty safe area so we don’t have the problems of major urban centres; most evenings when I’m on duty the computer lists only a few calls through the night. The remaining 5% of the time is both depressing and disappointing — people in serious trouble. But, we’re there to help regardless of the perceptions of those involved. My only regret is that because our shifts are infrequent we don’t get the closure on the situation that the regular officers do.
I always encourage teachers to get involved with their local Auxiliary; their most serious needs parallel our down times so they mesh well. And the skills and knowledge are something we don’t often encountered in teaching. Check it out!

Where is everyone?

While I admit to being quickly on board most things (except the iPad, that is… that’s a tool for my 65-year-old Mom) I’m disheartened by the slow pick up of online learning networks (via Twitter, Ning, Facebook, etc) by my colleagues. We’re a 1:1 school and the faculty are pretty comfortable with technology — but I see very few of them (well, okay, maybe 3 out of 100) that are actively engaged online. Is it really just an issue of time, given that independent school teachers have a very long academic & athletics day followed by the same prep time all teachers require? Are they unaware of the benefits of connecting and collaborating online? Or does that beg the question?

Conway’s Law

I ran across this a few weeks ago; now I’ve got some time to put some thoughts down:

Conway’s Law
…organizations which design systems (in the broad sense used here) are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations. Link

Now, this isn’t a law like Murphys; it actually has some basis in research. Conway was talking about computer systems but it seems to be applicable to larger systems. What ramifications does this law have for educational change? Given that communication in most schools is (strictly) hierarchical, moving down from above, are we caught in a design loop that will only reinforce a teaching environment that is predominately lecture based, even if it’s online? Although we’ve been a 1:1 environment for ten years, most of us are still teacher-centric, eyes-forward in the classroom. Is Christensen (from Disrupting Class) right in that we have to start new schools rather than try to change existing schools from within?

But I like the cookie…


One of Seth Godin’s recent blog posts (The Reality of Digital Content – lose the cookie, lose the fortune) has been reverberating in my mind over the past week.

What happens when the people with great ideas start organizing for themselves, start leading online tribes, start creating micro products and seminars and interactions that people are actually willing to pay for? …

I have the challenge of working on the Editorial Panel for an academic journal — while I enjoy the reading and editing of articles and the community of professionals that surround the journal, I’ve found the process of acceptance, publication, distribution and commentary to be out of date. My greatest fear is that, as Godin mentions, the journal will be rendered irrelevant in an environment of PLNs (through blogs, twitter, nings, webinars, etc) developed spontaneously by teachers who see a need, share ideas and engage in deep discussion of pedagogy, content and technology. But, in order to remain tight control over their content, they are reluctant to open their journal fully to the web and the chance to allow their readership to contribute without the organization’s filter. Hopefully time and new members of the Editorial Panel arriving in June will help to encourage them to take a great leap forward.

PodcampTO 2010

Another little conference this weekend; close to home, fortunately. It turned out to be a lot of same-old, same old though:

  • The powers-that-be don’t want us to use social media, or if they do, they haven’t a clue how to do it they just want a Twitter account or Facebook page.
  • There are huge issues with privacy.
  • We’re not really sure of the effectiveness of the money we’re investing but very vocal people tell us it’s working.

Interestingly enough, this wasn’t an education conference; it was for entrepreneurs and marketing folk. PodCamp Toronto 2010 was an un-conference in which people put themselves down as presenters on whatever topic they wanted and the costs were picked up by generous sponsors such as Rogers and GM. A call-out to Rogers for setting up a recharging station for devices – a nice touch if you forgot your charger at home.

What I took away, and this is a big tent, was that businesses are very serious about making money using social media, that they desperately want to get at the information posted anywhere on the net about us (and our students). They also want to spread their information as widely and cheaply as possible and develop a readership at minimum and perhaps a community. Unfortunately, they are challenged with knowing how to use social media effectively with any kind of scaling, safety and consistency. Misery loves company!

On a more macro scale, the other aspect I noticed was the wide variation in presentation skills; you can have very little information but just wrap it up in enthusiasm and levity and you’ll get a lot of positive feedback. In a half hour, one presenter gave out five pieces of data (and even he admitted he was making some of it out of whole cloth) but kept the audience entertained and they left with a buzz. On the other hand, you can have a lot of information but present it as (boring as) a classic chalkboard lecture — even if you are trying out Prezi and obviously have a strong background full of data and anecdotes that could have been sprinkled in for context. Some presentations were obviously done the night before; others were very well polished and the presenter spoke clearly and with confidence.

Will I try to go next year? Absolutely! For one, it’s an unconference, a potential model for education conferences. Because people volunteered to present (in fact, they chose their own rooms & times in a Google Doc) there was no filtering we see at ed conferences. Since our present filtering method doesn’t prevent the duds anyways (usually 75-25 split at the ones I attend) why not open it up? You were allowed to vote with your feet; if you didn’t like a session you could get up and leave … although I only this in two of the sessions I attended (and deservedly so).

I also think it’s important to get out of the group-think I experience at many ed conferences; the people here were all interested in social media but for widely different reasons. Some were private citizens who did it as a hobby; others were in it strictly for the money. There were academics from journalism departments but also teenagers who were learning all the latest & greatest in podcasting. It was an eclectic and energizing mix!

My Olympics Contribution

Fortunately, we’re doing slopes in our MPM1D course and I knew I’d be away for Educon for a day so I continued the adaptation of a slope assignment from last year. Last year things were strictly 2D.

First, they went into groups, each with two sheets of blank 8.5×11. On each page, they were told to place two dots randomly (next year, maybe only one dot). From there, they were to draw concentric rough circles. A few students picked up that they looked like topographical maps — sure enough, when I had them count from 0 going up by 500ft (yes, feet) they quickly agreed they were topo maps. I then quickly dropped the maps into my scanner at home and posted the JPGs to our Ning. From the digital copy, each student planned their own ski run, taking into account whether they were looking for something easy or hard. I’m not a skier but there was lots of discussion of diamonds and circles and green and black.
They then worked on analyzing their runs… what’s the slope of each section? What’s the total length of the run (thank you Pythagorean Theorem). They also transferred the data to GeoGebra to get a 2D representation of the run (where they started last year).
And what prompted me to move to 3D? Google SketchUp! The Jpeg of the topo map can be imported into SketchUp and set as the base. Then, using the contours tool, the contours can be traced and then “lifted” to form a three dimensional representation of their mountain (I got a “Dude….” when I showed that to the class. “Dude indeed” I responded).
A good time was had by all… and a lot of nice discussion of slope and length of segments.

Online assessment

Sorry… I forgot I was supposed to write things here 🙂

And thanks to David Cox’s recent post on ExamView to prompt me to return to writing … not to mention that I’m at Educon this weekend and everyone there is a prodigious blogger.
But back to ExamView. ExamView seems to be another online assessment tool and David writes how he is using it in his classroom and how he plans to use it. I’ve been using an alternate tool, MapleTA and had considerable success with it.
I think the strength of MapleTA over the other assessment tools is that it is based on the computer algebra system Maple — and therefore, when you ask a question or the student enters a solution, it can involve any manner of mathematical content. Not just numbers but also algebra and graphs. And we managed to jury-rig Geometer’s Sketchpad to provide dynamic diagrams (yes, we’ll be switching over to GeoGebra when I find some time).
I think the most important aspect of online assessment is the use of a mastery protocol. A student can continue to practice their skills until they achieve some level of success. Obviously these are skill-based questions; yes, it’s a technological drill-and-kill. But I’m okay with that. It’s the efficiency that attracts me – a student who know how to factor will breeze through the questions and can stop. A student that is challenged can attempt the problems without penalty until they become proficient. The assessments are set up to show the worked solution (not just the answer) so they can see how others would have done the question. The frustration is something you have to work through with the student — I keep track of the gradebook and can see which questions the individual students are challenged by, what their attempted solution and provide some prompting by email (thank you Jing for screencasting quickly) or in class.
There are issues of course. No one knows if your dog is doing your homework on the internet. There is a level of frustration when the student keeps getting the wrong answer — but this is something that happens with regular homework and they can give up too easily on paper. And, when it comes to inputting algebra or matrices, say, online, that can be a challenge.
And the biggest impediment — students don’t read the question. While MapleTA understands that 2(x+3) and 2x+6 are the same answers and will mark both correct, it will not accept x2 for x^2.