Paperless?

California’s recent announcement that they are moving to e-textbooks will mean a lot more resources for 1:1 schools. Right now, using a tablet computer means either having a CD copy of the textbook (now a departmental requirement for our texts and fortunately most Ontario publishers have agreed) or several hours spent at the photocopier, scanning the questions in. Some publishers copy-protect their CDs but in the age of snipping tools, it’s a lost cause. I understand they’re concerned with sales but a quick check of class lists will ensure they’re selling what they should.
Since my students have tablets, I use a OneNote file each day for their work: I get to pull questions from the textbook and sequence them the way I want. I can also make different levels of homework depending on the students — this is particularly nice and, since the students don’t necessarily see each other’s OneNotes, they don’t know who has what. I also put the answers from the text at the bottom of the OneNote for their reference. With OneNote, of course, I can also add in links to resources for the questions, my only little running commentary (either helpful hints & tips or notes about the phrasing of the question, where to find other questions like this and so on. Images, videos and applets can also be incorporated. It’s this kind of environment I’m hoping that California will come up with.
I know that many of the math teachers don’t do this; it’s another little bit of work each day. I just find it inefficient to ask the student to copy the question from the textbook (since an answer in isolation is useless in review) and then flip to the back of the book for the answer. Not to mention most desks don’t accomodate a math textbook and a tablet computer (and a soft drink, chips, ipod, etc).
Some teachers do it for the whole unit; I find that a little wishful thinking. So many good questions & thoughts arise from class that I like to tip them in either the same day or the next day — and it’s not just the math stuff I put in, either. Current events, humourous things from them… it all adds a little bit to the work.
If you’re a math or science teacher, OneNote is likely only effective if you have a tablet (or a plug-in tablet as I used to use). For other subjects a laptop or netbook would be sufficient.

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Microsoft’s Live Mesh

One of the most successful tools I used this past academic year is Microsoft’s Live Mesh ( https://www.mesh.com ), a cloud-based file-synchronization and desktop-replicator. I had signed up for it when it was in Beta and have never had a problem with it; in fact, it’s worked far better than the Sharepoint system that the school offers. It installs as a service onto your Windows computer and creates a small blue icon that flashes when it’s synchronizing.
Since we use OneNote for all of our academic material, it is nice to be able to access your Notebooks from any computer. With LiveMesh, I store the notebook in the LiveMesh folder (which appears to the computer as any other folder) and open it in OneNote as usual. I can work with OneNote, adding, editing and deleting and while I’m working away LiveMesh is synchronizing the local copy on my computer with the copy on the cloud which is also syncing it with any of my other computers (one tablet, one laptop). If I need to use the files on a computer that isn’t mine, I can access the files through any web browser, too.
Not only do I store all my OneNote files in a LiveMesh folder, I store all my day-to-day academic files in one. I also have folders for my action research, journal writing, e-textbooks and backups. There have been a few times in the past I will be using my desktop to create school work and forget to upload it to the web for use at school — by putting it in a LiveMesh folder, it’s automatically available to me. If my laptop fails, my files are safe. Even if LiveMesh or the network is down, the local copy is useable.
There are two other things that are nice about LiveMesh: first, you can share the folders with other LiveMesh users. I’ve done this to distribute large files to my AP Calculus students and to have my Advisor Group do their backups in case their laptops fail. I’ve also used it to work with colleagues across the country; no need to email files back and forth (normally I’d suggest GDocs for this but not everything is a document/spreadsheet.)
The second is that you can actually log into your remote computer that is running the LiveMesh service. I’ve used this several times when I’m running a task on my desktop at home that I want to check on or continue with while I’m at school. I don’t always leave my home computer on (they use a lot of hydro, after all) but it has turned out handy if I have to work in two places at once.

Three things…

I managed to sign myself up for a How to write a better blog online course. Because, dear reader, this blog isn’t just for you… no, this is to teach me how to be a better writer and a better reflecter (I’ll bet that’s not even the right use of the word… but I’m going to pull a you can do anything on the internet, grammar and spelling don’t count)
So my task today to improve said blog is to provide a list. Totally open-ended. The rest of the 10,000 participants in this online course are mostly marketers, trying to sell something (not necessarily material but also opinion). That’s not my goal so my list then is this, right off the cuff. I have to get this done because I have planning to do for tomorrow. I want to use Google Sketchup in my MPM1D Geometry class and that will take a little time.

Three things that will make me a better teacher:

  1. Reflection. Reflection. Reflection. Reflection on what I am teaching, how I am teaching it, how it was received, how it can be improved. The issue, of course, is time. But, as is constantly mentioned, if you find it important, you’ll make time.
  2. Patience. As has been previously noted, I’m not particularly patient. Surprisingly, that has no effect in the classroom… I’ll quite happily sit with a student to go over mathematics for hours. It’s what I love to discuss so I have no problem spending the time or effort. What I am impatient with is bureaucracy. Stupid rules. Rules that are there only to make things fit into neat little forms. I will be a better teacher when I get over the fact that I can’t change this. Stop tilting a windmills and do what I can.
  3. Be more of a out-front leader. Previously, I’ve opted for the sit-back-and-lead-from-behind. Doesn’t work. A decade has taught me a lot. Those who push and get themselves out there (and not always in a bad, back-stabbing, conniving way — which, unfortunately does seem successful for some — but in an open and sharing fashion) are those that are leading nowadays. Waiting for someone to notice what I’m doing is useless. I have to publish. I have to share.

So that’s my list. I’m sure my students would have a completely different one. Hmm… I think I’ll make up a Google Form and ask them.
Oh… and I figure a blog posting is better with pictures.

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Parents…

I had a great conversation with some parents the other day. When they first emailed, they mentioned they wanted to talk about their students’ math. My first thought was why? Very bright kid, very self-motivated, always at the top of the class – I figured they wanted information on his continued acceleration.
No… they wanted to discuss assessment and grading practices. We had a great conversation, mainly because they have a daughter in the same course taught by another teacher. Now, I have to admit my approach to teaching in my non-Calculus classes is non-traditional for an independent high school. I’m very much a constructivist, I don’t like to be the one talking in the class and, most important to the parents’ discussion, I refuse to just average scores for tests throughout the year. I patiently track the students’ progress through all our assessments and adjust scores as they exhibit understanding (thank god for spreadsheets). It may take all year before a student gets the hang of factoring anything I give to them… but if they finally get it, their scores increase. It also means my students at the end of the year have higher grades but if they understand what I’ve asked them to learn I think that’s what the grade should indicate. And, they’ve had to work throughout the year to get a grip on things — I don’t have a unit test and then close the book on it.
The parents wanted to know why the rest of the teachers didn’t do the same. I didn’t have an answer for them.

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KenKen

Over the March Break (when I had some unstructured down time) I ran into a new puzzle form — the KenKen. While it has a superficial similarity to Sodoku in that the numbers can’t be repeated in a column or row that’s where the similarity ends. In KenKen, the large grid has been broken up into cages – highlighted areas that have to be filled in with an arithmetic expression to hit the target number written at the top of the cage. There is also an arithmetic operation at the top of each cage. So, for example, if 24 x is at the top of the cage, the cage would have to be filled with as many numbers as cells in the cage and those numbers would have to multiply to 24 (so it could be 2x3x4 or 4×6 depending on the number of cells in the cage and the restriction against repetition, of course). As an exercise in class, it’s a good reinforcer of basic skills (no calculator, of course). Once my students have the hang of completing the puzzle, we’re going to move on to constructing our own. As always, it’s harder to create.
My only concern about KenKen is that it treats subtraction and division as commutative. That is, it treats 6-4 and 4-6 as the same answer, 2. I wish the KenKen authors would use Polish (or pre-fix) notation so that it would avoid this issue. Plus it would allow us to talk to the students about Polish notation. When I went off to university I bought my HP28 … it was one of the first graphing calculators and, as all good HP calculators did, worked in Reverse Polish Notation. That is, when adding 2 + 3 you entered it 2 3 +. The operation would always go at the end. It means you don’t have to use brackets to avoid order of operations. A great little calculator I used until I became one of the testers for the TI82. But that’s a story for another day.

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You want how much for wireless?

I’m off in mid-April to the NCTM’s Annual Conference; I’m looking forward to it because I’m also attending the Research PreSession (have to learn how to network with researchers in anticipation of starting my PhD) and also the NCSM, which is more for teacher-leaders. Not that I’m a teacher-leader by any stretch. I just like to know what’s going on.
Anyways… as I was preparing for my own session (it’s on Saturday the 26th, discussing Web 2.0 and aids to differentiating instruction) I checked in with the supplier of wireless access at the Walter E. Washington Convention CentreSmartCity. If I’m doing some internet stuff and differentiating, I’d like the participants to experience what we do with our classes. Unfortunately, they replied with a cost of 24.95$ a day. And that is for access suitable to “checking email and surfing the web… not recommended for exhibitors or presenters”. So much for that idea… it’s going to cost me almost 200$ to just equip myself with internet access for the week of the conference. And so I’m going to have to ensure that everything is available locally. Thankfully, GoogleDocs has an offline mode but it may endanger my attempt to use CoolIris as a presentation tool. Instead of being able to model the activities with the participants, it will likely be more of a (albeit very cool) standard presentation on what we’re doing.
It’s sadly ironic: SmartCity’s logo is Making the world smarter. Instead, they are my greatest impediment.

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A little off-topic..

While I’m more than happy to rant again about videostreaming/taping conference sessions (MERU on Thursday?), especially after meeting in New York and hearing half the participants explain why they can’t attend the NCTM Annual Meeting in Washington due to hotel costs, travel time and coverage fees… but not today.  I’m still on March Break.

So this YouTube video came across my desk… it’s not at all serious or educational (put a shirt on!) but I like it because it’s in ASL — and so rarely are music videos made for deaf people.  I took ASL a few years ago when I was volunteering in a community with a lot of deaf people.  I love ASL… it’s visual poetry, it’s so emotive (and for someone raised WASP, that was a challenge to overcome).  I wish I could use it more often.  I tend to drop a few signs in conversation, often without realizing it.
The other thing that made me smile about the video was that it’s the way I practice ASL… while listening to the radio I will try to sign the song.  ASL is never word for word so it’s not as hard as it sounds; a lot is derived from context.  It’s the way I prepared for living in Switzerland, too… I used to try simultaneous translation of songs into French while driving.

March Break Intervention (Thanks for helping!)

Well, my public challenge to my students two months ago worked… I got hooked on drinking way too much Diet Coke while writing my final Masters papers and couldn’t kick the habit. So, I told my class that if they saw me with DC in my hand, they could use any means necessary to get it out of my hands. My grade eights, in particular, were delighted by the possibility of taking me on (I’m 6’4″ and way too many pounds). But, the public pressure not to meant it was relatively easy to switch over to water… I didn’t want the embarrassment of being bested by a pack of rabid grade eights, for one.
So, to make sure that something happens, I’m going to publicly list my tasks for March Break. They are:

  • Finish GeoGebra PD for our PCMI PDO
  • Restructure question banks and verify the tags in MapleTA.
  • Design & implement GoogleDocs tracking database/spreadsheets à la CIS 339 Middle School in the Bronx, as seen at Educon 2.1 in January. This is something that’s been on my mind a lot; thanks go to my colleague here for finally making us push towards it!
  • Finish up PhD applications. Do it.
  • Read 5 books on my reading list. And reflect on them. And write that reflection down.

I think that’s enough. I’m sure I’ll have an “around the house” list, too. But the internet doesn’t need to know about that.

PWN’ing PLNs

The conversation surrounding PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) continues to grow, both from the perspective of the student and the teacher. A member of my blogroll (and thus, tangentially, a member of my PLN) made a post that prompted some reflection. Since I can’t see my school working towards a more liberal approach to boundaries involving subjects, teachers, instruction, etc I’m trying to focus on, and advocating for, the professional PLN aspect. I’m sure there’s a cool graphic of PLNs somewhere that encompasses everything I think PLNs are… I scrolled through a few and the best is this one from another tangential-PLN-member Alec Courous but I still don’t think it’s a complete visual description.
The topic is close to my heart – I began my teacher career as the only math teacher in the school — 100 kids 7-12. For five years, I did the senior math courses while the rest were picked up by the science teachers. We were the only independent school in the province and it took considerable time and money to get to PD opportunities elsewhere. Isolated geographically and socially (most public school organizations would have no truck with us) I used gopher (does that date me?) and the web (which eventually includes pictures!) to communicate with digital colleagues. However, protracted discussions were slow, it was difficult to share content and the people involved were few and far between. The first ten years of my teaching found me isolated geographically, linguistically (teaching in France & Switzerland) and professionally (most math teachers wanted to teach from the textbook, emphasizing on algorithms. Most still do, unfortunately).
Nowadays, the situation is much changed — the venues in which we can communicate are legion. There are so many bright and inspiring people out there posting opinions, content and ideas. I regularly do Skype conversations with colleagues in the States, I read and engage in discussions on mathematics and technology from people (friends?) from around the world. The professional isolation I so clearly felt during my first decade is evaporating as I progress through my second. While there are still closed communities, there are so many open ones that you can always find someone to hash out ideas with. With twitter, you have opinion-polling on ideas that can branch out into larger discussions through blogs or online meetings. And I’m loving the regularly-scheduled podcasts/videocasts available through resources such as EdTech Talk, Classroom 2.0 and the growing Ontario Educators Meetup. While my department colleagues are excellent (they are truly amazing) they are not always present and not always interested in what I’m after. There are many people “out there”, though, who are!
While I’m not a fan of avatar-based technologies (I’m me and I like me), Second Life and other sim-programs are bringing a virtual-world aspect to these conversations. I’m waiting for the web-based holodeck based on technology like FaceGen that will let me be me and engage in real-time conversations involving digital content in a CoolIris-like environment. Why not video-conferencing? Well, for one, it doesn’t let you easily bring in the digital content of an applet or a video. It’s a medium not an environment in the same way that chalkboard is a medium, classroom is an environment. But more on this later. For now, I want my PLN! (okay, that 80s metaphor likely dates me too.)

MapleTA

With the conclusion of the algebraic portion of the MPM2D course (we only have the trigonometric unit yet to cover) the students are looking forward to their summative evaluation. We’ve been doing review for the past week or so through the application of what we learned in linear systems and quadratics to do the intersection of lines & parabolas and lines & circles. It’s a good way to combine the substitution method, and all the aspects of factoring, quadratic formula, discriminant and using graphical methods. I’ve been pleased that the students transitioned to the linear-quadratic system without difficulty; they were able to anticipate the process.
As part of their preparation I’ve added on to our MapleTA question banks. While we have a lot of algebraic questions (factor this, CTS that, find the axis of symmetry, etc) at the suggestion of one of my students I’ve added on questions of the type “when you see…” Students do get confused by all the algorithms and when they need to be used. While we always stress understanding, for many of them a little bit of repetition can be helpful.