Going back six weeks…

So the end of school was a bit of a flurry and I left meetings early to head out to Park City, Utah (home of the Sundance Film Festival) to participate in the Park City Mathematics Institute for the seventh time. If you’re a math teacher and never been… you’re missing out!
I first attended PCMI in 2002 — by pure luck. I was teaching Ontario’s Linear Algebra course and stumbled across their webpage which discussed that summer’s topic, Gaussian Integers. I cross my fingers & applied. After attending as a participant for two years I got invited back to help out as staff. It’s a lot of work and I don’t get all the fun that participants have but I learn about math and teaching and learning in a different way. And I get to work some amazing people, both staff and participants, and great friends.
PCMI is hard to describe. I call it “math camp” when asked just to make things easier. Let me try to be more descriptive since I have the time: PCMI is a three week residential program that has about 60 teachers participate in daily 2.5 hour problem solving sessions that build around a topic, an hour of pedagogy, a 2 hour small working group session in the afternoon on a topic specific to the teacher’s classes and a variety of afternoon and evening sessions, lectures and activities on recreational or research mathematics.
While the teachers are doing their thing, there are also about 250 undergraduates, graduate students, university faculty and research mathematicians doing their own courses & lectures on a specific theme, usually tangentially related to the teacher’s morning problem solving topic. For example, this year’s topic was L-functions — this is a cutting edge area in number theory (and is the hot new thing in cryptography). Next year, it’s image processing. The addition of all these “real” mathematicians running around (and these are sharp folk… Clay Scholars, Fields Medal winners, Nobel laureates -there’s no math Nobel but sometimes the topics cross science/economics boundaries) lifts the matheamatical conversation and is an important reminder that math is continually developing… and is crucial to both our day-to-day life and to our future. Plus all these smart folks reminds me what it’s like to be a student in my class…
The applications come out in the fall… if you’re a math teacher, you should apply. Three weeks is a long time but the Park City area is beautiful, the PCMI teacher community is amazingly supportive and the math is a lot of fun.
Over the next couple of weeks I’ll describe what went on this summer at PCMI. I did twitter throughout so feel free to Twitter Search but I didn’t have time to blog.

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Do you want us to jing it?

The English language continues to evolve — jing is now a noun and a verb as far as my students are concerned.
Jing is the free (or lost cost pro version) program for the Mac and the PC that quickly allows for screen captures. It installs a small button on the side or top of your screen that pops out when you do a mouseover (as shown in the image in popped-out state). You can then quickly draw out a rectangle to snip — then you have the option of copying it or posting it online on space that Jing provides you. Very quick and easy to snip out bits & pieces of your screen for reference.
That, however, is old news… and doesn’t add a lot to the student/teacher conversation.
Where we’ve found Jing’s power is the ability for the student to create very quick videos of their work for us… the question is put into OneNote and then the student solves it, adding a discussion of their reasoning as they work through the problem. Jing has no video editing components to it so they can’t clean up their work — they can re-do the entire video, of course, but you get to hear their mathematical voice. It’s something you don’t often hear a lot of in a class, especially amongst some students who choose not to be vocal. Teachers here have used it from Grade 7 to BC Calculus; there’s a place for it everywhere.
They are a challenge to mark, however… we don’t have a lot of tools (yet) to mark up video and just returning a text or image with notes seems less effective than it should be. If anyone has any quick-and-easy suggestions I’d like to hear it.
We (teachers) also use Jing to post solutions to homework; it’s much easier to post links to the videos then to distribute the worked solutions by email or wiki. It helps to re-inforce correct language and provides a lot more information than just the written work. And, for a student looking to understand the solution it makes it a lot easier to have the teacher’s reasoning made clear for each step. There is an argument to have students learn from reading mathematics but that’s an incremental process. Here’s a 4 min video (about the max recommended for practical use; in fact Jing has a 5 min max) I remember doing at the airport; that’s the convenience of the system. I’ve also used it to provide solutions on MapleTA, our online homework & assessment tool because, again, you can just provide the link and no need to embed or install. However… you CAN embed them into your wiki space… the code is provided.
There is a paid version of Jing that I will likely upgrade to for next school year. It’s only 15$US and adds on a few handy options … but the students need only the free version to make it using the program successful for both of us.

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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.