Let’s pour oil on a fire

Okay, so I built an assignment around this blog post: http://blog.dotphys.net/2009/02/the-price-of-a-piece-of-lego/ (as my mentor once shared: teachers are great thieves) since we were coming to March Break and just finishing up a unit on lines and data analysis. (Off topic: I use median-median lines with Grade 9 students; using the black box of LinReg just isn’t in me.) They’d already written their tests and we had some time to kill. In fact, we already have students leaving for March Break today so I can’t really start the Geometry unit.
I set the assignment up so that they used 4 different websites (Lego Canada, Lego US, eBay Buy-it-now and Toys-R-Us Canada) and in their groups created a shared Google Spreadsheet to put in their data. They had to find a way to organize their group so that they didn’t overwrite or duplicate. From there they had to analyze the situation and come to some conclusions.
What all my wonderful planning forgot was that these were Grade 8 students (they take Grade 9 math). And I was asking them to look up Lego. Toys. Whose website is designed to bring children in. And entertain them. Chaos ensued for 10 minutes. I could have pushed on water but what is the point? I let them run amok, reliving their halcyon days when their biggest problem was when they were out of white Lego bricks… and then returned them to the work at hand.
I look forward to their results… they tend to be an imaginative group and it’s been nice to post their work around our classroom. We don’t get our own classrooms at the school so not many people post work up — so, as my colleague said “You just walk in a classroom and take it over.” The bare walls made things so austere and uninviting.

We’re yammer’ing


Well, here’s hoping this works out… the IT department (unbeknownst to all of us) has had their own private twitter going on for the past couple of months using www.yammer.com. I serendipitously (maybe?) found out about it and started to invite my colleagues like mad. Hopefully this will provide the school with a conversation space in which to go over some things. Unlike most schools I’ve been at, this one doesn’t have discussions. I mean, like, never. We have meetings, to be sure, but they are almost always uni-directional; we’re told what’s going on and questions are kept to a minimum as the time in which the information is pushed out to us is relatively short (yes, it’s a poor model for us teachers, especially with some beginning educators in the audience). If you want to provide input to the administration, you have to make an individual appointment with the appropriate person; there is no opportunity for us to meet and talk together as a faculty. So, any discussions of instruction, assessment, technology has had to occur very slowly, incrementally, from person to person, from office to office.
Unfortunately, using tools like yammer does restrict the conversation to those willing to participate in the online environment. Like many of our classroom, there’s now a discussion going on that many are unaware of. And decisions are made without hearing all the voices. Twas ever thus, I suppose.

Voicethreads

Well, I think Voicethreads is a great way of offering peer feedback to student work. I used it to distribute their responses to my summative assignment on slopes & equations of lines; the final requirement in that assignment was to provide their conclusions in a creative way. Some did a very simple document, others wrote newscasts and radio interviews, there were the usual powerpoints and three students did animations.
A Voicethread lets me post them all together in a stream. Viewers can then comment on the student’s work by clicking on the comment button and providing feedback (text, audio, or video). The example above shows six comments on one slide of a student’s work.
Voicethreads really pulled it all together. While I do have to spend some time with the students on how to provide valuable feedback (“Good job” isn’t particularly helpful) they did find few problems with the interface and were quick to notice which students had met the demands of the exercise (and the rubric) and which hadn’t.
I think this is a great resource for other courses… obviously visual & dramatic arts (since it accomodates video) but also languages and the socials. I’m also thinking that importing speeches on UN topics and then having Voicethreads to critique the arguments might be useful.

Classroom Presenter


One of the applications I use a lot in my Calculus class is Classroom Presenter (CP3) from the University of Washington. While my teaching style is not typically lecture oriented, because of the time constraints (I have to do PreCalculus & AP Calculus from September->April) it’s a pretty teacher-centric class. To make it a bit more interactive, I use CP3.
CP3 takes your powerpoint lecture and makes it interactive with the students. While you have control over the projected image, the students can simultaneously mark up on their tablet their version of what is being projected. You can also ask them to submit their marked-up screens back to you. So, when you ask a question to the class, they can write their solutions, you can collect them all and then project the various solutions and discuss them.
How does it work? Well, it starts with a Powerpoint. I make it up to include the structure of the lecture, each slide with an idea or a question or a link or a multiple-choice task. Then, I load it in to CP3 and initiate sharing. We go through the lecture, I write notes & draw diagrams and they scribble what they find useful on their slides. Then, one slide will be a question for them to do — they fill it in and submit it back to me for discussion. It lets me pick up on common misunderstandings or great progress. It also has a polling function which is nice for all the multiple choice questions we need for AP Calculus. The newest version now provides cut-and-paste from both my and student laptops so we can bring snapshots from other programs (and from the students’ homework). There’s no animation, of course — for that I include links in CP3 to go out into the web or on to Maple.
It’s a great improvement over just a powerpoint. I have used it with my Grade 9 students but I so rarely lecture that I haven’t found a need for it.

I am an impatient man

I admit it. I harass people who put on conferences, seminars and talks on mathematics, education and technology and then don’t stream or video-archive them. Given the size of our country and the cost of travel between major and minor centres (not to mention the whole green aspect of the issue), I think it’s imperative that we use video to make the audience as large as possible. For example, there’s a math-education group in Canada — they advertise really interesting seminars. To everyone in Canada. They’re held over a lunch hour or in the late afternoon. So they get, what, 20 people in a room in Ottawa or Edmonton. This is so wasteful. How many more could they reach if they stuck a FlipVideo in the room with them and plunked the video down on their website?
It can’t be hard to do; I’ve done it. NCTM in 04, MAA in 05. I didn’t do it at the OAME last year because the room was so small and crowded with people there was no camera angle … but then I also posted everything on my conference wiki (which is a whole other issue).
Now, people will say … what about the cost? Why pay for going to the conference when I can just watch it online? Well… there’s a big difference between being there and watching it live or even later. Face-to-face gives us so many opportunities that video just doesn’t — I’d much rather attend in person. But what about using a micro-payment model for the video archives? Heck, even a tip-jar. For live-streams, why not a video-attendee rate?
This issue has always been on the back burner for me (ask the poor administrator of the math-ed group mailing list) but Educon 2.1 really made it clear for me. If I’m going to a conference physically, I want to make sure that people who aren’t as lucky as I am can get in on it, too!

Why I hate Sharepoint (reason #3)

I have given up on Sharepoint but school policy says I have to provide a link to my new resource. As it happens, there is no Webpart that allows me to quickly create a link. I can make an IFRAME and put the webpage inside it but I can’t just put up a quick link!
I have to go to ALL SITE CONTENT and then create a Link List. And then in the Link List, I have to create a link entry.
I admit… I’m a self-admitted IT professional. I’ve been programming for more than 20 years. This process should be dead-obvious for the user. Look! An “add a link” button right on the main page’s edit toolbar. But no, I have to dig, dig, dig to do anything.
Funny item: when I introduced our new wiki to the kids, one of them wistfully said “I miss Blackboard.” Never thought I’d hear that but Sharepoint has had such a poor implementation that I can’t blame them. They promised so much and the potential is certainly there… but someone needs to sit down with teachers. Watch how they use their computers. Watch how they organize information (and why they organize it this way). A course management system is not a business intranet. Or maybe business intranets are poorly organized, too?
As one of my bloglist mentioned about me the other day: Little bitter?

Google Docs and Box.Net

So far, so good. Fingers crossed. Wood knocked.

I’ve massaged Google Docs into the Grade 8s and the Model UN club; at this rate I’ll have about 20% of the school covered by the end of the month. I’m slowly trying to win the school over. Already one of the social teachers noted my use of it with MUN kids: they are writing scripts/storyboards for some videos so I set up a template and shared a document with each group so they could work simultaneously.

It also helps for evaluation. After working to keep this one student on task (“no, Johnny, watching anime on YouTube is not helping your script on the issues surrounding prosecuting peacekeepers on criminal charges“), I sat him down at the end of club and showed him the history for his group’s document. He had made one change compared to the huge list of his teammates.

As for the Grade 8s, I set an assignment in GoogleDocs with links to the rubric which was in another GD. What was nice is that they pointed out a structural error in the assignment that I hadn’t noticed (the author is always too close to the object) and I went in, changed it and it was automatically refreshed for them. Once their wiki is finalized this will all fit in quite nicely.

My only problem thus far is where to store the OneNote files for my classes. Teaching math on a tablet is a great environment but it limits me really to OneNote for students’ written exercises. And they are not pleasant to move around. They tend to be large files so I’m a little afraid of running up against Box.Net’s storage & transfer limits (the school will not be interested in paying for any fees). I really like the way the widget works on the wiki except that when you click the OneNote it defaults to save with no option to just open the thing in OneNote. Sigh. The problems.

Finally

Okay.. it’s taken me since September but this was the first math class of my Grade 9s where I was convinced that they ‘got it’.  Not in terms of the math content; these kids are pretty bright.  But rather in terms of how one learns math, how they collaborate, share, discuss, conjecture, disagree, check, etc.  It was amazing.  And, as we were closing down, they made commentary that showed they noticed it too.  Finally.  I’m recording this so that when it doesn’t work, I’ll remember.  And when a parent complains that I’m not “teaching” because I didn’t tell them what to do, I’ll have a happy place to go to 🙂

Why Smartboards?

I really have to question the continued emphasis on Smartboards… if you’re a teacher (well, high school teacher at least) I’d strongly recommend you consider investing in a good tablet PC and wireless projector.  For the price of the Smartboard, you could likely pick up a couple more tablets or a lot more netbooks and using just the wireless projector you can collaborate with your students.  There’s also some nice collaborative software out there (I use Classroom Presenter from UWashington). 

Much like the over-emphasis on the TI (you could outfit a class with netbooks) the bandwagon that the Smartboards are driving is causing schools to waste a lot of money that could be much better spent.  At our school, which have had Smartboards for 8 years, every classroom is outfitted with one.  And number of them being used?  Maybe 5%.  Maybe…

What a beautiful day…

One thing LiveJournal has is a nice space to automatically put the music you’re listening to… here I have to do it manually… U2, Beautiful Day.
Anyways… what makes it s0?
1) 10C, rain in the morning… means riding the motorcycle later this afternoon & tomorrow!
Oh, but then there’s the professional part
2) The contractor was late this morning, so I was 5 minutes late arriving to class; my grade 9s were working away. Sure, some of them were discussing soccer’s latest news but they were seated with their work open. What kids!
3) The same MPM2D; we’re finishing up the unit on parabolas and quadratics and the like. I gave them four different quadratic curves, different concavities, one just with one arm of the parabola, one with a series of parabola. They have to come up with questions involving those graphs and all the content we had this unit. The questions are turning out to be great — I’ll post some up here once they hand them in but for sure they’re going to be used in the future. They’re pulling everything together and some are even bringing in Linear Systems from the Fall, too.
4) Towards the end of class, I interrupted them and pulled up the graph CalculatedRisk posted about last night – huge discussion ensued about real data, parabolas, economics, politics and the like. And using mathematics to make predictions and provide analysis. Given that these are accelerated Grade 9s, most of whom have trust funds of some kind, they all have considerable interest in the economy. I figure I’ll spend Family Day planning some kind of summative with this — Maple, here we come!
We also discovered that all the recent recession has seen me have a life change (81/82 start high school, 91/92 graduate university, 2001 start at this school).
2) AP Calculus – I will be away in DC for the NCTM conference in April for the entire week. This sucks, of course, for a class that meets 6 times a week. So, having been to Educon and seeing it in action I’ve begun playing with Mogulus video in my class. Well, the first time live it worked amazingly well! It means I have to have a lot of stuff preplanned and use BBFlashback to create my example videos beforehand but wow, what potential. It’s a different style of teaching than what I normally do but it’s better than a week of substitutes.