Thursday, 21 March 2013

The COETAIL Effect

It's 8:51 am and my science students are taking their end of unit test on "Intro to Chemistry" as I write this. We had a number of great labs and learning activities in the unit but they were not happy about having this test today. We reviewed and I gave them ample review material. I'll be grading 66 tests after school today which will undoubtedly take hours. Even though that tests are not the end-all-be-all in my class, I still think that we need to teach students good review skills in preparation for our current form of high school and college readiness.

Image courtesy of CC

I already know who will do well. I already know who will fail. I don't need to spend so much time to reaffirm what I already know. So why am I doing this? I have two skills based tests in my grade book. Reinforcement? Brain based learning supports what I'm doing, but will students merely forget this after our spring break which starts on Saturday?

 It's true, when students are excited and engaged about the learning task they'll learn more. To say that I'll discontinue "tests" will be met with huge disdain from our high school staff as they wonder why I haven't done a better job to prepare students for the rigors of high school. Sure, teachers should make learning fun, but I've seen many stress-free learning environments where students don't really learn much at all; although there is the illusion that they do. Assessments are dismissed as "I don't place much stock in those data points" and "I don't want to create test-takers, I want to create global citizens". What a dilemma!  

Learning in the Modern Classroom
I think a mix of traditional and new-age teaching is upon us. Learning in the modern classroom is a nice paints a nice portrait of what learning looks like through "authentic tasks" through skype chats, tweets, collaboration through google docs with a ipad project to show a product through a differentiated classroom. The article posts comments from well know bloggers like Scott McLeod and Erin Klein. What Langwitches fails to point out is the most important element in my opinion: assessment. Sure, the process looks great, flashy and fun, but have the students really learned from one another? Have one person's contributions helped another? I don't see a project rubric nor summative assessment that shows any evidence that this has been accomplished. What we see is the visible process but we don't see the end product. Show me how you're evaluating these students. Show me that they've actually learned. In this regard, such authors don't often reveal this hole card or evaluation is inflated with marks for group skills.

Moreover, from a scientific perspective, they don't have an academic baseline for comparison from previous years to show that their approach is truly more effective so they can only produce more qualitative data on engagement, not actual improvements to learning outcomes from previous years. Students have to meet the rigors of a good educational model and shouldn't be excused from doing something just because they "don't like it" or "it stresses them out". The effect of my COETAILS experience is to infuse technology to help learning, not make technology use the goal. No matter how much people bemoan tests as not being an authentic assessment, do these demagogues really think that testing has no place in academia or the modern world?  

Stop: Check your Bias Before Proceeding!
If I go to the doctor, I want to know how my cholesterol compares to national averages. Also, I may want to know where my doctor studied and if he came from a good medical program before choosing to use him as my physician, and you can bet your ass that I will have wanted my doctor to have mastered proficiency in anatomy and histology before cutting into me or a loved one. I demand mastery of the engineer that designs my house so I will not come crashing down around me. I want my fellow drivers on the road to pass a basic skills test lest they cause an accident that affects my family forever.

We demand excellence from our fellow citizens and use tests to rate and evaluate them. Although this blunt tool may be considered biased, deep down, we know they're essential. Are we to really take my doctors scratch animation on the human digestive system or an architects drawing on Google sketch-up as a sign of "mastery" before employing their skills? It may catch my attention, but I still want to know that they've been rigorously and thoroughly assessed.

Image courtesy of

Coincidentally, my three year old had a 30 minute interview on Tuesday this week for admission to our school. My wife and I had always thought that she was ahead of children her age but her letter of reference from her current school and results of her interview that was that she was merely "average". We didn't take offense, and personally, welcomed another point of view. Some don't take it that way. They think their children are exceptional in every way but being a parent clouds their judgement. The question they ask then: "Why didn't you accommodate and recognize my child's exceptionalities?" Why do parents act so surprised when they're told their child is "average" or even "below average?" Hate the teacher. Hate the test. They must be flawed. My child is better than that.


These questions seem particularly relevant when I reflect on my COETAILS experience. Three years ago, my students started creating content. Two years ago, I started embedding their content in their blogs. This year and next, my goal is to create classrooms where students are not merely content creators of authentic tasks, but that this not replace traditional forms of assessment. I want to developed networked classrooms. I want my students to learn from their own RSS subscriptions. I want students to share science research findings of their choice with a larger audience and gain popularity and their own following through their blogs. I want my students to feel like they are contributing to the collective body of knowledge and they themselves might start to feel like an expert in one of the sciences. I want them to feel connected and others are eager to learn from them. But, I still want ways to have them show what they've learned to me.  

Blogging Behind the Scenes
Jabiz Raisdana writes an excellent portrayal of the current state of the modern educator within the blog platform in his post "Blogs from the Mouths of Babes". So rarely does an educator point out not only their goals but also open admits the dilemmas which they're facing. His blog roll is well organized, but also notes that he does not grade blogs, and their participation is not mandatory. The students all produced some fantastic responses to why they think blogging is important, but there was also some notable responses from students who didn't think blogging was a valuable experience. To be connected but still feel alone will lead to lack of interest and abandonment in the high school years which is a problem that we're seeing as our students move up into high school.  

Developing Student's Readership
If students don't get read or any comments, its obvious that we haven't used the blogging platform to it's potential. As a beginning blogger myself, one of the joys is reading the occasional comment on my blog and the reads I get through my networking. In this capacity, being a blogger has helped me not only develop a voice, but it's also given me insight as to how I might better network my students as I have gone through the same process. As a math and science teacher, I'm currently using blogs for students to showcase the media that they produced during major investigations, but I think I need to do a better job in creating more of a variety of learning tasks to invite an audience that will merit interest. Every piece of work should be creative and different so when I direct teachers and classroom to my blogroll, the title of every student's post is not "My Math Project". My hypothesis for the near future is that I can give students choices within the construct of our standards requirements so that they all create products that are different, interesting and worth reading.  

The Black Sheep of COETAILS
I suppose in this regard, I will be viewed as a teacher born of two philosophies: the new age and the old school. I will advocate for authentic learning but demand to see results. I will continue to administer tests, but require them to have higher order thinking. I will use Ipads but only to support learning goals. I will always be in a state of embrace, skepticism and evaluation with technology integration. I will advocate blogging but not stop merely after my students click "publish". I will try to keep an open mind to all arguments and not stop reading when I come across something that doesn't agree with me. If I did, I would not be learning.    

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Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Creating and Evaluating Online Learning Communities

Education is undergoing a makeover. Whether or you are a teacher using 1950's style teaching methods or joining the ranks of educators trying to transform education by way of tech infused, problem solving communities, it is happening whether you like it or not. The attitudes and opinions for both arguments are becoming more entrenched. Personally, I would be more impressed by an applicant stating on their CV how they brought people together to solve a regional problem rather than earning a 3.5 GPA. Although the latter does show grit and persistence, the former shows the outcomes of skills needed to be the change we want to see in our graduates and future citizens. How many people are saying: "Our goal is to produce graduates with high GPA"?

There are many people that are advocating for the change. Steve Denning from Forbes talks at great length of how our model of learning is modeled on a "factory output model" that can be replaced by outputs to outcomes, and changing the roles of teachers to facilitators. The MacArthur foundation has some great examples of how schools have started to pilot new approaches to learning wherein students work collaboratively in teams to solve a real world problem and Adam Renfro offers a fantastic approach to how educators can bring students together, aided by technology to implement this shift.

Creating such communities is no problem. They're modeled on cooperative learning models of group investigations were everyone has a specific job for which they are accountable. Serendipitously, I was approaching the end of a chemistry unit and a collaborative project through CIESE which I've done for four years now where classrooms can collect and share data in order to develop understandings and even solve regional problems like pollution and energy consumption. The driving questions I put forth for this project were:
  1. What is the most important variable that affects the boiling point of water?
  2. Can we engineer a distillation apparatus with everyday materials to purify water for the poor?

Evaluating Collaborative Communities

Although I'm a big advocate of creating collaborative communities, I have yet to see a good example of how they're evaluated. It's inspiring to see students working together, and utilizing a strength in their skill set to develop or engineer something, but often, I see teachers with rubrics giving "rubber stamp" grades based more around group skills rather than standards related to a specific discipline. As some one who has really looks at assessment, I think that much of the interest in creating collaborative communities is to mimic what real world adults do when working on a project or problem. Much like the superheros in "The Avengers" where each a specific talent that no other one has.

The problem with this, is that schools are meant to educate everyone in all skill areas not just have them reinforce their particular strength. Adults are hired for their skills, schools develop them. It might seem in-vogue to allow students to differentiate their own understanding by choosing what they want to work on, but the real backlash is whether the contributions of that particular student have really "taught" other members of the group. This is not often a consideration of adults in real world situations. For instance, if you have a project and you designate one of the roles is that of a "math expert" you will probably have a student or two that has above average math skills and can thus integrate their math skills into showing that "the group" has an understanding of the mathematical principles in the project.

For my chemistry project, I discussed with the grade level math teacher in meetings over which math skills are currently being taught and thus relevant and he informed me that they had been working with percentages so that was a current standard for which I could easily include. While I would have a student focus on this particular area for the presentation, I was most interested in whether the other members of the group would "learn" from this piece and not have it serve as an illusion of group understanding. If only one student from the group knew how to do this skill, the product would be another smoke and mirrors example of window dressing eclectic skills and not enough group nexus. For this, formative assessments still have a place in the classroom and give teachers insights to whether learning objectives were actually met, as instructed either by teacher or peer.

In the case above for this project, each group created a documentary of the process with a few of the objectives that I would individually assess later. Explain everything is a great app for this, but I'm still learning on what the best way is to create content in classrooms. In this case, slides were "similar" between groups, although their data was different. A conflict I'm grappling with now is whether I should or shouldn't inundate the world with educational content that is so similar. My colleague Zach Post has done some dynamite work with this in mathematics wherein students don't create the same content necessarily, but all focus on a different type of problem or principle. Such work serves as review material for later. Here is one example of his students focusing on algebraic properties.

Approaches to Assessment
Each group received the same grade for my project although is was not weighted much to not create serious distortion. As we near the end of the unit, I'm making this content available for students to review which will undoubtedly come in handy when students are reviewing. Some tips that I've come to regard in evaluating collaborative communities are as follows:
  • Groups grades are easy to assess but be careful that they don't overly distort an accurate appraisal of a student's individual grade.
  • They may not have enough time, so don't deflate their grade for lateness. They may require only 10 minutes more which can be done during the next class.
  • Debriefing is so important. Regardless of how the group did, sit down with them and share your appraisal of their work based on what you "saw" and how that compared to the expectation.
  • Don't write off (compact) an individual if their group demonstrated a skill. There is no way of really knowing if that was done by others or that student. Continue to use individual formative or summative assessments.
With regards to formative assessment, here is where a classroom blog comes in handy. By having this media and project on a blog which is accessible to students, students can comment on the post which can then be approved or asked to be revised. This gave me the opportunity to have all students develop their own conclusions (a huge science standard) and do it on their own terms in a non-threatening way. For our warm-up at the beginning of the next class, I asked students to review data submitted from other schools and answer this question: Which variable is most responsible for boiling point? Here were some of their responses:

Commenting can serve as a formative assessment in a 2.0 environment and develop netiquette

Commenting can serve as formative assessments in the 2.0 classroom. Here, students draw conclusions on generated data.[/caption]   Some made excellent observations. Some did not disregard outliers. Still, we were able to wordsmith a number of the student's observations to prepare our final report. Furthermore, the act of thoughtful commenting compliments our schools ICT benchmark of "Communication and Collaboration" in that students can propel thinking forward in online environments and collaborate together. Although Renfro doesn't spell out this example in the reading, here, simple web 2.0 tools can facilitate the same learning targets as intended and give students multiple ways to show their understanding.  

Sharing this Work With a Larger Audience
Could this work serve as a model for reform? 5 years ago, I would say "no". So often teachers work is done in isolation and "wow" moments are shared with a small few. Now, having a classroom and professional blog has helped alleviate this problem. Following this project, I was able to draft up a post which was sent out to my parents appraising them of what and how the students were learning. The parental response was awesome. Furthermore, as a networked educator, I was able to share this post to my online teacher communities at Edmodo and Twitter to get feedback, help refine my assessment methods and give them some ideas of how they could implement this in their classroom.

Now, more than ever, we can collectively share our successes in the education world and help develop this pedagogy. As teachers network with other great teachers, parents and students, I think the role of a teacher will evolve to facilitate learning communities that share work with others and develop connections. As educators develop their comfort levels and facilitation skills, the global classroom will rise.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Gradations of Content Quality, Depth and Variety in Math

Our school has their own "You Tube" account where students can upload content from their classes for sharing. I've been perusing this specific youtube page and noticing that teachers are creating content in a variety of different ways. As the amount of information that we are creating is doubling every seven years, it's no surprise that some of it is truly creative and some of it is a remix. Must the emphasis be on creating content or quality content?

Created Content that is the Same
In the following example, the fifth grade teachers used "Doceri" to have students animate their understanding of fraction operations but with a 2 dimensional model.

In this case, the student showed their skills of being able to multiply 5/6 by 4/5. What was really interesting was that a number of the kids had the exact same problem. See some more examples here, here and here. As a bank of instructional videos to help understand skills, having the exact same problem may be overkill, and we must ask ourselves: "Do we need 10 videos of the same thing when only 1 will do?" For a portfolio piece we may all want the same question but surely there can be some freedom for creativity and differentiation for product. Perhaps students want to do the same problem to compare different ways of solving or illustrating the solution which is now a standard with common core in the United States.

Created Content that is Different but with Similar Skills
In the following example, we see a student working out a problem that is different than the problem his peers are given but he applies the same skill. It was simply done by recording on the document camera which is now obsolete given our Ipads.

What makes this different from the first example is that problems can be scaffolded based on readiness and differentiated for mixed ability. You'll see some other examples here, here and here that are more or less easier or harder but serve more of a wider breadth of problems. Something like this will multiple skills could potentially serve as a summative assessment. However, although these problems are different, are they really that different?

Content to Serve as a Learning Resource
My collegue Zach Post has done some dynamite work in this regard. For his unit on algebra, he had students who were working together all create different video tutorials for a unit project.

Above, you'll see a couple of students working out a problem using PEMDAS which can serve as a nice resource for the other students. What was interesting though is the all students did a different skills some translated words into expressions, and another group focused on the distributive and associative property. These were invaluble for review later and students were "experts" in their particular domain. Are there enough principles of math to give a classroom of 22 students? Surely there is some repetitiousness.

Final Thoughts
As educators wade into or jump head first into the world of technology integration, I think asking ourselves these questions are particularly relevant. My wife last night and I were brainstorming a swimming project for her class in which she asked me how she should grade the use of "Explain Everything" in her project rubric to which I replied: "It shouldn't be graded. It's merely a tool to demonstrate the skills that you want them to understand in your class". Although making a good looking presentation makes it more watchable, we must be careful not to distort the learning outcomes with the packaging. 8 years ago, there was a push in our school for when students should start using Powerpoints. Can you guess what has happened to Powerpoints in my school?

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Sunday, 17 March 2013

Using the SAMR Model to Make Furniture Real

Math teachers have it tough. Statistically, students dislike math more than any other subject and I can understand why. It's a new language. You're either right or wrong. Concepts are underlying areas of study that you don't quite understand. Much like in the way of conjugating verbs but not knowing why you are. As math gets more complex, it gets more abstract. Relevance diminishes, and we can't touch it through real-world examples. When students make it to calculus, they are creating algorithms which behave more like functional viruses and morph input values into corresponding output values. Perhaps we should teach microbiology in our math classes to help them understand how math "behaves".

For "The Shipping Project" students had to create a container to ship a product. This was a container for 3 softballs made by the company "Flashter"

This was a container for 3 softballs made by the company "Flashter" I've taught a unit on surface area and volume for years. Last year and the year before, I did "The Shipping Project" wherein students were put into groups mimicking a corporation and the challenge was to be given an object and create a container for that and two more objects; all the while demonstrating and understanding of surface area and volume. It was good and subsequent evaluation showed that the project reinforced essential understandings.  

Applying SAMR to Enhance Learning and Augment Reality
Through my RSS feeds, (Which are discontinuing in July-Grr!) I learned of AR Media's plugin to enhance Google Sketchup. By using their plug in, and a physical marker, one can take any model created in google sketchup and augment it in through a virtual reality screencast. I used Google Sketchup for years before the shipping project to create a piece of furniture which students could also use to demonstrate their knowledge of surface area and volume like below:

Sample bookshelf made in Google Sketchup

Students can calculate # of faces, square footage of material and volume.[/caption] It was cool, but I still felt that it couldn't be "touched" like the softball container. Also, presenting it became more of an issue as with the shipping project, students filmed a catchy commercial as an "add on" to the project with a group evaluation following. The AR plug-in reinvented this project. After I caught the article in Google reader, I learned more in youtube tutorials and was able to take this math product and hold it as if I created it in shop class: 


Applications for Mathematics 
Now, with a quick screencast, students can record their product along with a short narration of the math standards I want them to demonstrate: namely surface area, volume and faces. For an added twist, they could turn it into an advertisement. I think that this product is more interesting and the artifact a better digital product for students to include in their blogs as a portfolio piece. 

Accommodating Mixed Ability Classrooms
Although we have a great program for offering formative tasks for a wide range of abilities (challenge by choice) with this project, students can make their piece of it as simple or complex as they want to be. The math concepts are there regardless but if a gifted students wants to incorporate drawers or a dizzying amount of faces, they can. Students that struggle may want to have it more simplistic. Who knew math could be such fun?

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Comment Trolls

Shane Koyczan's viral video "To This Day" is an inspiration. On the tech side, it was make collaboratively with media spliced together from many people. The message is that the effects of bullying can be felt long after they're committed-hence the title. I showed the video to a number of my classes and we collectively drafted comments up which we posted to youtube.

What really caught me attention were the comments. There are roughly 50,000 at the time of writing and the comments were particularly interesting. Most of them were favorable, but some were very entrenched commenters who told the author that he should "suck it up", and "toughen up".

There are no shortage of such people like "Scrounger01". Comment trolls like him are now a new group on the internet. Faceless, negative, and always willing to share their disapproval; they swoop in and always have an opinion on work they they themselves could not possible make on their own. I decided to look into Scrounger 01's profile and see his comment history, and videos made.
Scrounger01 has made no videos, not surprisingly. Most of his comments are negative as well.

For some strange reason, I have been thinking about this person a lot. They don't choose to make videos but are compelled to tear the work of others down. Nor do they appreciate and give creedence to others for the good work that they do. Where did this person go so wrong?

Some people are disabling comments altogether because the healthy discussion has been replaced by this dogmatic psychobabble. Although we as teachers cannot control what students say in their free time, we can point out such abuses, make good examples, and model good digital citizenry.

Friday, 8 March 2013

8 Engaging Ways to Promote your Classroom Blog

This article first appeared on Fractus Learning on February 28th, 2013

A classroom blog is a great way to build a professional learning portfolio. However, many well meaning teachers abandon a class blog after a few months because they feel their efforts are unappreciated and all their musings have fallen on deaf ears.

Promote your Classroom Blog

Grinding out posts with a variety of media to document learning that is happening in the classroom is often a thankless task. In the early stages, don’t expect your site visitor widget to be going off the charts. However, having had a classroom blog for three years now, I’ve learned a number of ways to get others involved with your blog and make it more of a product of a networked community rather than just one dedicated teacher.

1. Advertise It

Parent teacher conferences, back to school night, any and all forums are an opportunity to have a tab open to your blog to share what you and your students are doing. You may find out that many of your parents are not even familiar with the concept of a blog and may need some assistance in subscribing to feeds either by RSS or email.

2. Turn Commenting Into a Classroom Activity

If you write posts about major activities, consider having your students write reflective comments on the activity the following day. They will have time to reflect on the experience and you can use it as an opportunity for a a variety of writing strategies such as summarizing, sentence fluency and other forms of figurative language like similes, metaphors and hyperbole. Teaching thoughtful commenting is a 21st century skill and some posts may have elements of debate that you can use as a forum to engender good digital citizenship. 

Students comment on their summative lab evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses. Self reflection improves meta-cognition and self awareness.
Students comment on the strengths and weaknesses of their rubric evaluation. Self reflection improves meta-cognition and self awareness.

3. Invite Parents to Comment

Ask your students to share an activity that they did with their parents. If you have time, consider making a parent mailing list and send them emails every once in a while appraising them of learning activities and major projects. I’ve gotten many thank you letters from parents explaining how grateful they are to see what their children are doing in math and science. When students get to middle and high school, they tend to talk about school less and less so a blog is a great way to de-privatize what is happening in school.

4. Add a Translator Widget

As an international school teacher, I don’t have many English speaking parents. Being able to translate what I’m writing about is essential to get non-English speaking parents coming back to my blog. Google Translate has a great widget although there are many on the net. Walk non-English speaking parents through the process of using this tool at back to school night or conferences.

Non-English speaking parents are thrilled when you use a translator to accommodate them.
A translator widget can help accommodate non-English speaking parents which may be a substantial population of your parents.

5. Add a Flickr Flash Photo Stream

This is cooler than cool. What it does is takes your photos under flickr and turns them into a badge which is a collage of pictures. I take pictures throughout the year of student activities and add them to my flickr account which are then added to the flickr widget which is embedded in my blog’s sidebar. I delete all my images at the end of the year.

A flash photo badge provides insights into school activities.
A flash photo badge provides insights into school activities.

6. Embed Your Hashtag Chat

Speaking of widgets, many people embed their tweets onto their blog or webpage. However, if you’re using Twitter with your students and having discussions under a hashtag chat, it’s possible to embed that hashtag filter onto your blog. What’s cool is that parents and students can see their ever changing discussions and it breaks up dormancy between posts.

Embedding a hashtag chat can provide a steady stream of discussion, and blog posts related to your content area.
Embedding a hashtag chat in your blog can provide a steady stream of discussion, and blog posts related to your content area.

7. Add Posts From Student Blogs to your Classroom Blog

This is easier for elementary teachers who are teaching all major content areas, but you can easily put links to “people you follow” or “links” into a sidebar widget so there is a continual addition of posts as students blog about their learning experiences. As a math and science teacher, I found it is a little trickier. I want to show only posts post only related to my class, but it’s an easy fix. You can make a dynamic tag (such as your name) or a category that will filter posts in your subject area to a sidebar widget of your blog. Talk to your technology resource facilitator to help set this up through RSS.

RSS feeds can be tailored to many profiles. Here, I filter only math and science post that have my name tagged.
RSS feeds can be tailored to many profiles. Here, math posts tagged with my name make it onto my math and science blog.

8. Send Posts to Professionals

Once you have posts, send URLs to professionals whose work you may be following and ask them to contribute or comment. As so many people are on Twitter these days, it’s so easy to share your pedagogy with trade professionals and make connections for you and your students. Some may even be willing to set up a Skype chat date.

TIME magazines Dan Kadlec chimes in after I shared a post relating to teaching finance. My students now follow him.
TIME magazine’s financial writer Dan Kadlec chimes in after I shared a post relating to teaching finance. My students now follow him.

Managing a classroom blog should be fourth on your list of priorities after teaching a viable curriculum, good teaching pedagogy, and various assessment methods. But, it can be a great portfolio of your learning activities that you use to document the growth of your class and your growth as as teacher. By networking and encouraging others to contribute, it becomes an amalgamation of you, your students, your students parents and professionals in the field.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr, garryknight.