Saturday, December 3, 2016

Pay Attention to the Details, Easier Said Then Done

The embedded YouTube video below has gone viral within the past 48 hours and for all the right reasons. Please watch first before scrolling down as the rest of my text might give away the storyline.

Did you watch? Now you can read the rest of my post.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Upgrading from the Outdated "Traditional" Notebook

An example of an "organized" backpack in middle school.
Image Credit: Ms. Beth Hughes
Every day when the final bell rings, I walk down the hallway to see tons of paper on the floor near the lockers. Students either don't realize they dropped things or just don't care enough at the time. When they do come to class, papers are crumpled at the bottom of their backpacks or missing. Even when I give papers with holes punched, students often forget that the holes make it easy to insert the papers into a notebook.

I think a digital notebook is a great way to help students stay organized. The article discusses using Blogger and making these digital notes public. I actually prefer a highly powerful but very underutilized software. Microsoft OneNote. Never heard of OneNote? It's understandable because it's not as widely used as the other Office Suite softwares but it's there. Think of it as the younger sibling of an over-achieving person. You don't pay attention to it but once you see it in the shadows you'll see it is amazing on its own. Another option is Evernote, but I like OneNote's new classroom features. If you've never seen OneNote, search your computer. I can almost guarantee you have it because it's part of the Office Suite.

I use OneNote in class instead of Smartboard software. Every class has their own notebook and I keep it organized for students. Each day I create a new page and give it a heading that is the objective. Unlike a tradition whiteboard, I never erase, I just scroll down. I can type, handwrite, and insert features. I love the insert feature because students can add images, videos, sounds, or print directly from websites and other files. When my students are working out of the textbook, I can insert the PDF of the page, then call students up to the board to answer the questions.

It's great because students have access via the cloud to the notebook from any computer. This is helpful for when students are absent or forgot their notebooks at school. Parents also like this because they can see exactly what students are doing in school. For language learners, this is helpful because I can also insert audio clips of the class period to payback. They can also easily translate the notes if needed because it's already on the computer. Another benefit is that if I insert video demos, students can rewatch the lesson to catch something they missed the first time.

A sampling of what my weekend might look like.
Image Source: Flickr
The feature I love most but don't actually use (yet)? Class Notebook. My students don't have Microsoft accounts so I can't use these feature in the classroom but it's amazing. Once we have access to this feature, students will each have their own personal notebook that complements the class notebook. Students with devices can use their notebook instead of a traditional notebook. If I assign practice problems in math, each student would get a copy to write directly on. As the teacher, I can see each student's notebook and leave them feedback directly in the book. Much easier than collecting and carrying 50+ notebooks home over a weekend.


Saturday, October 29, 2016

Video Games Help Students In Class

Oregon Trail
Strange Loop Games
What have I learned from video games? Well... like most people in my generation I learned that I was likely to die from dysentery. I also learned how to read, do basic math, and more. When I died in a game, I would just hit start and try again. Each time, getting a little better than the try before. I still remember the first time my Mario saved the Princess.

Now comes the real challenge for us gamers. Proving to the naysayers that games are important to the educational process and beneficial to students of all abilities. When students are playing games they need to use a multitude of skills that help them improve in other areas of learning as well. For example, many games use captions to give instructions instead of audio cues. Students need to read and understand those directions to successfully play the game.

Minecraft Edu
Currently, Minecraft is the most popular "not really educational" game for education. Yes, you read that correctly. Minecraft was not designed with education in mind but it has been teaching students of all ages and levels. Even language learners can benefit from playing games because they don't rely on words. The graphics and animation tell the stories. In Minecraft, students can build worlds, hunt, chop wood, and more. The graphics may look simplistic but that's part of the games charm. Students that are interested in learning advanced skills can use Minecraft to learn coding.

Simple logic puzzles such as 2048 or Sudoku can give you a motivational boost while helping to wake the brain up. Five minutes with one of these simple games can increase overall productivity. If a student is getting stressed about their assignment a quick game break might be all they need to refocus with new energy.

All kidding aside, games and simulations can be a powerful classroom tool. I don't remember who said it or where I heard it but "when kids are having fun, they don't realize they're learning." I try to always keep my classroom fun for the students even when doing the more boring topics.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Just Use Duct Tape

Recently, a friend/colleague on Twitter posted an article titled Why Duct Tape and Cardboard Might Be a Better Option Than a 3D Printer. The article spoke about why fancy 3D printers might not actually be helping our students learn how to create. In the article, the author mentions that too many students rely on pre-designed ideas.
Stuck at Prom - 1st Prize
Noah & Jenna
We have a 3D printer, but only a few students know how to use it for creative purposes. Most students download templates and print things out. There’s not much actual creative thought that goes into it.
So how can we help our students bring back the creativity and logistical thought process for design? Duct tape. Simple yet elegant, duct tape can be used for many things in the classroom and creativity is just the iceberg.

I love reading articles like this that help remove the expensive obstacles of new equipment while still teaching the skills that students will need in future careers. In the case of creativity, students can use duct tape and other odd items for a multitude of projects in the classroom. I would most likely use the duct tape for an engineering challenge. By providing students with a finite amount of supplies, they would need to first plan out their project before just building something. This would require them to first create a final idea and then work backwards to decide how to reach the goal. I could then build in a secondary lesson about how it relates to their education in general. We have a final goal for when students reach the end of high school, and teachers, schools, etc. work backwards to determine how to help students reach that end goal of graduation.
John Spencer
Vintage Learning

For ESL students, this type of challenge can remove the language barrier and allow them to express themselves. It will also help students to see that not everything revolves around language. It's one of the things I love about the courses I teach; they are global and can include anyone. In science when we are learning about scientific names, I explain to the students that by using these standard two word descriptions we can remove the language barrier when communicating with other scientists around the world. In math, we discuss that numbers are the same in any language and only the word problems might be different. Whether you say "two plus two" or "dos mas dos", the answer is always going to be 4.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Learning Is Not a Strict Progression

Image Source: Lost My Music, Tumblr
I hope it doesn't come as a shock to anyone by this point, but I am a bit of a geek (my geekdom is bigger on the inside). I recently watched a short video Machine is Us/ing Us for a class and it reminded me of this quote from Doctor Who regarding the progression of time.

I remember in grade school when we would be told to skip lines so that we can go back and add to our rough drafts. That progressed to the dreaded asterisk when we needed to add even more after editing. Followed by arrows for switching the order of paragraphs. Editing became such a nightmare that many students gave up and settled for a lower grade, rather than re-write an essay multiple times.

Today's student has the ability to continue improving a piece of writing without the necessity of re-writing it each time. Google Docs, and newer versions of Microsoft Word, allow the student to see a history of revisions. Now, not only can our students make those changes, they can watch the progression of the changes being made. The Chrome extension Draftback creates an animated video of the changes using the revision history of a document. I haven't used it in a while, but I believe you can speed up the replay to create a time-lapse of the documents creation and edits.

As technology has advanced, we have had the opportunity to advance with it. In addition, computers too are learning from us. When I taught math, I would often make a comment to students that the calculator was not a substitute for their own knowledge. Some human, at some point, invented that calculator and it can only function as it has been programmed. The computer might simplify tasks, however they are not self taught. Computers rely on the programmer starring at a screen of code and formulas.

Image Source: iato19459, Reddit
I will conclude with one final sci-fi reference that puts this into perspective. Data from Star Trek was an android that strived to be more human. While his outside was that of a human, he was in fact a machine. Data spent the better part of Star Trek: The Next Generation trying to become more human and yet couldn't. He wanted to speak with contractions and yet he was unable to and would often say things like "I will..." instead of "I'll..." He was unable to learn from the human because his programming was not written in that way. Data was however able to compute what appeared to be impossible mathematical situations in a few seconds.

Both humans and computers must continue to grow together. We will continue to program computers and build more advanced machines, but they can only go as far as the human creating them. I often tell my students that teaching is like a puzzle. I provide them with my knowledge and experiences which their brain then combines with the knowledge and experiences of other teachers. In the end, the student should surpass the teacher because they are adding to the collective knowledge within their own brains.

Constructive Feedback vs Hurting Someone

Recently I watched a member of my PLN leave a group chat over an innocent comment.

Feedback is something that we all need in order to grow as professionals, but I'm sure most of us have been on the receiving end of feedback as well. Although designed to be helpful, if you're like me you will take certain comments way to personally.

Recently a former colleague of mine was complaining because during a walk-through, the principal wrote "your garbage was too full for the beginning of the day" under the classroom environment section of the feedback form. Is this truly helpful feedback? Would the principal have preferred the garbage be on the floor? I'm sure the comment was meant innocently. Just like teachers have certain forms they need to complete, so do principals. Perhaps this teacher was doing everything correctly but the principal was required to give at least one place for "improvement" and couldn't find a real area.

I remember that once during a PD, a principal said that every assignment we returned to students required feedback and "great job" was not acceptable. The student could have done an exploratory job but we were still required to give them a place for improvement.

As I continue on my journey in education, I need to look at this in relation to my students. Is there an acceptable point to not give room for improvement. I know that no one is perfect, but that doesn't mean we have to crush someone's spirit.

I might think my comment is helpful, but when a student has worked extremely hard on a project they might take a major emotional blow that will end up preventing them from trying the next time.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

To Compete or Not to Compete

This week, I took my students to the PA Computer Fair to compete in digital design and webpage design. Both students worked really hard on their projects and I'm extremely proud of their final projects.
Their projects on display.

Before we took the journey to Dickinson College, we started regionally. I learned about the Delco Computer Fair about a week before the entries were due. With such a short time frame, I looked at the work students had already completed in class and found two of them qualified for the competition.

After speaking with those students, I submitted their names to Delco. It seems that for both categories, my students didn't have much local competition and their names were passed on for the state level.

We spent the next few weeks using the feedback from our local judge to improve their presentations before the big day. Their technical projects were ready but we were told that displays were important as well. As a first time adviser to this level of competitions, I feel that I learned just as much, if not more, than my students. Many of the tri-folds displayed were of professional quality. One piece, largely printed displays were common compared to our hand made boards.

While we didn't take home any prizes, it was a great day and everyone enjoyed themselves. Besides the competition, there were activities set up for students while the judges where evaluating the projects. My students choose to attend "Angry Nerds" which was a Quizzo style game using Kahoot.

So here's my dilemma, and the purpose of this post's title. When did competitions become about the money spent on displays and not the process. There were projects better than my students', I'll admit that. However, the presentations that won the prizes were not, in my opinion, the best work. They were just the fanciest displays. Additionally, the grand prize was only $150 yet based on what these students had set up, they spent much more than that on the display. So how do we encourage students to compete without forcing parents to spend a fortune? How do we encourage students to compete without parents and teachers micromanaging?

For my students, I wanted it to be about the experience. They both worked hard and our school was extremely supportive of getting them to the competition. Honestly, I think I'm more disappointed than they are about the results. Perhaps it's because when the mother asked about uploading her design and ordering business cards from a website, I had replied "no, we can print them at school. No reason to spend extra money" only to get there and see everything professionally made.

Live and learn. I took pictures of the competition and next year if I encourage students to enter, I'll make sure they see what they need to beat.