Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Classroom I want to learn in

Shawn Cornally at Think Thank Thunk has the most fascinating blog to me right now. It is about math, calculus, science, physics, and standards based grading. He is passionate and articulate.

But what I like about it most is that he captures and actually does what I mean by student centered learning. I don't care what subject or grade you teach his methods are inspiring. Check out this and this (particularly the student grants) as excellent examples of what it looks like in the classroom. This is so much better than a teacher at the board or questions from a textbook.

So yeah, I would love to sit in his class...

"Balancing" Equations

Here is a lesson that I taught a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to cement in the students minds that you must treat both sides of an equation the same to keep them equal or balanced. I always tell a story about "being fair" that whatever you do to one side of the equation you must do to the other side or it will get angry with you and give you the wrong answer. I should mention that this is a 6th grade math class and their first exposure to equations.

I made up a dozen of these scales with scrap wood from my shed over spring break and used pennies as weights. To calibrate them I had the students put paper clips in one side until they balanced (somewhat evenly).  I then used some items that I had multiple copies of laying around as the variables. The problems are a bit contrived but I was trying to show more than just addition in the equations.

One problem is that not all of my items were exactly equal to a certain number of pennies. For example the marble is closer to 2 1/2 pennies instead of exactly two pennies. I could tell my students were too used to "book problems" where every answer comes out neatly because they were easily sidetracked by the calibrating and the fact that the answers did not balance perfectly.

I used this as my first lesson and they did not all "get" it the first day. Some of my more abstract thinkers quickly found it easier to just "do the math" without the scales. What I thought was successful was that for the rest of the unit I had a mental image to refer back to to remind students that equations must balance.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Education Lobbyist Platform

Well, I did not get much response from my idea of educators banding together and paying one of our own to lobby Washington D.C. for legitimate change in education. I did name a few names in my comments on the blog that sparked the original post and a couple of them responded. (Again I want to emphasize that my original question of "Why do none of the ed-tech leaders seem to have the ear of Duncan, Obama, or any of the other politicians making terrible education policy?" was not meant to be a critique of anyone but was a genuine question).

Some of the responses given were obvious and make sense: "politics, everyone is an education expert, and politician's minds are hard to change." But one reason was given that I disagree with: "Don't assume that even the people in your list agree on the large or small issues regarding a deeply complex issue like education."

Now I know that people could argue about the fine points of education forever much like churches argue about theology. We love to split into denominations: Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Baptist, Mennonite, Presbyterian, 5-point Calvinism, 4-point Calvinism, 2.5-point Calvinism, etc. 

We have educators who believe in standard based grading, rubrics, or no grading; homework, modified homework, or no homework; IWB's, clickers, laptops, IPads, cell-phones, 1:1, or limit technology; student-owned devices or school purchased; experimentation or research-based decisions; public schools, charters, TFA, or KIPP.

We struggle to define loaded terms and concepts such as Web 2.0, 21st Century skills, literacy, learning, purpose of schools, PLN, social learning.

But even with all of our differences I think that we could agree on some basic tenets of quality education at the Federal level and leave all of the rest to local districts to figure out in their communities. So here is my education platform:

  • Get rid of standardized tests
  • Get rid of NCLB and RTTT
  • Constructivist, student-centered learning
  • Re-write CIPA to give localities power to decide how and what to filter and to allow for the option of student-owned devices
  • Support technology integration in schools
  • Encouragement of cooperation and collaboration in schools
  • Focus on critical thinking and problem solving
Again what these look like in each district would be different, but wouldn't we all agree to these broad goals over NCLB and RTTT? So do you agree that we agree or am I assuming too much? Are there things you would add or subtract from this list?

How I laid out the square

Here goes my attempt at explaining how we laid out a square parallel to our school around a circle with diameter of 21'. I must confess that I did the math and started by having some students help me in class. I ended up having two students stay after school with me for about an hour to finish the layout.
First,I may have been unclear in the previous post but the circle already existed that the square needed to go around. So we measured 12' 6" off the building in two spots outside of the circle to establish the east line of the square parallel to the building. We put stakes in and ran a string line. Next we measured over 21' from that line to establish the west side of the square also parallel to the building. That was the easy part. The tricky part was finding the corners.

(The building is on the east side and west is up on this sketch)

Our reference points were the furthermost northern and southern points of the circle. These points are the midpoints of the north and south sides of the square. But how did we establish  another point to create a line that it is perpendicular to the east line? If you are thinking Pythagorean Theorem that is part of it, but how do you find the corner? You guess, of course. Mathematicians, in the real world sometimes you have to estimate.

We multiplied a 3-4-5 triangle by 3 to get the dimensions 9'-12'-15'. We measured 12' off from the east string in line with the midpoint. Then we held a string from the east string to the west string so that it barely touched the stake and we "eyeballed" it square with those lines. We marked the intersection between this string and the east string with a sharpie on the east string. We measured over from this mark 9' and put another mark on the east string. Next we measured from this mark to the stake (the hypotenuse) and it should have been 15'. Of course we guessed on our corner point so we were off one inch and it measured 15' 1".  We corrected this by shifting the corner and this point north 1". Now the hypotenuse measured exactly 15' and we put a stake in at the northeast corner.

Now it gets easier. We pulled a string from the established northeast corner to the west line so that it barely touched the stake at 12'. This allowed us a very good estimate of the northwest corner. Next we measured over 21' from both northern corners on our string lines to establish the two southern corners.

Our last step was to measure the diagonals which should be congruent. We ended up about an inch off so we double checked our overall dimensions and found one stake was leaning in so it was not quite 21'. We straightened it and our diagonals were within 1/2".

The next day we measured over 2' 6" from all four sides of our square and pulled lines to find their intersections which gave us the four corners of our outer square. I really do not think that this problem was solvable by my 8th grade class but I wish I would have taken the time to walk them all through it.I think it was a great opportunity to show my students that math does apply to real problems in blue-collar jobs not just at universities or in a lab somewhere.

PS If I was doing it over I would have just "picked" center point on the east line pulled off the building where it touched the circle. Then I could have measured 10' 6" both ways and established both of the east corners and used Pythagorean theorem to find perpendicular lines off from both corners. It would have been much easier :)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Wanted: learning lobbyist

Like many educators I am tired of NCLB and RTTT. I am tired of the hyper-testing attitude of this country and its politicians. I also feel like such a small voice as a teacher in a middle school in Michigan. Through Twitter and blogs I know that there are many, many educators out there who are trying to make a difference and create authentic learning experiences for kids with and with out technology.

One question I have had that re-surfaced in my mind today is why is it that none of the "ed-tech leaders" have any political power with Duncan, Obama, or any of the other politicians who are making these terrible policies. This is not a critique of any educators but a serious question of why no one is working the political channels for better policy decisions. Or maybe they are and I just don't know about it.

I consider the great minds that I learn from to not just be ed-tech leaders but the leaders in learning period. So what if we created a new lobby group. I know just the thought of it is sickening, but that is how this country works. What if everyone in our networks who believes in student-centered, problem-based, authentic learning using all tools available sponsored a lobbyist.

Now I know we have the NEA lobbyists and I believe in the need for a union. But the union is looking after teachers rights and benefits. We need a separate entity that focuses on what is the best educational policy for student learning.

It is not my intent to nominate a candidate for this position, but rather propose what they should look like. It should be someone who has been a teacher and an administrator. They need to be an established leader in education with a deep commitment to student centered learning. They also need some skills in communicating and networking. They should be a person who knows how to work with politicians and how to get things done in Washington D.C.

I think we need to get out of the echo chamber of our network and have someone represent us in the political fray. I got $20 a year to donate to this person. If we all did this we could afford to pay them a fair salary. So what do you think?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Student-owned Wi-Fi?

Lifehacker reports that the next version of Android operating system could contain "built-in USB tethering and Wi-Fi hotspot sharing." As an Android owner this is exciting, but what could be the future implications for schools? Obviously this will not be on everyone's phone overnight, but what about five -ten years from now?
Will this type of technology make cable connections obsolete?

Is paying to put Wi-Fi hotspots in school buildings also a waste of money?

Will schools allow students to use this technology or pay waste money on equipment to block the signals?

Will this help end the filtering debates and make CIPA irrelevant?

I think every school should be 1:1 with internet devices. Allowing student-owned devices is the cheapest way to achieve this. This kind of technology could also finally make internet access available to everyone at a reasonable cost and help level the educational playing field for all children. Or educators could get scared and reactionary and do whatever they can to prevent this technology from being implemented in schools. Hmmm....

Thanks to @ijohnpederson for pointing out the article.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The sixth sense

I have seen a TED talk on this before, but this one is even better. I like how Pranav explains his thinking and goals as he invented different devices.The applications that he demonstrates are so cool. The most incredible thing at the end is that he intends to make the software open source for the masses. I am going to show this to students to "wow" them and to challenge them to be innovative thinkers. It would also be a great for a writing topic about the future of technology.

"Vale a pena ficar de olho nesse blog"

"Vale a pena ficar de olho nesse blog" means "its worth keeping an eye on this blog." I was listed by whatedsaid as a blog to follow which I appreciate. Keeping the chain going (I hate e-mail chains and have never continued one, but this is promoting real blogs so...) I will give you ten blogs that I most look forward to reading on topics such as math, standard based grading, technology, and education policy. Common thread is honest writing and student-centered, project based learning.

Think, Thank, Thunk by Shawn Cornally. Read about math, physics, standard based grading, and student-centered learning instead of textbook centered. I would love to take his class.

Musings of a not so Master Teacher by John Spencer. An honest teacher who is continually evaluating everything in his life. John is not afraid to challenge popular ideas including technology use and immigration in his home state of Arizona.

The Tempered Radical by Bill Ferriter. Another honest writer who challenges education policy that he does not agree with.

Point of Inflection by Riley Lark. He uses computer programming to teach math.

Borderland by Doug Noon. He has really resonated with some of his evaluations of current ed. policy.

Sweeney Math by Matt Sweeney. I have learned some nice tips for teaching math such as the rainbow rule.

F(t) by Kate Nowak. A teacher who is really working hard to make math relevant and meaningful.

Questions? by David Cox. Really enjoy that this math blog is from a middle school math perspective.

Blogush by Paul Blogush. I like his views on how teaching and learning naturally occur.

The Fischbowl by Karl Fisch. This blog has focused on Karl's plans for teaching Algebra next year and he has been thinking out loud about his plans.

So check them out and give them some comment love. As a side I am interested in adding  more blogs that focus on problem-based ideas in middle school math such as David Cox's listed above to my Reader.  So if you have any excellent ones leave them in the comments.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Construct a square

My landscaping class has been full of interesting math. So I thought I would try my hand at a version of WCYDWT We created this outside garden space last year:

Unfortunately over the summer some vandalism left this:

So this year's landscaping class had the task of re-designing in Google Sketchup with the following goals/restrictions:

  • Design a concrete path using a maximum of 2 cubic yards of concrete
  • The thickness is 3"
  • All of the broken and whole tiles need to be embedded into it.
  • Width must be a minimum of 2' 6"
This open ended problem using a new tool (Sketchup) was very challenging for my 8th graders. We went outside, measured, and sketched the dimensions on graph paper. We then drew the school and existing landmarks in 2D using the tape measure too in Sketchup to make our model exact. Then the students drew their ideas for creating a new space. Their first attempts were much too large. We spent the next day figuring out the maximum square footage for two cubic yards of concrete (I did not plan this out well enough and I ended up doing most of the work-too helpful). Then they re-drew. I then tried to get the students to find an approximate area of their designs by breaking them into estimated rectangles (Again I should have planned better and been more clear in my expectations). This was the winning design:

(Not my favorite, others were a bit more creative/artistic, but I wanted to give the students the right to pick)

The next day we went outside to stake it out. So how would you "construct" a square that is parallel to the building around an inscribed circle with a diameter of 21' ? Remember you are not drawing it, but actually staking out the four corners. Give me your solution and is this problem accessible to the average 8th grader?

My solution in the next post.

Spoiler alert: I was way too "helpful." Unfortunately that is a theme of this project but that does not mean you can not learn from it. In my defense I had a different half of my class for multiple days due to the non-stop pullouts for Earth Day movie, Relay for Life, a trip to Michigan State University, students planting trees, chicken pox, suspensions, etc. and I need to get to the digging and building phase before we run out of days in the school year.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Accelerated Reader

I have read many tweets about AR lately and thought I would share my family's experience with it. My son Luke is in second grade and loves reading. This has not always been the case. He started AR in first grade and went from enjoying reading books with me as a toddler to being forced to read stories to me. I blindly followed the advice of his teacher to have him read each book twice each night. It turned into a power struggle between us and he hated it. The books were boring and mostly non-fiction nonsense about eating fruit and vegetables or brushing your teeth or something. He always choose the shortest, easiest books he could find.

Luke made his goals, but hated every minute of it. I partially blame AR, but also myself for pushing too hard. I think he would rather of had me still read interesting stories to him than reading himself. About half way through the year I backed off and Luke read less, but still met his goals. Over the summer he read some but not really that much.

Now in second grade (and still in AR), I continued to not push him to read and he has now taken off.
He reads all of the time. 
He reads fiction that he loves and chooses books above his level. 
Every night he reads for around a half hour before going to bed. 
Last weekend I woke up to him reading a story to his sister. 
He has trouble getting ready for school because he gets up and starts reading instead of getting ready.
And the other day he told me "I love reading."

These things have been music to my ears. Again I can not place all of the blame on AR, but it is definitely a "system" set up to push kids in reading with artificial rewards. There is nothing about AR that was positive or helpful for helping my son learn to read. I think reading is best learned naturally when a child is ready by reading to your child until they are willing to read themselves. Then all that is needed is exposure to lots of interesting books and stories.

I am not a literacy expert by any means but this natural, common sense approach seems the best route to me. What do you think?