Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Crowdsourcing Collaboration Ideas

I am presenting on our classes' Scratch collaboration with Gary Bertoia's class in Vietnam at MACUL in March. I would like the presentation to focus on how to have a successful collaboration and not just on what we did. A resource that I thought would be useful to participants is a spreadsheet of ideas from other teachers. So if you have done some kind of collaboration with another classroom please share your project in this form. If you know someone else who has done something interesting please share this post with them also. Thanks for sharing!

Here is the link to see what everyone has shared

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Wave videos

by Today is a Good Day
7th graders in my Tech. class are making videos. I am working with the science teachers in my building on this project. Each pair of students has picked a sub-topic under "Waves" which they are studying in science right now. They are making 2-4 minute videos to present back to their science classes.

The first task was for them to brainstorm by making powerpoint slides for each section of their videos. Although I showed some similar videos from mathtrain to give them ideas the students had a hard time understanding what I was asking them to do. I was throwing a lot of new stuff at them as I gave them multiple tools to use (my wikipage of resource for the students). We have Camtasia Studio 7 on all of the computers in my lab thanks to a great grant from TechSmith. So the students will put their end product together in Camtasia.But they have many options to make it with including screencasts of PowerPoint, my Pulse pen, online whiteboard, webcam, microphones, music, and even Stykz. I encouraged students to use multiple methods of presenting which they will combine in Camstasia. I will write more about some of these tools after students finish, but I will just mention the online whiteboard is a very nice tool that students can email to each other and both write on the same space at the same time.

We have used this opportunity to talk a lot about creative commons and open source. This topic is very foreign to them. For their entire school career they have gotten full credit for plagiarizing from their textbook by "cutting and pasting" the answers to the questions at the end of the chapter. Then teachers get mad at them when they do the same thing on-line. We spent considerable time talking about copyright and the rights of artists. I also demonstrated repeatedly how to use tools like and Flickrstorm to search Flickr for creative commons images. But Flickr is not a good source of pictures about many of the types of waves they were researching so I also taught them how to do a creative commons search in Google and used and wikimedia commons which have more scientific images.

We also talked about slide design in Powerpoint. I showed them how to make a set of slides based on interesting pictures instead of text-heavy with bullet points, clip art, or animations. All of this took much longer to get started actually making the videos than I anticipated, but I think we have learned about many important principles along the way. This week they will get busy making them and hopefully have some great presentations by the end of the week.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Scratch Revamped

This is the second year of a collaboration between Gary Bertoia 's South Saigon International School in Vietnam and my classroom. Again the students are working in pairs and designing their own video games using Scratch. Last year we tried this with some bumps in the road.

So we are trying a few new things this year. First of all I have some new tools. This year I am piloting Google Apps at the middle school for my district whereas Gary's class already had them last year. Also our filter has been opened up which was a problem last year as my students had trouble downloading the game files. This has made the project much easier.

Next we had the students make introduction videos so they could get to know each other. They are posted on the blog we are using so students can view them. Hopefully we will get a chance to make more videos as we progress, but it feels like we are under time pressure to finish.

Problems that I am starting to notice is that it is a huge jump for the students to move from creating games from step by step powepoint instructions to designing their own game from "scratch." The instruction games were for students to learn how the program works, but it seems to be difficult for most of them to translate what they have "learned" to a new situation. I am thinking about how I can facilitate this transition. We are really just getting started so if you have any great suggestions let me know.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Why I don't like teaching technology class

I have a philosophical beef with "Technology Class" because I feel that technology should be used appropriately in all classes rather than as a stand alone. Truth be told I would like to get rid of all "classes" and "integrate" all classes into each other not just technology.

But I defeat this philosophical problem by trying to make my class project-based integrating all other classes into mine as much as possible. Therefore students do not spend every class in front of a screen, but also build and create things. In the process they write, calculate, research, collaborate, and present. In many ways I think this approach could be a model for how to set up a whole school. Now I do not always do all of these things with every class and I do not always go as deep as I would like either. Which leads me to the title of this post ...

I do not like teaching technology class because it is a nine week class at my school. At the end of every quarter we wrap it up, ship 'em out, and bring in a new group the following week. I find it difficult to teach using many tools/methods I would like. For example blogging and Google Docs. It takes a lot of time to set up the accounts and show how to use them properly. By the time students are really getting the hang of them my class is over. Also if I want to have a long-term collaboration with another school it is not enough time to really invest in the relationships.

Last year I got to teach one 8th grade section for a whole semester and it was great. Unfortunately there were a lot of scheduling issues and my class went back to quarters this year. Which leads to the other reason I do not like my nine week class. It is hard to get to know students and build relationships with them. I feel like I am just getting to know my students and they are gone. A few drop by to say "hi" from time to time, but my classroom is isolated in one corner of the building away from almost all of their other classes so I may not even see most of them in passing for weeks.

So when I read other people post about long-term projects and building relationships with their students, I get a little jealous. The best I get is to have the same student for one quarter for three years in a row. How do other teachers with constant "shift changes" build long-term relationships with students?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why I (often) don't sing in church

I enjoy the music/singing at my church very much but I have noticed lately that I rarely sing with the rest of the folks there. I remember as a young person my Sunday school teacher telling me she does not like to sing, but to listen and mediate. I guess that was the first time I realized that it was ok not to sing. My parents always sang every word to every song. What I have come to realize is that part of what makes Sunday morning sacred to me is the opportunity to meditate. By meditate I do not really mean some "religious" practice. Most of the time I am thinking about my life and relationships: school and my family. I NEED this time in my life.

Last weekend I was in a bad mood. Can't really determine why but I was definitely ornery most of the weekend. Singing time at church gave me the opportunity to reflect on my poor attitude and why. I did not really figure out why, but was able to stop and try to make the choice to change. Besides the sermon included Star Wars clips and this video as illustrations:

What I have come to realize in the busyness of life is that I require quiet time to think about life. Otherwise I get caught up in lists and tasks and accomplishments. I am the type of person who feels satisfaction when something is finished. Sometimes I get too caught up in "doing" instead of just "being." Sometimes I am more concerned with getting "things" done than my relationships with people. I need time to stop and re-focus on priorities instead of my Google task list.

When my life becomes too busy, I feel stressed. If I am not checking things off my list, I feel stressed. If I take the time to reflect and then I relax and focus on my real priorities. I believe this is why I was ornery-I needed some down time to think. I also think this is my most of my blogging is done on Sundays or holidays. My regular school week does not have time in it for reflection and that is really too bad.

Friday, November 26, 2010

My Lottery in Life

This past week I watched God Grew Tired of Us about the "Lost Boys" of Sudan relocating to the United States. I also read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini which tells the stories of refugees in Afghanistan. (By the way I highly recommend them both). So I was already entering Thanksgiving time reflecting on how fortunate I am and lucky to be born in this country and time rather than somewhere else in history. I fully realize it did not have to be this way. (Try the lottery of life to show students this).

Yesterday I had a long conversation with my cousin and his wife. They live in Haiti, not just dropped in after the earthquake, but have lived there for years (they blog about their life here). He is a horticulturist and tries to find drought, insect, and disease resistant plants to grow in Haiti's harsh climate and poor soil. His wife is a doctor who works at a clinic and trains Haitians in medical care. They are offering sustainable help that will last years after they are gone. His wife has just finished writing a book about health, basic first aid, and personal hygiene.

She explained how Haiti has more aid organizations in it than any other country in the world, but to little effect. She also recommend the book When Helping Hurts to explain a better way to help the country. I was reminded of this Ted talk that compared the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and explained how Chile had very few deaths even though their quake was much stronger.

So I have found myself reflecting on how fortunate I am to live in the time and place that I do. I love history and am fascinated by many time periods and especially the cultures there but would not want to live in any time but the present. I have so many blessings starting with my family and including my home, food, clothing, secure job, health insurance, and friends. I also have the opportunity to study and learn about anything I choose. Lastly I am thankful that I have the opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Real Reform Goes Backwards

I for one am tired about hearing about broken public schools. Are they perfect, of course not. Neither is any other human institution. But what really disturbs me is that the people who want to "fix" public education have the worst ideas ever. They want to make schools more like business and hire head-hunters (superintendents) to fire the bad employees (teachers). Then the head-hunters move on to work for Fox news or some think tank. These people do not truly care about children but about money. Therefore their goals are to get rid of the evil unions that protect teachers' benefits so they can hire cheaper teachers (outsource them just like the manufacturing industry in this country). Standardization measured by tests is the magic cure!

The problem is that schools are not factories and should not be treated like them. And most importantly students are not widgets that can be taught by anyone using the same script. These reforms disrespect both teachers and students by treating them as all the same. Just put the student in the proper machine (program) and out they pop at the end- educated (able to pass standardized tests). But students need relationships to grow and learn. Schools should be more like families than factories.

I think real reform starts by going backwards to a "classic" liberal arts education. In Ancient Greece students were discipled by the master as part of a community. Relationships were an important part of education. They learned by asking questions. They studied logic, poetry, geometry, and exercised all as one experience. They were not divided by age and subjects were not compartmentalized. There was not classwork and homework. All of life was learning, one integrated experience.

By caribb

Students today need to be given time to think, deeply. They need to play, ask questions, discover, solve real problems, and discuss. They do not need to memorize facts for tests. They need to think critically from multiple points of view. Students need to be given choice in what to learn and how to do it. Schools need more individualization and less standardization.

What can we learn from the Ancients? That living is learning and relationships matter. We need less federal bureaucracy and more local control. We need schools that look different because the communities they serve are unique. If we truly teach students to think and learn on their own and in community with each other they will do amazing things. We need science, math, and arts all mixed together. I believe that we should give students freedom to be creative and to engage in ideas with each other. We should scrap textbooks (this form of standardization has dominated even longer than the state and national tests). We should teach from real world problems and current events (we have plenty of them to choose from). Students should engage in real questions and work for real solutions. We should use hammers, nails, wood, computers, dirt, flowers, paper, cell phones, microscopes, cameras, and animals. Students should perform labs where the teacher does not know the answer. Students should study current events and then research the history to understand why things are as they are now. Students should use math to calculate solutions to world poverty, lack of clean water, and adequate food.

So what is the role of the teacher in all of this? To guide the learner and challenge them with new ideas and experiences. Most students are not self-motivate learners by themselves (because schools have bored this out of them); they will need mentors and guides to show them how to learn and to challenge them with new ideas. Master learners (teachers) should create fascinating learning opportunities as starting points and then encourage students as they pursue deeper concepts. Too many teachers use curriculum, standards, and textbooks as a crutch and rarely present students with authentic learning. Real reform happens when we abandon the pre-packaged education being sold by textbook companies and start the adventure of giving students great learning experiences.

So what's your excuse? Reject standardization now. You may not be able to change the structure of your school schedule or the the architecture of the building, but you can change the way your classroom works. Don't know how to start? Start by talking to your students. Find out where their interests are and build from there. Start by talking about the news and the issues in the world. Ask students what they can do about it. Put away the textbooks and engage with your learners. You might be surprised by where you end up.

Monday, November 8, 2010


Still thinking about passion as a major part of student learning. I have a lot of rambling thoughts in my brain right now and this is my attempt to organize them a bit so help me out where it does not make sense.
One thing that has me thinking about passion is the path of my life-long learning. I was an excellent student and great at "playing the game" of school. I knew how to listen, read, take notes, and pass tests. I was also convinced at the time that I was "smarter" than most people. This was a major part of my adolescent identity. I now look back and see that I was just better at playing the game than others, and lacked many problem-solving skills.

By Robert Hruzek
After I returned to the US from teaching English in China, I started working for the largest commercial concrete construction company in our area. My skill level was mostly as a laborer in residential concrete. I had a foreman who became my mentor and trained me to be a legitimate concrete finisher. After that I watched others being trained. The difference I saw between myself and some of them was that I did not naturally figure out how to finish concrete. I needed to be taught directly just like in school. I saw other guys who experimented and figured it out on their own. I began to recognize a skill set that they had toward problem-solving that I lacked. It was a standing joke that I asked questions about everything, especially "why." But eventually I became an expert at knowing what to do after I understood the reasoning behind things.

The other thing I have been thinking about are my "strengths" and "weaknesses." In school, I was a math/science kid. I hated English (writing) and thought history was a waste of time. In college I had to take one philosophy class and saved it for my senior year because I knew I would hate something so impractical. When I finally took philosophy I loved the class and wished I had minored in it. I decided to become a teacher when I returned from China. I loved learning about the culture and history of China so I majored in history. This year on the National Day of Writing I wrote for "fun" for the first time in my life by my own choice.

So I would have never chosen philosophy as a passion until I experienced an actual class in it. I don't think I would have ever chosen writing or history in high school either. I needed to mature and have more life experiences for when I was ready to learn these topics.

Maybe the key is I know how to learn and how to access learning. I can now learn anything that I want to because the tools are easily accessible. Maybe the key to schools should be teaching how to learn and exposing kids to as many learning opportunities as possible and let them run with the ones that are most interesting to them at the time and trust the future for them to learn about the "standards" that they might miss while they are pursuing their passions.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Alchemist and Louis L'Amour

By Alexandre Baron
Last weekend I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho for the first time. Yes, I know it is not new by any means and I would guess that many of you have read it long ago. There are many layers that one can read into the story but I would like to point out two that struck me.

I think most people would say that the overall theme of the story is pursuing one's passions and dreams. The obvious question to me is "do we allow space in schools for pursuing dreams?" It seems to me that we are too busy covering curriculum and meeting standards. I am sure that I have said it before, but I hate standardization. The reason is that standardization drowns out passion and crowds out dreams.

The thing that struck me most about the book was about the channels of learning in the book. Santiago learns in many ways: reading, from experts (the king Melchizedek, the gypsy, the crystal shop owner, the Englishman, the leader of their desert caravan, and finally the Alchemist), from experiences, from following his heart, but most of all from nature. He learns from watching his sheep and camels. He learns from the desert. Contrast Santiago to the Englishman who primarily learns from books. I think the Englishman represents Western text-based learning whereas Santiago is a more ancient, Eastern, holistic learning from nature. Santiago learns by living life and observing life and nature everywhere. Western schools need to be more like Santiago.

Santiago also reminds me of my favorite childhood author, Louis L'Amour. He was a western writer and I loved his stories. In his memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, L'Amour details his "education." Much like Santiago he left home when he was 15 and explored the world. He had jobs as a boxer, sailor, lumberjack, elephant handler in a circus, skinner of dead cattle, assessment miner, a tourist guide in Egypt, and a tank officer during World War II. He sailed the world and was shipwrecked in the West Indies. The other thing that L'Amour did was read-all of the time. Let me share some quotes from his memoir:

This is a story of an adventure in education, pursued not under the best of conditions. The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library, a post office. or even a newsstand...

Somewhere along the line I had fallen in love with learning, and it became a lifelong romance...

this book is about education, but not education in the accepted sense. No man or woman had a greater appreciation for schools than I, although few have spent less time in them. No matter how much I admire our schools, I know that no university exists that can provide an education; what a university can provide is an outline, to give the learner a direction and guidance. The rest one has to do for oneself.
If I asked what education should give, I would say it should offer a breadth of view, ease of understanding, tolerance for others, and a background from which the mind can explore in any direction.
Education should provide the tools for widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It should equip a person to live life well, to understand what is happening about him, for to live life well one must live with awareness...We can only hope they come upon an issue they wish to pursue.

By Sandy Redding

To me this is another example of how all of our ideas to "change" education are really not new. Leading thinkers understood this years ago before computers even existed. I can't help but think that L'Amour would find even less use for schools as they still exist today with the easy access to knowledge through the internet. Lous L'Amour was a self-made man in many ways, but he understood that learning is available for anyone who passionately pursues it.

My favorite quote is his reasoning for dropping out of school and leaving home: I left for two reasons, economic necessity being the first of them. More important was that school was interfering with my education.

He goes on to explain how the factory model of school would not let him skip basic classes and take higher classes that he was more interested in. So he dropped out and pursued his own learning. He later says, that dropping out is a good option only for those who are willing to read hundreds of books on their own. Certainly does not seem to be watering down learning, does he?

How can we create a climate that encourages students to dream and pursue passions rather than "interfere with their education?"

PS: I was very surprised to hear my pastor tell this story to close his message today. It sounds to me like "The Alchemist" used this as the basis of its plot.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ode to Concrete

Note this post is for the National Day of Writing. It is being submitted to Bud Hunt's gallery in the National Gallery of Writing.   It has nothing to do with education or technology or does it ....
my school sidewalk
Ode to Concrete

To most people concrete is grey, cold, sterile, and under their feet. It is hard, rough, practical, taken for granted, and ugly.
To me concrete is the greatest material in the world. It is the ultimate in tensions.

from Andrew Carr
Concrete is natural. It is aggregate(sand and stone), cement, and water. It is earth. It was invented by the Romans and it is the only thing left from the ancient world not built of stone.
Concrete is technology. It is man-made and full of chemicals: fly ash, water reducers, superplasticizers, accelerators, and retarders. There are complicated mix designs for innumerable applications. It is chemistry and science at its finest. There is even translucent concrete now.

Concrete is hard. It is sidewalk that scratches knees.

Concrete is soft. It is like pancake batter or chunky soup when mixed. It changes form. It is fluid and then very solid. It is a shape-shifter that adapts to any container. It can be formed, molded, carved, or engraved.

Concrete is strong. It is
walls that hold back earth, foundations that hold up massive skyscrapers, and bridges that hold thousands of cars.

Concrete is weak. It shifts in cold climates and always cracks. It requires steel inside for tensile strength. When designed and placed improperly it crumbles under earthquakes and kills thousands.

Concrete is ugly. It stands for industrialism and urban landscapes that are bleak with no life: the concrete jungle.

Concrete is beautiful.
It can be formed, molded, carved, engraved, ground, polished, and stained. It can be personalized with embedded objects. It is my art and I love it for its flaws and imperfections.
Concrete is a lot like me.

PS Here is a slideshow of some of my concrete art.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

No one is "Waiting for Superman"

No one knows about or cares about Waiting for Superman Really.

I have not seen the movie, but have read many blogposts and newspaper reviews about it. I feel fed up with the negative portrayal of teachers just like many others. But does it really matter?

Very few people are going to see this movie or even know about it. Probably more people saw the "commercial" for it on Oprah than will actually see the movie. Jackass 3-D was the number one movie this past weekend and Superman fell two places to 18th on the list of movies viewed.
With just over 2.5 million in total sales at $10 a ticket that is only 250,000 people. If we double that to half a million people to count for free viewings and cheaper tickets (I am being overly generous here) that is around 1 out of every 700 Americans.

Try this quick quiz with some people you know in real life:
  1. What is Waiting for Superman?
  2. Tell me everything you know about it.
  3. Who is Michelle Rhee?
  4. Tell me everything you know about her.
  5. Who is Joe Klein/Geoffrey Canada/fill in your favorite "reformer" here?
  6. Tell me everything you know about them.
You can add any fun questions you want to this list. Ask your spouse, neighbors, or friends. I am willing to bet you will get responses like this:

Now ask your colleagues at school. Did you get better answers? Again I bet probably not. So if no one watches Superman and no one knows about it then how dangerous is it really? I think for the average American it is as important as this is.

PS: Of course, I know that it matters that we debate this stuff at many levels, but I think edubloggers are over reacting at the effect of this movie on the average American.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


So Binary Day is a cool day. It is a lucky day to the Chinese to get married. Why not have a baby?

You may have to click to my post to see the video. It is not showing up in my Google Reader.

Turns out locally (story) that one couple has had a baby each of the last three years. The birthdays are 08-08-08, 09-09-09, and now 10-10-10. An interesting story and the first thought I had are what are the odds of that?

I think this leads into an interesting problem/ discussion. I would ask students: "How random was this or do you think that they cheated?" Students could decide if they were "aiming" for these dates and if this is a truly "random" problem.

What do you think? Is this worthy question for your class and how would you use it?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Get rich or die tryin'

I found this fun lottery simulator from a tweet from unklar.

I thought it would be useful for a probability lesson. How would you use it?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Art Prize

Today my family visited the second annual Art Prize, a huge art competition displayed all over Grand Rapids. The art is displayed both inside and outside of buildings all around downtown and anyone who registers can vote for their favorite pieces, American Idol style. There were many incredibly creative pieces and it was a lot of fun to explore and find them. Some of my kids' favorites were the interactive ones that they could touch such as this sweet harp that "plays" based on sonar detection of sound waves or one of the many pianos randomly placed around the city.

We started the day parked in front of the Waters Building, a historic spot downtown. We arrived before the "official" start of Art Prize and wandered off to look at some of the outdoor exhibits. At the end of our day when we returned to our van there was a sign indicating that there were art entries inside. We went in and looked at the exhibits. Many were in small rooms off from a main hallway. We found this exhibit of hundreds of ceramic pieces that look like shells on a wood floor.

 My son immediately joined some other kids who were playing with the "rocks."

My daughter made her name with them, but my son started sorting out by color into ones that he liked the best.

I couldn't help but think about learning. I didn't have to tell my kids, "Go play with this art." I did not have to give them any instructions. They automatically started doing learning on their own. It is human nature to perform math-sort and organize- and to be creative and spell.

What if we used kids curiosity more in schools? I have been practicing spelling words with my son for two weeks. He does not like it and I think I hate it even more. What if I gave him a bunch of objects and had him "spell" his words? Would he "learn" them faster and better?

What if social studies showed a students a tool like How Big Really? and let students explore landmarks? Would students learn geography better? Would it lead to questions such as why was the Great Wall of China built?

What if history class started with today and went backwards? What if class started with current events and then would students ask how things got they way they are today?

I love the science class that I have with my son whether it is building a raft , walking in the woods, or picking vegetables from our garden. Science teachers who throw away the scripted labs "get" what learning looks like.

What if we skyped with students from other countries and then we taught students how to write letters? What if we studied the world's problems and used that knowledge for social action?

What if math "happened" when students needed it to solve one of the many questions these explorations would lead to?

What if Language Arts was sharing all of these amazing experiences with the world through writing, blogging, videos, and podcasts?

We don't need to teach students to be creative artists. We need to get out of the way and let them be artists!

I really think the "unschooling" movement has some very valid points of letting students play and learn at their own pace and in their own way. Maybe the definition of a teacher should be someone who creates wonderful learning opportunities and environments (read not scripted!) and lets kids decide what to learn in them.

I think one of the major problems with education today is that we do not trust students to learn. We then feel the need to control, force, and coerce them to "learn" what who knows who from who knows where decided are the "standards" for grade X.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sustained Silent Reading On-line

Every day during first hour at my school we have sustained silent reading except we call it GRAB for Go Read A Book. Each teacher with a first hour has a box of thirty books that students can choose from or students can bring in their own materials including books, magazines, or comics. As research shows (so I have heard, I don't have a source. It is one of those things that I have heard repeated so many times that it must be true:) reading ability will improve by this daily practice and it does not matter what is being read as long as it is at a student's level.

by Lessio
This year I am trying something new. I am allowing students in my class to read on the computer. I have put up a link to my Delicious bookmarks to free on-line books but I do not think most of them are reading from it. My rules are no games, music, or videos, but everything else is fair game. What I have observed students reading so far are comics and sites such as MTV or ESPN. 

I have also created a class diigo account so that students can bookmark and share their reading with each other. They have not used them too much so far but it has only been a few days.

I know that there has been some research lately about the effects of on-line activities and attention spans and some posts in other blogs (like here). 

I would appreciate any feedback positive or negative about what you think about this approach. I am pretty sure there is no research on this specific practice and am trying it out because it "feels" like the right thing to me, but I am interested constructive criticism.

So my question for readers is this: Do you think this is an effective way to increase reading fluency? 

PS: A quick survey of my class this morning and I have 4 students reading traditional books or magazines, 7 reading on-line books and comics through Google books, and 3 reading on-line news such as sports or entertainment. I think that is sweet!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Results of Math Icebreaker

Normally I start off the year with a boring going over the rules/syllabus the first day. I decided not to torture the students this year but to start with a hands on activity. So I tried the making the rectangle activity on the first day with my two 8th grade technology classes. By the way I changed it into a theme for a complete geometry unit if you are interested. I also made a chart for students to fill in with their data.

The students were interested in the pictures. They really had no idea about the construction processes. When we went outside most of the students immediately made the mistake of confusing area for perimeter. I asked lots of questions to re-direct them and to get them to re-think about the difference. Then the groups staked out quadrilaterals, some more square than others. One of my favorite parts was watching a student lay down on the ground to estimate six feet instead of using the tape measure. I challenged them to consider if their shape was a "perfect" rectangle.

At the end of the hour the students measured the sides and the diagonals. I had to go to each group and help with this. At first every group just wrote down the measurements that they thought they had measured. I told them that they must measure what their sides actually were and write down their imperfect measurements not what they meant them to be.

The next day we discussed how to determine whose was the best rectangle. We ended up having to define a rectangle which was a good activity for the students. I then showed them how the diagonals of a true rectangle are congruent and we talked about Pythagorean Theorem. I then showed them this video of an area proof:

We then talked about 3-4-5 triangles and I had students come to the front of the room and create a perfect 90 degree corner by holding three tape measures at 3,4, and 5 feet.

I was disappointed in the student's prior knowledge about the Pythagorean Theorem. None of them had heard of it even though a few of them had Algebra last year. I will repeat this on the first day of my class for the next three quarters. I will be curious to see if students do better later in the year after they have been exposed to more background knowledge in math class.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Math Icebreaker

Lots of teachers use icebreakers to start off the year. I use some with mixed results. Sometimes I feel like they are a waste of time. I like group problem-solving activities better than "find someone with the same birthday month as you" type.  Well I had an idea for a way to start off this year at my construction job this week.This idea is in the WCYDWT philosophy but is more hands on than video based. I also spell out the problem as a challenge.

At my job we are forming walls on a funky house right now. It is two rectangles crossed in an X. The angle of the intersection is 60 degrees. It was not laid out by surveyors so we had to set stakes to find the exact dimensions and angles. It was quite a challenge. (I had to laugh when the homeowner, a computer programmer, pulled out his compass app on his iPhone 4 to check our pins. He also wanted the main part of the house parallel to a fence row 300 feet away with hills and trees in between.)

So my "icebreaker" is to give groups of students six wooden stakes, a tape measure, and a hammer. I will also allow them to use calculators, textbooks, and perhaps their phones as resources. The problem is for them to lay out a perfect rectangle with an area of 48 square feet.

I like this problem because it is cooperative, real world, outside, hands-on, and has multiple ways to solve it. I picked 48 square feet because students can use a 6-8-10 (3-4-5) triangle to find 90 degrees. They also can check the diagonals for congruency to find out if it is square. Students can also just use trial and error to try to make their rectangles better.

I see this as a 9th grade level or higher problem. It allows for review of Pythagorean Theorem and properties of rectangles. Of course discussion of different solution strategies and how to "prove" a rectangle is perfect at the end are a critical part of making this activity successful.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I'm still alive....

It's been awhile since I wrote here. I am not intentionally leaving this space, but in summer I work concrete construction which keeps me very busy. I am so busy with work and trying to keep up with things around my home that I have little time to write and not even as much time to reflect as I would like. Here are some pics of some jobs we have done:
Insulated concrete forms (ICF's) for walls for a Family Dollar Store

Large house with all exterior walls ICF's

Pour day

Large cotttage that is lifted and we poured an ICF basement underneath

All of these jobs except the house in the second picture have been out of town. I have been working long days in the heat, staying in hotels, and missing my family. I mention all of this to remind us as educators why the public thinks our job is easy. For many blue-collar workers who work hard every day just to get by, having "three months off" is inconceivable. 

Now I realize that most of you are doing many school related things all summer such as working other jobs, planning, taking classes, and attending conferences. I would never say that teaching is anything but hard, stressful work (but also rewarding) and that we work many unpaid hours. But it is important to remember the perspective of others especially in down economic times that we are in and not take for granted or flaunt the "perks" of teaching.

So enjoy your summer, learn as much as you can, give back as much as you can, and re-charge your batteries for a great school year.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Garbage Warrior

I watched the documentary Garbage Warrior this week. It is about architect Michael Reynolds who builds "earthships" in the New Mexico desert. These homes are built from used tires and pop bottles. They are completely self-sufficient with their own power, water source, heating and sewer systems. The movie documents his beginnings and his fights with government regulations to allow him to continue his work.
He started by constructing experimental buildings with trial and error experiments. Not everything worked correctly at first.

You can sense his passion for his early work:
"We couldn't worry about what it would look like we just wanted it to work. Everything was striking intense the whole time. People would come out here and they never wanted to leave. It was a time of magic."

But as he started to become known the local government sought to shut him down for his unorthodox methods. One of his workers/friend said:
"The powers that be in the architectural world, and in the planning world,can't see any other way than the way that got established. There is only one way to be an architect."

Shauna Malloy, Attorney for the State Architects Board says,"Standardized design in construction is so important because it means safety."

There are many parallels to education in this film. The government regulators and politicians could only see the way things have always been done. Architects (educators and students) must do things the way that they have always been done according to the codes (core standards) and must have inspectors check that they meet "standards."  Even most of the vocabulary is exactly the same!

So he was shut down by the local government for a few years. He then worked for years and became a legal subdivision. He was now legal but not happy:

"For a period of time there I was not exploring, I was not evolving.I was taking what I had learned to that date and keying it in to convention as clearly and legally and straight forward as I could to try and not make any waves. Just do something that they could relate to for a few years and get stable with the powers that be."

His wife says,
"We lost this ability to dream an idea and do it the next day."

His friend adds,
"He lost the right to experiment and create new buildings and innovations on the buildings.You got to be able to make mistakes. Otherwise you never evolve housing type. So that's what the rest of the country is. They're still stuck in the same housing as they were in World War II or World War I. It's the same exact housing. Everybody's so stressed about getting sued for a single mistake that there is no evolution of design."

"I had lost the freedom to fail."

Sometimes we need to reject the "safety" of standardization to challenge students to be creative. In order to make new designs architects (educators) and builders (students) need to work hand in hand to creatively experiment with new ideas. And yes, failure is part of the process. But when Michael was forced to bow to the codes (standardized curriculum), he lost his passion and creativity. How many students can not find their passion or creativity at school because of restrictive, standardized tests and curriculum? How many students sit and listen to traditional architects who design the same way that has been done for years creating bland sub divisions that all look the same? I think students would much rather take some risks with a lead learner like Mike Reynolds who is modeling his learning with his "students."

It is also obvious in the film the sense of community among Reynolds workers. They are closer than family. Another intangible (not testable) trait that we desire to teach our students.

So Reynolds tries to get the state to pass a law creating a space for experimental housing without building codes. It fails because of politics. After the tsunami in 2004, he and his team head to an island in India to teach them how to build earthships that are cheap and reliable.

Michael in India after tsunami:
"They whole heartedly jumped on the fact that this may be a way to keep them  cool and get them shelter and get them water and treat sewage.  There were no barriers. You go to a situation that's been devastated and the barriers are gone."

"When you see how open people are immediately after a disaster. There is a real difference in the people and the opportunity here and the people and opportunity in the West."

I think many (but not all!) of the most creative education ideas are happening outside of regular public schools. They are happening in charters, private schools, and international schools. These schools have less restrictions and more opportunity to experiment and yes fail at times. I hope that public schools in the USA will be given the freedom and will move to creative environments before an educational tsunami hits.

PS: Thanks to Shelly Blake Plock aka TeachPaperless for recommending the movie many moons ago.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

End of keyboards and typing class?

This app is not new, but it is new to me. I just got the free download for Swype on my Droid. Now I do not even have a plan for texting because my fingers are so big that I never text. It is difficult for me to just type tweets on my phone. So when I tried this I thought it was great. It does not require precision, but works great! Check out the video to see how it works:

Now my thoughts quickly returned to my senior year in high school when I took one semester of typing class. I learned the basics and could only type around 25 words/minute. It was a year long class but I dropped it second semester to take weightlifting instead. My typing teacher was not happy with me, but I figured I could always practice more on my own time. Turns out maybe I won't need typing skills at all soon.

I know typing is now taught in elementary schools, but will we get to a point where traditional keyboards are obsolete? With the love being given to the Ipad how long is it before all keyboards are virtual, and programs like Swype are so much better than typing. Of course what I need is a reliable speech to text app.

So are we wasting time in elementary school teaching typing? Schools of course will be the last to notice as they are still worried about teaching cursive.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Girls in Technology

I just finished a nine-week, 7th grade technology class. It was a great bunch of kids. They experimented with straw rockets, constructed polygons in Geometer's Sketchpad,made pneumatic-powered devices, created egg drop vehicles, experimented with Lego Robotics, designed with Building Homes of Our Own, and ended with a GPS unit.

Often times my tech. classes are dominated by boys, but this class was about 50/50. In particular I had a group of girls who are model students as far as behavior and honor roll grades. They did every assignment with great attitudes. But when I asked the students at the end of the quarter about what their favorite and least favorite part of the class was,they did not like anything that we did. I got lots of "boring" comments. Now some of this could be chalked up to the end of the year, I just want to be out of here feelings, but it does bother me that my class seems to be loved by boys and only tolerated by girls. This is not the first time that I have received this kind of feedback from female students.

So what can I do differently? How can I get more girls (there are some who like my class) excited about technology, science, and engineering? Do I need a different kind of project or a different approach to my current ones?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Geocaching and graphing

I did a mini-unit with my 7th grade technology class this week using GPS devices. First we reviewed latitude and longitude and I went over how to use the devices. I have a set of 12 low end Magellan GPS units so the students worked in pairs. Then we went outside and I made sure everyone had signal and that the units were working properly. I then had the students walk around our parking lot and write down the seconds of the coordinates every 10 feet or so in this table. We only wrote down the seconds because it was a small enough area that the minutes and degrees never changed.

The next day the students typed the seconds into two columns in Excel and made a line graph. If they did a careful job the graphs turned out very realistic. If their graphs looked bad it was usually from one or two points being way off. We "fixed" the numbers by changing them to numbers nearby for a best fit, and the graphs looked much better. In the past I had students map out the perimeter of our school. This did not work as well because the building blocked signal from the satellites and we got inaccurate readings.

The third day (our last real day of class) I hide a couple of pieces of candy in 10-12 spots around the school grounds. I had students bring out a pencil, paper, clipboard, and their GPS. After everyone's device had a good signal I gave them one set of coordinates and they took off to find the loot. It is important to only give one set of coordinates at a time otherwise some students run ahead and find all of the caches before everyone else (previous years experience). After someone found one I would give everyone the next set of coordinates. The kids had fun and if I would have had more time it could be tied even more into graphing on the coordinate plane.

In previous years I have taken students on a "walking field trip" and we left school property to find some real caches in our neighborhood. That was a lot of fun also, but required me to get permission slips which I did not feel like dealing with this late in the year. Local caches are easy to find at  Sign up for a free account and you can search for them. I also like to use this site to show students how far apart degrees are and what confluence is.

One other mini discussion we have is how a GPS works. I ask them if they think a GPS sends a signal, receives signals, or both. Most of them think both, but actually they only receive a time stamp from satellites. Then the device uses the difference in time to compute distance. The distance from different satellites make intersecting circles of a Venn Diagram to narrow down the location. After a unit gets signals from at least four satellites it will track in 3D.

All in all my GPS unit was fun and students learned some real world math skills. Geocaching also encourages exercise through walking and biking. (my students were running to find the candy). If you can get some higher quality GPS units you can upload and download maps to use with them and study terrain and lots of other social studies topics. It was a great way to end the school year.