Monday, March 30, 2009

You want how much for wireless?

I'm off in mid-April to the NCTM's Annual Conference; I'm looking forward to it because I'm also attending the Research PreSession (have to learn how to network with researchers in anticipation of starting my PhD) and also the NCSM, which is more for teacher-leaders. Not that I'm a teacher-leader by any stretch. I just like to know what's going on.
Anyways... as I was preparing for my own session (it's on Saturday the 26th, discussing Web 2.0 and aids to differentiating instruction) I checked in with the supplier of wireless access at the Walter E. Washington Convention Centre - SmartCity. If I'm doing some internet stuff and differentiating, I'd like the participants to experience what we do with our classes. Unfortunately, they replied with a cost of 24.95$ a day. And that is for access suitable to "checking email and surfing the web... not recommended for exhibitors or presenters". So much for that idea... it's going to cost me almost 200$ to just equip myself with internet access for the week of the conference. And so I'm going to have to ensure that everything is available locally. Thankfully, GoogleDocs has an offline mode but it may endanger my attempt to use CoolIris as a presentation tool. Instead of being able to model the activities with the participants, it will likely be more of a (albeit very cool) standard presentation on what we're doing.
It's sadly ironic: SmartCity's logo is Making the world smarter. Instead, they are my greatest impediment.
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Friday, March 27, 2009

A little off-topic..

While I'm more than happy to rant again about videostreaming/taping conference sessions (MERU on Thursday?), especially after meeting in New York and hearing half the participants explain why they can't attend the NCTM Annual Meeting in Washington due to hotel costs, travel time and coverage fees... but not today.  I'm still on March Break.

So this YouTube video came across my desk... it's not at all serious or educational (put a shirt on!) but I like it because it's in ASL -- and so rarely are music videos made for deaf people.  I took ASL a few years ago when I was volunteering in a community with a lot of deaf people.  I love ASL... it's visual poetry, it's so emotive (and for someone raised WASP, that was a challenge to overcome).  I wish I could use it more often.  I tend to drop a few signs in conversation, often without realizing it.
The other thing that made me smile about the video was that it's the way I practice ASL... while listening to the radio I will try to sign the song.  ASL is never word for word so it's not as hard as it sounds; a lot is derived from context.  It's the way I prepared for living in Switzerland, too... I used to try simultaneous translation of songs into French while driving.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

March Break Intervention (Thanks for helping!)

Well, my public challenge to my students two months ago worked... I got hooked on drinking way too much Diet Coke while writing my final Masters papers and couldn't kick the habit. So, I told my class that if they saw me with DC in my hand, they could use any means necessary to get it out of my hands. My grade eights, in particular, were delighted by the possibility of taking me on (I'm 6'4" and way too many pounds). But, the public pressure not to meant it was relatively easy to switch over to water... I didn't want the embarrassment of being bested by a pack of rabid grade eights, for one.
So, to make sure that something happens, I'm going to publicly list my tasks for March Break. They are:
  • Finish GeoGebra PD for our PCMI PDO
  • Restructure question banks and verify the tags in MapleTA.
  • Design & implement GoogleDocs tracking database/spreadsheets à la CIS 339 Middle School in the Bronx, as seen at Educon 2.1 in January. This is something that's been on my mind a lot; thanks go to my colleague here for finally making us push towards it!
  • Finish up PhD applications. Do it.
  • Read 5 books on my reading list. And reflect on them. And write that reflection down.
I think that's enough. I'm sure I'll have an "around the house" list, too. But the internet doesn't need to know about that.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

PWN'ing PLNs


The conversation surrounding PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) continues to grow, both from the perspective of the student and the teacher. A member of my blogroll (and thus, tangentially, a member of my PLN) made a post that prompted some reflection. Since I can't see my school working towards a more liberal approach to boundaries involving subjects, teachers, instruction, etc I'm trying to focus on, and advocating for, the professional PLN aspect. I'm sure there's a cool graphic of PLNs somewhere that encompasses everything I think PLNs are... I scrolled through a few and the best is this one from another tangential-PLN-member Alec Courous but I still don't think it's a complete visual description.
The topic is close to my heart - I began my teacher career as the only math teacher in the school -- 100 kids 7-12. For five years, I did the senior math courses while the rest were picked up by the science teachers. We were the only independent school in the province and it took considerable time and money to get to PD opportunities elsewhere. Isolated geographically and socially (most public school organizations would have no truck with us) I used gopher (does that date me?) and the web (which eventually includes pictures!) to communicate with digital colleagues. However, protracted discussions were slow, it was difficult to share content and the people involved were few and far between. The first ten years of my teaching found me isolated geographically, linguistically (teaching in France & Switzerland) and professionally (most math teachers wanted to teach from the textbook, emphasizing on algorithms. Most still do, unfortunately).
Nowadays, the situation is much changed -- the venues in which we can communicate are legion. There are so many bright and inspiring people out there posting opinions, content and ideas. I regularly do Skype conversations with colleagues in the States, I read and engage in discussions on mathematics and technology from people (friends?) from around the world. The professional isolation I so clearly felt during my first decade is evaporating as I progress through my second. While there are still closed communities, there are so many open ones that you can always find someone to hash out ideas with. With twitter, you have opinion-polling on ideas that can branch out into larger discussions through blogs or online meetings. And I'm loving the regularly-scheduled podcasts/videocasts available through resources such as EdTech Talk, Classroom 2.0 and the growing Ontario Educators Meetup. While my department colleagues are excellent (they are truly amazing) they are not always present and not always interested in what I'm after. There are many people "out there", though, who are!
While I'm not a fan of avatar-based technologies (I'm me and I like me), Second Life and other sim-programs are bringing a virtual-world aspect to these conversations. I'm waiting for the web-based holodeck based on technology like FaceGen that will let me be me and engage in real-time conversations involving digital content in a CoolIris-like environment. Why not video-conferencing? Well, for one, it doesn't let you easily bring in the digital content of an applet or a video. It's a medium not an environment in the same way that chalkboard is a medium, classroom is an environment. But more on this later. For now, I want my PLN! (okay, that 80s metaphor likely dates me too.)


Friday, March 6, 2009

MapleTA

With the conclusion of the algebraic portion of the MPM2D course (we only have the trigonometric unit yet to cover) the students are looking forward to their summative evaluation. We've been doing review for the past week or so through the application of what we learned in linear systems and quadratics to do the intersection of lines & parabolas and lines & circles. It's a good way to combine the substitution method, and all the aspects of factoring, quadratic formula, discriminant and using graphical methods. I've been pleased that the students transitioned to the linear-quadratic system without difficulty; they were able to anticipate the process.
As part of their preparation I've added on to our MapleTA question banks. While we have a lot of algebraic questions (factor this, CTS that, find the axis of symmetry, etc) at the suggestion of one of my students I've added on questions of the type "when you see..." Students do get confused by all the algorithms and when they need to be used. While we always stress understanding, for many of them a little bit of repetition can be helpful.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Let's pour oil on a fire

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

We're yammer'ing


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

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Voicethreads

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

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Classroom Presenter


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