22 June 2014

Argument Writing in Math - the Oldest "Fad" in Instruction

Either you are a long-time teaching vet and you've said this or you've heard one say something like it - "Common core is just a next the fad. We've seen things like this come and go just like NCLB did."

It's true that a lot of the content and practice standards we see in the common core may only be shuffled content from the SHOW-ME standards and course-level objectives we already had in Missouri. To think that the rest is only based on the latest fads and research, however, is to have misread the document and dishonor the history of mathematics. 

Look at this from the standards for mathematical practice (my favorite part of common core).

If you're not careful, getting your kids to construct arguments can feel like another add-on to curriculum that rarely gets anything taken away. There are probably going to be enough shifts within the content standards that actually do represent changes to your classroom (for example, descriptive statistics in algebra) for you to get bent out of shape about the things that should be there anyway. 

If constructing arguments in our math classes is the reaction to a call for "rigor and relevance" and just another fad, then I want to remind you that it's perhaps the oldest "fad" in instruction.

If you're familiar with our old friend Euclid, then you know that the whole purpose of his work was to build arguments proving the geometric ideas of his contemporaries. It's commonly agreed that Euclid did not make up the ideas from Elements, but that instead, he was the first to curate and examine what was already being discussed. 

Aren't our students working in a similar environment? There's little to be "discovered" in planar geometry at this point, but we can still do well engaging students in the same work of critiques and proof gathering as Euclid and great mathematicians have practiced for millennia. 

Is the idea of argument and proof new to the current generation (post NCLB) of math students? Perhaps. Should we go back to teaching two column proofs the way we did it fifteen to twenty years ago? I don't happen to think so. I mean, there's a reason that Geometry instruction became more formulaic in this century - two column proofs are hard, and the rigidity of their structure turns off kids who are already struggling to find relevance in their work. I prefer flowchart or paragraph proofs because flowcharts have more cross-curricular appeal (logic and systems planning for coders), and paragraph proofs are more familiar (and therefore approachable) to the non-fiction writing our students already do in their other classes. Which students should do this? Everyone. Keeping proofs only in honors classes or with the "good" kids is prejudiced and demeaning to "regular" students. Will it take more work getting "regular" students to think critically? Probably. I think the way you package argument writing and proof to your students has a huge determining factor in their attitude toward it and belief that they can do it. 

Present it as a trial or a chance to argue with you (or each other). Kids love debates.

19 June 2014

Why Coding Isn't Just About Career Prospects

It's hard to throw a stick at the Internet these days and NOT get back a result about the importance of teaching and encouraging our students to code. Here are some results just from a Google search of news this week.

I generally agree with the premise that it's important for our kids to obtain the Internet literacy of coding, but I'm usually wary of any solution we present to students as a silver bullet for future success.
Even still, I write this to agree that we should be encouraging coding literacy to our students. Why? For me, it's a personal reason. Coding empowers students to make their lives better. That improvement may look like better lifestyle from increased salary, but it could also manifest as using coding to solve a personal problem. Let me tell you about my project this week.

My wife blogged recently about our journey recognizing, diagnosing, and supporting our son's speech delay and therapy, (http://heybethbaker.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/lets-be-serious/), and we had his first IEP meeting on Monday, setting up his preschool accommodations and interventions. It's occupying a lot of our prayers and time, so I was glad to get some unstructured time this week to work on a website/web app for him to use in support of his speech therapy.

A common speech therapy tool to support communication is a set of "PECS" cards (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picture_Exchange_Communication_System), basically consisting of pictures of commonly used items for the child to grab and show to their caretaker. Beth made a set several months ago that Landon didn't really take to, but he's shown a lot of interest in the iPad recently as we've used it as a potty training reward, so I had some hope that a digital version might be more appealing. Here's what the finished project looks like:
If you'd like to try it out, here's the link I hosted on Dropbox. (bit.ly/landonPECS)

Maybe you're asking yourself, "But Chuck, hasn't someone already made an app for this? Why reinvent the wheel?" They have, in fact, but they are all super expensive. :P 
Here are some examples for the curious:

And here's another blogger who took a different DIY approach on the iPad

Beyond saving some money, there's an intangible quality to knowing you're crafting something for someone you love, and some enduring benefit to knowing my website/app will always be available and easily modified as Landon's needs change. Having the basic web design skills to put together this site allowed me to care for my son - something I take very seriously. Here's what this project led me to conclude about the purpose of coding-

Teaching our students to code allows them to make the web work for them.

When we speak the language of the web, we don't have to wait for someone else to meet our needs or fit our needs into someone else's box. 

And the richest aspect of my coding project? The HTML and CSS wasn't even half of the project! I have a student who wants to go into game design, but refuses that it would be of worth to put some programming/coding skills to go with her future design marketability. If all I'd done is coded the page, I'd have nothing to meet the needs I was trying address!

Here are the other things I did -
  • Photography (the personalized images of Landon's toys and clothes)
  • Image editing (taking out backgrounds to get transparent images)
  • Sound recording (pairing sound with the images)
  • File conversions (my recording app's output to the supported types for Chrome and Safari)
  • Researching tools and methods you might not even use (I wanted the audio to play when the images themselves were clicked, but after several hours of trying/tweaking JavaScript examples just scrapped that route and adjusted course)

It was frustrating, it was fulfilling, it was led by passion, it drove further inquiry. It was pure project based learning.

13 June 2014

#MOEDCHAT Blog Challenge #1 - I love being an educator because...

...of all the different experiences I have as a part of my job!
We try on different jobs and authentic experiences in attempts to prepare our students for the same. One trick to engaging your students is to pour yourself into your content to find your own passion for it. Like the method actor smoking a pack a day to play a lung cancer patient, diving into the same inquiry you desire for your students will enable you to know where you can look forward to pulling out particular students' interests in tour lesson for the day.

I spent 5 hours at the Ameren Corporation's headquarters on Tuesday shadowing different engineers and accountants, soaking up anything I could about the nature of their job and stealing (j/k, totally respectfully asking if I could have or take pictures of) whatever artifacts I could. It was a VIP treatment a randomly selected Ameren customer could probably not enjoy, but because of a STEM project based learning program I'm a part of right now, they opened their doors to us.

I've spent the last two days working with two of my co-teachers attempting to communicate to them the various ways I saw statistical graphs and analysis applied and we've worked together attempting to repackage that experience in a meaningful, approachable way for our future 9th graders. My co-workers weren't at Ameren with me, so I spent much of Wednesday showing artifacts and play-acting to bring them into my world. Co-teaching or PLC tip: If you cannot communicate your passion for a project or reason for pedagogical choice, you're going to have a hard time building consensus in the group, which means you won't get anything meaningful done. 

Your students don't expect you to necessarily have the same knowledge base as a best selling author, biomedical research physician, electrical engineer, or civil-rights historian, but they do have a right to fair expectation that you might teach with a similar passion as one. I'm guilty of not making nearly the attempt I could to bring in guest speakers, but having one for every standard is obviously impractical, so your students are relying on you to let them know why "insert-content-here" is worth committing their interest to.

...of the intangible value I place on knowing that being excellent at my job is important for more than increasing trading prices for public shares.
If that actually is your job, please don't feel like I'm getting judgey-mcjudgerson on you for it. That essentially was one of the tasks for one of the men I met at Ameren on Tuesday, and I found his passion for crunching statistical data to squeeze out trends infectious. He actually reminded me a lot of my father-in-law in the way that half of the work he did was not even his job, per we, but it was work he initiated to go the extra mile to add value to what he offered the organization because he had time left over after his regular work. That work he does investigating ways to lower the standard deviation of department expenditures to increas budget efficiency, and tracking customer satisfaction against a sample of Ameren's peers is important to a lot of people, I'm sure, but the exponential value a teacher can add to the world has a greater potential for good that appeals to me. 

That Ameren "continuous improvement analyst" didn't know how to do what he did with stats without an educator mentoring him through his postgraduate studies on his way to a PhD in Statistics. Somebody call Ashton Kutcher, is that a butterfly effect?

There's a question on the Gallup teacher insight survey that asks you to rate your agreement with this statement: "Teaching is the most important of all professions." I tend to get TOO meta on these surveys and overthink them, which means I factor way too many value-adding variables into this question, and I don't really come to a conclusion. Even in the last 10 minutes, I've convinced myself to both ends of that spectrum. I can get value and satisfaction out do ANY job if I do what I do to the glory of God. If your job sucks the life out of you, it probably means you're not contributing any passion to it. So, if any job can fulfill you with intangibles and an opportunity to please God, then teaching wouldn't necessarily be most important. No job would be. At the same time, as I thought about Ashton Kutcher as his Butterfly Effect, I remembered that any valuable learning needs some element of mentors hop or facilitating which means before you go and do any other work for God, a teacher was there to show you how.

...of the toys I get to play with that I generally would probably not have access to.
Many, many classrooms had interactive whiteboards and touchscreens before national news media began finding new ways to color election maps with them in 2010.

The iPad I've been using the past two and a half years was on loan to me from my district with the expectation that I would become an expert and investigate all the ways our students could use them in the future (or even if, perhaps, they were actually a poor choice to us with my students)

...of the things I have learned about for my job that I probably wouldn't know otherwise (and that make me a better friend/citizen/parent/husband)
how to talk to kids when you've let them down
how to talk to kids after they've disappointed YOU
why the way you respond in conflict is important because it doesn't go away (at least until the end of the semester.) :)
letting people know you're willing to listen to their concerns builds trust
sharing your life with people invites them to share with you
you cannot wait for the other person to ask to be forgiven - how you choose to respond should not be contingent upon their "worth" of it.

...of the number of people you can meet and small-talk with in public. 
For better or worse, everyone has an opinion about the teaching profession. And in a sense, it is unique among jobs in that everyone has spent years of their lives in direct observance of the profession, and that there are elements of the profession most of the general public practices. You may not be a "certified teacher," but you've probably tutored a friend or family member in at least one particular skill. That being said, you meet someone in public and reveal your secret identity as a teacher, you automatically have a common experience with someone beyond your burrito. 

During my jury-duty lunch break last week in Clayton at Chipotle, a gentleman on his 60s randomly started up a conversation with me while we were on line, and we ended up sharing the better part of 45 minutes together talking education. Being a teacher is like owning a Honda.


10 June 2014

On ACCOMPLISHING Goals and Success

I don't know if I'm unique in the classroom about this as it pertains to technology integration and innovation, but sometimes I find myself trying to get my hands in so many pots and spin so many plates that I don't actually accomplish anything of value. The way this manifests in my lesson plans with regards to technology is that I'll get lots of new ideas, and I'll pilot a lot of tools on a small scale, but I won't commit to anything for long enough to produce tangible products to share with colleagues who want to see examples before they're willing to try something new (unvetted).

I focused on not doing that this past semester, and I think I was able to sway a few of my colleagues closer to trying it out for themselves (see my posts about paperslide music videos and my elaborately schemed fake Google Sketch-up area project for more info). Being able to show off some student work, reflecting on some parts of the design that didn't go so well, and having a clearer vision for the next way I was going to do that project was really helpful in articulating to my colleagues why and how integrating the same on their classroom would work.

This principle works in curriculum, as well, which is why your district has probably identified "priority standards" for your course. The common teacher complaint that we can't do EVERYTHING is, of course, true. The blog post going viral from a 4 time teacher of the year that was sharing his reasons for leaving the classroom also quotes something like this: "In my 6 years in the classroom I've had lots of programs and mandates added on, but I've never had anything taken away." If you feel that way, too, then I don't think you have practically accepted the purpose of those priority standards. 

And don't we all see this in our personal lives? It's rare to feel much fulfillment out of the evening or weekend in which we did a lot of STUFF, but when you do a few things well in a weekend, those are the ones that refresh and recharge you emotionally.

Stop trying to do everything, simplify your life's busyness to only what you can commit to fully investing in, and do them with purpose.

The Claims We Make About "The Real World"

I remember a strategy the teachers in my elementary school all seemed to use when they felt like we were slacking on effort or gripping about the difficulty of some piece of content.

TEACHER 1: (to the class) One moment please, Mr. Smith needs to talk to me about something
The two teachers speak quietly by the door about something the students usually can't pick up.
TEACHER 1:  (to the other teacher, but loud enough for everyone to hear) You know, Mr. Smith, we're working on our long division right now, and a lot of my students seem to think it will be okay if they don't ever master this. Do you think that will work out next year?
TEACHER 2: (with the same inflection as the last question) Oh, no! That won't fly at all in 5th grade! You know, 4th graders, I've been hearing a lot about your, and I think there are a few of you that aren't gonna make it next year. In fact, I think maybe some of you would be better off getting held back... Ya'll are gonna be in for a surprise.
The students used to doing well, who were probably not the ones he was really referring to, all stress out for the rest of the day and into the evening about potentially repeating the 4th grade.

We do the same thing to our high schoolers, too, right? "That won't work in the real world..." I've the pleasure working with EdPlus and Pathways to Prosperity this week designing project based learning curricula resources for our classrooms next year, so the real world is high on my mind. Perhaps the best part of the program is the full day I'll be spending at Ameren headquarters on Tuesday, one-on-one rotating through with representatives from every department. The goal of Tuesday is to get an idea best what the real world really means in 2014.

Do teachers do this because they KNOW its true, or are they trying to make a point out of good intention?

Here's a list of things I'm planning on asking the Ameren workers I'm with on Tuesday that might be either wrong, or at least misrepresented -

"You need a scientific calculator because your smartphone isn't going to be able to do enough in a real job.""What are you going to do when the technology isn't there anymore to fall back on?""You can't NOT do fractions - fractions are in the real world.""You can either go to college or work at McDonald's.""You have to memorize this so you don't have to look it up at your job.""If you want a job that supports a good lifestyle, you're going to need a college degree.""Everyone uses math."
"Everyone writes" "You MUST show your work in a certain way, or else I'll take off points. Your boss is going to expect your work to be how he or she wants it!"

I'll give you a report back later this week!

07 June 2014

Traditional Textbooks Are Holding Back Your Students' Vocabularies

Do you use the dictionary tool embedded in the tools in your favorite eReader or browser? What about your students? Once your students are proficiently reading at a middle school level they probably aren't likely to run across (many) unknown words in popular fiction, but what about content specific words in textbooks or course specific literature like Shakespeare or Hawthorne?

Remembering from my own experience, your students traditionally have three choices (and these are still advocated, I know) - keep a paper dictionary at your desk/in your backpack to look up words whenever necessary, attempt to use context clues to get an idea, or skip over it and miss out on comprehension of the text.

I've got a lot of respect for students willing to keep that dictionary with them (or even willing to reference a standalone app), but why are we making it so hard on our students (or yourself)? When you give your students ebooks and web resources to read, definitions are a highlight-and-tap away. Your definition comes on-screen and in context.
Kindle for iOS 
Safari for iOS

Imagine how you could unlock your students' potential to learn through reading if they weren't frequently skipping new words (or skipping the reading altogether because it seems insurmountable).

Ready to take the next step?
Your district may not have a license for the corresponding ebook to your text, but you can use these tools to get your students access to alternative texts they could use in class or on their own devices.

You can find a free CK-12 ebook in iBooks and the Kindle store for many go your core subject needs (Algebra, Geometry, American History, Biology, Chemistry, etc.) 

CK-12 Flexbook
On the website from the resource above comes a related, customizable tool. I've had these on my class iPads for a couple years. I like them because you can create/compile your own text, or use one that another teacher has already made public. I usually also post a download link on my class website for students' personal downloading pleasure.perfectly formatted 

iBooks Author 
This Mac app allows you to bring in text, images, and video to create an ebook perfectly formatted for iBooks (although it would still work in other ereaders, as well.) you can share your books created in iBooks Author just as I do with my Flexbooks from CK-12. 

Someone in your social network. 
Fellow AP Stats teacher, Julie Kindred (@jkindred13), has made most (if not all) of a stats book in iBooks Author and was willing to share her treasure with me. Maybe you are as fortunate as I am and have someone in your network who has done the same for your needs. Or you and a few friends could collaborate on one!

05 June 2014

Argument Writing in Math: Getting Started

Are you an English teacher prepping a training on argument writing for the teachers in your building/district (and you want to be applicable to those STEM folks)? Are you a teacher that just went through an argument writing training that left you wanting more? Are you a math teacher that wants to integrate more logic, reasoning, and writing into your course? (Let's be friends!) Whoever you are, I wanted to share a few thoughts and resources to get you started on your argument writing (and thinking) in a math class. If you'd like more of a primer on argument writing in general, check out this post I wrote after I practiced some argument "writing" with my 3 year old daughter last year. (Teaching Argument Writing for Preschoolers...and anyone else!)

The most natural application of argument writing is in proofs, which most often come up in Geometry, and should also usually be used in Algebra (but rarely are in my experience). To make a common core connection, standard for mathematical practice #3 requires students to "Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others."

Most students experience with proofs (and perhaps you remember your own) is with column proofs like this, for proving things about angles, line segments, or shapes.
Have I induced any terror sweats yet?
But proofs can also be written in paragraph form, which is where the English training and Hillcock can be applied. Reasons are the warrants, the statements are evidence, and claims will be what must be proved. "Prove that angle A is a supplementary angle," or "prove that the lines defined by y=2x+3 and y=2x-25 are parallel"

But...I don't even know how to explain what a proof is! 
Watch this adorable TED-Ed video introducing and explaining the basis and application of mathematical proof.

Want some more? Here's a resource from Berkeley on mathematical logic
"First, a proof is an explanation which convinces other mathematicians that a statement is true. A good proof also helps them understand why it is true. The dialogue also illustrates several of the basic techniques for proving that statements are true.

Table 1 summarizes just about everything you need to know about logic. It lists the basic ways to prove, use, and negate every type of statement. In boxes with multiple items, the first item listed is the one most commonly used. Don’t worry if some of the entries in the table appear cryptic at first; they will make sense after you have seen some examples.

In our first example, we will illustrate how to prove ‘for every’ statements and ‘if. . . then’ statements, and how to use ‘there exists’ statements. These ideas have already been introduced in the dialogue." - from Introduction to Mathematical Arguments (http://math.berkeley.edu/~hutching/teach/proofs.pdf)

A couple more resources for your classroom:

1. "Making arguments with equations, figures, and images" - (http://wacillinois.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/making-arguments-with-equations-figures-and-images-writing-in-stem/)

As soon as you have students start writing more in math class, some of them will start trying to write out EVERYTHING. The point of this post is that sometimes mathematical symbols are still most appropriate

2. "Developing argument writing in math using crime scene investigations" -(http://teacherleaders.wordpress.com/2012/12/15/developing-argument-writing-in-math-using-crime-scene-investigations/)

This blog post from a teacher directly integrates an argument writing text by George Hillocks, Jr., Teaching Argument Writing, Grades 6-12 (with a bonus handout!) as a strategy for students to attack math word problems

01 June 2014

3 Reasons Your Classroom Needs a Charging Station

With the exception of the last two weeks of May, I had a corner of my classroom near my iPad cart that had two different surge protectors available for kids to plug in and charge their phones/tablets/eReaders. I needed one of them to power the iPad cart anyway, so I figured the other open spaces would be a good opportunity to be "cool" about my students and their devices.

My initial expectations were that I would avoid a lot of conflict from kids unplugging classroom materials (like the iPad cart or my printer) to plug in their chargers without asking. What happened were two outcomes that had me second-guessing my experiment. The students began to fight over 6 or 7 charger spots (because many were charging when they didn't really need to), and instead of losing a distraction at their seats, the phone became more distracting as they would want to go back and forth to check for new texts and notifications. 

I announced to my friends in the math office last week that I was deeming the charging station a failure, and that it would not be returning next year. "Honestly, I thought you were crazy just for trying it," a friend in my PLC said. My own assessment was that perhaps I'd been naive about my students maturity to put the devices back there and leave them alone.

Today I'm rethinking

I read this from an ongoing series from Fast Company featuring creative people (http://www.fastcompany.com/3029506/most-creative-people-2014/charmian-gooch)

"When people say something is really crazy or naive, that's when you know you're onto something," says Charmian Gooch of her latest campaign to end corporate secrecy laws.

Double-whammo. Between my colleagues and my own self-doubt, I confirmed that perhaps, the charging station could be worth it. And I'll tell you why you need one for your students, too.

1. The charging station is a chance to practice discipline, self-control, and responsibility. 
It bugs me when kids tell me how grown up they are,  but we DO have a responsibility to give them opportunities to practice responsibility in the grown-up world. Controlling access to outlets in your classroom against people who have a legitimate use for them just feels to me like one of those things that look crazy out of the context of my little classroom-kingdom.
2. The charging station allows kids that want to use their devices for class to use freely without fear that their battery won't make it until they can plug up at night at home.
Many kids really DO have their cellphones (at least in some part) as a safety device to allow parents to more easily keep track of them. 
3. You'll save time and frustration from students asking you if they can charge their phones in the USB on your desktop, or anywhere else.
Besides the unintended consequences I mentioned, the charging station DID also do what I'd hoped. I spent much less time dealing with charging requests and anger with kids sneaking behind my back to charge their phones in outlets I was using myself.

Having to exercise classroom/behavior management (the kids going back and forth from their seat to check their phones) isn't a reason to not try (and keep) something new. So, you'll find a charging station in my classroom next year, and I look forward to the cool things my kids show me they can do on their own devices.