23 July 2014

#MOEDCHAT Blog Challenge #3 - The Importance of Student Collaboration

Rather than trying to write and convince that giving students opportunities to collaborate was critical to team building, problem solving, and soft skills (or the like), I decided to this week use the research tool embedded in Google Documents (bonus points for following this tutorial to learn how you can, too) and see what 5 others had concluded:

1. When teaming up for web searching, students find information faster and make fewer errors in judging relevance of search results.
Lazonder, Ard W. "Do two heads search better than one? Effects of student collaboration on web search behaviour and search outcomes." British Journal of Educational Technology 36.3 (2005): 465-475.

2. Student collaboration is critical in any constructivist approach.
This literature review from 1996 is so basic its genius. We have so many layers of technology available to us now that its easy to lose sight of the real power behind their utility.

“Online communication presumes that students can communicate, that is, that they
can meaningfully participate in conversations. In order to do that, they need to be able
to interpret messages, consider appropriate responses, and construct coherent replies.
Many students are not able to engage in cogent and coherent discourse. Why? Because,
most students have rarely been asked to contribute their opinions about topics. They
have been too busy memorizing what the teachers tell them.”
Jonassen, David H. Computers in the classroom: Mindtools for critical thinking. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1996.

3. The ways we structure student collaborations is not be be careless. 1 + 1 may equal -3 in some cases with the wrong pairings.
Peer collaboration is a critical component to reaching learners in their “zone of proximal development” by taking advantage of pairings with “more competent peers,” but this paper investigates groupings in which the more competent peer’s opinions did not prevail, so both students actually regressed.

4. Students who collaborate in study groups keep up better with material, have more opportunities to verbally practice the language of academic discourse, and garnered and gave feedback through critique and conversation of reading materials.
When students cram, even in groups, they may share some of the work load, but they lose out of the social, collaborative growth they could gain from discussing the content.
Lazar, Althier M. "Who is studying in groups and why? Peer collaboration outside the classroom." College teaching 43.2 (1995): 61-65.

5. The “cognitive surplus” or extra design and intelligent energy we contribute in our free-time make large-scale, global projects possible.
+Clay Shirky is betting on the idea changing the world as information is democratized and everyone has access to information no single person could accumulate, curate, or disseminate.

What does that mean for students? When students are collaborating and sharing, that “one kid” who decides to do a little extra research because they were curious benefits the whole group's expanded understanding.

22 July 2014

My Pledge: 2014

As I've been preparing to mentor a new teacher this year, I've been trying to refine what I think makes a "good teacher." While content knowledge is important to teaching with confidence and communicating relevance of a particular topic, its on the bottom of my priorities. Kids may add "he knows math," to a list of reasons I might be a good teacher, but more important to impacting my students is the way I communicate that knowledge through the words I say, my creativity in instruction, and my persistence to care - even when they don't.

I've yet to meet my new "protege" - I'm sure she's got the content knowledge she needs to cover her course load, but even if she didn't, that's not something I can really impact. She'll pick it up as she preps for her lessons. Where I aim to mentor is in helping her know her strengths, her students' needs, and how to stitch the twain together.

15 July 2014

Calculating with Siri and Google Now

It may not be most practical or efficient, but there are some advantages to doing calculations with Siri or Google Now on your smartphone or tablet.


  • Hands-free
  • Other relevant information and representations also given (only on Siri, via Wolfram Alpha)
  • Don't have to open a separate app
  • Opportunity to judge reasonableness, check answer - if Siri comes up with a value that doesn't make sense, you have to reevaluate how you communicated that calculation.
Is voice search ready to take the place of your students' scientific or graphing calculators? Of course not! It's not even a practical replacement of the calculator app. However, especially with Siri/Wolfram Alpha, I really appreciate that it gives the students information that didn't even ask for. You know, sometimes they might be bored enough to check it out. ;)

09 July 2014

Your Students Will Never Be Perfect and It's Not Your Fault

"I'm doing everything I can - everything i know to do, and the kids are still driving me crazy!"
"I cant believe she would do something like that. She's always been one of my good kids!"
"Didn't they learn how to _______ properly in ____ grade?"
What you believe about the nature of your students is important because it sets the stage for your expectations of their current and future behavior. I tend to experience this the most in my classroom when comparing upper-level courses like AP Stats to lower courses like Algebra or Geometry. Your students may be more or less mature and more or less nice than others, what ultimately, do you allow yourself to be surprised when they don't meet your expectations, or is it something you expect from all of your students to sometimes happen?

If you're a Christian, this is a case where your beliefs should rule your teaching more than just being "nicest," "most honest," or "showing love." You must remember that your classroom is composed of students with a sin nature that cannot help but follow their heart's desire for selfishness.
[1] And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)
You can have the best behavior management strategies, relationships with kids, tightly scheduled transitions, and you'll still have students that resist you and try to cause trouble. Its not a matter of you (or the students) trying harder, its a matter of students being changed by the grace of God in Jesus. 

1. Expect that students will let you down. 
I like this quote from a sermon on Ephesians 2 from 20th century English preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones:
Believing as we do this biblical doctrine of man in sin, we should never be surprised at what happens in the world. Are you surprised at all the murders, the thefts, the violence, the robbery, all the lying and the hatred, all the carnality, the sexuality? Does it surprise you as you look at your newspapers? It should not do so if you are a Christian. You should expect it. Man in sin of necessity behaves like that. He cannot help himself; he lives, he walks in trespasses and sins. He does it individually; he does it in groups. - excerpt from "The Christian Message to the World", God's Way of Reconciliation
2. Maintain high expectations for discipline and behavior.
You might be the only person in their lives that expects as much. 

3. Structure opportunities for students to make up for mistakes they've made.
If your students don't feel like they can recover your trust or favor after a bad day, you're more likely to lose them behaviorally AND academically.

4. Forgive, forgive, forgive. (And apologize when it's your turn).
That isn't to say that actions should not have consequces - quite the contrary, but consequences should be related to the day's behavior, not the accumulation of 2 weeks, and you have to be willing to set it aside the next day. 

This is probably the hardest one, but also, probably the most important. 

5. Always be prepare to retrain and review procedures and expectations.
This is not only good for students to be reminded of what you expect from them and they should expect of each other, but it will probably also help you reflect on areas you may have been lax recently.

Those little darlings that walked in quiet, straight lines in elementary school are still down there. Somewhere. :)

6. Pray for your students. (And receive prayer for yourself)
As I started with - the only thing we can hope to truly change our students and our classrooms is the regeneration of our spirits through Jesus. 

I think the best answer to the question, "Mr. Baker, how do you PUT UP with these kids," is, "Prayer."
The further you become like Jesus, the easier loving your students and caring for them will be, but also always be aware of your own potential to let them down with an angry remark or harsh response.

7. Love them.
All the time. Not when they do something good. Not when they're finally on time for consecutive days. Not when they finally do their homework. All the time.

08 July 2014

On Recommending Scientific Calculators

Tops on the list of any middle or high school math class is always (at least) a scientific calculator. There are, of course, many makes and models for a price range of $1 to $25.

Parents often ask at summer house, "Which calculator does my child need?"

This is a nuanced question for me because the answer often depends on the course and the student, and the family budget (or lack thereof) for such things.

In a best case scenario, I would hope a kid could have a multi-view display that allows for entering data in tables and editing matrices, like this TI-36X Pro (http://www.officemax.com/technology/calculators-accessories/scientific-calculators/product-prod3490004). It does all the work the average student would do with a graphing calculator except for the actual graphing. (Which may be good or bad, depending on your beliefs on students doing graphs by hand). I do not, however, suggest this for everyone, because if the student is prone to losing supplies, once its lost, there's probably just going to be a longer period of time until a replacement is purchased. 

For the average student, which calculator they have is probably less important than simply the fact they HAVE ONE. Whenever possible, I find it most useful for myself and my students to have at least a 2-line display so I can view what calculations I've entered (plus, these usually also will do simple descriptive stats). Anything similar to these: 

For the most lost/stolen inclined, i usually recommend they go to Dollar Tree and pick up SEVERAL, so they can stockpile extras. (Buy 'em by the case online! http://www.dollartree.com/Jot-10-Digit-Scientific-Calculators/p339865/index.proThey're obviously less functional and durable, but its far more often I see calculators lost before broken from usual wear and tear.

So, quality or quantity? Which do I recommend?
If I were buying for my own children, I would pick up something in the mid-range that has at least a 2-line display to send with them to school. If you buy in July or August during Back-to-School sale season, you can get these for just under or just over $10. (If you wait until later in the year, the regular price is usually between $13-$18.)

If the likelihood of your student's calculator being lost/stolen/damaged is pretty high, I do suggest going the bulk route via the $1 models at Dollar Tree. I'd thrown in a if-you-keep-this-until-November-we'll-buy-you-something-better condition, too, because they really are better off with the 2-line display.

For teachers, buying these $1 models are great for loaning out or selling in class for a couple reasons:
  1. You'll care less when they inevitably walk away
  2. Since they're less functional, they'll be in less demand (students have incentive to get their own)

01 July 2014

5 Reasons I'm Counting On Normandy Schools Collaborative

On July 1st, the unaccredited Normandy School District in north-mid St. Louis County was officially dissolved and replaced with state-monitored Normandy Schools Collaborative. Living in the district for 8 years, I've developed a great heart for the students here, and with my son beginning preschool at the Early Childhood Center, I have much vested interest in the district's success.
image via Twitter user @lisadclancy
There's reason to doubt there will be much change beyond the name next school year, but I believe that for as much danger and doubt there is in crisis, there's just as much an opportunity for hope. Do you believe with me? Here's why you can:

Beyond the actual city of Normandy, MO, Normandy School District is composed of TWENTY-THREE other small municipalities. The fragmentation of St. Louis County governance causes many problems, but the one Beyond Housing is hoping to address with the 24:1 initiative is the absence of a larger sense of community. Sure, I appreciate that Bel-Nor police specifically serve my neighborhood, but that attitude is caustic to the larger school district. You've seen those situations in which when everyone is charge, no one is in charge. Without a concentrated effort to rally all of these communities to back the schools, each little hamlet will continue to flounder.

2. This hashtag
The local media has done a decent job of also trying to put out "feel-good" stories on Normandy and its students (liberal guilt?), but one of the powers of social media is the ability to craft your own narrative. If you look through these tweets from the past several months, you'll see a few you wish you could edit out, but I think its also been a great organizational tool online.

You know how the best laid plans, go, but my understanding is that Normandy Schools Collaborative will proceed with implementing this plan. It may be filled with the best sounding edu-speak, but it crafts vision for what a classroom will look like, and refreshes the vision for what a Normandy graduate will look like and be about.
Problem-based learning, passion, and students' personal interests come up often in the plan, which is tough to implement if you've been teaching "traditionally," or cannot build relationships with students, but with FOUR WEEKS of professional development on the schedule, there might be time for a good start.

4. This bond issue
In April 2013, voters in the Normandy School District approved Proposition T, which among other things included
"upgrades to district technology infrastructure and implementation of a 1:1 Technology Initiative"
Throwing money at a 1:1 initiative is going to do nothing without proper training, accountability, and leadership, but diving into that is exactly the kind of risk I believe poor districts must take in trying to "keep up" with their affluent peers." My hope is that the state financial oversight ensures this money is not magically gone in a couple of years.

5. This quote from Missouri Elementary and Secondary Ed Czar, Chris Nicastro:
“We’re open to innovation,” Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said last week. “Normandy is a small system when you think about urban systems. In some ways that makes it ideal. It can be more nimble. It can move more quickly. It’s not as cumbersome. When you have something that size, if you make a mistake it’s going to show up much more quickly. If educators have a failing it’s that we’re slow to correct errors.”
In *the* textbook for diffusion of innovations, Everett M. Rodgers of the University of Mexico discusses at length the size and rigidity of an organization has a drastic impact on its ability to absorb and implement innovation. I have a personal belief that 1-high-school school systems are often better at serving their community because of this. They have more capacity to adapt to the needs of their stakeholders. I know there are things we would often like to offer to our students that we cannot because there is a (probably necessary) mandate that the offerings across our 3 high schools be as consistent and equitable as possible.