30 January 2015

He REALLY Said That! - Episode 1 - Facts About Motivating Students (Part 1)

In this premiere episode, Chuck, Ed, and special guest Erin give their opinions on a list of facts about motivating students from a post on teaching.monster.com. Part 1 of 2

26 January 2015

Alpha the Betta Fish

I've never had a class pet. Its not really something that I've had much of an interest in. I do have a paper cutout of "Morty the math ghost" (a promotional cardboard cut out from Apperson Prep), and picture of a fox that says, "Very Clever."

So, in other words, lame attempts at class mascots.

This semester, as I push the idea of being "beta learners," I opened on the first day with, "What is beta?" A handful of kids had a vague idea of software improvement and an unfinished, product, and a few kids said something like, "a fish?" I tried to steer away from the fish and focus on growth mindset and perpetual improvement, but I had a student who kept focusing on the fish.

"Can I buy you a beta?" she asked a couple of days later.
"Well... I guess." I wasn't resistant exactly to the idea of having a fish in the room, its just that I've only had a few students who ever offered to bring in something for the class. I was mostly just puzzled. This girl was buying more into "beta" than I could have really hoped.

Yesterday, the student finally brought in the fish. And wouldn't you know it, but he is amazing! Several of my colleagues asked today, "Why do you have a fish?" "Why did a kid bring you a fish?" "What do I have to do to get a kid to buy me something?" As I was explaining more to another math teacher about how I'm stressing "beta" to my students, Alpha the Betta started to seem like he might fit in nicely.

He's actually a bad analogy of being a beta learner in and of itself, but he IS a conversation starter, and a visual reminder of the class culture and educational philosophy I'm trying to get these kids to buy into.

"Why do we have a fish in the classroom?" is more than just a question - its a chance to talk about goal setting, perpetual improvement, life-long learning, and having a growth mindset. 

19 January 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2015 - Evaluating Education

The old history teacher in me just wants you to watch this, first. :)

Now, as far as my commentary...

Whenever I think about the legacy of Dr. King in my own profession, I immediately reflect on where we are as far as education equality for young people of color (African-American and Hispanic). I'd like to say that most people in America can agree that simply legislatively desegregating schools was not enough. For 30 years kids have been bussed in and out of poor, predominately black schools to more affluent schools in the suburbs because it was evident that a "desegregated" school is only in name if the conditions in that school persist.

Attempting to meet this goal of educational civil rights for continues in 2015. You only need look at a map of the St. Louis region to find see the practical segregation of our schools. 
map via http://demographics.coopercenter.org/DotMap/index.html

Is the region doing work to combat this practical segregation? Sort of. The Missouri Supreme Court ruling that allowed students in unaccredited schools like Normandy (where I live) and Riverview Gardens opened up opportunity for hundreds of kids to a "better" education. But is it "better" to have to ride more than an hour to school everyday? Kids in St. Louis Public Schools do this everyday to escape the neighborhood, unspecialized (mostly black) school and attend a lottery-based magnet school (of which some are very good). I don't like the busing approach because it assumes that some kids "don't deserve" a better education because their families did not or could not get them enrolled in the new district (because "they don't care."). 

I view the educational inequity of our city (and in America) as a problem of resources: economic, intellectual, and of time. Just 2 days ago I had a friend ask me, "Is math education on the computer and digital now, or is it mostly still on paper and with a book?" I told him that in my district (and other schools in the green section of that map above), math class is largely still VERY traditional. 

Kids get their expensive, hardbound math textbook, and the majority of the learning activities center around performing exercises out of that book or from worksheets. That's not altogether bad (kids DO need practice), but from my experience, that model only works for the kids that are buying into "school" and have a cultural/family support that going to school and getting good grades will get you into a good school and you'll get a good job and you'll have a good life. This doesn't work in impoverished schools because instead of graduating and moving on with that degree, because fewer people in these communities go to college, even fewer are successful in college, and even fewer get good jobs with those degrees (okay, so I don't have data to link on this right now, but I promise, I've seen some.)

What's the answer? "You have to give more relevant work. Give your students project-based learning units. There are a ton on BIE." This is a great idea, IF you have technology in your school to allow kids to research and work on these projects. So schools start to push PBL and get devices in all of their kids' backpacks, and create maker spaces in their schools to encourage students to explore their interests. 

What's the problem with implementing PBL? You need those devices and spaces available to students. High-poverty schools struggling to keep accreditation don't often have the extra capital around or the community support to raise funds to finance that technology. Extra money they do have is spent on tutoring, Saturday programs, and credit recovery classes so they can keep up their graduation rates. 

A school district doesn't need to be affluent to give their students technology rich environments, but they are forced to make choices. 

What do you need to make those choices? Dynamic leadership, community support, wiggle room on test scores (in case there's an intentional drop while teachers and students adjust to the change), capacity for change amongst the staff, lots of professional development, and probably a little bit of luck. That's a lot of pieces to fall into place for schools. Local district Maplewood-Richmond Heights was able to do that, but its been a 10 year (and continuing) process. 

As long as children of color have to wait on miracle grants to come and save their schools or rely on 5 or 6 variables of school improvement to all fall in line, we'll have a system that lacks equity for ALL children, and we'll have work to do.

16 January 2015

Algebra on a Chromebook: Google Search Math Tricks

Need a calculator?
Need a graphing calculator?
Need a unit converter?
Need to calculate a volume?
Need to calculate an area?
Need to find the measurement of the side of a shape, given one of its volume or area?

Your students (and you) can use Google Search to perform all of those tasks without ever leaving the browser window. Does it take the place of having a standard, standalone, scientific calculator? Of course not.

However, knowing these Google search math tricks help me to work more efficiently when I'm in the flow of a project. Having a browser window open is ubiquitous to the modern computer experience, so as often as possible, it makes a lot of sense to me to utilize what I've already got open and available. If I can perform the task without going to a specific online calculator or grabbing my physical calculator, it just makes sense.

So what all can I do?
1. Perform calculations the same way you might on a handheld calculator.
You can even do square roots or logs if you know the proper notation.

2. Graph equations of functions. 
Include a comma between equations to do more than one. Trace for specific values by hovering your mouse cursor over the function.

3. Calculate the volume or surface area of a 3D solid. 
Just type in volume formula of _________. Cone is shown here, but also works with cylinders, prisms, spheres, and pyramids.

4. Calculate the area of a 2D shape. 
If you only search, "area of _______," it will return the formula and give you a text field to enter your dimensions, but you can also specify a dimension in the search. In the example below, I specified a radius of 4 by including "r=___"

5. Convert units 
This is super important for project-based learning, "real-world" problems, or gathering information for 3-act math stories.

The drop-down menu that is currently on "digital storage" below also has options for temperature, length, mass, speed, volume, area, fuel consumption, and time units.

08 January 2015

What's a Library For?

Recent posts from MindShift, Slate, and Good on the future of libraries have got me thinking- 

Of the pictures below, which best typifies why does someone goes to the library? What's the main activity?

Historically, you're probably thinking of the picture on the left, but what about the future? What's the mission of a library? Let's take a look back to the gilded age and see what Andrew Carnegie, the tycoon philanthropist responsible for many, many public libraries' founding in the US, had to say about their importance:
"There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration."
“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” 
The irony of modern library funding is that organizations or regions with the most resources (and therefore, best libraries) are probably less in need of their power to democratize information and learning. What do our impoverished communities need more in 2015: books, or internet access? Is there still a role for physical books? Of course! There's nothing to replace (at least for now) the warm fuzzies of cracking open a new book and cuddling with my kids to read. 

But back to the role of libraries - it took a billionaire philanthropist to get the public library system a kickstart because books are expensive. Building up personal libraries or archives of books took a wealth of time, space, and money. But their role in expanding the knowledge base of a community are invaluable. Today, relying on books (a traditional, conservative view of libraries) is a model that can only be sustainable to a community that is not reliant on the real point - lifting the learning and resources of a community it serves. If you have reliable, consistent access to the internet to gather information, then you may not need the library in a traditional sense. You can use it more for memories-with-kids-warm-fuzzies. But ask someone who does not have that access, and a student will tell you how much they rely on the library to complete online assignments, an adult will tell you how hey went to the library to apply for new jobs or prepare their taxes online. 

This graphic from the New York public Library says a lot:

06 January 2015

Find the Antiquity in This MLK Poster-Essay Contest

There's something about the rubric to this Martin Luther King, Jr. essay-poster contest that just doesn't sit right with me. Can you find it?

I had a debate about this with one of my friends in my department, and he said he thought the "no computer generated art" rule was good for leveling the playing field for students who may not have access to a good digital art studio. 

I think the rule prohibiting digital/computer generated art does the exact opposite. I think sometimes my colleagues get the impression that I hate physical art and "traditional" processes. It's not that at all. If a child has the skill to do his or her best work with crayons/paints/markers/colored pencils, then by all means, they should. But if they don't?? Talk about UN-leveling the playing field.

I think the only thing prohibiting digital/computer generated art from this contest does is encourage kids that can write OR do the art to cheat and have someone else do the other requirement for them, or DIScourage kids who can only write to not enter at all.
Why do the organizers of this contest want FEWER kids to enter with LESS professional looking entries? I just don't understand.

05 January 2015

First Day of Semester, January 2015: Setting Class Culture

My first year teaching, I really wanted to do this well, but I don't think I knew myself well enough as a teacher (or a person, for that matter) to do it well.

There have been some years where I jump right into math content so the kids will know that "this is a serious class."

Jumping off from last semester's classroom climate success, I feel comfortable in my "voice" to set a tone of collaboration, meaningful work, and continuous-iteration for my Applied Math class this semester. Here are my slides.

They might be a little wordy, but I've got a break after my first section, so I'll be able to be to walk my talk, live "beta" and edit it before the rest of my classes for the day. 

02 January 2015

Giving Student Opinion Surveys: Data-Driven SELF Evaluation and Reflection

Being a reflective teacher isn't only about writing - you need to give yourself some data to write ABOUT.

I know that "data-driven evaluation" gets a lot of action from talking heads on any conversation about school reform, and good intentioned teachers and administrators argue both for and against using surveys as evaluative tools for teacher-effectiveness.

I don't exactly know how I stand about student surveys and test data being used on my official tenured evaluation, but I AM here to speak in favor of student surveys for YOUR OWN data and uses. 

I've given a paper or electronic form of this survey for every (nearly) every semester I've taught (I may have missed one out of my 7 years, back when I was still administering them by hand.) Back when the students took the survey on paper (before I had a class set of iPads), they were good to take a glance at, file them away, and make mental notes. I never did anything more with them because as I've written before, entering paper-based data into spreadsheets IS AWFUL.

If you really want to make the time it takes giving this survey to your students worth it, find a way to do it electronically (or make it short enough that you CAN reasonably transcribe the results) so that you can archive the results and analysis trends. 

I was anxious to analyze these results at the end of the semester because when last spring my results were NOT good. They were still acceptable with my AP Stats kids (my students who can "play" the school game the best), but for my other, lower-level courses, the results were disheartening. Nearly every quantitative question was as low I could remember it, and many of the open-ended responses said things like, "argues too much," and "too sarcastic." I went back further through past semesters' results and noticed a trend developing. This was not the teacher I wanted to be. I did a lot of introspection over the summer of how I viewed my role as teacher, re-examined some of my classroom policies, and (no matter what my official professional development plan says) made a goal to have a classroom where kids were comfortable and their teacher was an ally instead of an adversary.

The open ended questions further down this spreadsheet for this semester were very positive and several Algebra 1 kids said they would "recommend his class" (which I can't really remember ever happening on this survey), and that they were going to miss my class.

That makes me feel really good, but because I also have these quantitative numbers to go with that, I know in part their positive responses were because I was 58% more in control of class, was able to give 38% more individual attention, provided a 38% more relaxed atmosphere, and gave 14% more relevant work.

"Why are all those numbers important?"

I can hear you thinking right now.
"I was IN the room, Chuck. I know how my semester went. I know what things I did. I know how good I am. I even keep a journal. What good to me is this extra work?"
The value of doing this is that getting your students' opinions and reflecting on THAT will give you information you cannot gather on your own. When I was reflecting only on my perception of how this crazy, #Ferguson distracted semester went, I was feeling quite discouraged. Yes, some kids will use the surveys as a means to vent all of their frustrations (and that's of some use, too, I think. Even just this semester, I got a "can you fire this teacher" response), and some will use it to sugarcoat everything, but through my years of experience looking at my own survey results, I can tell you with confidence that your students will just tell the truth.

How do I get started?
You've got two options:

  1. Make copies of the PDF and have students fill out with pen/pencil (how I started)
    1. Pros: 
      1. not reliant on technology
      2. students don't have to type
    2. Cons: 
      1. analysis more difficult, particularly over several semesters
      2. "I forgot to make copies"/"I ran out of copies"
  2. Use the PDF above as a guide and create your own Google Form (how I do it now)
    1. Pros:
      1. No paper to copy/keep track of
      2. Analyzing/observing trends over time
    2. Cons:
      1. some of my students struggle with persevering through typing the open-ended questions on the iPad

One last note on administering the Google Form:
For the first couple of years, I embedded my Form on a Google site that I often used for class notes or our benchmarking bubble sheet (because I hate scantrons). This year I tried sending my students directly to the form via a shortened link (bitly.com/cbakersurvey), and I had fewer "Where is the survey?" "How do I get to it?" type questions.