Sunday, October 28, 2012

Technology in the MS Classroom #msSunFun

iPad apps (I have an iPad, my students do not):

  • Doceri: I just started using this last week after reading about it on @danbowdoin's blog. So far, I've made a few video examples for students to watch as review and for a sub to show when I was away on a field trip one day. It is incredibly easy to use, which is a huge selling point for me. You hit the record button and write with a stylus or finger while commenting on what you're writing. Hit stop when you're done and upload the whole thing to YouTube. Done and done. We are slowly, but surely, moving to 1-to-1 for students, so this would be a cool app for students to use to create videos for each other.
  • AirPlay: This allows me to mirror my iPad screen on my projector via an Apple TV device. I'm actually still waiting for the Apple TV to be installed in my room (any day now, IS...), but I've played around with this before asking for my own and it's awesome. You have the ability to project stuff wirelessly from anywhere in the room instead of being tethered to where the computer is plugged in. Although, I just saw that you can do this type of iPad mirroring without the Apple TV. If someone does this, let me know in the comments because I'm thinking of trying it also while I wait for that Apple TV to get installed.
Classroom Management Technology:
  • Edmodo: I'm using it for the first time this year, and it's so much better than my old class webpage for providing kids with easy access to class materials and encouraging interaction outside of class. Students often post questions (sometimes, they take a picture of their work using their phone or iPad and post that too) and answer each other's questions. They have arguments about homework problems (whose answer is right??) and post interesting math questions they are wondering about. So, so cool.
  • Google docs: I use these to survey students anonymously through Google Forms, get input on what music they want to listen to in class, and have them write and share reflections and conference preparation documents with me. I also use it to share documents with other teachers (for example, the other Algebra 1 teacher and I have a shared spreadsheet we use to plan out the unit), such as notes from meetings and committee reports.
Organization Technology:
  • Evernote: Started using this over the summer, and it's helped me be much more organized this year. Because I have it on my phone, iPad, and laptop and all the accounts are synced, I can track cool teaching ideas from twitter or blogs, information about students (including the missing homework form idea I stole from @approx_normal - I take a picture of each one and stick that in the note for that student), textbook sign-out sheets, and notes from meetings/conferences, not to mention personal stuff, like receipts, restaurants, books/articles I want to read, and vacation planning materials.
  • Hackpad: I blogged about this app earlier this year. I use it similarly to google docs, but it has the added feature that the name of the person writing shows up next to their text so it's really handy when you want to know which person wrote which part of a document.
  • Google calendar: Our school recently moved to Google Apps for Education, so everyone has a school google account. We use shared google calendars to keep track of shared events (field trips, meetings, and advisory activities) and large tests and projects to help make sure that we're not over scheduling kids or putting too many assessments on one day. I also need this for my own personal organization to keep from imploding. All events in my life go here and my husband and I can see & edit each other's calendars to keep from double-booking ourselves or our kid.

Default mode

This week was a little disappointing. I had been very excited about how the year had started - I put in a lot of work this summer to revise the first big chapter (exponent properties and polynomial operations) to make it more constructivist and engaging. There was lots of group work (including using my new big whiteboards!!), writing and reflection questions, and classes that built from exploration --> sharing out --> a teeny bit of summary from me to pull it all together. It felt organic and like the ideas were coming from the students themselves. Almost all of the students did a really great job pulling everything together for the chapter test - the average was much higher than last year.

Working polynomial problems in their groups

I had students give me anonymous feedback via a google form towards the end of the chapter (yay for actually doing one of my goals for the year!) and was happy to see how positive students were feeling about the class and their understanding of the material. My favorite quotes:

"I think that we should keep spending a lot of time going over homework and learning by making mistakes in the notes."
"I like how you have us interacting with others with our groups to solve problems."
"I liked how last year we consistently did notes, like a pattern, and at the beginning of this year, it was hard to adjust to what we do now. But now I realize that I like figuring things out in my own ways, not just following the repetitive steps on the notes."

Given how well things were going last chapter, I was surprised with how meh this week has gone. Classes felt boring and I noticed that I was doing lots and lots of the talking and that students were passively completing problems with little engagement and interaction. Then I gave a short & sweet quiz on Friday on some early factoring concepts (factoring by GCF and factoring by grouping). Holy cow. So awful. So so so so awful. It's like they learned almost nothing this week. I can count on one hand the number of students who did even remotely well on this quiz. Thinking things through, I've realized that I've completely reverted to my default mode of teaching - here students, I'm going to work through some example problems, and you just follow along. Now, you try some and I will help you if you get stuck. Oh look, class is over. Let's do that again tomorrow. Ughhhhh!! 

This quiz was a good wake-up call for me that old habits die hard and that I need to be vigilant and keep the big picture in mind for how I want class to go and what I need to do to make sure that it's student-centered and engaging and that students are actually learning and not just following along mindlessly. My plan for Monday is to provide one actual incorrect approach for each problem from the quiz (one per group) and have students analyze the error and explain what went wrong and how to do it correctly to the class. I also want to talk about study strategies because I definitely got the sense that few students actually reviewed for this quiz or did so in an effective manner. I made this handout to help them think through studying for math quizzes and tests:

Then, it's back to the drawing board for me to plan the rest of the week's lessons with what I've learned this past week in mind. It's nice knowing that every day, I get a fresh start and a chance to get things right.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Writing and reflection

One of the goals that I set for myself this year was to make writing a more regular part of my class, rather than the add-on journal entries I've had students write the past few years. Kids had been resistant to these (a few refused to do them at all) and I felt like I wasn't seeing much improvement as the year went on. Those who were reflective and took the assignments seriously got something out of it, but lots of kids did a crappy job, took a 1/3 or 2/3 score and moved on with their lives.

So this year, I started the first real unit (after reviewing last year's Algebra 1A material) with worksheets that kids started on in class and that had more problems and a reflection piece at the end for them to complete at home. Here's one (adapted very closely from CME Project Algebra):

Ch. 7 Day 1 12-13

I used the same writing prompt each day:

How well did you understand today’s lesson? Use one or more of the following prompts to help you answer this question (write at least a few sentences, include at least one example).

a. One thing that I understand really well from this lesson is…
b. One thing that I didn’t understand at first from this lesson, but now do understand is...
c. One thing that is still confusing to me from this lesson is...
d. Something that I’m wondering about that is related to this lesson is…

Some positives: 
  • Every kid is responding to these. Maybe because it's the last question on the assignment and they've already put in all the rest of the work, or because it is an almost daily component of their work and thus normalized, but I'm having much less resistance to writing this year.
  • I feel like I'm getting a better understanding of kids' misconceptions and questions. Yes, there are some who always say "I understand everything. Here's a trivial example." But lots of kids are taking the time to write about a problem type they don't understand or a question they have about the topic that wasn't addressed in class. 
Things that still need to be worked out:
  • Getting kids to use the example as evidence for what they are saying in words. I want the response to be a coherent piece of writing with the math embedded in the words, not as an add-on because it's a requirement to include an example. 
  • Having kids go deeper in their explanations, rather than just stating a procedure they used (or not explaining what they did at all). I want them to explain why their approach worked (if they're using prompts a and b) or where they got stuck (for prompt c). I would also like them to write more. I think that if I require at least a paragraph minimum, fewer kids (ahem, boys) would be tempted to just pick the easiest example from the notes and try to regurgitate it back to me in the fewest number of words possible.
Here's one of the better ones from last week because this student actually explained their example in detail. Again, I'd like them to go a bit deeper into the "why," but at this point in the year, I'll take it.

So, a few things that I know I need to do to promote better writing:
  • Give specific feedback. I've been saying things like, "needs to be longer" or "explain your example," but I should really talk to kids and tell them more specifically what I want them to change.
  • Show examples of strong math writing and have kids point out what the person has done well, in addition to things that they can still improve on. 
  • Tell kids why it is that I'm having them do math writing. Perhaps it would be helpful to (in general terms) talk about the research on metacognition and learning. 
  • Change up the writing prompts and have more writing responses to actual math problems. I just had kids do an investigation in class with the homework assignment being a writeup of the problem, their process, and solution, if any. Once I grade these, I will have a better sense of where they are at with their writing about math and where to go from here.
Any other suggestions??

Monday, October 8, 2012

Making Math Class Easier

One of the things that I've been thinking about lately is this idea of "making math class easier." @ddmeyer asked about people's opinions on foldables earlier today and linked to a blog post that stated, "I really wish I had math notes like these growing up…math would have been so much easier!" Now, I'm obviously not ripping on this woman. I'm sure that she's an awesome and caring teacher. It just really made me think about this idea of "easier" and whether this is what we should be aiming for in math education. I have seen lots of teachers teach "tricks" or "mnemonic devices" that are supposed to help students remember concepts and procedures. A colleague of mine tells her students about colored socks - she pulls two socks out of her drawer and if they are the same color, that's good, but if they are different colors, that's bad. This is supposed to help students remember that when signs are the same, the product is positive, but when signs are different, the product is negative. Most of us have probably seen the little mnemonic device for absolute value inequalities: greatOR and less thAND to "help" kids convert absolute value inequalities to and/or compound inequalities. There are a lot of these hanging around.

To me, foldables are in the same category of "cute" device that will help you remember something. Yes, kids love them. They are easy. All these devices are colorful or cute or make a little rhyme or whatever. But like it or not, I feel that there's a tension between this aspect of math and the side where kids are grappling with rich problems, constructing meaning, and having ownership of ideas. I understand that many teachers use these "shortcuts" as ways to summarize a concept or wrap up a discovery lesson. And hardly anyone gets away from teaching any shortcuts whatsoever. Maybe that's not the point. But I do think that we need to think critically about what we're doing when we emphasize these shortcuts. Even if it comes at the end of a deep, rich lesson, there's going to be a bunch of kids that are going to remember the "trick" superficially, and it's going to be what the lesson was all about in their mind. It's going to train them, to some extent, to expect tricks like that in the future and avoid the harder work of understanding and internalizing the concepts underlying the shortcut.

Yes, a hook can be powerful for motivating student engagement. But I think it can also be junk food that distracts us from the substantive meal, which is not as shiny or easy to digest at first glance. Let's look instead for ways to make the mathematics more profound, more apparent, and more rich for kids. It really doesn't need to be dressed up and tricked out because it's pretty darn awesome on its own.