Tech inside the classroom vs. outside the classroom

ImageIn my Honors Geometry class, when I ask my students the definition of a word, the students begrudgingly look in the appendix of their text for the 1991 explanation of the unknown word.  In the hallway, minutes later, the same student will pull out his or her phone and quickly either Google it or use a dictionary app.  

Why does the classroom door dictate how our students treat the acquisition of knowledge?  What have we, as teachers, done to them to make their Pavlovian response to our questions an often outdated one?  Why doesn’t the classroom mirror real-life, in their eyes?

It’s because we haven’t allowed it to.

I don’t memorize anything in my life.  Nothing.  Not even my mother’s home phone number.  Yet we, as math teachers, are supposed to expect students to memorize the various equations for conic sections, symmetric about both the y- and x-axes, just to name one example.  It makes my head spin just thinking about it.  

No thank you.  It would take me 20 minutes to come up with some clever way to remember the equations and, even then, it would just be some meaningless tool to get through the test/quiz.  Those 20 minutes could have been spent doing something meaningful.  So why do we do it?  What 21st century skills are we teaching our students by having them spend time memorizing, when we could be letting them use that time collaborating or creating???

Here are five skills that we should be incorporating into our lessons.  But are we?  And if so, how?

  1. Manipulate Pictures
  2. Write a Blog
  3. Record Audio Tracks
  4. Create a Website
  5. Make a Video

I am not advocating ridding my Honors Geometry class of its formulas and proofs.  But I AM suggesting that instead of having students memorize facts, they should be allowed to create their own booklet with definitions, theorems, and formulas that are relevant to them.  I am advocating that the students should be given a chance to design a lesson and create a video that teaches that lesson.  

I’m not saying that all of these goals can be accomplished in my class.  I am, however, saying that these skills are a group effort and should be a goal of the teachers as a whole.  

Can we all work together to get this done?  I sure hope so…for the students’ sakes.


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Only half the story…

So, with this blog having less posts than parent teacher conferences I have had this year alone, I feel that there is a bit of back story that could lend itself to possible future posts. In an effort to not have to explain myself later (and to prolong grading my second set of final exams), I will now give you a bit of backstory.

I have been teaching Honors Geometry for 4 years now.  Every year I “reinvent” the course.  I put this in quotes because I, of course, cannot reinvent geometry.  Not high school Euclidean geometry, at least.  My first year, I hurriedly typed notes daily, and I lectured to advanced (but undoubtedly bored) 8th graders.  The second year, I compiled these notes into chapter packets and taught virtually the same way as year one (Promethean + notes) with decent success but little variety.  Year three I made a goal: not to teach the lesson the same way twice in one week.  So I did inquiry based learning.  I did learning with play-doh.  I did lectures.  I did discovery learning.  Can YOU write a formula for this situation?

I got great feedback from the students.  “Class was fun!”  But my students still spent tons of time on the suggested, yet optional, homework.  And even then, they often wouldn’t check their solutions with the thoroughly worked-out solutions online.  Class was excellent, but they were perpetuating terrible problem solving in my absence.

This year, I decided to attempt a modified “flipped classroom” approach.  The students’ homework each night is to read a section of the textbook.  This takes them 10-15 minutes…maybe.  Having a choice in the textbook is key here.  The students are encouraged/allowed to write down definitions, theorems, and formulas into a booklet (I suggest a Moleskine…they’re sturdy and look collegiate).  When class resumes the following day, we spend 5 minutes or so recapping the reading, and I make sure the students have gleaned the correct information from the text.  I also answer any questions they might have about what they read.  Then, for the remaining 35-40 minutes, we work problems together.  I compile questions (that used to be assigned for homework) into a worksheet that the students either collaborate on or complete individually.  We discuss the results, sometimes one at a time, sometimes as groups presenting solutions, and sometimes as a “game” with points awarded for the most correct answers.  In this way, I am able to see the students’ thought processes in real-time and stop them from making any conceptual errors more than once.  It is critically important that if a student makes a mistake, he or she understands what went wrong and then is able to correct the error. Many problems after that must be solved correctly in order to replace the poor strategy that has already formed synapses in the brain.

I am hoping that I am helping these students to learn to critically read a text, take useful notes, apply those notes to problems or questions, collaborate to find solutions, and then deliver those solutions succinctly and with proper grammar to a group of their peers. On top of that, I am trying to “rethink homework“, as my recent purchase urges me, and to alleviate some of the nighttime stresses of my overworked students.

After 9 years of teaching, and 4 years of teaching this exact same subject, each year I find new things to try and old things to tweak. I cannot imagine that I will ever look at my curriculum and methods and say, “Yup, that’s it. I’m done,” and just teach that way forever. Each year there are new studies and new methods and new technologies that make my job as ever-changing as a computer salesman.

Not every teacher sees it that way.  I bet they get more sleep than I do.

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Student-Chosen Curriculum

I fought to introduce a new course to our curriculum this year – one that I taught years ago at a similar school in Los Angeles.  We called it Topics in Mathematics and “sold it” as a liberal arts math class for senior level non-math/science majors.  Basically, it was the only non-calculus track 4th year math course available.  I loved it so much that I brought it to my current school where it is currently in its inaugural year with questionable success.

In the three months of school so far, we have studied set theory, permutations and combinations, probability, voting and apportionment systems (to go along with the election), statistics, and financial math.  While the students probably enjoy these topics more than they would a traditional calculus-track course, they still don’t quite have any ownership in the areas we study.  In the era of proliferation of information, where students can buy echapters with ease, I wonder if it’s not a better idea to have the students do a bit of research at the beginning of the year on possible topics, and then to decide what they want to study.  This way, the curriculum is planned by them, and they get to choose the math they want to learn rather than what I think they need to learn.  

I don’t know whether this would be successful or not, but it’s an idea.  Definitely something to toss around at some informal teacher gatherings…

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Blog attempt: Take 2

I’m two months into trying to become a “connected learner“, and tweeting, blogging, and 21st century teaching , in general, are all goals that I am currently trying to cram into my ever-shrinking free time.  So here goes Round 2 of the education blog thing.  Wish me luck.

I once kept a blog about my life.  I had it for years in my early 20s, and updating it was the highlight of my morning.  Now, I am trying to spice up my internet presence and make my digital footprint a bit more about my work and passion about teaching math.  Movies and Maker’s Mark were interesting a decade ago (and still are, actually), but they take quite a backseat to my profession and my addiction to becoming better at what I do.

But why can’t I write about teaching math as often, and with as much passion, as I wrote about nothing a decade ago?  Maybe I’m less self-involved.  Or maybe I wake up at 4:30 and I just don’t have the time like I did in my 20s…

But I digress.

As I attempt to tweet and Link-myself-In, I am looking through this checklist of what a 21st educator is supposed to do and feeling a bit overwhelmed.  If my only job was to teach, I’d be golden!  But the age of the teacher/lecturer is one of the past, or one reserved for PhDs that work at the university level.  That’s not me.  I have to update online assignments.  I have to sign up on a google doc for a test day.  I have to post notes and solutions online, and make sure that I communicate with students who are absent (or their parents).  I have to read and respond to email.  I have to attend real and virtual meetings, and even lead some of my own.  I have to design lessons that engage all students – the visual learners, the hands-on learners, the auditory learners – simultaneously.  At the end of the day, I have to update my class websites and make sure that what was accomplished in-class is preserved digitally for all of my sleepy students to reference.  And on top of it all, I have to retain some semblance of being an adult, with actual human interactions with people that are over the age of 18, for at least 1 hour per day.

So how do I become a 21st century educator with all of this on my plate?  

Luckily, I think I’m already on my way.

Being a 21st century educator is, from what I can tell, not too different from what I am currently balancing, albeit sometimes poorly.  The key component that I need to work on, however, is collaboration.  And by collaboration I mean a relationship that entails more than me “borrowing” a Harvard professor’s Multivariable Calculus notes from his website.  

I need to work with people (who know I am working with them), and to build relationships that are mutually beneficial.  But what do I have to offer?  What are my ideas?  Right now, so much of our world is about forwarding and retweeting and hyperlinking and commenting.  What about the initial thought?  How do I become a thought leader?

Hopefully, I’ll get some clues soon.  In the meantime, if I come across anything good, I’ll forward you the link.

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Playing with Dough

While at my most recent conference in Grapevine, Texas, the last day of sessions was clearly filled with the “less popular” topics.  I had an afternoon scheduled with “Problem-Solving with Chess” talks and two sessions with NASA Engineers focusing on incorporating projects (think bridges and rockets, I imagine) into your classroom.  As part of my future plans, I will be teaching a course at my school’s Engineering, Math, and Science Institute next summer and was hoping to get some great hands-on engineering projects for these students to design, build, and test.  The last day of the conference was going to be my big score.

Or so I thought.

This is not really the point of my post, however.  The point of my post is that, at the last minute, the NASA engineers all backed out.  They canceled their sessions and I was left looking like a confused kid in a new school on the first day of class, wandering around aimlessly and just wanting to go home.  But I ended up in a room where “Playing with Dough” was the topic at hand, and Geometry was the subject under assault by the childhood molding device.

In the spirit of open-mindedness, I stayed.  And low and behold, it was my favorite talk of the conference!  The speaker, Marsha Scott of the University of Texas at Austin, really knows her way around Play-Doh.  She covered elementary ideas such as defining a segment versus a line, as well as more complex topics such as area of parallelograms and circles – all using Play-Doh.

As part of my Geometry curriculum overhaul, I decided to incorporate this magical dough into my classroom on a fairly regular basis and, being the go-getter that I am, emailed Marsha to see if she wouldn’t mind sending me any files that she had regarding her lessons.  And while she had warned us that she did not have them typed up (they were once on floppy disks, but had since been lost in a series of moves), she did, however, send me these two files:

Lessons #1-8

Lessons #9-16

They are scanned images of her once-typed files, which I plan on re-typing and sending back her way (old-school bartering?).  Anyway, for my small collection of readers, feel free to send these along.  I’m planning on using them in my Honors Geometry course at my fairly-prestigious private school, so I imagine they would work in any Geometry course setting.  Plus, let’s by honest, Play-Doh and hands-on learning is pretty fun.

Here’s to hoping the students don’t sculpt penises out of their Play-Doh on the first day…

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Geometry Makeover

For the 7 years that I have been teaching, I have been a lecture-based teacher.  I’ll admit, I think I’m the funniest person I know, so I toss in a bit of humor and I figure it can’t be that bad.  Students come in to hang out during their lunches and off periods, so I know I can’t be that despised.  But when I think about what students remember from my class, I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with Geometry and everything to do with my dry wit and eclectic musical taste.  Not quite what I’m going for.

This year Geometry is getting a head-to-toe makeover.  Homework is going to be on the honor system (I’ll update you on the success/failure of this endeavor as the year progresses).  Notes which I used to type up in LaTeX, turn into interactive whiteboard flipcharts, and hand out to the students are a thing of the past.  Students are going to create their own booklets with definitions, theorems, and key facts.  Theorems are first going to be learned through hands-on exploration, and then by doing proofs.  Concrete first, abstract second.  I’m stealing ideas from great teachers across the web (thank you edubloggers) and trying to piecewise-function my own lessons from them.

Productive item of the day: my syllabus.  The best part of my syllabus is the last page where I explain the grading scale and what competency means.

Grade Scale

Productive item of yesterday: putting faces on my office supplies.

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Peaceful Space = Better Teaching?

My first faculty meeting of the year, my first year teaching, started off with a joke about the fact that a teacher’s fully and elaborately decorated bulletin board was as important as the content the teacher covered in the course.

“I’m in the wrong place,” I thought.  “And I don’t even have a bulletin board.”

Years later, I realize that I was in the wrong place and that bulletins boards mean nothing.  At least to me.

This summer I have spent some time making my classroom my “happy place.”  It needs to be a safe space for kids, and a place of learning.  It needs to be set up so that every seat is a “good seat”.  Yeah yeah, I get all that.  But during the school year, I spend more waking time in my classroom than I do at my newly purchased house, so it makes sense that my classroom should be a place that I find relaxing and comfortable, a place that is peaceful and a true home-away-from-home.  It should also have as few sharp objects within arms reach as possible.

All of these things have come to fruition and my room is nearly finished.  The highlight of my classroom is my “art wall.”  In my sparse spare time, I like to take photographs.  I pride myself in my “art”, as I have had no formal training and I do no digital alterations once the picture has been taken.  I point, shoot, and print.

And this summer, I framed some of my favorites and hung them on my wall.  It’s not a bulletin board.  It doesn’t post any class news or sayings.  It’s much more than that.

While this has no bearing on my teaching specifically, it makes my classroom a place that makes me proud and comfortable – a place that is uniquely mine.  And hopefully this will, in turn, make me more peaceful and less likely to throw the sharp objects that I have kept out of arms reach.

Here’s hoping the kids don’t laugh at me.

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