Friday, November 15, 2013

The Changed Mind of an iPad Skeptic

So a couple years ago, my principal emphatically attempted to get me and the rest of the staff to board the iPad hype train. A few teachers bought their ticket, but I was more interested in the laptop monorail. I thought the iPad wouldn't take me where I wanted to go, and that a laptop in my students' hands was immeasurably more powerful. Now, two years later, I do believe I've changed my mind.

I guess it was somewhat an indicator of my age and the speed at which technology moves. When did I cross the threshold of no longer being in touch with the latest and greatest technology? I remember being skeptical because "you can't type on an iPad! You can't feel any keys, how are you going to type documents?!" Wow...just look at the speed and efficiency with which students today text and type! Even I have gotten much better with touchscreen keyboards, although I'm still an old fart who prefers a physical one.

"How can an iPad support the upper-grade classroom? Sure there are tons of 'Number Cruncher' apps out there, but how does an iPad enhance my students' learning experiences?" On this point, I will give myself credit where credit is due: when iPads were first working their way into schools, there really were an overabundance of crummy apps that were basically time sponges and rote learning devices. Heck, there still are way too many of them floating around on the App Store! But now, there are also plenty of choices that really do enable you to do things never before imagined possible in the classroom.

All this is to say, "I really love Subtext."

Subtext. Somehow I came across it on the App Store a year or so ago. It was one of those cases where you're browsing the store, see "Free" next to an app that sounds somewhat interesting, you install it, and it sits in a folder, never having been opened. But woo doggie am I glad I checked it out again earlier this school year!

Subtext allows you to pull in web content from pretty much anywhere, PDFs, or eBooks and assign the articles to a group of students. The app magically translates web content into a readable format that detects text, and then the real excitement begins. As a teacher, I can create assignments, polls, questions, web links, quizzes, discussions, etc. for my students to complete in Subtext.

For example, right before Halloween, I shared The Legend of Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving, with a group of students. Included in this collection was the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, some prime Halloween-y reading material.

As students began reading, they encountered green tabs in the margins that indicated assignments. They had to highlight and tag words and phrases that created mood and tone.

They had to respond to text-dependent questions I sprinkled through the text like Easter eggs in the backyard.

They participated in polls to gauge their understanding of the story.

They answered T/F and multiple-choice questions designed to attract their attention to important passages.

They asked questions to determine meaning, and they responded to each others' questions within the app to enhance understanding and start true, rich literature discussions.

All the while, I could track their progress, identifying who was way ahead in the story and who was slowly trudging through the complex text. I could see who was having to look up words every other minute, and who was struggling to correctly answer the questions I had placed. I was able to work one-on-one with students who I could see were getting behind, and promote discussions between students by digitally inviting all students to a particular page and passage. I was grading assignments students were completing right there by dragging an intuitive slider to indicate percentage and leaving comments on what I wanted to see and what students did well.

All this was happening simultaneously, and it was amazing.

I'm now hooked on the idea of 1:1 iPads in the classroom. At one of the sites where I work, they have an iPad cart for each grade level. We're looking into getting Subtext for two grade levels and immersing ourselves in the workflow and capabilities of the app. At my other site, I find myself desperately wanting those brushed aluminum devices to share with anyone who'll listen. "Look what I can do!"

I'm finding more and more uses for iPads in upper-grade classrooms. From Edmodo to Educreations to Socrative (each of which I'll likely write about in the future), the iPad is becoming the device that can change (for the better) how we teach students and how students show what they know.

I can't wait.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Not Calling on Those Who Know

I've been thinking about this topic for about a week now, and one question has stuck with me: Why do teachers not call on students who know? I know I'm guilty of it, but seeing it from another role in the classroom has really given me cause to stop and consider the philosophy behind this practice.

From my own experience teaching, I used to not call on students who I believed knew the answer because I thought that it would stifle class discussions, or because I thought that somehow I would reach more students by refusing to call on those who I knew were with me. Instead, I would pick on those who I thought would be *close* to being right but who needed a little push.  Or, even worse, I would call on a student who I thought wouldn't know the right answer.  That'd show 'em, right?

Wrong.  Thinking back more carefully now, all that philosophy promoted was the thing I was hoping to avoid, to an even worse degree: by not calling on those who knew, I stifled their contributions to the class discussions I was longing for!

The solution is so simple, it's amazing I taught for so long without ever really implementing it.  It's a strategy I was just reading about on Ben Blum-Smith's blog.  It's something I tried bringing into a classroom last week, and it's something that I know can be extremely effective:

Have students summarize, revise, or add-on to others.

Simple, right?  Why did that take me so long to discover??

Last week, I was teaching a lesson about absolute value and found opportunities ripe for this technique.  Students were trying to create an equation that would reveal how close everyone's guess was from the actual number of candy corns (ew) there were in a large jar.  The discussion began as it logically would; students proposed subtracting the actual number from the guess, or the guess from the actual depending on which was bigger.  I pushed students to think further, though, since I wanted to use a formula in Excel and could only use one equation for all guesses.  I gave students a few seconds to discuss in their table groups, then called on a student to share.  It helped that I don't really know these kids, so I could not make any form of informed pick.

The first kid I picked on proposed an idea that was close, but no cigar.  Instead of saying, "No, not quite.  Who else?" I asked, "Can anyone paraphrase what Johnny just said, or revise or add on to what he said?"  I then cold-called a student, and I really made them sit and think.  Normally, after an awkward moment of dead silence, I'll move on; this time, however, I reminded the students that they could, if necessary, simply repeat what the previous student said.  This eased tension a little bit, since even if I called on someone who had no freakin' clue what equation to use, they could just paraphrase what the previous student said.

I did notice, however, just how little students listen to each other.  I thought they just didn't listen to me!

I'm sure that with regular implementation and lots of practice, this technique could be used to ignite some serious class discussions.  It's also a focus area for my school, so that teachers become more of a facilitator than a "sage on the stage."  I can't wait to try it out more and encourage others to adopt the practice!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My "Classroom"

I signed up for Exploring the MTBoS partly because I had no idea what "MTBoS" meant.  Everyone was mentioning it on the sites I had recently discovered, so after some research I decided that I wanted to get involved.

My situation is somewhat interesting this year - I'm in a brand-new role (for me and my district) as Instructional Coach.  I'm lucky enough to be a full-time coach, split between two different sites.  Being a coach, though, means that I don't actually have a class of my own.  I'm also not only coaching teachers of mathematics - I'm also working with teachers on writing, language arts, you name it!  As a result, some of my posts on here will have nothing to do with teaching math, but maybe they'll still be useful to others.

By far, my favorite rich, open-ended problem has been a 3-Act Math lesson with Bucky the Badger.  I've written about it before on this blog, so I'll just briefly sum it up.  I found Dan Meyer online, watched a few of his YouTube videos, and was hooked.  I immediately brainstormed ways I could use this in the classrooms with which I'm working and found a willing participant guinea pig.  After some prepping (I basically took Dan Meyer's Cambridge penny pyramid talk and created a generic script), I nervously entered the classroom to begin the lesson.  I'd never done this before, and it was all a grand experiment.  Oh yeah, and I had two other teachers observing the lesson.  "This had better go well," I imagined them commanding.

I showed the class a short video to introduce the lesson and then asked them to write down any questions they had.  What did I get back from these wonderful young minds?  Blank stares and blank papers.  They could not (or would not) ask any questions!  I panicked.  I showed the video again.  I pleaded, "Please, write down ANY questions!"  And then, the spark caught.  Students began sharing, and I soon struggled to keep up recording the questions they called out.  We generated a long list, and thankfully one student asked the question I was hoping the class would ask.

We began diving into the lesson, and students truly struggled to find an entry point into the problem.  They multiplied.  They used exponents.  They drew function tables.  Finally, about five minutes in, students began to get the brilliant idea of drawing a table and just filling in data.  They worked for about 45 minutes straight on the problem, and shared out their thinking for other students to examine and scrutinize.  Some groups arrived at the correct answer and cheered when "573!" appeared on the video.  Others immediately went back to their work to determine where they went wrong.

The big picture for me was, "these kids just did an hour of intense math" and "students cheered when they saw the answer!"  I knew at that point that I had to share this with as many others as I could.

What made this problem and experience so rich was that students really, genuinely struggled to get started.  There was no list of clues to lead them toward the answer; when they asked me for help, I responded with questions of my own; when they shared their answer, I encouraged them to question each other and justify their steps.  All of these critical activities would have been pretty much impossible to complete using word problems for the textbook.  The kids were hooked.

Going back to my own classroom last year (and the six years before that), what made my room unique was my rapport with students and the class culture I tried to create.  I really emphasized students sharing thoughts and discussing with each other, and I wanted everyone to feel comfortable with what they thought and develop confidence in their own abilities.  Whether that happened or not, I'm not positive.  I'm starting to see that, from my coaching vantage point, I still had a lot of growth to make.  I do feel that I am (and was) on the right track, though!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Bucky the Badger

Okay now, seriously: this lesson is incredible.  I've now used Dan Meyer's Math in Three Acts format to solve a problem involving Bucky the Badger in three different classrooms, and every single time I've had students cheering and hollering when the answer is revealed.  What other lesson in math can achieve the same results?  I had students doing intense, solid, persistent thinking for more than an hour and twenty minutes with only one or two complaints!  One girl in one of the sixth grade classes kept sighing dramatically and saying, "This is taking too long!"  But she stuck with it, was on the right track, and ended up helping her group solve the problem correctly.

One class worked for 45 minutes before they realized they didn't have enough information to solve the problem!  When they came to the realization, they had gotten deep enough into the problem that they knew what to ask for, obtained the information, and got right back to solving!

This whole new format to problem solving is pretty eye-opening and inspiring.  Students have been engaged, interested, curious, and really thinking about numbers as they've been working through this problem.  I absolutely cannot wait to introduce this problem to more classes and see how they do.  If you haven't been to, you have to go and search for some problems.  Or better yet, look for math in your own daily life and create your own three acts!

I know that my next step is to have students figure out what the best route I should take to work is using Google Maps with traffic updates, and I want to figure out if it's cheaper to take lightrail to a Sharks game or just drive (and whether the difference in money is worth the potential difference in time).  So many possibilities!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Drawing Conclusions with Neanderthals and Cotton Candy Grapes

I've already mentioned newsela and what an amazing resource it is.  I've been sharing it with everyone I can - teachers at all grade levels, other coaches, my wife, everyone!  Some are more interested than others, but I have yet to hear anyone give a "yeah, but..." response.  Actually I take that back - I did get one "yeah, but it's only for grades 3 and up," to which I responded, "yeah, but a teacher could certainly use an appropriate article at lower grades to model reading strategies and provide scaffolding for students to understand a more complex article.  Plus, many of the articles go down to the high-600 low-700 Lexile range, which is part of the grade 2 Lexile band range."  Booyah!  Take that "yeah, but!"

Anyways, I wanted to provide some additional resources that would help teachers thoughtfully incorporate newsela into their reading instruction.  I'm afraid that teachers will set up a class, give the code to their students, and then just say, "Okay, have at it!" This is too powerful a resource to waste on independent reading for fun or as a sponge activity.  So, I developed a series of lessons to teach a very difficult skill - drawing conclusions - using articles from newsela.

It begins with an article on Neanderthals using bone tools instead of simple stone tools.  We're able to draw certain conclusions using evidence from the text:

  • Neanderthals must have been much smarter than most people think
  • The tools found at this site were actually made from bone, not just sticks or stones
  • The fragments found at the sites were used as actual tools and weren't just leftovers from a prehistoric meal
I guide students through a close reading of the article, paying special attention to the top-heavy organization of news articles, the various heading, the high-quality photo and caption, and the headline.  As we read, I model piecing together evidence to draw one of the three conclusions above, and I ask students to scan the text to find additional statements that support the conclusion.  We have a healthy discussion about why that evidence is relevant or not, and we discuss how conclusions that have very little evidence or that rely solely on other information (background knowledge or "I heard once that...") are not valid.

Then, students register for their newsela accounts (if they haven't done so already) and begin reading a pretty awesome article about a geneticist who has been cross-breeding grapes and selling them at insane mark-ups to farmers.  Students then practice drawing conclusions with this article, and a revelation becomes apparent - these sixth graders have no idea how to draw their own conclusions.  They can support conclusions that have already been made, but they can't do it on their own during independent reading!

So we use this guided practice exercise as a starting point and a diagnostic assessment.  The original one-day lesson is evolving into a multi-day series of lessons using 8 articles from newsela to practice this important skill.  I hand-pick high interest, relevant articles and the students will practice identifying evidence and drawing conclusions using a gradual release of scaffolding that begins with evidence and conclusions on sentence strips and ends with students drawing conclusions completely independently.

We have yet to get to step 2, but the groundwork as been laid and the teachers whose classrooms I've gone into are committed and excited to work with the resource.  The hope is that they see the awesome potential of the site and will commit to not just saying, "Read some cool articles and take the 4 question quiz."

We'll see, I guess!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Feeling Inspired

I've now begun my foray into Instructional Coaching.  This is a first for our district, so it's been a bit of a muddled mess figuring out how I can be helpful for teachers.  However, I think I'm on to something effective.

First, through an online classmate, I've discovered an amazing resource for 3-12 grade teachers:  New articles are uploaded every weekday by a team of journalists, and articles have been vetted for content to make sure they are appropriate and relevant to students (although if you're teaching in the lower grades, you should definitely do your own verifying first).  But that's all pretty standard stuff until you get to the big "WOW" factor - articles can be adjusted on-the-fly for varying Lexile levels!  This can be done on an individual basis directly by the reader.  So once a teacher has set up a class, students register into that class and then begin reading articles, which can be assigned (or hidden) by the teacher.  If they're reading the article and are like, "huh?" they can adjust the reading level down to make it more accessible.  All the articles are CCSS-aligned as well, addressing one of the reading anchor standards.  The site is still in beta (which is good because it's free!), and new features are being rolled out constantly.  The latest I've seen is highlighting the text, which is pretty amazing in its potential.

Secondly, I've been particularly inspired by Dan Meyer.  His Math in Three Acts philosophical teaching shift is really amazing and activates the part of the brain students seem to be lacking - curiosity.  I watched his Pyramid of Pennies demo lesson with teachers at Cambridge and was hooked, and I've used Bucky the Badger with a class of sixth graders to some eye-opening results.  Several alarms went off during this lesson:

  • Students watched the video and many had no questions!  They were so used to having the question asked for them that they were truly confused when I asked them for questions.  We had to watch the video twice to get them even curious!
  • Students instantly disassociated the situation from the math.  When I asked them what the least number of push-ups they could imagine Bucky doing was, they said two!  With a score of 83!  Either they were totally lost on the pattern, or they ignored the situation completely and just started thinking of the math rules.
  • I saw a group of sixth grade students who got the correct answer cheer and fist pump when Act 3 revealed the answer.  They were hooked!
I couldn't tell enough people about my experiences with this lesson.  I felt so jazzed and excited about teaching just from this hour-long lesson (and an hour wasn't nearly long enough).  I even had a former student determined to reach a solution after school - and this was a kid who wrote a program in 4th grade to show long division for him because he didn't want to take the time to do his long division homework.

This week, I will be teaching that lesson to as many classes as I can.  This is what the CCSS Standards of Mathematical Practice are all about!