Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Genius Hour Chronicles: Day 1- Project Planning

I just had my first session with Genius hour with my seventh graders. I didn't really know how it would go and I was overcome with tugging feelings of intrigue, and nervousness. If you don't know, Genius hour is modelled after Google's 20% time, wherein employees were given some time during the time to play and explore and interestingly, many of Google's innovations have arisen through this non-structured time. There are a lot of teachers who have been blogging about this activity, so there is a good support community out there (see @GeniusHour on Twitter).

Passing Fad?
I've tried to read multiple points on this subject. Ewan MacIntosh writes a fabulous post about how the focus needs to to still have self and peer assessment and how a clear defined goals stand to make planning a smooth process or this is merely a passing fad. My favorite point he makes is:

"You can't expect 100% of creatives to be 100% creative all the time when there is no common vision"

In other words are we being too optimistic thinking that simply designating some personal choice time will cause the most recalcitrant student to suddenly blossom, unconstrained by traditional teaching to the middle? I too was curious to know if students would be super engaged and motivated, or would there still be some that were indifferent or apathetic. The fact is that Google is harnessing the best and brightest of the world and my middle school students represent a huge swath of competencies, English abilities and academic strengths. To apply the same formula for two such different academic groups may be a recipe for disappointment so we decided to keep this experiment within grade 7 (not 6 and 8) and focus this as a first semester experiment before we decide whether to continue this into the spring.

Image Courtesy of CC

The Response
90% of students had 2-3 ideas that they brought to class. Most of them were very interesting, although some needed some tinkering so that students knew where to divert their focus. Shawn and Quint wanted to put Mentos in Coke and watch it explode. Turns out they know that it explodes but don't know why, after a few seconds they wordsmithed their question to "What is the chemistry of a mentos and coke reaction?"

Phantee wanted to investigate the chemistry of why glow sticks glow. Mel and Kim wanted to perform intellegence tests on our classroom hamsters. The menagarie of questions and topics focused primarily on life science and physical science, but earth science topics were sketchy. One child, Lisa, wanted to present on the theory of space time and has become an avid reader of Stephen Hawking.

After a 50 minute session, all students had a worthwhile investigation on their Trello board and said they were all extremely jazzed about jumping in. I wonder how I'll manage the long game when they finish their projects at different times.  

Su-Min's Dilemma
I had one student that came in and had spent no time thinking about his project nor had no interest. He was an extreme case; and coincidentally had transferred to our school from a neighboring country and was pretty bummed about leaving his old friends behind. I had provided a number of science fair idea websites for the students to access and after sitting down with him personally, he chose:"Does the color of a food affect whether of not you'll like it?"

Building a Class of Inquirers is Key
Our middle school has a good culture of teaching students to ask questions and not be dissuaded from mistakes, disappointment or failure. If we didn't, I think that just suddenly trying to implement such a program would feel forced and awkward. Science teachers have been doing 20% time for years as science fairs have been around since forever. Are such projects not the result of such planning and work time?

Monday, 26 August 2013

Manage Science Projects With Trello

If you're looking for a way to manage many long term projects, Trello is a great tool. One of our teachers used them last year with her students and our administration has started to get the staff on Trello accounts to track. As part of our genius hour (20% time in science) for students to independently pursue questions and topics of interest, it was essential that I had a way to be able to check in as to the progress of various student's stages of work along with what is "next" for them. Our genius hour projects will span the entire year and some students may pursue one topic of interest during that time and some might investigate several.

The Trello Dashboard
After creating an account, the user creates a "board" which is a topic of interest, unit of study, or project to be completed. In my case, i created a board for each of my two science 7 classes and had them create a Trello account themselves. Once that had, after clicking on my board I could invite others by their username to participate in the project.

Trello's dashboard tell you which "boards" you have created.

Building Project Boards
After the students had created an account, it was a snap to add them to my board. Some of their projects were explaining how something worked or answering a curious question. They were able to outline their project and it became very clear who was doing what and what are the next steps.

Students give updates on the Trello board. They can outline their plans, identify resources.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

New Mindmapping Tools to Turn Inquiry into Understanding

Ah, the start of a new school year. We've just finished our first week of school and we're still into the "first two weeks of school" routine. Getting to know students and setting them up with all the accounts has been the start and finish with most lessons for me and I'm wondering if the person whoever coined the phrase "digital native" has had the trouble that I've had with getting students to write down usernames and passwords, and bookmark important websites.

After such organizational issues have passed, (and they will) I'm really looking forward to exploring some new mindmapping tools that I learned about over the summer. They can be used to gather information, research, and generate some content ideas and build a body of knowledge about any topic.

Popplet is a content creation tool that starts with a concept and then images, video drawings or text can be added around it. As soon as I started using it, I thought that it would be a good research tool, but I quickly learned that it has great applications as a glog type of display that could be used to showcase student generated questions that can be shared and embedded as below:

There is a catch, Popplet requires a sign in process and users get only 3 free poplets, so it is something you may want to use sparingly. Still, the product is sleek and versatile.

PearlTrees is not only a mindmapping tool, it is a sharing tool wherin the user creates "Pearls" that have links, pictures, videos around a central idea. Similar to Pinterest, Pearltrees can be shared among a community of viewers. PearlTrees has real applications if you're connecting with classrooms or doing cooperative learning where groups may be researching a topic but sharing their findings with others.

example of EE in IB extended essay / IB / Educational / Useful links / clarinette (clarinette02)

Share anything on Android by downloading Pearltrees

The real draw which I like about SpicyNodes is that they cater to teachers. There are a number of great lesson plans already on their website and students follow along, making "Nodes" as their form of a webquest.
Products can't be embedded, but users can see products via a URL. Here is a writing piece and here is a project overview about whether or not the prison system is working.

Visiting SpicyNodes on their websites ensures an interactive experience

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Present.me Verses Youtube Webcam capture

One of my colleagues got a starter account for present.me which is an online video capture tool. As I got some good learning activities and assessments in place last year, I wanted to explore more content creation this year with more of my own videos for flipped assignments. However, one thing I've always neglected about youtube is the fact that it allows you to record videos via your webcam which may be of use to the classroom teachers. I decided to put both to the test.

Present me has a nice interface and after creating an account, brings you to the dashboard which allows you to create a variety of slides, video, or combination thereof.

Present.me's Dashboard
After recording a video, the creator is given a URL link (I wish embed codes were generated initially but what can you do?) which they can make accessible to their students. I recorded this first video on the scientific method which addressed some of the big ideas of the week along with some essential questions for students to ponder before returning to the next class. When I went to the URL, I found that embed codes and sharing options were in fact given.

After being directed to a video, embed and other sharing options are available.

Youtube Webcam
I think many people don't realize that youtube allows you to record videos of yourself with the webcam feature. After hitting the "upload" button one of the options in addition to uploading a file is to record with the webcam like seen below:

Uploading a video on youtube allows you to record with the webcam as seen on the upper right.

I wrote a pretty viral post on VideoNot.es last week that has a great capacity for taking notes which is compatible with youtube so if you want students to take notes on videos you create, this might be a nice option.

The Bottom Line
If you want your videos and discussions to be private, Present.me is a great tool. For educators concerned with safety and privacy of their classes, this might be the better option as users are directed back to the website and view the media within those confines. Present me is a little clunky with regards to accessing your content. You have to indicate which email you want it sent to, go check your inbox, paste in the link, and after going to the site, only then will you find embed codes.

I like youtube purely for the compatiblility of it with other applications and perhaps a touch of vanity as it allows me to build up my digital footprint of media that I have made as a teacher. If you don't want the trolls spoiling your fun, just disable your comments. I've heard that youtube has some occasional webcam issues that may be problematic, so trial both and see what works for you.

Friday, 9 August 2013

The Need for Better Reporting

I have a good relationship with the parents of my students. I have a reputation as a teacher that pushes students with many inquiry-based learning activities and I've developed many high quality assessments and formatively assess often. I send email notifications to parents every couple months appraising them of learning activities and mix up traditional testing with PBL. I'm highly organized and even manage to partner my classes with others around the globe for international collaborations and projects.

However, an interesting thing happened on the last day of school. A couple of parents came on on the last of school, to dispute the "D" that their daughter had earned in my math class. This was the first time in as many years that I've had parents come in to complain in as many years that I can remember. I had a mountain of evidence that showed that their daughter had failed to complete or was late on half of the semester's worth of work, external assessments validating internal ones along with email notifications to the parents that they ignored, sub-par evaluations going back months, and anecdotes when she had ditched review sessions with me. My administrator joined the meeting and was defending me wholeheartedly.

Still, the parents had the audacity that "the school had failed their child".

Image Courtesy of janemitchinson.ca
One wonders what has inspired the shift in responsiblity as shown in the cartoon above. Teachers have been proven to be the most effective indicator of academic success but numerous articles have shown a strong correlation between parental involvement and student success. Some great reads are here, here and here. I too have written many times on the importance of partnering with parents as they can be our biggest ally but what happens when parents are indifferent and unresponsive?

I argued that poor grades and failure can lead to success and we must use poor scores not as an excuse to resign, but rather an warning to intervene, refocus and plan. During my confrontation, the father argued that no child should ever be given a grade lower than a "C" as to not cause "psychological harm". I wonder what will happen when a child is shielded from failure their whole life and is suddenly sent to college.

Grade Inflation
Still, it brings the question, is there a problem with grade inflation? Surely teachers would like to tell their administrator and parents that everything is peachy, but I think there is a real danger in raising internal test scores from F's and D's to C's and B's. It seems like this is done in a very arbitrary way such as students bombing an assessment and than teachers raising their score up to a 70% if the student merely comes in to review their mistakes or dropping the lowest grades of the semester. Studies have shown that GPA's have risen steadily although external assessments have flatlined or fallen.

Image Courtesy of gradeinflation.com

Sobering Case Studies of Grade Inflation Ignored
Take the case of what is happening in some  D.C. schools. Students have been swept up the middle school ranks with poor skills in the hopes that they would blossom later. This "pass the buck" structure has led to a bulge of students in grade 9, where students cannot be promoted to grade 10 unless they pass grade 9. Why were warning signs not taken heed earlier? "Someone did not intervene early enough." Said D.C. Principal Stephen Jackson.

Or go to California where completion of Algebra 1 in grade 8 was needed before moving up. Tracking found that 80% of students who retook Algebra 1 for the second time failed anyway. From this perspective, it's no wonder students progress upwards, regardless of ability, because statistically, they won't fare much better if they were held back. By not dealing with student skills early on, students moved through middle school feeling entitled and didn't make any effort to improve their student work habits and study skills. By the time they were freshmen, they didn't learn the experience of reviewing, questioning and meta cognitive experiences to become academically successful. They had no persistence or grit. A number had dropped out.

The Push for Standardized Testing
Diane Ravitch summed up the standardized testing movement with a great rationale: "because teachers can't be trusted". Mrs. Ravitch was not in defense of this statement, but rather using it as the quid pro quo of why standardization is seeming to become the trump card for internal assessments as they're more objective and honest. It's no wonder why this blunt tool is the weapon of choice for many reformers rather than qualitative feedback. However, since externalized test scores are reflective more of a parent's socio-economic status and zip codes (which correlate to higher or lower school funding due to tax revenue) perhaps this tool is only validating the inequities of rich and poor school districts.

I'll finish with a quote from Vicki Davis, who said that she is the "teacher that her kids need. Not the teacher that her kids want.". This is a reminder to both sides of the aisle and all vantage points in the debate. We all have vested interests in our student's education. We need to be honest. Assessment should be reflective and accurate. However, we too must be open to compromise and listen. Educators can have a supportive and loving classroom culture but at the same time have high expectations and not be shy about demanding excellence from our students. The choice is each of ours.

ASCD Policy Points "A Nation at Risk" April 2013"
Progress for D.C.'s Ninth Graders "Why Wait So Late"

VideoNot.es: Best Flipped Classroom Tool Ever?

I'm in the midst of trying out a number of video creation tools in the next few weeks. I learned about VideoNot.es at the end of last year, but didn't have a chance to trial it for myself until just now. All I can say is "wow".

Basically, what VideoNot.es does is allow a user to watch a video and simultanous take notes along side the video within the same window. It's compatible with Youtube, Vimeo, Khan Academy and most importantly, it can synch with Google Drive which is great if you're working in a Google apps school.

The VideoNot.es dashboard. Notes added on the right are synched with the video time

The real advantage is if you assign video content to your students and want them to generate questions, answer them or practice summarizing strategies, they don't have to do it on another browser tab. As you can see above, the video URL brings the video on the left side with the right available for writing. By installing VideoNotes within Google Drive, students need only to hit "create" and it pops up alongside documents, forms, etc.

When clicking on "Create" simple scroll down to "install apps" and install VideoNotes.

With so many note taking platforms on the market, it's nice to have them all in one location. After watching this video on Ecosystems, I was able to save it in my drive and take advantage of sharing settings.

My Notes on Ecosystems automatically was saved in Google Drive for easy access later.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Organizing Student Blogs for Dynamite Conferences

This article first appeared in Fractus Learning on July 31st, 2013.

Next to standardized testings, there is no more contentious issue in education than the use of blogs. Should students use them? What is the proper age to start? Is it a passing fad? Do these really correlate to academic achievement? Of course, whether or not classroom teachers are bloggers themselves is a big factor in their use as well. Personally, I have cringed at the end of every year when I see students get handed back hard copies of their labs, investigations and writings and throw them straight into the trash, never to be seen again. From this standpoint, blogs can be a very powerful framework for preserving learning activities and showing a student's evolution and growth as they progress upward through the school. Furthermore, they give an audience to their work which they may not have in isolated classroom settings.

Image courtesy of CC
Image courtesy of CC-Traditional learning journeys are done out of a binder of custom made folder.
Many elementary teachers have student led conferences called "learning journeys" which chronicle these steps. As a parent myself, I find these vastly more interesting than sitting down with my child's teacher as they summarize their grade book which I can access anyways. I you're starting to use blogging within your school, blogs can be a just as versatile way of showing student understanding and achievement in a way that really shows creativity, inquiry and application rather than spreadsheets and data points on edline or powerschool. I'm not discrediting the importance of data as per student achievement, but rather advocating that blogs can be a great portfolio of work that many parents may not get a chance to see.
As a teacher who has been utilizing student blogs for the last few years and a person who manages 6 blogs myself, I've learned a lot on their use. If you're new to student blogging and are considering use them next year, here are some ways that you can showcase student learning at your next parent teacher conference:
Organize a Blogroll. A blogroll is a spreadsheet of set of hyperlinks that direct the user to each student's blog homepage. If your IT administrator has not set them up, it is easy to do it yourself on spreadsheet with hyperlinks. When parents walk in, their child's portfolio is only a click away.
Have your Name and Subject as Separate Categories. When students get their laptops and access their dashboard, instruct them to create categories for both you and your subjects. I still find a few errant posts that haven't been categorized from my students, but by categorizing their posts, they'll be able to filter their portfolio to find content or teacher specific work. This is especially handy for MS and HS teachers who share students with 8 other educators. If you teach the same child over a number of years, it is great to be able to look back at the improvement of their work over time!
Have students create categories for your name and subject.  
Have students create categories for your name and subject.
Have Quality Work on Blogs. I've read that a number of teachers use student blogs for everything. Formative, summative, you name it, it goes on the blogs. What I have found in the last year particularly, is that some students don't like to blog about any and everything. I think there was an assumption in thinking that because our digital native students are increasingly texting and tweeting they would naturally want to blog all the time. However, some of my students have confessed that some of them value their privacy and anonymity much like how someone writes in a journal only to themselves. Consider having students put their best work or a piece of work of their choosing as a blog post which exemplifies their skills.
There Are Ways to Show off Non-Core Subjects. For language arts teachers that teach word processing, a blog may seem like a natural extension to show writing abilities, but what about other subjects like PE, or performing arts? The PE teacher at my old school used writing in a very creative way when after a game, he had students write a summary of the game in the voice of a sports commentator. He also made short videos of major games so students could embed media around the text. If you're a performance arts teacher with Fall or Spring concerts or dances, consider taking some video or pictures so students may embed and reflect on the experience afterwards.
Don't Worry if You're New to Blogging. Try to have a least 1-2 pieces of work per semester that you think are worthy of publishing and hence showcasing at your upcoming parent teacher conference. If your school is in a stage of soft blog implementation, your experience in using student blogs as a learning portfolio will serve as an example for recalcitrant colleagues or administrators.
Image Courtesy of CC 
Image Courtesy of CC-Blog based portfolios don't diminish learning, but make learning products more accessible and interactive.
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