Monday, 22 December 2014

Platforms For When You Leave the Textbook

With the prices that textbook publishers charge cash-strapped schools to use their materials, I predict that textbooks will not last the next ten years. I've been told by one colleague in another school that one particular textbook they use in high school science costs over $200 per book. Couple that with having to replace them every three years or so and textbooks can end up being a huge expense for schools. Yes, they are succinct, packaged, highlight specific vocabulary, and scaffold up to more cognitively challenging tasks. However, for many teachers though, the book ends up being the curriculum rather than supporting the curriculum at a somewhat mechanized pace. In short, it ends up "teacher-proofing" the curriculum and it becomes hard to deviate from it, the pace, or its activities.


Online learning platforms are changing all that. Where the thought of piecing together resources to help build content understanding from a variety of sources may seem that daunting, a number of creators have helped amalgamate content that can be delivered and monitored even before coming to class. This also can free the teacher up to meet with students that struggled with content lessons and provide class time to enrich some students that have shown competency or compacted out of others. If you're a fan of flipped learning, these have great uses.

CK-12 is a non-profit company that aims to increase access for K-12 schools. Once signing onto the dashboard, you will be given the option of creating "class lists" that have a sign in code. Simply direct your students to the link, use the classroom code and you're ready to rock and roll.

The dashboard in CK-12. In the Q&A forum, students ask clarifying questions to each other about lesson concepts which helps me identify lessons for upcoming classes.

If you look at the dashboard above you can assign readings or suggested material in the "Shared resources" tab, or go to the "Assignments" tab and assign specific lessons (many of which have comprehension quizzes) that are to be conducted before or following a lesson. What I really like about CK-12 is that by clicking on the progress report, I know how students did on a particular lesson which helps me group individuals (like those who got below a certain %) for remediation or suggest to others differentiated or extension activities. 

The reports tab. A mouse click identifies comprehension scores so I can hone on individuals that seemed to struggle with concepts and provide more individualized instruction. 

I have many online online contacts that love Schoology. Like CK-12, teachers can invite students, create class lists and track progress. I think what makes Schoology attractive is that it has a calender to help students get organized with regards to due dates of assignments. I have not used this yet, but may try this next semester in place of CK-12 to compare the two.

The dashboard at Schoology.

Khan Academy
I got my five year old daughter on Khan Academy and she loves it. I haven't taught math in two years, but Khan Academy has improved the amount of content, lessons and tracking abilities for teachers and our MS teachers are using Khan Academy for math instruction. There are roughly 900 math skills to master and it makes sense to do them sequentially although I mastered the fourth grade curriculum before the third grade curriculum.

My daughter's progress on Khan Academy. I can see what I need to practice with her and what skills she's mastered. 

Coincidentally, I'm reading Sal Khan's book right now, "The One Room School House" which is fascinating although the thing that resonated with me the most is how he advocates for mastery learning, meaning students should learn 100% of the content and skills before proceeding. This is inherent in Khan Academy's pedagogy as you must get a certain number of problems correct in a row before achieving a "level up" on that skill. This is a strong point as we often think of a student that earned an 75% or "C" as satisfactory. However, would you want the doctor who is operating on your parent's heart during surgery to have 75% mastery in medical school? How about the mechanic who serviced your plane before that long transatlantic flight?

The Bottom Line
Leaving the comfort of a textbook may be a leap of faith for many teachers, but the start of a new semester after the holiday may be a good time to try something new and invigorate what has become a boring routine. My advice is to start by setting up a "practice" class yourself wherein you can log in as a student. Some platforms are very similar as well. CK-12 verses Schoology. Khan Academy verses ALEKS. Talk with other teachers and share your success and hangups with each platform. Our MS math teachers are collecting data on the success of ALEKS and Khan Academy in grade 7, and I'm really eager to hear of the findings next spring.

Still, they cannot replace a classroom of teachers that provide help and activities for mixed ability students. Don't become overly reliant on it, or relegate classroom time to only having kids work their ways through tutorials. Provide direct instruction, tiered instruction, learning centers based on differentiated interests and hands on activities and labs. Setting a classroom culture of learning will help minimize problems of classroom management which will help pave the way  for students to become self-directed learners.

Related Posts
Making Flipped Lessons Meaningful
Implementing Math Stations
Khan Academy Steps Up It's Data Use
Challenge By Choice

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Graphic Organizers for Visible Thinking

I'm really excited that my division is focusing on vocabulary as an area of focus in order to boost reading abilities for our students. After our MS principal used stop highlighting and we decided on cut scores, we disaggregated our three strands of MAP test data on reading to identify an area of focus. As a division, we all agreed that we could improve our teaching of vocabulary. We did a "data in a day" walk-through protocol and adopted some graphic organizers which classroom teachers would use with increasing frequency. Both of them have roots in "visible thinking" and have resulted in my students showing a much better understanding on exit interviews as formative assessment.

Frayer Model 
The Frayer model starts with the concept word in the middle and then around it, students put definitions, facts or characteristics, examples and non-examples. The non-examples are particularly helpful for ESL students as some words have multiple meaning. For instance, a few weeks ago, we used the Frayer model to highlight the difference between a "conductor" in electrical circuits and a person who leads an orchestra. I went into the Google docs template gallery for a blank template and then have some online versions or have copies printed. 

The frayer model is good for words with multiple meanings like "conductor" In this case, a fulcrum is a popular character in a television show.

CSI-Color, Symbol, Illustration
CSI starts with the terminology and then students write what "color" they associate with this concept before moving onto a "symbol" and then "illustration". I first used this for the word "Testing" as we would be doing product testing for an engineering unit and I learned (not surprisingly) that students had many negative and stressful feelings, colors, symbols and pictures associated with testing. In this case, the word "testing" and use of the CSI template were meant to foster a background knowledge check of what "testing" was and show them how checking a design can be helpful in making it better. Here is a free template to get you started. 

Image Courtesy of

Monday, 8 December 2014

My Students Completed 20 Hours of Code-What Now?

Last week, our MS participated in "Hour of Code" through code academy. In the middle school, this happened in science class on Monday and Tuesday. Through the teacher dashboard, I created a class which gave me an access code that I could email to students and set up tasks for them to do. I assigned the "20 hour Intro to Computer Science Course" and it was scary on how fast some of them breezed through it.

After creating tutorials for my students to do, I can see track their progress. 

Now What?
After our hour of code, a number of students continued with their intro to computer science course in their free-time which is basic block building, Scratch-like foundations for Javascript. Formative assessments from lessons later on that week indicated that some students had a great handle on some of our content understandings so I encouraged these individuals to try to and use coding to illustrate basic vocabulary terms that we've been learning about as differentiated extension activities.

Those who had made the most progress on Code Academy had developed enough skills to make quick animations of this vocabulary which I was able to put on our website as supporting resources for others. See some examples here and here. From my gallery below, it's obvious that coding has obvious connections for mathematics-specifically, geometry, angle studies, symmetry, and the coordinate plane.

My big take away this week was when a student asked me what the app should do, to which I said: "You tell it what to do. You're in charge, and you have the freedom to be as creative as you want. Remix something you've seen, or create something no one has seen before!"

The progress dashboard. After a number of tutorials, the "make an app" button appears.