Tuesday, 27 January 2015

My Students Built a Digestive System in Minecraft and Reshaped My Classroom

One of my regrets in my COETAIL course was that I didn't get to explore uses of Minecraft with my students. At the time, my students were involved in a demanding STEM project with multiple technology fronts and minecraft just wasn't a good "fit" at the time. I was really inspired to see how social studies teachers had built historical places in Minecraft in which groups or individuals could visit. Might this have some applications in the science classroom?

Image courtesy of CC

SAMR Explained
One of my big take-aways from COETAIL was the SAMR model which is a means to help understand what role that technology has in the classroom. Sometimes, tech acts as a substitute, with no functional improvement. On the other hand, some tools truly redefine what is possible and being able to utilize such moments is when a teacher has truly has used this in a way which has given it a transformational use.

The Problem Defined
At this point, I'll disclose that I'm a middle school teacher who is currently teaching a unit on comparative body systems-one of them the digestive system. Although it's easy to teach anatomy, I found the real challenge in teaching histology which is often a surface level understanding. Knowing that food goes in the mouth and out the anus and a made Minecraft a real possibility as there were many reactions and anotomical functions from ingestion to defecation that we could show.

A Minecraft Jam in A301

What I Learned
If we're learning about how to use a specific tool that is indispensable to our learning, I'll make it my point to learn about it backwards and forwards before doing it with my students. During differentiated work, I'll give students more freedom to choose tools that they're interested in. For our project in "Minecraft" I did a bit of both, creating a Minecraft account (25$) and installing it on my computer. Here are some of my key take aways:

The Kids are Experts. When we started, I disclosed that I might be a bit of a noobie to this and for kids to be patient. I got into worlds and played around to familiarize myself with the keyboard controls. After we started, I learned that I was not one of the worst students, I was clearly the worst student. However, it didn't matter. If students had a hangup, I directed them to one of the experts and the problem got solved.

Kids Love Focusing their Interests in Academic Areas Over the course of four lessons, I pulled interested individuals aside and made a plan for them to work on this in stages. As this was a resource and not graded, I though some interest might wane over time. Just the opposite. They loved collaborating and working together and during time at the beginning and end of the lesson, they made it happen.

Girls Love Minecraft Too. Generally, I see most of my male students playing the combat mode, but when I suggested this project, about 1/3 of the participants were girls. I love when girls get interested in science and engineering challenges.

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DocAppender-The Ultimate Peer Assessment Tool

Teachers know the power that descriptive feedback has on student learning. Guidelines that I've always adhered to is that descriptive feedback be specific and constructive. Starting with praise is a good introduction before moving on to areas of growth. Mr. D highlights the monumental difficulty of assessing large numbers of essays here.

Traditional marking on an essay (Image Courtesy of jennydavidson.blogspot.com)

I do a number of argumentative writing pieces in science throughout the year on topics ranging from evolution to the merits of atomic theory and with over a hundred students working on a writing piece, peer evaluation as a formative assessment has come in handy so I wanted to share how DocAppender has made this easier for me.

What is DocAppender?

What Doc Appender does is take a google form submission (which is collected on a spreadsheet) and adds it to the bottom of the document. This works very well in conjunction with Doctopus as the student documents are already housed in a folder. Typically, I have had the students print out their drafts and allow peers to mark on them, but use a Google Forms to assess the work using the project rubric. What I really like about DocAppender is:

  1. The evaluation is pasted in pasted in the bottom of the document. Papers often get lost, left in lockers, and having the comments in the documents for reference if students want to work on this outside of class time is great. 
  2. Using a form submission helps marginalize bias from other assessors. I have students print out two copies of essays, but if there is one rubric that has already been filled in or highlighted at the bottom of the document, the peer might give a similar evaluation. 
  3. Class sharing for peer review in doctopus makes too many documents. If you're like me and use doctopus frequently, you'll know if you give the entire class viewing or commenting rights on each other's document, everyone's incoming folder in Google Drive gets flooded with copies of these documents of their classmates. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

How and Why I Got Into International Teaching

Two weeks ago, my wife and I accepted jobs at Korea International School through a search associates job fair. We are so excited at the prospect of our new adventure but saddened to think of leaving the wonderful people that we've met working at Saigon South International School for the last 9 years. 13 in Southeast Asia. At the fair, there was an unusually high number of US based teachers, who appear to be leaving the US in exodus.

Image courtesy of CC
I typically write about new advances in educational technology, but for today, I thought I'd share some of our successes in the international school job search and also our reasons for teaching and living abroad. When we visit friends and family stateside, we inevitably meet people that look at us with a touch of skepticism and pity; for why would anyone leave the warm comfort of the United States? They assume we're English teachers and disaffected "expatriates" (a term I've never cottoned to) and must be unhappy with the American way of life. Separatists. Treasonous.

"Our daughter is getting her 529 funded and we'll have enough money to retire in our 50's."

The reality couldn't be farther than the truth. Nearly all the teachers I work with go home often and have lengthly quality time with family when they do. We file for US taxes so in some ways we're still living in "two" countries. You learn when you live in another country that some places do this better or that better, so here are some of our reasons for teaching and living internationally:

Cost of Living. The cost of living is low, especially in Asia. Europe is a coveted destination but I wouldn't recommend teaching there unless you're either very young or very old-taxes eat up your earnings. (We learned as high as 46%) Asia is showing explosive growth and if you live modestly, you can save and live well. We eat dinner out 4 nights a week, and still manage to sock away $40,000 in savings between my wife and myself which we put into our retirement accounts and a general savings fund. Our daughter is getting her 529 funded and if we keep pace, we'll have enough money to retire in our 50's. The middle east has schools where you don't lose money to income taxes, so your saving is stretched there. Finding a good country in which to live there can be a challenge.

Travel Opportunities. We typically visit 2-3 new countries per year and take advantage of 14 weeks of holiday that teachers normally get. Within a 4 hour flight radius, you can be in an entirely different ecosystem. We enjoy scuba diving and are having trips this spring to Hungary, Austria, Philippines and a summer in Spain and Portugal.

Emphasis on Professional Development. Someone once said that teaching is a profession that "cannibalizes it's young" meaning that new teachers minus experience are often told that they're ineffective and leave the profession within 5 years. I agree that schools need to hold teachers accountable for delivering the curriculum with effective instruction, but in the battlegrounds that many schools in the US find themselves in, the onus seem to be if you can't put up quickly, you're out-little training, few second chances. All the administrators I've had the pleasure of working with overseas have given me great feedback and have helped shape me into the educator that I am today.

Adventure of Living Abroad. Every day is an adventure. You learn new languages and know that truly understanding a culture takes endless interactions. In a very real sense, your life becomes a peculiar and unordinary story. You doing this here, you going out to that there. Soon you're writing friends about your commonplace activities and eventually you realize you're not in Kansas anymore.

Image Courtesy of CC

I realize that the above may sound glamourous, and even a little bit conceited. However, teaching abroad is not without it's hangups and is certainly not for everyone. There's a number of variables that have affected peoples experiences and sent them scurrying home. They are:

Homesickness. Believe it or not, many adults get homesick after experiencing the above, and yearn for their departure. If there are certain things that you need to do to be happy, ask yourself, will you be happy in this new location? How important is it that you go fishing or hunting on the weekend? Camping? Such things are uncommon and novelties in developing countries. If you have a sick parent that requires your care, being on the opposite side of the world is the worst thing.

Poverty. The third world is not for some people and in many parts of the world it is the norm. A few years ago, we travelled to India after having visited some pretty poor countries, but the poverty in India was crushing, even from a tourist's point of view. We had seen mothers that had hacked limbs off their children to gain sympathy and more handouts, and we had routinely seen the same children with deformaties "passed around" between different people to help elicit handouts.

Companionship. The community within the international school is usually pretty tight and is it's own best support network. Because of this, sometimes its hard to meet anyone outside of school so you end up being married to your co-workers. Single teachers can find it a little hard too but we've known many single men and women who have married staff members and locals alike.

"How important is it that you go fishing or hunting on the weekend? Camping? Such things are uncommon and novelties in developing countries."

Creature Comforts. Having "lost in translation" moments, which do happen often, will have you asking "What am I doing here?" You'll find that it's harder to know where to buy things when you first settle into a new country and you realize how good you had it back home. For example, we struggled with finding a place to sell us ice in huge quantities before a party and had to call a staff member to order it for us, which usually resulted in late delivery. Eventually, we found a store in our neighborhood that delivered it for us, but it took years to find. We have a saying "TIV" which is "This is Vietnam" which is an all around punchline to many of our plights.

How We Got Hired
I wish I could say that there is a magic formula for getting your foot in the door for the International teaching scene, but there is not. There are some things that you can do to make your presence more "known" but there are exceptions to everything I'm about to say below and we met some candidates who didn't have some of the following but still got hired. Here they are:

Image courtesy of CC

A Great CV. Here is an older version of my CV and my recruiters at KIS told me that it really stood out from the crowd. I've seen some CVs that look a bit over-colored and too fanciful. Remember-A CV should be scannable yet still make you stand out. Highlight workshops that you've attended on upcoming trends (I did on a MOOC on NGSS) and this was one of the first talking points from my recruiters as they are moving into using NGSS standards in their middle school for science, so I seemed like a nice "fit".

Build an Online Presence. I have a pretty heavy online presence if you Google "Gary Johnston Saigon South Teacher" made from my blog, youtube channel, forums, journals and other social media. This is a powerful way to connect with other teachers, share what you've learned and start a following. Evolve from a lurker to a contributor.

"These skills will make you desirable as you will be seen as innovative and anything but static."

Build a Portfolio. Similarly related to the first, a portfolio of your teaching and student learning makes the things you do with students tangible and visible. Portfolios used to be physical, but digital portfolios are becoming more and more common. A blog (like this) is good, but if you don't want to build a professional one, one of your classroom happenings is a good alternative. One of my co-workers used "Blendspace" to amalgamate some snippets of student work that she put together just for the hiring season.

Continue with Professional Development. If you have a professional development fund, use it to it's fullest. Ask yourself: "Where do I want to be in 2, 5 and 10 years?" Follow through with implementation learned at workshops into your school. Be a leader. Volunteer to lead workshops. These skills will make you desirable as you will be seen as innovative and anything but static.

Prepare a Elevator Pitch. If you go to a job fair, you may be meeting recruiters on the fly or signing up for interviews when you have a stack of people behind you. Prepare a 1-2 minute "Elevator Pitch" that is succinct, highlights expertise and shows off your good side. You're trying to score an interview.

Be Down to Earth. We interviewed with a number of recruiters and something I learned in retrospect was that although interviewing is a balance of professionalism, skills and personality, it's important to be down to earth. Recruiters want to know if you're not only someone who can get things done, but that you're pleasant to work with and like working with others. Talk about how you have resolved conflicts, acted professionally in the face of a challenging situation and are an all around likeable person. I talked about University of Oregon Football with my recruiter for 10 minutes before we started talking shop. Show your personal side. Show your sense of humor.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Saturday, 3 January 2015

50 Rockstar Chrome Apps and Extensions for 2015

Happy new year! I've been working on a collection of chrome apps and extensions over the last few months for a presentation this spring, so I thought I'd share them early. If Stacy Behmer is out there, I want to give her a big shout out as she was a big inspiration for me at Google Teacher Academy.

Image courtesy of CC
Chrome Apps and Extensions are ways of customizing your browser to add enhanced functionality. Some of these are old, some are new, and some lean towards my practice of being a math and science teacher, although most have applications regardless of your discipline. I've curated some of my favorites that I used (and many my students used) last year and broke them down into categories such as:
  • Building your PLN
  • Presentation Tools
  • Content Curation
  • Content Creation
  • Organization
  • Supporting ESL Learners
  • Unleashing the Awesome
  • Managing your Digital Footprint
  • Games and Tutorials to Inspire

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