Maybe it’s not that simple

I encourage you to explore the following website:

http://selfiecity.net

You’ll find some of the coolest, dynamic, interactive data representations representing… of all things… selfies. And the characteristic differences that reveal themselves when you look at more than 650,000 Instagram photos from major cities on 4 continents.  As you can imagine, there were some fairly predictable conclusions. For starters, given that the median estimated age was between 20 and 30 in every city for both males and females, it seems that as selfie frequency in adults decreases with age. But some conclusions were, perhaps, less predictable (at least to me). For example, only 4% of the randomly-selected Instragram photos were selfies. The other 96% were of other things. I encourage you to explore the incredible amount of really, really cool stuff the researchers discovered.

Of course, this served as a reminder to me that even the most seemingly simple expressions are often quite complex and can have some very important reasons guiding them.

As a teacher, I’d often get frustrated with why I couldn’t seem to change fairly easy-to-understand problems like students not wanting to study for tests or students failing to complete homework assignments. These seem easy to explain (or so I thought). The kids didn’t have enough time to study. The assignments weren’t worth enough points. The kids didn’t care.

But, like the selfie, those simple observations are much, much more complex that it would appear at first. And my attempts to solve those problems with correspondingly simple fixes revealed that there was more going on than I originally thought.

That assignment was worth 25 points and they STILL didn’t do their homework? (Because your homework assignment is designed completely wrong and they didn’t know how to do it. Make it work 1,000 points. That won’t change the assignment.)

I gave them a week’s notice and they STILL didn’t study for their test? (Because you never explicitly stated your learning goals, so they flipped aimlessly through their textbook. Give them a month. That won’t fix the fact that they don’t know what they are going to be tested on.)

I let them work in groups and they STILL are disengaged? (Because your assignment presented barriers to the 35% of your students who read below grade level and another 45% who didn’t do the homework last night. You have to lower the entry point so that every student can AT LEAST get started.)

Go ahead and explore the selfie data and remind yourself that most things aren’t quite as simple as they seem.

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Great Conversations and Important Lessons – Reflections on #MACUL15

Chance to Surprise you

#MACUL15 is over and yet it feels like it’s just begun. The conference ended after Two Guys (@2GuysShow) finished their closing keynote, but there were a lot of conversations that were just beginning at that same point. Some excellent conversations among some excellent educators. These conversations aren’t ending because the conference is. These conversations are just getting started.

Just like everyone else, I’m having my own conversations that I’m looking to keep going. And these conversations seem to have a few recurring themes.

The young people in our classes are capable of so, so much.

Often, the reason we are disappointed with our students’ performance isn’t because our expectations are too high, but instead because they are too low. Improved curriculum, classroom management, and updated assignments can play significant play roles in helping students achieve and #macul15 offered lots of chances to discuss this. Have you seen The Literacy Shed? Explore it and consider what it might do for our struggling writers. Videos with no dialogue that the students can watch, discuss, and then write the story for. Sometimes they just need help finding the words. There’s a math version, too.

But there’s more to it than that. Many of the presenters that I heard communicated a consistent message: Releasing the incredible potential inside of every kid requires meaningful relationships with caring adults. The kids need to know that they matter. That the community is richer because they are a part of it and weaker when they are missing. That each individual contribution has value because it reflects a perspective that is unique. Many kids have parents and coaches who fill those roles. Many do not. The teacher can be that caring adult. In the world of education, where so much is out of the teacher’s control, each teacher can control one thing: That they value each student in their class. As Amber Fante (@AmberFante) said, “When you believe, you teach differently… the underdog can become the hero.” If you haven’t watched her Lightning Session, you probably should.

There are few things as powerful as connecting our classroom to the outside world. 

Our students are getting more and more used to a world without walls. There’s a reason for that: Being connected to that world is really friggin’ cool. I met the two teachers in the picture below (who refer to themselves as Two Sassy Apples). They were honored on stage before Friday’s keynote. They wanted their second graders to be able to be there and see it. So… Facetime.

Sassy Apples Facetime2

It was such a wonderful moment. The students cheered and laughed through the phone. They shhhhhhh’ed at each other vigorously while the MC was introducing their teachers. I know this, of course, because I got the honor of holding the phone so the kids could watch. (It happened to be hat day in their class. They loved that I was wearing a hat, too.)

Sassy Apples Facetime

Consider what those kids are learning from experiences like these? Those students are learning that their classroom’s walls are really only there to keep them out of the wind and rain. Those walls don’t have to be barriers to things that were previously too expensive, too distant, or logistically impossible to bring to them. The awesome and exciting things that are outside those walls can totally come into their classroom. We have the tools to go and get them.

If you want to teach effectively with technology, real student growth MUST be the primary focus. And real student growth is a messy process. It takes mistakes, retries, feedback, patience. The timeline is indefinite.

2guys - success

And while we’re on the subject, the same is true for teachers updating their practice. Brooke Mulartrick (@brookem1015) did a great job of modeling a differentiated learning process in her session by creating experiences like these in her half-day Wednesday session. Something to challenge people at all levels. A chance to collaborate and get instruction. And a chance to contribute to a single product that serves both as feedback to the teacher and learner, but also a reference that the learners can take with them going forward. Just an excellent design.

Learning is learning. And learners are learners. Given similar conditions, adult learners look a lot like young learners. See?

These are adults on Thursday exploring Dan Meyer’s (@ddmeyer) Magic Octagon:

MACUL Octagon

And these are my students this past fall exploring The Magic Octagon in class:

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Those of us who primarily teach adults shouldn’t prepare for differentiation any differently than teachers who teach young people.

Couros Quote

With all learners, it’s less about the final goal and more about the process of learning.

And finally, anyone who says that secondary math teachers aren’t flexible, curious, or interested in learning new things? I would encourage you to reconsider. There are a lot of us who want to get better. You see why I’m not that concerned about the future of math education? We turn out quite nicely when given the opportunity to discuss it.

MACUL Selfie

And then I went to check out my #miched colleague Zach Cresswell’s (@z_cress) math session…

Zcress Full

Thanks for everything #macul15. Let’s keep these conversation going and see where they’ll take us.

Student Blogging: Off and Running

After the encouragement of a few folks (among them, Hedge (@approx_normal), Zach (@z_cress), and Jennifer (@RealJMcCreight)), I decided to move forward with my admittedly medium-rare idea to have a class start a blogging community. I needed their encouragement because I hadn’t ever SEEN anything like this done before in math class. I’ve seen examples at the elementary level. I’ve heard about English teachers doing this, but the benefits of active engagement in a blogging community to a class of math students was purely hypothetical.

So, with that in mind, I decided to leap (and then look at where I was once I landed.)

curious? alg2point0atphs.wordpress.com/

I decided to leap…

I sold it to them in this spirit: Algebra II is the last math class that Michigan specifically requires high school students to successfully complete in order to graduate. That makes Algebra II the series finale. This is the last season. A sitcom that they have been watching daily since 2004 begins it’s final season this fall. They have spent more than a decade learning different kinds of mathematics and Algebra II is where we show off how it all fits together. We are able to reveal where it was all leading.

The blog acts as an extension of that. If they are going to take anything of value from the dozen years of math we lead them through, they are going to have to internalize their experiences. The blog is going to give them an opportunity to make visible a portion of that internalization.

Here are the structures I am using:

I am requiring a single post per week, along with a single meaningful comment on another person’s blog per week. A post should be between 150-500 words (because they asked). This is designed to enter them into the world that I know exists for more bloggers than just me. That is, becoming observant of the world around you thinking what you might write about. (The first topic I asked them to write about was the most enjoyable math-related experience they can recall in math class.)

They are required to follow all of their classmates’ blogs. This ensures that their WordPress homepage readers are displaying recent posts.

I have a rubric that I will be following to hold student’s accountable for actively participating in the blogging community.

 

Already, this has allowed us to consider a variety of different relevant topics that are not normally relevant to a math classroom, but are darned interesting to talk about. The value of pictures and story-telling in conveying meaning, the consideration of audience, the use of images and movie clips, digital citizenship, etc.

It has worked to make the class more holistic, which needed to happen if we are really going to take the series finale approach to this course. There’s value in that because the last 10 years of math class haven’t just been about math content. They’ve been about math habits, problem-solving techniques, specific tools, vocabulary, and a variety of technology. To focus purely on content would be to miss an opportunity to help them make sense of all of those experiences.

And to solidify those things is to provide a springboard to launch the students into an opportunity for spin-offs once this required Michigan math series has reached its conclusion.

Here are the handouts I used to introduce the blogging community to the students. None of these handouts stood alone. All of them were given as part of a large-group question-and-answer session, so keep that in mind as you read them and notice details left somewhat vague.

Handout 1

Handout 2

Handout 3

My Most Recent Thoughts About Student Blogging

I have spent the last few months processing this temptation to integrate student blogging into my instructional practice. I have some medium-rare ideas. And some Iron Chef colleagues who do a nice job of focusing my thoughts and cooking medium-rare ideas. Like this very evening in a conversation with two such colleagues:

 

 

Like… bingo. That’s it.

 

So, here’s are my goals. Here’s what I’d like to accomplish:

A. I want to give the students a meaningful way to explore math topics, or think mathematically when they aren’t in my classroom. I don’t trust traditional homework problems to achieve this goal. I think there is value in understanding that in class we spend an hour exploring thoughts and ideas that have real value during that hour and the other 23 hours of the day. I’d like to create SOME mechanism that enforces that.

B. I want to give the students a chance to develop their own voice when talking, writing, and reasoning mathematically. Too often, I use gimmicky phrases, memorized lingo, and rigid vocabulary to guide student language. There are wonderful reasons for this. But, I want them to develop their own voice, too. I’d like to see them develop their own ability to verbalize a mathematical idea and…

C. I want to open the students’ ideas up to each other and to the greater math and educational community. I feel like this will offer a level of authenticity that simply having the students submit their work to me wouldn’t. Also, I want them to be able to think about the mathematical statements of another student and respond. I want to break away from this idea that the students produce work simply for my review. A mathematical statement isn’t good and valuable simply because I say so.

I think blogging can do that. I am sure other things can do that. Perhaps other things that are easier. Or less risky. Or have undergone better battle-testing. Or…

 

And as for the second question. The evidence would be a gradual improvement in the math discourse in class. More people talking, and talking better. Explorations becoming richer. Questions becoming an increasingly regular occurrence. Students trusting each other, and themselves, and not looking at me as the lone mathematical authority in the room. We would begin to talk and explore together, and sense-making would become a bigger and bigger part of what we do.

I told you. Medium-rare ideas.

I’m hoping that some more of my Iron Chef colleagues will take my ideas, season them, finish cooking them, and help me turn them into an action plan.

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My advice to the newly “en-Twitter-Blogged” (reflection on #edcampmm )

Today I got to meet a lot of folks at EdCamp Mid-Michigan in Charlotte, MI. Some of them are seasoned tweeters and bloggers (Elizabeth Wellfare – @ealfoster or Tara Becker-Utess @t_becker10, for example) and some are just starting out. A couple of people got set up with their very first Twitter handles today. Welcome. I talked to a couple folks who are interested in starting their own blogs (or rethinking the way they use the blog they already have).

Now, that EdCamp is over, we start the “now what?” stage of all the new stuff we learned.

What are we going to do with it?

How intensely do we want to attack it?

How is it going to be useful to us in the practice of constantly improving as educators?

All of these are fantastic questions. We discussed some of these issues already, but I want to offer a bit of encouragement and advice.

First, don’t be afraid to be selfish. (I believe Dan Meyer – @ddmeyer gave this same advice a few weeks back). By that, I mean that you are likely going to take a WHOLE LOT more than you give for a while as you start out in the world of twitter and blogging. That’s okay.

The first major idea is trying to decide what you want the Twitter feed or the blog to do for you and your professional practice. Sometimes the first step in that is seeing what other people are doing. How do they tweet? What do they tweet about? How do they use #hashtags? What do they blog about? What types of blogs/tweets are interesting for you to read?

Tweet and blog about the stuff you find interesting. Your blog and your tweets should AT LEAST be interesting to you.

Second, keep at it. When you first start tweeting/blogging, chances are that you (and a very few other people) are going to be the only ones reading. That’s okay. That changes over time. The more you write/tweet/interact/question/comment/favorite the more you will find people who are trying to do the same things you are doing. And THAT is what you want. You want to begin to form a network of people who are all trying to support each other in common goals.

Now, if you are brand new to this, follow me at @hs_math_phys. When you start your blog, tweet me the link to your blog. I look forward to reading your ideas and thoughts.

Finally, if you want a nice network of people who want to read your thoughts, check out The MathTwitterBlogoSphere homepage for a ton of GREAT bloggers and tweeters. Don’t let the name fool you, it’s not just for math teachers. There are takeaways for educators of all makes and models. They are good people.

Welcome to our world. Please don’t be a stranger. And Please, let me know what I can do to be helpful.

Why I’m not THAT worried about the future of math education…

A New York Times article by Elizabeth Green has made its social media rounds lately. “Why Do Americans Stink At Math?” has been tweeted/shared a couple million times by now, with good reason.

It’s actually a really good article with some good story-telling and relevant history, and all the data and examples to back up the title. It’s worth a read. (It isn’t a quick read, mind you, but a good read.)

As far as I can tell, the thesis of the article is in the middle of the piece:

The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work.”

The “traditional way” that Ms. Green speaks of is summed up a bit later in the piece.

Most American math classes follow the same pattern, a ritualistic series of steps so ingrained that one researcher termed it a cultural script. Some teachers call the pattern “I, We, You.” After checking homework, teachers announce the day’s topic, demonstrating a new procedure: “Today, I’m going to show you how to divide a three-digit number by a two-digit number” (I). Then they lead the class in trying out a sample problem: “Let’s try out the steps for 242 ÷ 16” (We). Finally they let students work through similar problems on their own, usually by silently making their way through a work sheet: “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” (You).

Green goes on to say that quite often teachers recognize the limitations of the traditional model, but have a hard time reforming it largely because of poor resources and ineffective training. From later in the piece:

Sometimes trainers offered patently bad information — failing to clarify, for example, that even though teachers were to elicit wrong answers from students, they still needed, eventually, to get to correct ones. Textbooks, too, barely changed, despite publishers’ claims to the contrary.

So, here we go. Sounds like a big problem, right?

Well…

I’m not that concerned. Ya know why?

First off, I don’t want to give the impression that I think that Green is writing untruths or is exaggerating. That isn’t where I’m taking this. American math education needs some serious work. But see, that’s where I get encouraged.

Let’s look at a specific bit of content. How about volume and surface area of prisms?

So, my textbook provides this:

Prism Clip

taken from Holt’s Geometry, 2009 Edition, Pg 684

 

These practice problems fit in with the “I, We, You” model that Ms. Green described in her article. Right on cue, the textbook appears to be pitching to our education system’s weaknesses.

But those weaknesses have entered a brave new world where teachers who have found models that work are not only willing, but also able to share them freely for anyone and everyone who might be looking.

For example:

Andrew Stadel’s “Filing Cabinent” is, by content standards, just another prism surface area problem. But, the situation he sets up is anything but ordinary.

Timon Piccini’s “Pop Box Design” asks a relatively simple question in a context that is approachable by practically everyone.

Dan Meyer’s “Dandy Candies” pushes the envelope on video quality, pushes the same content, and includes it in a blog post that discusses a competitor to “I, We, You.”

All those fantastic resources are available… for free. And the creators can be reached if you have a question about them.

A movement has begun. An (ever-growing) group of math teachers decided that it was one thing to discuss reforming math education and it was quite another to effectively reform math education. The group is getting larger. It’s inclusive. It’s welcoming. It’s free to join. And it doesn’t expect anything from those who join. Everyone does what they are able. Some share lots. Some steal lots. Some do both. The bank of resources is growing.

And this isn’t legislated reform. There is a genuine desire for this. I spoke in Grand Rapids, MI this past spring and was amazed that the crowd that was willing to gather to hear someone talk about reforming math education. Nearly 100 folks crammed into a room to have, what ended up being a rather lively, discussion about how to engage all learners, push all learners, and keep as many learners as possible interested in meaningful mathematical tasks.

2014-03-14 12.38.33

They had to turn people away from a talk on effective math lesson planning.

So, Ms. Green is certainly right. Americans stink at math. But there is a growing group of teachers who are aware of the problem, interested in seeing it solved, and now, more than ever, there are places they can turn to, people they can reach out to (and who are reaching out to them). And it is all available for free on technology that practically everyone already has.

So, forgive me, but I am quite optimistic about where this might take us.

 

I teach math (and film-making, and troubleshooting iOS, and…)

iPhoto

At #macul14, Erica Hamilton (@ericarhamilton) gave a wonderfully practical talk about how going 1:1 fundamentally changes the job of teaching.

For the last 6 years, I’ve been teaching in a 1:1 laptop program, although, to be fair, the number of students who have iOS or Android devices sends that ratio a lot closer to 2:1. With all that different technology in use, the instructional videos that our students just completed has been one big case study that supported practically everything that (soon-to-be) Dr. Hamilton discussed in Grand Rapids.

To summarize what I took from her discussion, teaching has always required a firm understanding of the content, the curriculum, the community, and few other things. Adding a 1:1 structure to the classroom doesn’t remove any of those classical understandings from the teacher, but also adds a variety of new knowledge bases that the teacher needs to draw on. The teacher now needs to understand software (and how to troubleshoot it), hardware (especially wonderful in BYOD schools), the network infrastructure (why are these computers so SLOW!?), and have some reasonable understanding of the tech background of the students in your classrooms.

In our project, I wanted my students to be able to record the video and publish it online, so I could collect and embed the videos in a central location for people to use as needed. As a math teacher, that’s a heck of a lot of non-mathy stuff that I need to know how to do. I needed to be able to use YouTube and Vimeo (and help troubleshoot error messages). I needed to introduce a few students to Dropbox when the mobile devices wouldn’t transfer the video to the computer (which was sometimes necessary). I needed to know how to create a website to host the resources (I chose Weebly). I needed to know how to embed the videos. And I needed to know how to support the students through these processes. (Side note: I was surprised how many of my high schoolers had never uploaded a video to YouTube.)

I’m a math teacher, right?

In addition to all of that, I wanted the students to be able to make high-quality videos. That means, I need to teach a bit about film making. Lighting, sound, how to stabilize the camera so it isn’t shaking, editing software so that you can edit out mistakes, and the delicate art of peer-review. These are things that students need to be taught or else you’ll get videos that give you motion sickness, writing you can’t read, and commentary that you can’t understand.

I’m a math teacher, right?

And here’s the kicker: if I don’t have all of that knowledge, I really can’t run that project. That awesome opportunity for my students REQUIRED that of me.

This… THIS… is why integrating instructional technology is so intimidating. This is why education is slow to adopt new things.

There was a time when I needed to know math and my students. Now, I need to know so incredibly much more. The wonderful work that Erica Hamilton is doing is helping to put words and structures to the complexity that comes with every step into new instructional technology. Every step a teacher takes, though it might just look like a small step, brings with a complex set of new knowledge that is essential to making the process work.

We’d be wise to understand that when we introduce a new piece of technology (especially a technology that will be simultaneously used by both teacher and students), we aren’t asking teachers to simply teach one new thing. We are asking teachers to learn a whole lot of (potentially) brand new stuff all at the same time.