Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Two Great Tools in the Last Two Days

In the last two days I've come upon two different tools.  The first, the Google Cultural Institute, I had come across before and liked, but not like I like it now after seeing the Eiffel Tower collection.  I got the tip from Richard Byrnes' always good Free Tech 4 Teachers.  These collections are awesome.  The Eiffel Tower's views from the top are great if you've ever been to Paris or ever want to go.  The old plans and drawings along with the history of the contest that created it are great.  The British Museum Collection is awesome as well!  Have fun with the Google Cultural Institute
The other tool I came across is potentially a game changer for me.  If it works like it says it does, it's what I've been waiting for.  The tool is Touchcast.  It's an interactive video maker and viewer for the iPad.  There is a very helful review here in the The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW).  If you have iPads in your classroom, Touchcast could transform your classroom.  If you don't like me, you can use it for make your own quick but high res videos with all sorts of gadgets built in.  Touchcast calls them vapps and if they are as easy to build in as they are to use in the sample videos, they'll be great.  Take a look at their promo video and read the TUAW review and take it for a test drive.  It's free.  I'm going to play with it this Summer and I'll let you know how it goes.  Let me know what you find out.  Have fun!

How do we know our students?

We have a group of students in our classrooms.  Who are they?  How do we get to know them and continue to know them?
How do we get started?
We all have icebreakers, but do they do more than break the ice?  Ice breaking is important as we want students to begin to feel comfortable, but if we don't begin getting to know our students from the outset of our class, we're going to lose valuable time that will need to be recovered later.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we used Google Earth at the summer program I'm working at to break the ice and learn who the students are as they come from all over the world.  We had them say their names and hometowns and then I plugged their hometowns into Google Earth and we watched the globe turn until it settled on their hometown.  From there they had to tell us their school and something about their school or neighborhood.  Within about 20 minutes, we had traveled the globe and saw where the kids were from and learned something about them and their homes.  We didn't need to break the ice.  The ice had been broken as all the students had spoken to the entire class and had shared something about their homes and we also knew all their names and had some context in which to place them.
In my psychology class at Minarets, we have students present "collages" from the second day on.  They have to create a visual with a number of images that "represent" themselves and then they have two minutes to "present" themselves in front of the class.  This collage project is something I have used for at least 15 years from before the time of technology.  The students explain themselves, have to use visuals to do that, and they have to get up in front of the class and talk about all sorts of different subjects that they don't normally talk about in class.  I make sure that I stay intentionally vague on the assignment and there is no rubric.  I merely say that I'm looking for effort.  I want them to produce their "own" project and with any effort, it should be an easy A.  From the beginning, we've started psychology with the focus on the students.  They have started from their own perspective and we go from there.  However, from a "get to know" perspective.  I have a ton of information to work with as I find a way to teach them.
In my economics/government classes, our students are assigned to complete an interview project.  They are asked to complete the following assignment, Interview Project

Once again, we get to know some of the student's life context right from the start of the class and each student presents something from their life that connects to the class.  Obviously, it's not as intimate as the collage project, but the focus is on the student and the student's perspective is where each student starts.
This is how I start my "regular lane" classes and I do similar, but more academically taxing intro projects in my AP Econ/Government and AP US History classes.  I'll get into those tomorrow.
How do you start your classes in a manner that helps you learn who your students are?  Let me know.  I'd love to hear about you start your classes.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What Makes a Great Student?!?

What makes a great student?  Would we know one when we saw one?  I think back through my years of teaching and I can see in my mind's eye a bunch of great students.  I loved working with most of those kids, but some I didn't like at all.
What connects them?  Is there anything?
Motivation?  Motivation certainly helps, but some weren't motivated when I first met them and they caught the fire eventually.
As I start to try to gather commonalities I find more dissimilarities.  Hmmm!  What makes a great student?
Once again, I think back to my former students and I think of my very best and as soon as I do, I can think of another great student I've worked with who doesn't fit that mold at all.
Maybe I'm coming at it from the wrong angle.  Maybe it's a matter of how a student becomes great.  How does a student become great?
Now I'm starting to realize that I'm chasing my tail.  I'm not going to catch this one.  Why not?
It doesn't take long to realize that in some ways the original question is absurd.
Is there a single GREAT student?  How do we know?
Do we need to know?
How about if we teach the students working with us, great or not?  What if we develop relationships with all of them in a way that we get the most out of whoever is in the room with us?
Does that mean that all students are great?  Wait!  Am I back chasing my tail?  Here we go again?
No, let's go back to the students who are in the room with us.  These kids are our task.  Great or not great, they are our task.  We need to help them learn.  What does it take?  That's the question.
How can we teach the students in the room with us?  It's not who is great or not, it's how do we learn who these people are?  It's how do we learn how they learn?
We've got to do this quickly, because we need to learn how to help them learn.  How do we do this?  What do you think?  I'd like to hear them.  I have some ideas, which I'll get into tomorrow...

Friday, July 12, 2013

More Infographics! I can't get enough of them!

Before you read anything, you need to see this infographic--13 Reasons Your Brain Craves Infographics.  If that one doesn't work really well, here is the static version--13 Reasons Your Brain Craves Infographics.  Thank you edudemic!  They Tweeted and blogged the static version with the link to the mega-HTML and interactive version (click on the hypertext citations!).  Wow, on so many levels!
Please let me say it again, I love infographics.  More importantly, the kids love infographics.
What a well-cited infographic on infographics!  (Can I use the term "infographic" more often?)
Let's get to why these visuals are so good and helpful for my high school learners.  First off, I will certainly use this in my psychology classes as it gets to the core of what we call visual capture and the dominance of vision over our other senses.  The best example of visual capture is a movie theater where we "see" the voices coming from the mouths on the screen, but they're actually coming from the speakers all around us.  We also remember what we see better than what we hear.
I will also use this infographic to help my students build better presentations.  If they want us to be better engaged when they get to the front of the class, they better use good visuals.
I'm going to use it in my professional development seminars when I teach teachers for the same reason.  If our teachers want our students to learn and remember better...
Don't forget the great citations.  (Yes, I'm a history teacher at heart!)  Citations can be used and they don't mess up the visuals!  There's proof for our students.  You can show them this visual and show them how well it's been cited and there are no more arguments against citations in presentations.
My main caveat with infographics is that they're often not well-cited.  My first move after finding an infographic is to go to the bottom to find the source and then the citations, if there are any.  I've used many with my students to point out the pitfalls of weak sources and overly strong perspectives and opinions.  The visual examples of bad citations are so easily found, I don't need to create a link to one. Here's another great way to teach citations, too!
If you want to find infographics, I usually just Google the term I'm looking for with a comma and "infographic" and I've found all sorts of great visuals.  For example, I'm teaching the Mathematics of Money at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth at UC Santa Cruz this summer, so I just went to Google and searched "supply and demand, infographic"and clicked on images and got these search results.  Wow, I'm going to use this one on the Supply and Demand of Oil this morning to follow up on our lesson yesterday on the other issues beyond supply and demand regarding inflation and then I'm going to use another on the Federal Reserve.  Once again, all I did was search, "federal reserve, infographic" in images and I got a gem that I'll use this afternoon with some guiding questions and I'll definitely use it again a number of times this year in my US history, econ and government classes.
A quick search yielded a treasure trove of resources that I'll use for years.
Before I sign off, let me explain that I still am very text based, but I intersperse infographics to appeal to our visual learners and also keep my class fresh and I also have 5-10 guiding questions to be answered for every infographic I use, just as I do with my reading passages.  As I said before in my previous blog post, Infographics Create Better Writers, the students are forced to create their own sentences!
Like I said, I love infographics!  What do you think?

Monday, July 8, 2013

What makes an excellent teacher?

On Friday, I got a great Twitter link through Edudemic regarding "How To Extend The Reach Of Excellent Teachers."  I knowingly nodded my head and agreed pretty much across the board to all the points made in the infographic, but then I didn't find what they felt made an "excellent" teacher.  What ARE the qualities that make an excellent teacher?  Of course, this got me thinking...
I thought about what happened when I walked into a great classroom or when I met a great teacher, how did I know I was in the presence of an excellent teacher?
I thought about when I was teaching at my very best, what made me good?
How did I know?
I began brainstorming.  I asked my wife, Katie, who is an excellent teacher.  We thought of all the great teachers we had seen and experienced and met.  What are their common qualities?
We came up with the following partial list of qualities:

  • clear, consistent expectations
  • clear, consistent communication
  • excitement and enthusiasm
  • warm, welcoming environment
  • understanding the students' perspectives and empathizing with their situations
  • flexibility
  • excellence within their field of expertise
  • unyielding push to see his/her students succeed

I dug into the infographic and followed my search to Opportunity Culture and Public Impact who had created the study that had fueled the infographic.  They have great ideas of how to use great teachers, but once again did little to identify them.
I surfed and searched the internet.  I found some good articles from different sources. "What makes a great teacher" was one.  Bill Gates has spent lots of his hard-earned money and written on this subject including this Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post.  Lots of people and articles articulated a desire for great and excellent teachers, but few explained what that meant.
I still didn't see what I thought was a clear understanding of what made an excellent teacher until I stumbled upon a presentation from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine.  Dr. Jamie Johnston quoted former Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter (on a totally different subject) as he said, "I know it when I see it…" regarding good teaching.  Dr. Johnston also refreshingly listed what he thought made a great teacher, but he also alluded to the slipperiness involved in this identification.
Katie and I discussed the usual questions of quantifying these qualities, but there is a definite understanding of when one is in the presence of a great teacher.
One of the outstanding aspects to Dr. Johnston's presentation was his listing of great teachers by name.  I'll never forget going into Nancy Grippo's classroom during my first year as a teacher.  She was one of my mentors.  She glided around the class seemingly effortlessly.  She handled all sorts of questions and issues as if she'd done it a million times before.  She exuded a smooth feeling of absolute control.  It was amazing.  I knew it when I saw it and I was in my first year.  It was clear.
With that said, should I add control to my list?  Or should I add overall classroom direction to the list?  This is part of the slipperiness.  Where do we stop?  We could keep going for a long time.
From there, how do we make sure we get, retain, and reward great teachers?  Sure we know they're effective and their effectiveness can be extended, but do we really know what an excellent teacher is?  Or more importantly, do the people who make the hiring and budgeting decisions know what an excellent teacher is?
What do you think?  What makes an excellent teacher?  Do the planners know?  If not, how can we teach them?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Google Earth as a Great Ice Breaker/Name Learner

When I was a young teacher, I was terrible at learning my students' names.  It actually took me weeks to learn their names.  Finally, after a couple of years, I realized that not only did I not know my students' names, some of them didn't know each other's names.  Something had to change.  I had to stop referring to my students by something other than their names!  I had to figure out some way to learn their names faster!
As killing at least two birds with one stone is one of my favorite strategies and sayings, we began playing games to get both the students and me learning everybody's names on the first day.  We have very effectively gotten on the same page very quickly ever since.  Check!
Now, I'm at CTY Santa Cruz and we have an intense three weeks together and I have no time to waste learning names and hitting the ground running.  We have an absolutely diverse group from all sorts of backgrounds and places in the world.  To take advantage of that great fact, we hit the ground running with Google Earth.
One of my favorite aspects to Google Earth is the fact that when we move from one location to another, we don't instantly "jump" there, we quickly travel the globe to get there.  So, we started with me.  I showed the students where North Fork is and where my house is and where my school is down the road in O'Neals.  Then, we saw where Vania, our TA is from in Lima, Peru.  I plugged in Lima and soon we were moving south and east until we had moved from the golden foothills of the California Sierra Nevada in O'Neals, CA to the metropolis of South America just down from the Andes in Lima!  So, that's cool, but what about the names?
From there we had each student tell us his/her name and where he/she lived and we were soon moving north, south, east, and west as we traveled to Asia to the Bay Area to Seattle to Arizona to Mexico, back to Asia, back to Mexico and back to the USA all over the globe!  Each student had to tell us his/her name, what grade they were entering, what their school was, and something fun or interesting about their town, school, or neighborhood.
Within twenty minutes, each student had introduced him/herself, had shown us his/her hometown, and told us something about him/herself with great visual assistance.  Without realizing it, they had all presented themselves to the class and had done it confidently and well!  Better than all of that, we all knew something fundamental about each other and had a context for everybody.  And we all knew everybody's names!  In the first 20 minutes!  Yippee!  No name game.  Can you tell I was fired up?  I was!
Thank you Google Earth!  We had broken the ice and learned each other's names!  I look like I can learn names quickly and I did it in an engaging manner.  Do you have an ice breaker/name learner that uses tech?  If so, what is it?  I'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Return of the Lecture?!?

Seeing the lightbulb go on over students' heads, seeing the spark of recognition and clarity in a student's eye are some of the main reasons why I love teaching.  I am returning to the lecture to more regularly see that light bulb, that spark, that clarity.
Lectures done wrong can be worse than bad.  They can drain the energy out of a room and dull an exciting topic into nothing.  That's not where I'm going.
Also, don't get me wrong, if you were to drop into my classroom on a given day, the chances of seeing an old school standard lecture would be zero.
Over the last couple of years, I have given maybe a handful of lectures but I have heard a rising chorus of student voices asking for more lectures.  Why?  Many students weren't fully "getting" some of the concepts as we weren't gaining closure on those concepts.  Many of the more advanced and more motivated students were getting the concepts, but often many others were gaining just a glimmer of understanding, but the concepts weren't coming fully clear and some students were just missing the ideas completely.  We need to get more students to understand the content better.  It's a pretty clear goal, right?
I have been trying to get the students to discover the information on their own, but many either didn't know how to truly discover the ideas or if they found the concepts, they didn't fully understand what to do with them.  We definitely are going to work on helping the students get better at researching and discovering their concepts on their own and help them apply their new knowledge.
At the same time though, the lecture is going to make a return, but you still won't see a standard lecture in my classroom.  I had been seeing this lack of closure and had moved to more verbal question and answer time especially in my AP classes and my psych classes, but still with a Socratic approach some students were not quite getting it.  Hmmm...  I was getting closer, but not fully there.
I decided to rethink the lecture.  This is when I ran into "10, 20, 30" as a guide.  The idea comes from Guy Kawasaki who says presenters should only use 10 slides, speak for only 20 minutes, and use only 30 point font.  What a simple and clear set of guidelines!  (Of course, I am teaching these ideas to my students to help them become better presenters!)
For my purposes, I try to keep it to 10, 10, 30.  I make sure to use no more than 10 slides and try to keep the total time to 10 minutes (I rarely get there!).  Usually, with the interaction that I encourage, we go longer than 10 minutes, but the goal is to keep it as short as possible.
The most important of the three numbers is 30 with as little text as possible and I always push to have some sort of visual on each slide as many students will remember the photo, painting, graph, or cartoon better than the text that explains it.
Another great benefit of my new, short lectures is the limited amount of prep time for my spare presentations.  With the push for interaction with my students and the limited amount of information being put on my slides, the presos have come together much faster than my long and highly detailed old school Powerpoints I used to use and labor over in the past.  I have been pleasantly surprised.
I am looking forward to moving back toward lectures as I feel this will help some students gain a better understanding while still allowing plenty of room for the students to discover the concepts for themselves.  I feel these types of lectures fit very well with the idea of teacher as guide which I have always felt was my role in the classrooms.
What have you found in your classroom?  Do you "lecture?"  If so, how does it compare to what I have laid out here?  Please let me know what you think.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Project Based Learning Helps Make the Abstract Relevant

As I've written in the last few days, I am teaching at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at UC Santa Cruz for the next few weeks.  I am going to meet a group of kids from all over the United States and across the world who are going to be in my Mathematics of Money in which they will learn the mathematical basis for economics and personal finance for this three week session.  They don't know me and have just met each other.  They are going to be in eighth, ninth, and tenth grade.  On the surface, they have very little connection to the class content or to each other.  How do we get them to understand what we want them to learn?
We're going to use Project Based Learning (PBL) with the students as individuals and in groups to connect the students to the content and to each other.  I am lucky as Elizabeth Andrews has built us an excellent standard curriculum that creates a common class at all of CTY's different sites.  I am also lucky as I've built a strong background in PBL over the last 10 years starting at the Krause Center for Innovation at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA.  When I looked at Elizabeth's curriculum last year, I could see very quickly how good it was.  All I had to do was put the projects into motion and guide the students through them and we'd be good to go.
Of course it wasn't that simple.  As a typical teacher, I had to make changes!  Why can't I just leave well enough alone?
What I did was take Elizabeth's curriculum and put it into Google Docs and I have my students create blogs on Google Sites where they post their projects so their parents can see them at home.  We do much of the course work with literally hands on classwork, but we also go to the computer lab every day and get our work done on our projects on our blogs.  The combination has worked great.
We have the students create three projects which they will present to their classmates.  They begin with an interview project in which they ask three people over 30 about their financial experiences and report their findings back to the class.  We get everybody in front of the class and break the ice and talk finances in the first week.
From there we get more sophisticated with their personal budget project as the students have to build two hypothetical budgets, one for the first year after they graduate college or get out on their own and one for ten years later.  We have the students look at all the different financial issues they have to deal with and how they'll change over time.  Once again, the kids have to present their findings to the class.
Finally, the students group together to build businesses which will produce a product that will be sold to their peers for in-class money.  They have to sell stock to raise money, they have to produce a business plan, test market their product, buy the components of their product, sell their product, and finally deal with the profits or losses.  As with the other projects, they have to present their findings to their peers.
As with all projects, I don't really know how the final products will look.  I have a good idea, but I don't know for sure and neither do the students.  I want the projects to be individual, but also to help the students understand a set range of skills and concepts.  My job is to make sure the students have enough information to build their project, but not so much that the products come from the same cookie cutter.  I also have to guide the different students along their own paths to reach their final product.
If you have questions about where you can learn more about PBL and see other examples of great projects, take a look at the Buck Institute for Education in Marin County, CA.  I have been very impressed by the breadth and width of the PBL resources they have produced.
In the end, we can get students who have no direct connection to the content to understand what we want them to learn.  I have had a number of students at CTY and my home school tell me that they had no idea of what we were doing when we started, but were so glad we had done it by the time we had finished as they began to see these concepts would have direct consequences for them as they grew up and moved out into their own lives.  Isn't that what teaching's all about?
Let me know if you'd like more information about these projects or projects I use in other classes.  Also, I'd love to hear about your pet projects.  Please tell me about them!