Monthly Archives: April 2011

Sustaining Momentum

I happen to be a huge college basketball fan. And I also happen to love Dick Vitale. I realize that he is very polarizing. You either love him or hate him. But I happen to love his enthusiasm for the sport. So now you’re thinking, “What the HECK does Dick Vitale have to do with using technology to improve student learning?” That’s what this is about, right? Improving student learning?

So let’s get on with my diatribe. First, I just finished a week of spring break and got some much-needed time with my family. But it got me thinking; as I tossed and turned last night I wondered how I would sustain any momentum to make significant change in my teaching. (In the words of Dick Vitale, “Uh Oh! Uh Oh! Look who’s get the momentum going now, baby!”)

For about a week or two before spring break, I’d put a lot of time into my blog, following #edchat discussions, expanding my Twitter PLN, and putting some serious thought into how I’d organize a pilot of the flipped class model this spring in one of my classes. Then, just as things are going well, here comes Spring Break. Not that I’m complaining. It’s been a rough spring on the personal level so this was a much-needed break. But I worry that I will lose the momentum I’ve started creating. I know I have a set of exams waiting to be graded. And lab reports for four different classes. And lessons to plan. And flipped class videos to create. And labs to prep. And next weekend I’ll be out of town with the science department scouting a new location for our Group IV project.

Then I got to thinking about my students. Will my switch to the flipped class model actually change their learning? I won’t know until I try. So my job this week is to regain my momentum. Stay tuned…

Cheers.
Lowell

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Thoughts on ‘The Elephant in the Room’

Education Week has a blog post up about the ‘Elephant in the Room’ as it relates to content that might not be all that relevant to students in today’s world.

I’d like to offer some thoughts about a few quotes from the article (which is well worth the read, in my opinon.

1. “All to the good, but there is an “elephant in the room,” a big conspicuous but largely undiscussed problem: What should we do with tired content?”

Response: Guilty as charged (sort of). I definitely think I teach some tired content. In my MYP Chemistry classes, I taught some of the same things I’ve taught for 17 years. Atomic structure, electron arrangement, chemical bonding, balancing chemical equations, and so on. Tired? Not to me. I’m a chemist. But does a so-called ’21st century student’ need to know that the simple electron arrangement of sulfur is 2, 8, 6? Maybe given the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan our time would have been better spent on the dangers of nuclear radiation, so the students could figure out how bad (or how not so bad) radiation leaks might be from a nuclear power plant. Or given the proliferation of medicines, maybe instead of simple Lewis Structures for water and carbon tetrachloride, I could delve into more complex structures like drugs and how small changes in functional groups might be big changes in activity on the body. This thought both excites me and scares me. How will I prepare for such a change in my teaching? But how cool would it be to actually follow through on some of this? In my MYP Physics classes, I’ve been inspired by a colleague (the person who developed the curriculum I’m using) to create more meaningful connections. For example, instead of plain old motion and forces, the unit relates to car safety as a real application of physics ideas. I have many places where I can still improve on this, but it’s a start!

2.”If only we could shrink some topics, we could expand others that offer much more. For instance, basic statistics and probability generally get little attention compared to quadratic equations and multiple linear equations, but they come up constantly in public policy, economic reports and forecasts, health and insurance decisions, investing, and gambling.”

Response: I LOVE this idea. I’ve often thought statistics was underappreciated as an important topic for students. How many times will the media give us interpretations of statistics that really don’t make any sense? And how many times will the media use the word ‘prove’ when we don’t ever really prove things in science. We simply offer evidence to support or refute a conclusion. I’ve even thought I should include some simple statistics in my classes where it is relevant.

3.  “Well, but we have to do something! Radical restructuring or incremental change?… I don’t know! Perhaps a way can be found to shove the elephant out of the room. Or perhaps we should simply establish momentum in the deep teaching of a range of plainly worthwhile ideas and skills, which in turn would encourage incremental decisions to nudge this or that foot of the elephant back. One way or another, we have to acknowledge the elephant for what it is – huge and gray and testy (pun intended).”

Response: This is the concluding paragraph of the post. It reminded me of a saying from work I did while in the U.S. trying to reform our school. One of our reform coaches told us we needed to “move far enough, fast enough that we can’t go back.” That seems appropriate in this case. Push forward with curriculum (content) changes that are big enough and happen fast enough that there’s no turning back to the old ways.

And lastly, this post makes me reflect on the way I teach. I’ve been contemplating moving to the flipped class model (#flipclass on Twitter) for quite some time. This model might allow me to spend more time in class on the application of the content. Now it’s time to get to work.

Cheers.
Lowell

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The Love-Hate Relationship with my SmartBoard

The Innovative Educator put up a post with ’10 Reasons to Ditch the Board‘ that got me thinking a bit. This is my first year using a SmartBoard. And I truly have a love-hate relationship with it. When it works, I love it! When it doesn’t work, I want to rip it off the wall and throw it out the window. I joke with my class at the beginning of a lesson, asking aloud, “Alright, will it be a SmartBoard or a DumbBoard?” It seems to have trouble ‘synching’ with PowerPoint, such that there are times when I try to write and it won’t recognize the pens correctly. I’ve tried all that I know, and just never found a way to replicate when the errors happen. I need to keep troubleshooting.

So let me give you some context. I don’t – yet – have the students use the IWB all that much. So it’s not all that ‘interactive’ for my students. Not more so than my previous whiteboard/chalkboard/LCD Projector. But here’s where it’s a bit different for me. I use the pen features to solve problems on my PowerPoint slides (alright, I’m setting myself up here…be nice!) for my students. (Conversions, Stoichiometry, etc.) Then I save the PowerPoint and post it to my Moodle site. I’ve also used it to create some diagrams that will post right into a Word document which I can share as a PDF…say worked solutions to a Free Body Diagram for a physics class. Now I don’t think these are all that groundbreaking, as far as using technology goes. But it gives my students an opportunity to revisit my content, and that’s valuable in my opinion. To be honest, I’d rather have a Tablet PC of some sort than an IWB, as I could do all that I do with the IWB and even more! (Marking right on a lab report, for example.) But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be more ‘innovative’ with my IWB. I just haven’t gotten there yet.

And that leads me to something I put in my first blog post here. One reason I started this blog is to attempt to put some ideas out there and hold myself accountable to them. And while I don’t want to ditch my IWB, I definitely feel I can use it better.

Cheers.
Lowell

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An Experiment on Using Twitter as a PLN

So it’s 4:00 AM and I’m tossing and turning so I decided to check out my Twitter feeds. You see, I’m Twitticted. (I think I just made up a word.) I have three Twitter accounts. One is for personal stuff (translation: For commenting/conversing about the University of Washington Huskies), one is for teaching, and the last one is for my #flipclass, #edchat, #edtech PLN that I’m working on developing. I have decided not to intermix my Twitter ‘friends’ and keep things separate.

As I wandered through my hashtag searches, I had an idea. Let’s ask the Twitterverse (another new word…? Nah, somebody’s probably already used it.) about a project I’ve got going. I’ve been guest-reading poetry with a 4th grade class at my school. The first visit I read one of my favorite poems, “If” by Rudyard Kipling. It was lots of fun and the students seemed to get into having me there, so I got invited back. This time, I read a personal poem I wrote as a memory poem of my dad. I started with a short geography lesson using Google Earth to show them the setting of the poem (Naches Peak, in Washington State) compared to where we are in Bucharest. Then I went into a PowerPoint that showed some pictures of the hike while I read to them. Needless to say, it’s quite an emotional poem, but I made it through it. And the kids responded to the seriousness of the poem with great questions and comments.

So it got me thinking that I should visit the class again a few more times before the end of the year. I’d made a connection with these 4th graders. Now let’s get something straight here: I am a HS teacher for a reason. I could NEVER teach elementary school. Just couldn’t do it. But this was fun. I could go in, have a short reading, and get out! Anyway, the plan is to visit the class for a 20-minute drop-in on May 5th. So I need to plan a short science lesson for them. Therefore, I posted the following on Twitter: “Any suggestions for a guest ‘lecture’ topic (20 minutes) for 4th graders that is science-related? (Me: HS Chem teacher) #edchat”  My new @ThomsonScience Twitter account doesn’t have a lot of followers yet, so I added the #edchat tag. I’m really curious what kind of results I’ll get. I’ll either make a new post or comment here about the results.

Let the Twitter Experiment begin!

Cheers.
Lowell

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Sustainable Momentum, A (Realistic?) Response

Justin Tarte posted a question to all of us on his ‘Life of an Educator…’ Blog about why some teachers can sustain momentum to change (translation: Blogging, Tweeting, using PLNs, etc.) and others can’t.

I have a somewhat jaded response. I almost feel like I should apologize before I get down to business here, because this won’t be a love-fest for sustaining momentum. It’s 8:15 PM on Sunday night, and I just spent about 17 hours over the weekend grading labs and essays in order to finish quarter grades. It might be argued that I’d have less work to do this weekend if I wasn’t such a procrastinator, and there’d be a hint of truth in that accusation. However, there are only so many hours in the day from which to grab all of the following: classroom preparation, lesson prep, actual teaching, lunchtime or breaktime duty (supervision), parent emails, Moodle site updates, assessing homework/classwork/labs/exams/essays, and all the other things that go into a teacher workday. And the things that go AFTER a teacher workday, like meetings, attending student drama performances, attending Grade 10 Personal Project Presentations, attending Grade 5 PYP Exhibition Nights, Parent Conferences, band and choir concerts, sporting events, fashion shows, volunteer events with our service learning groups, weekend trips with the science department to scout locations for our Group IV Project, and myriad other events. True enough, these events don’t all happen on the same day, but lately it seems like they happen close enough together that it’s hard to find any consistent time for sustaining the momentum that Justin talks about. And all of this doesn’t even take into account my goal to have a personal life. Heck, my wife and son’s goal that I share my personal life with them!

So forgive my whining here. I just find that the time we are allowed in our normal workday doesn’t accommodate all of the responsibilities we often have in our jobs. That said, I love what I do and wouldn’t change it for anything. Being a teacher is the hardest job I’ve ever loved.

Alright, back to the question. How can we sustain momentum? I’m hoping to sustain my new-found enthusiasm for change by writing this blog on a regular basis. I’m hoping that I can create some ‘public’ accountability for my work as an educator. But what else can we do? I think if we can create pods of like-minded teachers within our own schools, we can have more informal “Have you tried this?” and “Have you seen this?” sharing sessions in the hallway and at the lunch table. Let’s share our ideas in our own schools, so that we can refine them and share them globally on our blogs and on Twitter. Imagine the possibilities…

Cheers.
Lowell

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Response to ’21 Things That Will Be Obsolete by 2020′ (Alternative Title: How to procrastinate while marking.)

I was going through my Twitter feeds and found a blog post titled, “21 Things That Will Be Obsolete by 2020” at the 21st Century Fluency Project. Catchy title, really.

I agree with a fair amount of what is said, even if I don’t think some of these things will really be obsolete by 2020. That’s only 8 1/2 years away. Not much time to radically shift the paradigm if student desks are really going to disappear in that time. But seeing the list made me reflect/reminisce about a few things from my days as a student. First, as a big guy, I would have loved to see the student desks – many of which I didn’t fit into very well – go away in 1980 instead of 2020. But I think they’ll be around for a while. And paperbacks? NOOOO! I don’t want paperbacks to go away. Yes, I’m a techy-nerd in many ways. But I still love reading a good paperback. And lockers? I loved having a locker. It was my own space at school. A place I could personalize. And students, to this day, still do the same.

So what does all this rambling have to do with my goal of integrating technology into my teaching? Not much. I should be grading student lab reports right now, but my brain needed a break from seeing the same calculations and graphs over and over. Now it’s time to go back to work. And yes, it’s Saturday. Who ever said teachers don’t work on weekends?



Cheers.
Lowell

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Thoughts on blogging

I’ve been contemplating a ‘professional’ blog for quite some time. A few years ago, I was inspired by some folks I met at ETC in Kuala Lumpur, and have been trying to successfully integrate technology into my teaching ever since. OK, that’s not true. I was actually inspired long before that by Tim Renz, biology teacher at Foster High School in Tukwila, Washington. (http://renz.fosterscience.com) He and I worked together for a number of years, and we started making class websites together. Initially, they were just a repository for class documents and PowerPoints. Then we started using the Catalyst Tools from the University of Washington, and that transformed how we used our websites and the internet. Then I moved overseas to Thailand and started to use Moodle as a CMS. I had to host and administer my own site. (Pain in the butt!) It worked, until my site got hacked. So I completely rebuilt the site, making it better – and losing some stuff along the way.

Now I’m teaching IB Chemistry at the American International School of Bucharest. We have Moodle here as well, but I don’t feel I’m using it to the fullest. I’ve contemplated a flipped classroom for a while. A few weeks ago, I found some great resources from other teachers that are teaching with the flipped class model.

I’m intrigued by this model, because I feel one of my weaknesses as a teacher is that I don’t get out into the room and interact enough with my students, letting them come to me with questions. If/when I flip my class, my goal will be to do more circulating, and thus more teaching

Anyway, it’s Friday and my grades are due Monday. So you won’t be hearing from me for a while. But I’ll try to post along the way.

Cheers.
Lowell

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