Thursday, February 28, 2013

Concentrating on Concentration

If you have been reading this blog, you probably have picked up on the fact that I am not one for gimmicks, new buzzwords, or educationese that has little basis in research. That being said, I want to talk about something I came across in college that I truly believe changed my perspective on being a student and life in general. Sounds like a big deal. Here is how it works.

David Ellis wrote a book called "Becoming a Master Student." I was introduced to Mr. Ellis's work when hired as a mentor at UNI in the student services department. His ability to pin a catchphrase to life's challenges is so cheesy that it is memorable. The surprising thing to me is that it works!

Be Here Now!

 The crown jewel of catch-phrases, this one has stuck with me for the 15 years it has been since college. Here is the basis of it. Have you ever met someone, they gave you their name, you shook hands, gave them your name but then had no idea what their name was? I do it all the time! Mr. Ellis contends, and I agree, that you weren't there at the moment they said their name. You were thinking about your name.

This deals with that little voice in your head, that little guy or gal who is constantly talking to you. If you are quiet, you can hear it. Try it... Yours may have said "this is dumb," or "I'm hungry", or "What little voice?" THAT'S THE VOICE! It is annoyingly off task most of the time. Ellis quotes that some researchers say that you can not keep that voice on task without consciously doing it for more than three seconds. It takes practice corralling that little voice.

Pay attention to your attention!

What is better than that catchphrase? You need to know that that voice is going to be off task and you need to put it back on track. Pulling your attention back to attention takes practice. Athletes do this. When Tiger Woods stands over a put, his focus is solely on what he is doing. He is "in the zone". This is a hard thing to do. While walking down the fairway, golfers learn to let their mind relax, think about something else, and let their little voice wander. Then they bring it back in focus when they get to the ball.

Do what you are doing while you are doing it!

This Ellis guy is a master wordsmith if there ever was one! Bring your attention to attention (God, I am doing it now) when you need it. For students you can talk to them about daydreaming. It is okay to give yourself a bit of a rest while listening to a lecture, but do it at an appropriate time. Know the consequences of taking a few seconds or minutes to tune out. Can you anticipate where the lecture is going? Is this something that is essential to understanding future topics? What will it mean if I do give my concentration a break?

This paying attention to your attention (it's hard to stop when you get going) has amazing results. By going over these simple principles, giving students an appreciation for how their brain works, can really improve their school experience. For teachers, this will make you a better listener, which is great for the classroom, relationships, and just about every aspect of life. Try it, remember the catch-phrases. If you want more on this, get Dave Ellis's book and dive deep. (I am in no way affiliated with Mr. Ellis and neither he nor anyone in his employ are paying me to say these things:)

As always, your comments are encouraged.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Asking "Them" to Do Something

I was honored to give the keynote address to our National Honor Society Inductees last year. In preparing for this talk, I soon realized that I would be speaking to the best students in my school. I had 10 minutes to impart any kind of wisdom that would help them as they start on their journey into adulthood. I decided on two themes.

First, I talked about "them". By "them" I mean the really smart people who are we are banking on fixing our nation's problems. You know who they are. "They" are going to cure cancer someday. "They" are going to fix our national debt, or create technology that will give us all universal health care. "They" are those smart people that will fix things in time. This metaphysical pool of innovators and scientists who magically come up with a fix for global warming, or fossil fuel energy depletion.

Here's the kicker. I was talking to the top 5% of the students in my school. My school is known across the state of Iowa as a premier school district in terms of test scores, college admission, completion, and success of students. Iowa has been known as one of the premier states in which to go to high school. I was talking to "Them" directly. Students need to realize that they can not wait for someone to solve these problems. They are "Them".

It was an eye-opener for me as well as them (pun intended). It reaffirmed my responsibility as a teacher. I can not just teach to the middle student, or try to bring kids to a minimum level of achievement. I needed to push the high end kid, challenge them, and develop in them a confidence to take chances and innovate.

I then showed the following video.

This Internet Phenom is known lovingly as Star Wars Kid. This young man took his love of Darth Maul, his camera, and some killer karate moves to produce the aforementioned video. I say, "Great Job, Star Wars Kid!" This young man did something. He developed this video and shared it with the world. He took the time to make something, anything, and shared it. If you google this video, you will find that many others have taken this video and added sound, and lightsaber effects, and slow motion timelines. Star Wars Kid has 27,165,682 hits on youtube. He has inspired others to work on their editing skills with his video. Star Wars Kid has become a leader. 

Urge kids to do SOMETHING. It doesn't matter what it is as long as it contributes to our public knowledge. I have found that I am most happy when I am creating something. Write that novel, learn that instrument, make that blog, or video post. Put your heart into something and share it with others. When you have completed something worthwhile, can put your name on it, and take what comes, you will find that others will follow. Nothing can be more fulfilling or worthwhile. 

I urge all who read this to do the same. Principals, teachers, students, parents, all of you can find amazing things happen when you put yourself out there. Start small if you are not comfortable. Join a conversation on twitter, or reply to this blog. Soon you will find yourself leading chats, or creating them from scratch. 

As always, your comments here are a welcomed way to start. 


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Power Point kills presentations

I don't know about you, but I would rather dance Gagnam Style barefoot on broken glass than watch another student power point presentation. The sight of the "Sunny Days" background with its creepy coppery solar smile makes my skin crawl. Sitting in the back of a semi-dark room listening to students read plagiarized material from Wikipedia while mispronouncing most of the words they don't know is about enough to make me give up teaching. Don't get me wrong, Power Point is a powerful tool when used correctly, but in the wrong hands, it can spell catastrophe for even a good presentation.

Here are my top 5 reasons for hating this program and all of its offspring.

  1. Presentation software is overused. It was cool in 1995 when a teacher could throw away their overhead projector and replace it with stunning pictures and swooshing text. After we all got over the fact that we could link sounds to our magically appearing text the program lost all its appeal as a novelty. Most of the features that these presentation software packages offer (sounds, backgrounds, transitions, etc) are more annoying than helpful. 
  2. Power point has become the presentation. If I wanted information in a file, I wouldn't ask you to present, I would read it on the Internet. A presentation demands a presenter. I want to see you present, as an expert in the subject. I want to hear the presenter, not read what they wrote. Students especially, spend too much time making the visuals for the presentation and no time practicing their delivery. I remember standing in my room with my outline practicing the presentation that I was going to give to my high school biology class. I would practice it with my family at night, not spend all my time putting everything I wanted to say on the computer and then read it to the class. 
  3. Power point is a crutch for not learning the material. Why should a student know what they are talking about if it is written up there for the class to see? They are not becoming experts in the subject, able to answer questions about their presentation. They are becoming readers of someone else's information. 
  4. Power Point dumbs down the world. I read an article a few years ago where a General in the Gulf asked his staffers how they spent most their time. They replied almost verbatim "I have been working on a power point for Friday's meeting." He realized that this was becoming a problem. You can not simplify war into bullet points. Something as complex as the war on terror can not and should not be simplified into three points on a slide. I am a firm believer in this. If we are trying to get kids to see connections in ideas, go deeper into concepts and ideas, how can then ask them to bullet their thoughts. Power point compartmentalizes ideas into slides and a timeline. Life is not that linear. 
  5. Students don't take notes anymore. They can always go get my power point online if they want the information. I can tell you this because I do this. If I am at a conference and the presenter gives a power point. I will be checking my email within 3 minutes of the start of their presentation. Many times the presence of the power point is a crutch for me as a learner just as much as it is for the presenter. Why do I need to listen if everything you said is on the file?
Don't get me wrong, when used correctly, power point can be a powerful tool. I am only saying that most of the time it is used linearly and with too many words. Show me pictures that add to what you say or enhance your presentation. Make it non-linear, mapping a web of pages that allows me to navigate it to where I want to go. If you are presenting, look at me, talk to me, make me believe that you know what you are talking about. If you don't I will tune out, probably roll my eyes, and be on twitter in seconds. I am no different than our students. 

We talk a lot about getting our students to write well. We worry about their grammar and spelling, their punctuation and their ability to express themselves in writing. How is it that we have no problem taking points off an essay if a student doesn't express himself correctly but if he gives a crappy presentation, we clap and score them on at least having the power point. We need to focus on presentation skills in class, holding students accountable for a poor performance. I read once that the fear of standing in front of their peers and presenting ranked right before the fear of death on some survey. Students need to know how to present, need to be comfortable in front of others, and have the skills to do so. 

As always, your thoughts are appreciated,


Monday, February 25, 2013

The Oscars of Teaching

It's Oscar night. I sit here while movies that I never watched get voted as best picture, and something occurred to me.  There is no perfect movie. The Oscars have picked apart these million dollar investments from their make-up artists, to whatever a cinematographer is. They have identified parts of the pictures that make them the most enjoyable; nuggets of an industry that when refined and molded, make gold.

What Oscars would our schools win? Best Actor (Teacher)? Best Supporting Actors (staff) ? Best Use of Technology?  Directing (Admin)? Screenplay (Curriculum)? Production (Central Admin), Best Picture (School)? I can tell you my school strives for best Costume Design!

I have gotten my share of awards and can tell you that every single time, I was humbled to think that the work I do was recognized outside the world of my classroom. Not only was I astounded that someone noticed, but I was also validated, reassured, and pushed to continue to do my best. It may seem self-indulging, but I created this blog partly because I have been recognized for my teaching and feel that some of you may want to hear some of my thoughts. I would not have felt confident enough to put fingers to keys without the people that have pushed my to excel in a profession that I enjoy so much.

I was recently awarded the STEM Teacher of the Year Award by the Quad Cities Engineering and Science Council. The banquet the held was spectacular in its purpose. A group of two hundred of the area's premier engineers and scientists dressed to the nines, had a nice meal, and celebrated successes in their fields. Upon accepting my award, I was not asked to speak as they do in the Oscars, but sitting here now, I thought about what my acceptance speech would have gone like. Perhaps something like this:

"There are so many people that I need to thank, least of which is the Quad Cities Engineering and Science Council for even creating such a reward. I need to thank my students first of all, who have worked for me, rising to my expectations when I continually set the bar higher and higher. I need to thank my science team at Bettendorf High School. Success is achieved when you surround yourself with wonderful people. They are my sounding board, an unending well of ideas and innovation that I draw from constantly. I need to thank my principals. Their trust and support has been essential in the success of my classroom. Thanks to the staff at Bettendorf for all their work with my students, guidance, food service, custodial....there are so many to thank.

I can hear the music playing, they want me to get off the stage.  Thanks to my kids, Adam, Braden, and Lacey for understanding the time at home daddy takes grading papers or preparing for Monday and for the basketball games I missed for committee meeting. And a huge thank you to my wife, Jennifer. She keeps me grounded and always reminds me that the students are why we do this. Thank you, all."

What would your acceptance speech include? Thank these people today personally.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Making It Real!

Newton's first law states that "Objects at rest will remain at rest and objects in motion will remain in motion until acted upon by an outside force." I, as you can imagine many physics teachers, write this on my board in bright blue expo for the students to copy verbatim into their notes, or iPad or whatever.

I then tell them about a car accident I had in 10th grade while I was "Cruising the Loop" in my hometown of Monticello. I take them back to that night after a football game, the rain, the joy of cruising, and the physics of how my seat belt saved me from injury. I was an object in motion, I explain, and even when I rear-ended that cherry red Chevy Lumina, I remained in motion until acted upon by an outside force. For me, that force was the seat belt, but if it wasn't it would have been the steering wheel, the dashboard, or the tree outside. That is an object in motion.

I then take them to the next year in high school when I was rear-ended myself on a date with my high school girlfriend. I explain how I am an object at rest, and when the car under me suddenly moves my body, my head stays at rest until my neck can pull it forward. Objects at rest.

Have you ever rode a roller coaster and had that feeling at the bottom of a hill that the hotdog you just ate is falling into your pelvis? Guess what... it is! Your internal organs are in motion and will remain in motion until acted upon by an outside force. The reason that hotdog feels like it is rising and falling in your stomach is because it is!

Did you realize that this same effect is how Princess Diana died. Yes, students will tell me it was a car accident, but what really killed her was Newton's 1st Law. She was in the backseat of the car and when they hit that pillar she shot forward and smashed into the seat in front of her. When she came to a stop, her heart stayed in motion until her rib cage could stop it. As her heart flew forward, it ripped her aorta. She went into cardiac arrest and passed.

The point I am trying to make is that when you are teaching, it is essential to link it to life. Science makes this easier, but it is getting harder and harder as time goes on. I used to talk a lot about curve balls when we went over Bernoulli's Principle. The changes in pressure on the sides of the ball force it one way or the other and make it hard to hit. A couple of years ago I realized that maybe two kids in my physics class had ever tried to hit a real curve ball. Many of them had done it on their Playstation, but very few ever experienced it. Kids are not able to play baseball like we did decades ago. It was normal for a Saturday afternoon pick-up game to happen across the street from my Grandma's house on the old Little League field. We often hear that today's kids want to be lazy and just play video games, but I think it is more than that. There are no more abandoned Little League fields. Any field in the summer is booked with AAU teams or is owned by a travelling team that doesn't want random kids playing on their dirt. If your kid is not (many times) chosen to be in one of these organized sports, they are not going to have the opportunity that you had to develop.

My students do a project where they are asked to measure motion, any motion and report it back to the class. In the past few years, many of them are moving towards digital motion instead of the real world. I published an article on this in The Physics Teacher.  My students are wholeheartedly engaged when they realize that they can figure out the speed of the bullets in Call of Duty, or figure out how realistic gravity is in Super Mario Bros. I am not linking this to real life, as I see it, but the connection to their lives is definite.

Find a way to make your curriculum relevant. Physics seems like it should be the easiest subject in the world to do this. We are measuring the real world every day in class. That is not enough though. Link the subject matter to THEIR lives. Connect the material to what they have experienced. If they haven't had a certain experience, give it to them. If you have to tell them that your curriculum is relevant, it probably isn't.

As always, your thoughts are encouraged.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

It's About Time!

Today I want to focus on what is probably the biggest stumbling block for me as a teacher. There is one thing that limits the amount of material I can cover, the depth that I go into that material, and the success students can have in my class. Common problems that those with a higher pay grade than me focus on are the levels of students and differentiation, money for supplies, technology, or the curriculum. All of these things are important, but I am convinced that there is a bigger problem facing me in the classroom.


I simply do not have enough time in a class to cover the material that I need or want to cover. I do not have enough time to go as deep as I would like. I am not talking about prep time, even though that is never enough. I am talking about physical time in the classroom with students. I am talking about time before and after school where I can work with students with individual problems. I am talking about the length of the class period, the number of days the class uses, and the interruptions that take away from class time. Give a good teacher enough time and many of the problems facing our schools will disappear.

With a snow day tomorrow (which looks likely), my school will not have two consecutive days without an interruption to our schedule in the last three weeks. We have early releases every other Wednesday, homeroom periods used for registration, standardized testing days, holidays, teacher inservice days, and snow days. I realize that these days are important for district initiatives and some can not be helped, but it is seriously cutting into the flow of class. I do not think I am talking about my school only, and I know I am not talking about just this month. Teachers need time with students.

As a nation, we are throwing a ton of money at initiatives like technology integration, differentiation, STEM, special education, and numerous others. We are trying to put out fires that may never have been started if teachers were given enough time. Should we start to look at lengthening the school day? Lengthening the school year? Limiting interruptions to class time? Every year I seem to be tossing out curriculum because I could not get to it. The students are not getting slower, and my passion for those subjects has not wavered. I have to make choices about depth, and content that without a doubt hurt student performance.

I am sure I am not the only one to feel this. Comments are always welcome.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mission Possible: Playing Games with Professional Development

A few posts ago, I talked a bit about Gamification in education. I then went on to discuss an idea I had to apply this to my classroom with Galaxy Fleet. After presenting at last weekend's Iowa Edcamp, I am inclined to give you some specifics of the Professional Development model I created that uses these principles.

Mission Possible is our district's model for professional development with regards to technology in our 1:1. In creating this process, I was looking for something that was highly engaging (or as engaging as any PD can me) as well as individualized and fun. Teachers were coming into our 1:1 initiative at many levels. We had those who could not wait to get their hands on their iPads, and those that never planned to take them out of the box. I needed a system that would challenge the high flyers while bringing those indifferent to the technology into the fold.

I see learning technology to be three fold. First there has to be a time where you simply get comfortable using the device or programs. In the game, this is where teachers begin. Level 1 teachers are given the title "Noob", a distinction that they no doubt want to shed as soon as humanly possible. Upon reaching level 3 in the game, they are considered "Users". I see users as teachers who are not afraid to turn on a computer or device and use it, but may not know exactly what to do with it. They want to play with different apps, find already developed programs to use, and master them. User levels (3-6) are where most of our teachers currently sit after about a year into the program. Upon reaching level 7, we start referring to teachers as "Tech Geeks". These people are comfortable finding apps and using them. They don't need any more in-service on what is out there or how to find it. Their levels shift to how they are going to implement these strategies into their classes. They collaborate with other Tech Geeks to infuse the technology or they share their expertise with others by leading sessions on in-service days.

Those are the three Tiers of the game. The mechanics follow real basic gamification principles. To gain a level, teachers do "Missions." Missions are set to take about 15 minutes each. A level 1 mission earns the teacher 1 "Paw Point" (we are the bulldogs). Once they reach 10 paw points, they lose the noob status and become a level 2 novice, on their way to being a User. Level 2 missions are worth 2 paw points each, level 3 worth 3 and so on. Teachers are not allowed to do missions above their level, but can "farm" lower level missions for small amounts of paw points.

Here is the website for the Game. 

You will not be able to see the leaderboard, which we do post so everyone knows where they stand. At the onset of the game I made a couple of things very clear with both the teachers and the administration. First, this is NON-EVALUATIVE. At no time will an administrator come to them and ask why they are only 5th level. I am a firm believer you get from Professional Development what you put into it. The only requirement that teachers have in the game is that whenever they are given time to do missions, that they put forth their best effort. Second, the game is really on the honor system. No one is going to be standing over their shoulder watching them do missions. Again, you get out what you put in.

I can tell you that this posting of the leaderboard is a key to the game aspect of it. It engages teachers' competitive nature just like Call of Duty does with my eldest son. The guy at the top will not let others ahead of him, even though they try. Some don't want to be at the top, but they always want to be ahead of that person right above them. The level of interest has dwarfed my expectations.

As teachers move through the game they can pick up other titles along the way for completing sets or "chains" of missions. If a teacher does a set of 5 missions on twitter, we give them the title "Twenius" on the leaderboard. This allows others to see who are experts on programs they might be interested in. They can seek them out instead of the tech department.

I encourage you to develop your own game based on this model. I am not selling the idea, I am giving it. Use it, make it yours. In doing so, I can give some advice. Keep it light; keep it fun. Name the missions with cute names like "Mickey Mouse is Pissed" for copy write, or "How do I put my face on Jennifer Lopez's body" for paint programs. Put effort into selling it to admin before the teachers. Time is always the biggest issue. Some teachers will do missions at night while sitting in bed, but most will only have time to do them when given it by admin. Be sure you have their support before selling it to the teachers. Celebrate successes. We always tweet out when someone raises a level. We have given prizes like earbuds to everyone who hits 5th level, or stylus's to the first 5 who hit 7th level.

Crowdsource the making of the missions to your teachers. Upon reaching level 7, teachers are beginning to help in making the actual missions, or ratifying earlier missions to make them better. I do not have the time or expertise to make missions for apps in all the different disciplines in my school. I let others do the work for me. I can post more on this later, but it is a big part of what makes Mission Possible actually possible.

As for the back end to this, I did it in Google forms and spreadsheets. Why? They were free and I kind of knew how to use them. If a programmer reads this and wants to write a database that keeps better track of these things, please do and share it with me. If you are interested in seeing the data side of this, please let me know and I can post something on that later.

That is an overall look at the game. I have presented this at a couple of conferences and can tell you that the idea is spreading like the clap at Woodstock. Grant Wood AEA is trying to develop something, I have had talks with the Des Moines School District, as well as Dubuque AEA and several smaller districts.

Let me know if there is any way I can help in these or other endeavors with this idea.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Scientifically Proven is an Oxymoron

Today I would like to discuss my view of the nature of science. In today's world, we hear a lot about science education, STEM, or preparing our kids to be innovators and solve all the world's problems through technology. By elevating science to this pedestal, I think we often lose sight of what doing science actually means. 

Science is nothing more than a buzzword for logic. 

If you have ever taken a course on logic, you will learn about how to make a sound argument. I tell my students that an understanding of logic will help them win fights with their parents and they usually perk up. I will tell you that it may help win arguments with your spouse, but in my experience, that isn't the case. 

A sound argument has to pass two tests. 
  1. It has to be based on true premises. A premise is a true statement that you argument is based on. 
  2. A valid inference has to be made regarding the relationship between the premises. An inference is a decision that you make about the premises. 
Let me give you an example: 
  • All students in my high school wear jeans. John is a student in my high school, so thus John wears jeans. 
This seems like it follows. The premises are that students at my school wear jeans, and that John is a student.  The inference is that because both of these are true, John thus wears jeans. If either of the premises is false, or if your inference that John will always follow the status quo is invalid, this argument falls apart. 

Another example: 
  • Your own son is not getting his homework done so you tell him he can't go to the dance this Saturday. 
Seems reasonable as well, but here is how he can attack the argument. 
  1. Attack the premise. "Dad, I do have my homework done, your premise is false, so your argument is unsound."
  2. Attack the inference. "Dad, you are right, I don't have my homework done. But you are assuming that if I stay home, I will be doing my homework on Saturday night. That is not going to happen."

Nothing is True in Science

In science, we all our premises "observations" and our inferences "hypotheses". Our arguments are called conclusions that are debated endlessly. I start my year in physics with this lecture and by telling my students that nothing that I tell them in the next 18 weeks is true in the truest sense of the word true, meaning fact. SCIENCE IS NOT INTERESTED IN FACT. 

Science is interested in IDEAS. Science begins with observations, the statements that you are basing your conclusions on. No measured observation is true; they all have error to them. I will never know exactly how long my computer screen is as the measurement depends upon the tool that I use. Eyeballing it, I can say it is about 18 inches. With a meter stick, I may be able to measure to the nearest 0.1 mm, and with some "laser" device, I may get better than that. However, I will never know the true size of it. All measurements have error. If observations are our premises, then none of our premises are entirely true. This all of our conclusions are unsound due to false (to a degree) premises. 

As it turns out, there is no such thing as a completely valid inference as well. Anytime a human makes a decision, it could be wrong. When a scientist decides on a hypothesis, or what she thinks is going to happen, there is a chance it could be wrong. 

Science does not "PROVE" anything. Science puts forth ideas on why we think things happen. If those ideas hold over time, we call them theories, and then laws. At no place in the scientific method is something proven true meaning fact. There is a chance that tomorrow someone could discover something that will throw every law in your textbook to the wind. That is the nature of science and it has happened before. 

The Law of Conservation of Mass and the Law of Conservation of Energy are the two most fundamental laws of nature. We base almost all of our other laws on these two. Einstein broke both of them with E=mc^2. This change in our fundamental understanding of the universe shook the scientific community and is still doing so today. Hell, we just learned what mass really is in finding the Higgs Boson!

The Law of Gravity seems pretty stable. Things fall when dropped. It has remarkable predicting power. If I drop a hammer today it falls, if I drop it a week from now, it will still fall. One of the biggest unanswered questions in science is "what is gravity." No one knows. Aristotle had ideas, Galileo and Newton had different ones. Einstein had a different idea, and today our particle physicists have even different ones. (Don't get me started on string theory). 

Why do we study science?

Science is a process, not a set of facts. In science education, we hear a lot about the scientific method and problem solving. We see a lot of project-based learning initiatives where teachers give students a problem and ask them to solve it using this method. This seems great as kids are engaged in the process. However, without the basic ideas that underlay our understanding of the universe, students have no premises to base their solutions on. I want the engineer that builds the I74 bridge to know something about Newton's Laws and forces. There has to be a happy medium between knowing the underlying principles of science and engaging in the process. 

We study science to help us make decisions. Global warming... is it real? I can tell you that I am on the fence on this one. I have seen data for both sides and need to study it more to make an informed decision. It is okay to say that you don't know and need to look into it more. That is more acceptable to me than saying that we are all going to burn up next year because Al Gore says so.  Students need this freedom to make informed decisions about policies that will change the world. 

If you have any thoughts on the basis of science or science education, I would love to hear them. 


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Importance of Having a Pedagogy

California scares me. They have tried to pass a law (maybe they did) that says that anyone with a college degree can teach for a few years. Sounds great on paper. You have a bunch of engineers who can't find work in Silicon Valley after the Dot Com Boom of the nineties. Throw them in a classroom and let their expertise in science and engineering drive the curriculum. This scares me. Good teaching is more than knowing the equations in the homework, or how to place a prepositional phrase in a sentence. Good teaching involves a knowledge of how kids learn.

I realize that there are many factors that go into being successful in the classroom (personality, relationships, content knowledge, confidence, and work ethic). I may hit on some of these in later posts, but today I want to discuss planning the lesson. Great teachers have a method to their madness. They have a base set of ideals and beliefs that govern how they teach. They have studied both before becoming a teacher, and more importantly while in the act, how students best learn material. They pay attention to the group as a whole, but know that there is no silver bullet that can catch every student. Their lessons do not write themselves, and rarely are written by another. They steal, develop, or create the lessons that work best for them. They talk with each other, and are open-minded enough to try something different or adapt their perception of learning with changing demographics of students. 

Let me give you the secret to my teaching. The biggest push in science right now is this thing called Inquiry Learning. What is interesting is that with all the books written, articles published, buzzwords created, standards carved in stone, and legislation passed, I can not adequately define it. Talk to two different people and they will tell you it means two different things. Here is my definition of inquiry. Any lesson that forces kids to think, is an inquiry lesson. When I say think, I mean solve problems, analyze situations, or come up with conclusions based on data. Memorization, matching, or any rote learning is not inquiry. (I don't want to downplay rote learning as there is a place for that too. Sometimes we spend too much time on having kids make inferences, and not enough time on them actually understanding premises of problems.)

The Learning Cycle

When it comes to tried and true methods of teaching, few stand up to the learning cycle. It has been around for something like 30 years, peer reviewed in numerous research scenarios, and updated through more dissertations than I can count. I was weaned on this method in college as the University of Northern Iowa's physics teaching department used it as the basis for much of their products. (PRISMS, CRISTALS, BIOMES, etc)

There are many different types of learning cycles out there. I use the simplest as it allows for the most flexibility. ALL of my lessons have these components to them, in ALL of my classes. This is how I teach, and I believe it has been successful. I have applied this from my AP Physics to workshops with kindergarten teachers who stated "Why had no one ever told us this before?!"

Step 1: Exploratory- This initial part of the lesson is where you give students a common experience. It may involve a lab in chemistry where you have students make patterns of shapes that will lead you into a discussion of the periodic table. It may be a 1st grade teacher taking her students on a walk and then having them discuss anything that they noticed that was affected by the weather. 

Step 2: Concept Development- This aspect of the lesson is where you take the common experiences that student have been given and expand them to the concepts you want them to understand. This may be a lecture, a lab activity, or any other aspect that many would say is normal teaching. More often than not, for a science classroom, it is an activity (or set of activities) that is much more pointed than its exploratory counterpart. The questions are expected to push the student towards understanding the concept. In physics, after students have made graphs of motion and recognized that the slope is related to the velocity, these activities have them calculate the slope or even look at the area under graphs. 

Step 3- Application- At this point the instructor should be fairly confident that the students understand the material. But can they apply it to a new situation? Imagine 2nd grade students who did connect the dots on a set of constellation worksheets for exploratory and learned stories behind constellations in concept development. Can these students then make their own constellation out of given stars on a sheet? Can they make their own story about how it got into the sky? This may be the most often overlooked part of the cycle (time is always and issue), but it is probably the most important.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

iPads in my Classroom

My district is in the midst of transitioning to a 1:1 system where every student will be given an iPad for use in and out of the classroom. This current year, all of our freshmen and sophomores were given the devices. Next year, the incoming freshmen will be given them and the following year all students will have the device. I would like to take an honest look at the initiative and hopefully give you all some advice on making the transition. I will preface this by saying that I am NOT an Apple junkie. As a matter of fact, I have always leaned towards the Google/Android system for its openness and flexibility.

Currently, as I teach mostly upperclassmen, my opinions are on the fence with the iPad. I have not been able to integrate it like I plan on doing in the next few years as many of my students do not have the device. Lets focus on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good:

There are several appealing attributes to the iPad as the device of choice for a 1:1.

  1. The iPad allows for innovation. I visited a school in Chicago that was using Chromebooks for their 1:1. They were very excited about how they were using Google Docs and various websites in their classes. That was great and all, but I did not see anything being done that we were not already doing in my building. They were doing what they did before, only with a computer. Their worksheets were electronic, and the kids handed things by sharing the document electronically with the teacher instead of putting it in the wire basket. That is great, but it is not innovative. The iPad, with its camera and mic, its movie editing apps, its simulations and quiz taking apps allows for a much broader spectrum of capabilities in the classroom. With the iPad, we could not just do what we did before without paper, we can do more. 
  2. Kids think its cool. Sure there is a novelty to every technology, but with the iPad the students are still buying into its marketing. Put a cheap netbook in a kid's hand and they will say thanks, but give them this tablet and watch their face light up. Although silly, this can not be overlooked. 
  3. iPads don't break that easily. Actually they do, but we bought a pretty good case for them that protects them from being dropped and such. At a 1:1 conference I attended, people were telling me that we should expect 20% breakage of the device. I think we are like 1% in my school. Why? The iPad doesn't have a hinge or any moving parts. Most of the breaks to 1:1 devices are on the laptop hinge or some kind of moving part. Perhaps we have just been lucky!
  4. Battery life was a major factor in going to the solid state system. Most laptops have a 4-6 hour battery life, which would not get a kid through a day. Then think about three years down the road on how good that battery will hold a charge. If your school goes with a netbook or something like that, be prepared for cords spiderwebbing your floors. 
  5. The App Store is immense. If you can't find what you are looking for, it doesn't exist. People write apps for the iPad as its popularity is unmatched. 

The Bad:

Before you all believe that I am taking commission from Apple for writing this, I do have some serious problems with the device. 
  1. The iPad is not a production tool. I want my kids to produce documents from scratch that show me what they have learned. Frankly, the iPad sucks at this. My district is not going to shell out funds for every student to have Numbers or Pages at $10 each, so we are stuck with mostly free apps like Google Drive. The lack of keyboard is a huge issue in writing. It is hard to ask a student to write a research paper on this thing by typing with their thumbs. Kids are amazing at doing that, but it is not something they want to do for long periods of time. 
  2. Google Drive is not there yet for the iPad. The Drive App now allows you to save things offline, which is great, but their spreadsheets, search tools for finding contacts, and their ability to make a copy of the original for editing is way behind. I am confident they will catch up, but they are not there yet. Other teachers I know have tried Evernote and Dropbox, but neither of them allow for spreadsheets of data or graphing. Right now, I am still using my desktops for most of the actual classwork production. Students prefer it that way. 
  3. iPads do not support Flash. All of the cool simulations that have been written in the last decade are on the Internet using flash player or shockwave. In trying to keep Adobe out of its marketshare, Apple has handcuffed teachers of the tools they have been using for decades. New sims are not out there yet. 
  4. ITunes U is not what it promised. When we made the decision for the iPad, ITunes U and ITextbooks were just coming out. They were supposed to revolutionize education, but really are nothing more than slimmer versions of Edmoto and Blackboard. I don't know why anyone would write an ITextbook that is only available on the iPad. If I were doing all that work, I would do it in HTML so it could be used on any device. 
  5. Testing is a nightmare. We are looking at Naiku, a testing website that will allow students to take exams online. This is very promising but has its limitations. We need an app that will not allow students to leave the app while taking the exam. I can Google answers to the question by copying the text into the Google taskbar in Safari or Chrome. Apparently there is a part of the Naiku site that tells the teacher if the student is off task, but nowhere does it stop a student from taking a screenshot of the questions and sharing it with their friends. 
  6. I don't know where any of my files are! The Apple operating system stores your data in some magical place on the iPad that is specific to the app. On my Android phone, I can save documents to "My Files" and then retrieve them, move them, rename them, and download them to a computer. With my iPad I have to trust in the software to know what I want to do with a file and have the capability to do it. I am often disappointed in what I am not able to do. 
  7. Apps are not programs. Perhaps this is the wave of the future, but the apps that are out there are nowhere near as full-featured as the programs they stemmed from. Microsoft Word can mail merge, add images, tables of data from excel, wordart, and a million other things that no app can even come close too. If you want to add wordart, you need to find an app that is specific to that, and that will interface with the word processing app you are using. 

The Ugly:

The Ugly truth is that and 1:1 initiative, whether it be iPad, Chromebook, Netbook, or Laptop is only as effective as the teachers implementing it. We have several teachers in our building who were all over this initiative, thinking up innovative ways to use the device, downloading apps, and completely rethinking how they teach. I applaud them, but give them caution. The device should not dictate curriculum. It is a tool, nothing more. Sound teaching practices should come first. In science, I will not add an app if it does not fit into the methods in which I teach. It needs to foster inquiry and problem solving in a way that I can not do without it. I am excited to see what I can do with the device, but will not let it dictate my lessons. 

We also have many teachers reluctant or scared to use it. To them I say give it a chance. You may not find the prefect app for your lesson, but think about the abilities students can utilize in taking notes. You can now assign a video as homework instead of watching it in class. Simple formative assessments can be very powerful and easy to implement. It may not be a centerpiece of your classroom, but I believe there is a place for it. 

I would love to hear any of your thoughts. 


Monday, February 11, 2013

STEM: Buzzword or Game Changer

The quickest way to make your initiative the butt of jokes in the teacher's lounge is to give it a buzzword that is supposed to make it popular. Not only is STEM this decades most used buzzword in science and math teaching it is also an acronym. That is a double whammy for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math teachers. Teachers get tired of hearing how we are supposed to "collaborate towards integrating our standards and benchmarks with fidelity." In a future post, I will put together a set of buzzword bingo cards for your next in-service. Nothing is funnier than a teacher in the back of the room yelling bingo when someone used the word "differentiation".

We joke, we laugh, we poke fun, but here is a secret that not many teachers will admit. Buzzwords have power! We realize that most of the initiatives that come out are really just old ideas wrapped in fancy new jargon, labelled and categorized with new vocabulary to sell more teacher prep textbooks or accept some doctoral thesis. But when a buzzword transcends the realm of the thesis committee or educational journal audience and becomes real to those outside education, it gains power.

STEM has done this. The focus on these four disciplines reaches from the very top of our government, to the small businessmen in our towns. Our President has used the term, my Governor has an initiative, and local businessmen have rallied to its calling. Money has been allocated, administrative bureaucracies set up, and charity grants awarded for this acronym. This makes STEM, at least in my eyes, more than a buzzword, it's a Game Changer!

I recently had a discussion with a local businessman who was convinced that STEM education was the direction that this country needed to focus. He was concerned, as we all are, that the US has been falling behind in math and science. He knew that our schools have work to do in preparing kids to be competitive in a world-wide market. He heard the calling and was prepared to help in any way he could. That is the power of STEM.

Last week I attended a meeting of our Quad Cities Engineering and Science Council where we heard local engineers and teachers coming together to link what was done in the classroom to what was needed in the real world. The fact that we even have an Engineering and Science Council in our city was impressive to me, but to hear the passion that these businessmen and engineers had for STEM was astounding. The council has been around for 51 years, telling you that the focus on science and math has always been there. STEM has given them something to rally around. They sponsor and work at numerous engineering events throughout the year, give teaching awards, and fund scholarships for students.

STEM is here to stay. To me it is not about learning math and science facts; it is a focus on making students think. This is a mindset that all these disciplines share. It is about solving problems in new and exciting ways. It is about moving engineering thought processes into a science classroom. It is about inquiry learning in math curriculum. It is about teaching the physics behind the principles students use in shop to build their catapult, or the statistics needed in biology to understand how populations change over time. It is pulling teachers together and linking them with industry. It is all of us working together for our students.

Do not brush it aside like we do with so many other initiatives, rally behind it. Science teachers, go to your shop teachers and ask them how you can help with their curriculum. Math teachers, visit a science teacher to ask how your math fits into their lessons. Lend them your expertise. Engineers and businessmen, go to your schools and ask how you can help. You may be surprised at how willing teachers will be to accept any assistance you can offer. Teachers, go to your school boards and ask for support for STEM projects. Administrators, set up a STEM coordinator in your district that can pull resources, people, and initiatives together in one cohesive K-12 system. With all of us working together, we can make the changes our country needs.

Please post comments with your thoughts on STEM as these are my ramblings. In future posts, I plan to talk about some of the stumbles that I see our country has made in STEM in the past and possible ways to fix them in each community as well as overall. I will also be sharing out opportunities in STEM across the nation and the state of Iowa. Stay tuned.


Friday, February 8, 2013

Mission to Mars Activity

Last week our school was give the unique pleasure of hearing from one of our graduates through our Visiting Scientist Program. Jeff Hanley has been a director at NASA for many years, serving as flight commander in mission control on several missions including the repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of the International Space Station. He spoke at some length on the challenges faced when we set our sights on Mars. Even for me, an astronomy teacher, it was eye-opening.

For many years I have done a project in my Astronomy class dealing with placing a base on the moon. This was very timely when then President Bush rallied our engineers to go back to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars. Unfortunately (especially for Hanley as he was director of the project) now President Obama has shifted NASA away from Moon exploration.

I am shifting the project towards a Mission to Mars. Here is how it works.

  1. I break the class into three groups, two large Engineering Firms and one Mars Mission Council consisting of three students. I choose the groups ahead of time taking care to know who works well together and who the class will accept as their Mars Council. 
  2. The job of the Engineering Firms is to come up with a plan on getting to Mars. There are usually about 8-10 in a group, which seems large. The task is large and they need all the manpower they can get. Their elected Chief Engineer sets smaller groups to solve the problems with air supply, food, transportation, waste management, recreation, etc.  
  3. The task of the Mars Council is to grade the projects. Part of the Engineering Firm's grade is based on whether their proposal is accepted by the Council (10/60 of the points for the activity). The Council spends their time making rubrics, deciding how long the presentations will be, creating questions for the groups after their presentations, and answering process questions from the groups. They are in charge. 
  4. I move the Council to a completely different room and set them up with a computer. They typically create a generic gmail account for their Council that they can share documents and answer emails from the groups. If one of the Firms has a question about their proposal, they can email the council. The Council can choose to answer if they want too, or ignore it. That is real world. The Firms can not directly talk to the Council. 
  5. I will only talk to the Chief Engineer from each Firm. This sets up a real-life bureaucracy that students begin to get exposure too. 
  6. I set up some focus questions for them online to drive some decisions that need to be made about the Mars Mission. 
  7. They get about three days (full blocks) to work before they give their presentations. Most groups dress up for the presentation, make scale models of their bases, and try to 
Here is a link to the website that I am using for Astronomy. At the bottom is the link to the Mars Mission Project. It has worked really well with the "Moon Lairs" that they have made in the past, I am excited to see if going to Mars will offer more challenges. 



Thursday, February 7, 2013

Quiz Notes: The Secret to Acing Exams!

Yesterday I wrote about the difference between being active in studying and being passive with the process. Today I want to give you a quick strategy that involves the student with the material and more importantly saves time. This is probably my favorite strategy to study for a class so I feel I need to pass it on. I did not create it, but I have used it and it works!

Quiz Notes:

Here is the process. In my notebook, I would take the page that I would normally take notes on and draw a line 1/3 of the way from the left of the page. On the right of that line, I take my notes in class as I normally would.

Then after class or that night I write questions to myself on the left of that line about the notes that I took that day. It is very important that I did this every night I took notes. I may write three questions per page of notes. This may take about 5 minutes. I look over my notes, pick out the three most important topics in them and devise questions that address those. I then quickly answer those questions in my head. The entire process takes maybe 7 minutes.

The next day before class I may glance at the questions from the previous day before the lesson and answer them in my head again. I take notes that day as normal, the that night repeat the process. Writing the new questions may take 5 minutes and a few more minutes answering today's and yesterday's questions in my head.

Repeat day after day. Think about day 15. I may have 45 questions about my notes if I took notes all those days. Day 15's questions are easy to answer in my head because I just wrote them. Day 1's questions are easy to answer because I have answered them 14 times already.

The premise is that if you study for 5 minutes every night, you don't need to study for 3-6 hours before the exam. You will keep up in the class and actually know what the teacher is talking about in class. They work GREAT!

Here are some hidden features of quiz notes. If you have a question about the class, teachers/professors hate it when you plop down across their desk, throw your hands up and tell them that you are lost. They then need to spend a lot of time assessing what you know and what you actually need help on. If you plop down in their chair and say easily, "Mr. Like, I have been writing these questions about my notes... how would you answer this one?"  They can address the problem right away. They love it.

Try this... "Mr. Like, I have been writing these questions about my notes to help me study. Are these the type of questions I should be asking?"  You may be surprised, but they with more often than not look them over and say, "This one is good... you don't need to focus on this... perhaps ask this one this way."  Guess what? They are giving you the test! That is how they write the exam! They look at their notes and ask questions about it. You have been practicing the exam every night for 15 days!

In high school we don't take that many notes in a day, so the nightly work is minimal. This is an ACTIVE strategy that is much better than PASSIVELY reading over your notes the night before an exam. It takes very little time. I have written questions from the previous day while waiting for class to start, or even during class when a teacher highlights a point or statement that you know is going to be on the exam.

Try it. Adapt it. Make it yours!



Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Teaching Students to Study

In college I was hired by the student services department to teach a class on effective study strategies. A wonderful woman named Karen instilled in me the importance of learning HOW to study, not just how much to study. It made all the difference in my college career and is something that I pass on to my students. During the first couple of days of class I toss out many strategies on how to be successful in high school and beyond. Our current system of education runs on testing as a major part of evaluation. Good or bad, it is the reality of our institutions of learning. Students take tests all the time, but few of them really study in high school. This is something that is learned in that first year of college when they are asked to read 100 pages by the end of the week and are tested over a semesters worth of material for the majority of their grade. Some learn how to study and some fail out after a year or two of hell (academically speaking, the rest of college was amazing!). I want my students to have tools to prepare them for the reality that is higher learning.

Active vs Passive Studying

Ask the kids in your class how they study for an exam. Those that do (I will bet less than half) will probably tell you that they "read over the notes" they took in class. Then ask them if they have ever read a page in their textbook, got to the bottom, and had NO IDEA what was on the page. They will all raise their hands. We all do it. Many of you are probably doing this now with this blog. When we get to the bottom of that page and realize that we got nothing from it, do we go back and re-read? Never. We assume that because our eyes went over the letters we absorbed (magically) some material. We move on. I contend that you never read the page! You have wasted your time.

The key to effective study strategies is the word effective. I always tell my students that high school and college are about more than classwork and grades. There are so many distractions in both realms that it is hard to keep up with everything. In college you may have a job, a sport, or want to go to that party at the purple house on Thursday night. If you have a girlfriend, forget about it! You don't have time to study for six hours before your test at the end of the week. Studying becomes a drag on life; there are better ways to spend your evenings. What if you could study in a half hour as effectively as you did in the three that your roommate is always putting in at the library? Then you can go to the party, or yoga, or the sporting event you want to attend, whatever.

Lets go back to the textbook problem. You read, but didn't read. Here is how to fix that. As you read, write in the margins after every paragraph, a short sentence that describes what is in there. If you look at my college texts, there are annotations all over the place. They are notes to myself about what was in the paragraph. Many people highlight which I think is dumb. (Even more concerning are those who look for used books that are already highlihgted!) I tried this book art and figured out that all I was doing was highlighting the first sentence of every paragraph. Why bother? Annotating forces me to think about the passage, making me an ACTIVE learner rather than a PASSIVE reader. High School teachers may be thinking that that is great and all, but you will be fired if students wrote all over your $100 textbooks. Mine use Sticky Notes. They go crazy with different colors, one for definitions, one color for equations, etc.

This makes you an active learner using the text. Then before the test, you don't re-read the chapter, you simply look at your sticky notes. If one doesn't make sense, then re-read only that section. You can get done with reading it once and still make it to the party on Thursday night.

In future posts, I want to talk about student note taking and how to develop active learning strategies for that.

As always any comments are greatly appreciated.



Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Gamification with Students: Galaxy Fleet

Alright, this is a bit out there, so try to read through the whole thing before passing judgement. I will tell you that this is only an idea, still in the "It may be cool if I try this someday" stage. It may be something great or may fail miserably. Hard to crystal ball that kind of thing.

If you read my previous post on Gamification, you were introduced to using game dynamics in a non-game setting. I have done this for staff PD and it has been very successful. This is my first attempt at planning something for students. After talking with our Physical Science teacher Breelyn McMahon, I tried to develop a unit based on a game. She encouraged me to include some standards based grading, which I think was a great addition to the concept.

Here is the premise for a physical science unit on Electromagnetic Radiation. The students start out as Cadets training for Galaxy Fleet- a futuristic military academy. (I am trying to give this a Star Trek feel.) They begin by being trained to become Communications Analysts (Ensigns). In order to gain this recognition (which I plan on doing with virtual metals) they need to pass their bar exams. These exams would consist of three quizzes, one conceptual, one multiple choice, and one mathematical (or performance). I basically broke the unit exam into three parts. They have to pass at least two parts with 75% or they have to retake them. After becoming an Ensign, they strive to pass on to Commander, and then Captain of the ship.

In order to even take the Ensign exam, they have to earn "commendations." These are earned by passing standard classroom activities. If a student finishes a lab, they earn a commendation...  if they finish their homework, they earn another, etc. Once they have 3 commendations, they can take their bars. If they fail one or more aspect of the bar, they lose a commendation, which must be then earned back before they can retake the exam. This could be done with a remedial lesson or worksheet to review what they need to know to pass that part of the exam.

The lessons are all based on the Learning Cycle approach. Students will earn a commendation for their exploratory activity, their concept development activity, application activity, homework and such. The lesson would be planned and executed with sound science teaching methods of discovery and inquiry.

Here is the basic outline of how they could become an ensign.

  1. Pass the "Lost in Space" exploratory lab to learn types of ways in which we can communicate (what a wave is) 
  2. Pass the "Keeping Time with Pendulums" lab to learn vocabulary (amplitude, wavelength, frequency, etc)
  3. Do some homework associated with the previous
  4. Pass the "Wonderful, Wonderful Toy" lab with Slinky springs to understand the types of waves out there as well as reinforce vocab.
  5. Earn 3 commendations and take their bars. If they pass 2 out of 3 of the formative quizzes they reach Ensign and they do the application activity "It Sounds Good, But What Does it Mean" lab with standing waves. 
  6. If they fail a part of the bar, they do some remedial worksheets to earn back the commendation to take the bar until they pass. As these students are doing this, the ones who passed will be working on the application. 
  7. To get them all at the same level, we added an extension activity for the ones who passed to do while the others are doing remedial work and retaking the bar exams. 

Those set of activities would cover one standard in the unit. As a Com Analyst they will be exploring more about electromagnetic waves until they take their exams to become a Security Specialist (another standard in the unit). After that they will be applying what they know the to lasers on the ship, reflection, and refraction of materials to protect the vessel (a last standard in waves). If they pass out of that they can take their overall exam to reach Captain status.

Here is a link to a website I began to make for this. I included some preliminary lab activities and a description of the game. Note the feel of the writing. I may expect them to call me "Sir" as their commander and ask them to stand at attention when I enter a room, etc. Maybe I will wear a ribbon or jacket or something. It may be fun (at least for me). I envision having ceremonies at the beginning of class when someone earns their new rank, maybe having a website with kid's profiles/rank/commendations/etc to allow them to showcase their accomplishments.

This would cover maybe three or so weeks of class (on a full block each day), with exams at the end of each week. Some of the activities take 10 minutes while others may take a full day. The quizzes would be designed to last about 15 minutes each with the Captain's exam (the comprehensive one) being a full exam at the end of the unit. They can't progress unless they show they have met earlier standards on the formative quizzes though.  

The idea would be that the next unit in the class could be based on a different theme. I think students would get tired of Star Trek for 9 or 18 weeks. Perhaps we do a medieval theme, or spies depending on what the unit is. A unit on chemistry would be great for a detective/forensic angle, and a unit on motion could be done with designing roller coasters.

That's it!

Any thoughts would help in doing this. Do you think students would like it or hate it? Any ideas for adding to the game? If I didn't explain it well enough, please comment and I can try again.

As I plan to do a lot in this blog, I am just throwing out ideas. If you like it, run with it and let me know how it goes. I am still on the fence on this one as it will take a lot of time to put this into use.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Gamification in Education: It's World of Warcraft without the Warcraft.

...Well maybe with a little warcraft depending upon how you roll.

I first came upon the idea of Gamification from my brother, an IT guy working in the business world. I was telling him that my district was asking me to develop the professional development for our 1:1 initiative. I told him that I was looking for something new and innovative, something that will engage the teachers in my high school that was ongoing and individualized to teachers' needs. He mentioned this idea that had been around in the business world for decades: Gamification.

Gamification is the idea of using game dynamics in non-game scenarios. Basically it works like this. Video games and role playing games outline overall goals that they want you to achieve. They then design specific tasks that you do in order to work your way towards these goals. (Sounds a lot like my classroom) I have witnessed my son playing for hours on the computer, fighting bad guys on the game DC Universe. If you ask him what he is doing, he will tell you that he has to defeat enough Joker goons to gain experience to gain a level. What is at that next level? More Joker goons! Seems odd, but if I could engage my teachers (or students) at 1/10 of his level, I am doing great things.

Gamification has existed in business for decades. Karate has its belts. You perform a set of tasks and you are rewarded with a darker pigment around your waist. Airlines have frequent flyer miles, Discover card has cash back, and I can't turn the TV on without hearing about some reward my wireless company is giving out. These are all aspects of gamification.

Long story short, I devised a professional development for our staff based on this and other important principles. I am going to save this for a later post. We called it Mission Possible and it is working very well. I have presented it at a couple of conferences where it has been very well received and even have an article being edited for publication in Tech and Learning. More on this later.

At one of my conferences, I was asked if I had ever tried this with students. As I had spent so much time working on the PD, I had not yet developed anything for kids. I know there is a guy at Classrealm who has been developing some stuff, but I had not worked on it for myself. Bouncing ideas off another teacher in my building, I began to work on something special. I am pretty excited about it, but since it is a complete new look at managing my classroom, it is a little scary.

I will outline what I have for you tomorrow.


Friday, February 1, 2013

When I was a kid we had this thing called paper...

Yesterday I talked about the death of textbook companies. Today I want to open a discussion about the death of the textbook, at least in the traditional sense. It may see odd that in my previous post I tried to rally some of you to help me create a textbook and today I am talking about killing it. Let me clarify. I am going away from the word "textbook". If it were me I would strike it from our language (along with 'hashtag'... its a number sign!).

I am suggesting that we replace the T-word with "resources". This term has a much broader scope for what is possible with today's technology. We have text, video, simulations, interactive homework, online tutors and a multitude of other resources that students can use to get information. Why are we tying their hands by giving them this crutch. There is no textbook for life. In the real world when I want to find information on how to fix a fuse on my dryer I  watch Bob Villa do it on Youtube or look up the manual on the Whirlpool website (Lord knows I will never find the paper copy).

Here is what I have been moving towards. It is an experiment right now but something that seems to be working. I have done preliminary work in all my classes but have focused mainly on my astronomy class. I began by defining the "Essential Questions" that I believe they should be able to answer after the unit I am teaching. I then went online to find resources that will help students investigate the answers. I put links to these resources online for students to peruse. I am not assigning a particular chapter to read, or a specific movie to watch, I am assigning a question to investigate. They can choose what method they learn best with.

I do of course lecture on these things and we do all the stuff in class we normally do with labs, homework, formative quizzes and such. This is my alternative to their $90 textbook that they never bring to class.

Here is a link to my Astronomy Site and the resources I have found for them. It is not complete but I really am just beginning to flirt with this idea. On my schedule I assign a section (1.1 or 1.2) that they can work with at home.

I am not sure if this is the best method, but so far I have gotten good reviews from kids. There are great resources out there that we all should be using. It is my hope that in future units I am able to give them less and less "resources" with the expectation that they find the material themselves. I may someday pose the question and they will have to find the video or website that explains it. That is what I do when I have a problem to solve.

As always let me know what you think. Please don't be shy.