Thursday, March 28, 2013

21st Century Skills- A Missing Piece- Production!

If you have been following this blog, you probably know how big a fan I am of the learning cycle approach to science teaching. I run my classroom on a three step cycle beginning with an exploration activity, then the concept development, which is followed by an application of the content acquired.

I believe firmly that this model can and should be used in many teaching experiences. There is no reason why it should be less effective when teaching 21st Century Skills. I can tell you that when planning any learning cycle, the easiest part to breeze over is the application. The students already know the material, why spend more time making sure they can apply it? In truth, this is probably the most important step in retention of the concepts.

I am not saying that this is not being done in our classrooms with regards to 21st Century Skills. I believe it is. What hit me this morning in the shower (where I do my best thinking on Ed tech) was that we should be pushing higher end applications of these skills. Today's bright idea revolves around some examples that are currently not available in my building but I believe they should be. They are all favors of the same candy, simply presented in different wrappings.

1. Video Announcements- About 7 years ago, my building tried this. At that time, a class called TV tech produced a 5 minute video to be shown during announcements about once a month. That was almost a decade ago. Producing video has become so commonplace that there is no reason that students can not read the announcements every day on video. I envision a couple of students dressed well sitting across a formal desk delivering the announcements. Maybe once a week, they could do a sports story or cover the various clubs and activities out there. I have even thought about maybe allowing commercials when time allows that may provide some funds. (Interview a florist before homecoming talking about the best kind of corsage.) Our school newspaper is amazing in its production, why can we not do the same thing with video?

2. Video production- I would like to see a class where the students make a short movie. They work on a script, find some actors, locations, film, edit, and do post production. The software to do this is relatively cheap and easy to use. We have a lot of students who are doing this at home, or would like too. The school should support them with guidance and a venue to show off their work when they finish. How cool would it be to show these in our auditorium at on a night showing. Create posters, the whole deal. Our school plays are incredible, why can we not tap into those actor's ambitions with film.

3. Music production- I sat in an English teacher's classroom after school the other day when a student came in to play one of the teacher's guitars. This young man, who I knew from my astronomy class, picked up the three pounds of wood and string and pounded out two pieces of his own music. He belted lyrics that he and the teacher worked out together after school. I asked if he had ever recorded his music and he said he had some stuff at home. He also had a notebook of over a dozen other tunes that he was working on. We need to support this kind of ambition any way we can. I would like to see the school invest in basic studio equipment and make that available to students. How cool would it be to teach kids how to use a mixer, record tracks, and produce student made music. Last year I attended our talent show and was introduced to several students who were placing music on YouTube and even one who has a song on iTunes.

There are many more examples of the kind of thing that I am talking about here. We currently have a class called Planetarium productions that tries to fill the production void in our school. Students have 9 weeks to write a script, make the visuals, record the music and narration, and program the planetarium to produce a show. It is a great class that students really enjoy taking. In the end they have a show that we use in our planetarium for other classes. Unfortunately As this is not a science Elective, it is usually the first thing we cut from our curriculum when we are short staffed. Also, this is a school-centered class, where students work for a purpose set by us. In the previous examples, the school would be working for the student to produce their own work. I can't think of anything more engaging that that.

I believe these are the type of things that people want us to be doing. They are Quadrant D, engrossed in 21st century skills, centered on problem solving, require timetables, are high in rigor, and naturally engaging.

If your school has these programs already, great! Please let me know how it is going and some of the successes or tribulations you are having. If you have other applications of real production going on in your school, please post a comment to let us all know what is out there.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Smart students begin with smart teachers.

It began with nazis. Fermi split an atom, Hitler captured France, and the best nation in the world freaked out.

It continued with Sputnik. The Russians beat us to space, put the first dog in space, and then there was that Yuri guy that only us science teachers remember.

What followed both of these events were national demands on learning science.

In the 40s, universities were raided for their best graduates, drafting then into the manhattan project, putting them in secret towns in New Mexico where the brightest scientists in the country could collaborate and learn from each other.

In the 60s, it was a race to build the best rockets. We took enough shots to the chin, that in a comeback move only rivaled by Rocky Balboa, we strapped on our big boy boots and planted them firmly them on the moon.

If the driving force behind this push was national pride, the vehicle was education. We needed the best and brightest in the world, here making these discoveries. We valued education because it was the means for reaching our goals.

My high school physics teacher was a product of this time. He brought expertise and experience to the small village of Monticello, encouraging the 92 kids who graduated in my class to think, reason, and problem solve. His masters degree was in physics, earned through programs left over from the Sputnik scare. In the 70s and early 80s, there was still this belief that teachers should know science. All this went away in the 80s. We became more concerned with self image in our students, nurturing their thoughts of self worth instead of scientific principles.

Today, it is almost impossible to get an advanced degree in science, unless you count it's slow cousin "science teaching." My masters degree is in instructional design and telecommunications. It was close, cheap, and offered its classes on the weekends and at night. Unless I wanted to take a year off, there was no degree at any university within a hundred miles of me that offered classes in the summer time. Summer time is when professors did a majority of their research, brushing off those annoying classes they have to teach between publishing papers.

This is a problem, and I am positive it is not just a science thing. Teachers want degrees that matter, they want something that will help them be the best at what they do. Unless you want to be an administrator, the pickings are slim for grad programs.

NASA is cutting all their educational programming! I know! If you don't believe me, read this posting (

What does this day about where our nation puts its priorities? Perhaps making fuel efficient cars is not as sexy as going to the moon, or blowing up Japanese cities, but I can argue that it is more important. We hear our leaders preaching about STEM, but when push comes to shove, do they support it? We spend millions put technology into our kids hands but don't train teachers in its appropriate use. You can't buy an education with trinkets, it has to be earned. The first step in supporting our students is supporting our teachers.

I am a firm believer that teaching is 30% content knowledge, 20% pedagogy, 20% an art form, and 30% grit and determination. (Somewhere in there I should include politics, paperwork, and vodka)


Monday, March 18, 2013

The Back End of Gamification in our 1:1 Professional Development

I have posted several previous blogs on my model for gamification in our professional development. If you are interested in how the idea was started, read "Gamification in Education: It's World of Warcraft without the Warcraft." or "Mission Possible: Playing Games with Professional Development." If you are interested in how I incorporated crowdsourcing into the game, read "Crowdsourcing your 1:1 Professional Development." If you are interested in how I keep track of the points on the back end of the system, continue reading on:)

I will begin by saying that this is by no means the best way to do this. I am not a programmer, I am a physics teacher. My programming skills are completely self-taught and consist of some flash action scripting, enough html to be dangerous, and enough C++ to know that semi-colons are very important. I was talking to my nephew yesterday. He is a computer science major at the University of Iowa. I may have talked him into trying to develop the data analysis of this game for a class project he is doing for his degree. In fact, when Des Moines came to me and asked to see my programming mojo, I told them to hire someone smarter than me to build them an app.

That being said, here is a peak behind the curtain.

When teachers do a mission, they are to receive points depending upon which level the mission falls under. 4th level missions are worth 4 points, etc. I have to record that they did the mission, assign them the points, and then add up their total points. I do it all in google docs for the simple reason that I am comfortable with spreadsheets, and it's free. Here is how it is done. At the end of every mission, teachers submit a google survey to rate the mission's effectiveness. They have to put their mission number, and the survey records their user name.
This data then goes into a spreadsheet for that level. All 4th level missions have the same form on them. 5th level missions have an identical form that feeds into the 5th level point totals. I then create a column on that sheet that truncates the mission number to the first number. Thus mission 403 will be truncated to 4. This is where the mission number turns into the points awarded. 

I then create a pivot table that accesses this information with the teacher's username, mission number, and returns the points awarded. The final column on the pivot table adds the total number of points for that level. The different colors on the table allow us to keep track of chain missions. If someone does all in a chain, they earn a new title. 
The third worksheet on this document is where the totals are linked to the teacher's actual names. Basically, we have a list of names associated with the users, and an equation copies the total column from the pivot table to this "totals" spreadsheet. The equation used is a VLOOKUP, that looks up their username, and returns their total. 

Now that I have their real name associated with their point totals from that level, I simply copy each of the point totals to a different "Leaderboard" spreadsheet. It has columns for each level, and adds the numbers in the end. The actual leaderboard simply references that sheet and is displayed for the staff. 

Easy peasy.

Let me know if there are any questions. If I get ambitious I may do a video tutorial on how this is done to show you around myself. 


Friday, March 15, 2013

Observing a Technology Integration Blog for 1:1

There is a good chance that you are reading this because I put the words "Technology Integration" or "1:1". This is my 26th blog on this site. I have a few followers that I think are pretty loyal to at least opening up the page and skimming it. I also probably have a few lurkers who catch my post on twitter and check out the page if it looks interesting. I also have a few random blog seekers who run across key words I label on the posts. 

Here is the observation I have made. In looking at my posts, I get almost a 300% increase in viewings when the post title includes something to do with technology. Crowdsourcing your 1:1 Professional Development holds the title for the most views, almost tripling any other post. Posts on pedagogy or developing relationships with students get little to no views. Apparently if I want my posts read, I need to place as many buzzwords into the title as possible. 

I believe the reason for this is fairly apparent. Those of you reading this Blog are probably tech-savvy and are interested in learning more about technology. Thus you read the blog posts that deal with your interests. Makes perfect sense. Sites like Zite or Pulse allow you to choose what kind of news you want to read. These types of popular sites are focusing our learning on what we want to know. 

I have a few concerns with this. First off, the more specialized we become, the less rounded. I have seen this on some of the twitter #edchats that I have contributed too. What I have found is that when you get a bunch of us tech minded teachers together in a virtual environment, we do nothing more than preach to the choir. A few weeks ago, the topic of one of the questions on #iaedchat was how do we develop better relationships with our students. Far too many of the responses revolved around giving them iPads or other devices to foster online social networking. Really? I posted that we should talk to them. I believe that many times that the more we focus on the trees, we miss the forest. 

There is something to be said for those liberal arts classes we all took in college. Remember the class on Russian history that you had to take from 6-9PM on Thursday night that you hated because all your friends were at the bar? That class had a purpose. It gives you perspective on something outside your chosen field. I urge you all to check out some blogs outside your interests. Try to broaden your perspective beyond just integrating technology or movie news (which is about all I check). 

Secondly, if the only ones reading these blogs are those interested in technology, we have another problem. We need to try to get the rest of our colleagues to read, to write, to spread their ideas across the nation. There is more out there than tech blogs. You are reading this, but does the teacher across the hall subscribe to these kinds of things? There are a lot of teachers that are resistant to integrating technology into their classroom. Perhaps the first step for that person  is to get them using it for themselves. I would not spend the time writing these pages if I didn't think that they had some kind of value to people. If you made it this far down the page, you must think the same. How can we get your principal, or team teacher to expand out in the same way you have? The more people that contribute to the conversation, the more the forest becomes apparent. 

Thoughts? Post a comment on how or why you came across this blog. It may be informative to see why people put precious time into reading these. 


Monday, March 11, 2013

Gamifying a Classroom: Step 2

Earlier, I posted that I have been looking at applying the principles of gamification to a classroom experience for my students. I started with the idea of revolving the class around a Star Trek-like world where students would be earning ranks by fulfilling achievements. I began a website here.

I am planning this for my Astronomy class, in a unit that is rough for them. The underlying topics to be covered are Electromagnetic Radiation, Spectroscopy, Doppler Effect, and Telescopes. It is basically the "science" part of astronomy in terms of what principles astronomers use today.

The basis behind the game is that students will enter a classroom that is to prepare them to be the captain of their own starship. They begin the game as Cadets, graduate to Ensigns, then Commanders, then finally Captain. You can read more about this on the site or the previous post. 

I have worked out a pretty cool advancement tool that I am going to incorporate. I plan on taking some safety pins that they can attach to their school issued lanyards. Upon completing a level, they will be given a bead to place on the pin (think cub scouts). The color of the bead will indicate their level of completion. For instance. If they pass their advancement exam on their first attempt they will be awarded the title Cadet 2nd Class (Blue Bead). If they complete the enrichment exercise, they will advance to 1st Class (White Bead). If they fail their bar exam, but pass it on their second attempt, they will be considered Cadet 3rd Class, but can move up to 2nd Class by doing the enrichment exercise.

Thus by looking at their pin, they have their rank right on their chest.

0 beads - Cadet
1 bead - Ensign
2 Beads - Commander
3 Beads - Captain

1st Class White (Passed test on first try and completed enrichment)
2nd Class Blue (passed test on first try)
3rd Class Yellow (Failed test on first try but then passed)
4th Class Red
5th Class Black

Let me know if you think this is a good idea or if you have something that will make it better. I am seriously thinking about trying this in late April with my astronomy class. It will take a lot of work re-writing labs and resources to give them a Trekky feel, but it is timely with the reboot of the movie franchise. I will post more when I have more. Any feedback on the development of this would be appreciated.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Crowdsourcing Your 1:1 Professional Development

In an earlier post, I talked about a professional development model that I created for my district based on gamification. We call it Mission Possible, a game-like system where teachers work through "missions" in order to gain achievements to reach higher levels of tech greatness. Read more here! I kind of left you hanging with the second part of the PD that I feel makes it successful.

Crowdsourcing is a big part of the model that individualizes the PD to departments and even specific teachers. I am not sure how Webster defines crowdsourcing, but I can give some pretty good examples.

Astronomers, in an effort to map the sky have taken pictures of millions of galaxies with telescopes like Hubble, or the Keck Telescope in Hawaii. The next step in their experiment was to categorize these galaxies as spiral, elliptical, irregular or peculiar using Hubble's Galaxy Classification system. Basically you would need to look at these pictures, determine if there were spiral arms, or other things happening that would put the galaxy into a certain category. As it turns out humans are much better, even after simple instruction, than computers at doing this. Astronomers had a problem. With the six grad students working on the experiment, they could not look at the MILLIONS of galaxies. They created Galaxy Zoo. This website gives anyone a brief intro to how to classify galaxies, then shows them pics and has them practice. Using some simple questions, they use people around the world to classify actual scientific data. Within 24 hours they were getting 70,000 classifications per hour, using over 150,000 people in the first year.

With Mission Possible, I wanted to have missions that were specific to disciplines around the school. I am not an expert in Foreign Language, so I go to the experts. They can progress in the game by earning points creating missions for others. As part of the game, a teacher creates their own tutorial, shares it with others, and contributes to the actual making of the game.

I believe that this ownership of the game itself is a big part of the buy-in we get from our teachers. It is not a game where I or some Tech God who know everything is telling them what is important to learn in tech. No one knows every application of tech in our school. There are pockets of experts that I am tapping into with the crowdsourcing missions. Teachers realize that the game is theirs to play, and create as they go. The tutorials are there for other's use, which gives the teachers recognition and a part of the satisfaction that I feel in the success of the game.

I know there are a lot of you looking to adapt this model in your own systems. Do not forget the crowdsourcing piece as it will help you with manpower as well as buy-in. Good luck and let me know how it goes.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

My State's Educational Plan

Someone help me out with this. I am a teacher in the state of Iowa, a state that has traditionally been one of the highest ranking states in the nation in education. Lately we have been falling behind on national assessments that apparently indicate that Iowa's schools are failing our kids. Our state governor has decided that an intervention is needed. Not just a shift in educational policy, but an overhaul of how our schools are structured and teachers are paid. I am a pretty open minded guy when it comes to change, but what they are proposing makes me wonder what direction we are on.

Here is the basis of the program as I understand it. If I am wrong on any part of this, please help me as I want to understand this. There would be Tiers of teachers: Novices, Standard Teachers, and Master Teachers. The Novices would be the newbies, who are in desperate need of mentoring and guidance by the older more experienced teachers. This may be 10% of the staff. They would be hired at a pretty high incoming salary ($35,000 starting if you can believe that), so as to attract the best and the brightest. The majority of the staff (~85%) would be your run of the mill teacher. These would all be paid the same, regardless of years of experience or education. Then you have the top 5%, the glorified Master Teacher who is taken out of the classroom for half of their day for mentoring duties and other administrative goal setting sessions and such. These select few would make more money than the peons below them and be involved with evaluation and other administrative duties.

Explain this to me, please. How does taking the best teachers out of the classroom help our kids? If you take these teachers out of the classroom, districts will have to hire more staff to cover their sections, right? You would think so. When I asked this question, the response was that class size would go up instead of hiring new teachers. My admin quoted some study that said that class size numbers had little to no effect on student achievement. Really? I don't think they have ever been in an Intro to Biology class with 27 kids, most of them with IEP's. I can tell you that my district spent less total dollars on teacher's salaries than they did the year before, and hired more administrators. Our science numbers for next year show that we can not cover the number of sections that students have signed up for. Our choices are to tell kids they can't take science, fill our classes to 30 kids, or hire new staff. Guess which one is off the table.

How do we decide who is a Master Teacher? My state is overhauling its teacher evaluation system as well. I am not sure on the details, but I can tell you that if history is any indicator, it is very difficult to assess a teacher's effectiveness. I am praying that they go by test scores. If that's the case, I have that master teacher status locked! My kids do great on tests, I teach AP Physics!

Someone please help explain this to me. I am still in the dark and may be completely off base on many of my opinions. I am a reasonable guy and would love to discuss this.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What Aliens Taught Me About Technology

Yesterday my astronomy II class was talking about life in the universe. Usually, this end-of-the-semester topic revolved around how aliens are going to kill us or how stupid Jar Jar Binks is. Yesterday surprised me.

I was going through the math on something called the Drake Equation. Dr. Frank Drake created a set of variables that allows a person to estimate how many alien civilizations there are in our galaxy. It starts with how many stars there are in the Milky Way, then has you estimate how many of those stars have planets, then how many habitable planets, etc. In the end you are supposed to come up with a number for how many alien species are out there that utilize technology great enough for us to have contact with them. (My class came up with 180,000,000 and we were pretty conservative).

Anyway, one of these variables is the percentage of intelligent species that use technology. The students had already narrowed their search down to planets with intelligent life. Now I asked them what percentage of intelligent species would develop technology. My surprise came when all 17 of these juniors and seniors emphatically said 100%. Intelligent species can not avoid the use of technology. How telling is that?

Technology permeates our student's lives so fully that they could not even fathom it not evolving. They are so in tune with the advancements in technology, that they take it as second nature. To them technology is not a set of things, but a fluid, ever-changing, and evolving part of their culture. They get it! Why are we so worried about teaching them what they already know.

Our conversation then revolved around how technology arose on our planet. After apes began banging nuts on rocks, they found out sharper rocks worked better, and then tools made it even easier. We talked about the rise of culture. Looking around the globe, different cultures developed their technology completely independently of each other. The Egyptians developed their hieroglyphics completely separated from the Chinese or the Mayans of South America. All of these cultures developed a written language, farming, engineering, and religious structures.

After about ten minutes of discussion, they had me convinced that technology is inevitable with an intelligent species. Carl Sagan, a hero of mine, once spoke of our age as a technological adolescence. He worried that we were playing with technology like kids playing with toys. He worries about us blowing ourselves up, which incidentally is the last variable in the Drake Equation.

Our schools are probably in the pre-pubescent stage. We have just been given these tools with little instruction on how to integrate them. We know that just like an alien culture, we can not avoid its use, but will we blow ourselves up before the culture of our school can cope. Changes in school culture is a slow, grinding process that takes years to develop. Technology will not wait for us.


Friday, March 1, 2013

A Teacher's Tech Wishlist

Here is a short list of things that I wish I had in technology that either are not invented yet, not available to me due to price or IT restrictions, or that I simply do not know about yet. If some of these are available, please let me know where I can get them.

  1. An iPad/website testing app that will allow for the following:
    1. Students can not close the app or move to another screen during the test. (I would like exceptions to teacher-allowed apps or websites. I am thinking of a calculator, periodic table, or designated web address)
    2. Multiple questions can be linked to a single passage. Similar to the ACT or any standardized test, you give the students a passage to read, or graph to interpret, and then ask several questions about it. 
    3. The app links with my school's grading program so that the grades can automatically be placed into my gradebook. We have purchased Naiku, which is supposed to do this, but my district will not release our student data for their database due to confidentiality issues
  2. I would like google spreadsheets to be better on mobile devices. They have come a long way but need to be able to graph and do some data analysis like the slope of lines and such. I have recently gotten Appster for google docs and it looks to help with this, but it has been buggy for me. 
  3. A free online textbook for my classes. With the Internet, information is free! Why am I paying so much money for your take on Kepler's Laws? Be careful textbook companies, if this is not done soon, I am going to write my own!!
  4. It would be really nice if java worked on apple products. So many animations in the sciences are made as java applets. With the iPad, we are starting from scratch. 
  5. A student monitoring program would be great for the iPad. With the desktops in my room, I could run a program called Vision that would show me all the desktops in my room in real time. I was able to take over a student's desktop remotely. Can we get something like this for our 1:1 mobile devices? It may cut down on the games being played in class that are eating up our bandwidth. 
I am sure there are more but on a Friday morning, this is all I can come up with. If I think of something else that I would like, I will post it in the comments. If you read this and can help me or have something on your wishlist, please post a comment.