Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Year of TLC

The support of the Technology Learning Cohort was invaluable in helping me stay focused and motivated to integrate more technology into my classroom.  I spent a lot of time reading blogs, researching, and testing applications, and while some were useful on a short-term basis and / or for specific rote skills, I did not find the majority truly beneficial (specifically for upper level math).  This was frustrating – I was fortunate to have access to a classroom set of iPads, yet I could not get past substituting them for what could be accomplished with a graphing calculator or the Internet on a laptop.  There were a variety of factors at play, but one that I returned to on a regular basis was that “integrating technology” into a classroom and a curriculum implies supplementing what I already do with some technology.  But instead, it was the ‘what I already do’ part that needed to change.  This change involves re-thinking how I teach, defining what it really means to be a digital-classroom, and working with our math curriculum within this new framework.  One of the main differences I can imagine is utilizing myriad technologies as tools for students to demonstrate what they know.  For instance, students could describe their evolving understanding of a topic by regularly contributing to and commenting on blog posts or they could show their mastery of a concept by creating a video tutorial.  I have a long way to go in thinking about this re-design, and potentially implementing it in a program that is not 1:1, but I do believe that the change would be essential in effectively making use of technology.
I learned a tremendous amount from some specific trials / experiments.  Early in the fall, I attempted the flipped classroom model with both my 7th grade class and my Precalculus classes.  Essentially, for a given lesson, students watched a video tutorial at home as homework.  After watching the video, they completed a basic online survey as a way for me to check that the assignment was completed.  Then, in class, we worked together on problems – effectively doing the “homework” in class.  I was excited about this model, since I know students gain a lot of understanding from working through problems with each other and with me.  However, students were very resistant to the flipped classroom idea.  Their thinking was surprisingly traditional; they felt that it was wrong for a YouTube video to teach them what I am suppose to “stand and deliver.”   Possibly the result would have been different had I created the video myself, which I plan to attempt this year.  But, I think a large part of the tension was connected to Waynflete culture and the value placed on relationships.  In all instances, the students insisted that I re-teach the concepts from the video before we jumped into examples; they seemed to feel strongly that I convey the information to them.  Part of the challenge, too, may have been connected to the skill of learning from resources, such as textbooks or videos.  Often, students reacted with, “I didn’t get it at all,” or “the book / video didn’t make any sense.”  This experiment highlighted the importance of helping students become more confident and comfortable communicating mathematics and in being receptive to learning the subject from a variety of resources.  I found more success with projects that involved students using technology as a tool to experiment and / or create.  In the fall my Precalculus students completed the Face Project as their final assessment with the conic sections unit.  Using each type of conic section equation, students built the face of a cartoon character on a coordinate grid.  While there were some technical difficulties that resulted from the first run-through of this project, overall it was a success.  One of the most significant benefits was that students became even more familiar with the equations for the three types of conic sections through trial and error.  Students thought about the shape or curve they wanted to create, built a possible equation, then received immediate feedback as to whether or not their thinking was sound when they saw the graph.  Then, students modified their equation one or more times to get it to behave as they expected.  Learning through this kind of de-bugging would not be practical without technology.  While teaching my 7th graders to program with Scratch I realized a similar benefit.  Their ultimate goal was to write a program to draw the coordinate grid on the screen, including tick marks every five units.  It became a good challenge to think through different combinations of code that might work, run the program to test it out, and the modify the code as necessary so Scratch the Cat behaved as they predicted.  Students approached this challenge as a game, and in the process they became very familiar with the coordinate grid.  Finally, in the last month or so of school, the juniors in my Precalculus sections were issued iPads.  Both the students and I learned a tremendous amount from this one-to-one experiment (everything from iPad etiquette in the classroom to the best note taking app).  We certainly faced many challenges, like figuring out how to share large video files, but I left most excited about the use of one app: Explain Everything.  This app provides a user-friendly environment for creating videos where students can do just what the name of the app implies… explain their understanding and thinking.  As a math teacher, I have always valued the problem solving process and insisted that students ‘show their work.’  This app compliments this approach nicely; an assignment could be as simple as creating an Explain Everything (EE) video for a single problem or for a summary of a whole unit.  My students even admitted that while they did not always love creating EE videos, the process of doing so helped them gain a better understanding of the material.  Yes!   
            I am very energized about the year ahead!  I feel like I played around a lot last year (and learned a ton) and now I’m ready to use what I learned to build upon the successes, make modifications where necessary, and get a few steps closer to being more like the digital classroom I described above.  My two sections of Algebra 2 Accelerated will be issued iPads for the year.  I’m both anxious and excited about living in a one-to-one classroom environment.  I hope to utilize the devices to their full potential to problem solve, calculate, create, collaborate, share, critique, and summarize.  I also hope to not use them when it is appropriate to take a different approach.  Naturally, I have been thinking about the best ways to assess students in a one-to-one environment – reverting to traditional quizzes and tests with paper and pencil seems like the wrong direction!  Throughout the semester I imagine I will provide assessments with lots of variety and choices, and I look forward to conversations with colleagues about the type of midterm and final exam experience that might make the most sense.  In my other classes (the ones without issued iPads) I hope to continue to build upon some of the units and projects that I started this past year, as well as incorporate some ongoing components like a scribe blog and some EE creations.  With all this said, I am most nervous about finding / making the time to accomplish all that I would like.  I think it will be a challenge to adequately plan ahead (especially when so much trial is needed).  And, with a tight curriculum already, I envision needing look closely at what is covered in each of my classes and figure a way to balance the traditional content with more of a digital approach.  Stay tuned…

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The “Uh oh!” scale?

Although I’m curious about it, I’ve never gone sky-diving.  If you have, I’d like to hear your thoughts.  One of my biggest curiosities is about that exact moment when you jump.  What are you thinking?  “Uh oh!”?  “What a rush!”?  “Oh $%#!”?  “Why am I doing this?” “Here we go!”?  Probably all of the above. I grew up in a educator’s household and, after 28 years of teaching , I have come to think of September as the first month of the new year more than January.  It isn’t jumping from a plane, but it may have some similarities.  There is an excitement in the air as we talk about “Opening” this and “First” that.  There is the disappointment that summer wasn’t quite long enough or that the “to do” list is still “to be done,” but here we go into a new opportunity.  Stepping off.  Where are you on the “Uh oh!” scale?   

Here are my thoughts on TLC from last year into this one:
The two most important things that happened for me last year in TLC were 1) that I got to learn a great deal about what my colleagues were doing in their classrooms and how they think about education, which provided me with both language and deeper understanding to examine my own philosophy, teaching and approaches.  2) was that I learned about “simple” technology.  I learned that setting up a class blog not only wasn’t the big daunting project I thought it would be, but also that it was useful for some of my students as another means to wrap their minds around the material and concepts we were addressing.  Cathy D. and I ran parallel projects on this in our PreCalculus classes and I was surprised and impressed by how some of the kids used the blog, both as a sounding board and as a study guide.
My biggest failure last year was becoming the TLC “resident skeptic.”  I am a skeptic, but I dislike being a wet blanket.  I was really excited about being part of TLC and still am.  I was and am so impressed by the ideas and approaches and discoveries that people brought to meetings.  It turned out that the process of reframing the question in my own head that I was trying to answer – “so, how is this better?” – played out in meetings as “I’m skeptical, prove it.”  I wish that I had been quicker to recognize how limiting my initial internal central question was.  At least that I had realized it before I felt like I had fallen behind in the wonderful discovery learning that was taking place.  I hope this won’t be that hard to turn around this year.
I’m always rethinking my classroom practices - this can be a bit exhausting at times, along with invigorating. I came into TLC with too narrow a focus.  The only question I had allowed myself to consider was “how will the use of technology augment the instruction in my classroom?”   The biggest area of growth for me was recognizing that the question really was, “here’s a powerful tool, what can it do to make things easier/better?”  I picked up a number of organizational tools for both me and my students and, more importantly, I began to realize that even though I haven’t found out much about how to use a computer to improve instruction yet, the ways in which technology gives kids access to another means for expressing what they understand is powerful.  It isn’t a new idea to me that different forms of presenting student understanding access different kids’ learning styles, but I needed the change of mindset to see how technology opened up the possibilities even wider.
I’m pretty liberal politically, but I have learned that I am pretty conservative educationally.  I want to really believe that what I am doing is making something better before I am willing to go for it.  In that sense, the biggest “preventer” to my progress as a TLC’er is my own perspective.  I am scared of “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”  I also have a pedagogical style that has apparently “worked” for a long time, and, while old dogs can learn new tricks, they sometimes do so more slowly.  I also feel confined by time.  Personally, I can’t think about big educational matters as successfully in snippets of time and I have a great deal of trouble carving out longer blocks of time in the often chaotic realities of a school week and year.  For example, I wanted to produce a video for my responses to these questions and I thought I had some great ideas about how I was going to do it, but when push came to shove, I was unsuccessful in making the time to do it, which disappoints me a bit.  I have recommitted myself to making the time weekly this year to change this, I hope I can! 
The idea of “changing” one’s teaching and how one thinks about it is a tough one.  I’m me in a classroom, and I can’t really comprehend changing that.  Being personally authentic is an important part of teaching for me. On the other hand, my teaching has had to evolve over the years to address changes in curriculum and what is perceived to be important.  As I pick up things in all areas, they work their way into my technique, my choices, and how I try to reach my students.  As I mentioned above, incorporating more technology in the presentation of understanding for students is a way that my teaching has been changed by my participation in TLC.  That isn’t really a change in thinking about teaching so much as an evolution of my understanding of how to better access an existing tenet.
What would I say to teachers that have resisted using technology?  - “Me too!!!”  I would start with trying to better understand the genesis of their resistance.  A lot of mine is fear that I won’t be good at it.  Some is fear that I will have to do a lot of extra work to learn new things that don’t really make me a better teacher, but simultaneously make me less confident and competent in the eyes of my students. Reframing the question is how I am getting past these things.  Small steps of incorporating things that clearly DO help make things more efficient or access a student in a new way seem to work best for resisters.  Also, allowing those teachers to feel that they won’t be looked down upon, in fact that they will be supported, when they know less or less well.

I have three personal goals for my TLC involvement in 2012-13:
1)   I want to figure out how to make my classroom blog piece from PreCalculus Acc last year work in my Calculus classes this year.  Most of the kids have had an experience with it already, but we sort of had to bribe them into participation by offering points for it.  I want to try to make it more interactive and build on the effort of last year. 

2)   I am teaching Geometry Regular for the first time in a number of years and will be collaborating with David Neilan and Cathy Douglas.  They both use a software program called “Geometer’s Sketchpad” and will want to use it in this class, I’ve used it occasionally in the past, but my goal is to get proficient with it and be able to use it effectively in the classroom, ultimately developing my own suggestions to them for ways it can be used in certain projects.

3)   I want to find ways to address my skepticism without feeling like I am slowing positive momentum.  I want to unleash the curiosity!

TLC  and the beginning of school!
Summer is a strange time warp; there is loads of time, yet not nearly enough time. I especially felt this phenomenon this summer because it is the first summer I have been a mother. Now the only “free” time I have to garden, cook, catch up on organizing photos, prep for the upcoming year, clean or do other chores is when my daughter is napping. And as all parents know, a nap can be very long, or very short depending on anything really- so there is no way of knowing what you can actually get done. Some days it was tempting to try and nap myself, but I think that may have only happened once this summer! So although our opening TLC workshops are only a couple of days away (what??!!), I have been ruminating over the leading questions for much of the summer.

Despite being gone for 4 months this year due to maternity leave, I still had experiences with new technology within the classroom. At times, I felt like an iceberg in the ocean- part of something bigger, but very isolated. I am the only science team member on the committee. This slows progress down, and since I am a very goal oriented and check off the list type of person, I have to take a step back and remember that I am really just trying out new things still. There is no immediate success! And at other times I really felt like I was part of a team, the TLC team. Even though we are from different disciplines there were many ideas and aps that could be used in any subject.

My biggest success this year was the implementation of my websites for my classes. They are simple, but they cut down tremendously on paper usage and the students got used to checking for their homework there. What I enjoyed most about the websites was that it took away the excuse of not writing down the homework, writing it down wrong, leaving something at school etc. It put more responsibility in the student’s hands (although now they don’t HAVE to write down their homework while in class). My 9th grade websites were used all the time. The 7th graders did not use the websites very much. They often admitted that they had not been to it at all. I will try and incorporate more of my material onto their website this year.  I also had one great project in 7th grade where I had previewed youtube videos on different types of intertidal organisms and created questions for the students to answer. Each student got an ipad and a set of headphones, listened to the youtube videos and filled out questions on a google form. The only drawback to this was that the students who did not finish could not edit their form (they do not have email) and they had to start over again at home in order to answer all of the questions! 

My biggest failure this year was when I used an ap that navigated through the parts of the cell on the ipads with the students and I could not regain control with one of my 9th grade classes. We never used the ipads again in that class. There were too many of them, and they were too immature as a group. The other two 9th grade classes did great.

My experiences this year have helped me to broaden the approaches that I use in teaching. This is an area where I need to continue to expand and develop in order to have a varied and interesting classroom. I still have a long ways to go here, and I am confident that in time I will be able to use more and more tools to keep my teaching practice varied. I currently do a lot of notes, on the whiteboard in 7th grade and with powerpoints in 9th grade. I want to incorporate some more flipped classroom exercises, more use of the ipads, google forms and really use some of the aps that I did not get into last year, such as explain everything.

The largest roadblocks to incorporating more technology into my classroom have been time. Since last year was only my 3rd time teaching  7th and 9th grade sciences I am still also working on curriculum, homework assignments, my classroom policies, classroom management and staying on top of advising! I find that sometimes I have just enough time to get what I need to done, and not much time for additional or “extraneous” endeavors. This brings me to my goals for this year:

1.     Continue to use, update, redesign my classroom websites.
2.     Incorporate 1 new use of technology per unit in each class. This could be poll anywhere, ipad activity, you tube, flipped classroom, a new ap etc.
3.     I would love to touch base with another Biology teacher who has used ipads in their classroom and see what they use and how they use them.
4.     I would like to become more adept at using my ipad and even my mac. I feel like I know how to use them, but I want to know all the tricks!

If you are a teacher that has resisted technology in the classroom I would say to you- find someone who loves it and ask them for a couple of ideas and instruction. Then use these ideas until you are very comfortable with them and they go well. Only then try something new again. Start slow!


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Getting ready for year 2!

As I type, I am entering phase 3 of the submission of my video blog (the path has been longer than needed, I fear...from iMovie on iPad to Camera Roll to iPhoto on laptop to TLC blog- to prove it was done!- to iMovie on laptop to Quicktime on desktop to unlisted on YouTube).  Phew!   The process has certainly been a good reminder to me of what I have to learn and the fact that every process takes me one step closer to knowing how to "do it right" the next time.   No doubt my second video blog will be an improvement.
I enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on last year, and look ahead to this year.  I am not sure the merit of waiting until the "new" year is about to start to finally do my reflection, but I have to say it seemed like good timing.  I feel newly energized and excited to talk "tech" and I am looking forward to spending some time this week putting some concrete goals (and means to those goals) in place this week.    I am not sure I would have felt that same energy at the end of June.
I really look forward to the conversation and work ahead this week and as we embark on a second year of TLC and I move forward on my "tech-no to tech-know" initiative. :)