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…

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