Skip to content

Save me from having to use SeeSaw, Class Dojo and Flipgrid with my classes this year

August 9, 2017

I’ll admit, I can become infatuated with edTech from time to time. I also envision that it will have a much more powerful influence on my classroom than it ever seems to have. Despite this, my classroom is still fairly un-techy; I’m inconsistent at best when it comes to using our LMS, Canvas, and on any given you’re most likely to find my students solving physics problems in small groups using pencil and paper.

Still, I do dream of an app that will be a true game changer in my classroom, and I think the app of my dreams would look something like this:

  • Quickly record and tag observations about students and groups—I want to be able to walk around the room, see a cool thing a student is doing, and write a note about it and tag it to the student to refer back to later when I’m writing comments. I’d also like to have the choice to make these comments private. It’d be even better if I could add photos, short video recordings, and audio notes. Double bonus if I could tag more than just the student, for instance #insightfulquestion.
  • Let students submit photos and screencasets for feedback—It’s become a very common method of getting help in my class for students to send me a quick photo of their work for feedback. I can quickly look at the photo and write a few questions to push their thinking, or offer a hint. Right now, those emails pile up in my inbox, and I don’t have a nice way of organizing them or quickly searching for them. Putting all of these photos/screencasts in an app and then being able to organize and tag them would be a godsend.
  • Let students create multimedia portfolios of their work and get feedback from me—I’d love for students to be able to create portfolios of their work—they could add photos, video and audio recordings and tag their work with various tags like #goallessproblem or #explainedmistake. I’d then be able to go through the portfolio of a student and give feedback, both as text, and ideally as written annotation. Bonus if the student can respond to my feedback and we can have a bit of a dialogue.

And of course, I’d want all of this to work nicely on multiple platforms, including my iPhone, student phones of every flavor of iOS and Android and laptops (with extra bonus for instantly de-flipping photos snapped using the webcam).

As best I can tell, this app doesn’t exist as a single app, but I have found 3 contenders that each do part of this. They are:

  • Class Dojo—the observation app. Class dojo makes it super easy to record feedback about individual students or groups. If I never invite my students to have their own accounts, then my notes notes would be private, but if I do set my students up with accounts, it seems like students would see any notes I write about them. Class Dojo is fast—it’s really easy to group students and quickly leave feedback. My heisitation is that Class Dogo does seem to be the the app embodiement of Skinnerism, and I don’t want to create a points economy in my class is fed by Class Dojo like I’ve read about in so many elementary school classrooms
  • Seesaw—an incredible digital portfolio. Seesaw really seems to do some great stuff for allowing you and students to quickly add multimedia to a digitial portfolio, but the ability to quickly add a note about a student leaves a lot to be desired—it’s very clunky and slow. But I’ve heard from a number of high school teachers that really like this app.
  • Flipgrid—the new video sharing wonder. Flipgrid seems like a great way for students to share video. Many of its features seem to overlap with Seesaw, but Flipgrid’s presentation is unique, and I’ve seen a few links on Twitter of people using it as a tool for having people leave video messages when they miss a teacher or professor for office hours which seems cool (but not something I need to do). Flipgrid seems like it could be my photo/screencast submission app, but I’m not sure it does photos, which would be a dealbreaker, I’m afraid.

There’s a crazy part of me that thinks it wouldn’t be so bad to try to use all of these apps this year. But the sane part of me knows this is a really bad idea. Here’s where I’m reaching out to you—are there things these apps can do that I’m missing? Is there a way to get to 80% of what I want to do with just one of these apps?

TMC Day 3—So much awesomeness, and a spirit to make it even better

July 30, 2017
tags: ,

More details that make Twitter Math Camp so great:

    • Thank you notes: Have you ever had a conference where you were literally provided with thank you notes and encouraged to write a note thanking anyone who made the conference useful for you? Have you ever seen a beach bag full of handwritten thank you notes? Go to TMC18, and you’ll see both of these.
    • Simply amazing volunteers, and not wasting their time: Lots of conferences have volunteers to help make things run smoothly, but I’ve often noticed that those volunteers end up overtaxed and really struggle to participate fully in the conference itself. Somehow, TMC has voluneteers—someone stopped by the first few minutes of every session I was at to make sure the AV was working properly, but at the same time, I noticed that the volunteers were able to participate every bit as much as the anyone else.
    • Flex sessions: Have you ever had a great idea at a conference and then just wanted to be able to talk about it with 10 other people? Or have you just wanted to do some yoga in the middle of the conference? All of this is possible at TMC. Flex sessions are 1 hour long open sessions that any can offer on the 3rd day of TMC, and you can propose one as late as a few hours before these sessions start. So great.

I also truly love the idea of having 2.5-hour morning sessions that extend for 3 days. This really lets you get to know a group of people in a way that seldom happens at a 3-day conference. Our closing circle at Elizabeth’s session was truly special. Elizabeth shared a really open look into how she organizes her classroom and truly delivered on her description to provide an immersive experience and a real window into her teaching.

TMC is dedicated to welcoming others and constantly re-examining itself to make sure it is being as inclusive as possible. Really, I’ve never been part of a more self-reflective community that is so committed to sharing, connecting and welcoming new people to the joy of math and math teaching.

Perhaps the best example of this was the flex session I sat in on with Tina Cardone discussing the TMC application process. Tina is one of the leaders of the registration process, and she shared a ton of statistics with the group about the TMC attendees. The thought that Tina and the rest of the TMC board put into planning this process—they’ve thought of so much and made so many efforts to diversify TMC. A few things I learned from attending this session is that nearly 110 of the TMC slots are filled by presenters. The remaining 90 slots were filled by a lottery and wait list, and only about 94 people completed the lottery application—and ultimately everyone who completed the lottery was able to gain attendance to TMC. This surprised me—I had submitted two session proposals, both of which were rejected (rightly so, when I compare my ideas to the sessions I saw), and after my sessions were rejected, I was really worried about my odds in the lottery.

The challenges of creating a 200 person conference that continues to allow all the people who know and love this community to attend while still remaining open to newcomers is one that I think might be right up there with P vs NP. There were a number of ideas for how we might be able to increase access and awareness of TMC, but I think this is something that our community will be struggling with for some time to come. I did have one big idea about how we might reach pre-service teachers and others who just love math, and I’m going to blog about that in another post.

With this post, my time at TMC must come to an end, as I’ve got to drive back to Delaware and start getting ready for school. I’m sad to miss the last day and the big reveal for TMC18, but I’m leaving knowing that this is a vibrant organization with an amazing future ahead of it.

Why is TMC So white? One idea for change…let’s invite the neighbors

July 30, 2017
tags: ,

Of the 186 TMC attendees, 166 of them (86%) were white, which I think was a deep cause of concern for nearly everyone at TMC. One other surprising fact is that Atlanta, a very diverse (if still fairly segregated) city, wasn’t especially well represented at TMC—we had nearly as many people from Massachusetts at TMC as from the Atlanta area.

200 is pretty close to a hard size cap for TMC. Grow much bigger, and it will be next to impossible to find institutions willing to host the conference for free. But, at least at this TMC, there’s only one place, the cafeteria that housed all of the keynotes, that is significantly size constrained and couldn’t accommodate a few more people. All of the other smaller sessions were held in classrooms that could easily accommodate 5, 10 or even 20 more people. At the same time, many of the sessions were about more than just teaching math; a bunch are simply about doing math together. And I would classify sessions like Ilana, Christopher and Lara’s session as one of these that was more about exploring the joy of learning math in non school contexts.

This gets me thinking, why are we limiting this fun to just math teachers? Physics teachers like me are already sneaking in, but I’m thinking we might really make some progress on the diversity front by specifically devoting an afternoon to outreach—running sessions specifically designed to share a joy in math (I’m thinking of Jonathan Calydon’s incredible sidewalk chalk project. What if we did this at TMC, and what if we invited the surrounding community to participate?

Expanding TMC in this way would allow us to get a number of people into TMC and have them experience a taste of the community and feel the infectious joy for math that is so pervasive during this conference, and at the same time, it would allow the rest of the conference to stay small, close knit, and not overly tax the facilities by trying to squeeze 400 people into a cafeteria meant for only half that number.

Creating a TMC outreach afternoon will allow math teachers in the area to give TMC a try for an afternoon without having to commit multiple days. If we were to reach out to all the colleges in the area, particularly historically black colleges and colleges that do a good job of serving 1st generation students, we might not only bring some diversity to TMC, we would also be reaching a number of pre-service and potential math teachers who will be the ones who that diversify math education after we are all retired. I think we could extend this even further—why not reach out to students at area schools? After 2 or 3 days of awesome math learning, I’m itching to try out some of what I’ve learned on some real live students. This outreach would be a bit effort—the cities that host TMCs are huge, and it’s a lot to ask the host institution to be responsible for getting the word out to all the math teachers in the city, particularly when we think about how many different types of schools there are. Maybe there should be a TMC sub committee completely devoted to home site outreach.

TMC Day 2—we belong together

July 29, 2017
tags:

Here’s a moment—it happened in Ilana, Christopher and Lara’s season on Learning From Children’s Mathematical Play at Math-on-A-Stick. Last year, Ilania got an NSF grant to study Christopher’s amazing garden of mathematical delights, and see how students engage the mathematical ideas within. She and her grad students outfitted kids visiting the exhibits with head mounted GoPro cameras, and they are now spending their time analyzing the footage.

Lara shared one video with us of a girl trying to make a heart out of plastic eggs on a 6×5 cardboard egg carton. For 7 minutes, the girl was thoughtfully working her way through how to improve her heart design, moving eggs from place to place, apparently working with some notion of symmetry.

She filled in her heart, and then expressed some frustration, feeling like it just didn’t look right, and then she said “there isn’t a middle,” and tried to place an egg between columns 3 and 4. And then suddenly, she rotated the carton by 90 degrees, so that there were now 5 columns—and she burst out an exclamation of delight, seeing that she now had a middle, and could reconstruct a fully symmetric heart.

I tell you, for those 20 seconds where that little girl was finding the middle in this cardboard box, every single teacher watching that video in this session was enthralled, and we all cheered at the exact same moment.

This is surely one of many moments when you realize this is a community that has a deep bond, and really gets what it means to love the wonder and creativity of mathematics.

Ilana, Christopher and Lara’s session was fantastic, and they shared some fascinating early findings of how parents interact with their children in these nonschool math experiences. They categorize the interactions into Problematizing and Schoolitizing.

Screen Shot 2017 07 29 at 12 33 43 AM

I find it surprisingly hard to problematize with my own 6-year-old when I work with her on activities like this. Too often, I think I miss the hidden mathematical structure in what we are doing and often jump to the low hanging fruit of the school math that I’m so comfortable with. This is something I need to work on, and I want to keep it in mind for my classroom work as well.

Finally, I’ve been having a few more thoughts about the question I raised yesterday—why can’t I help outsiders to see how amazing this community is?

Do you know how hard it is to hire a math teacher? I’m thinking Holy Innocents is going to have a much easier time making a hire the next time they have a math opening, for the simple reason that 200 incredible teachers have benefited from the school’s amazing hospitality, and have seen the beautiful facilities. So why isn’t every school and college rushing to offer up their campus for TMC? And even simpler, why isn’t some smart administrator with a math opening wandering around the cafeteria looking to set up a few interviews. It seems like such a no-brainer.

I’m still pretty genuinely perplexed by this. At first, I thought maybe it’s the fact that I’m so enthusiastic about the MTBoS when I speak of it that I turn people off, and I’m sure that’s part of it. But I know there’s also a pretty big culture of “connected educators” that are way more enthusiastic than me about the power of connection to transform learning and none of them seem to recognize the truly unique sauce that is the MTBoS, that we are the embodiment of much of what they preach about.  In the rest of the world, it seems that successful institutions and groups get wide recognition both inside and outside the group, and usually more than a few imitators. But I don’t think the MTBoS is getting the recognition it deserves from the math education community or the wider world at large. And given the number of “where is the MTBoS of X field” tweets I see, there aren’t that many imitators either. Probably all of this is me just being too invested in this community and super appreciative of all it has done to push my own thinking. I doubt that there is one thing I can say to a colleague or administrator that is going to get him or her to suddenly change course and recognize this TMC as the future of professional collaboration, any more than there’s one thing I could say to get all my students to fully master Newton’s Second Law. MTBoS is an understanding we all have to construct ourselves, and the best I can do for anyone else is to share my own experience and serve as a patient guide.

It’s late, and I’m getting tired so I won’t be able to tell you how amazing Elizabeth’s (CheesmonkeySF) session continues to be amazing, and that the Talking Points Framework is a genius technique for getting everyone in the class to participate and explain their reasoning.

And I’ve got even less time to say that Clothesline Math blew my mind. I had no idea that you could tackle incredibly deep and challenging algebra, geometry, and statistics problems using a simple clothesline number line. I’m going to try to spend some time thinking about how I might adapt this tool for physics.

Twitter Math Camp Reflections Day 1

July 28, 2017
tags: ,

Earlier this spring I won the lottery and got a ticket to Twitter Math Camp, and after only one day, I can say that this is the most incredible professional development conference in education around, bar none.

What makes this conference great? I think it’s in the tiny details. These details are the ideas you would think up if you had 200 people helping to plan your conference thinking—”wouldn’t it be just a bit better if we did X,” and then most of the time, took the responsibility to do X. Here are just a few:

  • Sam Shah made buttons for newbies and “adorably shy” introverts—we’re talking 50 or more of these buttons. I still remember the second AAPT conference I went to on my own in Canada when I’d been teaching physics a couple of years. I don’t think I spoke to a single person for more than 30 seconds for three days other than the rental car agent. I just went to sessions, sat in the back, took notes and just felt too afraid to engage anyone in conversation. I don’t know that a button is a magic solution to welcoming us introverts to conferences, but it’s just one way in which TMC has shown a crazy level of commitment to making people feel welcome. There was also a first timers meeting and dinner that were genuinely welcoming, a speed dating conversation session, multiple reminders about how it’s ok to jump into conversations in person and on Twitter, and so much more.
  • Sprinkling announcements in between “My Favorite” talks—My Favorites are great little 5 minute presentations anyone can present about some super cool tool or aspect of their teaching, and they’re great, but not all that unusual—they’re a staple of edCamp. What is awesome is that Lisa made 1 or 2 quick announcements between each 5-minute talk, rather than taking 5 minutes at the beginning or end of the session. This made the entire session feel much snappier.
  • Meticulously planned sessions with an eye for marketing—The conference opens with each of the presenters of the morning sessions standing up and giving a quick description of their talks. But they don’t just say “Hi I’m so and so and I’ll be talking about such and such,” it’s clear they spent a serious amount of time thinking about how they could best use 30 seconds to market their workshop. The first group even wrote a poem to describe their workshop. Two other presenters came in custom embroidered chef’s jackets they made for their “classroom chef” workshop. All of this also gave me a much better idea of my session proposals didn’t make the cut.
  • A truly generous spirit—Have you heard of a conference where a teacher would spend hours in the evening teaching others to crochet? How about an entire hashtag dedicated to participants inviting each other to various activities?

I could go on and on. I also haven’t mentioned the simply incredible keynote talk by Grace Chen (see part 1 here), or everything I loved about @CheesmonkeySF fantastic #cheezyExeter workshop. I’ll do my best to write on those soon.

At the same time, I can say that I don’t think I can convince anyone in the “real world” why this workshop is so great. I know a lot of great educators outside the MTBoS/#iteachmath community, some of them have no online presence at all and see social media as a mostly destructive enterprise—so they can’t see the ways in which our social media connection create an extra layer of connection and familiarity that make this conference so wonderful. Other great teachers I know don’t teach math, but fully embrace the idea of being a connected educator, and I think they’d see TMC as just another voice in the chorus of great connected education, when in reality, TMC is the the standout soloist that towers above all the rest. And I know every time I’ve tried to convince one of my math colleagues, or an administrator that this is the most powerful professional development in the world by long shot, I get quizzical looks, and somehow get a feeling that they think “that may be great for weirdos like you, John, but I don’t think it’s really all that great for normal people like me.”

I want TMC to be the model for professional development everywhere and the MTBoS/#iteachmath community the mainstream of math education, or at least to be widely recognized as an incubator of ideas that have transformed math education and the lives of many student. Somehow, I think I fail when it comes to making this case. This is something I’m going to be thinking about a lot in the days ahead.

STEP-UP to change the underrepresentation of women in physics

July 23, 2017

If you’re reading this blog, you probably know that women are underrepresented in physics—women make up only 20% of undergrad physics majors. You may not know that every year, about 15,000 students choose to major in undergraduate physics (3000 of those are women). So what would it take to bring women’s representation in undergraduate physics up to parity? Just 9000 additional women choosing to major in physics. And here’s where you and the other 27,000 high school physics teachers in the United States come in.

All it takes for women to reach parity in undergraduate physics is for each high school physics teacher in the US to recruit one additional woman to major in physics once every three years.

When you think about it this way, it sounds simple. Surely we high school teachers can reach this modest goal. This is why when I was approached to be a part of an NSF grant to Mobilize Teachers to Increase Capacity and Broaden Women’s Participation in Physics, I was thrilled to participate.

Earlier this week, I and 8 other teachers from around the nation met in Miami to work with researchers from Florida International University, Texan A&M Commerce, APS and AAPT to offer feedback on two lessons that are designed to encourage women to pursue physics majors. The first lesson is designed to help students see that majoring in physics gives students a broad set of skills that are applicable to a wide range of careers, and the second is a specific intervention to address underrepresention of women in physics and the role that unconscious bias plays in this underrepresentation.

This is going to be a multi-year project, and I will be sharing more about it as our work continues, but for now, I did want to pass along a few great resources I discovered during our meeting.

First, here’s a great one page summery of research proven strategies you can employ in your classroom engage and encourage female students in physics.

Here are a couple of papers from Professor Hazari’s research group about her research into encouraging women to study physics:

Finally, I want to say that this work is much harder than it sounds, especially when we think about how deeply ingrained unconscious bias and sexism are in our culture. At one point in our conversation, we had been discussing ways to successfully recruit women for about an hour, when one of the researchers pointed out that for the past hour, men had been speaking for 75% of the time—this is a room of teachers and researchers with strong understanding of gender bias and a common goal of increasing women’s representation in our field. A number of people in the room quickly tried to justify this result, noting that only 3 out of the 8 teachers in the group were women. But, after about 45 minutes more discussion, the ratio had dropped considerably—men only spoke for 66%. These statistics were provided by the awesome website, Are men talking too much? , which lets you quickly track the gender composition of any meeting.

Screen Shot 2017 07 23 at 2 22 57 PM

My takeaway: we need to use tools like this to make ourselves more aware of gender bias and to hold ourselves accountable to do something about it.

I’m very excited to be a part of this project and look forward to writing much more about it in the future.

Paradigm Lab Assessments

July 14, 2017

This year, I joined an Honors Physics class in the 3rd quarter, and one of the things it reminded me of what both how vital paradigm labs are to modeling physics, and how tempting it can be for students to sit on the sidelines and wait to be handed the information they think they need. In one instance, we were trying to figure out what factors affect the net force acting on an object moving in uniform circular motion, and students were releasing pendulums and measuring the tension force of the string to see how the mass, speed, and radius of the path affected the tension force at the bottom. When first discussing how to approach the experiment, I saw the not too unfamiliar situation where a couple of students seemed to be driving most of the discussion, and many other students seemed to be just waiting for them to get to the point where the teacher said: “great, now go do the experiment.” This, naturally, left them very shortchanged when it came to understanding what they were investigating, and really ill prepared for the board meeting to follow.

I find board meetings to be both fantastic and frustrating. As much as possible, I just try to sit back, take notes and watch what is happening. Sometimes, I’ll feel like an important point is being left out, or a question isn’t being asked, and right as I’m getting ready to jump in, another student will save me from needing to intervene and raise the issue. I’m always astounded by the ideas students come up with in these discussions. But I also find that there’s a significant group of students who can be quite lost in these discussions. By the time you get to late in the year, those students have become seemingly comfortable with being lost—they’re just patiently waiting for the “smart” kids in class to figure it out and tell the class the formula they need to know to be able to solve the problems in the packet.

This is entirely my fault as a teacher. It is quite possible to succeed on all our assessments knowing nothing about the work done during the paradigm lab itself if they are comfortable working with the “equation.” And yes, this is part of the reason why some students can come to the notion of thinking in models so late, since they don’t av apply the idea in the paradigm experiment, and instead are just waiting on the result.

So what’s to be done? First, I’d like to point out that it wasn’t always this way in our classes. There was a time when we taught from PSSC physics and used their infamous multiple choice tests that pushed students to extend their reasoning from the labs they conducted. For instance, following the N2L experiment we did where students pulled skate carts with springs, we would ask this question

Screen Shot 2017 07 13 at 11 40 08 AM

This question pushed students to go back to the understanding they developed in lab and think carefully about what they were doing and how each of the points was generated by the same cart experiencing the the pulling of a different number of equally stretched bands. These questions were hard, and more often than not, students would miss them on the first try, and in these pre-SBG days, we’d have to do things like offer partial credit corrections for students to recover some credit.

I’d love to have questions like this as an integral part of the lab experience in our class now, and it’d be great to add a standard to about conducting and understanding experiments that establish the model. My problem is that under our current approach to SBG, I would likely have to generate a ton of questions for each experiment/model to give students the opportunity to reassess to mastery, and that seems very daunting.

Another way to have students demonstrate understanding of a lab would be to have them write lab reports, and I think there could be great value to this. But they are a challenge to grade, a chore for students to prepare and would likely entail a sacrifice of homework and class time that would lead to covering even less content.

Paradigm assessments

Instead of lab reports, I’d like students to focus and reason about a few critical ideas and questions that came up in the lab discussion. Keeping in the spirit of SBG, I’d like for them to be able to make mistakes and improve their understanding of these points, and I’d like for students to recognize that the best way to be successful at this task is to deeply engage our board meetings.

I’m thinking of creating paradigm assessments that would come from my observations and questions in the board meeting. Here’s a pretty artificial one that I cooked up for the buggy lab.

View this document on Scribd

The key to this assessment is that I’d like for it to be short (no more than a single page) and focused on reasoning about the lab. I’d also like it to get students to think about how to revise and improve their work, and why we ask them to do all the things we do like labeling your columns or including a line of best fit.

If I’m taking good notes, it should be relatively easy for me to find a point or two to build an assessment around each lab discussion.

As for grading, I think I could hand this out on the day following the lab discussion and ask students to complete it at home. If you reach a threshold for mastery of this that I’ll have to define, you get credit for the “can reason about the CVPM paradigm lab” standard. If you don’t, I’ll give a bit of feedback to keep thinking and ask that you make a short screencast explaining your revisions, and this process could go on until we agree you’ve met mastery, or time runs out, and I have to report your grade.

I think this gives me a tool that will be manageable for students and teachers and will push us to get more out of our paradigm discussions, but I’d love your suggestions and feedback.