Is it Good Enough?

Something different is happening in my classroom this year. To start with my students are moving along faster, doing much more complicated work than I have ever had happen before. They are working through difficult technical issues with good, positive attitudes. Lots of “well that didn’t work, lets try this” types of things are happening. One afternoon a kid yelled out, with his arms raised in triumph “Yes, our point data is displaying right, we did it!” As he finished the sentence the bell rang and he said “Dang, I still need to make a layer package!” It was fun to watch. In past years many kids would have given up, and I would spend lots of time trying to coax them into continuing. But its different this year.

I think part of the reason for the difference is I have made a deliberate effort this year to “encourage kids to fail.” Not fail as in flunk, but to take risks. I tell them they are supposed to mess up- that’s why we call it school. I dare them to break the software. I remind them to save often, but don’t be afraid to push buttons and see what happens. If something breaks don’t push that button next time. And if you figure it out (we even have a song “figure it out”) don’t be stingy, show someone else. If you can’t figure it out, ask someone who did.

I find myself sitting in the corner of the room many days just watching and smiling. Its busy. Its noisy. And its a bit messy. Often times every student is working on something different, no two screens look alike. Its awesome. Lately kids have been asking if they can do a project over because “mine came out boo boo. I need to fix this and that.” In years past they would have just said it was “good enough.” But my favorite comment so far this year was the girl who said “Hey Mr. Hall, come over here. Its time you learned how to do this too. Sit down right here, I am going to teach you how.”

Mom’s on the phone

mobile phones
mobile phones (Photo credit: phossil)

This year our school district changed a policy concerning cell phones used by students. While there seems to be some contradictions, my understanding is that it is ok for students to have and use cell phones on campus, as long as they do not disrupt instruction. While some teachers are still taking phones from kids I decided to try something new. I gave them an assignment and encouraged them to use their phones to do it. Then I told them it was ok to use their phones as long as they were not just texting, Instagraming, Facebooking, or what have you. I promised them I would not give them grief about their phones, if they kept it professional.

So far it has worked out well. Almost everyone has a phone, iPod, or tablet out and plugged in. They have their ear buds in while they are working, they take them out when I need to talk to the class. They take pictures of things they need to remember. They step outside to make audio recordings, and they compare apps for given tasks. And yes, they text. Every now and then I will see someone talking on the phone.  I tell myself it is ok. I asked a student who she was talking to on the phone. She said “My mom called.”

Yesterday I asked a girl if she thought she might be texting too much. She didn’t argue with me at all. She said “You’re right.” She turned to her friend next to her, handed her phone to the friend and said “put this in your bag and give it back to me after class.” No argument. No disruption. No referral. No calling campus security to search for a phone. Just kids doing their work. It looked and sounded a lot like a bunch of adults working in an office. I like this policy much better.

Paper, scissors, and glue. In high school.

For the last several years I have been on a one man campaign to end the use of scissors, glue, and cardboard trifold science fair type project boards in high school. It hasn’t been a very successful campaign. I reasoned that kids in high school should be creating things that look like those they will create in the workplace. I don’t know of any careers that involve printing pictures from the Internet and gluing them to cardboard. It seems to me this might be an appropriate activity in 3rd grade, but by the 9th grade we should have moved on, for sure by the 12th. We should ban glue. We should ban scissors. We should ban cardboard. That was my reasoning.

Along comes #caedchat on Twitter. (Every Sunday night at 8:00 pst) The topic this week was innovation in the classroom. You can imagine my surprise when the topic of scissors and glue came up. Innovation, scissors, and glue are just three things that I never thought of as going together. But this exchange got me to thinking:

HootSuite

I always tell people its not just about the tech. I tell them not to just add tech for the sake of the technology, but to view it as a tool. But I have been dismissing the use of scissors and glue as low tech, and not worthy of high school. When I stop and think of some of the conversations I have recently had with people about entreprenuralism, prototyping, maker faire and the like I realize there may be room for scissors AND glue in the high school classroom.

Its not the tool, its what you do with it that makes innovation.

But I still draw the line at cardboard trifolds!

Giving Feedback

Google Bike by Mhall209 CC Some rights reserved

I have committed this year to do a better job of providing timely feedback for my students. I know that timely feedback is what makes or breaks a learning experience. When I was a child learning to ride a bike, I knew immediately when I made a mistake. I knew because I crashed and it hurt. I knew when I was doing it right because I didn’t crash, and it was fun. When I read about using games in the classroom I find that they are valuable because the feedback is immediate; the student doesn’t need to wait to get their paper back to see how they did. They know right away; they got points, they lost points, or they got game over. And that, so the theory goes, is why games are so engaging.

The problem is the classes I have are not games. Or at least I haven’t figured out yet how to make them games. (Maybe I should learn to code…hmm.) I still am having kids “do things” and turn them in. And that is where the catch is. Right now there are 76 “things” in my cue awaiting feedback, or as my kids prefer, waiting to be graded. Some of those things are videos, some images, some websites, some short essays. To make the problem worse, I don’t penalize for late work (why I do this is another post) and students can redo work as many times as they like to get the grade they want. All this makes my inbox a mess. Some of the work is new and timely, other pieces are things that a student didn’t turn in a couple weeks ago, and still others are things I have already seen a time or two before.

So my challenge today is to figure out a way to tame the inbox so that kids get their feedback no later than the next day. They need to know when they are doing well and when they fall off the bike.

No More iPads

Microbio
Innovative uses of edtech.

The graduate school I attend has announced they are no longer providing iPads for their students. They gave two reasons; budget cuts, and they have observed students don’t use the iPads.

No one can deny the impact of budget cuts, the school is also no longer going to loan textbooks- students will have to buy their own books like most other schools. I get that choice, books are expensive and it is easy- and logical- to pass that cost on to the students.

The same is true with the iPad decision. They are expensive, and if there is no money in the budget, an expensive iPad would be a logical place to cut. But the observation that the students are not using the iPads is bothersome. I am one of those students who rarely uses the iPad. No one asked me why, but that has never stopped me from sharing before!

Part of the reason I chose this particular school is because they gave out iPads. Not that I needed or wanted another one. But I thought that if the school was progressive enough to provide an iPad they would be using technology in innovative ways, and I wanted to learn more innovative approaches. I was wrong, not much innovation here.

As a student I am expected to turn in papers in APA style. Using an iPad to type a several page APA formatted paper is not the most efficient use of tools or time. In one class  papers were required to be done in Microsoft Word! Why would I even look for the iPad if I am required to use Word?  

We were expected to create a portfolio to document our learning. I am a huge proponent of portfolios, I have required my students to have portfolios for years. But I was being required to use a binder for my portfolio. Not a Livebinder, a binder. A binder full of word processed, printed, two dimensional pages.

English: D-ring type 3 ring binder (opened)
English: D-ring type 3 ring binder (opened) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)binder full of word processed papers. I required my students to stop using three ring binders five years ago. But the school that gives you an iPad still requires a three ring binder.

I was required to make PowerPoint presentations. Not just any presentations, PowerPoints. And to print them out. Emailing assignments is frowned upon, they needed to be printed. Once, only once, was I expected to create a video. And I was told to not bother editing it, that was considered a waste of time.

So why did the iPad initiative fail? Because just giving out an innovative tool does not make an innovative program. If you really wanted me to use the iPad ask me, no LET me, do something the iPad is good at! And there is no shortage of things the iPad is good at. Don’t give me the same assignments colleges have been handing out for decades and expect to be innovative. Instead of asking me to make a PowerPoint presentation with handouts on flipped instruction, have me create a flipped staff meeting. The iPads would rock at that. Instead of asking me to make a three ring binder portfolio have me make a multimedia infused online digital portfolio. Again, iPads rock at that. Instead of an APA paper, why not a blog entry. Or a video. Or an animation. Or a Voicethread. Or you get the idea.

So I guess my point is that just handing out an innovative tool doesn’t make something innovative. You have to actually try something different for innovation to happen. But I guess that is not a very new idea either.

What’s this Minecraft stuff all about?

Last weekend I was lurking in another Twitter chat. This time it was #CAedchat, a weekly chat that happens Sunday nights at 8:00 PM. Many educators I highly respect participate in it. This particular evening the topic was gaming in the classroom, something I have no experience in, so I didn’t have a lot to say. So I lurked.

I really don’t get the whole gaming in the classroom thing. I had Oregon Trail in my first computer lab. Then there was Sim City. I didn’t get it then, and I still don’t get it. I am not trying to be critical here of those who do use games. But I think when someone asks me why I am using a tool in the classroom I need to be able to give a good reason why I am using that tool. With games I can’t do that. But I know its just me.

On Tuesday our school was doing state testing. I had some of the kids who did not have a test to take, so we had some time. One said to me “Mr. Hall you should get Minecraft up in here.” So I gave him a challenge: convince me why, from an educational perspective, I need to put Minecraft in my class. The next three hours my room was busy with students doing research on the topic. Kids were debating which points were most important and which would not convince me. They had notes. They argued over who should make the case. They found an unblocked way to run Minecraft  to give me a demo.  They were engaged.

At the same time I turned to Twitter to find someone who could convince me. It started a whole new dynamic with my students trying to find things before I found them on Twitter. It was a lot of fun, and the kids made some strong arguments, but it was Stephen Elford ( @eduelfie ) chiming in from Victoria, Australia who won the argument. 

Once I figure out how to pay for it mine will be among the classrooms using Minecraft for students to create things. Give me a few weeks.

So THATS what good teaching looks like.

This year I have been spending one day a week at an elementary school as part of my administrative credential program. At first I was a bit apprehensive; I am a high school teacher, I have no interest or knowledge in the k-8 world. I have found the experience to be very interesting. I am learning a lot about elementary schools, and I am learning a lot about younger students. It turns out that they are not so scary after all. 

Last week a math teacher asked me if I would please come by her room and observe her lesson because she wanted to hear my feedback. So this week the Principal and I dropped by the room for an observation. I realized that in 18 years of teaching I had never sat in another teachers classroom to specifically look at teaching, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was stunned. Not only had I never seen teaching like that, I had never even imagined this level of good teaching! I had a hard time taking notes because I was so fascinated with how she was managing the class. Strategy after strategy being employed without so much as a moments pause. It was like the whole hour was perfectly planned, scripted, and rehearsed. I had never seen such a thing. 

I left the school that day not feeling very good about myself. In comparing my teaching with what I had seen in the math classroom I could only come to one conclusion; I suck. I consider myself a very reflective teacher. I think about how every lesson goes, and how I can improve the lesson next time. I do a lot of professional development, almost all of it on my own dime. I go to conferences and workshops, I use Twitter and G+, and yes, I read blogs. So how is it I could go this long without ever seeing really really good teaching?

When I started teaching (yes, it was actually in the last century) the profession was really one of individuals. We went in our rooms and closed the door. We did not have high standards for our performance. My first Principal told me on my very first day in the classroom “If no one bleeds you are doing good.” We did not collaborate, and we NEVER acknowledged that  another teacher was better than oneself. In the last few years we have started to collaborate and we have some levels of accountability. But we don’t have a system of identifying really good teachers, and learning from them. Until this week I didn’t realize we needed one.

Fall CUE

This weekend was the 2012 FallCUE conference. First a huge tip ‘o the hat to Jon Corippo for the ride to the conference.  I wouldn’t have been able to attend on Friday at all without Jon’s generosity. Another tip ‘o the hat to  Wayne Stagnarro for pushing me to attend. 

FallCUE has only been around a few years. There are some old timers who talk about a Northern California CUE conference, but that is ancient history in my book. The modern version of the conference is held at American Canyon High School in Napa County. Yes, THAT Napa. It wasn’t really that difficult of a decision to attend; fall in wine country is not exactly a tough sell! It is one of the few conferences I can actually get my wife to accompany me to, imagine that.

On to the conference. There were really a number of workshops that helped me with things I have been struggling with. Alice Keeler brought her spreadsheet magic and filled in a huge hole in my teacher student feedback loop. She showed us how to use a Google Drive form to gather student assignments, and then use a mail merge script to send feedback to the student via email, directly from the form spreadsheet. Very slick, and even I can do it! As if that were not enough, she then showed us how to use a pivot table in the same spreadsheet to keep track of the student assignments. 

That alone was worth the price of admission. But wait, there is more!

I also got to sit in on a session by Ramsey Musallam talking about how and why to “Flip” a classroom. There is a lot of buzz out there about flipping a classroom, and mostly I have been unimpressed. My thinking is that replacing a boring lecture with a YouTube video of a boring teacher lecturing doesn’t do anything to engage more students, or help students be more engaged. But that, Ramsey explained, is not what it is about. I am not going to pretend to articulate what I now understand, because I don’t think I can. Not yet. But I do have a few ideas about how I can implement what I learned this week. 

I left that workshop with my head spinning, but wait, there is even more!

Another highlight of the conference was the closing keynote by Vicki Davis, aka Cool Cat Teacher. I have followed Vicki on the Internet in a number of platforms for a couple of years, and she often dumps my cheese cart over.  She talked about telling kids “you are good at something and it is my job to find it.” I need to get back to the classroom and find some kids’ talent.

The teacher desk

The Saga of My Teacher Desk.

At the close of the last school year the decision was made that I would change rooms. The old room I was in was a computer lab with rows of fairly new tables designed for computers. It looked really nice for the casual observer; nice straight rows of tables, comfortable rolling chairs with a computer in front of each one. It looked great, but it didn’t work great.

The tables themselves contained conduit for all the cables for the computers. It made managing cables easy, but it meant the tables were locked in place. They couldn’t be moved to make a more convenient layout. When the kid in the far corner had a question, I could not get there to help. Literally. I couldn’t fit down the row with all of the students sitting at their work stations. You  can imagine what it means to class management, much less instruction, when the students know the teacher can not get to a particular part of the room! So I jumped at the chance to move to a new room with tables that I can put anywhere I wanted.

I took the first step by sending my students to the new room to decorate it. They sorted through mountains of student work to come up with good exemplars, and arranged them on the walls to their liking. I kept authority over where the tables went, but the kids did everything else. They wanted me to tell them where the teacher desk needed to be. “Over by the phone” some said. “No, by the window would be better” said others. Finally I said to put it right where it is, in the old room.

I left the desk in the old room because I found that I spent too much time sitting at it. If I am sitting at my desk I am not helping kids with their work. To do that I need to be near their work, at the students’ work stations, not mine. It has been 7 weeks of being desk-less, and I can say my classes are much better. Kids are more engaged, in part I think, because I am more engaged. I do not have a desk to retreat to, so I am teaching by wandering around. I don’t miss the desk, but my feet are sure more tired! 

Pro Points


I was working on an assignment today for the school culture class I am taking as part of the Admin Credential program at Teachers College of San Joaquin. I was supposed to be writing  a vision statement. Researching that brought me to the web site of Minarets High School in O’neals, California. Minarets is one of those schools that appears to be doing it right. I see them doing amazing things in amazing ways. I thought I would find their vision statement and “borrow” it. You know, use it for inspiration. I was disappointed. I couldn’t find their vision statement. I did find this though. A grading policy that really got me thinking about my own grading policy. 

I really struggle with my grading policy. I change it every year. I want to to measure and reflect what my students are able to do, not how well they sit in their chairs for an hour, or find the right answers in the text book. I also want them to be able to see where they are at, grade wise, all the time. I hope to someday have this figured out, but I know I am not there yet.

One of the things that stood out to me in the Minarets policy was the way they reward quality work that is done early:

One of the most important lessons for life: Being done ahead of time. You can’t be good at something if it’s always last minute.”

My students need this lesson. So I decided I need to adopt “Pro Points.” My new Pro Points policy is here. I will be springing this on the students on Monday. Now I need to get back to that vision statement I was doing.