Friday, February 25, 2011

No Decorations in my Classroom

I don't decorate my classroom. I've referred to it as "hospital" sterile when asked what my room looks like.  The only decorations I'd like to have in my room are signs that say: "LEARN FROM THE PERSON NEXT TO YOU".  My philosophy on this is that it shouldn't matter what's on the walls, let's start caring about what's happening inside the walls.  If it's really cool, then kids will start hanging stuff on the walls and decorating the room the way they want to.

A  few years back, I had a student that would draw pictures to hang on the wall, half of them were about AP Stat. All of them were entertaining. The ones that were about stat were amazingly good depictions of AP Stat topics.  Stay tuned for me to scan these images in and post the best of them.

I think we're in trouble if we concern ourselves too much with what the content looks like, rather imthan what the content actually is. Make that double if we use technology to change only what the content looks like.  When I choose a technology tool, I want tools that make students think deeper first, and ooh and ahh later.  This is probably why I choose Wikispaces, Google Docs, then Microsoft Excel every single time.

I recently responded to a tweet from @nwhyluckysgirl regarding using emoticons when commenting on student work electronically.  
@nwhyluckysgirl: "when commenting on student work electronically, do you use emoticons?" 
@jasonchri: "the occasional emoticon, not too often.  The comment usually is seen only for the emoticon"

My fellow tech integrator and I often debate look and feel, mostly on the look and feel of our district's technology wiki, NP Tech Tools. I keep my class wiki as the default background and format, and I honestly don't care to spend time choosing the right template/background/picture. The content of my class wiki should be the focus, and for that matter I would hope that's what's interesting about it. If you're reading this blog,  you'll see that I take a similar approach to blog layout (and have not yet switched to word press).  How are  you going to see the content if there's a thousand other things to look at on the page? 

I was inspired to write this after reading a brilliant post(Coloring Books or Canvasses? from Spencer's Scratch Pad about technology that makes students think deeply about a subject. Use tech to make students think more, not think about something else, not comment on how weird or cool something looks.  

Making the choice of what tech tool you want to use needs to be content driven.  I wind up picking one of the same three tools (Wikis, Google Docs, Microsoft Excel), since experience has shown these tools can stimulate conversation and let students think the way that they want to.

Some of my tricks...
1.  An Excel spreadsheet that is completely protected, so that they can only manipulate and change certain values to notice some patterns.  They'll need to think their way through certain processes too, not simply plug-in numbers and tell Excel to perform a calculation. 
2.  A massively shared Google document to write about the difference between two(or more) topics.  I'm trying this to get an entire class to discuss the difference between binomial and geometric distributions. 
3.  Class wiki- set of skills completely blank, so determine just how to organize lessons and what we've thought about

I'm branching out...
Forever I've wanted to use more and more multimedia ideas in my class.  Not just make a music video (a lot of times kids spend a ton of time on creating a video, and frequently miss the boat on content).  I want students to show me everything they know about probability, but do so in a very short video (30 sec - 1 min).
I'm going to suggest Animoto, but I really want to allow them to pick any tool that they should find, as long as it communicates everything they know about probability.  I also want to have them use pictures that they've taken, just to get them thinking a little bit more.  

I want to come up with the best web tools/tech tools for education, and I think this is how I want to start. Which tools make students think more, and think deeper? Which ones accomplish the same thing as a "solve for x" worksheet?  Do certain tools get misused?  Are there some tools that are all bark and no bite?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Know What's Wrong With Kids These Days...

Absolutely nothing. 

A 16 year old will never rarely act like a 30 year old.  Especially when surrounded with 1000 other 16 year-olds.  

They're teenagers, so why do we expect that they'd be studious individuals that devote 4 hours per night to studying for our tests (I've stopped giving tests to eliminate this ridiculous expectation). Did any if us actually spend hours upon hours of studying?  In high school? In college even?  Also, does anyone actually sit and show students how to study/prepare for one of our tests?  Then why do we expect them to be studying experts? 
When a student gets a 40 percent on a test, the first conclusion is that they didn't study hard enough.  The second conclusion is that they haven't been working hard enough.  These are easy conclusions to make, and maybe that's why we jump to them so quickly. Blaming the student for acting like a teenager is much easier than being responsible for making that student better.

It's hard to say that a student hasn't learned the material completely and they may need to spend some more time learning it.  So many would think that when we say this, it implies that we have "failed" as teachers.  You know, 'cause it's easy to provide instruction that leads to 100 percent mastery for all of the unique learners in our room .  We have to expect that not everyone is going to learn things the same way in the same amount of time.  This teaching game would be way too easy if there was a fail-safe method to get all students to the exact same level of mastery of a skill, in the exact same amount of time.  When we think we've failed or are failing, that's when we tend to blame others.

Bottom line: blaming is easy, much easier than accepting a portion of the responsibility for something. When we blame kids for the problems in our classroom, we're taking the easy way out. When we blame teachers for the problems in our classroom, we're taking the easy way out. When we blame parents for the problems in our classroom, we take the easy way out. When we blame politicians for the problems in our classroom, we're taking the easy way out.  When we blame administrators for the problems in our classroom, we're taking the easy way out.  When we blame lack of funding for the problems in our classroom, we're taking the easy way out.  When we blame unions for the problems in our classroom, we're taking the easy way out.  Throwing each other under the bus only results in having all the people we need help from being under a bus, and leaves us standing alone on the sidelines.

The calls for accountability really need to stop, so we can start acknowledging that we all share the responsibility for students learning. Real reform will occur once we start thinking about how students learn, and agreeing to collectively share responsibility for educating our students.  Pseudo-reform is going on when we start playing the blame game.  

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Today's(tomorrow's) plan for AP Statistics is a little Excel heavy,  something that I hope carries over for my students into college and beyond. Is there a standardized test that measures a student's increased proficiency at Microsoft Excel, or other computer apps for that matter?  Most commands involve looking up a value at random between zero and one hundred.

Each student has been keeping track of the number of sheets of paper received in each class, each day, over the span of about 2 months. The focus is on teacher created paper, so if a student uses a piece of their own notebook paper it doesn't count.  Incidentally, om pretty sure that AP Stat is dead last for every one of my students major subjects (AP Stat instructor pats himself on back).

Using this info, they are going to create a probability model for the number of sheets of paper received for a single class.

For AP Stat...
SHEETS OF PAPER    0     1      2 
PROBABILITY         0.90 0.05 0.05  

Now that the probability model is created the Excel fun can begin.  Number all cells in one column from 1-100 to represent a possible outcome. Place each possible outcome in the second column according to it's the probability you observed. Example: in the chart above, the probability of receiving 0 sheets of paper was 0.90, so spaces 1-90 would be 0. The probability of receiving 1 was 0.05, so 91-95 would be 1, and 96-100 would be 2.  Repeat for all other possible outcomes. Suggest to students that they choose a class that is at least manageable as far as different numbers of sheets of paper.  Yes, there is a way to make Excel do this, but that is a little too awesome for an AP Stat class.  

Create a new sheet for simulating new days of each class. For the first day, we are going to "lookup" random values from the previous sheet to see how many sheets of paper we will receive. The command for doing this... VLOOKUP(RANDINT(1,100),in the previous sheet, give the value in the second column in the row that the random number is in). 
Example:  =VLOOKUP(RANDBETWEEN(1,100),Sheet2!A$1:B$100,2)

Keep the dollar signs so that when you drag to autofill the formula they continue to look within the same array of cells. Autofill about 200 or 300 of these cells...or 500 :)

Next we're going to calculate the average number of sheets of paper we've received each day. AVERAGE(cell to the left and all cells above). 
Example: =AVERAGE(B2:B6)

Now we can look at the average over the long run (1000 days, or even more) and begin to build our definition of Expected Value.  Then, later, we'll do expected value the easy way in Microsoft Excel using the formula.  I wanted them to wrap their brains around the definition of Expected Value before they began using the formula: E(X) = SUM[X*p(X)].  It's pretty cool to see just how long of a run you need to make the simulation average approach the expected value.

The lesson is a bit like a cooking show, but it's the first time we are in Excel. The kids use their own data, so that's enjoyable/unique for most of them. The bigger idea of simulating outcomes is very powerful in learning statistics. I love nothing more than a student centered approach, but I would hate to say "discover how to use vlookup and randint functions in Excel. If anyone has a way to take a constructivist approach to learning Microsoft Excel, I'd love to hear it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Test with No Right Answers

At the slightly more than halfway point in the year, I decided to give my students an assessment on skills we would have learned previously this year.  In an AP Stat class, this type of exercise is meant to take the place of the 2 weeks of "review" that most educators wind up with at the end of the year before the AP Exam.

Here's the test: AP Statistics Mid-Year Assessment .  Using this link (and excusing the poor formatting that comes with inserting images into Google docs) they are to create a Google Doc and share it with me that is essentially their stream of consciousness  statistical reasoning.  They were permitted to use the class wiki, their Stat textbook (BVD - Stats: Modeling the World), and any other online resources available to them.  Big thanks to David Wees (@davidwees) for the data, graph, and the article!

They were not permitted to use each other as a resource, as this was an assessment to see what they know as individuals.  This makes me uncomfortable, since it doesn't necessary follow the cooperative model I've we've built the classroom on.  Next time I give an assessment, I'll allow them to use each other as a resource as well, but the task needs to be uber-authentic.  Suggestions?
I'll share a conversation I had with a student about this, since it made my day.

"Mr. C, can we use each other as a resource?" - Student
"I'd prefer not, since I want to see what you know." - Me
"But in 'real life' we'd be allowed to use each other." - Student
"Arrggghhh, why must you make that argument?" - Me
"Because you taught me to." - Student

First thing a Stat teacher, or anyone familiar with Statistics will notice is that for most of the questions there's not really one "right" answer.  The purpose behind this is to allow kids to think and write what they know, in regard to the skills being assessed.  I'm loving the thought that has gone into each response.  It feels like I've really touched on something here, something that does a little bit better than the strategy of "write everything you know about the topic" for the poor test taker/assessment do-er.

So what resource did kids use the most?  At quick glance, my class wiki comes in first, with the Stat textbook coming in second.  I'm hoping this spurs more content creation on the class wiki, so that it can develop into the ultimate online stat textbook.  Yes, I am still living that dream.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What to do When the Projector Bulb Breaks? Don't Use It...

I float between 3 different classrooms.  All of them equipped in pretty much the same way (laptops, Promethean board, etc).  Upon arrival at my last class of the day, the teacher who is primarily in that room asked me, "How are your punting skills?"  then informed me that the projector bulb blew right in the middle of one of his Calculus lessons.

Fortunately for me on this day, my students did not need to use the board (please note the use of "my students" instead of "I" in this sentence).  So what happens?  I made a few adjustments here and there, and I have one of the best AP Stat lessons I've ever had.

The Plan
Students were assigned three "drawing" tasks, of which they could use any drawing utility they wanted to use (Paint, a Drawing in Google Docs, old fashioned pencil and paper). 
1.  Construct a tree diagram labeled with proper notation to distinguish between P(A), P(A|B), and P(A and B)

2.  Construct a tree diagram for a two-card Texas Hold 'Em hand and for two rolls of a die (illustrate the difference between independent and non-independent events)
3.  Construct 2 Venn Diagrams for drawing one card and the event that it's an Ace or a Heart and also for the event that it's an Ace or a Ten (difference between disjoint and non-disjoint events)

What Happened
I found myself sitting with each individual student, having a conversation about at least one of the topics mentioned above.  None of these conversations began with a student asking "Did I do this right?"  Most of the conversations led to one or more of the skills I had targeted with my original plan.  The students I wasn't actively talking to were talking with others, having discussions about the likelihood of getting two aces in a hand.  Another pair discussed the difference between independence and non-independence through other examples than the ones they created a tree from.

Where I'm going with this
Gradebook revamp...again...slightly.  I've been wondering how I can give more feedback and guide instruction.  After a few classes of these one-to-one(or 3) conversations, I'd like to have an accurate reflection of where each student stands with regard to the skill set we're currently learning.  I see this as a continuously updated Google doc to reflect upon conversations I've had, and students' demonstration of mastery during class.

After I put together my assessment of a student's body of work, I want to share it with them, and place something in my gradebook after I see how it fits in the scale of 1(minimal) to 5(advanced).  I've decided that this has to be done not just after an assessment, but after a consideration of a student's entire body of work.  I don't want to give a test, and have that be the lone summary of what a kid can do.  That's the old way.  I want to consider an entire body of work (tests, quizzes, projects, formative assessment, etc) then place a numeric score in my gradebook.  Yes, the last part of that sentence makes me just sigh and agree that I'm going along with the establishment, at least just a little bit.

My Probability Skills List (SBG)
Rethinking Assessment (Spencer's Scratch Pad)
What is "Bad" Teaching (Steve J. Moore)
Slideshow of the Lesson Itself