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Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

My biggest fear about going paperless was the impact I thought it might have on student engagement. Would students stare at their screens and ignore each other during class discussion? Would the laptops become more of a distraction than a tool for learning? To try and avoid this fate I began the year by creating a set of technology rules with students, which is the topic of this 2nd reflection on my paperless year:

#2: Technology rules- but rules for technology use are trickier than they seem

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 4.33.33 PMTo create our technology rules I based them on our school’s 4 core values of respect, honesty, responsibility, and compassion (see the template on the left). Unfortunately I don’t have a finished copy of the rules-  I was a little to zealous in my classroom cleaning this week- but I’ll need to improve them anyway because there were things I didn’t anticipate. Here’s a sampling of some of the rules:

 

I will be respectful:

  • Close your screen during class discussion

I will be responsible:

  • Stay on task when using your computer
  • Bring your charger to class

I will be honest:

  • Don’t copy and paste other’s work

I will be compassionate:

  • Help others who are having problems

For the first half of the year everything ran smoothly, and I was laughing at myself for being so fearful of the switch- my students were using their computers responsibly and they seemed no more or less distracting than a piece of paper would be. There were a few violations here and there, but it was so rare I didn’t even keep track of them. It seemed so easy that I even started composing a blog post about going paperless the “painless” way.

However, as the year moved on and those teenage hormones started kicking in, I noticed a sudden uptick in bad technology behavior. More and more students had lost their charger and almost every class someone had to go on a “charger hunt” around the classroom to find one to borrow. The chat feature in Gmail became more popular with students, who started routinely chatting with friends in other classes. Certain students also started getting sneaky about staying on task, quickly switching their computers from one screen to another. All of this made me start to feel like a technology policeman, keeping a watchful eye on potential criminals and doling out punishing justice whenever a caught an offender. It wasn’t painless any more.

What I thought were simple consequences also turned out to be problematic. How do you confiscate a student’s computer in a paperless classroom? In some cases I could just print out their document and let them continue on paper, but what if the learning activity involved a simulation or creating a movie? All technology violations are not created equal either, so I had to make tough judgement calls about whether students needed a reminder or some kind of consequence.

To improve things for next year I know I need to be more proactive and prepared. Now that I know the most common problems I will encounter, when we make our technology rules up for the year we will need to discuss more specific examples so expectations are clearer. We will need to review our rules too, probably once a quarter to keep them fresh in student’s minds and also to be able to make changes if we need to.

In terms of accountability, next year I’m going to base our rules on our Middle School’s Learning Habits. These are similar to the school’s core values, but they are more specifically about behavior and students receive grades on these every quarter. This way students would get feedback on their technology behavior in their report card, which would help hold them accountable. I will need to keep better track of both good and bad technology behavior, and perhaps even use something like Class Dojo to communicate this with students. Also, by tying our rules to the Learning Habits students could self-assess themselves periodically so it wouldn’t just be me as a technology policeman.

As for consequences of failing to use technology properly, I need to rethink these to make them more effective and to help students make better decisions. Instead of just a verbal reminder the first time, I think making it visual by attaching a Post-it note to their screen would be a helpful reminder. A discussion after class could also be part of this process, so the reminder is not just shrugged off. If student continue making poor choices I need be more prepared to have them go back to paper. This way I can move students to this swiftly when the laptop is getting in the way of their learning.

So overall it was a year of a lot of learning for me, successful but certainly not painless! I’d love to hear other ideas and suggestions from other teachers out there about how to manage technology well.

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Update: This post is my original instructions for setting up digital notebooks. For the updated version (and tutorial videos!) check out my Digital Notebook page.


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After much fiddling around and way too much time spent trying to make it look “cool”, I’ve figured out the basics of how I’m doing digital science notebooks with my students this year. Several teachers out there have also expressed interest, so here’s the nitty gritty below of how I’m setting it up. One caveat though: my Middle School has a one-to-one laptop program, so my students basically always have their laptop with them and are already pretty well-versed in the technologies I’m using for this. So what works for me at my school might not be the best fit for you.

Step 1: Goodbye paper, hello GoogleDocs

All of the traditional papers that I would photocopy and hand out to my students in the past will instead be shared through GoogleDocs. GoogleDocs is a great way to digitally manage documents so that the teacher can decide whether students are editing documents individually or in groups as appropriate. Anytime the teacher (or another student for that matter) leaves a comment for a student on their document they get notified by email. In addition, whenever students makes a change to their document, GoogleDocs automatically saves it and keeps a record of when all changes were made (good for accountability). Last year I already used GoogleDocs for almost all my students’ homework assignments (here’s an example), and it worked well. Now I’ll be taking it one step further and turning everything digital: notes sheets, lab reports, handouts, homework… which means no more collecting, lugging around, and passing out papers. Yay.

Step 2: Manage GoogleDocs without making a mess

 A lot of people who “don’t like GoogleDocs” complain because if it’s left untended, your Google Drive page starts looking like the email inbox from hell. Since all of the documents that you create and edit will show up there, you need to set up some organizational system to make it easier to access the documents you actually want. Last year my students and I created shared folders for our GoogleDocs to simplify things. Everything I dumped into my shared folder was automatically shared with my students, then they would make a copies of those master documents and put them in their own GoogleDoc folder that was shared with me. Decent solution, but Middle Schoolers being Middle Schoolers, there was always a handful that would forget to share their copy with me, leading to a recurring digital paper chase.

This year my school is paying for Hapara which creates software that handles all this organization for me. With a few clicks documents are automatically shared with the right students and accessible by me. Hapara also gives teachers a handy “teacher dashboard” that will show you at a glance all your students GoogleDoc documents- whether or not they have remembered to share them with you:

Hapara Teacher Dashboard

Hapara Teacher Dashboard

Don’t have Hapara? It’s certainly not a deal-breaker, since you can manage GoogleDocs yourself with a little pre-planning like I did last year, but there’s also a free option out there: Doctopus. Created by an awesome educator who’s work I just discovered on YouPD.org, this GoogleDocs script also lets you automate the generating and sharing of digital documents.

Step 3: Putting the “notebook” in a digital notebook

As great as GoogleDocs is as an education tool, without a way of organizing documents in the same way you would within a traditional 3-ring binder or notebook, all these digital documents float electronically around in students’ files the same way their paper counterparts do in the messy backpacks teachers abhor. In my switch from paper to electronic documents, my first two goals were to find a way to make digital notebooks better at organization and presentation than traditional notebooks. So the last step is to figure out how to tie all these digital documents together, easily and elegantly.

There are several different options I considered (Blogger, LiveBinders, EverNote) but in the end I decided on using GoogleSites to create the notebook. Most of my students already have experience making websites on GoogleSites, so that played a part in the decision, but the main reasons were the flexbility offered by a website and the synergy between GoogleSites  and GoogleDocs.

The flexibility of a website allowed me to go retro and design a digital notebook that looked like a classic composition notebook:

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By clicking on the “stickers” on the notebook cover, students can navigate to the different units we study, and then within each unit there’s a section for Class Stuff, Lab Stuff, and Homework Stuff which look like Post-its in an actual notebook:

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 9.33.45 PM

You can actually insert entire folders of your GoogleDocs onto a GoogleSite, which means my students won’t have to individually add documents to their digital notebooks- they will be added automatically whenever I create a new document and put it into one of their shared folders (no wasted class time!).

Using GoogleSites also makes it easy for students to incorporate anything created with GoogleDocs in their digital notebook: data tables or graphs made in Google Spreadsheets, scientific sketches made with Google Drawings, Google presentation projects, Picasa photo slideshows, the list goes on and on. I want their notebook to be able to easily highlight their best work so it doubles as a portfolio, and GoogleSites will allow student to do this easily without jumping through a lot of technical hoops. I’m also working on the possibility of creating a “learning dashboard” for each student that will display their progress on the learning goals for each unit and guide them to helpful resources when they fall short of meeting expectations (more on this later!).

You can go ahead and check out the template notebook site here (or go here for my updated template). When it’s completely finished I plan on saving it as a GoogleSite template so others can use it as they see fit.

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In my last post about reinventing science notebooks, I described my summer project to introduce digital versions of the traditional science notebook with my students next fall. Before I get into the nitty gritty techie side of how to do this, I’d like to state my goals for these digital science notebooks. Although I’m currently leaning toward a Google Apps/Google Sites combination for these digital notebooks, I’m not wedding to any technology in particular, and if anyone out there has a better idea for what tool could accomplish these goals, I’m all ears! So here goes:

#1: Help students stay organized, easily

Middle School students are notoriously bad at organization, so I’m looking for a solution that will make it easy for students keep assorted types of documents organized. Just like a 3-ring binder could have sections for homework, notes, lab work, project research, I want their digital notebooks to keep things orderly, well labeled, and chronological. Unlike a 3-ring binder I don’t want students to waste a lot of time hole-punching, sorting, and still ultimately misplacing their documents!

#2: Share students’ learning like a portfolio

We do student led conferences at my school, and it’s a powerful experience for students to share their learning and reflect about their learning with their parents. The past few years we’ve had students set up an “e-Portfolio” using a GoogleSite, so they can put all of their evidence and reflections in one place, but this is a time-consuming task. As long as it is set up in an attractive, reflective way, a digital notebook could double as an e-portfolio.

#3: Enable and encourage collaborative learning

Most science classrooms are naturally collaborative, but the collaboration doesn’t need to end at the lab table. Tools such as Google Docs make it easy for students to share work and ideas with others, as well as comment and build on each others ideas. A good digital notebook should allow for different types of collaboration (peer, small group, whole class) as well as allow for some documents to be private when collaboration isn’t appropriate.

#4: Connect students with learning resources

This is something that can really set digital notebooks apart from their papery counterparts: the ability to link up students with learning resources that can help them either review or extend their learning. Imagine a student finishes up a lab on the properties of solids and liquids, but they’ve still got some questions the lab activity didn’t answer. A digital notebook could allow the teacher to provide links to different online resources for the student to explore further. There could be links to similar content for the struggling student to review as well as links to new material to challenge those students that are ready to move on.

#5: Give students more feedback about their learning

This last goal might be the most challenging but also the most important. With traditional science notebooks the teacher could periodically collect the notebooks and write feedback to students, but we teachers know  how time-consuming that is. I began this past year with a goal of giving more formative assessment-type feedback to my students, but it became challenging to keep up with the pace. The more immediate feedback is, the greater the impact it will have on student learning, so a good digital notebook could help provide additional opportunities for learning feedback, as well a keeping a record of their progress. I’m imagining a kind of “learning dashboard” for each student that would keep track of all their learning progress from many types of feedback: graded teacher feedback, practice quizes results, self-reflections. I’m not the first person to think of this (Kahn Academy has a “gameified” learning dashboard, and my school is currently creating one a school-wide one), but I’ve yet to see something that takes advantage of teacher’s online gradebooks and feedback and create a student-friendly summary of their learning progress.

So there you have it. I know it’s an ambitious list, but I think there is a ton of potential in education technology tools that are currently being way under-utilized. Hopefully with the help of like-minded teachers out there, we can move science notebooking into the 21st century where it belongs! 🙂

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One staple of traditional science education is the scientific notebook: the classic composition notebook filled with kitchen chemistry experiments gone awry, detailed sketches of leaves, and dozens of exciting scientific discoveries written in childhood chicken scratch.

Surprisingly, after 8 years of teaching elementary science and 1 year of middle school science, I’ve never made traditional science notebooks with my students. I’ve always been wary of the potential for notebooks to value product over process, as a few of my own science teachers did: Did you carefully copy the procedure down as I told you? If you did, A+!

Instead I want my students to use their valuable time to think like scientists, not just go through the motions of doing something that appears to be science. So I’ve always opted to create my own worksheets that scaffold activities to save students time on less valuable tasks (copying down a procedure) so they can spend more time on the real learning. In my experience worksheets work very well in the moment, but they lack the portfolio quality of a traditional scientific notebook. Yes, I know you can try to have students keep sheets organized in a folder or a binder, or even try binding them up like books- and some of my colleagues have students paste sheets right into their traditional notebooks- but all of these methods take a lot of effort and class time to be successful. There’s got to be a better way!

Digital science notebooks to the rescue! Making an digital version of traditional science notebooks is an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time. At first it seems pretty obvious: computerized communication has all but replaced pen and pencil in so many aspects of our daily lives, and there’s no sign of that slowing down. It stands to reason that our current students will be living in a paperless society by the time they are adults- so why can’t science notebooks join this wave of the future?

This is why I was more than a little surprised to find out how few teachers out there in the blogosphere (and scientists too for that matter!) have embraced a digital version of the composition classic. Googling around I could only find one teacher/blogger who has much to say on the subject: Greg Benedis-Grab, and unfortunately his blog on the subject seems to have been taken down (though it’s still cached here). Greg used the Google Apps suite with his students to do nearly all pen and paper tasks (including drawing!) in an online format, and students used a Google Site as their “notebook”. For more info on Greg’s digital science notebooks, check out his webinar video.

What about real scientists? Surely they have embraced modern technology, right? Again, I was surprised to find out in this article from Nature that scientists are only beginning to move away from paper notebooks even though the “electronic lab notebook” has been technologically feasible for more than a decade. However, it does seem pretty clear that many scientists are making the switch to digital notebooks- all the more reason for our students to do it too.

How do teachers make the switch to digital science notebooks? I’m not sure- but it’s my goal this summer to figure out a way, and then pilot the digital science notebooks with my 6th graders in the fall. So if any of you teachers out there are currently using some form of a digital science notebook- I’d love to hear from you! Currently I’m leaning towards a Google Apps/Sites solution since my students are already familiar with these and my school will be using Hapara next year which should make my life easier… but there are still lots of issues (both technical and pedagogical) to figure out. I will continue to blog on my thoughts and progress over the summer, and I welcome you to join in the discussion!

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A few weeks ago I started playing with video assessments as an engaging and efficient way to do assessments with multiple classes (as a coordinator I work with 7 classes per grade- so efficiency is key!). Initially I was planning on using this method merely for pre and post-unit assessments, but since then it’s grown into something much bigger.

The bolt of inspiration came from John’s post (and Kelly O’Shea’s idea) to give short weekly assessments each Friday, as a way of students (and teachers) knowing where their learning stands on a regular basis. This reminded me of the holy grail of formative assessments: those wonderful feedback-oriented assessments for learning that everyone at my school always talks about doing but rarely does. I know there are plenty of good ideas out there for how to work quick formative assessments into your teaching, but in the whirlwind of a segregated 40-minute period school day, there never seems to be enough time. Why not turn homework into a formative assessment opportunity?

So, for the past couple of weeks, my 2nd and 3rd grade students have piloted a online experiment with formative assessments, called Show What You Know! Each weekend, I create a simple assessment with something engaging (video clips, funny pictures, an online simulation activity) and a series of questions on our school’s science website. I use GoogleDocs Forms to create the assessment questions, which is simple (and free) to use and collects students’ responses for me neatly in a spreadsheet. Then with a little conditional formatting magic (setting correct answers to be highlighted green and incorrect answers to be highlighted red), the responses look something like this:

Quickly scanning the spreadsheet I can find out which students are getting it, which ones need some review, and which concepts in general need some work for the whole class. From my coordinator’s perspective, I spend less than an hour of work and I have formative assessment data for 120 students without the hassle of grading. Pretty nifty. Most of all, less time spent assessing means more time left over for the most important part of formative assessment: giving students feedback and letting the results reflect your future teaching.

One key to remember is that these formative assessments are ungraded. The value of formative assessments evaporates if they aren’t a true reflection of what a student understands. So cramming, googling, and parent assisting need to be completely discouraged, and that means not tempting fate by attaching a grade to it. Since we’re still early in the year, it remains to be seen how accurate the formative assessments will be, and whether good-intentioned “homework helpers” will skew the data, but I can say from the first few weeks that it’s already been a very good indicator for several students who are struggling.

Here’s a few examples of our Show What You Knows to check out:

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Khan Academy has stirred up a lot of debate among educators about the value of video lectures. On one hand the proponents tout the fact that students can watch them on their own time, at their own pace, and review again if needed. Some educators (like these guys) have even been employing video long before Khan’s rapid rise to notoriety, using video lectures to “flip the classroom” so valuable school time isn’t wasted on something students could just watch at home. The critics of Khan call foul because of the questionable value of lecture itself. A lecture on YouTube is still a lecture, a one-size-fits-all, listen-and-receive-my-knowledge affair. If lecture shouldn’t play a large role in the classroom, what is there to be “flipped” in the first place?

I agree with the critics that KA isn’t anything new under the sun. The media spotlight it enjoys is more about our country’s need to find a new direction in education than any new brilliance of KA. In fact beyond the videos, the “gameafication” of learning that has been created by KA team for teaching math through incentivized drills has much more in common with old-red-school-house pedagogy (Frank lays this out well here).

But despite all the flaws in KA-style teaching, lectures are still an occasionally useful tool in a teacher’s arsenal, and a video lecture probably even more so. So let’s not flush video lectures down the toilet in our disgust at the media’s KA lovefest, instead let’s figure out what this tool is good for. Without further ado, here are my 4 S’s for the best use of video lectures:

  • Short: This should go without saying. Any form of direct instruction needs to stay within the confines of its audience’s attention span. For my elementary students this seems like 2 to 3 minutes.
  • Shallow: If well done, students will remember the content of a video lecture, but only on a shallow, memorized level. Without first-hand experience and mental engagement to let them process the idea in their own mind, there’s not much opportunity for any deep understanding to be created. So keep expectations for learning shallow.
  • Sticky: I mean this in the Malcolm Gladwell sense, not like the gum on your shoe. For the (admittedly shallow) learning to take root, the video lecture must have some memorable appeal that sticks with you: humor, intrigue, a storyline, whatever. I usually opt for humor, maybe because I secretly wish I was Bill Nye.
  • Spot-on: How many times have you teachers out there put on a video for review and realized midway through that it’s not quite what you had hoped? (I know I have!) Maybe the vocabulary doesn’t match what you’ve been using in class, maybe the approach is too complicated or too simple, but it just isn’t fitting for your students’ needs- and you end up with more confusion than when you started “reviewing”. A good video lecture needs to be crafted for a very specific audience and purpose- most generic videos won’t cut it.
How do I put these into practice? I end up making a lot of my own short video lectures to teach scientific vocabulary or review simple facts. It’s not as dramatic as a flipped classroom, but it does mean small bits of direct instruction and basic review can be done at home, and available to the students who need it more than once. I know there are plenty of pre-made video lectures out there already on the internets (BrainPop is a biggie at my school, and is useful at times), but nothing beats a teaching tool that’s been crafted especially for a specific learning purpose. Plus students have a weird fascination with seeing their teachers on-screen. Maybe it’s the era of reality TV we live in, but sometimes I get the feeling that they listen more carefully to video me than actual me!
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a few of the videos that I’ve made for our 2nd grade Forces and Motion unit. They were all edited using iMovie, and I swear I didn’t spend more than an hour or two making each one. In fact the gravity video I made yesterday in about a period. So from a cost-benefit analysis perspective, video lectures of this kind are a win-win, even if they don’t deserve headlines about “revolutionizing education”.  As long as video lectures are used as a supplement to thoughtful, contextual, inquiry-based learning experiences, they are tool teachers should keep handy.

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My 3rd graders will soon begin their first science unit on light and sound, which in my opinion is a great way to start the year- it’s hard to beat making noise and playing with flashlights. Despite all the hands-on investigations that we’ve done in the past though, there’s always one phenomenon that students have trouble with: refraction, the bending of light. 

I think refraction stumps students because it contradicts their particle-based intuition. Other kinds of light behavior (absorption, reflection, and transmission) make sense even from a particle perspective because they have simple analogies: a sponge absorbing water, a ball bouncing off the ground, sand passing through a sieve. But light bending inside something?? It’s a lot to wrap your head around, even for teachers.

Since we tend to stick to observable phenomenon in elementary science, we don’t get into a discussion of light changing speeds in different mediums (not that that makes it any easier to comprehend anyway!). Instead we merely observe different examples of refraction: a “broken” pencil in water, lens magnification, prism-made rainbows, etc. Sure, students can be trained to say that refracting light is “bending”, but that’s only a superficial understanding of the phenomenon- why bother? This would seem to make refraction a candidate for the chopping block with the new effort to trim standards to only core ideas, but even in the new framework refraction is suggested at the elementary level:

[By the end of 5th grade students should understand that]… because lenses bend light beams, they can be used, singly or in combination, to provide magnified images of objects too small or too far away to be seen with the naked eye. (page 108)

So, how to deepen student’s understanding about refraction? Similar to my past post about making sound waves visible, this year I’m planning on using a simulation to supplement the experimental observation, and hopefully deepen student’s understanding. The simulation is called Bending Light from PhET, the University of Colorado at Boulder’s fantastic treasure-trove of free, online physics simulations. Most of the simulations are intended for older students, like this one is, but the interface is user-friendly enough that I think even my 3rd graders will be able to get a lot out of it. From my Master’s in Ed days though, I remember reading that the main shortfall of using simulations is that students don’t always make the connection between real-life and the simulation. To avoid this, I’m going to try using the simulation and real-life observations in tandem.

For example, take one of our more traditional investigations, like observing the effects of concave and convex lenses. Students would usually look at a penny under the lenses and notice that the convex lens makes the penny look bigger, while the concave lens makes the penny look smaller. Big deal. Why do the different shaped lenses do this? Ummm…. What the students can’t observe easily is the bending of the light, so the lesson usually ends with me drawing a bunch of complicated looking ray diagrams on the board… and the students looking on blankly.

Let’s try that again. This year, right after students observe one the effect of one of the lenses on the penny, they’ll use the simulation to recreate the same setup. Take a look at the simulation screenshot of light shining through a convex lens. 

The cool thing about the simulation is that it shows what the light rays are actually doing with a simple ray diagram. So although they won’t necessarily understanding why refraction is occurring, they should get a deeper understanding of what is happening to the light. In the case with the convex lens above, the light is being bent together (or focused) so it makes objects appear bigger.

However, I should admit that I think there’s going to need to be some prep work done before we roll out the simulations to ensure that students understand what a ray diagram is in the first place. Since we begin the unit the more straightforward light behaviors, that would be a good time to introduce simple ray diagrams as a way of drawing what’s happening to light. For example, students should be able to observe and then draw what happens when light shines on glass: most of the rays transmit and a few are reflected. If students can grasp the ray diagram representation of light, and connect their observations of real-life with the simulations, I think their understanding of light will really shine this year (sorry, couldn’t resist :).

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