Monthly Archives: September 2015

#TeachersCoding: Building an Image Downloader for WODB

If you read my blog regularly, you know how I feel about using technology to manage repetitive tasks. It's intimidating to learn to code without purpose. Seeing how code can be used in the context of making a teacher's job easier is a much more direct motivation for learning to do it yourself.

Here's my next installment in the TeachersCoding series. In four minutes, you get the basic steps and tools for putting together a Python program that will download images from Mary Bourassa's excellent Which One Doesn't Belong website . All that's missing is you going through the steps yourself:

This program doesn't download all of the images from the website - that's a task for you to figure out and do on your own. It doesn't take much. My goal is to have more teachers get hooked by the thrill of seeing code they create do something that is practical and adaptable to their own purposes. We need to grow our ranks.

Share any issues you find in the comments below. I'm excited to get this out there and see what you do with it.

Relevant links:

Let 'em Talk

We started the topic of Venn diagrams in Math 9 this week. In a class of international school students (and perhaps any group of students) the range of knowledge on a given topic is all over the place given their different backgrounds and school histories.

The teacher-me of ten years ago would have done an overview of the concept of a Venn diagram. I would have started by asking questions about different parts of what was there in a Socratic fashion. It would have been full of questions that I had written down in my lesson plan designed to get students to think deeply about the content. Based on asking questions of a sample individual students, I would have gotten an idea of what the class knew. The students who knew the material already would either raise their hands and try to answer every question, or stay silent and answer every question on the worksheet in a matter of minutes. The students that didn't know the concepts, but wanted to, would likely stay quiet until either I approached them or until they could ask a friend for help. The students that were used to being defeated by math class would pass the time by doodling, pretending to be involved, or by distracting their friends.

This isn't the teacher I am today. I've written about the power of social capital in the room before, so this is nothing new, but I don't tend to do the 'topic overview' style lesson anymore. The one or two students that nod while we go through material aren't representative of the class. The strength of my experience in the classroom is being able to observe students working and know what to do next. I can't do this while standing at the front of the room and speaking.

My approach now is, whenever possible, to make an item of the topic a conversation starter. I gave them this image of a Venn Diagram, which appears in a collection of questions from old New York State Regents exams at
Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.34.49 AM

I gave them a series of questions that required them to figure out what they remembered, knew, or didn't know about the topic. Students made arguments for the definitions. Their disagreement drove the need for clearer definitions of what the intersections of the sets meant, for example. I was free to circulate and figure out who knew the concepts and who did not. Many of the issues that arose were resolved within the groups. Those that still had lasting confusion were my targets for conversations later on.

As I've added years to my experience, I've become more comfortable relying on this system to drive what happens in my classroom. Every time I get the urge to just go over a topic, I remind myself that there's a better way that involves students doing the heavy lifting first. There's a reason students are in a room together for the purpose of learning, and that reason is not (all) about efficiency. Humans are social creatures, and learning is one of those processes that is driven by that reality. There are moments when direct instruction is the way to go, but those moments are not as frequent or necessary as we might think at first.

#TeachersCoding: Picking Groups

In my previous post on using OneNote with students, I wrote about the need to choose students to be responsible for each day's notes. This needed to be deliberately planned and fair to students. Here were my requirements:

  • Over the course of a quarter or semester, students had to be picked around the same number of times.
  • I needed groups of two or more students for redundancy.
  • If a student was picked for a given week, there should be some time before being picked again. If repetition of a given student did occur, cycling through the class was a requirement before that student could reappear.

After a while playing around with this, I came up with the code below. Feel free to play with the code. It's embedded in this post through the nifty tools from

Here's a walkthrough of the algorithm: fill a list with the student names, and then shuffle the list. Create groups of the desired size until there aren't enough to create a full group. Make a new copy of the student list, shuffle it, and then remove the students that remain from the first list. Finally, tack those remaining students at the beginning of the second list. Repeat until you have the number of groups that you are looking for, and then print out the list.

I can see a number of other applications for something like this. My hope is that you take some time to adapt it to your needs, and then circle back here to share what you used it to do.

Teaching from Anywhere

I use my phone as a document camera, which is nothing new. AirDrop is an option since my school computer is now running OS X Yosemite. I was using my own Python web application to upload these to the computer last year, but that was limited to one file at a time. Now I can send a whole stack of photos of student work at once, which makes it the obvious choice.

The laptop is parked to be plugged into the projector in a spot that doesn't sacrifice student real estate, but is accessible if I need to get to it:


The thing that has always bugged me is having to be in one place in the room to do, well, anything. I like sitting with students. I have interesting and useful conversations with students when I'm among them, not while standing at the front of the room. My solution in the past has been to bring the laptop around the classroom with me and sit down next to students. Two things bother me about this:

  • When move to join a table next to students, I always take up more room than any other person. This is because I'm there with a laptop, Wacom tablet, and some notes if I need them for the lesson. My students are too polite to actually object when I move in and they always consolidate their things to make room. I know the whole time, however, that they are wishing I wouldn't. This whole process repeats if I want to move during the lesson, which I always do.
  • I have an Apple TV that I've used in the past to wirelessly display my screen in this situation, but the lag between my movement and the display is enough to be uncomfortable for me, and render my handwriting into the illegible range if I'm not extremely careful. I can stream student work to the Apple TV from my phone directly, but without the ability to zoom in on what's actually important or annotate, the capability limits more than it offers.

I have had the wireless kit for my Wacom tablet since last year, so that doesn't need to be connected to the projector laptop anymore. To switch applications (which I do frequently), write more than a couple words on the screen (which is more efficiently done through typing), or upload student work, I've always needed to go back to the laptop. This additional step during class is a moment of dead time - a moment during which students have no choice but to wait and do nothing, or do worse. This moment of dead time has been an unavoidable consequence of my classroom design and configuration.

The arrangement that has minimized (if not eliminated) all of these issues for this new year is this set of devices:


I already mentioned the wireless Wacom tablet for handwritten work. The wireless keyboard (picked up during RadioShack's sale of excess inventory this summer) lets me type from anywhere in the room. The Magic Trackpad lets me do the rest.

I can take all three of these anywhere in the classroom if I need to, though often one at a time will suffice. I can switch applications, write on the wall, and type from pretty much anywhere. For sharing, viewing, and cropping student work, I can use the trackpad to manage the stream of photos that I (or my students) send to the computer through Airdrop.

This freedom to run my class untethered from the computer and centered wherever student thinking is happening is worth every ounce of aluminum, glass, and plastic. This freedom makes a difference.