Monthly Archives: June 2017

2016 - 2017 Year In Review: Surveys

Overview

Last year I took Julie Reubach's survey and used it for the students in my final set of classes at my previous school. This year I gave essentially the same survey. Probably the most important thing for me was to compare some of the results to make sure the essential elements of my teaching identity made the transition intact.

The positives:

  • Students responded that the reassessments and the quizzing system were important elements to keep for next year. I'll share more about my reflection on the reassessment system in a later post.
  • Students liked having plenty of time during class to work and get help if they needed it. I tried to strike a balance between this, exploration, and direct instruction. More on that last point below.
  • Students appreciated the structures of class and the materials. They liked having warm-up activities for each class, the organization of documents on Google Drive, and the use of PearDeck for assssment of their ideas during class.
  • The stories, personal anecdotes, and jokes at the start of class apparently go over well with students. I don't think I could stop this completely anyway, so I'm glad students don't necessarily see this as being unfocused or as a waste of class time.
  • Students like structured opportunities to work together and solve problems that are not just sets from the handouts. Explorations got strong reviews, which is good because I think they are good uses of class time too.

What needs work:

  • Students want more example problems. I consistently did some

in each class, but I always struggled with the balance between doing more problems and addressing issues as they came up individually. Some students want a bit more guidance that doesn't necessarily require whole group instruction, but say that the individual group explanations or suggestions aren't meeting their needs completely. This might mean I record some videos or present worked problems as part of the class resources in case students want them.

  • Related to the previous point is the use of homework, Some students want more help on homework, but again don't necessarily want to spend whole class instruction doing it. I admit that I still struggle with the usefulness of going over homework, particularly as a whole class and collecting information on what students struggled with is not smooth. The classroom notebook doesn't solve that problem to my satisfaction either. Short, focused presentations of how to get started on certain problems (and not full solutions) might be all that is needed to meet this shortcoming that many students mentioned in their surveys.
  • Despite my efforts to make learning the unit circle easier, students continue to report their dislike for learning it. I present students a series of approaches to understanding how to evaluate functions around the unit circle. This is also one of the few topics where I encourage both understanding (through creative assessment questions) and accuracy in evaluating functions correctly using whatever means students find necessary. Memorization, if that is what students choose to do, is one way that students could approach this. I think part of the issue is that proficiency in this topic requires more genuine effort than others. There are no shortcuts here, and facility with evaluating trigonometric functions goes a long way in making other topics easier. I'm not sure what the solution is here. This is one area where I think procedural fluency had no valid replacement, particularly in the context of IB, or preparation in Precalculus.
  • The other topic that students reported they found the most difficult was binomial theorem, again surprising given that it is one of the more procedurally straight forward topics of the courses. Do I need to consider teaching these in a more formulaic way so that students are more successful? I wonder if I have swung too far in the wrong direction with respect to avoiding activities that demand fluency or practice.
  • Students want more summary of what we've done each class and where we are going. I think this is a completely valid request, and is perhaps made easier to do with each course defined in terms of learning standards.
  • Conclusion

    I appreciate how consistently students are willing to give feedback about my classes. There were some really useful individual comments that will help me think about how the decisions I make might affect the spectrum of students in each course. I promised students that I wouldn't look at the results until after grades were in, just in case that might encourage more honesty. This was an anonymous survey, and with the larger class sizes this year, I think there was a closer amount of anonymity with respect to individual responses. There is a lot to sift through here, which is why I'm glad I still have the better part of the summer to do so.

    2016 - 2017 Year In Review: Technology Tools

    Overview

    I've always been a pretty heavy user of technology. I've been more careful in the past few years to use it for a reason, not for its own sake though. I also balance that use though with a healthy desire to try new things in a way that I would actually use them in the classroom.

    This is also the first year I've been able to take advantage of the Google Tools suite since Vietnam is not subject to the limitations of China's Great Firewall. Though there have been times when the internet connection to the entire country has been subject to shark attacks, connections in general have been smooth. Seeing how effectively some folks use Google in the classroom after being unable to use it for six years make me feel seriously behind the times. Luckily, my colleagues are really eager to share what they do. I might be caught up.

    1. A Macbook Pro where I do most of my lesson planning. I connected an external widescreen monitor that mirrored all projected content. The second screen was sent through AirPlay to an Apple TV, which was then connected to the projector.
    2. Class worksheets electronically created and stored in Google Docs. These are printed out on A5 size sheets for students to tape into their notebooks for a physical record of what we did.
    3. For IB Mathematics SL and PreCalculus, I had two students per class make an additional Google Doc that was a copy of the handout. In this document, students would paste solutions to class work, homework, and whatever else they thought might be important to their classmates. The student responsibility for doing this was on a rotating schedule, similar to what I've used in my previous classes.
    4. Notability app for class notes, with a Wacom Tablet for input. I used the wireless accessory kit for around two days, because it disconnected too frequently.
    5. iPhone as a document camera for capturing student work for sharing answers or for conversation during the class. I would take pictures of student work and use AirDrop to upload them for inclusion in the notes.
    6. Moodle as a repository for all of the above documents and links. I also used it occasionally for distributing quizzes and automatic grading.
    7. My WeinbergCloud website for managing, assigning, and recording reassessments throughout the semester.
    8. PearDeck on a trial basis for first semester, and then regularly during second. I sometimes used an iPad to manage the class, but every time I regretted it, and just used my computer.
    9. Desmos Calculator usually at least once per lesson
    10. Desmos Activity Builder about once per unit per course
    11. EdPuzzle for self paced lessons, videos, and quizzes in Algebra 2. Most of the videos were produced by my colleague, Scott Hsu.
    12. Spreadsheets for building useful calculators (like discriminants for quadratics, arithmetic/geometric series sums, etc)
    13. Khan Academy for practice exercises and monitoring of student effort in reviewing material.
    14. Geogebra for checking exam questions and demonstrating its use as a work-checking tool for students.
    15. Camtasia for recording videos from time to time of solving problems, using
    16. Quizster as a way to have students submit specific homework problems for feedback.
    17. Wireless keyboard and trackpad, though these lasted about a week and a half.
    18. I dabbled with GoFormative, primarily when I was on sick leave for a while. Connection issues that were inconsistent across the class led to my abandoning it for regular use.
    19. For two units in PreCalculus, I used Trello as a way to organize units and help students organize their work for each day of class.

    What worked:

    • The process of cutting and pasting images of problems or student work into Notability, and then annotating them was great for recording important information during class. These notes were then either pasted into the document created by students for each class, or exported as PDF for posting on Moodle. This felt like a good way to have a record of what went on during a given class block in case students missed a block.
    • I liked automated grading of quizzes through Google forms and Moodle. This definitely saved time, but the process of getting feedback to students in response still is awkward. When student work is analog, but answer checking is digital, where should that feedback go? Quizster offers some way of making all of this occur in the same tool, but the workflow never was smooth enough to fully commit to it.
    • The combination of PearDeck and Desmos Activity builder, along with photos of student work, made for great sources of understanding (and misunderstanding) that helped me decide how or whether to proceed with other material. These also made for great motivating elements for direct instruction when it needed to happen. The students really liked using these tools, and said they looked forward to them, according to the end of year survey results.
    • I don't think Khan Academy exercises work well for assessing students beyond a basic level. I think they can provide the practice some students need on procedural skills like factoring or evaluating trigonometric functions. It's just one tool among many to serve the needs of my students.
    • When I provided guidance on how spreadsheets could be used for more than just making charts, students appreciated it. One student went so far as to say that this instruction was "actually useful". I decided not to ask what this student thought about the rest of the class.

    What needs work:

    • I posted homework problems on the printed class handout, digital handout, and on a dedicated document for assignments that is an expectation across classes our high school division. Consistently updating all three documents was a challenge, despite my best efforts.
    • The student notebook entries for each class were among the least favorite element of the class, as reported by students. I've written previously about the need to have some record of what happens during class, but frustration over students that do not produce their own record through regular use of a dedicated notebook. This isn't the best solution, but I think it's the closest I've come to something that actually reaches the right balance. I just wish I could figure out how to get students to buy into its usefulness.
    • I still have not figured out the best way to bring the class back together after letting them work at their own pace through lessons. The only times it makes a lot of sense to do this is at the very beginning of class, and at the very end.
    • PearDeck, Desmos Activity Builder, and GoFormative each offer features that I really like. None of them do everything. I'm ok with this, but I wonder whether the fragmentation of activities is good for students, or a problem since their work is distributed across these tools.
    • While I liked using Trello, and some students reported that they also appreciated it, many students did not. I'm not sure if it actually is the self-paced lesson tool I'm looking for, but it was better than a static Google document.
    • At the end of the year, despite my own research and attempts to improve this, the Apple TV disconnected at least once every class period, if not more frequently.

    Conclusion

    My focus continues to be on using technology to free up time for the ways that I can best add value in the classroom. Many students don't need my help in making progress. Some do, and some like having me explain ideas to them. It's hard to simultaneously meet these different needs without technology, which enables me to be in multiple places at once.

    Having the range of tools I describe above, and not fully committing to one, is both a blessing and a curse. The fragmentation means the residue of learning is distributed across many web addresses. The variety helps keeps students (and me) from getting into a rut. I don't know if this balance is appropriately tuned yet.

    2016-2017 Year in Review: Being New

    Overview

    This was my first year since 2010 being the new kid in school. Developing a reputation takes time, so I was deliberate about establishing who I am as a teacher from the beginning. I wrote about learning names at the beginning of the year, for example. My school, surpassing 1,000 students this year, is the second largest of those at which I have worked. The high school division is just over 320 students. There are many systems that are in place to manage the reality of this group of ninth through twelfth graders that has a tremendous diversity of interests, programs (IB and AP), extra-curricular organizations, and obligations outside of the school walls. I walked in admittedly intimidated by the scope of this place and what it aims to accomplish.

    After one of our meetings before student orientation, there was a lot of information that had been shared. I asked our high school principal what the priority needed to be in the first quarter in terms of processing all of that information. He put me at ease - the focus should be on figuring out how this place works. He promised (and certainly delivered) on a pledge to remind us of what was important throughout the year, but with the understanding that there would be a learning curve for our group of newbies. The faculty is passionate about teaching and creative in how they go about designing classroom experiences. They were intensely committed to sharing what they do and helping those of us that were new how to prioritize at any given time.

    What worked:

    • The beginning of school was was a mix of content and getting to know them/me activities that were deliberately designed for those purposes. This sort of thing is important at the beginning of any year if the composition of a class is new. It's essential if the teacher is new too. Each group is unique and has chemistry that not only is important to suss out in the beginning, but must be regularly assessed as the year proceeds. I thought this series of activities worked really well. I will modify these for the purpose of offering variety for next year's student groups, but not really improvement.
    • I was able to get most of my work preparing lessons at school during my prep periods. Exceptions were after exams, the end of the year, and near reporting deadlines. This required serious levels of prioritization and disciplined decisions around what I actually could accomplish in those blocks of time. While I maintained to-do lists, a major component of my success came from block-scheduling those tasks and sticking to the schedule. This left time after school and at home to spend designing the explorations, experiments, and bigger picture puzzles that were nice, but not necessary.
    • I streamlined many of the administrative procedures I had created in my previous schools. I rebuilt spreadsheets that had been unchanged for several years rather than hacking old ones to work. Part of this was required to address the fact that my class sizes were substantially larger, but I also decided it was time.
    • As I had hoped to do, I spent much of the year watching. I did not want to come in and identify everything that this school did not have that I may have had a hand in organizing in past school years, and then add it myself. That is how I came to feel burnt out every time June came around. I was quite picky with what I involved myself in. I said no to things. When I was ready to design a VEX robotics sprint (more on that later) at the end of the year, however, this meant I had the energy and drive to do so.
    • The level of support I have felt from administrators and colleagues this year has been incredible. Nothing makes you feel so effective as a team that has your back, and that is realistic about what should, what can, and what cannot be accomplished with a given set of resources.

    What needs work:

    • I did not get out and visit my colleagues anywhere nearly as frequently as I wanted. This is a seriously impressive group of teachers trying different things. Part of the problem was my commitment to trying to get things done during my prep periods, so I do take responsibility for that. It would not have been too devastating to that structure, however, if I also planned blocks of time when I would visit specific colleagues. I ate in the lunchroom with colleagues fairly regularly, and that was great for learning what everyone was doing. It was not enough. More of that next year.
    • I originally planned on doing outreach with parents more regularly this year. They are incredibly trusting of what we as teachers design for students, and this was evident at parent teacher conference nights during both semesters. I want more than that though. I want them to understand my philosophy for why learning mathematics right now is important. I don't think the parents understand standards based grading, and although the students made solid attempts to explain it during conferences, these conversations don't happen nearly as frequently as they should. I need to think more about what that communication looks like, and why I feel it is important, because I don't think I can fully articulate that here. I do know that there is a lost opportunity when it comes to parents really understanding what we do in the classroom on a regular basis.
    • I now believe that the ease of establishing community and connections with others is inversely related to the ease of living in that place. I often tell the story of how it was easy to rally a group of colleagues in my early days of China to go find cheese, which was difficult to find. Many of my closest bonds were formed during those adventures of first world adversity. Here in District 7 of HCMC, there is no such difficulty. Life is really good and easy here. This means, however, that one must work a little bit harder to leave the comfortable bubble of life to find adventure and make new friends. This is especially the case for me as the father of a now toddling ball of energy. It takes effort and time to build those relationships. That's definitely something that I need to work on deliberately planning more frequently next year.

    Conclusion

    The second year anywhere is always less scattered than the first. The next few weeks are all about figuring about how to use the time not spent learning the ropes.

    Too Many Reassessments, Just in Time for Summer

    I posted this graph of cumulative reassessments versus the day of the semester on Twitter:

    That, my friends, is a reassessment system gone wild. The appropriate title for that image, as one person pointed out, is Too Many Reassessments. The grand total for this semester was 711. There are obvious bunches of reassessments close to the ends of the quarters when the grade book closes.

    Here is a histogram of the reassessment data for the semester. There is some discrepancy in the total number in the data here, but I haven't figured out exactly where that is.

    I committed to transplanting the system I have used in the past to my new school this year, and didn't want to make a full change without seeing how this would play out. This semester I was much more consistent in the types of questions I gave students reassessing, changing grades based on a reassessment, and the choice I offered them for the level of reassessment. Some of this I wrote about at the beginning of the semester.

    The most important observation I can make at this point is that this system is not sustainable as is. I cannot make my sign-up and credit system more efficient to manage the volume - that isn't the issue. I'm satisfied with the quality of the questions I give students. I've developed a pretty nice bank of questions that span the spectrum of application, understanding, and transfer. The bigger issue is my capacity to give the sort of feedback I want to give to students throughout the semester. I have many conversations about learning, and many of them are great, but I cannot multiply myself to have as many of those conversations as I want.

    Here's a graph of the average learning standards grade for a sample of students compared with the number of reassessments:

    This doesn't support the expectation that more reassessments implies a higher grade. Students are not necessarily doing machine-gun style reassessment. They are working on specific skills and show my what they are doing. They are responding in a positive way to my feedback. Credits, which students earn by doing work and review of concepts, are still required for students to reassess. Students are for the most part using their credits. Expiring credits, as much as I thought it would make a difference, is not making that much of a difference for behavior (i.e. signing up for reassessments) or course grade. I need to dig into the data more to be able to explain why.

    In terms of moving forward, I have many things to think about.

    • The past three or four years have been an exercise in exploring a system that centers around student-initiated reassessment. I'm not sure it's time for that to completely go away, but I wonder about shifting my focus to an assessment structure centered on teacher-initiated. I already do this on unit exams, but I wouldn't say it is the focus of where I spend my time.
    • I wonder if reducing the permitted number of reassessments per student to one per week would improve their effectiveness. This effectiveness increase could be based in higher quality feedback from me, more focused effort on the part of the student for improving understanding on a given learning standard, or something else entirely. This reduces the options for students to learn on their own timeline, which isn't a good thing. While we're being honest though, that exponential curve at the end of the assessment period is all the evidence I need to accept that the timeline is based on the grading-period structure, not learning.
    • How do I most efficiently help the weak student that reassesses on the same standard multiple times and makes limited progress on each attempt?
    • How do I give meaningful guidance to the student that aces everything on the first try? How do I get them more involved in finding learning that is meaningful, rather than waiting for me to tell them what to learn?
    • What do the students think? I've collected all sorts of anecdotal evidence that students appreciate the opportunities to reassess, and not just in a superficial way related to their course grade. I've given students an end of year survey to complete, and those results are rolling in slowly as students complete their final exams.

    These are the big picture questions that add one more reason to be thankful that the summer is ahead. Getting back to my main point, I am brought back to the idea that quality feedback is the main way we as teachers add value. This, like many things in education, is not easy to scale. This need for improving and scaling the transfer of feedback is really the only basis for innovation in the ed-tech realm that interests me at all these days. So far, despite the best intentions of many that are trying, machine learning is not the answer yet. Make it easy for me to organize and collect student thinking, respond to that thinking, and give helpful nudges to the resources needed to make progress, and then I'll consider your product.

    Final exam marking is ahead. Stay tuned.

    Building Models: Drone Intercept and Desmos

    I put together an activity using Desmos Activity Builder that was a variation on an older air traffic control task as part of my unit on parametric equations and vectors.

    Here's some of the copy for the activity:

    Students could only see six seconds of the drone animation before they disappeared from the screen. I had students detail their process of finding the intersection point and intersection time as part of the follow up for this activity.

    My favorite product of this activity though came with the superposition of everyone's models on top of the drone footage. Here's that result (click to see the animation):

    We had some really productive discussions as part of evaluating this result. The students noticed how most people had the correct initial location, but dramatically different results based on the velocity vectors used to generate the parametric expressions. Some students saw it as cheating to use Desmos to gather data, make calculations to create an approximate solution, and then tweak that solution. I shared that I saw that as a natural role of feedback in the modeling process.

    The activity has one slide with some behind-the-scenes Activity Builder features, and I'm not sure I should release that at this point. If you are interested in using this activity with your students, let me know, and I can create a version without that slide.