Learning Together

Electric.

I know just enough to be dangerous. I can change out a ceiling fan or a car battery. Replace a plug on an extension cord. A few other things. I know enough to shut off the breaker or otherwise disconnect power before beginning a project. But how it all works?

Magic

I mean, I could give you a dictionary definition if you want. But I think you want a little bit more than that.


 

We blew past the circuits module in POE this year. We are smack in the middle of a major renovation right now, and my classroom is ground zero. There are decades of projects, binders, materials, tools, everywhere, across three classrooms. Despite receiving a literal truckload of brand-new PLTW supplies, I couldn’t track down the breadboards and wires for my students to work with. Fortunately there is an online sim for circuit building, which is what we used at my former school, but I need for my students to get hands-on with all of this. It’s one of the major selling points of PLTW – learning by doing.

Thanks to that turn of events, I’m a little ahead of schedule. Too early to start the next unit. But: amongst a recent shipment was a half-dozen boxes of the VEX building kits, including a hydrogen fuel cell and small solar panels for an energy activity.

Nothing says we can’t skip back and do that project now, right?

Turns out we didn’t have quite everything we needed. But in the spirit of American ingenuity and the can-do spirit (and the Porter County Career Center’s Alternative Energy program), we improvised. And learned. Every day I’d dig through stacks and storage of old equipment, find something that looked useful, give it to my students and said, “here, see what you can do with this.”

 

And because they are pretty slick, they’d go to work, think, try things out, look stuff up on Youtube when they needed to, and make some magic happen.

I told them up front that I had not done this project beginning to end before: “I’ll be real honest with you – we’re going to learn together”. I’m not sure I could get away with that just anywhere. I mean it as an opportunity for students to take control of their own learning. They get it.

Good thing, too.

My strategy: Ask a lot of probing questions, help when asked, get out of the way otherwise, check for understanding later. Plus, we eventually found the breadboards and some alligator clips.

And the next thing you know: Solar/Hydrogen Cell Car. Yeah.

 

There are places where this kind of “go forth and play, and oh, by the way, learn something” might not be met with great enthusiasm. “You’re the teacher. Teach us.”

I believe I have.

But wait. There’s more: Wait ’til we start coding in the next unit…

hello-cortex

Robots are coming.

Advertisements

Will I Ever Make A PowerPoint After High School?

Every math teacher dreads the question. Like they dread teaching (Trigger Warning) synthetic division. “When are we ever gonna use this stuff?” We end up having to justify the thing we love so much we chose it as a career, to a bunch of disinterested 15-year-olds.

Other teachers get the “cool” subjects with relevant topics and awesome class discussions for days, and we get to make our kids graph lines with pencil and paper. As if anyone does that for real on the job. If only they could make PowerPoints for us, like they do for their US History teacher. Life would be so sweet.

a172848031b92b954b284660d9d724f9.jpg (700×900)

But you know what? Secretly… they hate making PowerPoints.

Seriously.

Or rather, they hate making an effort to make a good PowerPoint. It’s one more thing they can robotically churn out in a half-hour, read the slides off the screen when it’s time to make the presentation, then sit back and say “Gimme My Points!” I know it’s true, because I’ve heard those exact words.

What if making a PowerPoint is one more thing they’ll never do again after high school?

There is a stat floating around out there, of somewhat suspicious origin, that 30 million Power Point presentations are made every day.

Thirty. Million.

If this number is true, one in every 250 or so people on the planet is clicking through a slide deck today. I’m a math teacher (and a PLTW teacher), so I get that that number is not evenly distributed. But still. If my students feel like they won’t have to do this on the job… they’re probably right. Or maybe not. Depends on the job, right?

But….

What if it’s not about slapping together 10 slides (ctrl-c, ctrl-v, rinse, repeat), and it’s really about telling a story?

conspiracy-keanu.jpg (551×549)
Woah.

My Intro To Engineering Design students are in the midst of a project requiring them to select an invention, to research all the innovations that have been made to that product since it was invented, and to present what they have learned. I’ll be pretty honest with you. I don’t want to watch 40 horrible slide show presentation with my students standing with their back to their classmates, reading from bullet points while clicking through unreadable slides.

hqdefault.jpg (480×360)

 

Call me selfish. But last time I checked my business card, it says “Teacher”. Guess that means if I want them to make an awesome presentation, I’m gonna have to teach them how to make an awesome presentation. OK, fine. Somebody’s got to. So, after they research their invention and innovations, and before they start building a slide deck, I hit them with a combo platter: Carmine Gallo and Steve Jobs. Gallo literally wrote the book on making insanely great presentations, and Jobs…. well, c’mon. You know.

So we start with Gallo’s slide deck on the Presentation Secrets Of Steve Jobs. Yes, read the book. You’re probably already using at least a couple of these tactics in your class. Then once we’ve identified best practices, we watch the master at work.

Then I give them a slide from a previous year student’s presentation and ask them to use what they’ve learned to improve the slide.

Truth be told, it’s a lot more work than ctrl-c, ctrl-v. But holy crap, have they bought in. I say: tell a story with your slides, don’t read them, tell your audience the things you learned that you think are cool. And they give me this:

The-Evolution-of-the-Playstation-Controller.gif (750×526)

I swear, it was like a contest to see who could put the coolest gif in their slides. They’re having fun. In school. On an assignment. For my class. Pinch me.

But, are they ever going to have to make a PowerPoint again after high school? Ask me again in 40 years. But I know for sure they’ll need digital communication skills. I know for sure they’ll have to tell a story, and make that story kind of interesting. Maybe they’ll be pitching a product or a business idea. Maybe they’ll be witnessing to a youth group. Maybe they’ll be podcasting about writing a novel or launching a youtube channel of  DIY household repair tutorials. Maybe they’ll be telling the life story of a loved one at a wedding or a wake.

Go tell your story, people.

 

Ups And Downs. And Ups.

I’m training to run a marathon.

Let me repeat that: I’m. Training. To. Run. A. Marathon.

OK, so that last sentence is a bit overdramatic. It’s my fifth marathon since 2007. And although training to run 26.2 miles (in the same day, at once) is quite a bit of work, it’s not all that unusual. In 2013, 541,000 people in the US finished a marathon. Put it this way: that’s just a little less than the population of Las Vegas. Put all the 2013 marathon finishers together in one city and you’d have the 33rd largest city in the US, a little larger than Fresno, CA, not quite the size of Tucson. But bigger than Kansas City, Miami, Oakland, Minneapolis, Cleveland or New Orleans.

On Sunday, my marathon training team gathered at 7 am for a 20-mile run. Well, depending on level of previous training, some of us went 16, those with a little more experience did 18, and two of us planned for 20. This particular route is the toughest 20-mile route we use, criss-crossing the highest point in Porter County. Most of the middle 10 or so miles are spent climbing hills and racing down the other side.

"This is a 20.41 mi route in Valparaiso, IN, United States. The route has a total ascent of 564.0 ft and has a maximum elevation of 891.47 ft."
“This is a 20.41 mi route in Valparaiso, IN, United States. The route has a total ascent of 564.0 ft and has a maximum elevation of 891.47 ft.”

At one point, as we stopped for water and carb gels (“Gu“) after one of these climbs, I turned to my training partner and said “Man, the mental part of the game is so huge. The climb takes a lot out of you, but knowing it’s coming makes it a little easier to deal with from the neck up.” She looked at me and went, “Thanks for reminding me. I had forgotten about the big hill coming up.”

So had I. Yikes.

Most of my teacher friends have seen the following graph at some point, either in their pre-service program, or at an in-service somewhere. It’s a visual representation of the emotional phases of first-year teaching. I’d say 1) it’s pretty accurate, and 2) the graph for more veteran teachers probably isn’t all that different.

You can't quit. It's Christmas. Image via newteachercenter.org
“You can’t quit. It’s Christmas”. Image via newteachercenter.org

That’s us right now, barreling towards Survival, with Disillusionment waiting right around the corner. I remember thinking when I started in this business that Christmas Break (Politically incorrect, I know. Sue me. “Winter Break” if you prefer) was perfectly timed for a first-year teacher badly in need of a couple weeks away from kids, an injection of family support, and an obscenely large, multi-course meal, prepared by someone else (if possible).

But it’s not just first-year teachers who take the roller-coaster ride. Last year was without a doubt my worst year teaching. If I had to sign a paper in October committing to come back for 2015-2016, I’d have said “Hell. No.”

My twitter bio says I’m a stubborn jackass. Whoever wrote that knows me so well. I kept showing up. Kept planning. Kept smiling. Kept praying the Rosary on the way in every day. Kept blowing off steam on weekends. Kept my dark sense of humor. Kept writing DARs when the situation called for it. Kept leaning on my teacher friends in the building for support. Read a lot of Justin Aion at Re-Learning To Teach. Tried to not be a jerk to my family. Got through the trimester, and the world kept spinning.

But you know what I wonder? I wonder what 15-year-olds who don’t have responsibilities and mortgages and kids and bills and the work ethic of a millrat do when school sucks daily. Not just one class, but every class. Every. Damn. Day.

I wonder if there is a graph of student emotions thru the year? I wonder what it looks like?

I wonder: Is it important for teachers to be in phase with that?

 

 

The Digital Citizenship Divide

I teach at a high school in a diverse urban district. And by “diverse,” I mean in every sense of the word. My students are diverse in their race and ethnicity, but also in diversity of background, diversity of experience, diversity of interest, of skill, of need. And that extends to their readiness to use the tools of modern learning.

Look at the way we paint our students with the term “digital native”. We assume because our students have grown up around devices, grown up online, that they are inborn with computer/tablet skills.

Then this happens:

Student (looking at computer, calling to me): “What’s this mean, ‘keyboard error’?”

Me: “Oh, just do a Ctrl-Alt-Del on it, you’ll be good to go.”

Student: “What’s that?”

 

Robert Downey Jr Wut

A seatmate set her straight before I could get back over there and help her out, but still. Ctrl-Alt-Del should be like breathing air. Until it isn’t. Instant reminder to me: Don’t Assume. Ever.

So we are doing a soft rollout of GAFE tools in my building. There was a rumor last spring we would be the second school in our district to go 1:1, but that didn’t happen. However, we do have Google accounts set up for all our students, and since I teach in a computer lab, I’ve been itching to give my students the chance to use the GAFE tools in their learning. Saw an opening today when they were studying disciplines of engineering and the engineering challenges of the 21st century. The assignment calls for students to create a power point slide of what they have learned about the specific challenge. I decided to create a Slides presentation, give all my students editing privileges, and have all my students contribute a slide summarizing what they had learned about the contributions of specific engineering disciplines to a major challenge facing us in the 21st century. OK, it’s not true collaboration, but it gave them an opportunity to work in the same document, and to practice the skills that requires. I want to give them an authentic audience and plan to run the presentation at our Open House this week.  My words: “create something you can be proud of when someone else sees it.”

I expected the day to be messy, like having too many cooks in the kitchen. What I got was kindergarten crap. As soon as students found out they had editing privileges, they started playing around with or deleting other students’ slides. As soon as they found the chat box, they started flaming each other in the chat box.

Pretty much NSFW, even blacked out. Nice.
Pretty much NSFW, even blacked out. Nice.

I let them know that I could see all the edits they made. I let them know I could revert to previous versions. I let them know I could screenshot their chat and send it to the deans.

I reminded myself I Am A Teacher. My job is to teach them. That’s content-area skills, and digital citizenship skills.

Being a teacher is a lot like being a major league baseball player. Went 0-for-4 today? Too bad. We got another game tomorrow. Get your head straight. While I was still shaking my head over infantile knuckleheads being little boys, in setting up an assignment for my class in Edmodo, I ran across this:

In my house, no question goes unanswered. You wanna know the answer? Look it up.
In my house, no question goes unanswered. You wanna know the answer? Look it up.

So here’s a freshman, interested enough in a company she heard about in a video we watched as part of a design process lesson to Google the company, find their web site, read the job descriptions, and to compare that to what we do in class.

The Digital Citizenship Divide. One group saw the tools we have as another way to cut on each other, to be childish. Another student saw the tools as an avenue of learning, and pursued her own interests and questions without my guidance.

So. It’s looks like I’ve got some more teaching to do. I’ll be back at it tomorrow.

 

There’s Always Something More To Do

About 10 years ago, my wife was approached by a member of her college circle who had a vision. She saw the need for young ladies, before they reached high school, to be exposed to opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). By this time, my wife’s friend was a technology professional, well respected in her field with a good, stable job.

The vision was for a non-profit organization that would pair middle school-age girls with professionals in the STEM fields for a mentoring relationship. They dreamed big dreams, benchmarked Teach For America, imagined starting in two communities then expanding the program statewide and eventually across the nation, helping to close the gender gap in the STEM world.

Along with a third professional, the ladies outlined their vision, made a business plan, assembled a team, wrote grants, located mentors, obtained the support of the local school district, and launched their program, known as Discoveries Unlimited.

DU survived for four years, putting it squarely within the 57 percent of all new small businesses that fail within the first five years. I’ve written the postmortem in my mind many times, playing the “what-if” game. But that’s another post for another day, and maybe another blog.

Let’s fast-forward to Thursday.

That’s my IED classroom. The guest, Erika Healy, was a member of Gavit’s very first Freshman Academy. She kept in touch with many of her Gavit teachers during her years at Purdue, and visited the school to meet with classes of current students. This year, for the first time, I had an opportunity to have her visit my classroom. She connected with my students instantly, sharing her stories of growing up in Hammond, going to Gavit, college life, and being hired as an engineer by a firm in Atlanta.

Guest speakers are nothing new. In the age of Skype, they don’t even have to physically come to Gavit to meet with a class. Although, to be honest, there would not have been near the connection with my kids if she had been a face on a screen rather than a person who took time to come to be with us in person. But (Blog Of Shame coming in 3, 2, 1…) that’s the first time I’ve had a former student come to my classroom. Ever.

Bad.

And here’s the thing. When asked what’s one thing she wishes were different about her high school days, you know what she said? Not better pizza in the cafeteria, or new desks, or air conditioning, or more technology. This stellar student wishes that Gavit graduates from previous years would have come back to the school during her day to share their stories with her classes. And it’s not that she didn’t know what to do and how to do it. Some of my students are just sick of hearing the same adults telling them the same thing.

"Curtis, I don't wanna go listen to some jive-ass preacher talking to me about heaven and hell."
“Curtis, I don’t wanna go listen to some jive-ass preacher talking to me about heaven and hell.”  (Image via Blues Brothers Central)

And some of my students just need a mentor. Whether its somebody who meets with them once a month to expose them to STEM, or as Rudy Ruettiger talks about, that guy who just says “Hey, good job. You can do it. Keep it up.” Of course, Rudy had Fortune to keep him focused on the big picture.

I’m finding it pretty tempting when my students tell me (sarcastically) “preach!”, or tell me “I don’t need another lecture”, to write them off. Fine. You don’t want to know? Don’t know. But maybe there’s something more I can do. Maybe I can find the person who can crack through the hard heads.

Worth a shot, right?

Hatching a plot.

Dudsville, Next Exit

So…..

That review activity I planned for today ahead of tomorrow’s quiz? Dudsville, baby. Went over like a candy bar in a swimming pool.

"What? It's no big deal."
“What? It’s no big deal.”

I’m still trying to decide if I just did a poor job of clearly explaining my directions, a poor job of engaging my students before starting the activity (too many phones, too many earbuds), a poor job of designing the activity, or a poor job of preparing them for that level of thinking.  Or…. something else.

Most common response to my attempts at formative-assessment-by-walking-around: “I don’t get it.”  But several students admitted they were not paying any kind of attention when I explained the procedure and walked us all through an example together.

On the positive, a couple students did try.  And I sat with the ones who were really, truly, making an effort.

She's back for a second go-round in my class. I think she's come to terms with the fact that Mr. Dull's class is... different.
She’s back for a second go-round in my class. I think she’s come to terms with the fact that Mr. Dull’s class is… different.

Negative side, it was a really sucky review.  I don’t think anyone is better prepared for the quiz now than they were 24 hours ago. Not sure I’m OK with that. So tomorrow we see how the quiz goes. It’s open-note, so maybe those who didn’t find the review helpful will at least be able to rely on their class notes, which I check once a week and also post on Edmodo.

I’d say “Good Luck”, but luck’s got nothing to do with it.