Saturday, May 30, 2015

Teching and Teaching

"Technology won't replace teachers, but teachers who use technology will probably replace teachers who don't" 

Working together on a skit
I am a technology addict. As I type this on my Chromebook, my iPhone, iPad, and Toshiba laptop are not too far from my fingertips. I have prbably spent more money on personal technology than I have spent on clothing. I like to be able manipulate and explore things; technology allows me to do that on a grander scale. More so than my own enjoyment of technology, I love to pair this with another of my passions: teaching. 

First and foremost, I do not integrate technology simply for the sake of integrating technology. I do it in a purposeful manner: either to extend and enhance learning (such as with the Green Screen Skits) or to teach them real-world skills. I believe that for students to be able to be successful in life they must be able to effectively and efficiently utilize tech. Many students are good with technology, but we must make an effort to extend this past being able to get a high score on Angry Birds.

Collaborating on a Presentation
The absolute powerhouse to my technology integration efforts has been Google Apps for Education (GAFE.) In the fall, I was selected as one of six educators who effectively use technology in their classroom to be a part of a Google Educator Consortium. I earned my Google Certified Educator before anyone else in my cohort and even presented to the entire consortium. My work with teachers and tech will form the basis of a blog post later in the summer.

Last year, I used Edmodo as my learning management system. This year, I was lucky enough to use Google Classroom, and it has revolutionized everything. I will post a document for students to edit and see them collaborate in real time. When we were working on our "We Didn't Start Virginia" music video, I posted a Doc with everything we needed pictures of and told them to find the links. I gave a brief mini-lesson on ctrl+c and ctrl+v to copy/paste, which is a critical time saving tip for students to have. Finding all 75+ pictures and pasting the links would have taken me over an hour. With the students working together, it took less than fifteen minutes.

Similarly, students can collaborate on writing documents together. They have figured out how to share it with each other (surprisingly with minimal instruction from me.) They use the chat box to communicate (sometimes getting into emoji battles!) I like to preface collaborating on a Doc by saying that every keystroke is logged and I can see everything they do. We have all of their Docs set up in a folder that has been shared to me, so I have executive oversight on everyone and their work.

Using Draftback
Yesterday, we were working on our final writing assignment: a letter to our future selves. The assignment wasn't so much based on the topic, but more based on editing. My students struggle with self-editing. They often believe that "once and done" is enough. We have usually done the traditional paper rough draft and typed final copy, with very little change between the two. I wanted to have a way to effectively track these changes and hold students accountable. 

Through Chris Nesi's (@mrnesi) House of EdTech Podcast, I found a really cool Google Chrome Extension called Draftback. It takes all of the revision history and plays it into a video so you can track edits and changes. I wrote a letter to myself to model the writing process and played the Draftback for the students. So far, I have seen the students taking their time and working to really enhance their writing, because they know that I will be checking their Draftback.

In addition to using Google Apps and Documents, our class also utilized Google Hangouts. We do this in two primary ways: Mystery Person/Place or Weekend/Snowday Hangouts. 

Mystery Person with Mr. H
Mystery Skype is all the rage, but I did not really understand what it was. After connecting with Richard Hattal (@hattals) during a Twitter chat, we decided to have our classes collaborate on Reconstruction differences in Florida and Virginia. We had a nice discussion and decided we wanted to continue our partnership. We extended this into Mystery Person, which was essentially a version of the game Guess Who played with famous Floridians and Virginians. We have done two of them, with his class winning once and mine winning once. I hope to continue this in the future. We also were lucky enough to connect with Kayla Delzer's (@mrsdelz) class to do a Mystery Place Hangout. Even though it was different than what we were used to (different format and different topic,) we were successfully able to locate her class!
Weekend Hangout

Google Hangouts continue on Snowdays and Weekends as well, which was also discussed in a previous blog post. This is an optional practice that I started this year. Students join me on weekends and snowdays to extend their learning in math or Virginia Studies. It is a good way to show them that learning doesn't stop when you leave my classroom. Students have asked if I would continue over the summer. How could I say no?!

Technology has the ability to be a force for change and empowerment of students, if used properly. This is merely a sampling of some ways technology pokes its head out in my classroom. Many students who are not great with reading or math have emerged as leaders in technology in my classroom. They may be the student who remembers how to do cut and paste better than anyone, the student who can log others onto Google Drive in a flash, or the student who recently figured out she could use Google as a spell-checker. 

Technology is changing education, whether people are ready or not. We must embrace it to best serve our students. Without purposefully integrating technology, we are doing a disservice to our students by not preparing them with skills for their future careers and not allowing them to have a rich experience of education. 

What are your thoughts on technology? How do you integrate it into your classroom?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Final HSCN: I Volunteer as Tribute

The arena set, the districts formed, the Capitol ready. 

Tributes working hard in their Districts
Sounds like the beginning of the Hunger Games, doesn't it? This was the staging for the final HSCN: The Math Hunger Games.

To bring you up to speed if you are not familiar with my HSCN, I hosted evenings three times a month where I instructed parents on math and reading. This is explored more in depth in this blog post. The final HSCN was Students vs. Parents.

In a Twitter chat, I got the idea to do a review game based on the Hunger Games. I was going to do this in class, but opted to play Survivor instead. I used the idea for the final HSCN instead. I sent out the RSVP forms and was expecting about 11 families (students and parents.)

It involved some set up. I took released items from the VDOE and pulled them into a Google Presentation. I also devised simple rules to play: Correctly answering a question earned you the right to steal "lives" from other teams. I decided to use Smarties as "lives," and gave 16 to the students and 10 to the adults. I also created challenges that aligned with the books' quotes to reveal along the way, as detailed below:
Math Star Surprise
  • “I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute”
    • President B needs one tribute from each district to participate in a round of Math Star (flash card game we play to practice math facts.) Winner will earn 5 Smarties for his/her district. You have ten seconds to decide.
  • “The Cornucopia"
    • Visit the Cornucopia and retrieve the bag for your district to use in this next round. Open it, but keep it a secret! (Prizes included a calculator, extra Smarties, a "cheat sheet," and a "peek card."
  • “The Quarter Quell. As a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest cannot overcome the Capitol...”
    • For the following round, the winning tributes must give half of their prize to President B
  • “If we burn, you burn with us”
    • One tribute from each District (cannot be same tribute from Math Star round) will face off against President B on a math problem of Mrs. Burke’s choosing. Beating President B results in a win of 10 Smarties for your District. 

Receiving the Declaration of Education
There was even a surprise in it for me! Before we got started, two of the parents interjected and said they had two surprises for me. The parents in my class had gotten together and gave me a Visa gift card. I appreciated this a lot, even though I was not expecting this at all. Their second surprise was more meaningful for me. The students had gotten together with one of the other teachers and written a Declaration of Education, detailing reasons they enjoyed my class this year. It was a very touching gift and I will treasure it for years. 

We had 22 total Tributes (12 parents and 10 students.) I livestreamed the entire game on YouTube, which you can view here. The students and parents were all extremely excited. Even better, the majority of the Tributes got all the questions right, which helps to show that the HSCN was effective. As we went along, I decided that I would have students and parents model answers on the board. I was surprised by the eagerness of some of the parents to model problems, especially ones who had said from the start that they were not "good at math." This illustrated how I had empowered students and parents alike. 

Student modeling
The game lasted for two hours and it was a memorable experience for the parents, the students, and me. One parent team became the winning district, earning one pack of Smarties per member! 

Overall, I saw the HSCN experience as a very powerful and meaningful experience for all involved. I noticed gains in the students. One student in particular went from borderline failing every subject to excelling. Her parents attended the majority of the HSCNs. She also put forth a huge amount of effort in class, so it is hard to quantify exactly the effect of HSCN. Overall however, I saw a greater degree of improvement in many of the students whose parents attended HSCN regularly.

Parent modeling
I also witnessed and heard great things from parents. Many of them mentioned how it was a great refresher for them and they felt empowered to help their students at home. Parental involvement is something I am very passionate about (to the extent where my graduate research project is being formed on this topic,) and I was thrilled to hear that I would be able to help the parents grow.

Recently, I was contacted by a teacher in a neighboring school district who had heard about my program and wished to mimic it. He asked me various questions about the process, including if it was worth it.

Showing answers
I immediately said yes. I will be the first to admit it; this experience has been no walk in the park. It takes about three hours to make a truly effective presentation, another two hours on presentation night, and then some time sending out RSVPs and other related tasks, all of which I am doing on my own time for no extra pay, recognition, or incentives. It is frustrating when I get to a night and only three parents show up. However, I frame it as I am helping those three parents, which then helps my students. I like to keep a student-first mindset and that is what keeps me going. I would highly advise you to give a whirl, whether its by yourself, with a grade-level team, or school-wide.

Have you every tried something like this? Do you need any help getting started?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Forming Family Foundations

"No school can work well for children if parents and teachers do not act in partnership on behalf of the children's best interests. Such communication, which can only be in a child's interest, is not possible without mutual trust between parent and teacher."
- Dorothy Cohen

Parents at a HSCN
The above quote really forms the basis of my thought process in teaching. Parents are the first teachers of children, and I believe they should continue to take a leadership role in their children's education. Parental involvement in the classroom is forming the basis of my graduate research project. I enjoy educating parents just as much as students, as evidenced in my prior posts about the Home-School Connection Nights (final one coming up this Tuesday) and the Battle Tour

Parental involvement is something that I am always praised on by parents, colleagues, and administration. I have my work email linked to my phone, so I can respond to emails after school hours or on weekends within minutes of receiving them. I've even called parents at 10:00 pm to respond to a concern they expressed in an email. Parents have indicated that they enjoy this and have said that they're not used to that level of communication from the child's teacher.  I challenge others to shift their paradigm and make this the norm, not the exception. It literally takes seconds to respond to an email, and the payoff is long lasting. 

The HSCN experience, and many of the things I do in my classroom involving parents, would not have been possible without strong communication between them and me. As with any relationship, the interactions between parents and the teacher needs to be built on trust. From day one, I work hard to form partnerships with each parent. I tell them about my educational background and my personal background. I want parents to see that while I am young, I am fully qualified to teach their kids and also that I am a real person. The bottom line is that I want them to know that I want what they want... the best for their kids.

Last year, I used email groups as my foundation for getting mass communication home. It was a good idea,
ClassMessenger home screen
but this year a few parents indicated that they did not have access to email. I decided to find another way to keep communication alive.

I ended up happening upon ClassMessenger. This is an incredible (and free) app provided through Scholastic. The teacher creates a class account and provides sign up details to the parents. The parents choose how they wish the be notified: email, text messages, or in-app notifications. I can send messages to the entire class or just individual parents. There is also a way to turn on parent-to-parent messaging, but I have not personally activated that. Another cool new feature is the ability to schedule messages (like you would on TweetDeck or HootSuite.) It is a two-way communication system, so parents can also send messages back to me.

I saw this app as my godsend. While some parents didn't have email, all of them had text messaging. I was able to meet them where they were. I sent out a link and a paper to have them sign up.

And I waited. And waited. Two weeks passed, and only 3 of 22 parents signed up. I was tempted to scrap the idea, but I decided to persevere. On Parent-Teacher Conference day, I set up a laptop in the hall with the sign-up website pulled up. I wouldn't begin their conference until they had signed up. By the end of the day, I was up to an enrollment of 21 parents. The final parent did their enrollment a few weeks 

ClassMessenger has revolutionized communication with the parents. They probably hear from me more often than they ever imagined. Every day (or every other,) I share some sort of update from the class. I may send a picture of what we are working on, RSVP slips for HSCN or other field trips, a reminder about an upcoming assignment, or just a link to a new YouTube video we recorded. It is very simple to send a message: I can do it from my computer, my phone, or my iPad. 

#FindMrB
One fun way I use this app is for a game I call #FindMrB. I am a history nut, and living in Virginia allows me to fuel my addiction. My girlfriend and I will often visit battlefields. As I am there and if it relates to our curriculum, I send out clues to parents through ClassMessenger about where I am. Generally, I have about 4-5 students who send guesses back to me. If they get it wrong, I explain why it was incorrect and encourage them to make a second guess. Generally, the final clue makes my location obvious. If they get it correct, they are rewarded with a picture of the location (sometimes featuring yours truly!) With the new scheduling feature, I can program all of the clues for the entire day so I do not have to worry about constantly being on my phone. I think my girlfriend liked that feature too!

Snowday Hangout
I also use ClassMessenger to coordinate Google Hangouts on snow days and weekends. In the morning of a chosen day, I will send out a message saying that I will be doing a Hangout and I need to know who wants to join. About half an hour ahead of time, I will send out the link to those who indicated an interest. It a quick and easy way to continue learning outside of the scope of the normal school day.

Another way I facilitate constant parent communication is through my classroom website. Here I have a photo slideshow of different class activities, resources, and weekly updates written by the students, One thing I especially love about my website is the File Cabinet page. I upload all important documents: homework, rubrics, permission forms, reminders, etc etc. If the students need it, it's on
The File Cabinet page
the website. It eliminates the need of me having to constantly reprint things if it's lost. The students can get it themselves in school or the parents can download it at home. Similarly, their daily agenda is posted on the website, so parents can be aware of the nightly expectations.

In the future, I would also like to use Voxer with my class. That idea is bouncing around for next year. I also plan to use ClassMessenger and a website to step up my ESY class this summer. 

Parent communication is critical to my teaching. If parents and I work together, it makes everything flow more smoothly. I feel supported and they feel supported. I advocate for you to make parental involvement a big part of your teaching. Set up a ClassMessenger account, build a website, or just pick up the phone and bring them in! I promise, it will change they way you see your classroom.

How do you incorporate parents in your classroom? What has worked best?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Powerful and Tantalizing Test Prep

"In an era of... testing frenzy, we are failing to inspire our children's curiosity, creativity, and imagination. We are denying the opportunities to tinker, discover, and explore - in short, to play." 
- Darrell Hammond 

This week I really struggled with what to my blog topic should be. I have two really cool activities coming up that I want to blog about, but those are still a few weeks away. I decided to reflect upon what is currently going on in my classroom and I determined that it is a lot of test prep.

Hold your gasps! While many other teachers have been throwing worksheet after worksheet at kids in aims of getting them ready for the Standards of Learning tests (SOLs) at the end of the year, I have chosen not to do this. I don't feel that this is the most effective way to prepare students for these tests. Yes, I do understand that seeing the format of tests are important, but I feel that taking away creative activities is a larger detriment than the gains of traditional test prep.

Do not get me wrong, I am not saying all tests and data instruments are evil. I believe it is important for the teachers to know what the students know and how effective their instruction is. However, I do not think the SOL should be the only measure. Not all students test well; we should respect and honor this. This week, and the upcoming weeks (and all year long,) we have/will be participating in a number of fun and engaging activities for review, including:

Scoot in action. Notice the yarn.
Scoot: In this game, I cut up a practice test and put one problem on each desk. I laid down yard to make a path for the students to follow. At each desk, they are given 4-5 minutes to respond to the question. They mark an answer document for me to review later. At the end of the time, I call out, "SCOOT!" and they move to the next desk. The students liked this activity, but needed some help in figuring out the rotation initially. 

BoardRush template
BoardRush: Imagine a giant tic-tac-toe board on a SmartBoard. Students work together to respond to prompts in each square. On blue squares, I wrote questions for students to answer. Orange square had fill-in-the-blank questions. The students had to write questions that would result in the word. They write their answers on Stickies and put them on the Board. I check them and "close" the square after two correct answers. The goal is to get five in a row. You can see my students playing it here!
The yellow cards are their Plickers


Plickers: This is a fantastic new app that requires only one device to use. The students each get a square that looks like a QR code, called a Plicker (paper clicker.) I project a question on the SmartBoard and the students hold up and orient their Plicker to reflect A B C or D or T/F. I scan it with my phone and get real time results. They really like this activity, and I make a big deal of students who get questions right when the rest were incorrect. 



Sidewalk Race. I can quickly see who is prepared. 
Sidewalk Race: We've only done this once, but I will be sure to repeat it! I took the students outside and put them all on one sidewalk square. I asked them a question, they wrote it on their whiteboards, and held it up. Correct answers allowed them to move up one square, while wrong answers forced them to move back one square. We had quite a few major upsets and underdogs in this game!

Move Around the Room: This game is simplicity in its finest form. I write A B C and D around the room and ask a question. Students physically move to their desired answer and it allows me to quick check their understanding. I make a point to say to go with their what they think is the right answer versus going with where their friends go.

I Have, Who Has: This game involves more set up. I took all of their history content and wrote them into questions, such as "Who has the man elected to the presidency in 1860, which resulted in southern states seceding?" Another student has a card that says "I have Abraham Lincoln," and another clue. The game continues until it gets back to start. Our current class record is 3 minutes 45 seconds for 26 clues. You can check out a video of the game here.

SWAT in action
SWAT: Set up is required for this game too. I type up a bunch of vocab words/answers to math facts and call out a clue/math problem. After I say "SWAT!" students whirl around and try to swat the correct answer with a flyswatter. Meanwhile, students in the audience are writing answers on their whiteboards to show to me. 

You will see none of these activities require the students to sit around and do lots of worksheets. They are more engaging and movement based, which helps them to create better connections in their minds and foster a sense of fun. As one final culminating activity for VA Studies, we will be playing Survivor, which will involve knowing content, teamwork, speed, and twists and turns. 

As a final note, please keep my students in your thoughts. We will be taking our tests on 5/18, 5/20, 5/27 and 5/28, and I know the students could benefit from support and encouragement from my PLN. Many of them are extremely stressed due to these tests. I have done everything in my power to limit their stress, but they know that these tests are important. I find it sad how everything stops to a grinding halt when we get into testing season. I fear it poisons students' love for learning, which is more important than a single test. I constantly tell my students that I expect them to try their best, and that will be enough for me. 

In addition to this stress, the students are not allowed to be proctored by me, because of cheating that occurred in a different school than mine last year. I am concerned that the students might not do as well without their number one fan in the room, but I have ingrained in them that I will always be there in spirit. 

Additionally, the VA DOE granted ability to have expedited retakes. This would allow students who failed the test to retake the entire test. Not just one section, but the entire 40-60 questions all over again. The entire school had to shift our entire test schedule up 10 days to accommodate for this. It angers me because I could be using those days to prepare the students more, and hopefully lessen the need for a retake. I do not think that 10 year olds should have to sit through an entire second tests. 

In conclusion, I do not think testing is inherently evil. I see the value in it and believe some testing/accountability is necessary. However, I think modern-day education has overdone this need. My students will have taken over 30 tests this year that were mandated by the county or state. This does not even include tests the grade level gives for report card grades. At some point, it becomes too much. My final thought is this:

Are we teaching kids to love learning or 
are we teaching them to become test takers?

What are your views on testing? How do you teach your students to be "bigger than the test" and instill resiliency?