An Easier Way to Read Papers

In my last post, I proposed that technical writing should be taught in science class. Then I received 75 separate papers from students. Papers I had to read, give feedback on, and grade. I take it back! Please! Don’t make me grade all these things!

Then I turned on dictation.

I like to have Alex read me about half a page at a time. Sometimes I read along with Alex and other times I bring my grading rubric to the foreground.

Why does this work for me? I think because it fixes my #1 problem with reading: I get a page into a paper and wonder what the heck I just read (and not just because the kid’s work is that bad). Looking back, when I was a kid, my reading comprehension scores were always relatively low, which might explain things. Anyhow, maybe dictation will help you or a student. Let me know if it does?

Technical Writing is a Skill that Must Be Taught

My proposal: carve out time in your science (or math!) class for kids to write formal papers.


The physics of musical instruments project is a great opportunity for my students to try their first technical writing.

Why Write?

Students write, revise, and rewrite in English classes and I think they should do the same in science. I say this mostly as a former technical writer who mentored under a fabulous editor. I learned how to edit nearly anything I wrote down to half its length while retaining all its meaning, how to apply the inverted pyramid of journalism so I could be certain readers got the most important details, how to use the simplest words possible, and how to receive editing feedback in a positive — rather than critical — light.

How to Teach Tech Writing

Most importantly, I began to think of myself as a writer. That’s a big deal for a person who hated every writing assignment in high school.

How do I propose teaching technical writing in a science (or math!) class?

  • Devote in-class time because this is likely the first tech writing you’ve asked your kids to do.
  • Bring the librarian in to share resources and discuss proper citation style. For my 9th graders, this is their introduction to the Upper School library, so she’s invested in the effort as well. Pro tip: my librarian pulls books for a reserve cart that lives in my classroom during the project so kids have one less thing to worry about. 
  • Spend the time explicitly teaching the tech skills needed to produce a paper in the platform of your choice. Word, Google Docs, or WordPress all have their quirks. Pick one and teach it. This year, I showed them how to insert a page header with automatic page numbering, how to insert page breaks, write equations, and use the Insert Symbol command.


  • Share examples of good tech writing style. For instance, kids will be surprised to learn that passive voice, so often maligned in English class, is expected in a science lab report. 
  • Read drafts of their paper in class and offer real-time feedback. I caution kids to edit out sentences that don’t add value such as “I really learned a lot from this project.” Oh, and I challenge them to write the shortest possible paper. Too often, these kids have been told to write a minimum length that they’ve become masters at faking a longer looking paper. No one has time for that (them or me!). Shorter wins.


Last year, I demanded kids write their entire research paper (3-5 pages double spaced, so kind of short) on their own time. To be nice, I did remove demands for homework in addition to this paper for the week prior the due date.


This year, I devoted more than enough class time to write the papers in class — about 3 full class periods or around 200 minutes. The time was worth it. This year’s papers are better and based on comparing to last year, we’re not falling behind.

We have one other big writing project due this semester so I look forward to seeing how their writing evolves.

Next Steps

My rubrics (at the end of the project descriptions) are acceptable but need revision. Several papers had flaws that I couldn’t figure out how to grade because the flaws weren’t directly addressed in the rubric. The easiest solution seems to be to add “and is well-written” to the highest score for every element.

Are you writing in science (or math!) class? How do you incorporate it? Have you seen writing incorporated horribly? Tell me about it in the comments.

Quickly Record a Lesson

Short YouTube videos are a great way to share a lesson with students. I like this for days I’m going to be out but still need to explicitly instruct or demonstrate a problem solution. Sample videos recorded this way at the bottom of this post.

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Explicitly Teaching Some Tech Skills

I asked for a scaled blueprint with dimensions and got this. It’s a pinhole camera made from a oats container, in case that wasn’t obvious.

While getting ready to report for planning days (we call it Faculty Forum at my school), I ran across this Evernote note: Tech Skills to Explicitly Teach in 2014-15.

Every one of these items bugged the hell out of me last year. Then I realized no one’s ever taught them these skills and it’s appropriate to learn them in freshman year. As you read my list, what would you add? Remove? Remember, these kids are freshmen in a school with 1-to-1 laptops.

  • Taking good photos and drawing good diagrams for technical papers. Cause this Quaker Oats crap above isn’t cutting it for me.
    • Dem backgrounds distract me in photos.

      They couldn't be bothered to clear the counter off before taking the photo?

      They couldn’t be bothered to clear the counter off before taking the photo?

    • Technical drawing 101: Dimensions on diagrams, front/side/top views as necessary.
  • Correct & quick MLA formatting.
    • margins
    • double spacing
    • paper title
    • the header section (with names and class)
    • page numbers
  • Ways to share numbers.
    • tables
    • bulleted lists
    • but almost never listed out in a paragraph
  • Contextual hyperlinking.
  • Using headings.
  • Math Stuff because I’ve seen enough “sqrt” as below.
    • Inserting symbols (º, Ω).
    • Writing equations in a word processor.
    • Performing calculations in Excel.
Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 9.04.22 PM

What freshmen will type to avoid learning the equation editor or where the insert > symbol menu item is.

The list is ambitious but I believe this set of skills to be infinitely useful. We write our first research paper on the physics of musical instruments in September.

Homework: What would you add to my tech skills teaching list? Remove? Remember, these kids are freshmen in a school with 1-to-1 laptops.

A Reflection on 180+ Days of Blogging

After 164 posts spanning 178 days of regular-year school plus 11 days (and counting!) of summer school, I finally feel ready to share what I learned from the experience and why I think daily reflection should be a part of your practice, too.


I wrote a blog post every day this past school year. It was awesome. If you want to make a 180 blog, I recommend: 1) be ok with the fact that not many people will read the blog, 2) include a picture every day, 3) have a routine to remember to take said photo every day, and 4) focus on one detail from your day rather than summarizing the day.


Unless you’re a rockstar, your 180 blog will be pretty much you and your mom reading it. That’s ok! To give you a measuring stick, here are my three most popular 180 blog posts of all time:

  1. Day 105: Flappy Bird Physics 146 views all time (93 of which were referred from Frank Noschese’s blog)
  2. Day 118: A Little Knowledge 70 views all time
  3. Day 79: Circuit Sudoku 66 views all time

I don’t get a ton of readers to the 180 blog — maybe 25 views in a day is typical.

Twitter refers 10 times more readers than the next source, search engines. Connect your 180 blog to your Twitter account so they’ll auto-post. I make sure post titles are short and all start with the day number for consistency’s sake.

Efficiency & Routine

Screenshot_2014-06-30-14-26-09Use the WordPress app for your phone. I usually upload the pictures directly from my phone, save the post as a draft, then type your reflection on the computer.

Most 180 blogs feature a classroom picture every day. You should, too because pictures are more interesting than words. I had days where I forgot to take a picture so would recreate something that happened in class, take a picture of student work, or find an image online (in that order) to use. 180 blogs scream for photos.

It’s easy to forget to take photos, so I recommend you come up with a way to remember. Here are a few ideas I’ve used at various times:

  1. Get your students in on the fun by telling them about your blog. Ask them to remind you to take pictures of interesting stuff you do in class.
  2. Set an alarm for some time every day where you’re at least close to doing something interesting.
  3. Carry your phone on your person at all times so you’re prepared to take photos.
  4. Encourage students to take photos and share them with you afterwards.

By the second half of the school year, I entered every class looking for the blog photo. Sometimes, though, we just had some boring classwork going on. That’s when I felt the pressure. I can’t believe I’m about to admit this but I found that those 25 readers per day got me to up my game. Blogs that post a photo and discussion about student work are cool, so that was a fallback for those dull days.

Nice Touches

Be sure to anonymize your kids’ faces. I like Skitch because it has a pixelate tool that I can apply right on my phone. Better yet, get creative about camera angles so faces are never even in the pictures.

Good camera angle = anonymous students.

Good camera angle = anonymous students.

Link to the activities, labs, and assignments you’re describing in the post. I noticed folks would sometimes click on those files. We, your readers, prefer editable documents over PDF. Sharing docs is my small way to give back because some of my favorite lessons have been created from a picture or a few words on the 180 blogs of my friends.

So what do you do if you fall behind as I did for most of April? The way I see it, you have three options: 1) carry on as if nothing happened, picking up at the next day you think about it; b) do a catch-up post as I did; iii) say “screw it” and quit blogging all together. I hope you’ll choose one of the first two options.

What to Write About

I still don’t think something all that interesting happens every single day of my school year. So the trick is to think like a marketer: what one thing would you share from your day in a commercial about how awesome your class is? Even in a dull day, you must’ve seen or done something interesting. I enjoyed sharing organization tricks I appreciate, robotics season updates, and even a small about weather craziness.

My opinion? Don’t summarize the entire day. I think 180 blogs are most successful when they focus on one detail from the day. Also don’t be afraid to think outside the (school) box — that one detail may not happen between 8a-3p.


Many 180 bloggers cite daily reflection as their reason to post every day. In fact, my friend Justin reflects more than many mirrors. I’m impressed with his transparency and willingness to hash it out in public. I, however, am way too concerned with public appearances to make that move. Doesn’t mean I’m not reflecting — I found myself reflecting as I was writing, even if the text didn’t make it onto the blog.

Yes, there were horrible days of me trying to wing it with poorly planned materials. Instead of sharing that with the world, I opted to find one good thing in every day to share with you. This is based loosely on the inspiration I get over at the One Good Thing blog.

If this post inspires you to start a 180 blog, would you do me the favor of posting your URL as a comment here?

Getting Work Done When You Really Want to Goof Off

I struggle to get started on work, which means everything takes forever to accomplish. Here are two requirements I need for focus:

I. Get started working

by getting off Facebook/reddit/Twitter/whatever. Get yourself some personal Web Blocking Software (something that’s configurable to times, days, and sites blocked). I’ve been using StayFocusd for a number of years:

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 2.43.26 PM

StayFocusd is my extension of choice for blocking distracting websites.

Here’s how I set it up:

  • allow me 30 minutes per day Monday-Friday 7a-6p on distracting websites
  • block these sites:,,,,,,
  • I cannot change settings for the current day
  • sometimes, I’ll use the nuclear option for an hour — which blocks everything except (my textbook), (attendance system), (my moodle site)
  • make a $10 donation to the developer every time I use my full 30 minutes in a day

Get StayFocusd or similar browser extensions to stay off distracting websites whether you use Chrome, Firefox, or Safari.

II. Keep working

by managing work and rest time in a sustainable way. I don’t want to marathon for two hours then be done for the day, for instance. I like the Pomodoro Technique (25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes break) for its simplicity. Get a timer for your computer or desk.


What do you use to get focused and stay working?

Favorite Moodle Uses

Timon Piccini recently asked for some feedback on Moodle because his district’s moving to it for online course management. You can find tons of Moodle tutorials and articles online. I want to do something new: share with you my favorite uses for Moodle.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 5.15.37 PM#5 Pages Can Look Nice

Lots of former users at my school like to complain that Moodle is ugly. At left, I show you one of my nicer lab setup pages where I showed kids how to use the equipment. It was as easy to create as a blog entry. If you hear Moodle is ugly remember most folks are comparing it to commercial tools like Schoology. Those tools draw you in with a Facebook-like appearance but the tradeoff of less functionality kills it for me.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 5.21.45 PM#4 Flexible Gradebook

Will you be using the Moodle gradebook? I really like it for its flexibility. At left is a section of the student view.

Aside from the usual stuff (setting up categories with grade weights), I can choose from way more methods of calculating a score than I even know what to do with:

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 5.24.02 PM

I’m still not a huge fan of web-based gradebooks because they’re slow but Moodle’s got the best I’ve used in the genre.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 5.12.58 PM#3 Plays Well with Others

I’ve embedded Google Calendars, YouTube videos, and Dropbox files into Moodle pages. I like that Moodle doesn’t require me to play in MoodleLand with all my existing content.


Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 4.56.38 PM#2 Random Question Quizzes

Do you do Standards Based Grading? Oh right, of course you do. Reassessments are a bear to deal with, amirite? Not with Moodle Question Banks! Whenever I write a quiz or test, I pull random questions so that reassessment is as easy as allocating a second attempt on said quiz.

The screen at left shows a bank of questions for a homework assignment. I could manually pull individual questions into the assignment but no, that’s so 20th century. I head to the bottom of the window and “Add x random questions”. Bam! Homework created!

(Requires some assembly — you have to create the question banks yourself.)


 #1 Calculated Questions

I’ve written a bunch about Calculated Questions because they’re so awesome. Moodle isn’t the only game in town — ExamView has a similar feature, too. The gist of it — you write a question with variables embedded in it. Then, you define parameters for those variables. Finally, you write a function for computing the correct answer. Students receive different values in their instances of the questions. All of the sudden, one question becomes 100.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 5.35.14 PM

The downside? These questions take time to generate, even when you know what you’re doing. Add on top of that the challenge of being a newbie wading through THREE LONG SCREENS of features and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s so worth your time, though! In my opinion, this is the feature that sets Moodle apart.

My gripe? Moodle isn’t as nice as ExamView with calculated graphs or some other math-specific tools. You can totally use TeX notation when writing questions, which rocks.

In Conclusion

At this point in our edtech lives, we’ve all heard about how it’s not the tool, it’s how you use it. Sooooo true of Moodle. In its basic mode, Moodle lets you post files for kids to download, post links, and host your PowerPoint notes. So can about 100 other tools.

Where Moodle really stands out is with the question bank and quiz/test  options.

I have a few questions for anyone figuring on using Moodle so that I can tailor my responses to your needs:

  1. What other class management systems have you used?
  2. Will your kids be 1:1?
  3. What do you want a class management system to do?