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.

TL;DR

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.

Statistics

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.

Reflection

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: facebook.com, feedly.com, instagram.com, netflix.com, reddit.com, tumblr.com, twitter.com
  • I cannot change settings for the current day
  • sometimes, I’ll use the nuclear option for an hour — which blocks everything except mcgraw-hill.com (my textbook), seniormbp.com (attendance system), westminster.net (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?

Open-Internet Quizzes

All my quizzes are open-internet* AND students may reattempt quizzes if they think they can do better. Yesterday, I was cruising around the room and saw this on a kid’s screen:

IMG_20140320_105633

Searching for “how do i find the angle of the equilibrium force”.

I figure one of two things is happening here:

  • kid has zero idea how to find the problem and is searching for a howto online
  • kid wants to confirm that what she’s doing is correct

My gut says it’s the first scenario. As I kept moving around through all my classes, I also spotted kids copy/pasting the whole question, hoping it was published online (gotta admit to doing that myself). One kid was really pissed to learn the result he used to answer his question was incorrect. In his words, “Google lied to me!”

This Googling led me to wonder what my kids search for on open-internet quizzes:

myavatar mgolding
Would love to have a list of what all my kids google for during my open-internet quizzes. http://t.co/TREirQUamS
3/20/14 10:58 AM

Oh, it’s on. I have a few different plans here:

  • classifying the kids’ queries because I’m curious
  • helping them search better
  • planting Easter Eggs on Yahoo Answers (yeah, I just want to mess with them a little)

The first step is to intercept the exact queries. John Burk pointed me toward the idea of a Google Form that hands off to a Google search query. I’d collect the data in the form and the kids’ searches would be automatically run. The key lays in convincing kids that me seeing their queries will in no way harm their score nor will I change my practice because of something I see. They need to believe me to use the form.

The second step is to learn if the query led to a result they used to answer the question.

More on this story as it develops.

*my quizzes are taken on Moodle, so the kids’ computers are online for the quiz. Also, we’re a 1-1 laptop school.

Virtual School on a Snow Day

Should my school, which is a 1-to-1 laptop school with over 90% of the students on high speed internet connections at home, consider calling a virtual school day when the weather keeps us home? (Note: my school isn’t actually considering it, I’m just wondering aloud here.)

I say yes but it needs to be formalized and supported with the right tools.

Fact: snow day work is a thing

Expectation to check class websites.

Expectation to check class websites.

If schools with the technology infrastructure and access among students assign snow day work, isn’t school effectively in session? And if we’re in session, why not count it as a day of school? My school does the former (work) but not the latter (call it school). Here’s the email my school sent out Tuesday announcing our snow day for Wednesday:

The expectation from my employer is that if a class was scheduled for a snow day, then the teachers will send out that work online. Yeah, I get that not all the kids will do the work, not all the teachers were planning independent work, and you can’t exactly hold a lecture or discussion online. (I don’t buy all these arguments, they’re just the ones the teachers will throw out there.)

Snow day work.

Snow day work.

I argue you can do anything online that you would’ve done in class — if you have the right tools available and the will to make it so. My assignment yesterday looked like this.

I’ll grant you that the online assignments aren’t as high fidelity as the in person work and some kids will lose power or internet.

Fact: makeup days are poorly attended

Here in Atlanta, we’ve already missed six days due to weather this semester. As the school looks toward the best ways to make up this missed class time, the natural inclination is to either tack days on after Memorial Day, our usual end to the school year OR to convert school holidays to school days.

My school’s already done the latter — this coming Monday, Presidents’ Day — has been converted from teacher workday to school day. Because of the last-minute nature of conversions, many students already had trips planned and will be granted an excused absence. All else being equal, do you think the number of kids who can’t access your online content during a snow day exceeds the number of your kids who can’t be at a makeup day?

We’re not terribly inclined to do the former, tacking days on at the end of the year. Mostly because it’s too late — that’s after AP exams, so does the AP student zero good.

My sources on poor attendance rates on makeup days? Charlotte schools know attendance will be low on makeup days and the same is true in Indianapolis.

Fact: electronic make up days are a (new) thing

This article from Huffington Post is my favorite discussing the trend of electronic snow days: Virtual Snow Days? Schools Experiment With Online Lessons During Bad Weather. My school has the infrastructure in place for electronic snow days. Not everyone is so fortunate, so this isn’t a solution for schools everywhere. Maybe, just maybe, it could be a solution here and now at my school.

Fact: online teaching tools exist

I see two tough obstacles to writing a snow day lesson: 1) it’s inevitably last minute work and 2) online learning is different from face to face learning.

My own lesson yesterday on reading python code consists of a hastily thrown-together video I posted to YouTube and a series of questions that roughly paralleled my plans for the face-to-face class.

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Here is the toolset I’d want to hold a real school day online:

  • A way to hold live classes: Google+ Hangouts, a BigMarker class community or some other videoconferencing tool.
  • A way to write on the computer: math and science teachers especially need to write by hand to teach, so I recommend a tablet, Doceri, and a stylus. Barring that, I’d want a whiteboard and markers at home.

And the institutional support I need to make it happen:

  • Parental education & support: Are we really gonna do this? Let the parents know that even though it’s a snow day we’re still holding school.
  • A schedule: Will classes hold live sessions at their normal times? I’d love a two hour delay on all classes on snow days so kids can sleep in and/or play in the snow.
  • Students have necessary software and accounts: Our computers are managed by IT,  so we installed all the software and tested it in class before the weather got awful.

My concern is that most teachers won’t be comfortable using these tools yet I need most teachers onboard before we could call it an electronic make up day, so how do I get them there? I’m prepared to teach my colleagues an easy web conferencing tool like BigMarker, encourage them to take home a whiteboard and markers, and hold class as usual in a live meeting over the web.