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.
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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.

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.

The Importance of Practice

and routines. Don’t forget routines.


As part of my Twitter profile, I included the phrase, “trying to be progressive”. This blogpost has been in my head for about two weeks but I hesitated to write it because it’s the absolute opposite of progressive. In fact, it’s downright traditional. Meh, it works for me, so I’m sharing.

I’ve set up a classwork routine that works in my classes to give kids in-class practice that builds their confidence on the homework I assign.

Why classwork? I wanted kids solving problems in class not watching me solve problems in class.

Design Goal

Classwork problem sets should build in difficulty, helping kids to make leaps while I’m in the room for  support.

Here are all the classwork assignments from this semester:

Maybe it’s obvious to you guys but I just figured out that classwork assignments should prepare kids for homework assignments which in turn should prepare them for quizzes & tests.

Setting a routine

I felt like routine was an important thing to implement because of feedback from last year’s students. Many expressed confusion about what was expected of them in class as well as homework felt like it came out of the blue.

My goal was to establish a routine I could live with. The framework of a classwork assignment allowed me lots of wiggle room in terms of the questions I asked — Circuit Sudoku is a great example of a creative assignment that adequately prepares kids to solve basic electric circuit problems.

Here’s my routine:

  1. Kids get assignment. We agree on a reasonable due date — often times the next class meeting.
  2. Kids often can start an assignment with no lecture. In the case of Circuit Sudoku, I let them puzzle over the first drawing and the table for about 5 minutes and asked what they needed to be able to solve the problem. From that, I presented just the information they asked for.
  3. Kids do assignment alone for 20ish minutes (out of a 70 minute period). Duration varied depending on the class and their pace — I was looking for about 50% completion by most of the class.
  4. Kids work on assignment with partner. Meanwhile, I station myself at a lab table to answer questions. My answers are usually more questions but this year, I found bugs in my classwork sets that needed some work. Sometimes, if a question was uper-popular, I’d announce to the whole class a mini-lesson in 2 minutes then walk to the front of the room and say something like “ok, so #4 is messing with your head, right?” and share the morsel they needed.
  5. Kids check answers against the answer key. For any that are incorrect, the pairs return to step 4.
  6. Some kids needed some extra time to finish, so the classwork was never made due on the same day I gave it out.

My classes meet 5 days out of 7 on a rotation. The 5 days often looked like this: 1) introduce a topic, 2) work on classwork, 3) do a lab, 4) continue lab or classwork, 5) maybe extend the topic. As you can see, one classwork per rotation was pretty typical.

Future improvement

Students rarely referred to their completed classwork when they had homework questions. I want them to do so next year. Am considering having my homework questions offer feedback such as “this problem you just got wrong is very similar to something on the classwork”.

I also want to tweak the length and difficulty of classwork assignments. Many are too long and too easy. I’ve left appropriate notes to myself to correct these for next year.

What’s your routine?

Neglect and 180 Blogging

I decided this year to write a 180 blog, which has put this blog into a state of dormancy (is that even a word?) I didn’t expect. First off, my 180 posts are longer than they probably should be, so they simply take longer to write. Also, I do most of my interesting reflection over there. Here are a few ideas I’ve been kicking around the last week:

1. Our projects should be a reflection of what we learn in class.

Pinhole project aligned somewhat with class.

Pinhole project aligned somewhat with class.

I’ve run a musical instruments project as well as a pinhole camera project this semester.

For the musical instruments, kids struggled to see how placing frets on a stringed instrument was an application of our string resonance relationship. Next year, I want to have a lab where we build a monochord (single string instrument) complete with a full octave of frets. This’d hand off to the full project very smoothly.

For pinhole cameras, I will modify to ask for them to calculate the magnification based on object distance and image distance. Then I’ll ask them to predict image height based on magnification.

Do you do projects? How do you keep them closely aligned to the rest of class?

2. Labs are fun to do but my current format is a PITA to grade.

Lab writeups take me over a week to grade. I don’t see that changing. A week is too long for a student to actually use the feedback. How can I create a self-checking lab? Ideally, once a paper is handed in, it’d already be corrected.

I’ve done a little of this — some labs have a section I have to sign off on before the kids move on. When grading, I just look for my initials. Maybe my grading solution is as simple as building similar checkpoints throughout all my labs.

One question of many on a recent lab of mine.

One question of many on a recent lab.

3. How might I better develop units-sense in my freshmen?

What I mean is “how can I get the kids to see that units matter?” If you say you need a pinhole diameter of 0.6, I have no idea how big that is because you didn’t tell me inches or millimeters (it was millimeters). My kids view units in physics like they view showing their work in math — busy work the teacher makes you do that’s just picky details, not actually useful.

I can absolutely see incorporating units into projects in a way that makes them useful. Sometimes I have to control the power tools and the kids have to specify the size of a cut. If a kid doesn’t supply units, I can purposely choose the wrong units. A board that should be 2 inches wide could be made 2 meters wide, for instance. How do you drive home the value of units?

What Happened on June 2?

nohomophobes.com tracks mentions of homophobic slurs used on Twitter in real-time. There are a ton of lessons about hate speech we could delve into, but that’s not the point of my post. No, I want to look at the statistics here.

First off, here are the stats for today:

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 3.42.12 PM

I clicked over to the All Time tab and saw the following graph. Anything stand out to you?

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 3.38.47 PM

You see that spike on the pink, “No homo” line? What the heck is that all about? Click on it and you learn it happened on June 2.

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 3.39.04 PM

What happened on June 2, 2013 to cause that huge spike in the use of “No homo” on Twitter? Thanks to a little creative Googling, my friend @park_star thinks she has the answer. You want go give it a try?

h/t Eliot, with whom I teach.