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? 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.

Relationships ARE Twitter Math Camp ’13

I don’t think of myself as great at reflecting or describing emotional reactions to situations, but I’m going to try because TMC ’13 is totally worth me stretching outside my comfort zone.

See these people here? There are four of the best friends I made at #TMC12 last summer.

bowman cheesemonkey julie sam

Last year, I was honored to share a car with Bowman (@bowmanimal), Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf), Julie (@jreulbach), and Sam (@samjshah), all folks I now consider dear friends. Folks I feel totally comfortable asking a favor of or brainstorming with. I’ve said to several folks this last week that Twitter Math Camp is all about the relationships I form. Sessions are great, guest speakers are awesome, and the locations have been totally wonderful. The highest points, though, have all been about the people I met.

This year, I think I made three new best friends at TMC (shhh, they don’t know about each other).
sophie Anne (@sophgermain) and I bonded over differences between public & private schooling and issues of privilege. We’ve committed to reading & discussing Privileged: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School by SR Khan.

tina Tina (@crstn85) and I bonded over feminism in the classroom, expanding the mathtwitterblogosphere (#MTBoS) humanely, as well as living room decor. I know that we’ll be collaborating on something really powerful this year because that’s just how she rolls and I want to get in on that action.

captainbadidea@approx_normal and I were already bonded like sisters but after her statistics boot camp, I have renewed my bond with her. That woman is a force of nature and an amazing teacher. We should all get to experience statistics through one of her lessons if only to appreciate the beauty of this course.

dancing zebra gif

MRW a tweep is more awesome in person than online.

I also want to shout out to Summer (@mathdiva77), Nik (@nik_d_maths), Sadie (@wahedahbug), Anna (@borschtwithanna), Adrienne (@shlagteach), Ashli (@mythagon), Chris (@absvalteaching), and Fawn (@fawnpnguyen) for being cooler in person than you are online, if that’s even possible.

Anecdote because I think it’s cute: my wife kids me about y’all, calling you my internet friends or my little friends inside the computer. I was so happy she got to meet a few of you in person. Also, thanks to @approx_normal for holding back on giving a flying tackle of a hug upon introduction.

Relationships matter. At what other conference have you found so many friendly folks? Folks who ask you to join them for lunch, who ask you to fold origami with them in the hotel lobby, and folks who roast you at a dueling piano bar. We bond tighter as a community when we spend time together off the clock.

Where else do we hug it out, indeed.

I hope that a few of you don’t mind me calling in on our friendships during the school year. Amy (@sqrt_1), Steph (@reilly1041), Leah (@elbee818) and the other math/physics teachers are definitely targets of mine for some Google Hangout planning sessions. I have this dream of writing labs with y’all.

Speaking of the physics crossover, how cool was it that Frank (@fnoschese) and Fran (@Ms_Poodry) made it to Math Camp, even if just a little while? I just want to put out there that their influence on my craft as a physics teacher can’t be understated.

One of my favorite conversations has been about how bring more people into the mathtwitterblogosphere community while maintaining the tight-knit family-like culture that makes it awesome. Tina (@crstn85), Sam (@samjshah), and Julie’s (@jreulbach) session on this topic is the start of lots of great relationship-building projects. I can’t wait to see them all happen, at least partly because these three have such an amazing track record of collaborative work.

YOU can contribute to the mathtwitterblogosphere and I hope you will.

TL;DR Megan loves all the people at #TMC13.

Sessions I Attended

Dan Goldner’s A Map of Problem-Based Class Designs. The big takeaway we were supposed to get here was that Dan’s figured out how to center a math class on Exeter-like problem solving. If you want to do similar, talk with Dan. That piece wasn’t so applicable in my classes, however. I know it wasn’t the main point of his presentation, but I really got into how we examined how six different classes are using a problem-based design. We first thought about decisions the teachers had to make to design their classes. Then we described how each case study made those decisions. I loved his case study approach and discussion that my class decisions express my values.

Julie, Sam, and Tina’s Breaking Out of Ourselves. This was probably the single most important session at TMC13. Lots of great initiatives brainstormed will start showing up throughout the school year. This is a one of the most powerfully creative group of teachers I’ve ever been around.

Elizabeth’s Math Teaching That Sticks. Not gonna lie, I attended this because I have followed Elizabeth around like a little duckling since last summer. She says meaningful things. She makes me think. I liked this session because we brainstormed rather than listened to a lecture. But then, I think just about everything at TMC worked that way. Elizabeth had us play a game to get to the brainstorming how to get ideas to stick with kids. Her version of Life on the Number Line  for our session was an excellent way to get each group talking.

Hedge’s Statistics Bootcamp (seems to have no link). I said it before, and I’ll say it again: she’s a force of nature in and out of the classroom. My takeaway here was that statistics is a course rich in interesting problems for kids to work through. Even kids who hate math. I just wish more math teachers were more comfortable with teaching the content.

Now for my Superlative Awards

  • Best Organizer for Two Years Running: Lisa (@lmhenry9) put so much time and talent into this year’s conference. She has my eternal gratitude. She assembled an amazing conference staff and pulled off the most amazing conference we’ve ever attended.
  • Most Surprising Talent: @mpershan‘s rendition of “99 Problems” at karaoke
  • Most Inspired Quote: “Students ask three types of questions: stop thinking, proximity, and start thinking. You shouldn’t answer the first two.” That is to say, kids will ask you ask you “is this right?” (don’t answer that), ask you questions because you’re nearby (don’t answer that, either), and questions to get started (clarifying the assignment for example — do it, answer it!). @davidwees
  • Coolest Item Thrown: @jensilvermath‘s blocks held together with magnets.
  • Best Vendors Ever: Desmos and Mathalicious. These guys see us not as a revenue stream but as collaborators in bringing math to the world. I like that and hope they stay just as cool forever.
  • Best Session I Wish I’d Attended: @fourkatie‘s on Assessment and the Special Education Student (good thing she’s gonna re-share it at an upcoming #globalmath meeting!)
  • Best Group Effort: The Math Forum‘s logo in origami pinwheels and birds, thanks to @mythagon‘s vision.
origami logo for the Math Forum

Origami installation at #TMC13.

Global Math Behind the Scenes

Global Math Department is heading into its fourth meeting this week (Exeter problem sets with @gwaddellnvhs. This is meant as an update to members as well as a behind the scenes tour of running a Global * Department.

The first two meetings were hosted at our free community on BigMarker. Overall, folks liked the environment but we were plagued by conference issues — mainly, folks were losing audio too frequently.

I love that BigMarker integrates a bunch of separate tools into a single community. Not only does it host our conferences, but also our recordings, and has a “wall” where we can ask questions and get feedback.

For our third meeting, we talked Algebra II big ideas on a Google+ Hangout OnAir.  Normal Hangouts are limited to 10 participants, so OnAir is the broadcasting option for larger conferences. We had no technical issues — video and audio quality were both excellent. Folks main gripe was that interaction with each other and the presenter was difficult as it’s handled through live YouTube comments.

Google+, as robust as it is technically, is harder to use and not as integrated as BigMarker. A number of participants gave me the feedback that they wanted the community of BigMarker and the stability of Google+.

Random images from Global Math meetings

Giving BigMarker a chance

With the mix of features we wanted in mind, I spoke with a representative from BigMarker who told me our audio glitches were likely because we were overcrowding the free conference room (there were 68 at @jreulbach’s foldables talk). We talked through my technical concerns and they made changes on their end that should alleviate the majority of the audio glitches.

If you listen to the recording of the Foldables meeting, the audio is flawless. Meaning that the problem wasn’t on the presenter’s end. Rather, the BigMarker server was struggling to send out 60+ feeds to the attendees. BigMarker moved us to their bigger server for our upcoming meeting. We expect to hear better audio quality.

I understand the need for stability in a new community. If folks get confused about where we’re meeting and how to use the tools, we wil lose people. It was a tough decision to return to BigMarker to see if the dropped audio is fixed. We can’t test it out unless there are a *lot* of us in the room at one time. BigMarker also can’t test this easily, so they want to work with us to improve their service.

Our community

#GlobalMath is our community. I’m just the one investing time on the back end to keep it running smoothly. We need to provide honest and thoughtful feedback at every turn.

Are you starting a community that holds live meetings?

You need to decide what you want to do at your meetings. Video conferencing? Application sharing? Slide presentations? Do you want folks on mobile phones to have easy access?

The major players in the online conferencing arena, as well as pros and cons as I see them are:

Site Pros Cons
BigMarker Free community version (test it out, good for small communities), free accounts for teachers to use with students. Members can join the community OR attend conferences anonymously.In archive, the chat remains synched with the video, providing a more integrated experience. Recordings don’t capture the video feed and don’t play on iOS. We have a history of glitchy audio (though the recordings are crystal clear) which BigMarker is committed to fixing.
Google+ OnAir Hangouts Tech is rock-solid. Archives are Youtube videos, thus are mobile and iOS friendly. Free.It’s easy to have multiple presenters at one meeting. The person speaking takes over the main portion of the video screen, which people said they liked.Integrated with Google Docs, so we can collaborate on a doc live. It’s a patchwork of several technologies (Google+, YouTube, and something else if you want a backchannel) so can be difficult for attendees to figure out.Some of our teachers didn’t like that their YouTube conference comments were public and under the name on their Google accounts. They prefer a degree of anonymity online. Also, the comments are not synched with the video so become relatively useless. Finally, YouTube blocks posting links in comments — a huge part of our meetings.
Elluminate Robust technology. Industry leader. Many have used it elsewhere, so it’s familiar.Throttles the quality of the video/audio feed so that if your internet connection is slow, you will get a lower quality but you’ll still get the feed.  Relatively expensive. I ruled this out because I don’t want my members on the hook for a bill each month.

In all cases, the conference consists of a slide window, an audio feed, and (optionally) a video feed. You can broadcast anything on your computer’s desktop, too. (to learn about other players in the online conferencing market, check out this list).

Global * Departments

  1. First on the scene was the Global Physics Department. They’ve been running since early 2011.
  2. Global Math Department began in August 2012.

Do you have a Global * Department? Drop me your name and link in the comments and I’ll add you to this list.

First Day Scavenger Hunt

The kids loved this one!

A scavenger hunt around the classroom for kids to locate important features (fire extinguisher and pencil sharpener, for example) AND catch a glimpse of what we might study in physics.

To create the hunt, I (well, actually @physicsbjork) started by listing the important features in the classroom. Stuff that’s nice to know as well as safety stuff.

Next, I (ok, so @physicsbjork did this part, too — but I tweaked it!) found a link to go with each room feature. BONUS POINTS for you if you come up with a metaphor to link the two. For instance, my students decided that my video with a reverse bungee-jumping & parachuting guy was linked to the student supply center because your school supplies are necessary equipment for class just as the parachute was to the guy in the video. I wasn’t that clever but maybe you will be. Then I ran the links from above through, a link shortener that auto-generates QR codes.

Combine the two and distribute the QR code printouts around your room. The eyewash station for instance looked like this:

So much better than reading the syllabus.

ExamView on OS X Lion

Thank you, Julie for getting me running with ExamView on Mac OS X Lion! The short of it: snag ExamView version 7.51 and install on your Lion machine.

I’m returning to Mac mountain after many years in Windows world and Linux land (remember OS 8?). Relearning things as simple as keyboard shortcuts (CTRL+SHIFT+Q nearly gave me a heart attack in ActivInspire) and a backwards mouse (yeah, I understand gestures and still think it’s backwards) are definitely interesting experiences.

3 Acts: Walls of Jericho

See: Radiolab’s Walls of Jericho podcast from October 2010.

Act 1: [mp3 | 8M] The hosts lay out the story of Jericho, where an Israelite army brought the walls down, supposedly by shofar (a ram’s horn) blasts. Along the way, we learn about the logarithmic decibel scale. In the final seconds of this clip, we get to the question that all my students were already asking: what would it really take?*

Act 2: [mp3 | 8M] Wherein David Lubman, the acoustical scientist consulted by the hosts, reveals how many shofar blowers it would take to bring down the walls.

Act 3: Continue playing the Act 2 file to explore issues of how to focus the sound and the physics of sound cannons.

*At this point, my kids set to the calculations. They wanted to know if there was a faster way. It was a beautiful experience where the kids asked me to take them from brute-force-arithmetic to honest-to-goddess upper level math. Then I hit play on Act 2. In the words of the experts in this podcast, “there’s a problem.” Just as my class noticed (and demanded we contact the Radiolab folks), another teacher noted a problem in Act 2′s big reveal:

Steven from Palo Alto

There appears to be an inconsistency with the explanation of the mathematics that leads to the total number of shofar players needed to me the 177dB target. If every time the number of shofar players is doubled, the dB level increases by three, then the number of shofar players would have to be doubled 29 times between 95 dB (the sound level of one shofar player) and 177dB. 2^29 shofar players is more than 1000x larger than the 407,380 figure that David Lubman gives. I am not trying to be critical, but I was hoping to use this story as an example of exponential growth for a class that I teach, and this is where my demonstration derails in relation to the podcast. Did anyone look as closely at this part of the story as I did?

Oct. 10 2010 07:50 PM
I have no idea how to reconcile this problem. Maybe there’s value in getting indignant that your answer is “wrong” — my students drafted a response to the Radiolab folks right there on the spot.

Georgia Performance Standards
(you would not believe how many people read my posts after searching a state standard — leave a comment if you’re one of them)
SP4d. Students will analyze the properties and applications of waves. Demonstrate the transfer of energy through different mediums by mechanical waves.
Mathematics II
MM2A2d and MM2A2e. Students will explore exponential functions. d. Solve simple exponential equations and inequalities analytically, graphically, and by using appropriate technology. e. Understand and use basic exponential functions as models of real phenomena.
Mathematics III
MM3A2. Students will explore logarithmic functions as inverses of exponential functions.