Course Feedback with a Twist

Are you happy with the course feedback process in your classes? I wasn’t and set out to improve it this year.

By way of background, here are screenshots of two old feedback forms:

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 11.08.47 AM

Fall 2013, I wanted to speak the kids’ language. Yeah, that didn’t go over so well. Also, the feedback was mostly useless, too.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 11.09.34 AM

Fall 2014, I tweaked the questions but kept the same general feedback (except for the questionable slang usage).

Unsatisfied by the prior depth of feedback I grabbed a stack of sticky notes and asked each class to respond to only one question. The question answered below is “How did the homework and quiz retake policy work out for you this year?”

We shuffled the sticky notes around the room and I asked for a volunteer to start us talking by reading the comment in her hand. We talked, for example, about the problem of off days. Kids added their own thoughts to the original note. I think we discussed my one prompt and their thoughts for about 20 minutes. Every class got a different prompt.

Keeping all the kids engaged in the discussion was tough. I’d guess that about 75% of each class wanted to join the conversation. The rest played on their computers or phones, which didn’t bother me too much.

I’m definitely doing this again. One thing I’d do different is implement this at midterm so that the kids giving the feedback might benefit from it.

Why Am I So Gay?

In this wonderful TEDx talk titled “Why am I so gay?”, Thomas Lloyd presents three reasons (no, obligations) he has to be out:

In case you missed them, there were three:

1. Obligations to history.
2. The realities of his own identity.
3. Obligations to those yet to come.

The third one hit me hardest. This kid on the TED stage was telling me that I owe it to the next generation to be out so they might find their ways more easily.

The last few years, I found myself settling into a notion of the world as post-gay. Whatever, I thought, being queer is so mainstream now. I even suggested as much to my wife, Liz, at dinner tonight. I told her that kids these days aren’t interested in seeking out LGBT representation in popular media because they can find examples so easily. Her response? “No way. Look at how often one of your kids sends you a song or a video with a queer character. They’re excited to see themselves represented.” [Edit: I realize now that the number of fan-made videos on YouTube featuring LGBT couples is also a huge indicator of teen interest.]

Thomas went on to speak about the exhaustion we feel and loss that society suffers when we try to hide our identities. I agree that our creative energies should NOT go to hiding an affect that’s been ridiculed, to worrying over the sound of our voices, or to watching the pronouns we use to describe our crush.

Ever since seeing Thomas’ talk, I wondered what my creative energies were (because I never thought of myself as creative). Then it came to me: I’m choosing to put my creative energies to helping my students find media resources that reflect their identities. With that, I introduce Teen-Friendly Queer Media, a page of movies, TV shows, and books that are appropriate for the younger LGBTQA peeps.

My School Went Gmail and I’m So Happy

[I wrote this post for faculty in my department at school then figured my friends online could use the info. Definitely check out Boomerang — it just saved my butt by reminding me of an important followup I needed to make. –Meg HG]

Here are five different tools for Gmail that might make your email life a bit easier.

Want to yank back a message you regret sending? Enable Undo Send. I enabled it with the default delay of 10 s, which I found too short — I’d never realize my mistake that quickly. User-configurable cancellation period goes up to 30 s. There is no way to pull back an email once it’s delivered to an inbox.

Looking for something? That search bar at the top can also search your files under Google Drive. Enable Apps Search, also under Google Labs.

Did you like seeing unread message counts? Enable the icon, under Google Labs.

Get an email to pop up again later with Snooze. I haven’t tried this but plan to because I used to use the “Follow Up” feature in Outlook all the time to pop up later with a “hey, doofus, don’t forget this thing you said you’d do later.”

Delay sending an email so no one knows you’re up at 3am working. Or, so that folks think you’re at school at 3pm when you’re not. Install Boomerang. I’m not using this one yet but absolutely want to delay sending emails to parents for boundary-setting reasons.

Not a Gmail thing but may help if you have trouble staying focused. Stayfocusd is a browser plugin that blocks websites you choose at times you choose. I have a 30 minute timer set on weekdays that blocks after I use up my Facebook time.

What do you want to do in email?

Global Math Dept 17 March: Mathy Internet Stuff

Tonight’s Global Math topic has a totally un-catchy name but I assure you, the content promises to be excellent. We’re going to hear from Bob Lochel, Justin Aion, Mattie Baker, and Lisa Bejarano.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 4.07.12 PM

Join us at Global Math Department tonight at 9pm Eastern Daylight Time to hear “Interesting Things Found by the MTBoS”. Each presenter has about 10 minutes to share a favorite resource or technique they’ve shared or found on Twitter, their blogs, or the internet-at-large.

Never heard of Global Math Department? We offer the best professional development math teachers can attend in their pajamas. Our free meetings are held every Tuesday at 9pm Eastern (2am Wednesday GMT) and are recorded for later viewing. We also have a weekly newsletter that’s absolutely worth your time.

We’re Hiring an Upper School Math Teacher!

My school is looking to hire an upper school math teacher starting next year. We’re located in Atlanta. I can say many great things about this school but will simplify it to just one personal anecdote: Liz and I were ready to move to Cincinnati when I heard they were hiring. We postponed our plans for a year. And now maybe forever. I mean, c’mon folks, I gave up ready access to Jungle Jim’s and Dewey’s Pizza for The Westminster Schools.

Message me privately if you plan to apply so I can tell the Dean of Faculty I sent you.

The Westminster Schools announces a search for an Upper School Math Teacher beginning in the 2015-16 academic year.

Applicant must have the ability to teach any course in the high school from Geometry through Multi Variable Calculus. This includes AP Statistics, AP Calculus AB, and AP Calculus BC. Experience with classroom technology and its appropriate use in teaching, enhancing, exploring, and supporting mathematics teaching is required, including:

  • TI Nspire TI- CAS graphing calculators and Computer software to enhance the teaching and learning of algebraic & graphical concepts
  • Dynamic geometry software (Cabri Geometry or The Geometer’s Sketchpad) to enhance the teaching and learning of geometric concepts
  • Use of iPads in the classroom
  • Use of laptops in a one-to-one classroom environment

In addition to experience and a strong educational background, successful candidates demonstrate a love of working with children, an engaging teaching style, the ability to interact well with parents and colleagues, and a willingness to create and promote an inclusive learning environment. Duties may include participating in professional and curricular development and serving as an advisor to students. Candidates should be able to contribute to the larger school community through coaching or sponsoring other extracurricular programs. The Westminster Schools is committed to the principle of equal opportunity in employment. It is Westminster’s policy to provide equal employment opportunities and administer terms and conditions of employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, marital status, amnesty or status as a covered veteran in accordance with applicable federal, state and local laws.

Interested candidates, please Apply Online.

Hey, would you look at that, we don’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation (which isn’t even a protected status in this state). I didn’t realize that at the time I interviewed here.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


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.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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?