Friday, November 30, 2012

A Connected Classroom

I had some requests over the past week to talk a little bit about how I use technology in my classroom.  For some background, I teach at a 1:1 iPad public high school in Knoxville, TN (L&N STEM Academy).  Every student and teacher has an iPad, every teacher additionally totes a MacBook Pro, mostly because we don't have set classrooms and thus desktops don't work well for us.  I think we have  4 computer labs besides this (not positive), most of them Mac, one PC.

The iPad is I think something of a controversy in some circles.  It has the faddish cache of being the hot new thing that will revolutionize education, which naturally just raises some hackles.  There is the closed system part of it which rubs a lot of people the wrong way philosophically.  And they are not cheap by any stretch, and so a lot of folks would argue that you could do the same things cheaper.  That is possible, and there are definitely limitations that bug me sometimes, but not as much as I once thought.  Once in a while we have to bust out the Airs to do something that requires Flash, but 99% of the time, the iPads are an enormous boon.

Let me do a quick rundown of how a typical day in one of my Chem classes might work and how we would use the technology.  Students come in and I have their daily seating assignments up on the Smartboard, so they look at that and sit (I actually teach in the lab, which is great for grouping, but terrible for other flexibility.)  I give them a brief rundown of the day just to reiterate what they already know because most mornings, I've sent them an alert on Edmodo to remind them what is up.  Their iPads ding wherever they are, they log in, see what is going on and maybe do some las minute prep if need be.

So once they are situated, I typically have them pull up the sheet for whatever activity we are doing from Edmodo (or occasionally I email it directly to them.  Here is the first thing that I love a tablet for:

  • Almost no paper use.  Since they can write on the iPad, whether with finger or stylus, I don't hand out much of anything.  There are a few paper periodic tables around so that they don't have to flip back and forth in apps when using them, but other than that, they work directly on the ipad.  I know they could type in a Chromebook or something, but there is something about writing it out that is pretty necessary for me in my class.

To do this, they can use a variety of apps, but my favorite is one called Notability, which allows them to import and to export to a ton of place, allows them a variety of paper backgrounds, and even lets them record audio if they wish as they are writing.  It's not a screencapture app (later on those), but it is invaluable.

This is going to sound like a minor thing, but the ability to change the color of your writing utensil on the fly is amazing, and makes it soooo much easier to pick things out on the page (errr....screen).

Saying that Notability allows for import/export brings me to my personal rule #1 with most apps:

  • Apps need to have Dropbox/Gdrive/Evernote integration and the ability to email products.  Since there is no real built in file management in iOS, we need some way to save things other than the photo roll (which works in a pinch, but is inelegant).  To all educational app makers out there for iOS, if you leave this off, even if I love your product, I can't really use it if we can't manage the files on the iPad, and loading them to your proprietary site is not a substitute.  These are the student's files, they need to have them. (ThreeRing is a great example of an app that I would use the heck out of, but the lack of this and upload from the iPad makes it a deal killer)
  • This of course would mean that you need to have Dropbox/Gdrive, etc on your iPad, indispensable, I can't believe when students or teachers at our school don't have it.
That;s the boring stuff though, the real heart of where the iPad (or I suppose any tablet, I can't make that call) shines is in immediate content creation.

We've used iMotion HD to make stop motion videos of processes:

(Yes, there are errors, but you get the idea)

My kids have made a lot of screencasts of stuff this year, though I hate that we have to use the free stuff that doesn't let you download it in most cases.  But good free programs are Screenchomp, ShowMe, Educreations.   I use Explain Everything because even though it is a paid app, it has the import/export that I insist on.

CamScanner is another app that is absolutely vital, especially if you have kids whiteboard (or blackboard with neon!) as it lets them actually capture their results.  It keystones it to straighten it up, brightens if needed and then you can export as jpg or pdf.  (I use it every single day, kids often)

I'd also note that just having a camera with them in the device they do everything with leads to some very cool stuff.  This is from labs just submitted yesterday.  This is in addition to all of the pics they have to take showing the process of just about everything they do.  They got the image from google earth and then annotated it with where they took their soil samples.

As I said, they take pics of just about everything they do throughout the year, and then they pull them into Pages and integrate them right in to whatever project or assignment they are doing.  This would be possible with a laptop, but more manageable without, and could definitely be done with cameras, but then there is a lot of file shuffle required.

I didn't even really get into the fact that I use Google Forms for most of my assessments and they take these on their iPads.  This is great because last year, when I was not in a 1:1 environment we had to try to pass phones around or sneak in to the computer lab.  This could be done on anything, not just a tablet of course.

These are some of the non subject specific ways we use the iPads every single day.  I tried to focus on student use and not the uses like me using the Apple TV to transmit to the screen while I roam around the room and all of that goodness.  Hopefully this gives some insight and I look forward to questions!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Good Teaching

Sometimes reading twitter can make me feel like I'm being attacked.  In reality that is foolish, though it does occasionally, happen.  I have to remember ideas from gaming, where you know that a lot of people say a lot of things to you or about you or your philosophies that they would be unlikely to say in person, or at least not in the same ways.  I once believed it was because of anonymity, but I think it is the distance thing.  If I offend someone 2k miles away that I am unlikely to encounter or work for or with, it seems to have less repercussion than if I offend someone across the hall or in another school in my own county.

Being a proponent of the "flipped classroom" model of late brings out a lot of criticism on Twitter.  There are a lot of reasons for that, and no model or philosophy of teaching should be denied criticism, we need that, and I am certainly critical of my own methods on a daily basis.

What irks me occasionally is that folks seem to get upset about the flipclass model not being anything new and that it is being presented as new, or especially that the goals are just "good teaching" and shouldn't be under the mantle of "flipped classrooms".

Someone tell me what "good teaching" is. It's one of those things that we all recognize, but is notoriously hard to quantify or put down firm rules for, which is one of the reason why modern movements of evaluating teachers tend to be so controversial I think.  I could lay out some things that I believe are good teaching like student centered, higher-order, students creating, etc.  Lots of folks would agree with many of my bullet points, but a lot wouldn't.  

Good teaching isn't a formula, a step by step process, and it doesn't look the same in every classroom, in every school, in every district.  Just because I have something that works for my classes this year doesn't mean that it will be good teaching even next year, and it definitely doesn't mean that it will be good at a different school, or a different grade level.  Yes, there are principles that can carry over, the pedagogical ideas of student centered learning being at the center, but at the same time, I believe that methods vary widely and wildly.

I see folks that claim that their own favorite vehicle is the absolute best, that they would never switch.  I'm wary of that.  I believe pretty strongly in the flip model I'm using right now, but I won't be upset if I find something new in 5 years (or tomorrow) that I think helps my kids more.  Guess what folks, there are very good, old school lecture teachers, whose kids learn a lot.  There are a lot of constructivist teachers whose students have a lot of fun and are interested, but may not "learn" a lot either.  I have seen a lot of that in my career.

Back to the flipclass hate....

Yes, there are questions to be asked. If you are in a #flipclass chat, or talk to people in the community, we ask those questions.  I haven't met anyone in the community yet who feels they have a lock on "the one way" to teach.  It works for them and their kids.  It has also inspired them all to branch out and find other ways to teach, other methods to bring the knowledge to their kids.  

Before you attempt to run it down as the latest fad though, go look at some folks who represent what is going on, observe some classes, or at least actually talk to people who do it.  

Does it threaten you personally, does it make education worse, is it hijacking your own pet hobby horse?  Listen, if you believe that it is inferior to your own model, fair enough, but does that mean it doesn't work for other kids?  A lot of us believe that there are different ways to reach different kids, but everyone seems to think you have to teach one "correct" way.  If I use modeling, does that mean that my neighbor teacher who doesn't is terrible?  Am I better because I use the flipped model?  The answer is no of course.

These are just vehicles, searching for the way that works in our situation, for our students, at our school.  If you believe that your way always works, you must have not had the experience of different environments.  I've taught for 13 years in schools of 4600 and schools of 300, public and private, affluent and not.  Some things stay the same (the base content, my love of the students) and some things don't, in fact, a lot don't.  When I went back into public ed in a low SOSE school, I had to adapt.  And I kept adapting....and guess what, I'm still adapting.  I don't think flipclass is the end goal, but as discussed in other posts, it is where I'm at now, and it is driving a renaissance of thought about my pedagogy for me and for a lot of other teachers.  That alone makes it worthwhile in my book.

Is it good teaching?  I think so, but I think more to the point, it has help me to do good teaching.  I think I've always been a decent teacher, but flipclass has spurred me on to be a better teacher, one striving to be the best, for myself personally and professionally, but more vitally, for my students.

So the next time someone throws out the term good teaching, I just want them to stop and consider their own baggage and definitions of that term, and realize that we don't all use the same suitcase to carry our teaching tools!