Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tech tools update

I looked at my calendar this morning, and found that it was the 23rd of July.  The start of school is right around the corner.  I haven't read a teacher tech blog in weeks, and those are normally among the highlights of the internet for me.  So I looked at some of my RSS feeds, and a lot of really intelligent people are doing a lot of really cool things.

Via iLearnTechnology, we have Automatoon, an online animator that uses HTML5, not Flash, as its basis.  This is important because Flash works badly on Macintosh computers, and not at all on iDevices.  (There are also some philosophical reasons for HTML5 over Flash, but I only barely understand them, and wouldn't deign to try to explain them.)  It's easy to use, and unlike other online animation features I've demonstrated here before (notably Go! Animate), with Automatoon it's relatively easy to start an animation from scratch, right down to the component pieces.  It requires a little more freehand computer drawing skill than I have, but I imagine most of my students are better at it than me.  This is a welcome addition to the world of visual learning tools and student-production-other-than-5-paragraph-papers tools.

Free Tech 4 Teachers points us in the direction of a QR code reader treasure hunt generator.  QR codes are those square bar code things that you see everywhere from magazine ads about perfume to, er, other magazine ads about perfume.  The idea behind a QR code, I guess, is that it's supposed to allow people with mobile camera devices to take a picture of the box and get a lot more information about whatever the code is attached to.  I saw them the other day on the tags in house plants in Lowe's.  Taking a picture of the code would take you to a website or something that gave you information on care and feeding of the plant, something that used to be printed on the tag.  I guess they had to get rid of that information to make room for the  QR code.  I don't really get QR codes; I don't know what they're really good for.  I feel like they're an answer looking for a question. 

That makes them a perfect fit for the QR code treasure hunt generator: students have to go looking for the questions.   *rimshot*  The idea is that students take their device, equipped with an appropriate QR code reader app (and the site provides some suggestions on where to find them), and go searching the school for QR codes.  They take a pic of the code with their device, the reader app reads it, and gives them a quiz-type question.  Students punch in the answer, and they're off to find the next question.  Setup seems easy enough: the teacher types the questions and answers (or copies and pastes them off of a text document) into the program provided, the program gives QR codes for each question, the teacher prints them off and hides them around the school.  S/he gives the students X minutes; the ones who come back with the most correct answers wins.

Again, this feels like an "almost there" technology.  I haven't fiddled with it yet, so maybe I'm missing something.  What I'd like to be able to do with this is an Amazing Race-type event: The answer to the question is the location of the next question.  Maybe it will work for that; I don't know.  I intend to give it a try, but I'm not certain I get the advantage over doing exactly the same thing, but having students take pictures of themselves at the appropriate locations.  If it's an excuse to turn short-answer quizzes into kinesthetic learning activities, I guess that's fine.  It feels like it could be more so, though.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Preview of coming attractions

So I never got around to posting my summer to-do list; I was too busy doing it.  That's probably okay.   I've got a lot on my mind, though, and I've got either ideas or drafts for the following ideas which I intend to write about:

The role of unions in education; possibly an ancillary on organized labor in general (hint: I'm broadly in favor)
Effective teacher and administrator evaluation
Effective student evaluation
The role of journals in my English classroom
Creating community in the opening days of school
Common Core standards and their implementation
Communicative learning in the mixed-level classroom
Technology integration and educational computer programs you'd like to see
Project-based learning

What's on your mind as we pass the half-way point of Summer 2011?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


This is the sort of thing that makes me just love the Internet.

I dare you to watch this and not smile. It's got EVERYTHING that makes a youtube video great--a baby monkey AND an iPhone.

Edited to add: Credit where credit's due:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Some sort of reform position from the union

According to the New York Times, the National Education Association has an official policy on student evaluation outcomes in teacher evaluations: Use them, but only if they're good tests.  The article does a good job of sampling the union's position and laying out some of the big picture of what this means.  (Full disclosure: I am a proud member of a local affiliate of the NEA.  While I'm not a union shill, the casual observer would be forgiven for thinking I was.)  From my perspective, the union's new policy feels like sense, and it resonates with my thinking on the matter. 

We need data to drive effective instruction.  We need good data about educational outcomes for students, and we need good data for educational outcomes for teachers.  (Someday we'll get to have the conversation about data for educational outcomes for administrators and school boards.  But in the meantime, teachers are the proxy for all those levels of the education machine.  And that's to put entirely aside the effects of poverty, parent responsibility, and all the other smoke screens we teachers like to release when people try to look at us too hard.)  This need for data means that we're going to have to include student testing in decision-making at some level; if data-driven decision making is going to be used to improve education, we need good data.

There are two key phrases: the more immediate concern is "good data."  Neither I nor any of my colleagues I've talked to about this (a pitifully small sample size; even if you count my former colleagues at my last posting, the total number of professional educators I've worked with adds up to less than 50, and the ones I've talked to add up to less than 15) trust any of the current assessments.  The disconnect between the assessments and educational reality is simply too great, for a lot of reasons, and it isn't necessarily because the ACT is "too hard."  It's not.  The reality is that assessments sample such a small number of learning goals, and do so in such a cursory manner, that drawing meaningful conclusions is tough.  Equally importantly, the current assessments are not really designed to evaluate the skill of instruction.  The good standardized tests assess really big ideas--critical thinking, drawing conclusions from data, things like that.  But they don't do it in a way that means a great deal.  Colleges have been de-emphasizing their focus on standardized test scores as an admission requirement, even as everybody else ramps it up.  The union's director of teacher quality makes a valid point: the Common Core curriculum might be a starting place for getting better standardized tests.

The second, long-term consideration about data is longer-term political.  I said, "if we're going to use data to improve education".  That wasn't a rhetorical flourish.  As trained professionals, many of us see the value in data (even if we lack the know-how, the resources, or the time to do anything about it).  But I for one don't trust the motivations of many of the people pushing "testing testing testing" as the new standard for teacher (and by extension public education) efficacy.  Many of them have a track record of being distinctly anti-public-education.  These are all the usual boogeymen for this blog: the Mackinac Foundation, private charter school management companies, people who think that a lack of officially-sanctioned prayer in school is de facto a reason to be against public education.  For many of these organizations (cue the "straw man" arguments, and I see your point), data-driven instruction may simply be another weapon to attack public education with.

Conversely, critics of the NEA (and, in this particular instance, I don't count myself among them) could argue a similar thing: In name, the union has accepted testing as part of teacher evaluations, while in practice rejecting any existing tests.  It will be at least a decade before the kind of tests the union wants are available, by which time this argument will likely be moot.  Good practice will show that high-stakes testing doesn't produce notably better education outcomes, and opponents of public education will move on to some other angle of attack.

So what's to be done?  Well, I can't do a whole lot about public policy right now.  Thanks to a recent vote in the Michigan Senate, my local union has less power than ever to do anything about teacher evaluations.  What I can do is this: use the (pretty crappy) data we have to make decisions about what's good for my students.  Make sure my learning goals are crystal clear in my head, and make sure my formative assessments are as good as they can possibly be.  Get the data that I need myself.  Make sure my class is so hard, when someone throws a standardized test at my students, they don't think twice about knocking it out of the park.  Make sure my support structures are so strong, that all of them get it.  Ray, I think you have the right idea:  What do you want students to know?  How are you going to help them learn it?  How are you going to know if they got it?  What are you going to do about it?  The key questions are the only ones that matter.

(Edited to fix spelling error in the title.  Thanks, Jamie.  Who's the English teacher around here again?)