DYNAMIC RESPONSE VS. LESSON PLANNING
“We plan now so we can improvise later.”
Tuesday had been a decent day with the students in my Computer Science class. After having taken a few days to work through the concept of a flat-file database, and writing a small AddressBook.py program that would manage their contacts, I’d taken Tuesday to introduce the concept of a relational database. The transition from “rows and columns” in a text file to “records and fields” in a database was easy enough, and after a quick look at a typical page on Reddit–essentially a large discussion board where people can write a follow threaded messages–we’d designed our own tables that would do the same thing. We were all set for Thursday when students would actually start writing a Python program to implement the idea.
We were poised to work on this activity, just as my students had done for the last couple of years… but late Wednesday evening, as I anticipated the next day’s teaching, I decided to change it.
It was one of those realizations that comes later, only after you’ve planned something and maybe even tried it out a few times, a realization that reveals in shocking and funny ways how hard it can be to anticipate everything. I realized that one potential stumbling block for students in the past couple of years had been the fact that using databases requires the introduction of a new language–Structured Query Language, or SQL–which I probably (certainly) hadn’t prepared them for. In the rush to get them working on the Python code, I’d glossed over some of the key concepts that they’d need to understand if this assignment was going to be useful in building their understanding.
This was partly by design. At the end of the school year, there was little time to devote to a large unit like this, so I’d opted to try to squeeze it all into a week, and the students were faring about as well as you’d expect they would: they were getting confused and frustrated by trying to do too much too quickly.
So Wednesday night, from 11pm to 12am, I sat down and bashed out a new discussion/demonstration for the next day. It would be laptops-closed for twenty minutes or so as we developed GradeKeeper, a database that I could use to track their scores on assignments. We would develop the tables in class–studentTable, assignmentTable, scoreTable–emphasizing the concept of primary keys and foreign keys–and then I would show them a working model of the database in class. I “quickly” jotted down the development process that I wanted to take them through in class, and threw together (in SQLite) the database itself that I would show them, with 3 sample students, 6 assignments, and 18 recorded scores.
It was an hour later before I finally crawled into bed, but that new lesson, presented the next morning, turned out to be just the “Ohhhhh… I get it!” step that had been missing in my students’ understanding in previous years.They still weren’t ready to run out and develop the DicussionBoard program completely on their own just yet, but they had a much better idea of the method behind the madness when their programs executed an otherwise arcane-looking SQL query.
Now you probably don’t teach Computer Science and those five or six paragraphs above may be a bit arcaane themselves, but the point is this: planning what we do in the classroom is, for me, a vital step in improving my effectiveness as a teacher. Without planning I can certainly walk into the classroom and speak extemporaneously, and if I’m lucky and the material isn’t too technical, my brighter kids will be able to pick up most of what I’m talking about.
But to be most effective, we need to carefully consider the logical steps that will help our students build their understanding of a topic. That kind of careful consideration comes with planning, and (in the example above) comes with reflecting on plans that have been delivered in the past.
Lesson planning is a good first step, but it needs to be followed by reflection on the effectiveness of the lesson as well, and with a willingness to improvise as required. Lesson planning doesn’t mean that we are required to strictly adhere to those plans, lock-step and with no awareness or consideration of how students are responding to the experience.
But it’s a good first step to delivering great instruction, and will provide a jumping off point for furter development and exploration of your teaching strategies.
Whether it’s notes on paper, a text file on the computer, or a PowerPoint presentation, planning instruction will make you a better teacher.
Responsive Design in the Hybrid Classroom
by Richard White
What is Responsive Design?
There’s a recent development in website design called “responsive design,” which refers to the design of a site so that it can easily be viewed on just about any device, from a giant monitor to a laptop, and on down to a tablet (iPad or otherwise) and a smartphone (iPhone or otherwise).
Early strategies for developing for these different types of devices consisted of designing two or more completely different versions of a website, with development and maintenance costs doubled or tripled as a result. More recently, a more reasonable approach has arrived: create a single site, but use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to customize display formatting depending on the device. So the site design “responds” to the device it’s being viewed on, and adjusts itself accordingly. Responsive design in web development is still a bit more complicated than it was in the good old days when all anyone used was 800×600 pixel monitors, but the payoff is this: people who visit a site using a mobile device–and these devices account for an increasing share of a site’s traffic–are going to have a much better experience.
But you’re not a web designer. Why are we talking about responsive design?
Just as mobile phones and tablets have caused designers to re-think their coding practices, it’s clear that changes in our students and the ways they learn is an opportunity to reconsider how we design our courses.
This is on my mind a lot as I tackle the development and organization of a course that I haven’t taught before, AP Computer Science. The teacher of any course is typically responsible for creating at least some of the content delivered in a course, or at the very least curating content and designing instruction and assessment strategies around that content.
A small sampling of some issues we consider when assembling a course:
What content will be delivered?
Is content available in a textbook?
Do I need to create my own content?
How will content be delivered?
What activities support learning?
How is feedback given?
During in-class discussions
Written feedback on assignments
How is learning assessed?
If you’re an experienced teacher than you almost certainly have already attempted to use most or all of these at one point or another in your teaching, and you’ve probably got your go-to list of favorite strategies that you use. But it never hurts to reflect a little on our practice, and re-examine what we do, particularly when a new course, or a new grade being taught, or even the arrival of a new academic year gives us a bit of breathing room.
From my own experiences in the last year, here are two quick examples of how I’ve reconsidered my teaching.
In both my Computer Science course and my AP Physics course I’ve become more committed than ever to making complete solutions of problem sets available to students online. It’s true that there will be some students who take advantage of this to copy work, but it’s my belief that there are a greater number of students who use the solutions as intended, i.e. as a resource to assist when stuck on a problem. Online solutions provide students with the support they need to make progress when I’m not immediately available, and I’m not comfortable with the idea of withholding those tools from some students based on a fear that some others will misuse the tool.
A second example from the Computer Science course is an assignment format inspired by a handout from a Michigan State University course (CSE 231) that I happened to stumble onto at some point. I’d been struggling to find a way to clearly state my expectations on assignments, as well as provide sufficient structure for the assignment so that students would better understand the solution strategies available to them.
On the one hand, I hadn’t wanted to give away too much information in the assignment sheets I handed out to students. On the other hand, I didn’t want things to be so vague that they had absolutely no idea of where to begin. The format of the CSE 231 assignment handout was shocking in it’s clarity, and inspired this new version of my project handouts. It features:
an Overview of the assignments, with a clear indication of the point value and due date
a Background section including general information about the context of the assignment
Program Specifications with a more specific detail of what must be included in the final program
a Deliverables description, with information on how and where the assignment is to be turned in
Assignment Notes that offer hints or specific strategies that students can use to better understand what they should be doing
a Getting Started section that describes some of the basic steps that students can use to begin their project
a section entitled “Questions for you to consider (Not Hand In),” which gives students a few questions to consider if they’d like to extend their thinking regarding this project
a Sample Interactions section which shows actual output from a working version of the program, so that they have a better idea of at least one version of a solution to the problem posed
There are seven projects I assign over the course of the semester that get one of these sheets, and it has greatly improved my students ability to complete assignments. Students who need more support find that the sheet gives them solid start-up strategies, while students who want to explore some of the more creative aspects of an assignment are sooner able to get to the point where they can do that.
Before I began distributing these Project Descriptions, I had it in my head that giving students a “Sample Output” listing would somehow be “giving it away.” The reality turned out to be that without a clear indication of my expectations, students didn’t find the project “intriguing” or even “challenging.” It was just “confusing and frustrating.”
It’s clear that we all need to revisit our practice from time to time. Conversations with other departments, investigating new technologies, and working with new teachers or even student teachers can all provide insights into what we do, and can provide a jumping off point for conversation that openly consider changing what we do as circumstances warrant.
By incorporating a Responsive Design attitude towards our own teaching–adapting what we do according to new contexts–we become more dynamic and more effective teachers.
Doug Johnson, as always, has words of wisdom over at Blue Skunk Blog, where he regularly weighs in with wisdom and insight on the very same topics that I find so interesting: the intersection of technology, teaching, and learning.
His January 29 entry is entitled “MOOCs—need K-12 pay attention?”, and if it has taken me two months to weigh in on the topic for myself, well… it’s an important question that’s worthy of some reflection.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been discussed here before. Massive Open Online Courses are the Internet-enabled version of what we used to call a distance-learning course, although the new and improved version often includes enhancements like asynchronous discussion boards and wikis, video presentations from world-class instructors, perhaps some interactive online experience, and (if they’re doing it right), some form of periodic assessment, as well as a final assessment. If you get through the course you at least get a PDF certificate and a congratulatory email, and if you’ve paid some money, you may get some course credit that can presumably be applied toward a degree or certification program somewhere. Or, maybe you’ve dropped out of the course somewhere along the way, in which case you’ll be in very, very good company. Some ridiculous percentage of people who enroll in this courses don’t end up completing them.
(I myself have a 33% completion rate based on the three courses I’ve enrolled in, only one of which I managed to find time to complete… and even that was touch and go for a bit.)
The development of MOOCs such as Udacity, Coursera, and MIT’s Open Courseware (now looking a little dated) are an important development in the evolution of education, any way you look at it. Getting back to the Blue Skunk blog, the question Johnson raises is, “As K-12 teachers, what does it mean to us?”
I won’t repeat his thinking on the topic—head on over to his post to check it out—but my own thoughts on the matter parallel his in some ways. Certainly there are some students in the 9-12 grade range who might be in a position to benefit from online learning. For many students in this age range, though, and certainly for students at a younger level, a good deal of learning is bound together with the relationship that one develops with a teacher.
Most of us have favorite teachers that we remember from our youth, or even from college, and we found ourselves influenced by them in important ways, as a parent, youth group leader, or religious leader might influence us. As adults now, and as teachers, aren’t the parents of our students, of course, but we are very much, emotionally and legally, in loco parentis for our students during the school day, so the fact that we develop important relationships with our students isn’t a surprise.
There are rare exceptions, of course—self-learners who teach themselves from a book, or who academically bootstrap themselves—and more power to them. The MOOCs may become an important tool for them.
Learning can scale very nicely on the Internet. Given a MOOC, and Wikipedia, a little curiousity and the right starting conditions, the self-starting learner can accomplish wonders. But teaching does NOT scale. Teaching—where I sit down with a student, learn a little about who he or she is, give them a little academic shove in the right direction, and help them figure out the answers to their questions along the way—that’s a one-to-one process. Even in a classroom of 10 kids, or 15 kids, or 23 kids, or—God help you—40+ kids—teaching is about developing a relationship with your kids so that you can help them move in the right direction.
That’s one thing that the Internet can’t do, and will never be able to do.
For the educator who loves working with kids, that’s the good news. The bad news is that you’re still going to have to sit down with your students’ homework and take a look at how they’re progressing, a process which (for me and most of the teachers I know) quickly becomes tedious. Even scantron assessments, ideally, require interpretation and discussion.
And even computer programs written by my students require sitting down, late at night, with tired eyes, and making a few comments on their individual work.
I’ve been wanting to write for a long time about the challenges that technology users face in some schools, in some rooms, in some educational cultures. It’s something that we all face on occasion, from a colleague who “doesn’t really do technology” to a school leader with an uninformed knee-jerk reaction to social networking, from infrastructure that is unable to support the increased hardware and bandwidth demands of a classroom to pure, simple, reluctance to change… being on the leading edge of technology-based education reform—and worse, being on the bleeding edge—is not for the meek.
You can insert your favorite Don Quixote quote here if you like.
A little bit of a wildcat mentality may come in handy if you’re more gung-ho than your colleagues, administration, or school is currently willing to support… and dare I say it, a little bit of cash. When LCD projectors first dropped to the barely-sub-$1000 price range a few years ago, both I and a colleague of mine each bought one. It’s not that we had loads of cash lying around; it’s just that we were *that* committed to trying to transform the way we were doing things in the classroom.
If your school can’t buy you a computer that meets your needs, try to beg, borrow, or buy one that will.
If a decent backup strategy for your computer isn’t currently available to you, buy a service, or get an external hard drive, or learn how to roll your own backup strategy on a friend’s server.
If your kids don’t have “clicker”-style Classroom Response Systems, get a set of whiteboards and dry erase markers that they can use to record their responses for display to the instructor.
If your school blocks YouTube, use a video downloader plug-in like Flash Video Downloader to pull down the video locally onto your computer and show them from there.
The point is obviously that there are almost always options. We just need to be creative.
Will Richardson tells the story in one of his blog postings about the time he was giving a presentation at a school, and there was one teacher who kept road-blocking efforts to move forward technologically. “Yes, but that won’t work because…,” and then, “I tried to do that, but…” Finally tired of the negativity, Will stumbled upon a response that both acknowledged the man’s concerns and placed the responsibility for addressing those concerns squarely on his shoulders: “Yup, you’ve got some challenges there. So what are you going to do about that?”
“What are you going to do about that?”
It’s a jungle out here, and we’re all looking for ways to survive. It’s okay. We signed up for this. We can deal with it.
I stumbled upon this post a couple of days ago, which is a nice reminder of how we sometimes need to do things a little differently. It comes from the Business section of Wired Online, but I think it’s got a lot of relevance for educators as well.
Spend any time on survival or disaster blogs—for the record, I don’t—and you’ll stumble upon the PACE acronym, which describes strategies or plans that you might develop for particularly mission-critical plans.
“PACE” stands for your
* Primary Plan
* Alternate Plan (to be implemented when the Primary fails)
* Contingency Plan (to be implemented if Alternate Plan fails)
* Emergency Plan (for serious uh-oh situations)
I used to work at a school that asked teachers to submit an “Emergency Lesson” plan that presumably could be taught by a substitute teacher called in at the last minute to replace you, in the event that one had an unplanned absence. That’s the right idea, and probably sufficient for the purpose.
Let’s look a a technology example though, familiar to anyone who’s ever had to teach in a room with a flaky Internet connection. You’ve a visiting teacher at a school and you’ve got that perfect YouTube video inserted in a presentation, and it’s go time. You head to the site, and… nothing. YouTube has been blocked at the school.
Not to worry. You’re ready, with multiple strategies for showing that video.
1. Primary Plan – Visit YouTube to show video
2. Alternate Plan – Show local copy of video that you downloaded using KeepVid.com
But that file appears to be corrupted… or maybe you can’t find it, or… well, no matter. You go to
3. Contingency Plan – Use a VNC client to connect to your home computer…
… but it turns out the wireless is down, or perhaps the whole school network! You turn to the last option, which in all likelihood is going to be more trouble than its worth, but dammit, this video is critical!
4. Emergency Plan – You pop out your Verizon iPhone and set up tethering on your machine, connecting to YouTube’s servers via a cell connection.
Now what are the odds that you’re going to have that many failures? Pretty low, and let’s face it, any teacher worth his or her stuff really shouldn’t be relying on YouTube *that* heavily for their lesson. But you get the idea. Really important stuff deserves not just a backup plan, but several layers of backup plans.
Another example. Aaron and I were heading to Monterey to give a talk at a conference, and we’d spent a fair amount of time working on our presentation deck. We wanted to leave nothing to chance, so we headed up with:
1. The presentation on one of our laptops.
2. A backup copy of the presentation on the other’s laptop.
3. A USB drive with a copy of the presentation there.
4. A copy of the presentation on each of our servers where we could pull it down if needed.
5. A PDF copy of the slides on another USB drive that we could scroll through on even a borrowed Linux machine in the unlikely event that everything else went down.
We didn’t need any of those backups, thank goodness, but the fact that we knew we had them gave us a certain peace of mind during our travels.
PACE yourself. Because I’m not really interested in your backup plan.
I want to know what happens when your backup plan *fails*. :)
CHEATING WITH HOMEWORK SOLUTIONS
by Richard White
A funny thing happened on the way to me trying to help my students.
For my AP Physics students, who on any given night are going to be working on some pretty challenging homework problems, I’ve made answers or complete solutions available online for a few years now. It all started when I realized that students when getting stuck (like they do), and finding themselves unable to proceed past a certain point without the assistance of a just-in-time nudge in the right direction. We were spending time the next day in class, too, going over problems that, often as not, were just based on a simple misunderstanding that could have been easily diagnosed by the student him or herself, if only they’d had the solution to see.
The first year I made solutions available, the percentage of students completing homework assignments jumped up, of course. Better, though, was the fact that test scores increased as well, indicating perhaps that the “just-in-time” assistance was having its desired effect, and people were able to make better progress in picking up the material.
This year, with a new text and no solutions that I have any right to publish online, I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing up my own solutions to the homework problems for posting online. It’s time that I’d like to think has the benefits already discussed. Here is my solution for problem #39, an electric field diagram for a positively-charged rod.
It’s a pretty good diagram, with one problem—the rod, as described by the problem in the book, should have a negative charge.
It’s the kind of careless mistake that can happen to anyone once in a while. But what are the odds that 13 of 28 of my students made the exact same mistake that I did? What are the odds that 13 of 28 misread the problem, just as I did?
“Infinitely small” is the correct answer.
What are the odds that most if not all of the 13 simply copied my answer without even looking at the problem in the book?
“Much higher.” Right again.
And here we have the conundrum: how do we make solutions available to students “just in time,” but not “too soon?” How do we create conditions such that a student has to struggle just the right amount for the answer to a problem is revealed?
I’m not sure there is a way, or at least not a good one. I’ve taken online training courses in which the presentation of text was timed so that the reader couldn’t move on to the next topic until some pre-set amount of time had passed, which became an extremely frustrating experience for me (I read pretty quickly, or at least more quickly than whomever set up the time delays).
This question of trying to create conditions for maximal learning are more important than ever with the increased interest in Massive Open Online Courses. These courses, with enrollments in the tens of thousands, rely on students being able to manage their own progress through the content.
As more and more of our learning moves into an online format, I think one of our challenges is to teach students how to resist the temptation to look too quickly at the solution for a problem. There is value in wrestling with a problem for a bit before moving on to seeing the solution, and I’ve experienced firsthand the frustrations of physics students who reveal: “I can understand how YOU solve the problems, Mr. White. I just can’t do them myself.”
And that’s just it: following someone else’s work is not the same as doing the work on one’s own, and at some point, the skill in question—solving physics problems, writing a computer program, writing an essay—has to be developed. Copying down someone else’s answer is obviously not the same as arriving at the answer on one’s own, and my students all know that, and acted appropriately guilty when I called them on their “cheat.” They all clearly knew that they had taken a useless shortcut in blindly copying down the answer.
They’re under the same pressure that we all are, though—they occasionally simply don’t have time to do everything that is required of them. And I can sympathize. I’ve lost track of the times that I’ve been double- or triple-booked for meetings through no fault of my own. But there simply are no shortcuts for this kind of thing. The synapses between our neurons require training and practice for true learning to take place.
One of the very first things I did when I started incorporating technology into my teaching was to put homework answers online for my physics students. I was relatively new to teaching physics, and what I learned pretty quickly was that my students, in attempting to solve a problem that could involve understanding how to apply multiple problem-solving steps in sequence, often found themselves getting stuck by one concept that they found especially challenging. Whether that one difficult concept occured at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the problem, they didn’t have the chance to work on anything else in the problem that occurred after that–they were stuck and couldn’t move on.
For simple problems, having access to the correct answer for an odd-numbered problem in the back of the book sometimes gave them enough of a clue that they could work their way backwards from that answer, and realize where they had made a mistake. But for more complex problems, they were dead in the water without a bit more in the way of hints on which direction they should proceed.
College textbook authors are aware of this problem, and most college-level chemistry and physics texts now offer some form of Student Solutions Manual that students can purchase (at considerable expense) for just such help. These student manuals usually cover some subset of all the problems in a textbook. Complete solutions manuals to these texts are also sometimes available, usually only to professors, and these are accompanied by dire warnings about the possible unintended consequences of sharing the contents with the young’uns.
This whole concept of gatekeeping information, or parsing it out to students on a “need to know” basis, runs completely counter to the idea of life-long learning, fostering self-guided discovery, and the current revolution in online learning.
Will Richardson, an educational reformer, famously supported his daughter learning how to play a Journey song on the piano by following a tutorial on the Internet, even when her piano teacher objected, saying that she wasn’t advanced enough to learn the song. I applaud Will’s sensibilities on most things, but even he occasionally gets it wrong, as when he posted this tweet on September 6.
It *is* good to see all of Tucker’s homework answer posted online. This information regarding the question of whether or not he’s making the progress he needs to make is just-in-time feedback that Tucker can use to step over the stumbling blocks that would otherwise require that he try to ask the question during class, or go to school early to talk to the teacher, or stay late after school. Why make him wait? Why hold his progress in completing homework hostage?
The obvious concern is that many students–perhaps even good students–may fall into the habit of taking the easy way out. If the solutions are posted, then students may be tempted to simply copy them, which is a double whammy against him or her: not only are they getting credit for work that they haven’t done (and getting reinforcement for cheating in the process), they’ve managed to temporarily avoid acquiring the very skills that those homework problems were meant to foster.
These are the perils of always-on access to information, and I’m afraid the obvious benefits come with some risks, and managing those risks becomes part of what we need to teach our children.
Perhaps part of teaching children to be lifelong learners is teaching them not only WHAT to learn–readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic, social skills, expository writing, critical thinking, etc.–but HOW to learn. That necessarily requires presenting them with content, and with strategies on how to access that content and use it best to their advantage.
It will be up to Will (and his son Tucker) to find a way to best manage learning in the new world, and that process will almost certainly involve a few potholes along the road. In the meantime, however, Mr. Richardson is far brighter and forward thinking than this one errant tweet might lead one to believe. I encourage you to read his blog.
Bringing things back around to my own classroom, my AP Physics classes are using a new text this year, and those homework problems aren’t easy. A significant part of my prep time for class is now devoted to writing up solutions to the homework problems that I’ve assigned, and making those available to my students online where they have access to them. The reality of the situation is that I’m going to have to go over those problems with them at some point, perhaps writing out the solutions in class (wasting additional face time with them, after they’ve wasted time struggling with the problems at home), or writing the solutions out in advance so that they can get the help they need when they need it, and not later.
It’s a good thing that I enjoy solving physics problems, because I’ve got a couple of hundred of them that I’m doing this year…!
It’s a new school year! I don’t see my students for another few days, but many of the teachers are already back at work, greeting colleagues, cleaning classrooms, prepping calendars and websites, and a hundred and one other things that go into starting things up again.
It’s a special year for the science teachers and math teachers at my school. After a hard year’s worth of new construction, our brand new Math/Science/Library building is ready to go. The number of science classrooms has increased, our facilities have improved drastically, and we now have 10 ThinkPads installed in each of our two physics classrooms, with everything from Vernier’s Logger Pro to Microsoft’s Office to the University of Colorado’s excellent PhET Simulations installed. Having a set of computers installed in the 9th and 12th grade physics classrooms is going to revolutionize the way we teach physics at our school. I can’t wait to tell you about it.
But there is nothing more revolutionary than this simple fact:
Our school is opening up access to the Internet.
Teachers at our school have had mostly unfiltered access to the Internet for at least ten years, but students, until recently, have only had highly filtered access, and then only on school computers. This was presumably out of fear for their online safety, although students have access to literally anything they want on the Internet via their cell phones.
That all changed over the course of the summer, however, thanks in part to ongoing discussion in our Educational Technology Committee. Our IT Director, however, was almost certainly the one who did a little last-minute verbal judo to help encourage the decision. Regardless of how it came about, my school has now joined an increasing number of high school campuses that provide students with effectively free access to the World Wide Web.
Although my school is occasionally guilty of moving a little slowly on some of these things—I’m occasionally the one issuing this charge!—here, we’ve made the right move.
A friend forwarded an article to me earlier this evening, however. It contains a long series of Internet Safety Talking Points, and is a telling reminder that some schools still suffer from a “culture of fear.” I know all too well how hard it can be to be patient in the face of what appear unyielding barriers to the kind of technology-based policies and progress that are vital for educating our young people.
But the right conversation, at the right time, can make all the difference.
BACK TO SCHOOL ROUTE MAP
by Richard White
It’s August, and most of the teachers I know are easing out of the summer vacation and into getting ready for the new school year. If you haven’t busted out your planner (or perhaps you’re using a spreadsheet, or a Google calendar, for your planning?), you’d better get on it. Labor Day is just around the corner!
There’s a whole lot of insanity that happens during the school year, and it seems like we’re often living day-to-day, with the grading, and the writing emails to parents, and the meetings. Often, there just doesn’t seem to be time to step back and take a look at the Big Picture of the school year. There’s a lot to be said for bringing a scrappy, seat-of-your-pants renegade enthusiasm to your work—Middle School teachers practically thrive under those conditions, God bless ‘em—but it’s valuable to be able to maintain some sort of overview of things, even in the midst of the trauma of daily life.
Have you considered a route map?
I had the good fortune to do a 3-day rockclimb up the sheer face of Washington Column, a “big wall” that faces Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. This is one of those climbs that you hear about on National Geographic Explorer, with the loads of gear, and the sleeping on hammocks, and cracked lips and blistered fingers. A former student of mine led me up “The Prow,” and it was awesome.
We had a route map for the climb, a copy for each of us, laminated and clipped to our harnesses where we could access it at a moment’s notice. It wasn’t a step-by-step guide or anything. We had 1100 feet of vertical climbing to do, and there was no way the little map could give us enough information—we ascended the rock with shoes and handjams, ropes and camming units—but as a small-scale guide to significant features, landmarks, and ledges, it was invaluable.
Many textbooks provide students with a route map for their course of study. Chapters and sections are where the work gets done, but we all agree that an overview of the year gives students a valuable context into which they can place their learning.
In the same way, having a route map for your school year is a great way to maintain an overview of where you are and where you’re going this school year. A piece of paper with some goals or deadlines or milestones is a nice way of keeping your perspective, even as the day-to-day grind grabs most of your attention.
It doesn’t even have to be a separate document, although that can be a nice way of keeping the route map from getting lost. You can mark milestones on a daily calendar if you like, although again, those items risk getting lost in the large-scale of a daily schedule. Some people use Project Planning software, although that seems to involve levels of infrastructure that fall far beyond the needs of most classroom teachers I know.
Some of the items I include on my own School Year Route Map:
* August – Order lab materials for new school year.
* August – Get course website up and running one week before school starts.
* September – Welcome email to all students and parents, with online grade info
* September – Photos and assignments ready for Back-to-School night.
* November – Write comments for First Quarter grades.
* December – Create/post first semester Extra Credit assignment.
* January – Materials prepped for second semester elective
* January – All grades completed ahead of semester end
* January – Server available for second semester programming class?
* January – Classroom workstations available for second semester programming class.
* January – Meet w/ school director to coordinate second semester field trip
Again, it’s not like any of these are a surprise to me when I sit down to think about it. But the route map keeps me oriented, and reminds me that I need to take care of these items—they will all, at some point or another, find their way onto my daily schedule.
Bee Venom & Training Devices
by Richard White
I’m allergic to bee venom.
It wasn’t always that way. Growing up, I got stung by my share of bees, and hornets, and yellowjackets. I recall one particular time when I was riding down the road on my motorcycle when I happened to catch a bee in the neck of my t-shirt, and a sudden sharp sting on my back. I pulled over at a rest area, went in to the bathroom, and took off my shirt to see in the mirror the bee’s barb, and the little venom sac dangling at the end of it. I’d been stung, but it wasn’t more than a slight, painful swelling.
I’m not sure when I developed an allergy–I’m told that repeated exposures to venom can precipitate this–but when a bee sting, over the course of a couple of hours, turned my hand into a big round softball, I knew something had happened. I walked away from the emergency room with a shot of antihistamine and a prescription for an epi-pen, which one can use to administer a quick dose of epinephrine in the event of a sting.
You have to get a new epi-pen every couple of years. This last time there was an extra pen in the pack, which turned out NOT be a “limited time, two-for-one” offer, but rather a “training device.”
This thing is amazing. It looks just like a real epi-pen, from the shape and coloring to the little blue cap you have to pull off before jamming the thing into your thigh. Now I’ve actually used an epi-pen before, and it’s not hard to do, but it’s true, there’s a little bit of trepidation going in the first time you try it. Part of it’s the idea of a needle going in to your body—”that’s not going to be fun,” you think—but a good part of is more of a general anxiety: “Am I doing this right?” How hard should you swing the pen so that it works right? I mean, I saw Pulp Fiction, and everybody knows you have to swing pretty hard to pierce that area over the heart, right?
So this training device is a little bit of genius. It gives you a way to practice administering the injection in a non-threatening context, and lets you get used to the idea of this thing that otherwise might be kind of scary. That’s awesome.
You probably already know where we’re going with this, right? Just as the Training Device acts as a model for that Authentic Assessment that shows up in the form of a bee sting, it’s important for us to provide Training and Models for our students.
In particular, technology-based delivery of materials can be of enormous benefit to kids who are desperately trying to figure out just exactly what it is that we’re asking of them.
Whether its a rubric that lets kids know how they’re going to be evaluated, or a practice test [PDF download] that gives them an idea of the format of questions, examples of acceptable work from previous students, or a quiz that gives them a low-grade stress situation that they need to manage, Practice Makes Perfect. It’s our job as teachers to provide students with opportunities to practice, as well as giving them ridiculously clear instructions on what our expectations are for an assignment.