Monthly Archives: December 2011

Tech tools

I have used several tech tools in the past couple of years and one that I keep going back to is It has short video clips available for all subjects and is geared to regular ed and ap students. I find this website most helpful in introducing new topics or units to my students. The video clips for history provide primary source documents as well as a written version of the audio for students to go back and review without having to re-listen to the entire clip. When I use this website I usually have the students watch three to four video clips within a class period in the MAC lab along with answering questions for each topic. This website could also be used for review before exams or especially final exams and the students could watch the clips at home with access to the internet. 

I have not yet taken advantage of this tool yet, but each educator who registers can create their own hippocampus webpage for their class. This would allow the teacher to post only those clips needed by the teacher instead of the students having to search for them.

A draw back to this website would be that there is no “real action” for the history video clips but rather just a collection of pictures (while still valuable as primary sources). This could cause a decline in student interest without real life action.

Laptop assignment

Recently, I had several students submitting entries to a haiku contest. They had to be submitted online, and you had to be 13 years old to enter the contest. All of my students completed the assignment for credit, and the students that were eligible needed to complete the process. We used the laptops. For the students that were not able to enter the contest, we had them log onto  This website provided an interactive vocabulary lesson that had several levels. The students were very involved in the site and actually did well on the college level words- much to their delight. It was very interesting to see what students knew about the laptops, and the last 10 minutes of class we took questions about our 1:1 program. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and the students said that they enjoyed the vocabulary drill.

Student Created Wiki’s

I was looking into student created Wiki’s and found this article from a middle school math teacher helpful!

Media Fluency: AP Physics Wiki!

Application: AP Physics Wiki

I must admit I that I probably wouldn’t have tried this Wiki project if I weren’t a member of this committee. Although I’m not convinced AP scores are the best way to measure progress, it’s undeniable that they have practical importance. I already expect a great deal from my AP students and was hesitant to add on an “extra.” Especially since I didn’t see an obvious connection between the Wiki and the AP test.

After some unsuccessful brainstorming/browsing I decided use the Wiki project despite my reservations. Since the AP physics curriculum is so broad, I thought it best to use the Wiki as a review tool where each student would write an article on one of our major topics in first semester. I “stole” this idea from one of my graduate classes over the summer where we wrote a Wiki (I created most of the pages on “State of Classical Science in 1900!”)

I was pleasantly surprised by the outcomes from the Wiki project. Where I had expected students would complain when I announced the assignment, several students actually said they liked the idea (in hindsight: I think it was a nice change of pace-we don’t do a lot of writing in AP physics). Since other people could read their work it felt more real to them. They also said that summarizing/explaining major ideas helped them solidify their understanding of the challenging material that we had moved through at whirlwind speed. What had started as an “extra” had become a sustentative activity that very well might help them on the AP test.

As you can see if you check out our Wiki (please do!), the site itself is nothing fancy. Based on this unexpected success though, it’s a work in progress.

The Big Picture

When I first learned of Wiki’s in my grad school class I was impressed by the technology. However, I was more impressed by my professor. He knew what the technology was capable of and had an idea for it’s use, but he didn’t have any clue of how to edit/create pages or accomplish other technical tasks in Wikispaces. It was up to us to figure out (it is surprisingly easy to learn). Talk about really jumping into something.

Wiki’s are great because they can be written for any subject or topic. A small Wiki like we created doesn’t require any big commitments. For those interested, there is potential to create a huge interconnected web of ideas through Wiki’s.

Second semester I’m going to add a Wiki component to my freshmen physics class too. I’m planning on leaving it wide open: students will be able to write articles and add pages & physics content relevant to anything we learn. Students will have the whole semester and I will make a general rubric for assessment (you can see which members edited which pages). Finally, I’m tossing around the idea of having new physics classes build/improve/revise one constantly evolving freshmen physics Wiki. I think it will either be really successful or a complete failure. Either way it should be interesting and I will let you know how it goes (:

Media Fluency Definition

According to the 21st century fluencies blog media fluency is:

“Firstly, the ability to look analytically at any communication media to interpret the real message, how the chosen media is being used to shape thinking, and evaluate the efficacy of the message. Secondly, to create and publish original digital products”

In my own words, I think of media fluency as the natural extension of rhetoric and composition into the digital age. We need to be able to communicate electronically just as clearly, efficiently, and elegantly as we do verbally or on paper. Just as important, we must be able to see beyond the surface to evaluate the purpose, strategy, and effectiveness of other digital communications.

thinking outside the cube: creative fluency

My kindergartners have been exploring patterns. Patterns were introduced in a variety of ways, one of which was using uni-fix cubes. After my students came to the conclusion that a pattern is something that repeats over and over again, they were able to identify a pattern (for example with 2 colors) when they see one. Being able to create a pattern was a whole new experience. My students used their red and blue cubes to design a pattern. Quickly they discovered alternating colors in an “ABAB” pattern was the answer to creating a pattern. Until, a new question came up: “How many patterns can you make with 2 colors?”

You could almost see their minds spinning! Many kids wanted to give up and say there is nothing more they could do. A few kids thought could switch their pattern and alternate the 2 colors in the other order, which technically is a new pattern. Then, one of my thinkers had an idea! I heard him say “I can use 2 reds!” This idea started to catch on and those cubes got to moving! I encouraged my students to “record” their patterns on their paper so they wouldn’t forget the ideas they’ve created.

Creative Fluency is “the process by which artistic proficiency adds meaning through design, art and storytelling.” I’m going to stretch it and say designing with cubes is an art form!

Here’s where I feel the creative thinking really stepped in. One of my students noticed that the American Flag in our classroom has a pattern: red and white stripes. I asked, “Do any of you think there could be more patterns hiding in our room?” My students were so excited to find out. The ideas started flowing: our blue and yellow tile is layed in a pattern, the days of the week repeat over and over on our calendar, the row of “5s” on our 100s chart looks like a pattern, my shirt has stripes, the timer beeps in a pattern… The list went on and on! One girls even said, “Everyday is a pattern! You know, the sun and moon keep switching places over and over again!” Something that really struck me, was that my kids didn’t just notice color patterns, they noticed sound patterns and patterns related to their lives. This was a fun extension to patterning.

To me, creative fluency is being able to “think outside the box” because when you can think differently and on your own, you can take ownership of your ideas and creations. I felt that my students showed a sense of creative fluency with this because they did not just need the initial red and blue cubes. When we out to recess, they were on the look out for outdoor patterns. While some kids noticed color patterns on the “big toy”, other kids picked up leaves and put them in a pattern. It all works for me! All I did was let them explore their interest in patterns and facilitate the discussions. Certainly for all ages, and most definitely in Kindergarten, I feel it is crucial to allow kids to think on their own, even when it sounds silly, and let them go as far as they can.

This kind of thinking will hopefully turn over into the creative thinking for problem-solving. One of students last week couldn’t seal an envelope, when he saw that my tape dispenser did not have tape, he went and found a sticker to seal the envelope. I found that to be very creative thinking and he didn’t even ask for my help on how to solve his problem. My hope is that all of my students will develop this kind of thinking.

Game-changing News?

Increasing his capacity to think?

In a BBC article published online this week, a study of 14-year old boys revealed that the brain’s “reward hub” was larger in regular players. What does this mean for education and the advancement of “game theory?”

Implications fall on both the positive and negative ends of the spectrum. This reward hub, known by scientists as the ventral striatum, is strongly associated with emotional and motivational aspects of behavior.

On the positive side, recent studies of teens who are regular gamers indicate improved reasoning over their non-gaming counterparts. This is exciting news for teachers if it holds true! This means that when we make learning like video games, our students learn to think more effectively and make quicker decisions that are logic-based. However, I can’t help but wonder which games were played by the teens during this study. Was it Brain Age? Or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3? Seems like that could impact the results.

On the negative side, scientists believe this same reward hub is also responsible for determining a person’s predisposition to addiction disorders. Could it be possible that, by using gaming theory in the classroom, teachers could ultimately be contributing to a problem? Are we pushing our kids toward Internet or Video Game addiction?

I don’t think either finding is 100% accurate for the entire teen population. It’s really a “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” question. Do video games improve reasoning while increasing addictive tendency? Or are already good thinkers with addictive tendencies more likely to become gamers? I think we may never get a definitive answer. And I think the chicken – and the egg – agree with me on that.

Who will win the age old debate?

The remaining question left for educators to ask is, “How do I use game theory to make the learning environment better, but minimize adverse side-effects?”

My answer: Make learning in your classroom fun, rewarding, encourage educational risk taking, and remove the fear of (ultimate) failure – just like a video game. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t leave out the L E A R N I N G.

Hamlet’s Blackberry (Part One)

In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers argues that we need a new digital philosophy that finds balance between connecting outward and inward. His goal in this book is to explore “a practically useful way of thinking about technology, so it serves the full range of human needs, inside and out”(100). Powers finds the answers of how to face the challenges tech presents by looking to the past. He explores examples of past technologies and people’s reactions to them to shed light on how concerns we should be considering as we learn to negotiate an ever changing digital world.

In the days of Plato & Socrates, the new technology was the written language which started replacing oral communication. Socrates feared that writing would cause people to use their memories less and would eliminate the back and forth communication that speaking offered.

He misjudged writing because he judged it through the lens of the old tools (speaking), an error we still make today.

Writing actually provided a lot of benefits, allowing us to bridge the distances between people (oral communication could only happen in close proximity—at least in Plato’s day); and writing allows us to reflect and ruminate later at our own pace and repeat ideas until we understand them.

But as is often the case, the improvements made by a technology can also cause other problems. By the time Seneca arrives on the scene, writing had grown to the point of the great library of Alexandria and the new challenge was how to handle the increased libraries and mailing. People were awash with info, but not necessarily knowledge.

In an age saturated with info, we have to pare down and decide what is most important or necessary. The paradox of information is that the more there is available, the harder it is to be truly knowledgeable.

In 15th centuryEurope, Gutenberg’s printing press caused another radical technological shift, changing reading methods from a public, shared activity to a private one, and increasing the type and quantity of information available to the masses. By Shakespeare’s day, the printing press had made the proliferation of reading materials overwhelming. Powers points out: “Over and over in history, new technologies arrive that play to our natural maximalist tendencies. At the same time, quietly but persistently, there’s a need to find balance.” (154-55). This balance was found by using another “new” tool, a reusable “tablet” that allowed a person to jot down notes and then erase them later. This offered a way for people to pare down.  Much like in Seneca’s day, people felt the need to find a way to slow down and sift through what was really important.

What tools will we provide our students with that will help them sift through the plethora of information and help them deal with the feeling of being overwhelmed?

Stay tuned for the next installment featuring Franklin, Thoreau, & McLuhan.

Out of Our Minds: Standards & Creativity

I just finished reading Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. The book definitely lived up to my expectations. As I was reading I’ve been putting post-its when something jumped out at me. I’ve got about 40 post-it’s on everything from creativity, 21st century learning, world history, & economics. His specific, but meandering style makes it hard to summarize his complex tapestry into a “nut shell.”

One of his threads that I was most interested in was how we use standards in education. In an era where NCLB can make or break schools, and students & parents are willing to pay thousands of dollars for ACT prep classes I don’t think many would disagree with how important tests/standards have become. Oftentimes policy makers and even educational leaders can be very shallow. I cringe when I hear leaders promote ‘raising standards.’ Robinson seems to agree:

“standards should be high….There is not much point in lowering them.”          -p. #50

As Robinson points out, the more difficult questions are how do we chose good standards, what policies & teaching methods will actually help students reach them and how do we know when students meet standards? Instead of approaching standards as some sort of mythical silver bullet, Robinson takes a more objective approach. While standards will certainly be a component of 21st century learning, their current negative effects almost outweigh their value.

As science person, I obviously value the sort of reasoning, logic, & objective knowledge that standards and testing tend to emphasize. As a teacher though, the “so-called ‘soft skills’…[including] being able to understand and express personal feelings; being able to get along with other people, to communicate clearly and with empathy for the listener” (p. #175) are no less important to me. The unintentional damage standards have done to the arts & extra curricular actives is well known. I don’t believe education is a zero sum game. For students to understand physics doesn’t require they give up theater.

As Robinson points out, there’s no more reason we can’t be building interpersonal skills and creatively in physics as mathematical reasoning in art. Unfortunately, physics has this reputation for being a rule-book laden algorithmic nightmare. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even when there is only one correct answer to a question in physics (which is often not the case) there are always at least 5 unique ways to reach it. One of the standards I hope my students reach is seeing physics not as an equation list, but as an elegant puzzle.