Looking Back

I am on a journey to learn how to effectively use technology to enhance teaching and learning.  The final destination of this journey is an elusive, currently undefined, technologically enhanced Math classroom based on the disruptive-innovation theory.  But since my goal is so far off in the distance that it appears to be a mere mirage, it is time to stop and take stock, to contemplate how far I have come, to look back to the beginning of this journey, in the hopes that this reflection will stave off despair and feelings of being overwhelmed, replacing these overwrought emotions with courage and strength to continue the journey.

So let’s flashback to ten years ago.  I am working in a segregated school in Abu Dhabi.  There is a big wall down the middle of campus separating the boys from the girls.  The Math office is on the boys’ side, so if the girls want to see me for extra help, they have to send a message to me.  Then I cross to the girls’ side to meet with them.  In my classrooms there is a chalkboard or whiteboard, coloured chalk (on a good day), and an overhead projector.  If I want to demonstrate calculator key strokes, the class goes one key stroke at a time, pausing to ensure everyone is ready to push the next key before we move on.  There is a computer lab down the hall for the computer classes and we have one computer in the Math office, shared by 8 of us.

Now speed forward to today.  I work in a one-to-one laptop school.  My tablet, smartboard, and projector are everyday tools.  When I want to demonstrate keystrokes on the calculator, I bring up my TI Smartview on the smartboard.  Students can watch me press each key on the huge projected calculator.  The tri-window view lets them know what all my background settings look like while the key stroke recorder allows them to work back through previous steps.  This is especially helpful for Algebra 1 students who may be using a graphing calculator for the first time.  These are tools that I now consider essential.  But if you add to that all the other accessories that are now utilized, even if on a less regular basis the list grows exponentially.  There is a document camera used to display and record exemplars of exceptional student work.  Numerous graphing software programs are used to bring clarity to messy, hand-drawn graphs (Padowan, Winplot, and Mathematica to name but a few).  Youtube videos are used to demonstrate concepts in a dynamic manner.  Java applets are used for both demonstration and investigation purposes.  Wikipedia and a host of internet sites allow for rapid gathering of information and tidbits to supplement and enhance the mathematical content.  Geometer’s Sketchpad, Geogebra and Sketchup provide dynamic tools for visualizing and understanding key mathematical concepts, such as parallel lines and planes, centers of triangles, and three dimensional figures.  The dynamic nature of these programs accomplishes understanding and engagement for students in a way that traditional methods of teaching never could.  When talking about volumes of revolution in Calculus, understanding dawns as students see the 3-dimensional shape develop as a curve rotates around an axis.  A recent addition to this list of tech tools used is Skype.  Students who were quarantined last year due to H1N1 “attended” class by having a friend call them on Skype and turn their laptops so the camera was facing the front of the room.  They were able to ask questions and follow along with the lesson.  What a change from ten years ago!

 This list of some currently utilized resources is not comprehensive, but it does encourage me to continue the journey.  Who knows, maybe that radically transformed math classroom is not so far away!  At least let’s hope it isn’t!

Indulge Me … Why I Teach

Technology.  Teaching.  Technology.  Teaching.  Technology. 

These words have been running in circles in my head.  Actually, circles would suggest that they are following a pattern and have a designated path.  No such luck.  The part of the analogy that does fit though – there is no end to the circulation. 

Teaching.  Technology.  Teaching.  Technology.  Teaching.  Technology … 

Ever Decreasing Circles by Simon Tong

Two youtube videos “When I Become a Teacher” and “A Vision of K-12 Students”  have caused me to think further about … you guessed it … Technology and Teaching.  “When I Become a Teacher” shows what happens when we let fear or laziness dictate how we teach; when creativity and initiative are surrendered for convenience and ease.  “A Vision of K-12 Students” shows what our students crave in the classroom; creativity and collaboration unleashed.  The first raises the question, “why do I teach?”  The second raises the question, “do I engage the students with technology?”

Let me give the short answer to these questions before asking for your indulgence with a long answer. 

When it comes down to it, if you ask me why I teach and then hang around long enough to hear my answer, the ultimate reason is … because of the students!  They are why I do this; they are why I stay late; they are why I keep working on lessons and trying to improve them; they are why I want to invest in educational technology.  Students make this journey worthwhile! 

As to the second question, the answer is unfortunately “not enough”.  I use technology (and will post later on some of the technology being used in my classroom), but is it enough?  Can a digital wannabe really engage digital natives?  These questions are still being pondered. 

Now I ask for your indulgence as I share a story involving students and technology. 

Last year my Honors Algebra II with Trigonometry students were given a portfolio assignment modeled on the IB criteria.  IB literature gives a number of specific purposes for assigning portfolio work, including that it “deepens understanding and provides intrinsic motivation”.  The assignment was written by a colleague I was fortunate enough to work with for three years, Mr. Clement.  The topic was cryptography and the basic tools needed were matrices.  Now, let’s face it, getting to decipher and encipher messages is pretty cool! 

Students were asked to work with a partner and were given ten days to complete the assignment.  This is one of the few occasions where students were back in my office within hours of being given a long term assignment to discuss their current findings and techniques.  It was exciting to see them so enthusiastic about Math.  Their creative juices were flowing.  Each partnership presented their findings in a creative manner and I was often fortunate enough to have been given a role in their various melodramas.  Reading their papers was fabulous.  I was cast as an army commander, a math wizard, a drug lord (that one worried me a bit!), a long dead psychic, and a children’s story character to name but a few.  Imaginations had run wild while performing mathematical calculations.  I am indebted to Mr. Clement for sharing this assignment with me.  It was one of the highlights of the semester.  As you can tell, I could talk for hours about the extraordinary work of this exceptional group of students. 

Instead, I want to break the class into three groups and talk about how they used technology.  Group 1 fulfilled the obligations of the assignment.  They typed up their creative stories and used MathType for the matrices.  They met the requirements.  Group 2 finished the main part of the assignment early and tackled the extension.  The extension involved more complicated ciphers.  The matrix manipulations necessary went beyond the scope of the course.  To conquer this part of the assignment students researched online sources, waded through technical writings, discussed and collaborated together, and then applied their new knowledge to the problem.  So, technology and the skills to search for, find, and understand internet sources were used.  One group extended the technology aspect of the assignment by also creating a movie of their story (definite Oscar material). 

Group 3 was an exclusive group, containing only one partnership.  They exceeded my expectations and blew my mind.  These two gentlemen combined their exceptional mathematical skills with their technical genius and their passion for programming.  The task they set for themselves was to write a program that would allow them to encode and decode messages using any 2×2 or 3×3 matrix as a key.  They kept me updated on their progress as they identified each obstacle and proceeded to work out the code (pun intended) necessary to get the computer to encode and decode messages.  Needless to say, I graded this project first and was blown away by the computer skills, initiative, and creativity of this pair.  But the story does not end there.  As I used their program to help me grade other projects, I regularly emailed them and “complained” about a limitation in their software.  Invariably within 24 hours I would receive an email thanking me for “purchasing the upgrade” to the program and all the new features I needed would be at my disposal.

(One of their emails said:  “Thank you for purchasing Matrix Encoder v3.2, the most powerful matrix tool in TAS.  Your payment of extra bonus points should appear soon on Loren and my columns in the grade book as well as in Easy Grade Pro.  Enjoy the new features.”  Genius and a sense of humor!!)

So while there is great value in this tech journey I am undertaking, I know there is no way I will ever be as tech savvy as my students, just as I could never write a program like these guys did.  But I will continue to delight in those moments where I have posed a problem that has challenged them to research, to extend themselves, and to incorporate skills they are passionate about into their math.  I will cheer them on, encourage them in their success, and watch them take flight with their plethora of skills.  (Speaking of taking flight, one of these students, Kevin, has written an Android program and he says ”people with Android powered devices can just go on Android Market and search “Volume Control” to download it”!  Kevin has a site for this and future programs, so watch this space to follow all that he accomplishes.)  My digital wannabe skills pale in comparison to their digital native talent.  The value of this story though is to remind me that I do not need to always have the answers; sometimes I just need to pose the right question. 

Now back to the two original videos and subsequent questions.  Steve Collins in his post My Thoughts on “When I Become a Teacher” suggested the closing statement to the video be changed to “Don’t be like us.  Use technology to … be different … teach different”.  While I continue to work on effectively doing just that, there is so much more to the issue.  If my technology skills are going to determine my effectiveness as a teacher, then all is lost.  My skills will never compete with those of my students.  But maybe there are ways I can encourage students to think, to create, to analyze, to evaluate and to apply as requested by the digital natives in “A Vision of K-12 Students”.