Tag Archives: teaching

Quarterly Revue

Yes, I spelled my title correctly.

This quarter I continued my habit of critiquing elements of education technology, in one instance eliciting some thoughtful conversation regarding the appropriateness/usefulness of interactive white boards in classrooms.  I believe that continuing to think about these tools and their use was a good step toward structuring my future classroom in a way that best serves students – including leveraging the right tools in the right way, in terms of tech.  I also drew quite a few comments with my musings on the seeming fine line between professionalism and caring, and how one can look like the other in teaching, and vice versa. It’s good to get the chance to stretch my thinking on these issues, and my colleagues have given me great opportunities to do so this quarter, both in class and in the blogosphere.

I took what I think is my first ever opportunity to post actual student work in my blog, and commented on assessment; doing this in a public way, which both shows what I’m doing in my teaching and invites comment on it, is pretty new to me, and I’m just starting to get used to it. But I’m encouraged by the results so far.

My most valuable contributions to others’ blogs came in the form of my comment on a math lesson, in which I contended that number sense should be the true goal of math instruction, and my thoughts on the value of integrating the teaching of literacy skills with literacy content in this post. In both cases, what I mainly did was reference some pieces of my own (emerging) education philosophy, constructed from the theory and some of the practice we’ve been exposed to in our training so far; I think these references mainly served as reminders to focus the conversation. Hopefully they were found helpful.

Overall, it’s been a tough quarter, and I have to confess I don’t think I’ve been expending quite as much brain power on my blog as I have been on other needful things. But I do believe that my blog contributions are getting more refined and more purposeful on the whole, as well as perhaps more brave – I’ve been more willing to share everything, not just my successes but my worries as well. I see this as a positive trend that I will continue to explore.

Going forward, I’m not sure exactly what will happen to this blog. I think it will continue to be used, though it may suffer a dry spell; this quarter’s going to be busy, and after that, I have to get hired. But if I think anything especially profound, or if my students do something I think the world needs to see, I’ll put it here. Until then, happy teaching, and happy reflecting.

Poetry Flailings

This week I tried my hand at teaching poetry.

The thing is, I had approximately 20 minutes each day to teach said poetry.

The assessment I’ve been given to use basically requires them to be able to identify a number of poetry terms (like the sonic devices, terms like “stanza” and “meter”, and so-on), as well as identify several different kinds of poems (including ballad, free verse, and cinquain, among others).

Knowing this – and trying to fit all of this into 1 week of 20-minute-per-day-sessions – I ended up teaching a series of seriously sub-par lessons.

Sitting here writing this in reflection, it’s all so clear.  Students are not going to remember what the definition of “alliteration” is if all I do is tell them what it is whilst pointing to the dictionary definition of it displayed on a document cam, from my place at the front of the classroom where I am chained to the computer desk.  Students are not going to recall or understand things that they haven’t explored and discovered themselves.  Students are not going to learn from the bad poetry teachers from Dead Poet’s Society – which is who I felt like at several points this week.

Oh, I had my successes.  Showing them what “ballad” is by playing When I Was Your Man by Bruno Mars as a demonstration was a slam-dunk.  And clearly these kids are very into sharing their own poetry – clearly, the most engaging parts of each lesson have been the times when students have shared.

That just makes the realization that I spent other times doing nothing that was conducive to anyone’s learning all the more frustrating.  I guess what I’m feeling right now is mainly a sense that I barely know what I’m doing – that if I ever succeed, it’s by accident. I feel like most of the theory I’ve had crammed into my brain over the past year has fled my skull, leaving only vague emptinesses. I feel paralyzed in a state between not quite being able to recall the reasons why I do what I do, and not having enough experience to know how to move forward.

Okay, I’m going to stop now, and pose 2 questions.

1. What the heck do you do when you have only 20 minutes to teach something?

2. What’s the best way to teach poetry to a class of 5th graders with a very wide range of comfort with that sort of literature?

One Moment In Time

Just wanted to share a moment from a recent visit from a bunch of 1st graders and 5th graders to my college campus.  The visit was supposed to be math-oriented, and teams of student teachers led teams of elementary-schoolers around the University of Washington: Bothell campus looking for math.

Luckily, we stumbled upon this rather perfect moment:



Math questions abounded, of course.  “How many years from now is that?  How old will you be?”  The kids in question were 5th-graders, but still, I could see their imaginations firing, and all of it bound up with counting years and thinking of themselves as older people.  They positively bounced at my suggestion that they come back here for the opening of the capsule and take this picture again, and compare their shoe-sizes to the original.

Fate send that I can harness at least a few of these kinds of moments per year, or quarter, or unit, with my own students – where learning and imagination are woven into the fabric of their lives, and serve to inspire.

A Good Dam Lesson

Wanted to throw up some thoughts and photos on the end of a pretty good dam lesson (hah) that I led this past week.  Briefly: it was built on the back of a unit about the interaction between water and landforms, which used stream tables (pictured) to do experiments about how water flow, slope, etc. change patterns of erosion and deposition.  Much of the unit was focused on the process of scientific investigation: asking questions, making predictions, running experiments, collecting and analyzing data, using that data to write a conclusion in which we also change our ideas about the mechanisms behind phenomena, and speculate about further experiments.


This particular lesson took the unit in a new direction: kids got to create and imagine, and also got to learn about the design process.  They had a prescribed amount of certain materials (Popsicle sticks, straws, toothpicks) with which to build a dam in order to protect a tiny fictional town from flooding.  The lesson progressed from a class discussion about dams (including analysis of a picture of a dam on the Skagit river and discussion of the design features of that dam) to group-work on designing dams, to actually testing them in class last Friday.

The kids were SUPER into testing the dams, and as we tested them one-by-one, I made sure to ask 2 students who hadn’t been part of the dam in question’s design team what they noticed about the design (which resulted in lots of good vocabulary use) before the test, and ask 2 students who had been part of the team what they’d change, after the test.  All in all it was a very engaging lesson which clearly resulted in solid learning on the part of the students involved.

Coming out of this week, one of the main challenges I’ve set for myself is to be much more conscious about differentiation of instruction and assessment – to be much more intentional and explicit about these issues in my lesson planning.  In this particular lesson, this mainly manifested in me making sure to check in with as many students as possible about how the lesson was going for them – specifically, giving as many students as possible to answer my questions about the dam designs.  I feel pretty confident that I managed it with this lesson – I’m sure that the format of the lesson, with everyone gathered around and commenting excitedly about how the water was moving through the stream table, really helped some of my “focus students” stay engaged, and checking in with them throughout resulted in a strong impression on my part that they were getting the learning targets for the lesson (namely, parts of the design process and important design elements of dams, specifically).


SmartBoards 2: Revenge of the SmartBoards

Thinking about one thing and another, reflecting further on things, and discussing my interactive whiteboard experiences with colleagues, I decided to input the following Google search: “interactive whiteboard cheapest”.

I was led to the following blessed gem: http://digitaldollar.edublogs.org/2010/02/01/the-55-interactive-whiteboard/

The above is a) 3 years old and b) a tutorial for, through your own ingenuity, building your own interactive board which is ridiculously cheaper than the cheapest commercial unit.  There’s even comments on this post which show you how to get hold of cheap infrared pens without having to challenge your soldering skills.

I have 2 reactions to this resource: 1) that’s super cool and 2) I’m still not sure exactly how much this adds to students’ learning.  You’ll still find yourself at the front of the class; you’ll still be in the same spatial arrangement with your students that teachers might have been in 1920, even if you’re using infrared light instead of chalk.  Your students still won’t have any readier access to computing, searching, and digital creation.  You’ll still just be presenting; as a teacher, it’ll be up to you whether that’s synonymous with teaching.

Add to this the fact that 2 colleagues of mine gave a presentation today on the Airsketch app for iPad ( https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/air-sketch/id376617790 ), and it’s easy to see that there are so many more sophisticated sollutions to these teaching problems than simply dumping district money into FutureChalkboard!(trademarked) purchases.  If I can use a $300 iPad to conduct a digital presentation from anywhere in the classroom, where’s the percentage in spending more money for less utility?

An Encounter With EduTech Economics

A few weeks ago, I went to a training session, wherein I was introduced to the Promethean-brand interactive whiteboard.

I’ve been curious about these things for a while – I spent most of October and November visiting a school which had one of these in every classroom – and my colleagues and I have often spent time wondering: is this a worthwhile piece of technology?  I considered this training a chance to find out.

Here’s my assessment:

As far as pure utility, I believe that one of these devices – a Promethean board or a SMARTboard – is technically better than the next best thing, which would be the combination of a standard whiteboard and a projector.  Unfortunately, the interactive board’s advantages are pretty incremental.  For one thing, when you’ve got an interactive board, you don’t have to raise or lower any projector screens when you want to write or draw something for your class to see – you can just do it, and what’s more, you can do it on top of pictures or text that you’re looking at – offering a handy tool to annotate stuff on-the-fly.  You can also manipulate the elements of any digital presentation with a stylus as you teach, instead of having to go back and forth between the board and your computer.  (Of course, you could solve this problem with a reasonably-priced clicker.)

…But as far as I can see, that’s kind of it.  And it has to be said: the (small) ways in which this technology changes education seem mainly to be focused on the experience of the teacher, not the students.  I’ve seen for myself that from the students’ perspective, they may as well just be watching another PowerPoint or hand-drawing on a dry-erase board; they’re not experiencing anything different.

Add to all of this the fact that the cheapest Promethean board I could find online was almost $1700, while the most expensive VGA projector and dry-erase board combination I could find totaled out at under $500…and I know which purchase I would make.  In my view, an interactive board is technically a more powerful presentation tool; but my questions are: A) is presenting synonymous with teaching?, and B) does an interactive board really have a $1200 advantage over more “conventional” tools?  My answer to both questions is “no”.

Especially when you consider that that $1200 difference could be spent on 4 iPad Minis, as part of what I would deem a much more useful effort toward democratizing computing power and putting digital tools in the hands of students, rather than on the Tech Altar in front of them, at the “head” of the class.


Early in his book A Sustainable StartJohn T. Spencer asserts that “love” is one of the most important parts of teaching – if you love your students, he claims, then you can’t go far wrong as a teacher.

This notion – and I think specifically, Spencer’s use of the word “love”, generated a surprising (to me) degree of push-back from my teacher-ed cohort during our conversations this week.  This comes on the heels of a very timely and productive – if stressful – discussion we had recently about professionalism in (our) classroom, discussion norms, and the dichotomy in our profession between professional dignity and the need for emotion, connection, and caring.  These two conversations had a lot of conceptual overlap, and generated a lot of profound thoughts.  Here are some of mine.

1.  In your teaching career, you won’t always be able to be genuinely sunny, happy, and “apparently” caring – this job will be hard, and that’s where professionalism comes in, because you have to perform anyway, and part of that means appearing to care.

2.  Nevertheless, here and now sitting comfortably, we can all agree that we wouldn’t be getting into this profession if we didn’t care about all of our students doing well.

3.  You can’t make caring effective if you aren’t relating to students on a personal level – getting to know them, letting them know you, really developing a connection.  To many (including myself), that sort of relationship – with caring, mutual knowledge, and vulnerability as hallmarks – that looks like “love”, and would be labelled as such.

4.  “Love”, perhaps, is a social construct and a cultural concept – something with a very relative definition.  Not all of us will apply “love” as a label for what we do in our classrooms.  It should be up to every one of us to define what we do however we wish to – what’s important is what we do, and whether our students learn/are served/grow as humans.

According to physics, any effect which perfectly simulates gravity may as well be gravity, from the perspective of the entity experiencing it – i.e., if your car’s accelerating so fast that it pushes you back in your seat, from your perspective, the car may as well be standing on its rear bumper – if all your windows were blacked out, you’d technically have no way to tell for sure which was the case.

Likewise, perhaps any effect – any emotional state or professional practice – which perfectly simulates love, may as well be love, if the result is the same – whether you feel comfortable defining it that way or not.  Students who feel safe, cared for, and pushed to succeed; teachers who ardently pursue their students’ success and agonize over whether those students are being properly served.  It amounts to the same effect, no matter the emotion behind it, or the label put upon it.