Vaestro - Audio Commenting

Thanks to a pointer from Alan Levine I've just signed up for a new (free) service called Vaestro. It's an audio commenting service. If you've got a microphone, built in or plugged in, you can leave me an audio comment. ;-) You'll see this graphic in the side bar:

Leave me an audio comment

Click it then leave me a comment in a pre-exisiting topic or create a new one of your own.

I like to use this blog as a laboratory before introducing new technologies to my classes. Help me out by playing along. Let's see how this works. If it goes over well I'll be adding it to all my classroom blogs.

Hey Alan! How's this for Podcasting on the Cheap? ;-)

UPDATE I've already had two replies to my "welcome" message which is great. I've got one more request though. Please make a point to either speak your name or [login] to Vaestro so that your name (or some other recognizable handle) is attached to your comment. I think the second commenter was Clarence (I think I recognized your voice) but I really don't know who the first person to reply was. Thanks. ;-)

The New BPRIME Format

In June of last year we had our first BPRIME Workshop. Since then, we've followed up with Erin's workshop on Summarizing and Note Taking which led to the development of my OLÉ workshop.

The essence of the BPRIME initiative has been our focus on two things:

  1. (1) Better student performance through better pedagogy, and
  2. (2) developing a deeper understanding of the curriculum by adopting a 7 through 12 perspective.
As I shared in our department meeting yesterday (the best meeting we've ever had, BTW), teaching grade 10 has made me a better grade 12 teacher. Teaching grade 12 has made me a better grade 10 teacher.

Anyway, at the suggestion of one of my colleagues this is what we're going to do this year. We've got 2 half days planned. Each teacher will choose the lesson they are most proud of. The one they feel they do best. The one that they ask the principal to observe when they are being evaluated. We will take turns presenting those lessons to each other (the folks in my dept and the math teachers from 2 of our feeder schools). This will allow us to show off our best work, learn best practices from each other, get a broad perspective of the curriculum (grades 7-12, pre-cal, applied and consumer math), and learn from watching presentations given in several different teaching styles.

There are about 14 of us involved in this project. At first we were going to try to have half of us present on one day and the other half at the next meeting. Instead we've decided to limit ourselves to three half-hour presentations at each meeting. Each teacher will prepare as though they were actually giving the class to students including any handouts, activities or assignments that are involved. The way we've structured the time (3 half-hour sessions/half-day in-service) will allow for lots of discussion and reflection. There was a lot of energy and excitement in our meeting as we discussed this and other ideas we're developing as a department.

We're also looking at changing the format of our in-house math contests. Create a more level playing field for weak and strong math students and for all students across the grades.

So many good ideas came out of our meeting. I've set up a planning wiki for our department (Sorry, it's private at the moment. In time I hope to open it up to a more public audience. When I do I'll post about it.) where we can thrash out our ideas asynchronously, at our leisure. This will hopefully shorten meeting times and help us generate more good ideas.

Modeling Best Practice: Student Voices, Teacher's Voices

In a recent conversation I had with the folks in our school division's Educational Technology Department I learned that they're putting together a 5 year educational technology implementation plan. Apparently blogging will play some part in it. They called me up to ask for 3 to 5 suggestions for outstanding, exemplary blogs. My reply? That's not easy!

As we talked about it we realized we should probably distinguish between blogs like this one (a teacher's voice) and class blogs (students voices).

I have tried to avoid posting about "my favourite blogs" because I am confident that I will succeed only in overlooking someone and possibly offending someone by not including their blog. And to be perfectly honest, there is so much diversity in blogging style, content and they ways in which this tool is used that I find it virtually impossible single out such a small number. So I thought I'd throw out an appeal to the collective wisdom of the edublogosphere. What are your top three blogs in each of these two categories: Student Voices and Teacher's Voices. Please leave your answers in the comments even if someone has already made the same choice(s). I'll aggregate the results and share them with everyone. Thanks.

Gmail and the Decision for Inaction

I've been using gmail since mid January and I love it. It's far and away the best email program I've ever used. One idea I read about (I forget where) involves setting up a second gmail account to use as online storage space. As of today, you get more than 2.7 gigabytes of disk space with a gmail account. Using the second account, over the summer, I plan to upload all the docs I've created/use in my classes to my second account. Gmail has a built in tagging feature. I'll tag each uploaded file with the course(s), topic and any other relevant tag I can think of. Then, when I need something I can search by tag, find it and download instantly from anywhere I may be. Some may think this naive but I suspect my data will be safer on Google's servers than they will be on my school division's servers. In any event I'm also keeping back ups on my home computer.

I shared this idea with other teachers in the Whiplash! workshop I gave in March. Two other teachers picked up gmail accounts and plan to use gmail in the same way; one account for email and another for storage.

Three weeks ago we learned, to our surprise, that while we were receiving email from colleagues they weren't getting any from us. I did some digging and learned that our division has blocked all gmail addresses because of the incredible volume of spam being sent to division accounts sourced to gmail. It was straining the server capacity. I asked them if they would white list just our email accounts and they immediately agreed. Problem solved?

This past week we again discovered that our gmail accounts were being blocked. Another phone call. Another conversation with someone who really did want to help me. This time they couldn't. After white listing only two gmail addresses the spammers wormed their way back into the division email system. They had not hijacked our accounts or done anything using our addresses. It was just that when all addresses were blocked there was no spam. When even two addresses were white listed spam proliferated. We can receive email at our gmail accounts we just can't email anyone in our division from those accounts.

I don't know enough about the filtering technology involved to carry this "argument" forward any farther. They are very sympathetic to my position at the school division but a couple of people wanting gmail access doesn't outbalance the need to protect the entire division from spam. They asked me if I would be interested in a hotmail account. I said no. It's not that a want an outside emailer, it's that I want the gmail emailer. Curious, I asked "Why do you ask about hotmail?" (Which is also blocked by the filter.) The answer: "Well, we had the same problem with hotmail. We contacted them and they have taken steps to block the offending IP addresses from their system. We've made several appeals to Google. Their response is to inform the US federal government. They are not willing to address the problem themselves they way hotmail has."

Google is famous for their principle of "do no evil." Well you "do" things by action and by inaction. The decision to not take action in the face of spammers using their service to attack public schools falls in the category of "doing evil by inaction." C'mon guys! You're so much better than that!! .... aren't you?

Wiki Solution Manuals

Six days ago I launched 3 new wikis. I call them "Wiki Solution Manuals." There's a wiki for AP Calculus, Pre-Cal 40S and Applied Math 40S. I used to use xwiki as my host but spammers have chased me away. I've moved over to pbwiki. (Peanut Butter Wiki - it's as easy as making a peanut butter sandwich.) Pbwiki has a more elegant look-and-feel and better security. Eventually, I'll move BPRIME over there as well.

The idea behind these wikis is that the students will collaboratively build a solution manual on the wiki to go hand-in-hand with the "textbook" they're writing on their blogs. My first foray into wikis didn't really take off because I didn't structure the activity well enough. Well, now we've got some structure and the students seem to be excited about it.

Here's how I've structured it:

  • »I've posted exam level problems, three from each unit of study, on each class wiki. The AP Calculus Wiki is a little different. There I posted 6 questions from the Open Response section of the exam.
  • »Each student must make two edits on the wiki. I've classified them as a Significant Contribution and a Constructive Modification:

    • »A Significant Contribution means ...
      you completely solve a problem including a detailed annotation of the steps involved. You may want to look at an example.

      You may have another idea for a significant contribution to the wiki. I'm open to your suggestions. Talk to me and make a suggestion. If we both agree that it would fall under this category then go ahead. Be creative with this; I'd really love to hear your ideas.

    • »A Constructive Modification means ...
      you edit someone else's work, not your own. You might correct a significant error or several small errors. Maybe you want to reorganize a page or the navigation from the home page. Maybe you want to edit someone else's entry, not for content, but for the way it's written such as by adding some meaningful colour or graphics. The main idea here is to move this project forward in some constructive way. Again, be creative with this.
  • »I'm using irows for marking student work. I've subscribed to the feed for each wiki in my Bloglines account. Whenever someone makes an edit the pbwiki feed contains their name and the content they've added/edited. I open my irows account in another tab in Firefox, open the appropriate spreadsheet I've created for just this purpose, and grade the student's work on the fly. I use a 4 point rubric (0 - 3) to grade the Significant Contributions in three categories:

    • »The math -- is the work correct?
    • »The annotation -- is it sufficiently annotated so that someone else can learn from it?
    • »The presentation -- how does it look? Is it easy to follow and understand?

    The Constructive Modifications have no categories but are marked using the same 4 point scale.

  • »Some problems may be easier to solve than others. So there is a bit of a competitive aspect to this project. The race is on to "claim" the problems. You "claim" a problem by posting a solution and annotation. I've learned that girls learning styles are more collaborative so a wiki is a very apropos. Boys thrive more in a slightly competitive environment, hence, the "race."
  • »I've explained to the students that this project is about getting them to think about their work and learning at a higher level (metacognition). The annotation aspect forces them to adopt the medical school paradigm of "watch it, do it, teach it." The editing of others work forces them to think critically and analyze the work of others. Operating at this level of cognition will deepen their learning and enhance their knowledge of the material. Hopefully their standards tests will be less intimidating as a result of their deeper understanding of the material. The editing of others work, in the search to make a Constructive Contribution, will require them to look at several different problems in this way. If nothing else, I hope they walk away from this experience with an appreciation of the powerful learning experiences inherent in collaboration.

The wikis are password protected so that only my students can edit them but they are open for public viewing. These are the three wikis:

The students in the Pre-Cal 40S class wanted to know if they could earn bonus marks on the wiki. Maybe ... we'll see how the project evolves.

Feed Windows

You probably know about Alan Levine's outstanding contribution to education on the net: Feed2JS. If you don't you can learn about it here. Tonight I just learned of a new service called Feedo Style. I'm using it to add feed windows to the sidebars of my classroom blogs. It's a free service. You don't even have to register for an account. Just pick one of their prepackaged feeds or provide your own. I'm using "my own" feeds.

The feeds I've chosen are feeds from other classes using blogs as educational tools. I'd like to foster a greater sense of community between my students and others that are learning similar material across the world. Hopefully this will provide yet another level of motivation for my students to learn hard. By seeing what other students are learning and writing I'm hoping they will feel a little competitive. Maybe they'll want to work a little harder in order to impress their global peers. Time will tell.

Tonight I've added one feed window. It's on the Ap Calculus AB blog. The feed comes from Ms. German's class blog: 42S AP Calculus. Ms. German is another Winnipeg teacher. She had attended my Rip, Mix, Learn workshop in October. Her blog started as an experiment, went dormant for a while and about two and a half weeks ago started churning out some interesting material. At least it's interesting if you're learning or teaching calculus. ;-)

I plan on opening several feed windows on my niece's blog. I know of five grade seven blogs (Dave Reece and Jeanne Simpson) and four grade 8 blogs (Chris Harbeck). The material they are posting might be helpful for her.

If you know of any other teachers who blog with their calculus, precalculus or Applied Math classes please let me know. If they're sharing their learning then I'd like to open feed windows to them on my other class blogs. Thanks.

A Call For Help ...

Mr. McNamar over at The Daily Grind has put out a call for help to the blogging community. He wants to help a remarkable young man. He writes:

It's the first Saturday of my spring break and I'm sitting in Starbucks grading essays. Now, don't feel bad for me, I bring it upon myself. But, for what often ends up depressing, the most recent batch of essays provided me with great satisfaction. And now, I need the help of the blogging community.

I read an essay, the likes of which I have never read in a Pre-College class. This essay has a future, should it find its way into the right hands. It is an essay that, when I finished reading, I felt like I had just finished reading an essay in a respected magazine or anthology. I once had a professor tell me a sermon I wrote for a Homiletics class could be published, but he never helped me. I want to help this kid. If you know of a way to get work published, please let me know. Here are some excerpts:

Black community--grammatical error, or bad combination of words?

Imagine taking a one thousand piece jigsaw puzzle nearing its completion, and wiping it clear off the table, sending the pieces scattering--in other words, imagine the Black community. A group of people who once shared, participated, and had fellowship, now kill the members of their own community at extreme rates--the Black community is imploding. Once a group that would fight against all odds, they now will fight anyone who doesn't wear their colors. During the Slavery Era, these traits could breathe, create beautiful music, and throw a knockout punch; it acted as a true community.

The Civil Rights Era, most prominent in the 60's, sprouted the best Black leaders to ever walk this earth. This era shot out Black talent faster than a Muhammad Ali jab. Black kids had people they could idolize, better yet, aspire to. From the darkest corners of Ralph Ellison's mind, to the untarnished prowess of Rosa' Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., this will never be an era forgotten by Blacks--or so I hoped.

You'll find more excerpts from LesMO's essay here. If you know how to help him get his work published contact Mr. McNamar through his blog.