Saturday, April 23, 2011

Independent Learning Resources for Students

Some of my students are expressing interest (or even concern) in math topics that have come up on the current math exam. In my experience, when a student expresses an interest in a math concept, it's a great opportunity, and I really don't want to let it slip out of my grasp.

Image: WikiMedia Commons
Unfortunately, schedules, other work, and the vast amount of things that need to get done can sometimes get in the way. There are only so many recesses and lunch periods to spend giving students extra help. Add in any student extra-curricular activities that take that time, and you're left without much of an opportunity to engage those students in the learning they are craving.

That's where some online resources can come in handy. Most of my students have internet access at home, so I can send them home with some links to videos and practice activities. That way, when we finally have another opportunity to practice together, they haven't lost the motivation to learn.

Khan Academy has an amazing, vast array of learning resources. Videos and practice exercises are the basics that the site provides, but there's quite a bit more to it. You can set up a coach/student partnership, where the coach can see each student's progress through the lessons available on the site. I would recommend that you take a few moments to explore their website, and they're not-for-profit, too! You won't have to pay, and your students won't pay, either.

Another site I've been trying out lately is Math Playground. I came across it while looking for a demonstration and practice activity for a specific (and apparently difficult-to-find) math concept. They have short video explanations, and related math practice exercises. I haven't yet had an opportunity to look through much of the site, but from what I've seen, it looks promising. The video explanations are clear, and the audio and video are much better than the typical I'm-writing-on-the-white-board-and-you're-looking-at-my-back-while-I-speak-and-by-the-way-I-filmed-this-with-my-old-webcam kind of materials found all over YouTube.

The key criteria for this type of resource (when I'm looking for them) is that students must be able to engage in the learning independently. Different types of resources exist, where students can collaborate with a teacher or tutor within a virtual environment, but that kind of resource is outside the scope of this post. I am looking for places where students can explore topics covered in class in more detail, at their own pace, on their own time, without needing any other help or support.

What sites do you encourage your students to use? Where do you go for clarification of a concept or topic? How do you help those students who are interested? Post a comment to let me know!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Using a Feed Reader

There is a vast array of fantastic resources available for teachers online. So many great people are posting things like professional development ideas, teaching resources, or even full lesson plans (ahem). It's mind-boggling to think of the information available to teachers these days.

But how are teachers supposed to keep up-to-date on all of these fabulous things? There's teaching, marking, planning, meetings, conferences, parents, and students to keep track of on a daily basis. Spare time? Not really. Spare time to browse the web and research the latest developments in education research? Really unlikely.

RSS Icon
So why not have the information come to you? Yes, with the wonders of Web 2.0, now you can have content delivered straight to your browser, desktop, smartphone, or email. Many great websites have an RSS icon (Really Simple Syndication). Click on it (there's an example on the right), and you'll probably end up at a website with a stream of text, only some of which is legible. Don't panic! This is called an RSS Feed. Just copy the URL (you know, the part that starts with the whole http:// business) from the address bar of your browser.

Now open your favourite RSS Feed reader. I personally like Google Reader (I set it as my home page, and always keep it open in a tab on my browser). There is an incredible variety of feed readers out there, for many different platforms. Just do a quick web search for "feed reader" and whatever platform you're interested in (e.g. iPhone "feed reader" or windows 7 desktop "feed reader"), and you'll probably find several options.

Now that you've set up your reader, keep your eyes open for the RSS icon. Each time you find it on a website you like, you can click on it, and subscribe to the website's RSS feed. It's similar to a magazine subscription: when there is new content, it will be delivered to you. You don't need to go looking any more! Have a favourite resource that you're always checking? Click "subscribe" and you'll always be up-to-date on the latest developments.

If you're still not certain, check out this Common Craft video explanation. It's fast, simple, and very well explained (Common Craft does a great job explaining many different things in their simple format).


Common Craft video used with permission.

P.S. Here's a list of feeds I subscribe to (in no particular order): 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Odd Loops

I love pointing out interesting phenomena. Just take a look at the post about Fibonacci for an example. One thing I have noticed about myself is that I tend to over-explain, so I have tried to get out of the habit, and just allow children to explore those things on their own terms.

Image: David Benbennick, Wikimedia Commons
Have you ever seen a möbius strip? It's "a surface with only one side and only one boundary component." That's right: a real, three-dimensional object you can hold in your hand, with only one side and only one edge. You can even make one out of paper! It's a loop of paper with one half-twist in it.

Show it to a kid, and you'll probably get a less-than-super-enthusiastic response. So what? It's a paper loop. Have the child cut the loop in half lengthwise, and they'll have a strange situation on their hands: you end up with one loop that's twice as long, and half as wide. Cut it again, and the same thing will happen.

Do the same thing, but this time put a full twist in the paper and cut it in half. I won't give away the result here, but try it for yourself. Really do it. It'll take a minute of your time, but it might make you think a bit about what's happening. That's what you're going for with your students: they'll need to think about what is happening. Ask them the questions. Let them teach you about what's going on. I think you might enjoy it.

Oh yeah, there's a plan for it, too. Don't think I would leave you to figure out everything on your own! That's not what I'm here for.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fibonacci & Art

Anyone who has ever had to look at the Fibonacci sequence has probably thought "So what?" It seems very easy on the surface: each number is the sum of the previous two. Simple, right?

Image: WikiMedia Commons
Not really. When you start to look into it, Fibonacci's sequence starts to crop up in unexpected places. Expressed as a ratio between two adjacent numbers in the sequence, the Golden Ratio (or Golden Section) is the reason some shapes just look right. DaVinci thought so.

When I learned about this, it struck me as amazing. Who knew that math actually happened in real life? That there was a way to describe the pattern of seeds on the top of a sunflower. That leaves grow in a pattern that optimizes the efficiency of catching the Sun's energy. That math is actually interesting!

A few years ago I wrote a lesson about the Fibonacci sequence. It's really an introductory lesson, meant to give students the opportunity to explore and create a pattern based on Fibonacci. You don't need to be a mathematician to teach it (not even a mathemagician). It's a fun way to get students thinking about patterns, and that they might just run into some math outside of the classroom.

If you're interested, the plan is available here. Take it as a starting point, and enjoy the journey. Don't be surprised if your students start to find Fibonacci's numbers everywhere. Believe them!

If you didn't already, click on the math is interesting link. You'll probably enjoy Vi Hart's math doodles series - it's an interesting perspective on topics like this one.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Teach Yourself about Technology

If you're interested in technology, there is no end to the amazing tools available online for educators. The problem lies in spending the time necessary to find and learn about all this great software. That's why you're reading this, right?

Sharing ideas is as the heart of the Springfield Township High School Library Guide, which is packed with information about many different kinds of tools available online for the teacher who wants to integrate technology into his or her class. From video editing to QR codes, this is an amazing resource to find out about something you've heard of (maybe you want to know more about augmented reality, with the release of the new Nintendo 3DS).

The great thing about this site is that it is packed with resources and information that is directly applicable in the classroom. The information is mostly presented in video format (with a few exceptions), making it accessible to you and your students, regardless of reading level.

I have added this to my list of websites to check out regularly. They've set up a few different RSS feeds to help you keep up to date on the latest page and guide updates.

Happy viewing!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Smart Board Tips, Tricks, and Techniques

Because I visit other classrooms once in a while, and I talk about technology with other teachers quite often, I get the chance to gain insight into how teachers are using the technology they have in their classrooms. I have noticed something when I visit classrooms with Smart Boards in them: many teachers tend to use their Smart Board as a replacement for the white board (which replaced the chalk board).

This is not a bad thing! Smart Boards work well as a replacement white board (although I wouldn't mind them being quite a bit bigger). The problem is that this tends to be the full extent of the Smart Board use that I have seen. If teachers stop there, then what's the point of putting Smart Boards in the classroom in the first place? I have even heard this lament from some teachers - they don't have the resources available to help them take advantage of the more advanced features. The really sad part is that in my current school, the web filter blocks the Smart Tech help and support website.

This is a source of personal frustration for me. I believe passionately in the importance of technology in the classroom, but it can't just gather dust! Research shows that in order for technology to be useful, it must be accompanied by professional development for teachers.

I gave a workshop at my school for teachers who are already comfortable with their Smart Boards. This was not a "plug this wire in here" type of workshop - it was to show what makes the Smart Board different from a plain old whiteboard. It was a lot of fun, and I know that at least a few of the techniques I demonstrated were put into practice. My objective, however, was not to give the teachers skills on the Smart Board (although that was a happy by-product); I wanted them to think about how they could change the way they use the Smart Board.

For a downloadable example, check out this file (you need the Smart notebook software to view it). It is a quick animation of the equivalence of one whole, ten tenths, and one hundred hundredths (that's 1/1, 10/10, and 100/100). An oral explanation of the animation is necessary, but it can be a useful addition to a math lesson on equivalent fractions. The notebook file makes use of layers, animations, cloning, and layout, but none of its components are complex. It is also available on the Smart Exchange website, which allows a preview (if you don't have the software).

It took me over a month, but I have put together a quick video of some of the techniques I demonstrated at this workshop. This is not an exhaustive explanation of how to do things (just use your favourite search engine to find that): I wanted to show off some of the things that Smart Boards and the notebook software are capable of.

Take a look - it's only 8 minutes. Think about how you might use the Smart Board, and what makes it so different from a white board. And, if you can, ask for (or demand) some professional development opportunities to teach you these skills! I'd be happy to visit your school to help you integrate technology effectively!