Thursday, March 28, 2013

New App: CommonCoreResources

Over the course of the past year, I have had many conversations with staff about the implications of the heightened expectations of the Common Core State Standards.  Invariably, the conversation turns to questions about tactics (e.g.,How do we approach this work?) and strategy (e.g., How exactly does our work need to change for students to meet the expectations of the Common Core?)  While I do believe that there is no formulaic, uniform answer that will work for all people in all places, I also believe that everyone, everywhere is working very hard trying to figure out the answers to the same questions.  Wouldn't it benefit us all to have a look at the good work that is out there and use it as needed to inform our professional practice?
And so, this week I visited all of the state Department of Education websites.  Some states have done truly remarkable jobs at creating valuable, informative resources that support teachers' work in implementing the Common Core.  Other states have...published links to the great work that the aforementioned states have done.  (Cough, cough.  Ahem.)  I added in links to resources from places like the CCSSO, Achieve The Core, ASCD, and many others.  The goal was to create a one-stop-shop for teachers looking for tools to support their practice, ranging from PD materials to Units of Study/Curriculum Maps to Assessment Resources.

I used to create my app.  It was very intuitive and easy to use.  Most of the work was finding the content and constructing a plan for how to lay it all out.  TheAppBuilder tool made the construction of the app very easy indeed.  I had to learn a little bit of HMTL when trying to insert links into text description fields in the tool, but aside from that, TheAppBuilder was very user friendly.

I owe a great deal of thanks to Dr. Wesley Fryer, who led a fantastic session at the ICE13 Conference on app creation.  Without his insight, I never would have been able to start (let alone finish) something like this.  The link to the app is:  Please feel free to use it if you like, and I welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section!

Monday, March 18, 2013

DragonBox+: Algebra Made Easy!

For quite a while, I have been searching for a mathematics app that is able to not only teach procedural fluency, but also address the underlying conceptual understanding that is so important.  There are some great apps out there, but most of them invariably fall back to a default reliance on teaching procedures, which to me looks much too much like traditional mathematics instruction.

Therefore, I was thrilled to find the DragonBox+ app.*  The app actually teaches algebra and has a lot of mathematical concepts embedded within the game.  The app is very visually appealing and is highly intuitive.  Students can solve puzzles without even realizing the serious mathematics that lies underneath.  For example, on just the first level, students are already applying the inverse element, exploring what an equals sign means, and solving equations.  At first, the students solve to get a treasure chest by itself.  By puzzle 18, the treasure chest becomes "x."

The scaffolding of content here is terrific.  At first students are working with symbols, which then become numbers and variables.  More complex concepts are added, such as fractions and the multiplicative identity element, but the app maintains a sufficient level of challenge and continues to engage students throughout.  The mathematical concepts presented here can easily be supplemented by a number of extension activities outside the app to further develop mastery.  For those that think algebra is only for middle school and high school students, let your primary students explore with DragonBox+ and let algebra happen!

*I should note that I am not being compensated by DragonBox+ to write these kind words.  I am simply a mathematics enthusiast and former algebra teacher who is thrilled to see algebra presented in such a fun and engaging way!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pi Day

Today is one of my favorite instructional days, Pi Day.  The concept of pi existing as a geometric ratio in its purest form, and that any numeric representation of pi is an approximation of its true value can be tricky for students to grasp. There are so many fun activities that can be done with students today to explore and learn about pi.

One of the more interesting activities that I've seen done with pi was this musician's interpretation, where he converted numbers to notes to create a beautiful musical composition.  Enjoy Pi Day!

UPDATE: I found some exciting Pi Day logic puzzles at Pi Day Challenge.  Playing requires either a Facebook login or account creation.  The puzzles are challenging and fun!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Change and Identity

A recent discussion with colleagues led me to reflect on organizational change and which strategies are most effective at driving such change.  Whether we look at change at a district or building level, we are fundamentally looking at a pragmatic, realistic assessment of our current state, and the careful planning of action steps to achieve a desired state.  There are many issues that affect change, including scale (e.g., a large district will require additional time and resources than one small school,) resource allocation (i.e., are the organization's resources aligned to support the desired change,) and perhaps most importantly, how adults in the system navigate the change process.

The brilliant Richard Elmore has co-authored a book, "Instructional Rounds in Education", that in part addresses how we as educators approach our work.  He compares the feedback a typical educator receives with the type of feedback medical students receive.  To paraphrase, he states that where medical student conversations are more objective and clinical in nature, educator feedback is laden much more often with statements that contain value judgments.  By focusing on the instructional core and providing substantive, objective feedback to educators, transformational change is possible within schools.  While Dr. Elmore's work is quite profound and has tremendous implications for our work, I find myself drawn to the emotional component associated with educators and the change process.

Why do so many educators take feedback personally? Why do we equate feedback on our professional practice with feedback about ourselves?   Is it something unique to our work, or a natural response to the type of feedback we've been accustomed to receive?

I absolutely agree with Dr. Elmore that a form of clinical detachment can be much more productive than an emotional conflation of professional practice and self.  However, to arrive at that state, we must emerge from the current state, which has been engrained by decades of practice and routine.  In thinking about potential steps, I found the following talk by Dan Heath (in which, he cites the work of John Kotter,) to be interesting:

Kotter's redefinition of the change process resonates with me because it connects with how I understand substantive change to happen: an emotional response serves as the motivation to change.  I have tried to incorporate many of these ideas into my own professional practice in navigating both the heightened expectations of students and educators articulated by the Common Core State Standards and the integration of new technologies into our curriculum.  How have you approached change, both structural and individual, in your school or district?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Stop Motion Animation

On a recent visit to a primary classroom, I observed students creating new words by changing the first letter(s) of the words.  For example, if the word was "ball", other students could create a new word by substituting the letter c to make the word call, or the letter w to make wall, and so on.  Students could create either real words or nonsense words and were having quite a bit of fun doing so.  The activity was part of what was overall a very engaging and successful lesson.  As I reflected on the lesson, I began to wonder how technology could potentially be integrated into the activity.  As engaging as it was, the students were working exclusively with concrete materials (e.g., paper letters the students cut out, plastic letters in some cases, etc.)  How could technology enhance our students' experiences?

At the recent 2013 ICE Conference, I attended a breakout session presented by Jeff Shaw, an Academic Facilitator at North Shore Country Day School.  Jeff's presentation, "Stop Motion Magic on an iPad," was incredibly informative and explored how students and teachers could create their own stop motion animated movies using the iMotion app.  The process is remarkably simple: open the camera within the app, take a picture, move items in the picture about a centimeter, take another picture, move items again, take another picture, and repeat.  When your movie is finished, save to the Camera Roll and open it in iMovie to edit and/or add background music or sound effects.  Ta-da!  Easy, right?

Jeff stated during his presentation that 300-350 pictures would make approximately a 30 second movie.  This is my first attempt at a stop motion animation movie:

I took 120 pictures to create that movie, and it lasted 7 seconds.  I am very happy with iMotion's ease of use, and I believe it has many positive potential applications within the classroom, either as a presentation tool for teachers, or as a creation tool for students.  Some lessons learned:

  • Lock the camera/iPad in place.  I tried holding it over a white background and moving the items with my free hand, and you can clearly see the camera's movement from one frame to the next.
  • Think carefully about the process skills students will need to make their own movie, and how those skills will be modeled and taught to students.
  • Some of the greatest discoveries can only happen when there is freedom to explore!
Looking forward to integrating stop motion animation using iMotion!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Clouds and Knowledge Extinction

I recently discovered Sugata Mitra's thought-provoking TED talk, "Build a School in the Cloud."  If you haven't seen it yet, you absolutely should:

Mr. Mitra's vision is inspirational and aspires to answer a central question of modern day education: how do we prepare and educate the children of today for their jobs in the future, many of which do not exist yet?  Mr. Mitra's answer is to develop Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE) environments where inquiry-based learning is not only the foundation, but the linchpin of the learning experience.  Mr. Mitra's experiences with his "hole in the wall" experiments offer compelling evidence for students' ability to take ownership of their learning and think critically.

In the midst of all of these positives, I find myself returning to one of Mr. Mitra's central questions: Is knowledge obsolete?  Of what value is knowledge, if computers can recite any fact much quicker and more accurately than the human memory?

I agree with Mr. Mitra that most of traditional educational pedagogy is centered around either learning facts or the application of rote procedures to solve problems.  The creation of the type of dynamic learning environment that is central to Mr. Mitra's vision represents a significant break from this traditional approach, where the teacher is the center and appraiser of all knowledge in the classroom.  Herein, however, lies the conundrum.

How does the learning in the SOLE environment happen without that knowledge source in the classroom?  While a computer can introduce a task, it is the human element that assesses student need in real time, asks the appropriate guiding question to refocus the group, and provides words to reassure or challenge students based on individual needs.

Technology can do a great many things, and that number of things increases exponentially with each passing year.  However, it cannot yet diagnose a student's academic and social-emotional needs in real time and know exactly what to ask or say to comfort, challenge, or motivate a student whose learning has stalled (e.g., the "encouragement" and/or the "granny cloud" that Mr. Mitra references).  It is the human connection that matters most.  What will those connections look like in the future?

Friday, March 8, 2013


  I attended the recent Illinois Computer Educators' Conference in Saint Charles, Illinois, and was absolutely amazed by both the depth and quality of the presentations.  I am the principal of a K-6th grade school in South Elgin, Illinois, and thought we were starting to implement some exciting things related to technology.  We procured a classroom set of iPads using external grants, document cameras for every classroom, and have significantly upgraded our building's tech infrastructure.  All great first steps, but when I saw the incredible things that are happening out in the educational landscape, I saw just how much more was possible.
  I was inspired to start this blog to chronicle our journey through a full tech upgrade at our school, from resource procurement and management to changes in pedagogy using technology.

  We are all collectively taking our first steps toward tech integration and implementation.  Some big questions remain in front of us.  Resource questions: Chromebooks or laptops?  Schoology or Edmodo?How many iPads?  Which apps?  Pedgogical questions: How to best integrate technology given the more rigorous expectations of the Common Core State Standards?  How to define the content (i.e., what students should be able to know and do at every grade level, although the PARCC Model Content Frameworks help there) and process (i.e., what skills students need to demonstrate their content mastery) skill gaps at every grade level, and create and implement plans to address those gaps by the 2014-2015 school year?

  When I've got that figured out, I'll let you know.  In the meantime, we're on the path!