Category Archives: philosophy

Teacher Appreciation? Treat Teachers like Doctors

In the United States — as in many cultures around the world — doctors hold a highly esteemed position. It is a career that is not only well-paid, but also well-respected by society as a whole.

All of this is well-deserved!  Doctors are very important people: staying healthy and alive are… well… essential for survival. Obviously, it is very important to have people who are knowledgable and well-versed in examination, analysis, identification, and treatment of an ailment. Without them, we would not survive nearly as well.

You know what else is essential for survival? Education. This has been a fact for humans (and even other animals, who often learn survival skills from their parents) since the dawn of time. As we encountered problems, we had to learn the most effective ways to solve them — from banging rocks together to make them sharper, to discovering beneficial vs. dangerous plants, to eventually finding ways to share this information and pass it down via language and writing (because even early civilizations knew how important education is.)

And here’s some fun food for thought: without education, there would not be doctors!

So… why aren’t teachers regarded the same way by society as doctors are? Why are they frowned upon as a “second class” citizen — somewhere above fry-cook but below lawyers, doctors, engineers, businesspeople, and a slew of other jobs.  And that’s at best, when they aren’t being outright vilified as the root of (or, at least, an ineffectual cure for) our society’s problems.  As a teacher, I generally feel like I am “looked down upon” — looked down upon by my wealthier friends who make a higher salary than I do, because my income must make me a “less valuable person”; looked down upon by people who think I must be an “incompetent” person because “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”; and looked down upon even by people who “admire” (or pity) me… some family members have even referred to me as a “philanthropist.” (That sounds like a positive comment; it wasn’t.)

I was never regarded in these ways when my primary occupation was a software engineer. I was considered “intelligent” and “successful” — someone to be respected.  Yet I was the same person, doing a job that was no more important — nor any more difficult — than teaching.

I believe the problem lies partly in a false rhetoric that has been created: that education and learning are as simple as “just identify the problem and fix it.”  In other words, a resounding school of thought is that, basically, teachers are mechanics. If we’re professionals, we should just be able to figure out what “part” is missing from a child’s knowledge, and add it, right?  Simple as swapping a carburetor…

Only… people are not machines. They are human beings — perhaps the most complex “machines” in existence. And knowledge of fixing them doesn’t boil down to knowing the ins-and-outs of several different makes and models.  Essentially, every person is a different make/model.  Imagine how difficult it would be for a mechanic if every single car they worked on was different and unique!

Still want to blame teachers when education is broken and learning doesn’t happen? Then let’s consider some more facts…

Unlike fixing a car, “fixing” a person’s knowledge is also not a “one-way system.” For auto mechanics (and computer programmers, and a slew of other professions), all power for success is in the hands of one party: the mechanic/programmer/engineer/etc.  The mechanic does not order a muffler, hand it to the car, and say “fix yourself.”

But in education, that’s exactly what has to happen.  Learning requires two parties: the deliverer (teacher), and the recipient (student.) Both of these parties are responsible for fulfilling their roles to make learning happen. The teacher has to (a) manage a classroom, creating an environment and controlling behaviors of a group of people to an extent that learning can occur; (b) analyze and identify where gaps in knowledge exist; (c) prescribe a solution (instructions, lessons, activities, practice) that will fill that gap in knowledge.  The student, however, also has to (a) follow the “prescription” of tasks assigned by the teacher, and (b) nope, that’s about it.  But it does mean that the student has to do something — it’s not all up to the teacher.

In other words, if being a teacher were the same as being a mechanic… the car would have to do its part to help “fix itself.”  What if the mechanic successfully pinpoints a problem, orders the right part… but then Herbie the Love Bug refuses to use it?  This is what educators face every day, if they identify a gap in student knowledge, prescribe a task or activity that will solve that gap and cause learning to occur, and then students choose not to obey that instruction or put in an effort. [Teaching may be the only profession I can think of where you are a Manager of a group of workers, yet have no choice in who was hired, and have no way to fire them if they do no work.]

And yet… teachers are the ones held accountable, as if they are the sole party with the power to “make learning happen.”

But teachers are not mechanics. They are doctors. They are doctors of the mind. Teaching is — quite literally — a branch of psychology (the psychology of learning, and really more than that; it’s a combination of cognitive and behavioral sciences, with some sociology thrown in, because it’s about both behavioral and group management — like business psychology — as well as learning.)

Like doctors, teachers identify a problem, and then prescribe a remedy. So… what if a doctor correctly diagnoses an illness, and prescribes an appropriate remedy accordingly? Do we hold a doctor liable if her patients refuse to take the prescribed medication, and end up dying? Do we hold a doctor liable if he tells his patient to stop drinking alcohol, and the patient refuses and ends up with cirrhosis? No?

Then why are teachers held accountable for:

  • poor home life conditions or lack of good parenting;
  • students not getting enough sleep or eating nutritious food (both of which affect thinking ability and behaviors);
  • or students simply not even trying, and not doing the work that is “prescribed” for them to learn

Why, when test scores are low, is it automatically “the teacher’s fault”? Do doctors get blamed if their patients don’t take the medicine? Do they get offered “merit pay” if their patients do? Nope, because it is patently absurd.

Why aren’t teachers treated like doctors?

I’m not asking for teachers to get paid the same as doctors.  All I’m asking is for a little respect, some understanding of what education actually entails, and a recognition that teaching is a challenging — and very important — job.

Happy Earth Day – Time to go Paperless!

Happy Earth Day from the paperless classroom!

I recently started presenting some presentations about going #paperless at conferences, so figured I would share the information here:

Did you know…

  • American schools use nearly 100,000,000,000 pieces of paper per year!
  • If you stacked up all of the paper used by U.S. schools in one year, it would extend into outer space, 6000 miles past the International Space Station
  • Going 1-to-1 with technology devices actually saves money (!) versus using old-school, traditional materials.

Digital Whiteboard using Google Sheets

“Old School”

When people think of a school classroom, they often think of this:

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  Nothing, in itself — a student has come up to the front of the room to show what she knows, and the teacher can analyze it and use it as an example for the rest of the class. It’s a great activity for the above purpose, and this student is probably getting a lot out of it.

But… what about the other 20-30 students in the class who are patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for her to finish? What are their brains doing during this time? Are they really examining closely, thinking, and processing like the girl at the chalkboard is? Does the teacher have any way to know what they are thinking? Does the teacher have any way to know if this one student’s abilities reflect the same level of understanding as the other students in the class?

All of the questions above highlight that we can improve the ways we do “show what you know” formative checks and practice! And we can do so by “getting with the times” and using some modern technology!  Chalkboard and whiteboards were great for the times  they were invented… which were centuries (chalkboards) or decades (whiteboards) ago!


Going New School

While reading my students’ blogs recently, I noticed that the kids were still having a lot of difficulties with certain grammatical and writing skills I wanted them to master (despite having done grammar lessons, plus practice at sites like Quill.org) Particularly, students were not using commas appropriately in sentences (for lists, yes; but not for direct-address, prepositions, appositives and compound sentences.)   I decided I needed to do some quick practice, reteaching, and checks to see who “got it” and who still needed help, or whether I needed to reteach a subject to the whole class.

I wanted something like calling students up to the front of class to show their work, but I wanted it to be faster and easier and to engage all students, not just one or two at a time. My first instinct was to create a shared Google Doc, but I realized it would be very difficult to have 20 students simultaneously type on that — they would probably be overwriting each other’s work, moving things around inadvertently, and/or copying work from what they see another student writing.

So, I figured I would use a Google Sheet (spreadsheet), since it is already organized into rows and columns, making it easy to assign a row or cell to each student as their own workspace.  It worked great! As a bonus, the student work is hidden while they are writing — all students can work simultaneously without being influenced by each other’s answers! (I didn’t originally realize it would do this, but this makes it work even better than I had expected!)

I now use this very simple, but very powerful, activity on a regular basis. I have found it especially useful for things like:

  • brainstorming
  • KWL charts
  • sentence and grammatical structure practice

Give it a try!


Easy as 1-2-3:

  1. Create a blank Google Sheets file in Google Sheets (name the file based on its purpose or skills you will be practicing)
  2. Add your student names/roster in the first column (A) so they know which row belongs to them. You can practice multiple skills in the same file by making new sheets/pages/tabs using the dropdown tab at the bottom (name each tab based on what skill or activity you want them to do on that page)
  3. In Google Classroom, create “Add Assignment” and locate your Sheet from the Drive. Then, before Assigning, make sure to change the student permission to “Students can edit file” (this is what allows everybody to work together simultaneously on the same screen!)

 

Make Writing “Social” With Student Blogs!

The challenge is this: you want your students to practice writing more often, but they aren’t very excited about it… and you aren’t, either, because it feels like it takes forever to grade them and give feedback. Without good feedback, how are they going to improve? But giving sufficient feedback takes a lot of time — even more when there are a lot of mistakes to correct and give feedback about. But how do we fix  that? With more writing! (ugh)

Here’s the solution: Daily writing! Doing short writes in a journal (or blog) every day makes it a more fun, casual experience, and it actually saves time because you can (a) randomly select a few students to use for analysis/examples in front of the class, and/or (b) pick and choose which topics/skills you want to grade.

Doing this the “old school” way in a journal was good; doing it the 21st century way via an online blog is even better!  What advantages does blogging provide?

  1. Builds 21st century communication, collaboration, and technology skills.
  2. Makes it easier to view student’s work… instead of collecting journals, you can just click and link and voila!
  3. Allows students to read each other’s work…
  4. Encourages best effort and pride in work because it is more of a “social network” style format!  By having an audience — and a global one, at that! — students find it both more motivational and more enjoyable.

So, how can you do this? Well, if you’re using Google Apps for Education, it’s easy!  Blogger.com is one of the most popular free blogging tools on the Internet (the other most popular tool being WordPress) and, conveniently, it is owned by Google!  This means that anybody with a Google account (such as teachers and students at GAFE schools) can easily sign in and create blogs!*

You simply guide students through the process of signing in, creating a blog (they will need to specify a blog Name/Title and URL address; I instruct them to use a specific format for each of those), and then click to add a new entry! The editing tools are pretty basic, similar to Google Docs and other text editing tools. The main difference is: you need to make sure to Save your posts and, when it is ready to show online, you have to click PUBLISH to make it visible to other people!

So, what to write about?  Could be anything! I started by using Daily Prompts online, such as at: Daily-Writing-Prompt.com

However, as time went on and we did bigger writing projects, I found that I wanted students to practice and master specific skills — in our case, they needed a lot of improvement with descriptive writing, narrative fiction, persuasive arguments, and dialogue format — so I created some of my own fun prompts to address those needs!  Click here for the living and growing Google Doc of my 6th grade prompts.

Click here to read our current student blogs!

*It’s always a good idea to check “Terms of Use” or “Terms of Service” to see, for example, if there are minimum age requirement. Currently the Blogger Terms of Service only specify “You may need a Google Account in order to use some of our Services. You may create your own Google Account, or your Google Account may be assigned to you by an administrator, such as your employer or educational institution. If you are using a Google Account assigned to you by an administrator, different or additional terms may apply and your administrator may be able to access or disable your account.”

Having said that, here are some Best Practices to follow:

  1. Tell students what you want the web address (URL) and title of their blogs to be. This will (a) prevent inappropriate words or names, and (b) allow you to easily find their blogs if you need to.
  2. Be sure that students aren’t using too much personally-identifying information. I have students use first names, but no last names, for example.
  3. Create a Google Sites page or Google Doc or Sheet in which you can create links to each student’s blog to easily access them, share with the class, with parents/administrators, or with the world (up to you how public you want to make it!)

Updates coming soon: PBL, CAD, 3D Printing, and a virtual Whiteboard

Just a quick note to say that, even though things have been super busy this year, this blog is not dead!

I will be adding a few new posts soon, including:

  1. How to use Google Sheets to replace your Whiteboard (or blackboard/chalkboard… or document camera), and achieve better learning in the process
  2. “The Parthenon Project”, an example of 21st century interdisciplinary PBL that incorporates math, language arts, and social studies skills with Google Docs, CAD modeling (and, possibly, 3D printing)
  3. Why Student Blogs are a great way to improve writing (and how to handle the logistics)
  4. Updated info and tips regarding 3D Printers in the classroom…

Stay tuned!

Making Math Magical

Although I am very logical, technical, and serious about teaching, many people (especially my students) are surprised to discover that I also have a whimsical, theatrical side… and a sense of humor.

I think bringing these things into the classroom  can be extremely powerful.  Who doesn’t like fun? Who doesn’t like to laugh? Plus, cognitive science tells us that things are more memorable when:

  • they are new/novel experiences
  • they inspire some sort of emotional response (surprise, shock, laughter, joy… even fear or disgust)

Fraction math is one area that has always seemed a bit esoteric and ambiguous to the kids –not to mention understanding why fraction multiplication and division are so useful and important.  One of those realms is in scaling recipes (chefs and caterers constantly multiply fractions)… but why make some regular old food recipe* when you can bring some magic into it?Wilybeard

Introducing… Potions 101!  A simple but fun math activity/practice/assessment hosted by our “substitute teacher” for the morning: Dr. William Wilybeard, Professor Emeritus, Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

* I do, in fact, have another character who reinforces fraction math via creation of actual food… like gingerbread minions!  His name is Dr. Friedrich  von Kookie, but that’s for different post..

The paperless classroom test results are in… and they are good!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on Paperless Mojo, for a variety of reasons — some of them being that I am developing lots of things (interface jacket, game, and possibly even a camera to capture the real world as a VR environment) for virtual reality, as well as developing an inexpensive computer/curriculum to teach kids coding via Minecraft (stay tuned!)

However, I’m also still here teaching a paperless classroom, for the third year in a row, and things are going great. The #PaperlessMojo is strong again this year!

How strong? Well, why don’t we just take a look at some objective, standardized data to measure how well our paperless 6th grade class did last year (results obtained from official CAASPP website):

ELA Results

Math Results

Notice anything remarkable? We ditched cursive and read from e-textbooks online, and the results? Only 6% of 6th graders scored “Standard not met” in English Language Arts testing.  Likewise, our math curriculum (Pearson Digits) was entirely online, from e-book to e-homework.  End result: 26% of students exceeded standard.

Compare our paperless 6th grade results to the other, non-paperless grades at our school.

Heck, compare our results to the entire state of California:

CA ELA ResultsCA Math

 

Now consider this:

The population of our school district, in which the paperless 6th grade outperformed average, is:

  • 86% disadvantaged (low-SES/free-or-reduced-lunch)
  • 83% Hispanic
  •  77% English learners (EL)

The implication seems clear: going paperless/digital certainly isn’t detrimental to the education of our students!

Don’t Just Play on Your Phone, Program It!

The title of this post is a quote from President Barack Obama, as he kicked off Computer Science Education Week in 2013 by urging kids (and students of all ages) to learn problem-solving STEM skills — specifically, learning how to code.

I have a long love affair with coding (I prefer “software engineering” — coding is like writing a sentence, but engineering, well… engineering is like writing a book; engineering is true problem-solving) — it began in 1986 when I was 8 years old, teaching myself how to create video games using MS-BASIC on an IBM 286 PC running DOS.  Like many kids, I liked loved video games — first the Atari 2600, then the Nintendo NES — and a realization grew in me that I could make computers do what I wanted them to do, and that was an awesome idea, even to 8-year-old me.

I have recently been giving some conference presentations about how to jump in and get kids programming, but it wasn’t until now that I have found an excellent way to actually use coding and app development as an authentic product to assess learning of science concepts, directly integrated in with our science standards.

It began when I exposed my students to MIT App Inventor, a free online resource that allows you to create actual Android apps using a simple blockly-style interface, familiar to anyone who has used Tynker, Scratch, or Code.org.

When students saw that they could manipulate my Android phone’s speech recognition and voice synthesis tools to create a talking (and listening) app, they were amazed and excited! (Easier said than done with jaded and technology-inundated 6th graders…)

Mobile?

So when I saw that my colleagues had put together a science project including creation of a mobile (you know, the dangly arts & crafts kind you probably haven’t made since 3rd or 4th grade, in which things are suspended from a clothes hanger), something clicked in my head.  Why show your knowledge through a mobile when you could demonstrate the same knowledge — in a much more engaging way — via a mobile app. My thinking is this: if the kids are just as excited about an authentic production tool as they would be about an arts & crafts project, and the end result demonstrates the same — or superior — understanding of the content knowledge… then why not do the project that incorporates relevant 21st century skills which could potentially prepare them for future college and careers?

Mobile!

 

So, we have begun creation of “Animal Expedition” — a simulation game for Android devices, in which you must rescue an animal by relocating it to a suitable environment.  This project covers science standards related to ecosystems, abiotic and biotic factors, energy pyramids and food webs, symbiotic relationships, and more… all while learning real-world-relevant skills of mobile app development. Stay tuned for finished product…!

Click here for app planning template

#InventionHour for #STEM and #STEAM – Better than Genius Hour!

As mentioned in the previous post, this year we have begun a new endeavor in which students learn the process of invention through authentic application. I am calling this exercise #InventionHour, and I wanted to explain a little more about what it is and why I started it…

It is more imperative than ever that we begin integrating true, authentic opportunities for problem-solving and product-producing in our classrooms. The fact of the matter is that just about every job in existence requires employees to solve problems — whether it’s finding cures for diseases, inventing new forms of green energy, or even just cleaning toilets. These are all problems that need to be solved.

This is especially true of modern careers in our information society. Some of the highest-paying careers with the most demand are those that require the most rigorous problem-solving capabilities. In particular, colleges and employers are finding that students and job applicants are severely lacking in requisite #STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills.   More recently, people have started recognizing a need to include Art into that mix, as well (#STEAM), which makes a lot of sense, because you need those aspects of imagination, creativity, and visualization for many of these tasks — graphic designers for software and apps; industrial designers for cars, computers, and other inventions.

To that end, our class has begun the inaugural participation in something I call #InventionHour. The idea is similar to “Genius Hour.” During Genius Hour,  students pursue an academic investigation of their choice, increasing motivation to learn. For one hour per week, students take ownership of their learning through individual research projects and reports, or producing  a variety of products based on student interest.

However, while the idea of Genius Hour is a great one, I have personally found Genius Hour to be a bit lacking and difficult to execute in practce.  Last year, while some of the class attended Band practice for one hour each week, the remainder of the students did “Genius Hour” during that time period. Right away, students were lost and confused — they had never been presented with a situation like this before. What was the goal? What was the product they were expected to create? How were they going to get the information they needed?

These questions, in and of themselves, are not a problem — they are exactly the kinds of questions we want students to learn to ask, because it represents the kind of open-ended problems they will face in the real world: Where are we going, and how do we get there?  That is the value of PBL (project-based learning), engineering, coding, invention and, yes, Genius Hour.

However, even with the role of teacher as a “Guide on the side” instead of a “Sage on the stage,” the very open-ended nature of Genius Hour poses problems:

  1. Students don’t know what they don’t know. Thus they have a tendency to stick to what they know, which defeats the whole purpose of Genius Hour (in which we want them to learn something new)
  2. Research and presentation is an easy choice, but product creation is a more relevant and engaging one. The problem with product creation, however, is that: (a) students will choose to create products they already know how to create or are already good at (see point 1 above); or (b) students will simply try to find something other people have done and to follow a simple recipe or tutorial (via YouTube or website) … while this is fun and does allow them to do something new, merely following a recipe to replicate what somebody else has done doesn’t really enforce the types of 21st Century skills we want the kids to be learning: inquiry… planning… failure (yes, failure!), and what to do when failure arrives: troubleshooting, revision.

Thus I found Genius Hour both difficult to teach/conduct, and lackluster in its final results.

This is how #InventionHour was born. Rather than simply do some research, or replicate products others have already made, why don’t we actually try to obtain and apply knowledge to actually solve problems and make the world a better place? Because, in the end, that’s what education is for: to get the tools you need (whether it’s reading, writing, math, or electrical engineering or quantum physics) to solve problems and make the world a better place.

A few years ago, when I was teaching GATE (gifted) students, we participated in a Smithsonian/ePals Invention Challenge and ended up being a Featured Classroom as well as being First Place Winners in the 5th grade age division of this international contest.  I figured… why not bring that process and that challenge to all students? You don’t need to be gifted to come up with good ideas for solutions to problems (you really just need to think “outside the box” a little bit), and you don’t need to be gifted to learn a step-by-step process to make that idea reality.

I am currently developing and sharing #InventionHour resources at www.InventionHour.org, so be sure to check that out and give it a try… you’d be amazed what kids (or even you) can do!

Happy #EarthDay from the #Paperless Classroom!

Earth Day 2015

It has been a long time since posting updates, but that’s not because the cool things we are doing have come to a halt… on the contrary, the year has been so great and productive that there simply isn’t much time to blog about it!

But, being Earth Day, I figured this would be a good time to remind everybody of the many Eco-Conscious reasons to go paperless!

 

  • Did you know that the average K-12 school in the United States uses about 1,000,000 pieces of paper per year?
  • This means a paperless school would save up to 240 trees every year! (Based on Conservatree)
  • Even if you use recycled paper, the carbon footprint of this much paper is as high as 13 tons of CO2! (Source: ClimateFriendly.com )
  • Computer technology is not 100% green — it requires heavy metals, and a source of electricity to run — but if we’re going to use them, we might as well eliminate the wastefulness of paper!