Thursday, August 29, 2013

Putting technology to work in my classes

After a summer in which I taught a 3-week workshop for middle school math teachers with iPads in everyone's hands, I am returning to my regular classes, in which students may or may not have a mobile device. What to do? How can I use technology to improve the workflow and the learning in my classroom?

I'm sure there's no one right answer to these questions, so I plan to try 3 variations in my 3 classes. 

For the past several years I used technology mostly outside of class, to create and push PDF handouts to students and to keep a grade book. Having used iPads during the summer, though, I feel that I can improve the workflow and my communication with students by doing more with technology.

For my undergraduate classes:
What am I doing? 
Here, my plan is to take snapshots of students' work to be presented, and to use ThreeRing to manage the photos. The rest of the work (homework submissions, exams) will be handled via paper, though students who miss class can submit homework via emailed photos.
I am hopeful that snapping photos of the work will free some of my in-class attention to monitor the class better and generally to engage a bit more in-the-moment of the presentation. 

In one of the classes, I am projecting the photo via iPad, and making annotations based on the class discussion using NotesPlus, so that the presenter gets back a photo with the annotations the class made to his/her proof.

In addition, for my undergraduate Math for Middle School Teachers course:
What am I doing?
Here, my focus is going to be on using technology to enliven the curriculum. So I intend to "3 act" some of the material, in the sense of Dan Meyer. I'm working on trying to motivate more of the problems by developing more wonder or want-to-know, using photos and videos as appropriate.
First, with the onset of Common Core, as much as I think I had a good curriculum, I would like to add another layer of making the problems more intriguing, as opposed to, "Do this because I am assigning it." Also, I want to get these pre-service and early career teachers thinking about how to make lessons that have 21st century appeal, that use media to draw students in to the mathematics. If the problems were not valuable, window dressing would not help; but in this case, I think we had good contextual problems, and adding media should draw out more interest and perhaps help students take more ownership of the directions of the questions we pursue in class.

For a graduate course: 
What am I doing?
Here, the students are primarily practicing secondary teachers, and already have one or more mobile devices (smart phone, tablet, laptop). So I am going to use ThreeRing here also, but adding the feature of having students submit homework to ThreeRing on their own. They also have occasional reading assignments which they submit to a Moodle discussion board (something I was already doing in the past).
As with the other courses, I want to be freed up from my usual note-taking, and just add a few annotations during presentations, so that I can engage myself more with monitoring understanding and pushing the conversation in the room. Beyond that, I want teachers to begin to see the power of tech tools for rethinking their own classroom workflows.

What did I choose not to do?
I considered:
  • Opening a backchannel for students to air their questions during student presentations, using something like TodaysMeet. I have split feelings on this issue. This is either harnessing the power of texting for good, or it is letting face-to-face conversation go the way of the dodo bird.
  • Using Subtext, which is going to have a web version soon, to have discussions of readings in grad classes. I have not done this, but will consider it if the web app becomes available, or if we require iPads for our grad students, which we are considering.
  • Having students create portfolios in a cloud drive for me to access and give feedback. Here, I decided against it because of access issues. I am surveying my students this semester to see if they have their own devices. But if they only use a school computer, then it is more difficult for them to see my feedback than it is when I return things by hand. Because of the importance of the portfolio as a review tool, I choose not to take that risk here (whereas I do not mind doing this with the presentations being returned via ThreeRing, because they present only a few times, and it is less important that they access the feedback quickly).
What am I missing? How do you feel about this plan? I look forward to your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

9 Ways to Engage Reluctant Students, aka Tackling the Startup Problem

Any IBL instructor has faced the issue of students who struggle to get going, who seem to want to be passive, and who participate, if at all, only reluctantly. Some years ago, Stan Yoshinobu and I coined "the startup problem" for those students who can't seem to get started with IBL. Let me say up front that I have not solved the startup problem. However, I have developed a number of strategies to use with students who seem disinclined to engage with the class. Let me list them first, and then I will go into detail below.

  1. Engage the student in social conversation. 
  2. Build habits: set action triggers.
  3. Talk about how to succeed in class.
  4. Express confidence in IBL.
  5. Assign a sociable partner.
  6. Invite contributions to discussions.
  7. Invite the student to present.
  8. Shrink the change.
  9. Don't give up.
  1. Engage the student in social conversation. One of my first strategies for getting students involved is to make a human connection with them. Ask how they are doing, ask what other classes they are taking, ask about sports or hobbies, but do something so they feel that I recognize their presence in the classroom, and to let them know they are not invisible in the class.
  2. Build habits: set action triggers. Sometimes one of the root causes of students' lack of participation is lack of (effective) preparation for class. So I often ask students who are not actively contributing what they are doing outside of class. Based on the information I get, I talk with the student about setting aside a time for working on my class. An action trigger is an idea I learned from Switch. It means you agree to take an action based on some event. In conversations with students, this often sounds like, "OK, so you finish putting your kids to bed, and then that's the best time for you to set an hour to work on this class," or "So, you walk out of the class after mine, and you have a break between classes when you can hide out in the library and work on this class." The idea is just that the student has something external to him or her that will trigger some work time.
  3. Talk about how to succeed in class. Closely linked to getting students to make a habit of spending time on the class is helping them understand what to do with that time. In my IBL classes, students are not able to simply mimic a solution provided to them on 20 examples. So we talk about what to do. Read definitions, then reread them. Then try to paraphrase the definition, build examples of the definition, and get comfortable with it. Then read the problem or theorem, and try to understand it with examples. And so on. To the extent that IBL is about not being the source of validation for answers, it is about helping students learn how to learn, which means these kinds of conversations are important.
  4. Express confidence in IBL. At this point in my career, I have a lot of success stories, stories of students who struggled at first, but through determination and good work habits, got through my class and went on to graduate. On the first day of class, I let students know that the road will be difficult but worth it. After that, depending on the class and the number of students having the startup problem, either the whole class will hear one of the success stories, or individual students will hear it. I want them to know that I know they can do it, that IBL works, and that I know it will work for them if they put in the effort.
  5. Assign a sociable partner. If I think part of the student's lack of engagement is shyness, then I may assign a partner who is confident and sociable, who will engage the quiet student in conversation and encourage him/her to participate in discussions.
  6. Invite contributions to discussions. When leading discussions, sometimes I let volunteers share, and sometimes I call on specific students. If I have students who have not contributed in any recent class, I will do a Think-Pair-Share, and then ask a reticent student to share what s/he discussed. By asking for a report on a discussion, rather than asking the student to come up with something on the spot, it relieves some of the pressure on the student, and makes it more likely that s/he will have something to share.
  7. Invite the student to present. In my IBL classes, presentations at the board play a role--sometimes larger, sometimes smaller. But in all classes, students are required to present during the semester. If I have students who have not presented, I will seek them out. At first, I may give a non-specific suggestion, like, "I'd like to see you come with a presentation ready in the next week. Let me know." If a week goes by and I get nothing, then I will typically assign the student to a presentation, and remind them that if they are stuck, or worried about it, that they should come talk to me about their ideas in office hours.
  8. Shrink the change. Sometimes, even after doing the above, even if the student makes a presentation, s/he doesn't seem to be making progress in the class. If the student is not engaged but attending class, then I will try to find a moment at the end of class when I can catch the student on his/her way out the door, and start a conversation. If the student is not attending class, then they get an email from me. This is where Switch comes in again. I want to get the student emotionally connected with wanting to succeed. Have you ever had one of those "Buy 10, Get 1 Free" cards? Research suggests that people do better with a "Buy 10…" card when they get 2 bonus punches when they start the card, rather than if they had a "Buy 8…" card with no bonus punches. Mathematically, both cards effectively require 8 purchases to earn a free item. But emotionally, we feel farther along with those 3 punches on the first purchase. The term "Shrink the Change" refers to trying to make people feel as if they are farther along than they realize. I will do this both in terms of how far they are toward graduation, and how far they are towards passing the class. Even disengaged students have turned in work, taken the quiz and an exam, etc. So I tell them that they have come this far, and this is what they need to do to complete the course. I also try not to overwhelm them, and I usually focus them on the nearest goal. I might say or write in an email something like, "The first step is to come to the next class with a complete set of attempts on all the problems," or, "The next step is to try this specific problem and either bring a solution to class or bring your ideas to me before class, so you can present a solution."
  9. Don't give up. I have been using IBL for more than 10 years. I have seen some surprising cases where students who did not seem to be making progress, even 10 weeks into a 15 week semester, somehow found their way to success in the class. I remind myself of this fact whenever I encounter tough cases. Sometimes if I show faith in the students, that is the small push they need to find the determination to succeed. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Harnessing your personality

This summer, I had the privilege of working with some great people, including my longtime friend and IBL (Inquiry-Based Learning) blogger Stan Yoshinobu, Dana Ernst, Dylan Retsek, and a number of other IBL instructors. One day, we sat on a panel and we were discussing our approaches to getting student buy-in in our courses. As we went around, I was struck by the variety of ways we had to approach this issue. Dylan Retsek described being William Wallace, rallying students into a frenzy of excitement, and Dana Ernst added to that by saying he tries for Robin Williams, i.e., using humor, and William Wallace, and mentioned being a cheerleader for students. I think both Dylan and Dana are excellent instructors, but I doubt I could run my class that way. 

I do use some humor. On the other hand, I doubt that I have ever led a Wallace-like rally, and I don't think I would describe myself as cheerleading either. My classroom demeanor is very low key. In some classes, I have made a straight face and said, "This is what it looks like when I'm not excited about your work," followed by making the same face and saying, "This is what it looks like when I AM excited about your work." In classes where there is a lot of math-phobia, I set the tone for the course early on by having them share how they feel about math. Then I note how many negative attitudes toward math there are, and I tell the class that I want to help move them in a positive direction, but that we will need to do things differently. 

Instead of cheer, I usually offer a simple thank-you to a student who presents work to the class, and I try to include specific points of recognition and suggestions for improvement.

The point is that everyone has their own personality, and making IBL work in YOUR class will require that you find the elements of your personality that help you identify with students in their struggle to learn, and that assuage their fears. Sometimes, instructors let themselves out of implementing key portions of IBL because it they don't feel it fits. I am suggesting that certain kinds of actions are critical, but that you have to find the way that makes them feel right to you.

IBL instructors have to connect with students, and work to communicate to students that the IBL approach will work, but will take patience. This could be rallying them with excitement, or helping them find the feelings that suggest something different is warranted. IBL instructors tend to value giving recognition to students who share their ideas, but the way this is delivered will be based on your personality. 

To borrow an analogy I sometimes use in class, students in an IBL class need to know that as in a swim class, they must be the ones doing the swimming--you can't do it for them--but that you will not let them drown. HOW you communicate this sentiment is up to you.

Make IBL work in your class by finding ways to harness your personality to deliver to students not only your high expectations, but also the message that you will help them find success.