Thursday, November 27, 2014

Actively Learn on Thanksgiving

I don't give my students homework over the Thanksgiving recess, but I do like to provide a little extra credit opportunity for the holiday weekend.  Chemistry is, after all, the heart of everything, so why not inject a little chemistry into Thanksgiving?  I was anxious to try out a new web tool, Actively Learn, so I combined the two efforts for this assignment.

Actively Learn is a web tool designed to help students read closely.  Teachers can select reading material from the catalog or import a weblink or PDF.  Then questions and media can be embedded into the text, allowing teachers to create an experience that could mimic the PARCC assessments that will debut later this year.  Students can collaborate while they read and answer the questions.  Teachers can score the answers to the questions, provide feedback to students, and view the assessment results.

After I signed up for my free account, I quickly created my 5 classes.  The Get Started screen walks a teacher through the process with easy to access help screens.  The intuitive service had me up and ready to go in no time.  Creating an assignment was a breeze - find the reading material, highlight text, add questions and videos.

Students create accounts at Actively Learn - with or without email addresses - and use a 5 letter-digit code to search and join classes.  For my high schoolers, I created a quick handout that I shared with them through Google Drive that gave them 3 steps to creating accounts and finding the assignment.  So far, several have joined my classes and no one has asked me for tech support, so it seems pretty easy from the student side too.

For my reading material, I went to my go-to source of chemistry applications, the articles from the American Chemical Society's ChemMatters.  I easily found an article about the chemistry of digestion and imported it to create my assignment.  This article was associated with a video too, so I linked that to the PDF in Actively Learn.  Then I went to the ACS YouTube channel Reactions to find one more video about the chemistry of why we feel full after eating a big meal.  Reactions is a great Youtube channel for great and quirky chemistry applications.

My students have to read the article, watch the two videos that are about 2 minutes each, and answer three questions.  Once they do (Shout Out to the students who have already completed the assignment!), I can see all the answers and evaluate them.  On a summary screen I can which students have started and completed the assignment and how long they spent (I love that!).  There is a screen that shows me the answers and I can rate them as Incomplete, Basic, Proficient, or Advanced.  I can also add comments.  

If you're looking for a free webtool to help students read closely with the ability to add questions you design, Actively Learn is an easy one to try.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The 2014 Edublog Awards

I keep tabs on a lot of blogs, but my faves are on a list along the right side of my blog.  These are the ones that I would recommend to others and the ones I nominated for the 2014 Edublog Awards.
  • Best individual blog:  Dan Meyer's blog is a constant source of inspiration to me - The ideas about teaching and learning are always fresh and thoughtful.  I love how his writing gives me so much to think about in my own practice.  The blog is worth following for Dan's thoughts alone, but the others who comment create a great dialogue.  It's the very best PLC around.
  • Best new blog:  Kasey Bell's ShakeUp Learning.  When I read somewhere that Kasey's excellent blog was nominated as the Best New Blog, I thought there was some mistake.  How could a blog this fantastic be new?  But it seems that she started this blog in 2014.  Wow, I am impressed.  Again.
  • Best ed tech / resource sharing blog: Richard Byrne's Free Technology for Teachers - if teachers only follow one blog for cool resources, this is the one to follow.
  • Best teacher blog:  Amy Gruen's Square Root of Negative One Teach Math  - this is a GREAT teacher blog.  Amy's enthusiasm is contagious and every time I read her work I wish we taught in the same building.
  • Most influential blog post of the year:  This post by Audrey Watters - well, it could be any one of her posts this year.  I have loved them all, but this one really had me wringing my hands days later.
  • Best free web tool:  Pear Deck, reviewed by me here.  I like this one a lot.
  • Best educational use of media (audio / video / visual / podcast): Two Guys and Some iPads - I was determined to learn augmented reality this year and started by getting to know the Two Guys blog.  Very cool stuff.
  • Best mobile app:  ClassKick, reviewed by me here.  If you haven't seen this app, take a look.  It is a great way to keep tabs on what students know and are able to do.
Tomorrow is the last day for Edublog nominations.  Who are your favorites?  Have you nominated them yet?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Google Tools for ESPs

 Today is Education Support Professionals Day and I want to give a shout out to the awesome ESPs that I worked with during our Election Day Inservice.  My school district is a Google Apps for Education district and teachers have participated in some professional development to learn that platform.  Our secretaries, though, had not received any training, so we spent Election Day on just that.

I will admit that I went into the day feeling a little nervous.  I have done several teacher inservice days on GAfE, but never any for ESPs and I know they know how to do things that I don't.  Plus, a couple of the secretaries in my building stopped me in the hall when they heard I was leading the training.  They explained that many of the inservices they had attended were not worthwhile - that sometimes they felt lost or the material was irrelevant or the demonstrations were ok, but there was no time to practice.  Armed with this information, I tried to craft a day that would be none of those things.

My nervousness was for nothing because it was such a fun day!  I can't remember a time when I worked with a roomful of people so willing to try anything and so eager to learn and share with each other.  They were learning on Chromebooks, which most of them had never used before that day, and I thought this might be an obstacle.  Wrong again!  With lots of other professionals, if you asked them to learn a new type of technology on a device they had never seen, there would be instant shut down.  Not these ladies - they were plucky and bold and adventurous.  

We started with basics of Chrome (they loved the extensions!) and then Google Drive.  We worked our way through Docs, Sheets, Forms, and Calendar, looking at some basic features first and then spent time exploring and experimenting.  Addons were a big hit -- HelloFax, Autocrat, Yet Another Mail Merge, and FormLimiter were all very popular.  Autocrat and Yet Another Mail Merge had both been on my to-learn list and they were both very easy and very cool.  With Autocrat I quickly whipped up some personalized certificates.  When you open it, it walks you step-by-step through the process of merging data with a file.  Yet Another Mail Merge allows you to send personalized email messages from a template.  Again, very easy!

When we say "Google Apps for Education," I think we typically think of what happens in a classroom, but so much important stuff in a school originates in the school office.  Teachers often receive PD, but my experience showed that ESPs are eager to learn and apply their excellent skills with these tools.  Collaborations with these valuable members of our team are vital to student success.  If you are in a GAfE school, consider asking your ESPs if they would be interested in a workshop.  I know I will jump at the chance to work with this group again.  It was such a great day!

Hats off to ESPs today.  I hope you all have a great day today.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Apps Gone Free for ASD!

 If you have an iPod, iPad, or iPhone, you probably know that every day there are apps available in the App Store that are free just for one day.  The trick is finding them on the day they are free!  There are lots of ways to do this, but one of the easiest ways is to use an app that finds them for you.  The app that I use for this is Apps Gone Free.

Apps Gone Free is a free app in the App Store.  Every day the app pushes a notification to the user of 5-10 apps that are free for the day.  They are always apps that have not been free very often in the last year and they have to have a certain number of stars, so they are typically pretty good apps.  I have found a number of great tools this way. 

My notification of today's free apps just showed up and, when I opened the app, I got a pleasant surprise.  This week, Apps Gone Free is focusing on apps for autism.  In addition to the typical selection of quality apps, they are including some apps that would be helpful tools for kids on the spectrum or for their teachers and caregivers.  There are three autism apps profiled that are free today:

iComm:  a customizable picture and voice communication aid that allows nonverbal students to communicate their ideas and feeling by tapping to select photos or decisions

Language Lab: Core Words:  an app that teaches words like "stop" or "help" through visual association

iAdvocate:  a resource app to help parents as they advocate for their children's rights

Apps Gone Free was already a must-have app for me.  The selections are high quality, vetted apps.  This week it also might help find some terrific tools for a population that can make great gains by using tablets at school and at home.  If you work with, or live with, people on the spectrum, check out Apps Gone Free today.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Molecules is App-tacular!

On my apps page, I refer to the The Elements app as the only periodic table app you will ever need.  Just like its parent, the Theodore Gray coffee table book by the same name, it is packed with information, has beautiful interactive images, and rich text that is at once accessible but never talks down to the user.  When I saw its sister app, Molecules, in the app store this week, I knew I had to take a look. 

As a sequel to The Elements, Molecules raises the bar.  Part interactive textbook, part toy chest, part model kit, this app draws the user in with its fantastic photographs and interesting details about the chemistry of everyday things.  Touch the photographs and reveal a video or spin the image around to get a look at the back.  Touch one of the many interactive molecules and you can manipulate it or view it as a space-filling model or 2-D image.  While examining a molecule, touch "more info" for alternate names, chemical formula, molecular weight, and links to pages about the elements in The Elements app.  Take a look at the preview on YouTube:

The app and the book have many things in common, but the book includes the amazing interactive elements, literally elements, that make it even better than the book.  A bonus chapter called Wiggling Molecules explains the how much we can learn by fiddling with the models.  Drag the molecules around, try to rotate things, zoom in and out.    The author invites us to spin methyl groups like propellers and to explore why some molecules are floppy and some are stiff, claiming "you will gain more understanding of how molecules work in five minutes than an earlier generation of students did in five years."  I believe it.

Theodore Gray's senses of humor and wonder are evident on every page.  Why is bloodlust an expression that chemistry can explain?  What is the most toxic natural substance?  What does he keep his collection of animal pee in?  The answers to those questions and so many more - that I didn't even know I had - are found inside the app and the book.  He politely explains that he did not set out to write a textbook.  Thank heavens!  The fascinating details of biomolecules, pigments, perfumes, pain relievers and more reads better than any science textbook I have ever labored over.

So how could it be used in a classroom?  Kids as young as 9 or so could read and appreciate the curious facts presented on every page.  Middle school and high school students could also use it as a reference because it provides excellent background material on why and how elements bond and other topics like electron orbitals and polarity.  They could also use it as a foundation for inquiry explorations.  What do compounds that are used for similar things -- sugars and artificial sweeteners, for example -- have in common?  College students, too, could benefit from looking at these structures during lectures so they can immediately see examples, simulated with this powerful Nanoscale Molecular Dynamics system, of many organic concepts.

Casual admirers of the periodic table may bristle at the $13.99 price tag of this app, but it is worth every penny.  And it is eligible for Apple's Volume Purchasing Program, making it half-price for bulk purchases of 20 or more copies.  It provides an experience unlike any I have seen in my 24 years of teaching.  If you take a look, I think you will agree.

Full disclosure:  Touch Press provided me with a copy of this app, but my review is entirely based on my amazement with the incredible app!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Ethics of Lecturing . . . or of How and When to Lecture

I have written before about how much I value the virtual conversations that take place among the contributors on the listserv-turned-google-group of chemistry educators, Chemed-L.  This week there was a lively back-and-forth about the ethics and mechanics of lecture.  It started with a share:

Scott Freeman, lecturer in biology at the University of Washington, gave an outstanding talk at Arizona State University on Sept. 12, 2014, entitled (after Eric Mazur's comment last May) "Is lecturing unethical: A meta-analysis of active learning across STEM disciplines".

Since all chemistry teachers have lectured at one point or another, people quickly bristled at the idea of being called unethical.  Our original poster tried to re-focus the conversation, by indicating what about ethics would be considered unethical:

In his talk at ASU, [Freeman] made the connection between ethics and the large number of students who paid tuition for the course and then had to drop it, when the course was primarily lecture.  He talked about at-risk students in this population. His remarks are at the end of the hour, in the question-answer period, as I recall.

He does NOT lecture -- and he teaches 700 biology students in a huge auditorium. During 6 years of his experimentation with active learning, the LESS he lectured, the lower the drop rate; hence, overall, the BETTER the student learning.

The question then became "Exactly what do we mean when we say 'lecture'?"  That produced these great posts:

Lectures can be inspiring or they can be insipid. Just like active learning. Lectures can be spot on what one needs to hear or filled with factual errors. Just like active learning. Lectures can be rigid preprogrammed one-way activities or flexible, dynamic multi-way conversations, just like active learning. They can be 55-minute run-on sentences or 10-minute targeted, focused, extemporaneous nuggets.
Unethical?  Let's not be absurd.  Ineffective, maybe.  Yet there are times when the only source of information is listening to someone else talk -- think jury duty.  Instead of abandoning the lecture, which is the way many of us gained much of our knowledge of chemistry, how about working to make the students better listeners?  Intersperse the lecture with questions asking students to relate the new material to their previous knowledge and experience.  Provide a chance for students to ask for clarification.  Quiz them to see where misconceptions occur, then provide a demo, video, or new description to help them understand the material.

One of my lectures this week was on Percent Composition.  The photos of my chalkboard show that I had a clear idea of what I wanted students to know and be able to do at the end of the lecture.  One approach, as mentioned by my colleagues in the above posts, would be to provide the definition and the formula and then solve the sample problems.  This would give students a model for what I wanted them to know.

Another approach would be to give small bits of information and stop periodically to create opportunities for interaction.  Ask students questions, ask them to try to solve problems.  In truth, this is what I typically do during a lecture. 
Instead of either, I told the students that I knew THEY could generate the notes because they knew some things about percent problems and they knew some things about compounds.  I started with "What do you think Percent Composition is?"  Blank stares.  Uh oh.  So I put a formula on the board - NaCl - and said, if I asked you for the percent composition of this compound, what do you think I would want to know?  Lights went on.  A brave volunteer:  "How much of it is sodium and how much of it is chlorine?"  Yes, exactly.  And how much in terms of what?  What do you think we will measure?   Then more blank stares.  But one student looked at the periodic table on the wall, so I pounced:  I think Calvin has an idea.  Calvin?  "Is it mass?"  Yes!  Then the kids led me through creating the formula and solving the practice problems.  The problems on the second photo were the most fun because they did it on their own and then we compared methods for solving.

What I tried to do with this approach is show the students that the background they have acquired, in chemistry and in math, can help them understand the concepts without me telling them exactly what to do so that they start to see that they can think and form ideas without me.  Whether or not it worked, I guess I'll find out on the quiz this week.

I have done a few elementary school science programs in the last couple weeks and I have been very pleasantly surprised at what young children know about science.  I have begun to wonder, though, if, as they age, we discount that they can remember anything and we don't rely on students to bring much to the table.  Students say "I don't know" but I think often that means "I can't risk giving an answer that might be wrong."  I am going to try to draw more answers out of students and help them build meaning by helping them link what they learn to what they already know.

One more post from the Chemed-L discussion that I think is great:

the bigger question for me is what to do with what he presented. I get that passive, one-way teaching is bad and active engagement with and between students is good. What I don't really know is how to determine where my teaching is on that spectrum and how to maximize my own effectiveness. Data-driven adjustments seem ideal but some of us don't have a lot of our own "data" to work with.

Maybe the thing to do in this situation is to collect some data.  For this, I like the apps Classkick or Nearpod, or webtools like Pear Deck or The Answer Pad.  With so many students carrying smart devices, these free tools are easy ways to quickly take the temperature of a room.

The original share about Scott Freeman's talk referenced the work of Eric Mazur.  I googled him today and found this great blog post by Sue VanHattum.  Also, I saw Dr. Matthew Stoltzfus present at OETC 2014 (a lecture!) about the interactivity he is striving to create in his chemistry classes at Ohio State.  Both of these guys are going on my "further investigations list."  I don't know the answer to the question of ethics, but I know that a lecture with no interactivity is not my favorite way to learn and that I am grateful to be connected to people who want to talk about the topic and explore it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Best of Mole-o-Ween 2014

In my most recent post - I have been falling down on the blogging job - I shared my Mole Day project, a Powtoon I made for this year's Mole-o-ween.  Later that week, my students presented their Mole Day projects with me and their classmates.  This was the first year I required the projects to be digitally delivered and, overall, it was a great success.  Tonight I have finally finished grading them, so I will share the best of the best.

In the project, students have to choose a common object and make three measurements on it.  I suggest mass, volume, and length, but they can really use anything as long as they have 3 measurements.  Then they have to calculate what those measurements would be if they had a mole of the object.  How much does a mole of pencils weigh?  How long is a mole of pencils if they are stacked end to end?  How much space does a mole of pencils take up?  Then they have to compare one of these molar quantities to some other known quantity so we get an idea of how big a mole is.  They earn extra credit if they incorporate the theme. 

There were many projects that used Google Slides, like this one:

There were many Prezis, but I liked this one a bunch because the students gave a lot of thought to its design and they made some of the artwork themselves (apples, in costumes, indeed!).  There was only one Animoto video.  There were several cute Powtoons, but I liked this one a lot because it looks like someone is explaining the math to someone else.

I liked the digital version of the project as much as the old fashioned "make a poster" way.  Plus, I could grade them at home without schlepping home a pile of posters.  Whether digital or old-fashioned, what I love best about the project is that the students seem to love to do this math.  One time a student even asked me, "Do other classes get to do this project?"  What starts out feeling daunting becomes a really cool project and a better understanding of scientific notation.  What could be better than that?