Monday, July 30, 2018

Follow the Leader[board]?

image from
It started simply enough. I saw a product that I thought was awesome. But expensive. Expensive enough that I wouldn't just buy one, awesome enough that I really wanted one. But then there was a contest and I could win one. And who doesn't want to win something? So I entered.

This contest, though, wasn't a random drawing. It was a test of skills. A series of questions had to be answered. The questions showed up at all different times, so I was constantly watching my phone. At first I was in the lead. In my head, I had all but won the product. Sometimes the questions were timed so the pressure was on. Sometimes I rushed to answer first and I made careless mistakes. I fell behind, but could still see the goal. Eventually, as other people got started and were successful, I watched them climb on the leaderboard as I dropped. 

When I fell to a position that I thought I couldn't recover from, I stopped participating. I gave up. I even received messages of encouragement from the people running the contest: "Team challenge!" "Bonus for getting others to participate!" Nah. Once winning didn't seem realistic, I just was no longer interested. The contest is still running, but I'm not in the running. Because the goal no longer seems attainable.

I'm not a competitive person by nature. I don't play sports; I don't care about winning games. I have lived the adage, "It's not whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game." In fact, as a speech and debate coach, I am known for the motto "skills, not scores." Still, a couple of weeks ago, I was super enthusiastic about this contest. Now the wind is out of my sails. Watching my progress relative to others deflated my spirit.

This has me thinking about my classroom. What are the ways we add a leaderboard to our classroom? How do we try to use competition to encourage kids to succeed? How do we damage kids with competition, especially when they don't think they can succeed? I once had a student tell me that she wouldn't volunteer to be a peer tutor because helping other students could mean her class rank wasn't as high as it could be if students struggle.

Grades are obviously one way we create a leaderboard. We have honor rolls and awards for kids who earn good grades. Do we equally recognize improvement? Some teachers let other students grade their papers or pass back papers so students become aware of who is on the leaderboard. Even without grades, we subtly use leaderboards through our classroom behaviors. We use webtools that create leaderboards for us. We call on students who know the "right answers," reinforcing the leaderboard.

How do these structures, and others, motivate a struggling student, a student who, like me in the contest, has decided that there is no way to win so she might as well give up? As I head back to school this fall, this is what I am carefully considering. I'm looking for ways to level the playing field, to help everyone focus on skills, not scores, with very little competition, so that everyone feels they can succeed.

I've written this post to submit to this virtual math teaching conference. I think it is important to talk - and think - about who is succeeding at math and why they are successful. How can what we do in our classrooms bring equity to students? And how can we help students realize their potential? But the conversation is obviously not limited to math. These questions apply to all subjects, all classrooms. What are you doing to eliminate the leaderboard in your classroom?

Friday, July 27, 2018

You down with TMC? (Yeah, you know me!)

For several years, I have wanted to attend two summer conferences - ISTE and TMC. My interest in ISTE stemmed from the hurricane of posts and shares that happens every June. Surely if everyone is attending, it must be awesome. My interest in lesser known TMC came from reading Amy Gruen's awesome blog. The enthusiasm with which she has described TMC made me really want to attend. This year, because both were so close to home, I was able to experience both. While I had a good experience at both conferences, they really could not have been more different from one another. Since my most popular posts have been comparisons, here is a quick one about these two conferences:

I have never been to a conference like TMC where

  • organizers encourage attendees to list pronouns of choice on name badges
  • thank you notes are left on a table in a common area so attendees can thank someone
  • a session lasts for six hours over three days (I loved this!)
  • organizers encourage attendees to stand like pacman to encourage others to join
  • buttons are distributed to help people connect and interact
  • math is discussed as a platform to bring equity to all
  • trendy math educators sing songs and do cheers and break every possible math teacher stereotype

Seriously, TMC is a special gathering of people.

I loved every session and I took away many things that I will use in my classroom or suggest to someone else this coming year. At some point, I hope to blog about those things to help me remember it all. In the meantime, this post will focus on the big picture.

It has been said that people won't remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. And if you read enough of these TMC recap posts, you will find a common theme in how people felt when they heard the keynote by Julie Reulbach. Sense of belonging. Renewed purpose. Valued and necessary. As a 25+ year Speech and Debate coach, I have heard a lot of speeches. This one was special. I will not forget what she said or how she made me feel. I feel incredibly lucky that I was there to hear her say it. I crawled to the finish line this past school year, but Julie's speech helped me shake that off and re-evaluate a little.

At the end of TMC18, we were encouraged to choose one thing to implement this year. Someone will check in to see how we're doing in October. I'm picking two things - one to do and one not to do - both inspired by Julie's speech.

To Don't: I'm not going to work on Sundays this year. Julie made the point that we are all enough. I tend to work too much, to take on too much, to put myself last. I'm going to make a conscious effort to stop that. I'm going to enjoy a day off every week. Working six days is enough. I'm enough.

To Do: The #MTBoS is a special group of people who inspire me a lot. I will admit to feeling like an impostor in this group, often because I am a science teacher (who teaches a lot of math). I love the #MTBoS and I will continue to participate in the community because Julie says I am not an impostor and because these people are amazing. But I will also work to find - or form - a community like this for science teachers. I need to stop waiting and searching for the #STBoS; it's time to make the community happen. If you are a science teacher wishing you could find a group of charismatic, nurturing, curious other science teachers, please connect with me. I'm going to start using #teachscience a lot and see where that gets us.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Lots of Fun with Numberella

While wandering around the expo at ISTE, I stumbled upon a board game. A board game, at a technology conference. A longtime lover of board games, I was immediately intrigued. Numberella is a game designed to increase skill level and engagement in mathematics. I watched for a while and eventually played. In just a few minutes, I was hooked.

Numberella has two basic ways to play. For players that are evenly matched, the game is pretty straightforward. Players, in turn, roll dice, choose cards, and questions or follow directions. Correct responses earn ANT coins. After a certain amount of time, the person with the most coins wins. When players are unevenly matched, other elements of strategy and luck are introduced so that players who struggle with math can still outwit and outlast others. By including "fortune cards" and "magic," the winner will not necessarily be the student with the strongest math skills. This built-in differentiation levels the playing field to help build confidence and determination. The game is available in three levels, so it provides practice for students at various levels from second grade through early high school.

Questions on the cards in the game are varied in style. Take a look at a couple of examples:

The small but mighty rule book includes teaching tips. One of the Fortune cards allows a player to hijack another player's turn. The teaching tips suggest that a teacher use this if they see a student really struggling so it can "take the heat off" the student and save the embarrassment of not knowing. The teacher can hijack the turn and explain how to solve, teaching a mini-lesson during the game. Or intervene in whatever way makes sense. I love the idea that the teacher is playing the game! Another tip is about time. Turns can be timed, but the teaching tips indicate that timed turns should only be used when players are very confident. The game also includes some DIY cards so teachers or students can create their own challenges.

When I sat down to play at ISTE, I had no idea about the educational nuances. It just looked like a fun game. Numberella was designed by Alexander Newberry and has a delightful British vibe. Lose a turn is called "Miss-a-go;" quirky characters adorn the game cards and box and create a charming backstory for the game. 

So what was this board game doing at the educational technology camp? There is an app that accompanies it. With the app, teachers can track student progress, create leagues and houses (because British!), have a leaderboard and more. In fact, Numberella has initiated a launch challenge via Twitter and the app. Teachers are competing for a chance at winning some free sets of the game and our progress is being tracked in the app. Wish me luck. I am currently in fourth place.

I already had a post in the queue for this clever game, but this was the perfect time to make it live because I am taking Numberella with me to TMathC this week. My new friends at Numberella donated the game so it could be played by amazing math teachers this week at camp. Thanks, Numberella. We are grateful!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Coding with Micro:bit (ISTE Gem #4)

I definitely want to dig deeper into coding in the next year, so I prioritized coding activities at ISTE. To that end, I had signed up for a ticketed (but free) session called Creating with Micro:bit and it was a highlight of the conference for me.'

Micro:bit is a very small, inexpensive, programmable computer that can be used for all sorts of things. I had no experience with micro:bit before the session, but I did have some experience with coding. I lead a coding camp for kids where I use predominantly free resources available online and some other coding gadgets. Most of what I help kids with at camp is block-based coding.

Upon entering the session, each participant received a micro:bit! That was a tiny computer and a USB cable for attaching it to the device we brought with us to our session. [Note: there are iOS and Android apps for the micro:bit that use bluetooth to connect to a device so it would not require a USB connection] We were directed to a website where we could start using blocks or Java to write a program.

We started by creating a program that would run when the lights dim, so the first command was if the light is less than a certain level, the program would run. Like all block coding experiences I have had, once a basic program has been achieved, participants quickly start adding other blocks to try to accomplish other things.

We used Microsoft MakeCode to write our programs, but micro:bit can also be programmed with Python or Scratch and some others. As you can see in the above image, MakeCode looks a lot like other block coding languages and has many options (input, music, radio, loops, logic, and so much more) to explore. Even with all these options, it was so easy to get started and incredibly gratifying when it worked!

Once the program is written, you click the save button. Then open the folder where it is saved and drag it to the micro:bit (which is connected via USB) to copy it. Then the program will run on the micro:bit. I created a program that would spell out the letters of my name:

I'm still not exactly sure how I will use this in my chemistry classroom, but I am going to find a way. I am toying with an idea for a new PBL when students have to animate a chemical process using a combination of making and coding. Maybe this is a good place to start. Micro:bit does have teacher resources available on their website as well as lots of other information for getting started.

Are you using coding in your science classes? Please share your ideas.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Photo Editing with Aviary (ISTE Gem #3)

When I became aggravated with the lines at ISTE (and getting closed out of sessions), I began to dedicate more time to the Vendor Expo. Lots of booths have small demo areas set up for sessions to take place right in the Expo. It was at the Adobe booth that I saw Leslie Fisher present on several Adobe tools, including the mobile app Aviary.

Aviary is a mobile photo editing app (iOS and Android) that Leslie described as an underused tool. Indeed, I had not heard of it, so I quickly downloaded it (it's free!) and began to follow along. Import a picture from your camera roll or take one within the app and then start editing. There are SO many ways to edit - enhance, add effects, crop, adjust, change the orientation, transform the image, add text, draw on the image, change the focus, add vignettes or stickers or frames or overlays, touch up blemishes and red eyes and whiten teeth, add a color splash, and create a meme.

I added a variety of effects to a photo I took of two turkeys and made a GIF out of the images. It is inserted below so you can get an idea of just a few of the possibilities in this free tool:

It is very easy to tap an effect and fiddle with the controls. Then Apply if you like it or Cancel if you don't. I especially like the splash of color option. My daughter played with the app for about five minutes before she declared, "I love that photo app!" 

When you get the image exactly the way you want it, you can save it to your camera roll and/or share it via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or other apps like Messages or Mail. If you're looking for an easy, free photo editor for your mobile device, this is a great one!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Computational Thinking with Polyup (ISTE Gem #2)

One of my favorite takeaways from ISTE was a new (to me) app called Polyup. Polyup calls itself a "free and open computational thinking playground. Modify expressions, functions, and algorithms to discover the beauty of math." Whatever you want to call it, it's a lot of fun!

The premise is that a machine will complete computations with numbers and operator blocks. Each time the machine must be modified to get a correct output. Watch this one minute video to see how the machine operates:

It's very fun (and a little addictive) to keep modifying the machine to achieve a particular number. The mobile app comes with a game called Number Practice that has five games per level, each level with a new number goal. Number Practice is also available on the web version of Polyup and all are free to use. There are many other ready-to-use Polyup games for grades 3-12 that you can load on a device with a scannable QR code.

One of my favorite features of Polyup, though, is the ability to create levels yourself. The GIF I created above shows all the operations your custom levels can contain. You could easily use this to help your students practice some very sophisticated math. Or, better yet, you could have your students create their own levels to demonstrate their computational thinking or help their peers practice. Again, these custom levels are shareable with QR codes like these:

A little digging around on the website shows that they count Jo Boaler among their advisors, so they are getting great advice! Whatever you call it, however you use it, I think students will be engaged by Polyup and you will love it too.