Saturday, August 29, 2015

Using Twitter for Awesome

For many years, Twitter just didn't make any sense to me.  I understood how it worked at a technical level, but I didn't understand why anyone in the right mind would want to use it.  Over the years, I had a few levels of epiphanies, so I thought I would share for anyone who is still on the fence.

Twitter for learning who's out there and what ideas are taking off:
Back in college, I took a leave of absence with five friends to start an EdTech company.  One of the things that we really nailed that year was connecting to the pulse of the network of innovative teachers.  If you wanted to hear the latest applications of EdTech tools and see how new ideas about learning were being tried daily in classrooms, you needed to follow a handful of teachers on blogs and on Twitter.  We never mastered meaningful online engagement with the group, but we know what they were doing, thinking, and frustrated with.  We also were able to find them in person at a handful of awesome conferences.  As a lurker, it was important.

Twitter for local connections
In 2011, I graduated college and decided to become a teacher.  My school's innovation and tech director, @jenhegna, was really into Twitter.  She connected with all kinds of people in meaningful ways, but to me, the conversations felt too abstract and disconnected from the kind of work I was doing.  Within our district, she started using Twitter to share resources between our digital learning coaches, modeling community amongst a small group.  This helped a lot, and I started to use Twitter for this purpose, but it still seemed like an extra medium when I knew everyone's email addresses.

Twitter for connecting to teachers in your content area
Later that year, she brought us up to the TIES tech conference in Minneapolis and introduced me to @rutherfordcasey.  He welcomed me to a magical place I had never heard of: the MathTwitterBlogoSphere, or #MTBoS.  He showed me both a set of hashtags and introduced me (digitally) to the people that I needed to follow.  It was neat to have somebody tweet at me that I didn't know.  However, since I didn't have time to watch what everyone was saying on Twitter, and my timeline was so full, I never really know what to say or to whom to say it.  Occasionally when I did something that I thought was cool with my Stats class, I would tweet out at the hashtags, but nobody ever seemed to notice.  The biggest thing I got out of my connection to the #MTBoS world was awareness of a conference called "Twitter Math Camp" (TMC).

Twitter for following up with people you met once at a conference
Look back on some old posts to see my thoughts on TMC14 in Oklahoma.  I met some amazing people and made sure that the TMC15 dates for California were quickly in my calendar.  However, I had 12 months before I would be able to meet with these people again, and in the meantime, there were blogs and Twitter that I could use to connect.  For the rest of last summer, I was fairly active and kept up with a few discussions.  I found myself tweeting directly at people more often.  I implemented a number of ideas from other #MTBoS teachers during the following school year.

A few insights that made Twitter a lot more useful
After last school year started, I disappeared from the internet.  I hardly blogged until Christmas break and only occasionally tweeted.  During this summer at TMC15, I finally figured out that the #MTBoS community utilized their timeline far more than they followed hashtags.  I went through and cleared out the noise -- anyone that I followed that talked too much in vague, non-helpful ways was un-followed.  I also added many new friends who had great insights and ideas to share.  This simple process meant that I could open my general timeline anytime and find a great conversation to watch or engage.  Given the lack of great multi-hashtag-following apps (my opinion) like Tweetdeck in the browser, this also made Twitter on my phone a lot more useful.

Another insight was Twitter etiquette: it is not rude to jump into someone else's conversation.  In fact, it almost seems encouraged!  I became more comfortable jumping in when I had something to share, leading to a few great chats with both people that I knew face to face and those whom I have never met.

My biggest insight: Twitter is a lot more useful when you need something that others have.  This summer, I was excited for our new Algebra 1 class.  As a result, all of my energy at TMC15 was focused here.  It turns out that there are a LOT of people who have taught Algebra 1, far more than non-AP, PBL Stats (where I previously tried to engage online), and there is no shortage of resources, ideas, and opinions out there.  After the conference, it was really easy to start conversations directed at some of the people I was working with to seek further advice.  These people either responded themselves or amplified the conversation so others could more easily jump in.

A victory story
One of the people who jumped into a discussion was @kathrynfreed.  Eventually, we were going back and forth for a few days with all kinds of awesome questions that significantly evolved my class and my thinking.  She was even nice enough to offer a lot of detailed feedback on a 8 page Google Doc with the basic course plan.  This is the epitome of Twitter facilitating what I consider a meaningful, awesome connection.

Closing thoughts:
The key to making Twitter useful starts with finding the community you want to engage with.  In my case, it was other math teachers.  Then you need to understand how that community works -- are blogs the main hub?  Is there a set of hashtags that everyone is watching?  Is there a tight-nit group that all follows each other and @-tweets at each other?  You also need to figure out why you are there.  The best case is when you are looking to learn something.  When you take someone's idea, try it in your classroom, and engage back with that person, now you have a relationship.  Eventually you may have something cool to share and there will be others ready to try it.  Sometimes, it only takes finding on person who shares a passion for some idea, class, or topic, and that is enough to get very meaningful results out of your time on Twitter.  I have a lot yet to learn, but after 8 years of having a Twitter account, I'm finally starting to get it.

A better space for learning

In my last post about our new extended Algebra 1 class, I mentioned the possibility of a new room.  I have an amazing school and awesome colleagues because, one week later, I'm moved in and ready to roll.

My old room was a computer lab with heavy, unmovable desks.  When I first moved in, I unplugged everything and rearranged it into a large U-shape to make it easy to collaborate with peers, quickly turn for a lecture or discussion, and for me to see every screen.  I loved having a lab since many of my classes utilized the technology available, and since I moved in the year we went 1:1 iPads, pressure for lab space was way down.  That said, we could not sit in groups facing each other, there were no free walls (except the front) that could be used for whiteboards, and lecturing with every desk either behind or to the side of a student was just not very effective.

The room I'm moving into used to house 35 thin client computers sitting on wooden tables.  The computers barely had enough memory to handle Google Docs, making it mostly useless to students, especially since even the iPads were more powerful.  With the permission of the tech staff and help from one of my robotics students (and some passing soccer players), we were able to take down the entire tech infrastructure in 90 minutes.  We moved around the tables into four rows of three, leaving a handful of extra tables (that we quickly put to use in other math classrooms).

Each table has room for four students, but this makes things pretty crowded.  It also means that half of the class is turned halfway around if I am talking up front at the end of the rows.  To top it off, I think groups of four are far less functional than groups of three.  Thus, each table now has two chairs on the outside and one on the inside to help alleviate those issues.

A couple views of the bare-bones, v1.0 new classroom

Since we allow students to quiz at their own pace, there is a row of eight desks against one wall.  The other three walls are saved for whiteboards everywhere!  #NPVS (non-permanent vertical surfaces)

Whiteboards posed a challenge -- our district believes in having a world-class learning environment, so the idea of drilling a bunch of holes in the brick to hang the cheap tileboard from Home Depot was shot down, despite my pleading.  However, my principal was able to stand up to some whiteboard vendors and get three high quality porcelain 4'x6' whiteboards to go up on the walls for under $600, offering a great start to the dream of 270 degrees of writable surfaces.  I plan to pursue additional funds from, our Parent-Teacher Organization, and other sources to have enough board space for every group of three to have a half of a board.

It is easy to forget how much you take for granted with tech infrastructure in a classroom.  I had no desire to get a SMART board, especially with a touch screen laptop and the ability to use AirServer to stream an iPad to the computer (and thus be mobile).  However, having no ceiling mount for a projector means it is in the way of some kids' view.  Lacking a projection screen is fine, but not ideal.  Having no speaker system or microphone connection means finding our own system to broadcast the computer and our voices to those who are hard of hearing.  Long-term, these are things the school needs to get so it is like the other classrooms, but my sudden urge for a better classroom after being inspired by the awesome learning spaces everyone shared at TMC15 mostly crept up on those controlling the budget.

I'm excited to start the year in a more flexible space, even if I will only be in there about half of the day for now.  In late October, the old teacher laptops will be used to build a full computer lab, and then I can move all of my computer-based classes back into the room without disrupting the ability to use the tables collaboratively when we are offline.  We will see how it all goes starting Monday!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Extended Algebra 1

I am REALLY excited for our new year-long Algebra 1 block!  It is roughly 90 minutes/day, all year long, for students who have previously scored low in math.  I am co-teaching the course with Ashlee, a special ed teacher, who is also excited to see something different that can meet her students' needs better in the math classroom.

Thanks to the extended timeline, this course is going to be a neat merger of our mastery-based units/assessments and the #MTBoS's amazing resources and ideas.  We are starting with a week of building up our class culture: name games, forming class and small group norms, utilizing random seating each day, and reflecting on our life story around math (Justin Lanier's Automathography assignment).  Half of each lesson will be guided by Jo Boaler's lessons that help students think about math differently than they have in the past.

By week two, we will jump into the content units, but a significant amount of time will be spent in group activities and multiple-entry group problems.  We will start each class with something that is not necessarily unit-specific, but builds on the big themes of the course.  These include turning patterns into functions (think Fawn's and estimation problems (based on Stadel's Estimation180).

When teaching topics for the first time, we will use short lectures in class rather than flipped videos.  With two of us, we can split the class into separate rooms or separate parts of the room to do this in a smaller setting.  However, we will keep the existing video library available for students to get more help on demand if they need it and a teacher is not available.

For space, I have come to the conclusion that my current classroom is just not a good place to learn math.  It is a computer lab with huge, unmovable desks in a large U around the room.  I LOVE having the computers for Stats and for our online (ALEKS) credit-recovery course, which is a big fraction of my schedule, but for this Algebra class all year we need something different.  Ashlee's room only holds about 15 (we have 33 students), so we need to go somewhere.

The only room in the school not being actively used has a bunch of old computers that are on the way out.  With a little re-arranging, moving in an unused projector from another room, and *hopefully* whiteboards of either the cheap/portable or expensive/wall-mounted variety, we could have the ultimate collaboration zone.  Following the model of my teammate Rob, we could also put in a row of desks along one wall for students to use during mastery quizzes (usually about once every other day for this class).  Students quiz as they are ready during work time.  As a lecture space, the room isn't great, but we can have students rotate their chairs and face forward or do it elementary school-style and just sit on the carpet in the front-middle area.

A non-artist's rendering of the ideal state of the room.

The most important reason for this blog post to exist is to serve as some context for our planning doc <-- (click on that one please!).  We have a rough collection of ideas by unit and a detailed plan of the first couple weeks.  I would love to get feedback and ideas to come pouring into this doc in order to question us, suggest new ideas, or encourage us as we try a whole bunch of new things this year.  Thank you in advance!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Reflecting on TMC 15

When I went to Twitter Math Camp the first time in 2014 in Jenks, OK, it was everything I hoped it would be and more.  A year later, getting to go to Claremont, CA for TMC15, I was not disappointed with how many new ideas I continued to find.  It is hard to imagine ever missing a year after going.

One of the most positive feelings was nothing new, but rather confirmation that I shared a lot of perspectives with the group of teachers I looked up to most.  Some of the more important confirmations include:
  • Relationships, especially teacher to student, were universally treated as the most important thing a teacher can focus on.  Creating a class culture where learners are loved, respected, and valued mattered more than any curricular ideas or mathematical practices.
  • Growth mindset was simply understood to be a necessary way of thinking that needed to be taught and encouraged in students.
  • Effectively working in groups was universally valued, but unlike the way I have heard some teachers discuss it, the TMC discussions had much more purpose and structure to group work.  The most talked about thing was getting STUDENTS talking MATH through open-ended and ambiguous problems, Socratic seminars, debates, games, or simple class openers.
  • The Common Core's 8 Mathematical Practices offer common language and a sense of balance to the nature of the tasks we plan for students.

If I wasn't impressed enough last year, the generosity and kindness of the #MTBoS community continued to blow me away.  I could confidently ask for anything and know there were over a hundred people who would be willing to help me, and I would be more than happy to do the same for the others.  Rarely can you feel so instantly welcomed and accepted.

One major change from last year to this year was finding a morning group with a common goal to my own curricular goals.  Last year, I came into the Stats group fairly happy with the overall course framework I was using, but looking to tweak and extend it.  Though I did come away with a handful of awesome activities that I incorporated into my classes, I didn't find anyone else looking to teach a project-based, non-AP, year-long stats who could co-plan with me.  This year, I was looking for help thinking through a 9th grade extended Algebra course and was looking to really shake things up.  The combination of teaching a very common course and being more open to new ideas helped me get a lot more out of the 6 morning hours.  Max @maxmathforum and Anna @Borschtwithanna did a fantastic job of putting the minds in the room to productively discussing and building out resources and lessons that we shared with each other.  Since returning home, I have filled a giant text doc with ideas broken down by unit and an overall framework to guide the course.  Though a bit rough yet, I am very excited to discuss and solidify these ideas with my co-teacher this week.

One difference I found from last year to this year was the kinds of discussions I found myself in at night.  Last year, I played a lot of games and joined in larger-group discussions down in the lobby of the Jenks, OK Holiday Inn Express.  This year, with the large outdoor patio and many non-TMC folks at the hotel, there wasn't the same kind of "cozy" space to hang out.  Alcohol was also treated differently this year than last since so much was available.  I loved the conversations I was able to have this year, but I missed last-year's overall night culture.  I hope the dorms at TMC16 will bring back that kind of environment.

The most surprising and amazing thing I got out of TMC15 was some magical comfort with Twitter for the first time.  I have been tweeting, with teachers, since I was working on a startup in college (2009), I heard of TMC via Twitter in 2013, and I went to TMC14, and despite all of that I just didn't really "get" it.  I could understand how blogs were useful for deeper reflection, but why Twitter was a useful medium still escaped me.  My ahas include:

  • comfort with jumping into conversations when I have questions
  • tweeting out thoughts and ideas at specific people rather than hashtags (and knowing who is interested/an expert in what)

Once again, TMC blew me away with respect for these educators and left me with inspiration and tools to move in the right direction.  Most importantly, I feel like I am confident engaging in the year-round discussion that makes TMC more of a reconnecting with friends than a catch-up of what I missed in the past 12 months on Twitter.  We will see how this all works once the reality of the school year sets in, but my #1tmcthing is to engage in a meaningful way in the #MTBoS community to support my lesson and classroom culture design during the school year.