Google for education, doctopus and goobrics

So I am absolutely in love with google for education, let me tell you why.  I know this may not be new for many of you but I have just found one of the easiest ways to keep track of my students documents, give feedback and mark them all in the same time. 


So what has gotten me so excited? I have been using google apps for the past month. My students have access to their own Gdrive (I have eliminated their email). You might not think this is anything special but within google apps there is an amazing scripted called doctopus.

Now a script is a computer code that is embedded into your program to allow you to other functions. Doctopus works with spread sheets to create lists for your class and “push” documents to your students without having to click on every single name and share.  It also allows you to give the ability for students to edit their own document and then have it there for you to mark; all in one easy area.  The nice thing is I can send all students one document, I can have certain groups have a document or I can have every single kid have a different document all in one click of the button.

Take a look at this YouTube video from Jay Atwood:



This is how I have been using it.  Because of apps I have been able to hand out documents that I want my students to work with. In this case I wanted them to be able to collect their research on communities and write a comparison paragraph. I gave most of the students a copy of a template I wanted them to follow. The template included success criteria, and a check list for them. I also created another one for my ESL students which had a chart and sentence starters.  If I wasn’t using google apps this would have had to be photocopied for certain students or each student would have had to copy out the success criteria on their own. Part way through the writing process I shared a doc with them all as we talked about paragraph writing, students found my doc and then copied it to their drive so they had access to the exemplar. Yet again without google drive they would have had to photocopy or hand write.  Students just finished the work today, so back to my spreadsheet. Through doctopus I was able to add a “goobrics” a fancy name for a rubric.  See this video for more help:  



I then embargoed the work, which means they no longer have access to the document until I am done marking.

When I mark the rubric is right next, so I can highlight. I can also leave comments, do track changes in their work and then send it back for them to reflect, revise (if they want) and send back.  Not only this but students have this in their drive and can access it for an online portfolio.  This has been mind blowing and I can’t believe I didn’t start earlier.  If you haven’t used doctopus yet I highly recommend trying it.
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Fraction kit and playing games

Fractions have always been a passion of mine. Started researching the concepts in my math part 1 AQ class and have been fascinated ever since.  I even ended up completing my Masters’ of Education thesis in the subject.  Through my studies I came across fractions, Marilyn Burns’ fraction kit and games.  I still haven’t found something anywhere close that helps students understand fraction concepts like this kit.  
For those not familiar with it, let me tell you about it.  The kit in itself is very simple, it is five strips of paper. Each piece is to be cut to a corresponding fraction (halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths, and a whole). 
Now you may ask yourselves how is this the best thing ever it’s just a bunch of paper. It’s the best thing ever because of the talk that it generates. Since finding this in my research I have done some modifications that really bring out the talk. 
First and foremost, I have them create the kits. It does you no good to create them for your students.  By them creating the strips, the students explore how fractions are division, fair sharing, why fractions are a part of a whole and many more fractional concepts.
Second, I created a context to go with the problem. As many of you know who read this blog, I truly believe in contexts. A good context makes kids think beyond arithmetic and focus on mathematical big ideas.  For this problem I tell my students a story of how I need to clean up my mom’s back yard, she has a huge yard and in payment my mom buys me a large party sub. Now many students now don’t know what a party sub is because they don’t sell them anymore, so you may have to show them a picture: 

The students are so impressed and they can’t believe that I would eat this much. Now I tell them that just before I was about to eat lunch one of my friends popped over. Now what?  This continues all the way to eights, the door bell ringing every time we figure out portion we need to cut.  For sixteenths I tell them this is what we are going to do as I really don’t have sixteen friends; however by now we have really constructed a good understanding of the pattern that is happening.  Now why this context. I like this context because it is a linear model like the strips. Having the sub also means students have to think about measurement and division because technically you cannot fold a sub, as all the pieces fall out. The other part is students often will try cutting the their strips horizontally instead of vertically. Now this also brings up interesting discussions about equivalency versus congruency but this context stops that because if students cut a sub horizontally they don’t really get all of the sub.
Third I don’t have the students label their fractions.  When I have done this with my fours it was mainly because I didn’t want them to associate a particular fraction with the strips whole. Basically, 1/2 strip is 1/2 of the kits whole not 1/2 somewhere else.  A big misconception with students thinking is that a what they learn is he only representation of a particular fraction. When you label the students don’t understand that the size of the whole matters.  That 1/4 can be bigger than 1/2 depending on the size.  However, now that I am in primary I see a whole new benifit, it makes students understand what a fraction is. Why is 1/4, 1/4? While my students where playing cover-up, one of Mariyln burns fraction kit games, they asked me which fraction is 1/4? I turned it around and asked them. They then just picked a random strip up. I the. Asked them why that one? This discussion continued as students explored that the amount of pieces that we break our sub into is our denominator and the amount we use is our numerator.   If I had them label the fractions they never would have explored this concept and I would never have realized that they struggled with it.
The final change is the questions that I ask around this particular problem.  It’s not just to make the stud ets create the kit but to think about the big ideas around fractions. Have a listen to my grade two class discussion on fractions:

Day 1 of our Fraction Talk

It is quite interesting the talk that can come from building these kits and the big ideas that come from it. I have played this game in junior and primary and personally I would do this for middle school as well.  In junior I start to add fifths, tenths, thirds, sixths, ninths, and twelves.  By adding these other fractions you also start to see other misconceptions of students halving strategies but for primary halving is still okay.  I hope you really try the kits and see the benefits of it in your classroom.

You can find all of my fraction research and resources on my site: Bit.ly/Soresources.  Feel free to use anything you want.

Water Craft Our new inquiry Part 1

I am writing this blog post as a documentation of a cool new inquiry project that my teaching partner Keri Ewart and myself (though more my teaching partner), called Water Craft.  The purpose of this inquiry is to design  new version  of Minecraft called Water Craft.  The students must include three of the big curriculum expectations:

  1. Assess ways in which the actions of humans have an impact on the quality of air and water, and ways in which the quality of air and water has an impact on living things
  2. investigate the characteristics of air and water and the visible/invisible effects of and changes to air and water in the environment
  3. demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which air and water are used by living things to help them meet their basic needs
Now this project has been a spur of the moment (which to me are the best kind) so we will see how it goes.  The hope is that the grade twos will be designing their own game system that answers these three questions.  So far we have started by introducing our language centers which will give the students opportunities to explore the game, the writing portion and science.  
We have also had the students play inside of the game and discover different components of MineCraft.  The next stage is to start asking guided questions that students will have to answer in order to complete the big ideas and the actual making of a video game.

So what does this project look like:

1) This project is first linked to our science curriculum.  The learning goals of the game is to teach these three big ideas above

2) It is also linked to reading, writing and our language centers.  Students will be researching within their centers about water usage, conservation and characteristics.  Each center is based on building toward the future; designing a game.

3) Lots of exploration.

What was needed to get this type of project started:

1) Lots of planning and forward thinking.  Even though we decided on it at the last minute, my teaching partner and I have had to rethink through our curriculum needs and figure out how to interconnect all of tech into the curriculum.

2) We also had to give our students a lot of exploring time. I have found that whenever you introduce something new for the first time, students just really want to explore, so we did just that.  The first day was all about exploration.  The students played with mindcraft, they read and played the center apps and discussed as they went.  We were also very lucky to have some grad students in from York to help use problem solve and work through playing the game.

3) we gave time to ask questions and answer some of them.  After the student explored on the game, we had them come up with a list of questions that they would have to explore.  The hope was that this would spur more inquiry and make the children think about what they are working towards.

 Each week I hope to document the learning that is happening and reflect on the process.  In the mean time if anyone has any other suggestions we welcome any advice or help.  Stay tuned for more.

Why do we Need to Argue over Math? –> A Call for a Balanced Approach

About a month ago a colleague of mine Kyle Pearce wrote a post “Does memorizing multiplication facts hurt more than help.” It was a very interesting read and I happen to agree with Kyle’s point of view.  As many of my frequent readers of this blog know, I prescribe to the constructivist approach to learning mathematics.  I believe that students through discovery and proper guidance will be able to understand a wide load of big ideas and theories.  Not only do I believe this but I have witnessed this first hand with my students in every grade that I have taught.

However, this is not so for many people.  In fact it was a discussion on Kyle’s blog post (feel free to read the thread) that has me thinking more and more about this topic. And not only thinking about it but trying to fix and insight thoughtful discussion around the ways in which we are teaching math.

Maybe a little background first.  Math has been a hot topic for the past year, if not for the last century.  For many countries, provinces, and states, math curriculum has undergone a significant change from what we grew up with as children.  Some. like myself, believe that these changes are for the better, some have not.  I was recently at the OAME and listening to Brent Davis a professor at University of Calgary.  In his lecture he shared that the reason math curriculum was introduced was so we could have a work force to crunch numbers, nothing more and nothing less.  As we have evolved beyond that (not saying fact crunching is not important) our skills have also changed and I think this is what we need to remember; we have evolved.

For this reason I and many others are proposing a  more balanced approach to mathematics.  Lets stop this war and needless debates and get to teaching good mathematical practises.  One in which our students will push their thinking and really think about the numbers.

If it was up to me this is what I would include:

1) Math should be linked to Big Mathematical Ideas:

I think this is the first step to thinking about our students as mathematicians.  Catherine Fosnot (2002) has some very interesting work around making our students mathematicians.  One of the most interesting facts is there was a study done with so many mathematicians and they were asked to solve a problem.  Not one of those mathematicians solved it the same way.  I found this interesting because that is what I see math.  Math is about the mathematics and there is not one way of doing things.  We have to teach our students the understanding, the flexibility and the patience to be mathematicians.

2) Math is about real numbers:

Students need authentic experiences to learn.  Let’s think about ourselves and how we learn.  Now some do learn through reading and replication but if you honestly think about how you learn a concept the best; it is through trail and error and than guidance from a mentor.  This is the same for our students.  They need real experiences so that they can play and discover the mathematical concepts.  In my personal experience both in tutoring high school students and teaching mathematics in the primary and junior divisions it’s the contexts that allow students to really understand what they are doing.  It’s the context that helps them build models of representation.  In my classroom, these are often done through social justice problems and real life contexts.

3) Students need time to explore:

This goes hand in hand with the above comment. As much as we need instruction, we also need exploration. Students need time to make mistakes, reflect, debate and discuss. These experiences allow students to make connections between concrete and abstract thinking. I was reminded at the OAME that every mistake makes a new synapse in the brain. We need these mistakes I order to solidify  our learning.

4) Students need Mentors:

My most recent research in understanding teachers questions has shown me the importance of teachers, not that I didn’t believe that before.  With a shift towards discovery learning, we as educators have forgotten the importance of our role, or what even our role is.  I truly believe that we should not be the dispenser of knowledge but the mentor of that knowledge.  Though through exploration students will learn (many studies to show this) they may not have tools to reflect or pull together the big ideas.  I think this is where much of the back lash has come from discovery math, reform math or whatever you want to call it.  As students explore and discover there needs to be some sort of guidance.  This is where a teacher can shine and help students with the mathematics.  However, my research shows that for this to happen, a teacher needs to 1) have a good understanding of mathematics, 2) have a good understanding of how children learn mathematics and 3) plan. I know that all teachers plan but this planning involves thinking of big ideas, landscapes and possible questions.  It is these questions carefully placed that can allow students to figure out and make mathematical connections.
Take a look at this video of three of my students thinking about fractions.

They have never been taught fractions from me before this and in fact as a class we haven’t even started the unit. However, that being said think about their learning and the role they play and the role that I play as a teacher.  Where do my questions come from? Why did I ask them at the time I did?

5) Time for debating, conjecturing, discussing and proving:
For me this is the time for a teacher to shine; however not in the traditional sense of standing in front of the class and lecture or tell students how it should be done. Just like students need time to explore they also need time to debate as a community. It is through this debate that students defend their thinking, conjecture, question and solidify their learning. Moreover, it goes beyond just showing and telling.  As a teacher the types of strategies that you show matter. How are you building the learning up, what questions are you modeling? How are you focusing the talk? How are you fostering talk? These are all questions that a teacher needs to be asking.
Also take a look at my most recent grade two conversation of multiplication.

6) Repeated Practise:

Yes I said repeated practice! Students need it, but it’s not just doing procedural learning over and over again.  When I say repeated practise I mean a similar problem for students to continue their exploration.  Students, well most students, cannot solidify their learning through one experience.  In a typical unit my students will solve about 7-8 problems that could take three to four weeks to learn.  These problems build their learning and knowledge from day to day.

7) Skills:

Yes skills are important. They are needed but they are not needed like we use to think about it. For me it’s how are we introducing facts. Do we make students think through facts? Are they taught in isolation or allong with concepts?  In my classroom, students practise facts at home, they play math games in the classroom (here is a file of my math games:  https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B4245QONE7HaaHl3M3ZKNWd3SUk&usp=drive_web). In addition before my problems start I often use string lessons which builds on mental math strategies and learning how to be flexible thinkers and playing with numbers. This to me is more important then struck memorization. It teaches students that numbers are not confined facts but that you can pull apart numbers and use known facts to solve other facts. Through this process students often learn all of their math facts, can recall them and use them in problems, which to me is way more important.
These are just a few of my thoughts on what I am calling a balanced math approach. I have a few more  to hash out around integrating and  implementing a center approach within my problem solving approach.

What are your thoughts?  Don’t you think it is better to discuss and fix our problems rather than lay blame about which is better?  Shouldn’t we think about our students first and their needs in their 21st century world?  Love to here your thoughts.

My To the Moon Story

In my readings I recently came upon Doug Pete’s Blog post in-titled To the Moon with Google.  In his blog post he showcases this amazing video:

It is a really great motivational movie not just about following your dreams and creative thinking but about teaching in general.  Doug challenged every reader to post their own To the Moon Story and so because I don’t want to forget to do this I thought I would post mine.
My to the moon story happened last year.  For the past four years I have really tried to embed social justice into my teaching.  I think it is important that students not only learn skills for academics but also skills for life in general. It has become a big part of my teaching incorporated into every part.  Skills are great but its the social justice that really takes it to the moon because it connects the student to reality.  Its the hard questions that you ask that make students think about what they are doing and more importantly WHY they need to do it.  It allows them to immerse themselves in the context and therefore the skills that they actually need to learn in a meaningful way.  It goes beyond a 30 minute lecture and then a 30 minute practise of facts that we all learned as students.  Not only this but it inspires students to go beyond the classroom and think about spreading the love.  This happened last year, where three of my students were so empowered by our talks they decided for their birthday to create pieces of art, then convince the principal to allow them to sell their artwork for charity.  On their own, students made art work, a plan, talked to the principal and ran the art show.  They raised $200 for free the children.  I couldn’t have been prouder.
Its moments like this that make you stand taller as a teacher, knowing that you had an impact on their thinking as our future citizens.  It’s also these moments that you love and charges you for the ups and downs of teaching.  For those teachers that read this blog, have no doubt that you make a difference.
So just like Doug challenged me what is your too the moon story?  I would love to hear.