The Cell Phone Questions

If you have stumbled upon my randomly-updated blog, then you have most likely come around to hear of some of the things I have to say about the usage of cell phones in the classroom. Out of the group leaning that way, many will have stumbled due to a project that is assigned to them for graduate school, and while I absolutely love the program that said school is using, I am disappointed that they have given a project of such low order thinking in a program that is supposed to promote higher order thinking skills. I have mentioned this to a few of the people that I know that are professors in the program, but still, the project has not changed.

So, even though I am starting out somewhat ranting, please know that this is meant as constructive criticism. So, let's start with what I see as issues to a project that states "Find a teacher that has used cell phones in class and ask them questions about the following things." These questions will be posted below. In 2008, I would say that this would be a very beneficial course of action to follow, as the use of cell phones was so new, there was nearly nobody doing it. I received a ton of inspiration from Liz Kolb when I saw her at NECC in San Antonio (NECC is the old name for the ISTE Conference), and I dove right in. I started using Poll Everywhere with one of my classes, and the kids were so enthralled by having a reason to follow the rules that they immediately turned their phones off and put them away so they wouldn't have them confiscated for accidentally having them ring in class. They now had a reason to follow the rules, so I went to my principal to ask for permission to use cell phones in my classroom (the old "ask for forgiveness" routine). So, if this idea has been around for over three years, why are we still asking questions about starting to use them in schools?

Now, I know that there are still many schools out there with a zero tolerance policy. In my classroom, my policy is, "If you're getting all of your work done, then why would I care if you send a quick text message? It's a lot less disturbing than yelling across the room!" Yet many are still shocked that I would allow such a thing, but you know what? This is the world our students are living in and need to prepare for. They need to learn how to balance all of the different tools they have available and to properly utilize them to be productive. When I see a kid texting in class (and getting all of their work done), I often have a short conversation with them about ways they can use the device more productively by challenging them in new ways. For each student it's different, and they each get a different idea from our discussions. If a student is just on their mobile device (cell phone, iPad, iPod, etc.) and not being productive, they first get a warning, then the device is confiscated. A privilege has been abused, and a consequence handed out. So I'm not just that teacher that allows free use of the devices. And in my flipped classroom, it's a privilege that works out pretty well.

So we are now in a time where we aren't just talking about cell phones, but mobile devices. So the fact that this project is still only asking about cell phones is disappointing to me. Why aren't all mobile devices included? And why is it still a low-level project? I have had hundreds of emails from students in the same program ask the same questions, and I often am bombarded by twenty or so emails all within 3 days. Having to answer the same questions over and over is monotonous on my end, and I am sure that the instructors have seen the same answers over and over. I feel bad that there are times in the year that I do not have time to respond due to other obligations, and some students are left searching out other avenues. I have suggested that I could to a short recorded video for the program and answer the questions that way, or even have a time mutually set up to do a synchronous web interview or webinar, but alas, this university (again, I am not bad mouthing the university. I really, really do like what they offer, and recommend the program to many) has not agreed.

So, I do want to help spread the word of integrating cell phones and mobile devices in the classroom. I also want to be able to keep my sanity and not have time for anything else. I also want to prove a point that a new higher-order thinking project needs to be designed in place of the current one to provide a better educational opportunity for these graduate students, and, in turn, their students. These graduate students are tasked with "interviewing" me through email. Well, I am going to respond to all of the questions I get from this program here in this post. If you have questions beyond these and have a genuine interest for integrating mobile devices into your classroom, I will respond. Just be patient. I am a full time teacher, and my students and duties do still come first, but I will get around to further questions.

So, here are some of the most common questions I receive.

1. Does your school currently have a policy on cell phone use?Our policy states that all mobile devices should be turned off and out of sight unless given permission to use in class by the teacher for educational purposes. As I allow a pretty lenient use of the devices in my class (as stated above), I consider being able to be more productive while multitasking to be a very educational purpose, as that is a 21st Century Skill our students will all need when they move beyond high school. 
2. How long has this policy been in place?I think it changed sometime in 2009. I was actually a rule-breaker when I first used cell phones with my students to gather evidence of their learning by utilizing Poll Everywhere. The policy was that all phones needed to be turned off and out of sight during all school hours. Period. But I knew my students all had them, so why not utilize them in a more effective way? After piloting, I approached my principal for permission, or, if things took a turn against what I did, for forgiveness. 
3. What are the consequences for students who abuse the policy?We are to confiscate the device and take it to the office to be held there for one week. A student may have a parent come to the office to retrieve the device in exchange for serving time in a Saturday detention. I am not a big fan of this policy, as we don't take away a student's voice box if they speak out of turn, but I really don't have many issues where I have to enforce the policy either. And when I do have to enforce it, it's usually pretty warranted, and does lead to an educational discussion with most of the students affected. 
4. How did parents react to the use of cell phones in the classroom?My students' parents were ecstatic! It used to be that they were paying large sums of money for students to be social and to entertain themselves with the devices. Now, for that same price, not only are they being social and entertained, but they are being productive (and learning how to be more productive)! Who isn't happy about getting more bang for their bucks? On top of that, parents can receive updates through text messaging services (used to use TextMarks, now use Celly) including assignments and notices about upcoming assessments. 
5. What do you do for students that do not have their own cell phone or text messaging plan?Luckily for us, we were part of a grant program known as Classrooms for the Future (CFF) that provided technology and instructional support for our core secondary classrooms, so there is a computer cart in my classroom that students have access to. Any service that I have used with cell phones can be accessed on those computers, or students could share their cell phones. If there was an issue of recording audio, often a computer or land-line could be used in place of a cell phone. I always make sure to say, "If you don't have your cell phone today..." instead of, "If you don't have a cell phone..." as I don't want to point out that a student may not have this all-important piece of social status (flair), and it seems as if they just kept it at home, in their locker, or they could choose to state that they don't have one. 
6. Could you briefly describe a project your students completed utilizing cell phones?The project itself really had nothing to do with cell phones other than for delivery. I wanted my students to have a better understanding of quadratic equations, so they researched a way that quadratics could be applied to something they enjoyed. As research commenced, students narrowed down their topics, and some even learned about some higher level mathematics that they would not see in the classroom setting that school year. One student dabbled into Calculus years early, another moved into some Physics, all through the gateway of quadratics. A few years earlier, I would have had students write a report on their findings. Instead, students wrote a script, submitted it, discussed it with me, did more research and experiments, revised, and resubmitted, all before the cell phone came into play. Once the script was approved, students recorded the script through a phone call using a service known as Yodio and the project was done. See my class wiki for the projects. There are so many different services out there now that allow for recording like this, and be aware that you might find a service you like one day that might be gone the next or charge you for use.
So, in the end, this wasn't a cell phone project. It was just a project that integrated cell phones. As the students knew they'd be using cell phones, they were excited about the project. By connecting to something in their own lives, they were even more excited. So here is my higher-order project assignment for you: What can you do in your classroom to better reach your kids, where integrating mobile devices is not the purpose of the project, but a way to enhance it.
So for all of you that are here just for your graduate course, here are the answers to the questions you were probably going to ask. For those that were unable to benefit from my knowledge prior to this post, I am sorry I couldn't help. As educators yourself, I am sure you understand how precious time is for me. And for anyone who wants to know more, feel free to contact me! Maybe we could have a full conversation on twitter, via Skype, over email, or even face-to-face.


Another First Day

It's hard to believe that I have just completed my ninth first day of school as a teacher and twenty-seventh first day of school overall. The first day has always been a whirlwind for me, and it never feels as if there is enough time to do that which I had planned. Some periods I met for less than 30 minutes, another met for the full 42 minutes, and I saw my 9th period kids for all of 3 minutes. I often wish that we had a different set up for our first day, but when all is said and done, there really isn't much you can do different from what we are doing with what we need to do. In the end, it's just a matter of dealing with what's given.

And, of course, that is the problem I am facing this year. As of today, there will be 178 student enrollments (some students come 2-3 times a day) that roll through my classroom on even days and 161 on odd days (my study hall numbers vary), and I am wondering how I will meet the needs for each of these students. Each of these kids is going to have a different need that I must meet and adjust for. How will I be able to do this?

Luckily, working in a flipped classroom will make up for some of the necessary adjustments. Students will have a choice in how to receive the information to apply to the content. They could view a podcast where they can see problems and hear me talk about the topics. They could work through the slides for the podcast without the audio and try to figure out the steps and create reasons why those steps work. They could take the notesheet and work on filling it in by trying things out and verifying it afterwards. This is a process that worked quite well with my Integrated Math 2 students last year, and I'm curious to see how it works not only with my Geometry students, but in classes that are as large as they are. The big question is will I be able to assist the students that need it in class, or will I not be able to get around to them? Will they step up and collaborate as I envision they will? Time will tell.

In order to deal with both the sizes of my classes and the potential for collaborative learning, I've adjusted the way my classroom is set up. No longer will I arrange in rows and columns, but instead in clusters that allow for students to better work together with those around them and allow for me to move around the space. I had used a very similar configuration last year, and it lent itself quite well to work in the classroom.

The next question is how do I adjust for assessment (or should I even do so)? I would love to be able to trust my students so that they do not borrow work and answers from each other and truly see what they know and don't know, but we all know high school kids, and the temptation to look at another's paper is something that is difficult to overcome. I don't have the time to adjust desks for every assessment, and different classes will be assessed on different days, so how do I account for this issue without driving myself crazy?


The importance of reflection and what it means to be a teacher

All too often, I find myself running from one place to another, often feeling like a chicken with its head cut off. There are days where I am moving constantly from the moment I wake until I am finally able to fall back asleep. I am sure there are many more teachers out there that find themselves in the same position every day, as well.

Yet I find that when I get a chance to look back on what has passed, I find that there are many things that I have missed, be it some of the connections I used to make with my students or a better way to get my content through to my students. This is such an important part of who I should be as an educator, but by not taking the time to reflect, I miss the chance to grow.

One week from now, my classroom will be full of students once again. That means I need to be at the top of my game. Anytime I am with students, if I am giving any less than my best, then I am not doing my job. That is the pressure of being an educator, and that is what I knew what I was getting into when I enrolled in the math education program at Millersville University back in 1998.

This push to remember to reflect comes from a summer where I attended two weddings where former students of mine were getting married. These two students were class officers for the class that I co-advised, which also happened to be ther group of students that started high school when I began teaching at A-C. Through planning prom to announcing some names at graduation, I grew quite close to those two students, and as the bride of this couple was looking to become a teacher, I was also able to give advice toward doing so. They are such a fun couple, and I was so pleased to know that they wished for me (as well as many of my colleagues) to celebrate their special day with them.

The second wedding was this past weekend, also for a couple from the same class. I knew that these two former students had also thought highly of me in their time here, and I was able to help them and their families through some difficult times. The bride from that couple gave me a thank you card while she was a junior (I keep all cards, photos, and other keepsakes given to me by my students), and I just happened to reread this card today as I was setting up my classroom. She thanked me for the help she received, but there was one statement that really hit home, where she wrote, "Thank you for being someone I trust. And the only person who has never let me down." How powerful a statement is that? I don't know of any other profession where such an impact can be made on a young person. Again, it was an honor to be able to celebrate their wedding day with them.

Of course, I have many other letters and thank you's from parents and students that I reread or post to remind me why I became a teacher. I need the reminders that the long hours are worth it, especially in today's climate where teachers are being blamed for many of the ills that we face. Well, I say, blame away. I will ignore those statements and continue to fight for what I know is right for my students.

So this year, even though I only have 12 graphing calculators for my class of 32 students, I won't complain about it. I will deal with it. I will press my students to try and find a solution to the problem, as I know there are other tools out there I can use, such as the Desmos, Inc. free graphing calculator. I will continue to work on my flipped classroom by trying new things, work at making more connections to the real world, and reflect on what works and what doesn't. And I will remind myself that my willingness to do things differently and trying to make math interesting is what made me a good teacher in the past, and continuing to incorporate those ideas will help me grow into a great teacher.


Zen.do - A Great Way to Study

Often, students may find it difficult to study for quizzes and tests, especially for those that are for things such as the periodic chart or assessments that are heavy on vocabulary. Most students do find flash cards to be helpful, but often it takes a lot of time to complete them. And the students would need to have flash cards to make them on.

This is where Zen.do comes in! Zen.do is a new service that allows for a user to create flash cards directly from their notes. The first step is to create a free account so that you can not only create, but save and access your flash cards at a later date. Once an account is created, there are three simple steps to take to create your flash cards. These steps are shown in the photo below, and will open up for you when you go to create a new set of flash cards.
Step 1: Title you document - This is done so that you can keep your flash cards organized. This can be very helpful for studying throughout a chapter. Older flash cards can be studied in preparation for a test or even the final.
Step 2: Create flash cards as you take notes - This can be very easy to do, especially if teachers provide notes in a digital format. Just copy and paste the notes, delete that which is not needed for studying, and add a hyphen and an answer. Whatever is placed beyond the hyphen will be on the back of the flash card, while whatever is places before the hyphen is on the front.
Step 3: Save and review - Once this is done, your flash cards are ready to go.

As this is still a new service, it doesn't yet have all of the features one would prefer to really take advantage of using flash cards as a study device, though they are working on them. Among the features in development are the option of being able to share flash cards (great for study buddies or for teachers that want to provide them as extra resources to students who are struggling), the ability to add pictures, and a mobile app for access on the go!

For more, visit zen.do and play around to make your own flash cards!

UPDATE: It appears that zen.do is now Study Egg. You may have noticed that if you tested the link above. I'm looking forward to checking it out this year, and I'm excited that they have an iPhone app, too!


PETE&C 2011 Cover It Live


PowerTeacher Gradebook: Quick Launch

Pearson, the provider of our Student Information System (PowerTeacher), is constantly updating the product it provides us. This is both a good thing and a bit of a pain. Like, when you try to launch your gradebook, you have to scroll the whole way to the bottom of the page after reading all of the updates (which have been listed for months) 

before you can launch your gradebook!
Or do you really need to scroll? Pearson did listen to some of the complaints of having to scroll through all of that text, and they have provided us with a "Quick Launch" button. I refer to it as the "non-scroll launch." You can do this in two simple steps while signed in to PowerSchool.

1. Click on the "Gradebook" button in the left pane.

2. Click on the "Quick Launch" arrow. This does the same action as clicking on the "Launch Gradebook" button at the bottom of the page, though it saves you from having to scroll.
I think this is a step in the right direction to speed up the process of opening our gradebooks quicker. I would be happier if the "Quick Launch" button was on all pages. But we can only hope, for now.