30 April 2012

Their 20%

Our district requires a research project in the science classes.  This sometimes manifests as a science fair project, but because I was new to the district, I totally missed the deadlines and didn't get the information out in time to have my students prepare something of quality.  So, suddenly it is the last 9 weeks of school and I have to squeeze in this project at the same time as the sophomores (half of my population) are doing their English thesis papers.  I didn't want to burden them with a science project that forced them to study something they have little interest in so I turned to Google.

Google is known for thinking outside the box (actually they redefined what a box is) for the creative projects of their employees.  One thing they are most known for is their 20% time.  One day per week employees are allowed to work on anything that they want to learn and are the most passionate about.  From that time has come Gmail, Google Docs and Google Street View.  Well, if it can work for Google, why can't it work in my classroom?

So starting 2 weeks ago, my students have been given every Friday to work on a project of their choosing.  The only requirements that I gave them was it has to be something they are interested in, they must demonstrate what they learned, and it can't be easily learned through a Google search.  Thus far, some of the projects are:

  • learning how to bake 10 different types of cookies
  • decorating cakes
  • time travel
  • connection between color and taste preferences
  • hair braiding
  • perpetual motion machines
  • Rube Goldberg devices
  • Ben and Jerry's ice-cream
  • relationship between the size of a combustion chamber and the distance a potato will travel in a potato gun
  • meteorology
  • agronomy
  • lock picking
  • the physics of the wiffle ball
  • a history of St. Mark's cathedral
Some students are working in small groups, but most are working by themselves.  All of their work is being stored in a Google Docs collection so I can see their progress and I regularly check in with them on Fridays.  Some students dislike it because it is so open-ended and they just want me to tell them what to research.  But my biggest surprise was from one of my best students who wants HS to simply prepare her for college classes.  She openly said she loves this project because she finally gets time to learn more about a topic she hasn't had time for because school work gets in the way.

I don't know what this project will bring.  All I do know is this year has been about trying new and radical ideas in my classroom and this is just one more stepping stone in that journey.

27 April 2012


Seth Godin has a take from the Gel conference (also posted on Ted.com) about things that he sees as broken.  Systems or regulations that are in place that don't work and no one seems to be making an effort to fix them.  I have something for Seth's list:  Best Buy.

My laptop broke and I needed the information backed up by Geek Squad (note to everyone: get an external hard drive and back up your data NOW!).  I take it to the store and they are able to do it that day.  I go in the next afternoon to pick it up (Monday at 3pm), I am the 2nd person in line and I wait nearly 20 minutes for the 1 Geek Squad member to help me.

That's not the broken part.  If you have never been in Best Buy, Geek Squad is the computer repair guys and they are at the same very large area as customer service.  At customer service are 3 employees who are doing NOTHING except chatting with each other.  They all made eye contact with me at some point, but never bothered to come over and see if they could help me.  I very clearly was not carrying a computer in my hand so I wasn't look for them to fix a technical issue.  But never once did they make any effort to come around and help me.  The store manager even walked by and never glanced in my direction.

Basically what I saw was a "It's not my job" situation.  Customer service felt it was the Geek Squad's job to handle people in that line, not theirs.  If Geek Squad is backed up, it is Geek Squad's job to get the line down.


And I am disappointed in a company like Best Buy to train their employees like that.  It is everyone's job to make the customer happy regardless of what department he is in.  Going above and beyond every day should be your normal job duties.

09 April 2012

Flipping my Flipped Classroom

I ran into some problems last week as the marking period was drawing to a close.  Lots of stressed out students who were not good about time management were cramming assignments in at the last second.  One of them even exploded in class almost yelling at me, saying that she used to look forward to my class and now she hates it because of the flipped classroom.  Time to do some serious reflections.

Now, why is it that great ideas seem to come when you don't have access to pen and paper to jot them down?

Of course I am in the shower when I had an epiphany.  Actually it was a series of ways of how I can change the structure of my class to make this method work better for everyone.

  1. Change the structure of the room--I think part of the problem with allowing the students to structure the room is they work with people that are at their level in the material and so have no one to really turn to when they get stuck except me.  If specific parts of the room are focused toward different types of work, it will create more heterogeneous groups.  Three lab benches will be dedicate to lab work this way I don't have to worry about constantly setting up and tearing down labs because all of the necessary equipment will already be there.  The place that students typically need help the most is on homework and review sheets so 1-2 benches will be dedicated for this purpose.  If all of the students at the bench are working on homework, they will give them a better chance of getting immediate help.  This will now leave the desks space for general purpose or test taking.
  2. Redesign the videos--The videos mimic my previous lecture style:  a bit of notes followed by examples the illustrate the content.  One student this year is tried to complete the entire marking period without watching the videos and learning everything from the homework problems or other students.  This got me thinking that maybe the examples don't need to be in the video with the content.  So, the main videos will be strictly content with all examples problems moved to separate videos (think video 1a and 1b to keep them connected).  This will give me more time in the videos to explain content and throw in some animations or other short video clips as illustration.  The videos will also be a lot shorter.
  3. Standard-based assignments--while I started to make this change this past marking period, all it really do is make it clearer what objective the assignments are linked to.  However, I don't feel I could really say whether a student mastered an objective based on the results of the assignment.  So, homework and test questions will be focused on specific objectives first and then have some integrated problems at the end.  Each assignment will also be broken down into smaller sets with fewer points.  They will add to the same in the end, but this will allow me to evaluate them more frequently and give better, more specific feedback prior to final assessments.  
  4. Tests--The tests will also have a radical change to them.  The fact that tests take an entire period really hurts the flow of the class.  Tests will be broken up into 3 parts of 15 minutes each to allow them to be taken over the course of the entire unit.  What does sitting down for a 45 minute stretch of time at the end of a unit really prove about their ability to take a test?  That they can recall information they learned 3 weeks prior?  Since the questions will be focused on specific groups of objectives, as soon as they feel they have mastered the objectives, they can sit for that portion.  If a student wants to take multiple or all of the parts on the same day, so be it.  I used to think that tests were a great way to prepare students for midterms/finals, but how does a 45 minute test on 1 unit really prepare them for a 2 hour semester examination?  I'll let the other courses prepare them for that.
  5. Weekly progress indicators--The number one complaint from the student who hated my class is that she couldn't manage her time properly and needed me to tell her what to do.  Now, I still give the assignment chart which details all of the "due dates," but she needs more.  So each week the students will receive a grade out of 5 based on their completion of assignments/objectives.  If they are on track, they get a 5; if they are behind they get a 0.  I know this is a little unfair, but carrots can be great motivators, especially little ones like this that will add to be about 2 homework assignments by the end of the MP.  Now, unbeknownst to them, the grade will not be averaged into their MP grade, but will still be visible to them and their parents.  
I don't know if any of this will work.  But, what I do know, is what I am doing isn't working for everyone.  Sure most of the class has said how much they enjoy what we are doing, but the ones who don't really, really hate it.  Changes need to be made for that latter group.

I would love to hear thoughts/comments.  Any help you can give is greatly appreciated.