Colin's Sandbox

Archive for June, 2013

Hitting the ground running

by on Jun.30, 2013, under #oltak

It’s been a crazy month of June to be sure, filled with lots of work travel and a trip back east to be with my family after the passing of my Grandmother.  It’s also taken a bit longer than expected to get a set schedule worked out with the student and the student’s parents, so I’ve been behind in the work for this course.

But it’s finally coming together: we have a set weekly event, a protocol of synchronous communication (based around using Skype), and a shared goal: understanding the math well enough to take the AK HSGQE in October and pass.  I’ll be working with another teacher on site who I believe either student taught at the school this past year or this upcoming year.  The parents are also active participants in this endeavor, so I view a large part of the job here is just coordinating everyone’s efforts and being flexible.

The work schedule I proposed initially would be a Skype session every Friday afternoon where we would go over problems in real time, go over work that was done during that week, and talk briefly about where we’re going next and come up with a fun project to do that elaborates on what we are working on.  At the suggestion of my wife (a former math teacher and current science teacher), I think I am going to try to mix in a little vocabulary each week and have the student use flash cards to help remember them, possibly using Quizlet After the session I am to send out the weeks’ resources to look into and work on in the form of an example problem and sections of Kahn Academy videos that show the progression on how to get there.  The usage of Kahn Academy was the student’s idea; I was pretty excited that she’s taken such an interest in knowing what methods and materials works best for her.  As part of the goals for the week I hope to have the student demonstrate the learning through a creative means.

We had our first session and it about how I expected; I was a little awkward at times, I think we came to some good understandings of some things that motivate her, and I think we made good strides at overcoming shyness.  My first impression is that the student feels a combination of being somewhat shy as well as intimidation when looking at the math expressions and equations.  I am pretty confident that we’ll work out a good working relationship.  The impression that I’m trying to give off is that the thing that I value most in someone I’m giving a lesson to is that they give it an honest go, learn from the failures, feel open to suggest ways that they feel motivates them.  We do have the luxury of being pretty flexible in how we tailor the class.  I think I need to change the whiteboard app somewhat to allow the use of the iPad and some sort of stylus.  Also I think in the future weeks I’m going to find more of a way to incorporate visual elements in the problems as well as manipulatives if we can.  For her first creative assignment I asked the student to take a recipe for some cookies, and divide it by 4.  Send me the original and modified recipe, and then bake it!

For the actual class mechanics I tried out a combination of a few tools:

  • Skype for synchronous audio, video, and IM client for sharing links
  • CoSketch as an interactive whiteboard application
  • At the student’s suggestion I set up an Class Dojo class room but I wasn’t able to get the student codes going; the server just sits there and eventually spits out a 504 HTTP error.  I put in an email to their tech support.
  • I set up a class in Kahn Academy and invited the student to join the class.

The Kahn Academy concept to augment a class is a totally new thing for me and I’m curious to see how well it will work.  I’ve done one personal foray into using the Kahn Academy to help learn about macroeconomics, because I had a passing fascination about the global financial crisis of 2008.  So far from the coach’s dashboard I can see that the student has already logged on, what videos they’ve watched, what activities they’ve done, and for the sections that they’ve attempted, how proficient they are.  I’m excited to see that the student has logged on and played around quite a bit already.  Awesome!

Here was the first solid week’s initial plan:

This week’s “Example Problem”You want to get ready for a week long camping trip where you’re hoping to take a lot of photographs with your camera.  Unfortunately you only have a couple of storage cards and they each only hold 100 pictures each.  You also want to save room for taking about 10 shots of the group at the end of the trip too.  About how many pictures does that leave for each day of the trip?  Let’s assume also that you can’t delete pictures 🙂
This week’s ideal result
What we’re shooting for is to be able to solve the “example problem”.  There’s a few different ways that I can think of so that I know you understand this.  A very effective way would be to come up with your own realistic problem and send me the problem and answer over email.
Another may be to turn the example problem into some sort of spreadsheet that you could just plug different numbers into for whatever reason, for example, if you found an SD card hiding in the kitchen drawer where mine always end up.  If you are into Google Docs, Google Spreadsheet works well for spreadsheet collaboration.  I think they’re great.
How are we going to get there?
For this week we’re going to use Kahn Academy resources to look at expressions and equations and go through the exercises on the Kahn site.  If you get stuck during the week with solving the example problem that’s OK, there’s a lot here – we can work through it together during the Skype session as well.

Other Sample Problems

If you want to see some examples of problems that could be on the test, check out HSGQE Practice Test: problems 25 and 27
Vocabulary wordsTry to come up with or find definitions for these words.  We’re going to turn them into flash cards.  The important thing is that you understand the definition, so if you have a hard time finding or coming up with a definition that makes sense, Google them, pick a few out and we can go over together to find one that sticks with you.

Kahn Resources for This Week
Please log into the Kahn Academy with your own login and join the class with the code MWT4DJ.  I’ve sent [the student] an invitation to that class.  Then go through the following resources and drill exercises.  If the bandwidth becomes a problem please let me know and we can find an alternate route.Expressions and Equations: step equations drill: for 2-step equations:

Two step equations drill:

Have Fun!
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Fast times at Petersburg High!

by on Jun.18, 2013, under #oltak, ramblings

One of the parts of the job that I like the best is my ability is that I often get to wear many hats in the span of a day, such as “Network Guy”, “Systems Administrator”, “Ad-Hoc Trainer”, “Computer Maintenance Guy”, “Updates Updates Updates!”, and “Talk Technology with Teachers Man”.  This past trip I took with a coworker down to Petersburg I was all of those things.  The school district is in a good spot in many ways because it has access to great people on the ground who understand the purpose of technology in education (Education!) and are dedicated to providing great support to their teachers.  Where people like myself fit in best is as part of a team with the technology staff, finding ways to roll out computers quicker, finding ways to speed things up and make things easier for the staff.

With my own current schooling in the forefront, working directly face to face with the technology director / teacher and his staff provided me with a lot of opportunities to ask questions about how technology is used in their school, problem areas in the usage of technology in education.  We floated ideas of how to get student input and hopefully buy-in to technology related aspects of their education.

I also engaged in a lot of just-in-time, face-to-face teaching of the staff there in how to use tools in order to best manage various aspects of their network.  From finding and fixing cabling issues, to tracing the network cable routing itself (not as trivial as you might think!), to showing them new methods of maintaining their computers, there’s a lot of diverse topics to hit upon.  After a trip like this is over I usually continue with asynchronous and synchronous support in the form of Google Docs, IM sessions, emails, etc.

Spicoli learns something new about managed switches that he never knew was possible

What’s also really exciting is that the education goes both ways.  I learn things every time I go on a trip to do an installation, because no matter how much you are committed to a set of implementation steps, there’s always something that comes up to work around.  During the past two trips I have worked a couple of stints pretty closely with a network engineer working for GCI who’s been very helpful in working with me to design out the customer’s network, and I’ve got the chance to learn new things about various parts of computer networks, which I’m finding more and more recently that there’s a lot of gaps in my knowledge.  It holds true: the more I learn, the less I know.

I also thought of ways we could use tools that we normally associate with systems administration to help make teaching some technology courses easier.  How about incorporating something simple such as Dropbox or Google Docs to propagate reference projects out to students for example?  At one point Jon (the technology coordinator / teacher) and I were batting around different ways we could facilitate what I like to call “geeking out” classes when I saw he had a radio time signal receiver setup in the tech room.  How neat would it be to interface with something like that to make a network time server?  It’s not necessary really, there are much easier options out there for an accurate source of time that are good enough for what a school district would need, but it would be a fun project   Now that they have some great hardware in their server room with plenty of head room, what about the idea of rolling out a virtual machine as an option in a technology class, giving a highly advanced and motivated student the option of having their own sandbox to play with to do systems administration, web programming, etc.?

Fun times, and a pleasure to work with a staff that really wants to see their students engaged in learning.

While working down in Petersburg I attended a couple of webinars, the first concerning digital communication in online classes given by Matthew Turner from the Alaska Humanities Forum’s Rose Urban Rural Exchange, and the second involving synchronous learning environments for teaching.  The first one covered some bases for me that I had already a good grasp on, having took the “Multimedia in the Classroom” class taught by Dr. Ohler, as well as being somewhat conversant in various course management systems.  The big take-away here for me was a strong reminder on some basic tips when doing video with groups of students in particular using mobile devices, such as:

  • Keep each video shot as short as possible (10s).  Not only are they easier to combine later on into your video, they keep the movie interesting.
  • Establish your scenes so people feel connected to the environment they’re being shown
  • Landscape, landscape, landscape!
  • Improvise a tripod from your body or any other objects around to keep the video quality as still as possible.  Allow yourself one (1) pan or tilt per shot, and make it last for the entire shot.
  • Hash out a quick storyboard or shot list beforehand so you can hand out shots individually or to groups (camera team A and camera team B).

Matthew’s presentation was based around the asynchronous mode of learning facilitated through a Joomla-based content management system (although this is in transition), and a lot of the units he uses to work with students involve video.  Some examples that he’d use would be ato have students develop a video introduction to aspects of their town (a day in the life) as well as create a destination log of their travels to their syster school district.

The other webinar in the week was devoted more to synchronous learning environment such as Elluminate and its progeny.  My feelings are a little mixed using something like Elluminate; it seems like a good way to manage large groups of students in a very traditional class-like synchronous environment but at the same time provides some neat features for breaking students into groups, assigning them each tasks, recording and archiving the class environment for later viewing, utilizing a whiteboard component.  What I personally got out of it the most though was a couple different ideas: first, build the community early on as best you can, know your audience and when and when not to use humor, and how little things like moving stuff around on the whiteboard to better demonstrate math concepts can be a really effective tool (thanks Virgil Fredenberg).

My planned tutoring hasn’t started yet 😐 – I think the warm summertime is taking its motivational toll out on people.  This is unfortunate because I’m going to need something fast to explore in terms of this class, and therefore I’m falling behind by default.

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Adding a bit of structure to my online tutoring

by on Jun.09, 2013, under Uncategorized

I’ll expand more in this posting about the online tutoring that I will be engaging in hopefully beginning this week, along with some of my thoughts on dangers to students in Cyberspace.


I’ll refer to the student here as “Roberta”.  I had a chance to talk with another teacher about Roberta’s past experiences with online tutoring, aptitudes, and interests.  I haven’t yet seen the results from her previous HSGQE attempt, so I don’t yet know how to frame the essential questions which we’ll be building the course material around yet, so this is limiting my progress in this endeavor to this point.  I can however talk at some length about what the course structure will look like, at least initially.

I plan on using a blended learning approach in this unit since I have the luxury of being a part of a team of people assisting in this educational effort: her parents, a certified teacher, and myself.  As I understand it, the teacher will be available for a few hours each week for face to face interaction with Roberta, while I plan on taking part in weekly Skype sessions whose duration I will keep to about an hour.  Each session will go through roughly these steps:

  1. Going over previous week’s worth of work, identifying areas of strength and weakness
  2. Guided practice over  new practice material
  3. Presenting a new tool for exploration
  4. Presenting the new task for the week

The weekly task: a former teacher gave me some insight as to motivational strategies that have worked for her.  Two things stood out for me from that conversation: a love of art (photography in particular), and a love of exploring new computer-based tools to express her art and have fun in the process.  I am thinking that every week I try to come up with an example of algebra in visual form and have Roberta come up with her own example through photography and digital manipulation.  For instance, showing a picture of a steep mountain side with a cartesian coordinate system overlaid upon it  showing the calculation of the slope (y=mx+b).  According to what the former teacher told me, Roberta has difficulty retaining math concepts from one session to the next, so I’m hoping that the more ways that I can use to demonstrate algebraic concepts the higher the likelyhood that they’ll stick.

I hope to demonstrate a new tool every week as well, as sort of a carrot to keep her motivated (and me as well – I’m willing to bet she knows more than I about the current state of tools of this sort).  Outside of the Skype session I will be emailing with the teacher and parents as well, assigning practice problems that mirror the HSGQE very closely.  Since this is only a single student I think the overhead of a larger environment like Moodle or Edmodo, etc., isn’t warranted.


I enjoyed this week’s webinar with Frederick Lane discussing threats to students in the online sphere.  I must admit I typically pooh-pooh the danger here to students; I view technology as an add-on to my social life, not as the primary vehicle through which I connect to others.  I am still very old-fashioned in this regard: phone calls, emails (operated almost as an extension to regular mail in a sense), face-to-face interaction.  I have been pretty diligent about turning off the electronic devices at a certain point in the day.  Many children in our culture however look at things differently, and have a much harder time turning off the devices.  I’m still of the mindset though that the benefits of technology far outweigh the negatives, and that we’re in this transition period where culture is playing catchup to what is technologically possible.  I believe in this context that the more that we can model responsible behavior and communication with these devices in the classroom the better off the children are going to be in the long run.  Banning mobile devices from the classroom doesn’t solve the problem in my view, it would only serve to defer the problem until after school, or when students are between classes texting anyhow.  With over half of students in the country using smartphones (Lane), I think the mantra “Can’t beat ’em, might as well join ’em” applies here.

The big take-away for me was that a concerted professional development effort should be made with educators at all levels to present the real challenges in this field and how to identify when a problem may be occurring, interfering with a student’s ability to learn.  Training should be done yearly and attempt to demonstrate how we can overcome the Fear of using mobile devices and utilize them responsibly.

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Planning this summer’s online course activities (to be continued…)

by on Jun.02, 2013, under Uncategorized

So it looks as though I may have a couple of irons in the fire with regards to my Master’s program this summer time.

Using Minecraft for the Powers of Good (STEM)

As part of a potential STEM course using Minecraft to solve real world problems in the classroom I’ve been tweaking a survey I first developed in the last semester’s MOOC to better gauge where the participants are at and how we can best deliver instruction.  Here’s the rough draft of the survey (I set the online Google Form to not accept responses at this time, so I can’t embed it within this page).  Basic in nature, without being to wordy, attempting to get a feel for the audience.

It’s still too early to give much indication for how it really will happen, but for now it is looking like it might play out as a day of face-to-face workshops at a math and science conference in Anchorage in October.  This would lead up to a one semester online course.  Delivery is still yet to be determined but given the nature of Minecraft I anticipate weekly sandbox sessions in-game along with a host of resources made available online to support the course activities.  At the outset of the unit I would hope to have a good sense of the kinds of real-world projects each participant would like to accomplish in their own class that would serve as their motivation for engaging with the class.  Once we’ve gone far enough into the class we could facilitate students sharing their worlds and units amongst each other for feedback, playability, and educational value.  Creating a library of Alaska-centric Minecraft worlds and challenges would be a really neat way to help foster a community.

The more I go down that road the more I realize that I need to spend more time exploring MinecraftEdu worlds that others have done before I can possibly walk others through this process.  I think it’s important to make the process as general as possible; Minecraft is “hip” at the moment, but like all things, its time in the sun will set.  The basic engineering design process however, is the most important thing that we’re trying to convey here.

Tutoring Algebra

Secondly, I’ve been approached to potentially help tutor a student online via distance in Algebra.  I don’t yet know very much about the student at all.  Outside of preschool and teaching adults I don’t have a whole lot of experience working with young students, so its new ground for me. It’s an opportunity I can’t really turn down, considering I don’t have a class of my own, haven’t taught in a structured online capacity yet, and the experience would be immensely informative for me.

Without knowing more about it I would endeavor to go down the following route:

  1. Exchange dialog with the other instructors to find out how I can best help.
  2. Technical nitty gritty + scheduling – how do we best engage in synchronous and asynchronous communications?
  3. Find out more about the student’s learning style – do they best relate to short videos, ala the Khan Academy style?  Or working through sample problems hand in hand?  What sorts of encouragement work best?  Do frequent sessions of short duration work best, or less frequent, but longer sessions fit their needs?  What are they interested in that we could use to tie in Algebra?
  4. Where is the student lacking in math?  Where is the student strong?  How does this compare to the math standards we’re trying to meet?
  5. How do we best go about assessing the student along the way to demonstrate progress?
  6. And then there’s the fun stuff of course, finding the relevant resources out there and actually _do_ the unit of instruction with the student.
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