Colin's Sandbox

Archive for July, 2013

STREAM Institute

by on Jul.19, 2013, under Uncategorized

Resources (open to the public for curation):

I took part in the STREAM Institute in July 2013 alongside my wife, a biology teacher at Thunder Mountain High School in Juneau.  While we didn’t get to work in the same group, it was still an enlightening experience for me in many ways.  My wife and I actually don’t talk as much as you might think about education.  We also have two small children, so we really don’t get a whole lot of time to talk about much of anything really except for immediate needs.  But the past few nights we’ve stayed up thinking about ideas for encouraging kids to get outside and exploring science outdoors.  We keep coming back to some of the same problems which plague many teachers in the larger school districts, such as scheduling constraints, logistics, and planning time.

Scheduling is a real concern for many teachers – students attending the field trip may end up missing portions of other teachers’ classes before and after the event.  Logistical hurdles are another, especially if you need to schedule a bus (more permission slips, anyone?).  If you don’t have a block schedule and are considering going to a location that requires the use of a bus, the transition and travel time takes away from valuable on-site time this alone likely makes the trip prohibitive.  There’s also the issue of cost.

Why engage in place based education?

“… the great waste in school comes from the child’s inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while at the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school.”

John Dewey, The School and Society (1899)

Let me say right now that I’m a fan of the model of place based education considering the unique facets of education in Alaska, such as:

Proximity to the outdoors – according to Richard Nelson, author, anthropologist, and most recently host of the “Encounters” radio show heard through Southeast Alaska, most every school in Alaska has access to the outdoors in some shape or form. From Anchorage on down, right outside their door, I think it is safe to say that Alaskan schools certainly have more access to natural settings than most schools around the nation.

Connection with Alaska Native Peoples – Due to many circumstances surrounding education in rural Alaska (such as the era of the BIA schools), there developed in many Native Alaskan families and communities a feeling of distrust towards formal education.  If we can bring education into the community, and allow the community more access to education, we work towards fostering a greater bilateral connection between schools and local villages and reversing this trend.

Building confidence – It’s no secret that Alaska has staggeringly high rate of suicide.  Combatting that and the High School dropout rate is a high priority for many educators around the state.  Place-based education can work to build students’ confidence in themselves by affirming the wisdom of the oral tradition that they receive their elders and putting the emphasis on what students are able to accomplish when exploring their world.

I spoke at length to a science teacher from the Lake and Peninsula School District and the differences were notable.  First, the teacher has the same students (and at any one time there’s not more than 30-40 of them) for several consecutive years, and teaches a wide range of ages at once.  Assessment is standards-based versus the more traditional grading based.  Most of his work in the classroom is project based, which is a key component in my view of an effective place-based approach.  Although in some respects he has a difficult job in managing such a wide age range in the same class, in other respects he doesn’t have the high pupil-to-teacher ratio that a teacher working in a larger district would have, so I got the feeling that for him that was the factor that made project-based education possible.

Much of what I took away from the conference came indirectly through stories.  The stories I’m talking about here come into a few different categories: formal stories told in the oral tradition of the Tlingit people, informal stories told to me by elders in reference to events in their lives and political struggles, and of course my own first hand accounts. The Tlingit people take ownership of their stories very seriously, and I would have to ask for permission for sharing any of the more formal stories with others.

If you have had a chance to see a really good orator, you should be thankful. The descriptive techniques used by a talented orator to draw the audience into the storyscape are an art separate from the simple textual narrative and you have to be present in the moment to do it justice.  On a personal note, I feel that this is one area where recording the performance falls woefully short.  All of the elders that I heard stories from in a formal fashion had their own distinctive style of connecting with their audience.  Each story I heard set a tone of the place: for example, prior to spending time on Amalga Harbor the group I was in was told a version of the Salmon Boy story.  What a great way to get ready to to explore an estuary and lagoon with salmon attempting to swim upstream along with the salmon carcasses rotting in the sun lending an authentic olfactory note!

I was also told more than a few informal stories while in my sessions, mostly concerning events in elders’ lives that gave me a stronger sense of what the people, the individual human beings themselves, went through and endured through their lives.  My own circumstance played an important part: just this past month I lost my grandmother, whom I had spent much time with over the years.  For me a large part of the sense of grief was guilt at not having spent more time listening to her and others’ stories before it was too late.  As a result of that, I realized the value of the gift that stories and histories can be between people.  This value is amplified between generations and cultural backgrounds in my opinion.  This calls to mind some of my favorite encounters of my own in rural Mexico.  Imagine traveling by bus while an elderly man tried his hardest to tell me a story whose whole meaning was lost as a result of my complete lack of ability to speak Spanish.  On and on he’d try, speaking slower and slower, and at times louder and louder, either to compensate for the sound of the engine as we accelerated around turns or as a strategy for enhanced comprehension.  Eventually he just stopped, looked right at me, and smiled a big warm smile, and sometimes that’s the entire point.

I’ll close my thoughts on the STREAM Institute by relaying what a teacher in my group said to me.  I recognized her as a musician from in town so during a down time I let her know that I thought I may have recently entered into an early midlife crisis by purchasing a guitar on eBay.  She told me this advice with regard to learning to play guitar: play with people who are better than you, whose ability challenges you to do better.  Play with others that have a style that you would like to learn to play, and to help guide you, have an idea of where you want to go with your practice over time.  I can’t think of better advice as I venture into the educational world.

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Online Math Tutoring Course Design

by on Jul.14, 2013, under #oltak

Course History

As part of the course requirement for the UAS EDET674 “Online Teaching in Alaska” (#oltak) course I was asked to put together a math tutoring unit for a 1:1 effort assisting a student who was to retake the Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exam (HSGQE). I previously detailed how I set up my course as a weekly Skype session to go over sample problems with asynchronous resources shared solely over email. What I found out over the span of the first two weeks is that I was sending a lot of information in emails to the student and the student’s parents but I wasn’t sure how adept the student was at finding information that I had sent over email or if they had a clear sense of what they were being asked to do. I reviewed several alternatives but what stood out for me was Barbra Donachy’s Point Hope History Project and its use of Edmodo and I liked the potential gains that could be achieved by organizing the material in this fashion. Therefore at the risk of changing horses midstream I decided to move the learning environment over to Edmodo. Since I only had about 2 modules worth of material developed for the task I felt the benefits outweighed the cost in terms of time spent doing the change.

Transforming the Course Design into a Welcome Letter

As listed at the bottom of the previous posting, originally I had put together a Google Document outlining how the course was to be run. I took input from two of my peers in the #oltak course and added sections to the document to clarify assessment and feedback. I modified the document extensively to change the audience from a 3rd person perspective to be a more personal welcome letter that would be used initially to introduce the student to what’s expected, weekly workflow, and the tools we’d be using. Reading this document gives you an idea of how the course is structured from the point of view of the student:

Evolution of the Course using Edmodo

I sent out a “Needs Assessment” to the student after the first week and a half of the class to get a better feel for how they learned and communicated best. Upon reflection, this should have been sent out much earlier to get a sense of the preferred learning and communication styles of the student. The results indicated a preference to corresponding via email but after going over the survey results with a parent I convinced her that using Edmodo would be a good way of chronologically organizing material that we’re going over in class and to provide a common place for assignment submissions, etc.

River of News

I’ve used two main features of Edmodo extensively in the construction of this course environment. The first is the course posts which flows along the screen with the most recent posts put on the top of the list. I have heard this described in other contexts before as the “River of News”:

River of News

The student sees this page when they log in to Edmodo and are alerted that they have an assignment to complete.  They can reply right in the interface if they have questions, and submit work to be graded in this way as well.

Organization by Module

Edmodo uses the concept of the library to organize content. Each course can have a set of folders that contain links to items from your library. For my course I am making one folder per course module that lists the module introduction plus video resources and exercises. The module introduction itself is an Edmodo assignment which is linked here.

Sample module showing a portion of resources available.


How successful this transition to Edmodo will be remains to be seen.  I hope that the change isn’t so jarring that the student loses interest in doing the work, or becomes confused as to what is required.  I think the mechanisms that are in place for resource lists, assignment submission, and feedback are a good step to keep things in one place.  I like the environment enough as an instructor to carry it forward in any future tutoring efforts.

Video Overview

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Thoughts on my tutoring course + doing the QM rubric

by on Jul.08, 2013, under #oltak

Assessing Courses

First off, since it’s at the top of my head: I found assessing others’ work using the Quality Matters (QM) rubric seemed harsh, especially that the two courses I assessed may be difficult to assess in this way.  Ryan’s “Individual Technology Learning Plan” course was more of a meta-course; a self-directed exploration of technology in the classroom in which the learner sets the milestones and outcomes with the help of a coach.  Many pieces were thus left to the learner to flesh out.  After reviewing Ryan’s coursework I came to the realization that in this sort of self-directed format a valuable tool for the learner would be a set of examples of previous students’ work (used with their permission of course).

The other course that I reviewed was Tiffany’s math tutoring effort for a student seeking to be ready for math at the 8th grade level (leading up to Algebra).  Many of the pieces asked for by the rubric may not be applicable (anything with the word “institution”) and other stuff may have been gone over in one of the synchronous sessions as well, so this may not be measurable via this rubric.  The biggest thing I got out of reviewing Tiffany’s class is the understanding that even in a tutoring environment it’s likely a good thing to have everything linked to in one spot as a starting point and then add policy-type information as class resources for the student to refer to later on.

As part of the QM assessment piece Dr. Graham asked us to engage in a synchronous manner to discuss the feedback given to us, but this proved difficult in the last minute sense.  I felt that I had sufficient opportunity through email exchanges with the various reviewers and reviewees and therefore felt that the synchronous piece was unnecessary in any event.

Even though I didn’t particularly love the QM assessment process I did gain valuable insights from just going through it with others.  And since I was (and am) feeling a little nebulous about my own course, it gave me some starting points when I got stuck thinking about how to round out my own tutoring course description.  Reviewing others’ projects and receiving others’ reviews on my own showed me a lot of areas that I can improve upon with my course and I’ll be starting in on that today.

My Course Outline

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