Colin's Sandbox


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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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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