Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A good thing

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for the privilege of work. I have meaningful tasks and am capable of performing them. If one could ask for only one thing - would that not be it?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Next Vista - tiny math lessons online

In an article about teaching students about mean, median and mode during English class, Todd Seal casually links to Next Vista's collection of math videos. There are minute long clips on simplifying fractions, adding negative integers, comparing ratios, and other Pre-Algebra/ Algebra topics. They are very short and very clear. On Friday I assigned the watching of any three of these over the weekend for homework, and already an Algebra kid has e-mailed to say they were helpful.

What if similarly focused mini-lessons on all the California Math standards were available for free online? It seems such an obvious idea that it's almost surprising that it isn't there already - but I haven't seen anything more comprehensive around. Have you?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mean, Median and Mode

A cartoon in my 8th grade math textbook in a different country made the notions of Mean, Median and Mode stick in my mind, and pointed toward the significance of these different measures of central tendency. Can't remember any author or title of that old textbook, unfortunately, but here's a reconstructed version assembled with tools from ToonDoo. I used this with my Algebra classes a week ago.

Referring to "Secretary 1" in the salary scale as "the favorite secretary" also generated some discussion about which if these measures of central tendency says anything interesting about the data and about our research question, which is whether this employer pays his subordinates decently.

Bar codes or something on homework papers

Grades were due this morning, and so I'm emerging from a few days of intensive data entry and wondering why, why, why we don't use technology for this mind-numbing part of the teaching job. The chore of entering those strings of numbers into the spreadsheet ranks high up there among factors that could drive me out of the profession - few things are as stressful or irritating. I invariably get some numbers in the wrong columns (and at my new school minor data entry errors generate time-consuming exchanges with students and parents about what could possibly have happened with that one assignment of two weeks ago), and the process of switching focus from a sheet of paper, to the screen, back to the sheet of paper, and back again to the screen makes me dizzy. And late assignments - the worst part about late work is going back through the spreadsheet, scrolling up and down and back and forth, to locate the column and enter the score. I'm not naturally good at this kind of task, probably rather poorer than average, and would never have signed up for an accounting job. On the other hand, why would we make strength at such a monotonous, tedious task a critical part of being a competent teacher? I wouldn't make a good robot - but there are reasons why robots were invented, aren't there?

I'm lucky in having small classes and a block schedule this year, so some three assignments per week per student - but many public school teachers have 150-180 students with daily assignments. How they get through the data entry part is a mystery to me. Here's hoping they all get competent TAs - or that someone introduces scanners and software for this task ASAP.

Of course going through the papers and checking for completeness must be done by a human, and this part has some interest. It teaches me a lot about what the students need more help on and what misunderstandings are typical. But when I've gone through the stack of papers and written my comments on them, what I'd like to be able to do is to feed the papers to a scanner and immediately have the assignments entered in the correct cell in the spreadsheet. Late assignments would be as straightforward to enter as today's assignment.

To make the papers scannable (is that a word?), maybe each student could just get a roll of stickers on the first day of school, and they could place this sticker on the top right corner of their paper. There could be bubbles on the sticker for filling in an assignment code and also for the grade. The computer could take care of the rest. In order to check that students completed the sticker correctly the program could maybe highlight the most recent entries before closing, giving the teacher a chance to quickly check that what was entered since last time really was in the correct column.

Now, wouldn't that be nice? Maybe some computer science students could start working on the program while fulfilling course requirements of some sort, and make the resulting code available for free. It would be worthwhile a contribution to mass education to free up time that teachers use for data entry. It would leave more time for designing interesting lessons and giving the students real, relevant feedback - tasks for which I have considerably more aptitude than I have for spreadsheet management.