Thursday, February 23, 2012

Writing in a STEM Classroom

Yesterday my students took final exams in two Project Lead the Way classes:  Introduction to Engineering Design (IED) and Digital Electronics (DE).  Their exams consisted of a writing prompt with the requirement that they write at least one page, they use introductory and concluding paragraphs, and that they use proper spelling and grammar.

For the IED exam they were told to underline the steps in the 12-step design process, underline key terms in the process of Reverse Engineering, and underline the words Planned Obsolescence and Perceived Obsolescence when they were used.

I could have easily had them do a multiple choice test on processes in CAD programming, steps in the design process, and the difference between Planned and Perceived Obsolescence.  But what would that have told be about their real understanding of these terms?

Too often, as STEM teachers, we get to hide behind solving problems and we let the writing and reading part of education be allocated to the English teachers.  We forget that we have college degrees and we had to write papers and we had to read A LOT in college.  Our students need writing and reading preparation so they can go to the best science and engineering schools and do well.

(Insert Sea Story here: )  I remember being a Main Propulsion Assistant, in the Navy, and having the Chief Engineer always (not once or twice but always) ask me what the tech manual said about the problem we were having with the pumps, turbines, or other mechanical equipment in our engine room. I would have to bring the tech manual and I was expected to have read the manual, understood what was being said, and be able to explain it in layman's terms to the Captain. This was true even though I wasn't the person doing the repairs.  It was my people doing the repairs and I was expected to understand the problems.  If I weren't a good reader I would have never made it in that job.

And so, whenever possible, I intend to be a better teacher by having my students read and write.  Not having them write in every class is a disservice to their future.  The English teachers can work on making sure they understand the nuances of style or various grammar rules.   We can be the ones who make sure they are practicing their skills.

(Insert first year teacher story from 1994 here: )  At a faculty meeting during my first year of teaching we were discussing having students write more across all of their courses.  The curriculum person stood in front of us and told us "of course, if you aren't an English teacher you can't grade them on grammar and spelling."  My hand went up faster than a SM-2ER missile.  "If some kid gives me a paper that is written poorly it is going to be marked up like a bloody mess!"  (That was before we became a gentler profession and we got rid of red pens for grading.)

We are professionals.  We have accumulated, in most cases, multiple hours of classes that required us to write and to be graded on our writing.  Yes, some teachers are NOT great writers but that doesn't mean they can't demand good writing from their students.  Make your students write.  You owe it to them.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Thoughts on Vendor Areas at Conferences

{NOTE: After writing this last weekend I started putting in links and realized it was almost identical to my post from Feb.7 .  Guess the thoughts in that post resonated with me. }

Last week was the Texas Computer Educators Association (TCEA) annual conference and I was fortunate enough to have an understanding principal who let me off on Tuesday and on Thursday afternoon to go to the conference.  And, unlike other years, my district even paid the cost of my admittance: $180!

Like most teachers I don't get to too many great conferences because of the cost to attend.  For example I attended Educon Philadelphia and I, literally, used that as my Christmas and Birthday present.  The bottom line?  Over $1200 for 3 nights lodging, airfare, food, and admittance.  But I'm worth every penny.  Thank you to my wife, son, and daughter for such a thankful gift.

So, why was I willing to shell out $1200 to go to Educon?   The level of conversation, for one, is priceless.  The discussions, both in sessions and before and after the sessions, went from breakfast to midnight each day.  I learned a ton and got to meet people I had wanted to meet face to face for years.

Another, usually unmentioned, cost was the cost the school district had to pay for a substitute for my two days I missed to attend Educon.  And then there was the cost of me not being in class to be with my students.  Even PBL students with a set agenda and a project to work on become normal kids around a substitute.  If the substitute is going to sit and watch movies on his or her laptop my kids aren't going to be motivated to work.

So last week I ended up getting a substitute for Tuesday and I asked teachers, who were on their conference period, to watch my afternoon classes on Thursday.  Only one totally lost day of learning there.  And, since I was driving from home, no real cost for transportation or lodging.  Pretty reasonable.

Tuesday I immediately went to the Lone Star Edubloggercon (LSEBC12) in the Web2.0 area.  I could have gone to this without the full pass (and I did that last year) but it was nice to know that later in the week I could go to a few sessions and I could visit the vendor area with my pass.  But, again, I could have gotten into this area for free.   That's important.

If you notice the picture at the beginning of this post.  It is the schedule of sessions (free) to attend during the day at LSEBC12.  This schedule was put together by Scott Floyd and was done like an Edcamp.  As a matter of fact Scott knew I was coming and had put down a session for PBL (notice the 1:30 time slot) and as I walked into the room he, literally, asked if I wanted to do a session on PBL.  When I said yes he said good thing because he had already put me on the schedule.

The first session in LSEBC12 featured Kevin Honeycutt who I  have known through twitter for years but had never met in person.  He gave a wonderful presentation on encouraging music and got the whole group involved in making music (see my last post).  I learned about some apps that I didn't know about and I found out more about apps that I had heard about but had not played with.

The whole day was like that.  I got to meet people who are active in social media, true, but they are also passionate about many varied educational topics and we could engage in conversations (there's that word again) in a relaxed, open environment.

When I came back on Thursday I had physically missed a day and a half of the conference.  But, really, I had been able to follow the twitter stream and I knew the interesting (and the not so interesting) sessions that had occurred on Wednesday.  I had been involved in conversations with people at the conference and felt connected to the conference without having to be there.

The first place I went on Thursday was the Web2.0 area and I found many of the same faces from Tuesday along with some others who I hadn't been able to meet on Tuesday.  A bonus was that Ben Grey did a session on digital story telling that had a large audience and I could X off another twitter person who I'd always wanted to hear speak and, again, I saw it for free.

When that ended I decided to head to the Vendor area.  What a mistake.  The place was surreal.  People yelling and cheering.  People trying to "scan me."  Hundreds of people sitting in front of boards, looking like used car salesmen, hawking their wares.  It was very unnerving.  I knew of two places that I wanted to see, the Splashtop guys and the Smart IWB people.  The rest of the experience, as I wandered around looking for them, was awful.  And, as I looked at the names of the products there were few that I wasn't familiar with.  I could tell you what was good and what was bad about them just because I'm active on twitter.

In 2012, people don't need to go to vendors to hear their spiel.  I hear about products every day on twitter and I then look at the links of anything that sounds like I might use it and I read for myself.  If I think I might be interested I seek out people on twitter who have used or are currently using this product in their classroom.  Then I send out the information to my fellow teachers to see if any of them might be interested.  Then, depending on cost, I get the product and start using it so I can put out informative tweets so others can see what I think.

As I said earlier, I was looking for two vendors at this conference.  I wanted to see both of them about the same problem.  I was able to find the Splashtop guy but not the Smart people (even though Smart was a major sponsor of the conference.)  He wasn't able to help me, but he wants me to screen shot the problem and send it to him so they can look into it.  I could have gotten that same result by tweeting to @splashtop and telling them my problem but, hey I got to interact with a real human being!

I know that vendors allow us to have conferences in big fancy convention centers.  I know that it's important for people to compare products in one central area.  I know that this is the one chance, each year, for tech folks to get out and see what the latest products are.  I also know I shouldn't be so cynical about the whole experience.  But it is really hard to see all of these salesmen with the same outfits, the same haircuts, and the same sales pitches and not be dismissive of the whole process.  If more people could see the power of twitter and Google + to spread information about products then we wouldn't need these vendor areas.  And, maybe we could have smaller more intimate conferences built around the art of conversation and not the sale of technology.  Next time I'll make sure I pass on the Vendor area.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Carnival of Cities for 8 February 2012

Welcome to the Carnival of Cities blog carnival, where we tour the world in a single post, via submissions from a variety of different blogs, all about any aspect of one, single city or fair-sized town.

This blog hosts the carnival a couple of times a year so if you have an education-related post that relates to or is set in one city, you can participate too.

The previous Carnival edition was hosted on Sheila's Guide, and you’ll find the next one (February 22, 2012) on the Perceptive Travel Blog.

If you would like to host a future Carnival edition on your blog, please contact the Carnival organizer:  Sheila “at” sheilascarborough “dot” com. Thanks!

Here is the roundup….

Cities in the Americas

Columbus, Ohio, USA   Joe Vargo presents German Village Guesthouse: Live Like a Local posted at The Columbus Experience, saying, "The German Village Guest House gives travelers a chance to live like a local in one of the nation's most prized historic districts."

Honolulu, Hawaii, USA   Kailani presents The Waikiki Aquarium posted at An Island Life.

Plains, Georgia, USA   Jack Norell presents The Billy Carter Gas Station Museum, Plains, GA posted at Eyeflare - Travel Articles and Tips, saying, "For an unusual pit stop, visit the service station that used to be owned by President Carter's brother, Billy Carter. Well known for selling more beer than gas, it's a real piece of Americana."

Detroit, Michigan, USA   Caitlin Fitzsimmons presents Why Detroit is worth visiting posted at Roaming Tales, saying, "Is Detroit the most underrated travel destination in America?"

Oaxaca, Mexico   Steve Lafler presents My New Oaxaca Painting Blog posted at Self Employment for Bohemians, saying, "Oaxaca is a true cultural jewel, a hub of art, ruins, museums and matchless cuisine. I'm starting a project of painting scenes from Oaxacan life and posting the images."

Los Angeles, California, USA   Sheila Scarborough presents Los Angeles through a camera lens posted at the Perceptive Travel Blog.

Nassau, the Bahamas   Shereen Rayle presents Shereen Travels Cheap: Frugal Vacation Destination: Nassau 1.11.12 posted at Shereen Travels Cheap.

Cities in Europe

Dudley, United Kingdom   Matthew Hyde presents Becoming a City: The future of Dudley? posted at Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, saying, "In a few months my home town will discover if it's been upgraded to a city. But what difference will it make to the soul of the place?"

Jokkmokk, Sweden   Lola Akinmade Åkerström presents Sweden’s winter Sámi festival : Cultural Activities posted at BBC Travel, saying, "Despite the chilly temperatures, more than 30,000 people flock to Swedish Lapland every February to revel in the history of one of the world’s oldest nomadic cultures."

Antwerp, Belgium   Sarah presents A Little Moment in Antwerp posted at Natsumi, saying, "Photography of Antwerp."

Schmalkalden, Germany   Adam Groffman presents Visiting Schmalkalden, Germany: nougats & a Christmas market posted at Travels of Adam, saying, "Schmalkalden, Germany (located in central Germany) is a surprisingly quaint and nice town. With a chocolate nougat factory and the surrounding forest, the city offers a nice weekend break from most major cities nearby."
Tallinn, Estonia   MoTravels presents Exploring Tallinn in Winter posted at MO TRAVELS.

London, United Kingdom   Johnathan Johnson presents Five Fun Free Things to do in London posted at Glamping -- Camping in Heels.

Cities in Asia

Siem Reap, Cambodia   Michael Hodson presents Siem Reap, Cambodia Travel Guide posted at Go, See, Write - overland RTW adventure travel.

That concludes this edition, and thanks very much for visiting.

Please submit your (ONE, non-spammy) blog post to the next edition of the Carnival of Cities using our carnival submission form.  Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What's Important in a Conference?

I don't have any money.  Let's put that right up front.  My district?  We're in Texas - no money there either.   So today I'm attending TCEA 2012 and I'm spending the day with folks I have met through twitter and folks I haven't had a chance to meet yet but am glad I'm meeting.

I'm here planning on buying absolutely nothing.  Wait!  Actually, I might be persuaded into buying an app or two for my iPad.  But nothing more than about $10.  So when I walk by the Vendor check in and I see all of those tables/booths in the Vendor area I know I'm not going to give them any of my money.

There is a part of me that really questions why there is a Vendor area.  Don't teachers learn about new products from other teachers via twitter or in blog posts?  Heck, don't teachers keep up with their favorite "vendor" on twitter so that they know the latest upgrade or change to the product?  Of course the answer is no.  And that's too bad.

I'm here to learn from educators who are using technology in the classroom.  Already I've heard a great session by Kevin Honeycutt on using devices for the arts.  He even got a member of the audience to jam with him .  Kevin is on his guitar (with an iPad velcro'd to it) and John Maklary is on an iPhone.  There is no pressure to buy anything.  Kevin did share out some of his favorite apps for music and then other educators shared some of their favorite apps for art and music. Those in attendance are all part of the conversation.

Right now I'm listening to Carolyn Foote discussing eBooks.  She's sharing various platforms/devices and various apps for creating and reading eBooks.  There's about 20 educators in her session and they are all actively involved in the discussion.

The common theme in these first two session?  Conversations - teachers are sharing information.  Yes, someone is facilitating and, yes, that person is the main "expert" but their main focus is to lead a discussion about their topic.

10 days ago I was in Philadelphia at Educon Philly.  Chris Lehman set up this conference at his school and it is wildly successful.  And, it is totally created around conversations.  There are no vendors.  But, you can bet that there were things bought after listening to discussions with educators using something interesting in their classroom.  I know I spent some money on some apps during that weekend.  But I went to the vendor - the vendor didn't have to come to me.

I like to think that as more and more educators become active in social media and as they start sharing more of the technologies they use in the classroom, we will see a reduction in the number of conferences centered around vendors.  With no vendors and a set number of attendees the size of the conference can be reduced as well.  And then, hopefully, the cost of attending these great events will come down to something teachers (and school districts) can afford.  Of course, if we just had more "Edcamp" style conferences we could bring the cost down to the bare minimum - but that's something for another post.