Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Integrating Math & Computer Science

Given that it's CS Ed Week  I thought it was about time I posted this.

I've always thought it would be great to teach an integrated math and computer science course. The subjects compliment each other so well. They both involve a great deal of problem solving and logical thinking. The computer science portion of the course would also allow students to see math as a creative endeavour, something that is often missing from high school courses. The course could cover the mathematics that needs to be covered and allow students to apply the math in a variety of different ways. Imagine what it would be like to have students program a game similar to Angry Birds using their new knowledge of quadratic functions or to have them write a program that solves equations. What better way is there to understand a concept than to teach a computer to do it?

As I work to make such a course a reality I decided 'Why wait?'. Why not start doing a little programming as part of my math course. So a little over a month ago I decided to work some programming into the already packed grade nine academic math course. We were working on the analytic geometry unit (slopes, equations of lines, etc.) and  I had my students complete two separate tasks.

The first task was to write a program that drew an image on the screen. I suggested a simple house but encouraged them to be more creative. Their image had to have at least four lines: one sloping up and to the right, one sloping down and to the right, one that was vertical and one that was horizontal. They first created a sketch on grid paper and then wrote their programs. This part of the assignment was a good way to review plotting points. Once their image was complete their program had to calculate the slope of the lines mentioned above. Once the slopes were calculated students were to keep one end of the lines fixed, while the other end collapsed towards the bottom of the screen. This was done in stages and at each stage the slope of the line was recalculated. The goal here was for students to make connections between the steepness of a line and the slope and to reinforce what it means for a line to have a positive or a negative slope. Overall I would say that students enjoyed this task. Some of them were very creative in their designs and some of them explored graphic options well beyond what I was asking them to do. There were very few coding constructs used which meant I didn't have to spend a lot of time teaching how to program.

The second task that I gave my students was to write a program that would ask a user for two points and then calculate the equation of the line between the two points. The goal here was for them to solidify in their minds the procedure for finding the equation of a line. This task involved a lot more programming concepts than the previous one did (variables declarations, assignment, input) and as such was a little more challenging in a very short period of time. In the future I'd like to do it again but I would spend a day just working on the basics of programming. I think by the end many students managed to get a few of the programming concepts but it was hard work getting there. This reaffirms my belief that teaching this as an integrated two credit course would be much more beneficial to students. Overall I'd say that this task wasn't as interesting as the first one, but I think it helped students with the math concepts we were working on. Now I just need to find more time so that students can create a game that uses equations of lines.

More and more I see computer science type applications that are easy to integrate into existing math courses (spreadsheets, 3-D modelling, programming, databases, etc.). I hope to make an effort to integrate these applications into the math course I teach wherever possible. My ultimate goal is to teach an integrated math/computer science course, but failing that I will bring the computer science into math when I can.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

10 Ways to Self-Direct Your Professional Development

Recent job action in Ontario has meant that many teachers in the province will only participate in self-directed professional development. For teachers struggling with what to do on these self-directed professional development days here are some options.

  1. Learn a New Skill

    Have you ever said to yourself "I wish I had time to learn how to..."? Use your professional development time to explore some of these avenues. Perhaps you want to learn how to use the photocopier (more effectively), a data projector, a document camera or a video camera. Or maybe you want to use images and videos in your lessons, learn to sketch (so that you can make better diagrams) or to program. Take some time to dive in and start learning.

  2. Redesign Your Learning Space

    Perhaps you're not happy with the way your classroom is laid out. Why not take some time to look at the classroom from a student's perspective? How can the decor be improved? Can the seating be arranged in a better way? Is there anything that can be done to enhance the learning opportunities for your students?

  3. Learn How to Use a Piece of Software

    There is a ton of software out there that simplifies our lives. The trouble is that it's not helpful if we don't know how to use it. Why not spend some time learning how to use a spreadsheet; edit photos, math equations, chemical equations; or to work collaboratively using tools like Google Drive or Evernote. The possibilities seem endless.

  4. 'Do' Your Subject

    If you teach math, find some interesting problems to work on. If you teach history why not visit a local museum or historical site to learn about the history in your area, which you can then share with your students. If you teach science do an experiment. Put yourself in a student's position and do some learning in your subject area.

  5. Read an Article

    Find a current article dealing with your subject area (or any other area for that matter). This allows you to keep up to date and you may find something that piques your curiosity and leads to further research along the same lines. Share your findings with your students. They will be excited to hear that you are learning along with them.

  6. Collaborate With Others

    Find a teacher or group of teachers to work with at your school (or within your district). Teachers may be in the same department if you want to focus on developing project ideas, assessment ideas, etc. Perhaps more interesting would be to work with teachers from other departments to work on skills that are transferable or to help each other see things from a new perspective.

  7. Read Blogs

    Spend some time finding education related blogs that are of interest to you. There are literally thousands of them out there. Read, comment and share the blogs that you find. Subscribe to the blogs and organize them in a feed reader such as Google Reader. If you're feeling ambitious, why not start your own blog.

  8. Develop Your Professional Learning Network

    Spend some time on your social network of choice (Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, etc.) making connections to other educators, industry professionals, former students or anyone else that may be relevant to your teaching. Learn from them and contribute to the conversation.

  9. Attend a Virtual Conference

    Many organizations now stream portions of their conferences or conferences in their entirety. Spend some time as a participant in one of these conferences. If you can't find a conference that is happening when you want to participate you can often find recordings of past conferences. There is so much good material out there.

  10. Tinker

    Play around with things. Find out how things work. Take something apart. Build something. You will learn a lot and in the process you may be able to make something very useful for yourself or your class.

What will you be doing with your self-directed professional development time?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Poster Making

I've written about my poorly decorated room in the past. I also wrote last time about how there was a wizard theme in my room during multiple periods in one day. On advice from many of you and from teachers at school I decided to run with the wizard idea. I made up some wizard themed posters.  But I wasn't looking for normal sized posters. I wanted to go all out. So here's what I did.

I found images from various wizard themed books/movies. Then I used some imagine editing software (I used Gimp) to add a motivational quote from the book/movie to each poster. The posters looked good on the screen but I knew that a single sheet of paper wasn't going to be big enough. Time to find some software to upsize my posters. I looked at Rasterbator (insert your own crude joke here), but it didn't look straight forward on a Mac. I also found Block Poster which is nice because it's done online so there's no need for an installation. I wasn't sure I wanted my images uploaded to a server and my Internet connection isn't terribly fast so I kept looking. Eventually I came across PosteRazor. It's an open source, cross platform application that is easy to use and fit the bill. I made my posters, printed them, put them together and hung them up.

The most challenging part of this whole process for me was the cutting and glueing. I not an arts and craft person. When someone says cutting and pasting I'm more likely to think of Ctrl-x and Ctrl-v than scissors and glue. Since it took a while to do the cutting and pasting, the posters went up over a span of weeks. My students seemed to enjoy them going up little by litte and looked forward to seeing what the next poster might be. Some are even asking for more posters. The entire process was straight forward and now my room looks a little better with images that are about 1 metre by 1 metre. The posters might even make a good math questions for my grade nines when we get to the geometry section of the course.

Here are the quotes I used. Can you guess the book or movie?

1. "This is a serious journey, not a hobbit walking party."         -Not overly motivational, but it was fitting
2. "Do or do not, there is not try."
3. ""It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."
4. "I am looking for someone to share in an adventure I am planning...All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Math Wizards? Really?

Creative Commons Image: Wizard 1 by Brenda Starr
Today in class as I was delivering a basic lesson on how to find percent to my grade 9 class (which should have been a review), one of the girls blurted out "Are you a math wizard?". I had a bit of a chuckle, said "No, I'm just a math teacher." and then tried to figure out what she meant. I must have had a puzzled look on my face because she then said "No, like do you spend hours at home at night trying to figure this stuff out so you can teach it to us?". I explained that I had been doing this for a long time and that perhaps that's why it looked easy for me.

 I spent much of the rest of the day wondering what would cause a 14 year old to see the work we were doing as wizardry. What kind of disconnect exists between her world and the grade 9 math curriculum? Are there more students that see mathematics as mystical? How do I break down this belief that there is something magical going on in my class? I think I need to work at showing my students that mathematics is cool, interesting and useful but that there is nothing magical about it.

If students are going to insist that mathematics is magical then somehow I have to get them to believe that they are the wizards in training. Maybe I should play it up and develop different levels of wizardry as we progress. Perhaps I should have a sign outside my room that reads something along the lines of "Hogwarts Academy of Mathematical Wizardry". If you have a better idea for a name please share it.

By some weird coincidence, this afternoon one of my grade 12 students also asked if I was a wizard. I think he was mostly joking but what a day to joke about it. Did I miss a recent release of a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings movie or something similar?

If you have any suggestions for naming the new academy or if you have any suggestions about how I can show my students that mathematics is not wizardry please share in the comments.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Math Room Makeover

My classroom is likely the most boring room on the planet. The walls are mostly bare with the exception of a few posters that were left from the teacher that was in there before I was (I'm guessing they're from the 80's). I often look at my room and think "I should really update this room a little". Can you guess at how far I get with that thought? Not very. Although my intentions are good, I often find about 100 things that I think are more important. My lack of ambition in this area combined with my complete lack of style and decorating ability have let inertia win out on this one.

However, I think the stars may be aligning for a change. The math teachers at the school met with the vice principal about a bunch of different things and at the end of the meeting she talked about how she'd like to work on sprucing up the math rooms. No doubt this was a result of my room. In any case, I have dubbed this event the Math Room Makeover. If you know of any television networks that would like to sponsor us, let me know!

The other piece of this puzzle is that while I enjoy my semester off a number of teachers will be using my room. Two of these teachers have asked if they could decorate my room, one has even done some painting already (Thanks Laura!).

I'm looking for some ideas for decorating a math classroom. What does your classroom look like? Feel like sharing a picture? Do you have any neat ideas, poster, etc. I'm desperate! Ideas don't need to be strictly math related.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Connecting Elementary & Secondary Teachers

CC licensed photo shared by hanspoldoja

A few weeks ago I had a chance to meet with some grade nine math teachers from my school, grade eight teachers from our feeder schools, a guidance counsellor and a vice-principal. As I sat in the meeting I realized the in my 11 years of teaching at the same school, I had never actually met with elementary teachers. This struck me as being quite odd.

The meeting was coordinated by one of our guidance counsellors in an effort to improve our students' transitions from grade eight to grade nine in the area of math. As secondary teachers we shared some information about the content of the courses, but really focused on highlighting the differences in the streams (locally developed, applied and academic) and the pathways students could take based on their choices in grade nine.  We talked about alternate pathways and how there were a number of ways a student could move from one stream to another. The elementary teachers seemed very receptive and asked a lot of great questions. By the end of the meeting I had the sense that many of the teachers felt more comfortable and had more information to present to their students about recommendations for high school. I can't believe that we hadn't done this before.

For me the best part of the meeting happened once the official meeting was over. After the meeting there were lots of informal conversations about "What's the best way to teach X?" or "How do you teach Y?" and the like. It was great to see teachers connecting and discussing math. I think conversations like these give us a window into other teachers' classrooms. They allow us to share best practices, bounce ideas off one another and hopefully improve the way we do business. I think somehow we need to find more time to informally discuss how we teach math.

What does your school or district do to promote discussion between subject area teacher or to promote discussion between elementary and secondary teachers? What more can we do more to ease the transition from elementary school to secondary school?