Teacher Lee Briggs on technology in today's classroom. Brought to you by Weekly Reader.

Posts tagged ‘math’

Online Graphing Calculator

I had heard about this a long time ago but never bothered to investigate it much.  Do I ever regret it now! Desmos Graphing Calculator is an easy-to-use online graphing calculator that takes the place of the expensive Ti-83 I used to have. What is better, it allows you to save and share your functions, a handy tool to have for many reasons. One reason that is important to us out here in the sticks: being able to email your graphs is key when many of your higher math classes are either online courses or distance learning. That aside, it’s a great tool to have for any student that finds their tablet or laptop more convenient than a calculator.

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Stretching Triangles

The educational world is full of great, seemingly boring software. These are usually applications that are not the prettiest or the most feature-rich but have tremendous staying power and appeal. A great example of this is Oregon Trail. Not the flashiest program, but I still use the original Apple II version of it in my classroom, and it is still as fun as it was when I was a kid.

This week, to round off a math unit on geometry, we used a program called Geometer’s Sketchpad. Sketchpad is a seemingly boring piece of software that nonetheless has nearly unlimited potential. The program resembles a drawing program that allows you to make points, rays, and lines on a plane, program them, and measure them. Simple, right? Well, after getting a crash course from a coworker, I  now think it’s amazing. It does for geometry what Excel does for graphs and Word does for writing papers. It takes all the work out of measuring and drawing objects in geometry and lets you play with shapes and constructions, testing out concepts like area and formulas. Pretty soon my students were drawing dozens of triangles, stretching them out as far as they could go, but the sum of their angles never changed. The only way that you can do this in a standard classroom would be to cut out about a million triangles out of construction paper, measure their angles, and add them as a class. This program frees up so much time teaching the basics and expanding on advanced concepts. Before long, my kids were programming pool games to show the angles in bank-shots and programming the hands of a clock. It also makes a great primer for computer drafting using Alice or Sketchup.

It does have a learning curve. I recommend you check out the website’s expansive resource center, full of lesson plans, or find any one of the great instructional workbooks on the program.

Futurecade and the Science Museum

I got a chance to play with a really nice set of games created by the Science Museum in England. They have developed a set of really fun games called Futurecade. Some of these games are based some of the real problems of the future. For example, removing land mines using robot drones you have to program (dealing with the real issue of mine removal) or creating strains of e-coli that can clean up oil spills. Others involve teaching genetics by having students care for, nurture, and breed ‘Things’ in the game Thingdom.

Many educational games are little more than regular arcade-style games with some math facts thrown in. These games were created to promote issues in math and science, but also to develop thinking and problem-solving. These could easily be adapted to lessons on global warming, energy, genetics, food distribution, and natural resources. What really makes them great is the optimism that science can solve these seemingly overwhelming problems, and that they allow your students to stand in the shoes of the problem solvers of tomorrow. Good thing too, since they will have to fill that role in the future.

Am I the Enemy?

I had a crisis of faith last week. I had been riding high for some time over the use of my recorded lessons in my classroom. Basically, I was using a screen-grabbing app to record math lessons and posting them on YouTube so that I could curate my math class. I created a “Khan Academy lite” in my classroom, geared to my student’s needs. It worked great and my students have been responding very well in math since adopting this new program.

But then something happened. I heard that several local politicians were embracing the Khan Academy and sites like it as something “new” and “innovative.” Great, I thought, I love the Khan Academy! My students use it all the time to brush up on math, or get the help that their parents don’t have time to give. But it turned out they weren’t promoting Khan Academy because it’s a great tool; they were promoting it because they felt that, with such great resources available for free online, why were they paying teachers so much money?

Here was my dilemma. If I make my lessons available for free online, am I diluting the value of my instruction a product? Are teachers who share their instruction and lesson plans online putting themselves out of a job? I had to think really hard about it and I came to this conclusion: Heck, no.

Even though I can buy the album or listen to it on the radio, I won’t stop going to concerts. Even though Shakespeare is public domain, people don’t stop paying to see his plays or think that an audiobook can replace a performance. Canned tomatoes, while handy, don’t replace the real thing—if anything, they make you appreciate the real thing more.

Khan Academy and similar sites are not the end of education as some other educator-blogs would have you believe. Khan himself writes that his site is not a curriculum; he is simply offering another way to teach children, one that is realistic and pragmatic. He does not abstractly teach ‘why.’ Instead, he focuses on the ‘how’ of actually solving math problems and succeeding in math. Frankly, many students (including myself when I was a kid) were frustrated by the constructivist approach of ‘finding a way that works for you’ and would rather just skip to practicing the method that works every time.

Many make the argument that Khan is not a teacher and is not qualified to teach children. That just rubs me the wrong way. What I do is not special; anyone can teach, just like anyone can cook, work on a car, or learn to play guitar. But not everyone is brave enough to try and willing to put the work into doing it well. To me, Khan Academy is no different than a student getting help from mom and dad, who are often not certified teachers, and educators don’t turn up our noses at that.

I will continue to post my lessons, because it helps me become a better teacher. I like to think that if more people see my teaching, it will help them see the value in what I do. I want parents at home to watch the lessons with their kids and think, “Wow, my kid get to have him in person.” Like so many other times in my life when I have felt doubt and am forced to confront it, I end up only more sure that I am in the right place, doing the right thing.

Engaging Students Through Social Networking

My love for Edmodo as a teacher knows no bounds. I have been using the education-geared social network for several months now and I really do think that it is the wave of the future. Seriously, if you are not using it now, start.

I have been having trouble getting my students to get their homework done, or to even think of doing homework. Math, it seemed, was for school; home was for TV. Then I decided to try an experiment. On our assignment notebook board I wrote: “Check Edmodo at 7pm.”  Since finding out last week that all of my students, even the most rural of farm kids, has internet access, there was no excuse not to check it. Several of my students got iPod Touches for Christmas (they seem to be the Gameboy of this generation) and they loaded their devices up with the Edmodo app (which is fantastic, by the way).

At 7 pm I posted a math question. It was the kind I used to give my students in the form of a copied mini-worksheet: a daily word problem that they, for the most part, ignore. The first night I got 8 of my 16 students replying to the question. The second night it was 11, and the third it was all of them. I got them to do work at home, after dinner, during prime time! They did not even know what the assignment was; just that it was coming.

Edmodo in action (click to enlarge)

I don’t even need to give a reward anymore; they check Edmodo on their own, casually, the same way they would check their email or Facebook. And I have to be honest, I am seeing an uptick in their interest in math, or at least in the conversations that we are having about the subject.

I am not saying that social media is the cure-all, but it does represent a form of interaction that my students are comfortable with. I am sure that I could have arguments about how this is not preparing them for the real world, or that I am pandering to my student’s anti-social, media-obsessed digital lifestyle. But I can’t argue that my students seem more interested in their subjects when they are allowed to use tools that they are familiar with and find interesting. And I have to admit, it is nice to look at my Edmodo page and see a student asking for help on a math problem after school, and then see that several of her classmates have pitched in to offer help. Tools like this are new to everyone, and I can’t wait to see how they pan out.

Wolfram Alpha

I used to think that Google was a little scary. Perhaps I’ve watched too many science fiction movies, but the idea that you can ask a computer anything and it gives you an answer seems a little … frightening. But I could at least take solace that a search engine does not understand what it is looking up.

Last week I discovered Wolfram Alpha, and I am convinced that it is the name of the coming metal overlord. Wolfram Alpha does not search for websites to answer your questions, it simply answers them, putting out simple, concrete facts. Search for 2+2 and it gives you 4, ask it what is the 23rd most populous nation, and it finds that too. Not a website that answers it, not a Wikipedia entry—an actual answer.

I started by searching for Franklin Roosevelt. It gave me a single photo, dates, and places of birth and death, a timeline and half a dozen of his most notable accomplishments. Not enough to write a report, but enough to put him into context at a glance.

But the real fun occurs when you type in math and science based questions, or statistical data. Type in your name and it tells you how common it is, and when it peaked in popularity. Ask it what the 23rd most populous country is, and it will tell you it is Italy. When I use this website I feel like I am amazed and terrified at the same time, like riding a roller coaster.

Some fun searches could include:

  • How old was George Washington when he died?
  • 125*2109
  • Who was the 5th king of Spain?

If your imagination limits you, try going here.

So Long, Ti-83!

The workhorse of good upper math courses (the kind that I never got to take since I went into physics and not calculus) is the graphing calculator, the blocky grey machine that can solve any problem, graph any equation, and can be programmed to play Tetris.

I always wondered why, in the age of smartphones and computers, the Ti-83 had never really changed. But now even the good people of Texas Instruments have been cloud-sourced.

For a long time now, if you entered a math problem into Google’s search bar, you get the answer via a calculator. Go ahead, Google 2 + 2, or even ask for a conversion like 5 gallons to liters; you will get an answer. Now Google has expanded that to functions. Try entering sin(x) into Google (or just click here). You end up getting a pretty little graph.

Will this replace the Ti? It’s hard to say. Will it work in pinch if you are without one? Probably. Math teachers (of which I am not one), test this out for me and tell me how this works!

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