Sunday, December 28, 2008

One Reason US Students Lag Behind Other Countries in Tech Education


Don't believe me? Read Teacher Confiscates Linux Discs, Chides Charitable Computer Group, "No Software Is Free" on The Consumerist.

Yes, there is such a thing as free software. For example, all of the software listed in my article Fix Your School Computer and Prevent Problems for FREE is just that.

Please, if you are a teacher in this day and age, don't shy away from educating yourself about technology. In order to prepare our students for the world and to keep them engaged in the subject matter, integrating technology into everything we do is absolutely necessary. Even if it's as simple as having a savvy colleague show you what to do, every little bit you do will help.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Add These Math & Science Websites to Your Resources

As you reflect upon the fall semester and start to think about 2009, Larry Ferlazzo's list of The Best Science & Math Websites - 2008 is as good a starting point as you could ask for. His criteria is simple: "they have to be free, engaging, and accessible to English Language Learners".

If there's one lesson as important as anything I've ever shared, it's this: anything that works for ELLs will work for all of your students (sometimes better than anything else you might have come up with). So give these resources a good look as you put together your spring semester.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Two Free Educational Video Sites

1. The Futures Channel provides short, engaging videos with accompanying lesson plans on a wide range of topics. The site's main goal is to provide real world connections. I've used one of their videos to help teach ratio and proportion in class with great results. All you need is an Internet-connected computer, an LCD projector and speakers to bring many of your lessons to life. You can't legally download the videos, so you will indeed need to be online. There is a subscription service that makes high-quality, full screen versions of the videos available as well as even more resources, but I think what's available for free should be more than enough for most teachers' needs.

2. The second resource is Teachers' Domain, which culls clips from PBS programs like NOVA and Frontline for classroom use. As with The Futures Channel, clips are accompanied by lesson plans and activities. Many of the videos are available for download (depending on copyright issues) so you might not need to be online to use the videos in class.

Please share any other free video resources you've found useful in the comments. Preferably, the sites would be accessible from school for most, but if not, you have options: see my post How to Download YouTube and Other Internet Video for School Easily for starters. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Season's Greetings from Phoenix Charter Academy!

Up until now I have avoided going into specifics about where I teach (for obvious reasons), but this year I would be doing a disservice to my school if I didn't pull back the curtain a bit and make this appeal.

I teach at a young, growing public charter high school in Chelsea, MA called Phoenix Charter Academy. We serve students who haven't been successful in school before due to a variety of reasons, most of which would be no surprise to those of us that have been in this business a while. They come from Chelsea, Lynn, Revere, Everett and other areas throughout the greater Boston area. They are supported by an amazing group of educators who are dedicated to giving them the opportunity to go to college and move on to a better life.

If you've learned something from this blog, my book or from corresponding with me that has helped you in your teaching, or even if you just appreciate what I try to do here, I'm making an appeal for your support. We need more teachers, books, support staff, and building repairs and upgrades. Anything you can donate is appreciated. If you want to know more, please contact me and I'll either answer your question or get you in touch with someone who can.

Finally, here's a story that might help convince you:

Donate Now

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sports Statistics: This Is Taking Forever!

The last week or so of Sports Statistics has gone by quite s-l-o-w-l-y. My students are working hard, but the FSM-recommended method of collecting stats is way too cumbersome. Students are directed to the NBA Scoreboard on the New York Times website, where they search by teams playing each day instead of the players. It's taking forever to tally our scores and get them up to date (a problem exacerbated by sporadic attendance).

I had thought about how easy it was to look up a player's stats in each game of the season on, and realized that must have a similar feature. By clicking on "Players" and finding an individual player's page, you can click on "Game Logs" and see only their stats. I don't know why I didn't think of this earlier. I guess I was just so happy to have my students working so diligently that I didn't want to rock the boat.

In any case my students are all at different points, so on Monday we will play catch up. I decided to set a moratorium on tallying stats last Wednesday (our last class), so by Monday students should be caught up using the new, quicker method. I think I'll also suspend tallying stats over the break--if we have to come back on January 5th and count up two weeks worth of stats, we'll never be able to do anything else besides adding up stats.

I created a new weekly stat tracker that will work if students are going to to find their players' game logs. It includes space for 4 games, but can very easily be stretched into 5-6 and still fit on a single page.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Show This Video to Your Students Before They Make PowerPoint Presentations

On Thursday I was observing a colleague whose students were putting together PowerPoint presentations as the final part of a long term project. Most of the students were pretty adept at adding all the bells and whistles that bring these presentations to life. When one of the students was trying to figure out what to do with huge blocks of text on many of their slides, I immediately thought of a video entitled How NOT to use PowerPoint. I suggest you show this in class any time you plan to have students create presentations:

Another rule I really like is Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 rule. Kawasaki, a venture capitalist and columnist for Entrepreneur magazine, gives and receives a lot of presentations in his line of work. The rule is simple: have no more than 10 slides, last no longer than 20 minutes, and have no font smaller than 30. His idea is that your presentation will be more engaging and effective when you keep things concise and easy to read.

Even if they're just presenting a poster or other product, helping them make their presentation more effective is as important as the content itself (if not more so). I hope you'll share your ideas for better PowerPoint presentations in the comments as well.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Free Font to Save Ink and Toner

If you're anything like me, you do a lot of printing and photocopying each day for class. When I started teaching, I brought my own printer to hook up to my school computer. I used it to print stuff for handouts, tests, and progress reports on demand. I had to constantly replace cartridges on my own, even when I usually printed in "draft" mode to save ink. Even when I had a school-issued printer in recent years, ink and toner replacements were extremely hard to come by. Then and now, saving ink is the rule.

Now there's some help on the ink-saving front: Ecofont. This free font saves ink by inserting little circles into the letters, using less ink while still keeping things legible. At home, this is a great way to save ink when printing everyday stuff like directions or similar information. I plan to test it in the classroom as well, to see whether my students will even notice. More than likely, they'll comment on how I should fix the copier because it will appear to be running out of ink as far as they can tell. That's a chance I'm willing to take.

[Originally found on Lifehacker. If you don't read it every day already, you should!]

Friday, December 19, 2008

So what exactly am I supposed to do with myself today?

Today I am experiencing something I have never dealt with in my teaching career: a snow day. Of course, I enjoyed many snow days as a student growing up in New Jersey, usually taking full advantage of it by sledding, snowman building or preparing a snowball arsenal.

Before starting here in Boston, I've only taught in south Texas, where it's just a bit more temperate. Today, mere days away from the holiday season, the high in my old home in McAllen is 83 degrees. We did have a rain day once, shutting down schools because massive flooding cut off roads and knocked out power across town. It only snowed once in my five years there, but unless you were born and raised there, to call it anything more than a "light dusting" would be some egregious hyperbole.

I'm at a loss. Usually all of my non-vacation days off consist of severe sickness, necessary mental health days, or professional development. The only thing I could think to do was reach out for some suggestions. Help!

Cultivating Independent Problem Solvers at Home and at School

The MAKE Magazine blog recently shared the idea of cultivating "free range" kids, helping them learn to ask questions, solve problems, and be able to do a lot more for themselves (thereby preparing them better for the real world).

Teachers never stop reading about or dealing with "helicopter" parents, but we rarely stop to think about how our classrooms, schools and districts are engaging in "helicopter education". Even in my independent, relatively forward-thinking charter school, we sometimes take the idea of providing "structure" to mean regulating everything down to the smallest detail. We provide great freedom in terms of the humanities and elective courses available, but students are told what, when and how to do almost everything. In doing so, we often fall into some of the same pitfalls as your average public school. We certainly do many things better, but I can't shake the feeling that our "helicopter" ways often backfire on us.

In any case, MAKE Magazine is a great resource, absolutely worth having in your classroom library to encourage creative thinking. It's on the expensive end of magazines, and I haven't found any deals to get a free/cheap subscription, but it's worth putting on your holiday wish list!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

How the Language of Numbers Changes How We Do Math

A new article at Education Innovation highlights an intriguing part of Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers: The Story of Success which explains the differences in how numbers are taught in the Eastern and Western world. In short, the language of numbers in the East is far more logical than it is in our language, which could help explain our differences in math achievement, interest and investment.

It's an interesting idea, but even taking those differences into account, what can we do about it? We can't change our entire language... can we?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Homework to Prep Your Students for Slope

Just before I introduced the slope formula to my students, I wanted them to practice the two most essential skills they needed to use it successfully:
  1. Subtracting positive and negative integers
  2. Simplifying fractions
We spent a significant amount of time on these topics (among others) at the beginning of the year, as I assume most Algebra I teachers are wont to do. In general, the students did very well at this, but they also tend to forget things not long after learning and being tested on them.

So I created this homework assignment for just after we had started finding the slope of a line using the graph, but before using the formula. I know it says "these 2 pages" contain what they need, but I think the second page, which was from a teacher resource workbook wasn't as important as that first page.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Project Idea: Linear Functions Mini-Poster

My Algebra I students have been studying the basics of linear functions the past few weeks, and I wanted to tie everything together with one of my favorite types of projects: the mini-poster.

A mini-poster, as opposed to your typical poster, is made on a regular 8.5" by 11" piece of paper (unlined is best, but any regular paper at hand is fine). It can be scaled up or down as homework, a short in-class assignment, or a long term project. Whatever way you use it, the emphasis is less on making a pretty poster and more on what you need your kids to know. The topic of the poster is meant to be something on a small scale: one main idea that students must know.

In this case, I wanted students to recognize the "parts" of your average linear function: domain and range, independent and dependent variables, slope, y-intercept, etc. So their assignment was to create a linear function in slope-intercept form, label the parts from a list of given key words, and title their creation. I gave them a completed example on the directions they were given. In my class, it was assigned as homework.

This lesson should help you reach everyone in the classroom, especially students who are struggling and ELLs.

As with last week's simple slope activity, this handout is designed to be printed as one double-sided 1/2 size page to save paper: print 2 copies, and turn the second one to the opposite orientation of the original. Then make your copies double sided and cut in the middle.

The mini-poster is idea #1 from my book Ten Cheap Lessons, available on and other fine retailers.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Are Schools and Prisons More Alike Than We'd Care To Admit?

I'm consistantly impressed by what I read at the blog Education Innovation, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to any teacher who thinks outside the box. The post Education's Paper-and-Pencil Penitentiary: Life Behind The Walls, comparing teachers and students to prisoners (among other throughts) is a perfect example of the kind of thought-provoking articles you'll find. The whole idea is fascinating, if not frightening. Think about it over the weekend.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Free College Courses For Your Students (Or Yourself)

Productivity hub Lifehacker recently posted about Stanford Engineering Everywhere, which offers free, full engineering courses online. They've also posted a pretty extensive list of free online college courses in a variety of subjects.

This is a great way to challenge advanced students, expose all of your students to college-level work and materials, and give them a taste of what they'll be expected to do with all this stuff you're teaching them.

I haven't explored everything yet, but I'm sure I'd find some lesson ideas and resources I could use in the classroom as well. Of course, you can also use these courses for your own benefit, be it a thirst for knowledge or indulging in nostalgia for your alma mater. If you're considering graduate school, this could help you with the vetting process for schools and areas of study. If you find anything particularly interesting or useful, please post a comment or email me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Learning From Your Students (A Little Mid-Week Inspiration)

Back in September, Tracy at Leading from the Heart shared some inspiration in the form of student quotes and her poetry. Read Learning From My Students As I Rise for a little mid-week boost. Keep up with her blog and many others by checking out my blogroll.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Simple Slope Activity

Last week we started studying slope in Algebra I, and I needed a simple activity to inject some fun and creativity into our routine. I found this simple lesson plan on the Lessons Plan Page and decided to adapt this part of it for use in my class:
Students are given a sheet of graph paper and asked to create any picture they want using a minimum of 10 points. They may use only straight lines (no smiley faces allowed!)

Students label each point, then use the formula to evaluate the slope of each line. Students label the lines as positive, negative, zero, or undefined slope.
As simple as the directions are, I knew my students needed examples, so I drew two of them. They also get extremely frustrated when they make the smallest mistake, and constantly beg for extra copies of the same paper, so I gave them two blank graphs to make one picture. I left out the part about having students label each point, as I thought that would make these small graphs too crowded. I used graphs from the free printable graph paper resources I shared a few months ago.

You can easily print this document as one double-sided 1/2 size page to save paper: print 2 copies, and turn the second one to the opposite orientation of the original. Then make your copies double sided and cut in the middle.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sports Statistics: Tallying Stats, Pondering Freakonomics

I don't think I can recall a project or activity I've done that has fully engaged students as much as this fantasy basketball project has. The students are dead silent all period, tracking down games where their players were active and writing down all of their relevant stats. They spend most of the time online using school-supplied laptops, yet they're not chatting, checking MySpace or anything you'd typically expect them to do when given unfettered Internet access.

The class only meets Monday and Wednesday, so the Thanksgiving holiday set us back just after we set up our teams. There was no real draft; students concentrated on making their teams fit under the salary cap outlined in the game rules. Each player was assigned a value before the season started, so there were a lot of bargains to be had with the first few weeks of it already behind us. In fact, anyone left off the "price list" is automatically priced at the minimum value. Celtics center Kendrick Perkins wasn't on the list, for example, so I placed him on my own team (yes, I set one up as another motivational tool for the students once we really get going).

Last Monday, the Internet wasn't working, so we weren't able to finish tallying stats for the first 2 weeks of games. We read a section from Freakonomics about sumo wrestlers cheating to lose, and how statistics prove it.

So last Wednesday was spent tracking down all of the stats from November 19th (draft day) through December 2nd. When we had first tried to track stats using the worksheet provided in Fantasy Basketball and Mathematics teacher's guide, I noticed that it lacked a few things:
  • There wasn't really a graphic organizer for students to easily write down each player's stats in each tracked category. Thus if they were writing down LeBron's stats for three games over the weekend, they could easily mix up numbers and make mistakes. While my students seem to enjoy the project, I know that they're easily thrown by having too many unwieldy numbers in front of them.
  • The curriculum's creators direct us to get our stats from box scores on The New York Times NBA scoreboard, which has a language all its own to decipher. There are tons of categories with several ambiguous abbreviations (for example, TOT for total rebounds because offensive and defensive rebounds are given their own columns), not to mention tons of players to sort through. A key for the abbreviation is missing from the curriculum book--in fact, the variables in the "Total Points Formula" don't match them, making things even worse.
  • There wasn't enough space for students to add up a player's points, rebounds, blocks, etc and still plug them into the equation we're using for their weekly stats.
So I created a graphic organizer for tracking stats throughout the first two weeks or so (8 games). You could trim it down to columns for 4 games if you were using it weekly. I added part of the original curriculum's worksheet onto the back page of that document, with the total points equation included so they could plug in their values for each category. It seemed to help the students track down each players' stats more quickly and easily, and they seemed to be grateful.

We weren't able to finish yet, so we can't create a leader board with everyone on it, or start doing things with the data we've collected. That's okay--everything we're doing is further investing the students in the process. Even the students who don't like basketball are into the mathematical side of the game. It's a nice change of pace from my usual math classes!

The best part of the class, actually, is working with a colleague of mine who is a die hard basketball junkie (and Celtics season ticket holder) in guiding the class. It's fun to watch him get excited as he gets to expound upon his NBA knowledge to help the kids build better teams. My fellow teachers are so talented at my school that I'm often in awe of them, and constantly reminded of how fortunate I am to work with them.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Best Gift Students And Parents Can Give Teachers

Last week I shared seven great teacher gifts, but I realized after posting it that I had left out the greatest gift a teacher can receive from students and their parents: a sincere thank you.

In my experience, teaching is a mostly thankless job, and those of us that care are often frustrated about... well, everything. We're all perfectionists to some degree, believing that we have the power to change students' lives. If we're not successful, we wonder what we did wrong or could do differently.

Keeping this in mind, I can't tell you how powerful and important it is to hear "thank you," or receive some kind of thank you note from a student or a parent. I've received too many to count over the years, but every single one is special. It's those thoughts that keep us going, that remind us why we do what we do.

So please, don't fret over what to get or how much to spend on your or your child's teacher. A simple show of appreciation, in person or in writing, is more than enough to warm any teacher's heart.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Free Alternatives to Expensive Windows Software

Cash-strapped teachers rejoice! Technology website CNET has a gallery of the best Windows software for a hard-hit economy, offering up free alternatives to common software.

I can vouch for being an excellent, easy to use replacement for Microsoft Office. I've also written before about using free antivirus and firewall software like the ones recommended in the article to help keep your school computer running smoothly (see Fix Your School Computer and Prevent Problems for FREE ).

There are tons of practical applications of these programs for your home and school computer, and will save you a lot of money in these trying times. If you can recommend any other free software that would be useful for educators, please share it in the comments. Thank you!

UPDATE 7/24/09: Check out AlternativeTo for a full catalog of quality options.
UPDATE 1/8/10: Lifehacker explains how to Use Google Suggest to Find Software Alternatives.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Students Say The Darndest Things! (On Quizzes And Tests)

Have you ever gotten an answer like this on one of your tests?

Zero Out of Five chronicles the hilarious things students put on tests when they don't know the right answer, or perhaps don't care. It'll put a smile on your face after a long week.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

You Can Never Have Enough Worksheets!

I just got an email from a reader about Super Teacher Worksheets, which provides free printable worksheets on all sorts of topics. Although the site is mostly focused on lower grades, I looked around and found plenty of stuff I could use for review or with students who were struggling. The lessons available cover math, reading and writing. If you know of other similar sites, email me or leave a comment. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Seven Great Gifts for Teachers (and Three to Avoid)

In May, I wrote about what teacher appreciation really looks like after reading a catalog full of useless crap covered in empty slogans. With the holiday season quickly closing in, I was reminded that even well-meaning friends and family have historically seemed married to the idea that all teachers want for Christmas is tchotchkes that say "#1 Teacher" and "We Love Teachers". So as a service to the friends, family, students and colleagues of teachers, I started making a list (I've checked it twice already) of great gifts and stocking stuffers that I believe any teacher would love.
  1. Do they already have a list? Many teachers have set up wish lists full of books and supplies for their classrooms, which I think is what most of us want (and need) more than anything. Maybe your recipient has fundraising projects on You can probably find them by searching without tipping them off, which means you could pull off a tremendous surprise. I also read about a site called Goldstar Registry, where teachers can make a list of items they need for the classroom. If all else fails, ask them or find out whether there's a book or set of books they need for their classroom.
  2. Sharpies! I don't care what grade or subject you teach, Sharpie markers are worth their weight in gold. I use them for everything. Unfortunately, they're constantly stolen by colleagues and students, and most schools are reluctant to buy enough of them. A pack of standard Sharpies in various colors is a great start, but ultra fine tip markers are extremely useful as well. If that's too much for you, you can't go wrong with classic black.
  3. Expo Dry Erase Markers. See #2.
  4. A reusable water bottle. Teaching is more physical than anyone realizes, and we need to stay especially hydrated. A safe, portable bottle, like this one from CamelBak will almost certainly get daily use for your recipient.
  5. Magazine subscriptions for the classroom/teacher. Magazines are just the right size media for teachers--we actually have time to read and enjoy them. They're also great for motivating reluctant readers.
  6. Treat us to breakfast, lunch or dinner. Here's something you need to know about teachers: we eat poorly or not at all. Thus anything you can do to help us get vital nutrients is greatly appreciated. Gift cards, though usually impersonal, are okay in this case; make them personal by figuring out places on our way to/from school.
  7. An Gift Card. Let's face it, they sell everything, usually for the lowest price you can find. Plus, you know they won't go out of business, so you don't need to worry about your card becoming a useless hunk of plastic.
Things to avoid:
  1. Really nice pens and pencils. We'll take them to school and they'll be borrowed...permanently. Plus, those are probably the one thing our school might provide for us and our students for free.
  2. Travel mugs. You get three of them for free when you sign your contract!
  3. Inspirational movies or books about teaching. I still have nightmares about Half-Nelson because I identified so closely with the struggles of Ryan Gosling's character. We just can't stomach any of it, because we already do it for a living, and we're usually disgusted by how completely wrong most of these movies get it. The only exception is School of Rock, unquestionable the best teaching movie ever (And please don't leave me comments about Summer School. We all know what Agent Gibbs is best at, and it ain't teaching).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Lesson Idea: Model Exponential Decay with Skittles (or M&Ms)

Lessons on exponential functions don't have to be all about tedious calculations. You can also use Skittles (or M&Ms, depending on your preference). This activity is pretty easy to set up, and your students will love it just like mine did. You'll have to split your students into pairs, so first estimate how many pairs you'll have.

Supplies Needed:
  • 1 lb bags of Skittles or M&Ms (one bag should be enough for about 5 pairs of students, so figure 2 bags for a class of 20-25 students)
  • paper plates (1 per pair)
  • paper towels or napkins (1 per pair)
  • small plastic cups (1-2 per pair)
Each pair of students gets a cup, plate and napkin. Fill each cups about 2/3 or 3/4 full of your candy of choice. Let students know they're free to eat everything AFTER the activity is complete.

Student Procedures:
  1. Create a table with two columns: Trial and Number of Candies Left.
  2. Pour out your candy onto the plate and count all of them. Record this as Trial 0 in your table.
  3. Put all the candy back into the cup. Pour out the candy onto the plate again, but this time only count the ones that are face up--that is, have the "s" or "m" showing. Record this in your table.
  4. Put only the candies that were face up back into the cup. Remove all of the candy that was face down--you can eat those now.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you have no candy left.
  6. On a coordinate plane, plot your data as coordinate points. (Ask yourself, "Which is the independent and dependent variable in this experiment?" Your answer will help you decide how to graph the data.) What do you notice about the graph this data creates?

What happens in this activity is an example of exponential decay. When your students plot the data as coordinate points on a graph, they'll see an exponential curve. This doesn't even really require fiddling around with Stat Plot on a TI graphing calculator, although they can use it to help create an exponential function that fits the data they found as a final step (or extension).

I based my graphic organizer on this Exponential Functions module from Kennesaw State University's Transitions Project, a website designed for teachers in training and obviously worth exploring for everyone else. The only thing I really added to their worksheet was a coordinate plane for students to use to graph the data.

I first learned about this lesson at a Texas Instruments training, as we were practicing collecting data, plotting points and curve fitting using the TI-Navigator system (here's two similar TI lessons with and without the TI-Navigator). I never found time to use it last year with my Algebra I students, but it was perfect for my Algebra II students as we started exploring exponential functions. I hope you enjoy using it as much as I did!