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What the students have to say

In the weeks leading up to the winter break I had the pleasure of spending time at our school in Hayward Impact Academy (fondly referred to as IA). These Algebra I students are in the unique situation of being co-enrolled in a second math class, a course we call Academic Numeracy or Ac-Num. The design of this course has been to support the learning in the Algebra I class by reviewing previously learned concepts, by allowing time for remedial and/or extension work, and by enhancing the instruction taking place. In years past the Ac-Num teacher was the only teacher who had a class set of computers, in this case netbooks. Last year the students used FlexMath to practice their basic numeracy skills and also participated in UpsideDown Academy (read previous posts for more information).

Because this year the program is structured do differently I wanted to take some time to hear from the experts about how these changes are impacting learning and classroom experiences. So who better to let me know than a student.

This student took Algebra I and Ac-Num last year and is taking these courses again this year, and here is his story:

My name is Benjamin B. and I am a student here at Impact Academy located in Hayward. Recently, this year, we were given a whole cart of Google Chromebooks that was received from google after a teacher wrote a grant for Impact, so that we could get some new computers. From my experience these Chromebooks are way better than the Dell computers we had last year. The Dells experienced major problems last year. There were many malfunctions, whether it was from not being able to connect to the internet or to shutting down by itself, and many of these unknown errors were really affecting my school work.
But this year all the students here at Impact are really happy that we received these new Chromebooks and it has really improved many of our learning experiences. Last year when we would go on FlexMath or Khan Academy on the Netbooks, it was a really slow experience for a lot of us because the Netbooks were so out of date. Sometimes we would even be late on our deadlines for projects, so it would bring down our grade. But with these new Chromebooks there are almost never any malfunctions when we are working. These computers are also very fast and effective whether it’s practicing math drills on Khan Academy, working at our own speed on problems, or just writing reports for other classes.
So I would like to thank Google and the teacher who wrote the grant for us. It has truly improved our learning experiences here at Impact and we are very grateful for this wonderful gift of Chromebooks that were given to us.


This student clearly has noticed a difference in how these tools allow his to progress through his material from a purely practical point of view. Pedagogically, this allows the teachers to plan for and implement lessons that take advantage of the technologies transparency and as such are less about the tools and more about the content.

Lastly, this student is thankful for the gift that has been given to his school and he sees how this increases his chances of success. Thanks for sharing Benjamin B.

Who Am I? and other essential questions


Envision Schools is committed to Project-Based Learning  (PBL) and interdisciplinary work. Please visit our website for a more in depth description of our pedagogical stance towards deeper learning, 21st Century skills, and our Exhibition projects. Last year Envision Schools partnered with Puzzle School to design a web-based platform called Upside Down Academy. Early posts on this blog, as well as a soon to be published article in Unboxed, describe in detail how this tool played a central roll in one of our first math-based Exhibitions. As well, this was our first exploration into bringing Blended Learning into a PBL environment.

Blended Learning is characterized as a student based approach to learning, in which the use of technology can support individual student’s learning path and pace. We usually see this implemented in such a way that it focuses on skill acquisition. This is great. Learning specific discreet skills is an essential part of the education process. PBL, on the other hand, aims to engage students such that these discreet skills work in consort and generalize across domains. This is what builds the much needed critical thinking and meta-cognition, skills that we know are essential for success in today’s work force. This is a long way of saying, envisioning how PBL and Blended Learning mate can be a challenge.

Rather than wax philosophic I think I would like to share one of the projects that is happening at METRO right now. The 9th and 10th graders are working on a project of self-exploration that is bleeding into almost all of their classes. In Digital Media Arts they are creating silhouettes of themselves, using photoshop, that incorporate images of different things that represent them. In History the students studied political, economic and social structures and systems. They are creating visual webs that represent which systems they would uphold and which ones they would rebel against. In Science they are studying their circulatory and respiratory systems and are grappling with the concept of Homeostasis. In Math they are designing and graphing their own personal symbol that represents their place in all of the above. The project’s Essential Question is “Who am I in a complex world.”

I would like to take this opportunity to dive deeper into the Math portion of this project. This project allows students to work at their own pace by only introducing the tools and then letting students define what their outcomes would be. Also, access to technology and web 2.0 tools made what is usually a tedious and inflexible process, more fluid, visual, and problematized. For the Math portion of the project

the students first drew their personal symbols using graph paper.





While they were perfecting their personal symbol they got on Desmos and began manipulating and testing and playing. For homework they were given this:

Screen Shot 2012-12-07 at 12.03.39 PMScreen Shot 2012-12-07 at 12.03.47 PM

And had to start thinking about how to gather all the information from the graph to represent it mathematically. Then they did the same with their own symbols.

This project engaged students in multiple ways, mathematically, artistically, and rhetorically. They could use Desmos to manipulate and copy features from existing designs, but ultimately they needed to establish an understanding of how the formulas change the outcomes. Lastly, students needed to think about how their symbol is reflective of their character and who they are within systemic complexity.

Students Speak out

As exhibition night rapidly approaches I thought it would be interesting to capture how the students are feeling; take the proverbial temperature so to speak. With that in mind I spent the morning hanging out in the Digital Learning Lab talking to students.  The room was a perfect example of controlled chaos. The students all were at different places in the process, knew what they had to work on next, and there was much activity and chatter in the effort to achieve these goals. The teacher used this time to check in with students individually and trouble shoot technical issues should they arise.

By this time I am a familiar face to the students. I got the attention of the class and announced that I wanted to capture their quotes in response to the following questions:

  • How things are going with the exhibition?
  • What are you excited about?
  • What part of the process was the most engaging?
  • What part of exhibition night are you looking for?
  • What is your biggest learning from this project?

After this announcement I made my way around the classroom and conversed with students individually.

The first student was working on imovie, editing his second draft.

“I made my script over break. I even filmed two videos. But I’m only going to use the second one for exhibition cause I was looking down to much in the first one. Also realized that I need to speak louder.”  After this I asked him about his feelings towards exhibition night. He responded that he is “excited about the focus of exhibition night.”

I moved on to check in with another student. This student is one that I know well from working individually with him. His most prominent feeling right now is “I’m nervous! I am not good at talking and even though it’s on the video I still feel nervous.” This was similar to the experiences of others who stated “I am nervous about my parents seeing the work I have been doing.”

The next student I spoke with wanted me to review her lesson write up to check it for grammatical errors. Through talking with her about her project she exclaimed“ I am looking forward to seeing other students math presentations.” One of her classmates, Zuri chimed in, “ I think that exhibition is going to be hilarious. We have a lot of creative people and natural comedians. They come up with things that aren’t really Normal, and it makes it funny”

Some students shared with me their thoughts about what the exhibition is going to be like and what the participants should expect. Asiay said “Most parents probably ain’t that good at math, so be prepared to become a student again.” Taylor shared that  “I think people should be looking forward to learning new skills, and new methods for learning this math.” One student shared this, “I want the participants to leave knowing something. People might see me all dressed up like this (baggy pants, hoody, headphones) but they’re just clothes, not me, and they can learn from me.” This struck me as a profound statement that hinted at the transformative nature of this project. Lastly, Dominique shared her rational for how audience members should approach the exhibition.

“If you guys come you can remember the math you forgot.  I decided to teach my lesson like a teacher to show my parents that I can teach and not just be a student. I experimented with titles because I talk really fast sometimes and I want people to read the instructions at the bottom so they can go back. So people can listen and read and review”

What Khan and Khan’t

About 10 days ago Mathalicious published an interesting post that asked readers to take a critical look at Khan Academy. This is not the first pundit publication that asks those who have consumed the Khan kool-aid to step back and look at the larger picture.

One aspect of this post that I really enjoyed was the reference to some of the collective knowledge that we have accumulated over the years on exactly these issues. For example, the writer cited the work of:

researcher S.H. Erlwanger [that] studied the effectiveness of the Individually Prescribed Instruction, a step-by-step curriculum in which students “proceed through sequences of objectives that are arranged in hierarchical order” (i.e. first this, then this). According to his description,

Because a large segment of the material in IPI is presented in programmed form, the questions often require filling in blanks or selecting a correct answer. Therefore, this mode of instruction places and emphasis on answers rather than on the mathematical processes involved.

In other words, students who used IPI may have identified that 1 + 1 = 2 on a multiple choice test, even without understanding the concept of addition.

This provides a nice foundation upon which to make the claim that Khan khan’t be pronounced the fix all in our current math crisis. There is one small flaw in this claim, however, and that is the distinction between what IPI referred to as ‘Instruction’ and what appears in Khan Academy as ‘Practice’. The argument that student’s khan’t learn through procedure alone is heavily support by research in the field (Arcavi 1994, Kooji 2002, Mayer 2010,).

Khan Academy’s video tutorials, as I have mentioned in previous posts, do not serve as instruction. In the context I am testing this, an urban high school, the students have indicated that they need a teacher or a peer to explain the problem and procedure to them in order for them to be able to ‘Practice’ independently.

Khan Academy khan provide practice. The question remains whether students get more practice on Khan Academy than they would in a paper and pencil environment? Practice is an important part of becoming proficient. Indeed the process of learning to play an instrument, Judo, writing an essay, reading, playing scrabble, all require practice. I can safely say that there is little objection to the motto “practice makes perfect.”

The Mathalicious author proceeded with the claim that the mere presence of Khan Academy was making it impossible for other options to be funded, developed, and consequently used. Because of Khan, we khan’t get anything else. I don’t want to stick my foot in my mouth but this seems like a stretch. I know Khan has received a lot of funding, and probably will continue to get funding, but in all fairness much of the work Sal Khan did on the videos and his ideas occurred prior to significant funding. As is usually the case with entrepreneurial work, a project may or may not get to the point where it can pick up funding and in the meantime one just figures it out.

While we are sitting around waiting for computer programmers to create the next thing that is going to convince us that it is going to fix all our problems in math education, let us save our pennies so we can purchase this future panacea. This is something we khan do. Our students khan access free software on the terribly slow computer at the local library. Our students khan be assigned to complete a module for homework rather than a page in the textbook. We khan assign specific tutorials and modules to struggling students and those students who advance quickly. We khan even completely individualized our classroom so that students are working to their own pace. We khan do all these things because Khan Academy is  cost-effective, requires limited tech support, and utilizes common technology.

Let us address one of the other thoughts that has been raised in response to this article. I have a personal commitment to better understanding why America, one of the most advanced countries on the globe by some measures, performs in a less than advanced fashion on mathematics assessments. There are other curriculum that seem to provide better foundations for mathematical constructs so that their students can progress in ways that further reenforce a deep understanding of math concepts. Curriculum such as the Dutch Realistic Mathematic Education (RME) and the consequent Mathematics in Context (MiC) are specifically designed to develop algebraic understanding using applied problem solving strategies and approaches. The results of these experiments have been positive. Why then are we not integrating and capitalizing on all that the world knows about how to best teach mathematics?
I regret to state the obvious but it is not because Khan Academy has taken all the funding for other viable options. My best guess, and I am by no means an expert in the matter, is that curriculum and resource producing companies and school districts are in business. Not always the business of teaching and learning, but business none the less.
What Khan Academy khan provide is an alternative to the costly partnership, which in the long run will dissolve the rigid alliance that currently dictates what we khan and khan’t do.

Thank You Karim and Mathalicious for instigating a thoughtful and exciting conversation. I have really appreciated the food for the brain.

I want to leave you with these questions, I can’t take credit for them, but I do feel inspired to engage in further conversations that seek to address them.

3 emergent questions:

1. What are we trying to achieve in these environments? How do we measure that success?

2. What tools seem to be working? Which ones may seem glamorous but aren’t effective?

3. What kind of support do teachers and students need–not just professional development, but functionality built into the tools themselves–to create a promising flipped or blended program?

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Project Design

The success of any project is largely due to how well it has been thought out.  In drivers ed. one of the few things I remember is the instructor telling me “to plan your route ahead of time, so that you are not making flash decisions while in a moving vehicle surrounded by other moving vehicles doing unpredictable things.”  Seemed like very sound advice to a nervous new driver, and a new teacher. 

Planning my route when it comes to curriculum is something that I have had to do in the past.  I did some curriculum planning as a general education teacher, but the majority of my teaching career has been spent working collaboratively with general education teachers as the learning specialist. I am really good at taking other people’s plans and finding ways to make it accessible for all types of learners. However, with this project I am taking the reins, drafting from scratch and going back to my roots as a general education teacher with the experience of a learning specialist. Next week I meet with the rest of the team and we will revise and finalize the plan.

As I begin the planning process, there are many questions running around in my brain.  What are the key elements that I need to include? How do I know if I have calendared the projects progression accurately? What should my essential question be? Will the student think that this project is as relevant as I do? What if they hate it? And so on.

In Design theory, the designer goes through a brainstorming process, develops a prototype that is tested with a trial audience, then goes through a revision process in which he or she iterates on the product until ….. well, until its done. In this case, the prototype and iterative process has to occur theoretically so that the best possible project can be rolled out to the students.

So here is what I have come up with so far, I feel like I have a long way to go and would love comments and feedback from my peers both at the school and from around the globe.

Project Working Title

Upside Down Exhibition: Where the students do the teaching

Essential Question (ideas):

  • What teaching strategies and methods best ensure my learning?
  • What makes a good teacher and a good student?
  • Can I teach someone something that they do not already know?
  • Does the current school and classroom structure best support student growth and learning?

In this exhibition the student will spend 2 weeks reflecting on his/her learning style, and his/her teacher’s teaching styles. The student will blog about what helps and what hinders the learning process. The student will use this reflection to support the design and production of 2-3 short video lessons, to be uploaded to Upside Down Academy. During this time period the student will also provide feedback to his or her peers and engage in critique and reflection about the lessons. The student will then create a story-board and produce one final lesson that is a more polished product. The student will the present his or her video to small audiences on exhibition night, including a description of the process used to arrive at this final product.

Design and Iteration phase
2-3 video’s uploaded to Upside Down Academy…………Completed (date)
Blog style lesson reflections, ongoing……………………… # by date
watch and comment on peer videos………………………… # by date

Prototype phase
Story-board for final lesson……………. ……………………..Complete (date)
Final Video uploaded to Upside Down Academy……….Completed (date)
Note cards for presentation……………………………………..Complete (date)
Rehearsals ………………………………………………………….Completed (date)

Supporting Materials

  1. model video’s to show students different approaches, made using DMA skills that they have. eg. narrated PowerPoint / video of white board / flash animation / film trailer or skit /
  2. Guidelines for what needs to be addressed in the lessons.
  3. setting up blog for reflection.
  4. scaffold to support lesson reflection writing.
  5. identify which focus standards for math will be the concepts they teach, sample problems.
  6. explicit teaching of teaching styles and how to identify them.
  7. Time to watch each others videos and comment.
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Capturing Video

As the holidays fade into the background the Blended Learning team at Envision Academy is getting ready for the roll out of the 9th grade Spring Exhibition, Upside Down Exhibition (working title).

One of the tools that we are exploring is the Chromebook. We would like to fully benefit from this amazing tool and wonderful gift. However, in order to achieve what we have set out to do we need to find a way to capture video using only a browser. There must be a solution out there, and for the purposes of education I certainly hope that there is a free version.

Once the students have created their own tutorials they will post them on for feedback and reflection. These prototypes will help shape their final video lessons which will be displayed to the public at the exhibition in March.

If you have come across a tool that you think will help us achieve our goals please let us know.

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Thoughts on ipads in the classroom

I was lucky enough to attend an online webinar hosted by CTAP. This was very basic and as such did not offer much information about how to set up schools wide systems for using Ipads. However, as a single user there were a number of great resources. Please visit this website for links to some of the resources.

As a high school practitioner I am always on the lookout for app’s that are appropriate and useful for this age group. Below are the ones that I will be exploring in the months to come.

air sketch: wirelessly interacts through a url to any computer in the room, therefor can be set up to project drawing in real-time.
screen chomp: works like jing. saves to Facebook, or to screen chomps website and then downloads as mp4.
coaches circle: can annotate video to highlights certain things.
Molecules: free science app that animates things like cells and molecules
whiteboard pro: collaborative white board.
inkling: interactive texts books that have social networking capabilities