Edmodo: A love letter

In my last school, I had a blog. It was a good blog and I am proud of what I could achieve with it. The problem was engagement. Some of my students ‘forgot’ the address or did not visit very often. They also complained that it was hard to sort through which posts were about their class. We call them digital natives but they don’t know how tags work. They need to be taught, in a way I never needed. 

At my new school (I started a year ago), I asked my new class if they would like a blog and they suggested edmodo “it’s facebook for teachers!”

Well, I know some teachers who use facebook with their classes. I don’t feel good about asking a child to sign up to facebook if they have not done so already. 

Edmodo is everything I want in a school-home contact website. Not only do my students have access to the information which involves their class without sorting through tags but it reminds them about upcoming assignments. I can grade them on there and they can submit work through there. I just worked out how to write quizzes which was exciting! Plus, their parents can get log ins too.

One of the most powerful applications of the site is flipping my classroom. I can leave videos and other resources up to be viewed as homework. There are other education apps that link up, so I can use them without making my students sign up for yet another account on yet another website. 

The downsides are that none of the other teachers at my school are active anymore (A few have accounts). So when I make my students go on Edmodo, it is just for me and some of the older teens resent it. If the rest of my colleagues were on there, I think my classes would feel a lot less hassled. There are also situations where the other teachers make agreements about how to help disorganised students remember they have homework. In order to go with the flow and be a good team player, I have promised to put my homework assignments on the board at the start of my lesson and make sure students write the details into a book. Left to my own devices, I feel like having all my students log in to check homework (and inviting parents to check on there if they suspect their child has ‘forgotten’ a task), is just as good if not better. 

I haven’t had students physically write down homework for years. I get them to take a photo with their camera phone or tablet if they need a record outside of edmodo.

Flipping my classroom is exciting and I am not all the way there yet. Edmodo is instrumental in making resources available outside of class but the limiting factor is making the resources myself. It is not that I don’t have time, it’s just that I feel like I need the input of students to make my instruction work for them. I can talk about waves for five minutes and illustrate it nicely. But giving instruction in the classroom means that I see their frowny faces or their hands up, so I can modify my instruction for their needs. I also get to ask questions. I also get left-field queries that send us down the rabbit hole and into areas they are interested in. So, it’s a mental block rather than anything else. 

One thing that surprised me about Edmodo and something I would not want to give up, was how my younger students  use it to interact with each other about science. They leave links to videos and comment on updates. It is really exciting to see them working together outside of class on what we are studying. I am not sure how to get the older classes into doing this. It might be their age (feeling too cool for school), in which case, I don’t think it is a battle I can win. 


Proper Peer Assessment

The first time I did peer assessment, it was a total bust.

I printed out some exam questions, blew them up to A3 size and handed them out. The class were asked to answer then pass the questions back. Then they had to improve on their classmate’s first attempt.

A sizeable minority decided that was not for them and there could be no consequences if they misbehaved as their name was not on the sheet. They just homophobically abused one-another over the medium I provided.It was a horrible feeling. Why not just give them past papers to do in silence? Why not just give them a text book to copy out into their note books? In silence. It put me off trying something new with a bit of a risk. 

If I ran that activity today, I would make them write their name next to the answer. I would also pull out my mobile phone and ring parents on the spot if anything even slightly abusive happened. I have done it since, admittedly with classes that I trust to be sensible. Classes that I think would abuse trust get much more limited opportunities to misbehave. I don’t like that it means they have a more passive experience but I would hate to be in a class where a minority stop everyone from learning at all. Better a bit too passive than chaotic and out of control.

These days, I have come a long way in terms of both being able to anticipate (and react to),  the unintended but also in terms of the technology I can use.

My mixed class of students (11-13) were given a written assignment. Traditionally, this would mean that I get a project from each student or groups of students and I have to give my wise and measured opinion. 

I thought I would mix it up a bit. First, to get them used to collaborating, their homework was to give constructive feedback to each other on their work. Then we are going to invite a class from another country to take a look at the work. 

As collaboration and commenting is the main point of the activity, I decided to use wikispaces. I don’t want to sound negative and down on wikispaces. Their website is very good and their tools are excellent. But. We do not have computers in my classroom, we have iPads. And the wikispaces iPad access is not very good.

The cursor is obscured by the toolbar, the cursor becomes unresponsive, it is hard to add new pages, you can only upload pictures and the tutorials on the site are all text-based. 

To get access to the cursor, you have to switch from or to Visual/Text editor. This is really annoying after the first few times. To work around the toolbar being in the wrong place, I get them to write in another editor and paste in. Pasting in is really annoying because even if you put your finger on the screen for the right number of seconds, it’s not certain that the little paste button will show up. I still cannot work how to add new pages without resorting to my laptop. I upload their pdfs on my laptop and teach them how to make hyperlinks. I do my best with my own tutorials but the interface is annoying and it’s not like you can do screen capture on an iPad.

What they really need is a native app or a completely stripped down interface that cannot bork. 

It really sounds like I don’t like Wikispaces… I do! I do like them. It’s just that writing non-fiction for an audience is complicated enough without not being able to access your cursor or see where the text will be inputted. 

Anyway, they battled on through and made some great content. 

Their homework to comment on each other’s work made me feel all warm and fuzzy. They are making exactly the sort of comments that I would have made “You need more scientific language. You need to explain how something happens. I like the introduction and I think a picture would make things easier to understand”. It’s very nice to see it’s not all in one ear and out the other.

I will update on how it goes when they make contact with the other school.

How to Wirelessly Share Files With ANY iOS Device

Very useful!

Jonathan Wylie

Ever needed to send a file from one iOS device to another? You could email it, but not all student devices are set up with email, and some files (especially video) are just too big to email. You could plug the device into a laptop and transfer the files via USB, but that can be slow, and what if you accidentally sync your device with iTunes and start transferring apps you don’t need to or from your computer? Wouldn’t it be easier if you could just beam them from one device to another? Well, you can! Here are three ways to do it.

1. AirDrop – If you have an iPad Mini, a fourth generation iPad, or an iPad Air that is running iOS 7, you can take advantage of AirDrop. This proprietary technology was originally developed by Apple for Macs, but it landed on iOS devices in the Fall…

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“Tricky” Topics

Students do not come as tabula rasa, for teachers to fill up with facts. They have ideas about science already, formed by their experiences and interactions.

A few scientific topics are loaded with controversy because certain groups do not agree with the conclusions the scientific community have reached. Other scientific topics are made tricky because of common misconceptions or out-of-date understanding being widespread in the wider community. Many topics are controversial even amongst the scientific community.

Science teachers are equally blessed and cursed. We get the aura of Gatekeepers to All Scientific Knowledge while needing to break it to our students (gently?) that no one has all the answers and science is an ongoing process of working things out.

Evolution and Natural Selection is an especially tricky topic. Some people do not agree with the conclusions reached on religious grounds. There are some semi-scientific and pseudo-scientific groups who work to find fault with the topic. Nothing wrong with trying to find the limits of a topic but it must be done scientifically. Of course, as a work in process, the parts of the theory of evolution are being worked out. If a student believes that Science is a set of Things that are Known, controversy can be worrying.

Even the word “theory” causes problems. In everyday English, it means “idea” or “notion” or “hypothesis”. In scientific English, it means an explanation for a hypothesis that has not been proven wrong yet.

“Just a theory” is an especially infuriating phrase. There is no “just” about it, prove it wrong and then we can talk!

If scientists find an explanation for the variety of life on our planet that explains all the known facts better than ‘evolution’ does, then that will be the new theory I will teach in my classroom.

Until then.

Most textbooks build on this idea of the scientific method relying on new data to build explanations that become more complete. Starting with Aristotle, going through Lamarck and ending with Darwin, usually.

I go a different route and teach about antibiotic resistant bacteria first. I do not use the words ‘evolution’ or ‘natural selection’. Most young people find the idea of bacteria evolving in a hostile environment completely uncontroversial. If I use the words ‘evolution’ or ‘natural selection’, some of my students will suddenly become more critical to the idea.

Depending on the age of my students, they can either learn about speciation, habitats and adaptation or genetics and inheritance. Once the groundwork is laid, I can talk about the history of evolution.

The problem with the Aristotle-Lamarck-Darwin timeline is that it completely ignores that many philosophers and scientists in between had ideas about evolution. There is not room in a curriculum to cover them all, of course. I usually bring up Epicurus because although he had ideas more in line with modern thought, he was still just philosophising and had no proof. Muslim scholars are worth a mention, especially since the Koran has “all living things come from water” (Koran 21:30)

This isn’t to say that I want to make my students godless or anything! Their religions are important to them and are a force for good in their lives. I just want to make sure that they have a deep understanding of how beautiful the theory of evolution really is. From where I am sitting, I think there is nothing to stop a deeply religious person appreciating the elegance of natural selection. In fact, many people have feelings of spirituality when they understand the mechanisms at work in populating our planet with diverse life and intelligent creatures who are able to appreciate it properly.

One of my students had his faith confirmed after I taught about the solar system and the ‘Goldilocks distance’ and how the Moon and Jupiter have protected us from many space object impacts. Understanding of scientific concepts is nothing to be feared.

Climate Change and Global Warming is another hot-button issue. Many young people will have parents that do not “believe in” anthropocentric climate change or have been exposed to information in the media which denies the science.

And indeed, much like natural selection, the theory is subject to new data. Whatever the personal beliefs of adults in society, young people have a right to know what the arguments are. They also have a right to understand the difference between weak and strong arguments.

For example, a scientific group who claim that climate change is happening more slowly than previously claimed are in a position to make a strong argument. Conversely, some man in a pub who claims that climate change isn’t happening because models on 1980s computers said the opposite and that means scientists cannot make up their minds, is making a weak argument.

As long as young people understand how scientific knowledge is assembled and interpreted, it actually does not matter to me if they align with current scientific thinking.

I start out by teaching them the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’. If one more person says that global warming isn’t happening because it is snowy outside, I will scream. I also keep the phrase ‘global warming’ until the end of the topic. Even though the planet is warming, it can mean that local climates are colder or rainier. Until you understand that, the phrase ‘global warming’ is confusing.

Fairly early on in the topic, I will ask students to find a news item about climate change and critique it. Young people find critical thinking difficult at first. A simple question like “do you trust this news story?” can get all sorts of answers.

It is a good idea to give them space to air their feelings about the topic early on. There is nothing worse than being a student in a class who is trying to hold two ideas simultaneously. It is okay for students to say they don’t believe (or whatever), just so long as by the end of the topic they are able to defend their belief with science along with the students who buy into the current scientific understanding.  There are plenty of scientists who disagree with the current consensus. It is important that my students understand why. I don’t want them quoting orthodoxies, I want them thinking!

Giving space and permission to ‘disagree’ with the teacher also gives the opportunity to see if there any misconceptions floating around. For example, climate change on other planets, sun spots and ice cap cycles.

What are your ‘tricky’ topics? What do you do to teach them? How do you approach your students?