I got better.

I’ve always found it difficult to know when I’m doing a good job. Teachers have such a diverse audience in their students and, realistically, parents and administrators. And while we are supposed to advocate for our students, it is not they who evaluate us. Unless you let them, of course, which is why I give out end-of-the-year surveys.

The nice thing about these is that they tell you how you can modify your pedagogy, and by keeping the questions consistent from year to year you can track your progress. I use Google Forms and follow the following guidelines:

  • Book labs /set aside time in the last two periods before exams so that I give students dedicated time – this gives me a pretty high response rate, except for the students who choose to skip class before exams – and if they choose to skip, then their feedback may not what I should listen to anyway.
  • I make it clear that their responses are anonymous and leave the room while they fill out the surveys.
  • I try to keep the questions as consistent as possible from year to year.
  • Most questions are a scale on 1-5 or 1-10 if I want more detail. I include two free-response sections.

This year I improved in 17/20 metrics. Some highlights:

What I did well

93% of students – and 100% of my gifted/talented ones (I had a class that happened to have mostly G/T kids, and while the surveys were anonymous I did ask for the students’ period) – say I’m knowledgeable and well-prepared. Most importantly, perceptions of me being fair and respectful increased by 25% this year, and my approachability increased by 12%, while the number of students who thought I needed to be more lenient decreased by 36% and the number who thought I needed more strict decreased by 27%. Clearly I’m working towards a good balance in my learning environment and impress the students with my instruction.

What I need to work on

In my comments the kids mentioned my sense of humor numerous times, but as a whole I apparently got less funny  – perceptions of my sense of humor went from 85% to 78%:

“last year you were less serious in the class so when I had to get used to the new style of your teaching it was interesting and effective. (even if it did get really annoying sometimes.)”

while ratings of my explanations (of assignments, but my questions may have been ambiguous and respondents may have been referring to content explanations) went from 85% to 81%. Ratings of my willingness to help went from 70% to 66%. The last figure is the most troubling for me. In his inspiring Google Teacher Academy Application videoDavid Theriault talks about being a champion for students, and the downward trend suggests that I have some work to do there. I know why I got that rating – teaching 6/8 blocks, coaching, and keeping time set aside for myself doesn’t leave a whole lot of extracurricular time for me to work with individual students outside of class or devote my entire attention in class.

I’m also too nice; one of my growth points is to become more assertive:

“I think Mr. Kelsey is tooooo nice, not that he should be very mean, he should be in the middle; fun and entertaining when the class is respectful, disappointed and a bit strict when the class is disrespectful”

“Our class had a lot of rowdy boys and sometimes you would allow their “lack of intelligence” ,for the loss of a better phrase, disrupt the class. “

And what you’re going to want to argue with me about

I’m good at lecturing and it works for my kids. It was the highest-rated instructional technique that I used, and 100% of my G/T kids thought it was valuable (vs. 67% agreeing that discussions were valuable). It’s statistics like this that make wary of dismissing direct instruction in favor of the flipped classroom and collaborative learning models – it’s not that the latter aren’t great ways to teach, but I don’t see why I should deny students the choice of learning in a way that clearly appeals to them, since my students say things like this:

“[Mr. Kelsey] allows us to come up with our own conclusions and then we branch off from them as a class to narrow subjects and think more critically.”

“[Mr. Kelsey] makes the lessons very fun and interesting… even the boring chapters. In addition, he gives us a fair amount of independence and guidance.”

So what do we do when our desire to differentiate and give students choice in how they learn conflicts with the cutting edge of educational thought? And lest we consider technology a panacea, consider this:

I probably think that anything that has to do with internet or computer typing should be removed. Because, some students aren’t really the technical type. They work better with a textbook, paper, and pencil.



A Republican View on Motivation and Collaboration

Sorting through the post-exam detritus strewn about my classroom, I encountered a curiousity: an exam study guide created by an enterprising freshman (download link). It was notable not just as a fine example of preparation, but also as a public work: it had been created by a student in a section that I didn’t teach and distributed to one of his friends in one that I did. Printed in color, with large attractive images, it seemed more like a published work than an amateur effort.

Zayd Rajab on Motivation and Collaboration

What possessed the student to go to such lengths? I sat down with the author, ASK freshman Zayd Rajab, to discuss motivation, collaboration, and achievement. Below are some excerpts:

2013-06-11 14.07.46
Yes, that is an 18-page exam study guide created on a student’s own initiative.

A big challenge for lots of 9th graders is being willing to put in the time and effort to prepare thoroughly for an exam. What motivated you to go to such lengths?

The way I study for exams is to make a study guide so I have everything in one place, so I can do it all at once rather than bringing all those messy notes. It’s neat and clean. What I did is use this application called iBooks Author, and it makes a really good template you can use.

How did you decide to share it with other people?

I made a good study guide – it wouldn’t be nice just to have it all to myself, so I sent it out.

Did you ever consider working with another person to make your guide?

No, because when I work with other people I get distracted, so I like working by myself.

Zayd demonstrated the initiative and compassion that we'd like to develop in all of our students.
Zayd demonstrated the initiative and compassion that we’d like to develop in all of our students.

How would you feel if a teacher put this on Moodle?It would be great – people could use it and it would help them a lot. If they can study better, they can get a better grade and that would make me happy.

What if a teacher assigned this as homework to do throughout the year?

If I’m going to do it as homework, I’d find it a bit of a pain, because when you do it as homework you’re being forced to do it. You won’t put 100% effort into it. But when you know there’s a reason (and you’re doing it on your own), you put 100% into it.

For the people you gave it to, did they ask for it? Did you think they hadn’t studied on their own, and were using it as a crutch or an excuse not to study?

A lot of people aren’t studying, and if they do they’re just looking at messy notes. I think it’s better if you do the study guide yourself. But if you do have my study guide, you’d have extra help, but you’d be more lazy.

Do you think this will inspire people to do their own next time, or will they be waiting for you to give them one?

They’ll be waiting for me to do it.

In a nutshell, Zayd showed a lot of self-motivation, but his interactions with his peers motivate him as well – not just from the recognition he receives, but from the satisfaction he gets from helping others. Teachers love having students like this – he exemplifies the “Learn for Life” and “Make a Difference” qualities that we value.

A (Grossly Stereotyped) Republican View on Motivation and Collaboration

Zayd’s last remark summarizes the problem I struggle with regarding collaboration. For background, modern educational thought holds that collaboration must be a pillar of education because a) it helps students develop interpersonal relationship skills, and b) it leads to “deeper scholarship,” for example by letting students compare multiple perspectives and tackle more complex problems (Davis).

At least three issues make me question how universally we should apply these assertions:

  1. Zayd’s observation that group work is a distraction
  2. My own observations that in a collaborative setting, oftentimes the strongest student functions as a “crutch” on which the others allow themselves to depend,  a supposition supported by Zayd’s comment that his study guides allow other students to avoid doing the work.
  3. The fact that for higher-level students, “Mixed ability cooperative learning plans should be used sparingly for gifted students” as research “indicates that—for gifted students—cooperative learning seems to produce fewer academic benefits than [similar ability] grouping plans” (as cited in Davis, Rimm, and Siegle 15).

Why make students work together if the strongest one is going to do all the work? In the same way that Republicans rail against handouts to the “needy,” teachers implementing collaborative teaching strategies need to rail against handouts to the academically or motivationally challenged. Don’t let the strong subsidize the weak, because such subsidies don’t inspire the weak to succeed – they enable them not to.

It’s an ageless teaching issue that hasn’t been addressed in all the reading and talk about collaboration that I saw through my experience in the COETAIL program and Gafesummit. James Kulik appears to have done extensive meta-review of the available research and concludes that similar-ability groups benefit the most advanced students while being no different in terms of achievement than mixed-ability grouping for low- and intermediate-level ones (Kulik).

I’m not advocating that we should abandon those lower- and intermediate-level students, nor do I mean to dismiss all mixed-ability groupings as a form of intellectual parasitism. Rather, teachers need to carefully think about how we allocate and ration our time, and more importantly, focus our attentions on how we design collaborative learning, not what technology we use to achieve it. The discussion about using Google Apps and all these other tools for collaboration must be inseparable from the conversation on appropriate instructional design and must be accompanied by practical examples of how to design groups and hold them accountable for their work – and it is the responsibility of tech integrators to make sure this is the case.

Works Cited

Davis, Gary A., Sylvia B. Rimm, and Del Siegle. Education of the Gifted and Talented. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2011. Print.

Davis, Matthew. “How Collaborative Learning Leads to Student Success.” Edutopia. The George Lucas Educational Foundation, 5 Dec. 2012. Web. 12 June 2013.

Kulik, James A. “An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives—NRC/GT.” An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives—NRC/GT. Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, n.d. Web. 12 June 2013.


Showcase: Google Docs for Group Project Coordination, Redux

A year ago I reflected on how I used Google Docs to coordinate year-end group projects for my 10th grade World History students. They used a spreadsheet to keep track of their work and typed up their notes and created their presentation in Moodle. It was a substitution, or perhaps an augmentation, of what they would have been able to do without Google Docs (now Drive). This year I thought about how I could make the experience not just easier in terms of workflow, but also in terms of learning. I accomplished this by focusing on feedback and motivation.

Better use of comments helped students get feedback and validation of their work.

Working from the premise that the quality of work improves when 1) students get prompt feedback and 2) feel they are creating something for an audience other than their peers, I changed the structure of project to incorporate additional components:

  • A research skills component that required students to evaluate the credibility of the sources in another group’s bibliography and share their feedback with that group (next time I’ll have the kids leave this feedback as comments within the bibliography rather than a separate document so that it’s immediately apparent)
  • More rigorous feedback on my part, using comments within Google Drive to give praise and constructive criticism promptly and regularly
  • Regular showcase demonstrations of exemplary work to the class as we passed each checkpoint, which I could do since each group kept their work in a folder that was shared with me.

These three components required students to create for a peer audience and also gave them numerous opportunities, along with concrete examples, of how they could improve their work. Kids also appreciated being showcased and it created a real sense of camaraderie. There’s something really cool about having an entire class applaud someone’s work.

I felt I got closer to a redefinition this time around – not because leaving feedback is novel, but because giving intra-class peer feedback between 20+ students at a time is impractical to the point of impossibility. It’s just another way that Google Docs helps streamline the process of learning: it helps you get away from getting kids to DO things and lets you focus on getting them to LEARN things.

Repurposing Old Hardware via Chrome OS (aka Chromium OS)

A recent post on Google+ asked:

Has Google ever thought of releasing the Chrome OS as a stand alone product for purchase? I know Google would like us to buy Chromebooks, but for many schools, we have to use existing hardware until it dies, and who knows if and or when we may get $$$ for new.

I would love to be able to convert my existing netbooks to Chromebooks, and then when they die, be able to show my board and principal a proof of concept for purchasing only Chromebooks in the future.

Here’s the answer:

  • Google has kind of released ChromeOS, as the Chromium OS. This is an open-source implementation of ChromeOS that includes core functionality but lacks a) drivers for most types of hardware, b) flash, c) pdf, and d) Google Talk. It’s hasn’t released it in a way you can install on your computer.
  • You can install Chromium OS on your computer via programs created by third-party (read: random, but talented) individuals. These are called “builds” and THE guys is hexxeh, who was at one point a 17-year-old UK programmer who just took it on as a hobby. He has taken the raw code (“source code”) of Chromium and turned it into a package you can install on some – but not all – computers.
  • If you get it installed, functionality may be missing for some components, or it may be reduced in future builds – Google tries to keep ChromeOS as streamlined as possible, which makes it fast but also makes it compatible with only a narrow range of hardware.

If you want to try it out, though, you do the following:

  1. Download a build of Chromium from http://chromeos.hexxeh.net/
  2. Follow the instructions for Win, Mac, or Linux from that page to get the build copied to a USB stick.
  3. Boot your laptop from the drive (F12 at startup – choose the USB stick)

At this point, your laptop will either load Chromium or not – if it doesn’t, you probably have hardware compatibility issues. For example, Chromium loads up just fine on my Toshiba, but the trackpad isn’t recognized, so I have to plug in a USB mouse.

If you’re able to log in, you’ll want to copy it to your hard drive so you don’t need to leave the USB stick plugged in all the time:

  1. Log in to the Chromebook with your Google Account.
  2. Ctrl – Alt- F2 to bring up a command line
  3. Log in with chronos / facepunch
  4. chrosh + enter brings you to the ChromeOS developer shell
  5. type “install” (this will format your hard drive)
  6. Reboot when the process is done and remove the USB stick.

That’s it. Once again, if these instructions don’t work, your hardware is probably incompatible. If you get this far, though, you probably want to add Flash, PDF, and mp3/mp4 support. There are sites out there that purport to get them working, but they don’t seem to work on all builds. This means that you’ll have to go without the ability to use sites like Prezi or WeVideo, read PDFs, and listen to music. Not terribly useful.

If you’re wanting to repurpose old hardware, then you should go with Xubuntu Linux for your OS and install Chrome as the default browser. It won’t have the streamlined (simple) interface and lightning performance of ChromeOS, but there will be much better hardware and software support.