We write our own reports?

Ever had an idea you just had to act on?

Today with my year 10s, we had 15 minutes to ‘spare’ after we de-briefed their yearly exam paper. Just then, I had a thought to get them to write their own report comment. I figured ‘why not?’

So, I asked my students to spend the next 15 minutes drafting a 500-character report comment for IST. I mentioned that I have already drafted their reports – which was true – and that I wanted to make sure I did not miss anything – which was also true – and that I would use their input – which was more or less true.

One of the more astute ones asked, “Does that mean we write our own reports?”


I replied yes, of course. I write the words but in fact, what they do (or not) throughout the year is what is written in the report comment. So technically,  students do write their own reports. Right?

Awesome as they are, they humoured me and actually did the activity.

It was an authentic context to reflect on the year that was, how they were as learners in my classroom and even how they could improve. No scaffold. No prompts. No advice from me….just the time and space to do it…and a bit of ‘rah rah’.

I was so pleased by their honesty and accuracy of self-assessment. I was also pleased that my report comments got validated by theirs which, for my part, means I do know my students and that my data collection (via formative and summative assessments) and feedback systems work.

Writing reports can be onerous, often due to sheer volume and tight deadlines. This has been a ray of sunshine.

I would do this again as a win-win activity. That is, students reflect meaningfully on their learning – content and process and I, their teacher, gets validation and more importantly, personalised insights about them.


I do and I understand

Confucius says (oh my, I’ve been wanting to do that for ages…haha):

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

In my random clicking on the internet disguised as professional development (or maybe it’s the reverse), I found a couple of strategies interesting enough to try.


The first came from an Edutopia video, How to teach maths as a social activity. I’m a big fan of cooperative and collaborative learning and this video has good strategies. What I wanted to try immediately was called Fishbowl (video link). Basically, it’s having a small group sit and discuss while the rest of the class observe. I’ve heard of it before but this is the first time I intended to give it a go.

With my year 10s going into their exam block next week, and coming in from a 2-week school holidays, I thought that Fishbowl would be an interesting way to do some revision. So I set up 3 groups to discuss (1) Bias in algorithm, (2) Use of cookies, and (3) Robotics in employment.

These topics are directly related to the topics we did this year (1) Software Design and Programming, (2) Internet, and (3) Robotics.

I gave them 5-10 minutes to do a quick revision using our class notes or to look up on the web. This had to be done individually, i.e. no discussions. Then, the group took turns to be in the Fishbowl.

While I set this out as a revision exercise, what I found was Fishbowl is also an effective assessment activity. I doubt I’ll use it for summative assessments but as formative assessment, it was really good to see what the small group, and whole class, knew…or did not know…or got confused on. It also contextualised my assessment tips such as – give specific details, use technical terms and make sure you know their definitions, think of positives and negatives when discussing issues, you can link topics we studied,  use Asimov’s Laws on Robotics when discussing issues, and the like.

Tic Tac Toe + Jeopardy

Our current unit of work in 9IST is game design, a culmination of the Digital Media and Software Design and Programming topics we studied this year. They also have a yearly exam coming soon and I thought what better way to do revision than to play games. We will unpack the following experience next lesson and use that to feed into the work they yet have to do.

I found my inspiration in a recently discovered (read: yesterday) differentiation site, daretodifferentiate (link to Choice boards or tic tac toe, though the wiki site warrant more exploration). I wanted to try it straight away but all mu units are already designed so I figured I might as well use it for revision….and as a game!

The plan was to have a choice board with easy, medium and hard questions – that’s the tic tac toe part. Assigning points to the questions was the Jeopardy part.

I’m not going to include all the questions here but here’s a small sample so you get the idea: easy – JPEG is a lossy format (True or False?), medium – Define algorithm, hard – Explain one way that text can be digitised. For points, I gave 100 for easy, 150 for medium and 200 for hard.

Using the simple definition of games = goal + rules, I discussed the rules of tic tac toe and Jeopardy. They work in groups, nominate a speaker (and there can be no repeat speakers) to provide the answer. I also added a rule of ‘stealing’, i.e. if a group can answer a question better then they “steal (the chance to earn)” the points. This was actually good to ensure they all tried their best and that they listened to other groups. Revision and learning were happening at individual, small group and whole class level. Granted, still at different levels but even the quietest student could learn from others at least. I dropped the ‘tic tac toe’ all in a line across three columns because I had 3 groups…but that would be fun to design to get some blocking strategy happening as well.

Speaking of designing the thing, I wanted to implement this in Scratch, or with more time and effort – JavaScript or Python perhaps. But, given that I thought of this on the eve of using it, I resorted to a table in PowerPoint and using animated blocks to hide/reveal the questions. It’s been a while since I used the ‘click on object’ as trigger (default is just click anywhere) that I’ve forgotten about it. On the whole, it worked quite well actually….yep, a PowerPoint hack 🙂

Even with a short activity, I can see the power of differentiation through choice….and of course, I’m convinced about cooperative and collaborative learning anyway.

9IST groups in a huddle, discussing strategies and answers

9IST groups in a huddle, discussing strategies and answers

Back to Confucius

There are so many teaching and learning resources out there and seriously, there are many good ones. Finding ones to try and then actually making it happen help cement them in my mind because I don’t only know of, I also understand.

Also, because I mostly teach via Project-Based Learning, my students have done the ‘do’ bit and yet, as I’ve uncovered in these revision activities today, they don’t always remember or understand. And so then, back to Confucius:

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

Revision (look at again) – as an example of reflection (look deeper perhaps over-and-over from different perspectives) – has shown a path for remembering and understanding. In writing this blog post, tired as I am after an all-period teaching day on the first day back at school in 35C heat, I have forced myself to revise and reflect on these strategies.

Ah, I feel wiser now…haha

Learning to code

Software programming hasn’t been taught at my school for years. It was a bit of a gamble for me to include it in my programs for 3 subjects I teach: 9IST, 10IST and 11IPT. I was intending to do programming with the year 9s but decided to extend this to the year 10s in the hope of drumming some interest for the Software Design  HSC course and to the year 11s because the students expressed interest in learning.

Intro to programming

I used different ways to introduce the topic. First up were the year 10s who I got to play with Context Free Art (visual programming) which I barely learned at the CS4HS at Sydney Uni a few days before. Next up were the year 11s and I took them straight to Python for Beginners course with groklearning; the first couple of modules are free and sufficient to get beginning programmers going. Finally, with the year 9s, I went completely analogue. In groups of 3, they had to design a dance move for 8 beats and write it in pseudo-code. Another group gets to execute the move using the pseudo-code.

The year 9s had the best fun and, in my opinion, really learned what it means to design and code software programs. They experienced the challenge of breaking down the problem (dance move) into smaller components and think of sequencing, concurrent processing and even looping. Then there was the challenge of coding the move. Also, they realised that code – if unclear – could be interpreted in different ways or worse, wrongly (not as designed). They got the big picture: developing algorithmic-thinking and coding skills.  As quoted from @gilfer in a previous post, Software is poetry

… programming is not really the practice of writing lines of code. It is the art of taking big, intractable problems and breaking them down into ever smaller ones which can be understood, explained and then carefully assembled into a living, breathing work of art.

Software is poetry. It’s the expression of ideas in the most elegant form a programmer can devise.

Learning Python

I really enjoyed my road-test of NCSS challenge last year and so changed my new school’s IST course so I can include it in (he he).  As mentioned, both my years 9 and 10 are doing the NCSS challenge 2013 in its spiffy new groklearning platform. It fits right in with the IST syllabus (core topics + software design option) as well as my experiential approach to teaching. I even decided to make this one of the assessment tasks for year 9s; I’d have done the same with year 10s except their doing exams instead.

Both classes started the challenge today – Beginners. Starting with a quick campfire, I told them about pair programming (one of the strategies I learned yesterday as good for success in introductory programming – go on read it; I will try the other strategies later) and of course, remind them to have fun. It’s too early to tell but hey, I’m excited because the students were totally engaged in the challenge and were having fun….hard fun….as in, easy is boring kind of fun.  In both cases, I had to boot them out at the end of the period as they wanted to keep going – and we’re talking they’re supposed to go to recess or lunch….not another subject that perhaps they don’t like!

Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me but the year 9s did better than the year 10s. Was it the dance move intro? 🙂

There are a few year 9s who I will have upgraded to the Intermediate challenge as Beginners seem too easy for them. #proudmoment

I thought I’d share my here as well; feel free to reuse, upcycle, remix – if you do, all I ask for is feedback to how it can be better….atrribution would be nice, too. 2013 – 9IST – Assessment 3 – NCSS (PDF)

Using ClassDojo

I used ClassDojo before when I first ran my Digital Media Jedi Academy (also for 9IST). As before, I’m using it to communicate my expectations and award points. The points this time is for a request for an in-school competition outside of the national challenge. I do listen to my students and besides, using ClassDojo really forces me to look at each kid and see if they are showing expected behaviours…and my favourite is “exceeding expectations“. In this way, ClassDojo is my tool to remind me to check in with every kid as I have a visual reminder of eveyrone in my class and the ones who are not racking up points (are they not showing the expected behaviour or am I just not seeing it – go look, Mrs Mawby!). The points system is handy also for the teacher observation component of the 9IST task.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not using the Negative Behaviours (removing points) because in my 6 months with these classes, I’ve never had reason to control negative behaviour….yes, I’m lucky.

expected behaviour

expected behaviour


Okay, have shared heaps now and will stop – just wanted to leverage the excitement of the day to churn out a blog post 🙂

UPDATE 12 August 2013: I just added the task in PDF (I forgot to attach it last time….oops!)

Can programming help students appreciate Maths more?

I love it when things start to converge in my mind. This post will attempt to encapsulate this convergence; attempt being the operative word. As Jack Dorsey said, simplifying the complex is not easy. Try I must to help me document my thinking.

I blogged about Maths not = calculating in reference to Wolfram’s computerbasedmath.org initiative and mentioned it in comments on relevant posts of other bloggers and to anyone who cared to listen. I recently attended webinar with @ColinTGraham on Teaching Maths Effectively which led me to Project Euler. I signed up to this project and had a go using Microsoft SmallBasic, a free and easy to learn/teach programming language. I read @garystager’s post on  Charlie Rose‘s interview with Jack Dorsey, Chairman and one of the three co-founders of Twitter; I watched the interview as well. I think perhaps that only developers can really appreciate Stager’s (and Dorsey’s) view on elegant code (I happen to as I was in Software Development for years before going into teaching).

One of the challenges of maths teachers is making maths relevant. Also, Wolfram mentioned that students often do not see, much less appreciate, the beauty of maths – especially when drowned in the number-crunching (read calculation) jungle.

Anyway, I’m coming to a conclusion that there is definitely room and reason for integrating programming in school and not necessarily as a separate subject/course. In my previous high school, I did suggest this as an extension activity for a very smart girl and in fact, introduced her to SmallBasic. My suggestion to use some Maths lesson time was rejected for various reasons including there’s no one really able to support this idea and struggled to justify the suggestion. Fast forward to now and the previous paragraph is justification enough.

I’ve only done a couple of problems on Project Euler. It offers much opportunity as an assessment tool – you need to decode the problem in order to code. The process can run the full gamut of the digital Bloom’s taxonomy – from remember through to create. For example, what does multiple mean? I used to say it’s the times table of a number. But, how do you code that? Well, a number is a multiple of a given number if the remainder is zero when you divide – there are programming functions for this (language-dependent). Now, there’s a definition not often mentioned. And “below 1000” provides an opportunity to apply inequalities.

Project Euler definitely provides an avenue for computational thinking that Stager and Dorsey espouse and openly enjoy. Upon solving problems, you get access to the solution and the forum so you can compare your own code. The pursuit of elegant code is very obvious in the forum. What this means, too, is that participants are naturally differentiating the task – motivated by finding the most efficient solution – often due to deep knowledge of maths (including finding patterns) and not so much programming ability. How awesome is that??? Actually, reading some of the comments help one appreciate the depth and beauty of maths that Wolfram – and passionate maths teachers – allude to.

Programming is problem-solving. It promotes analytical and logical thinking but not at the expense of creativity as both Stager and Dorsey argue. In fact, I daresay a good programmer has to have a healthy dose of creativity. Programming provides instant feedback (read: gratification or frustration).

Though much can be learned from programming, it really is not for everyoneI…not because it’s hard necessarily but because it doesn’t appeal to all such as carpentry does not appeal to me, for example; I’m sure carpentry provides fantastic opportunities to apply mathematical concepts and more besides. I understand apprehension to even try to include it as a teaching strategy, but there is help out there. Just as there is a community of developers out there, so there is too of teachers.

Where to now?

As an IT integrator, I plan to approach the Maths and the Technology Departments (the elective programming course was dropped due to dwindling numbers). I’ll walk them through my rationale mentioned above. Then, who knows?

Do you know any other initiatives similar to or linked to the ones above?

Revision Relay

This is a quick post to share an idea and related resource.

Year 8 is about to have a maths exam next week with multiple topics: Algebra and Equations, Fractions/Decimals/Percentages, Angles, Circles/Areas and Ratios. To make revision a bit more fun, I’m doing it as team work and relay style.  The main objective is for students to identify topics they need to personally revise, i.e. assessment for learning.

There are 2 relay games and these are available as aWord document – ready to use or even alter to suit your needs – ie different topics and/or year group. To use, cut the relay questions – this one is ready for 3 groups; duplicate for more groups. Cut into columns.

  1. Divide students into 5 per team – assign names or ‘tribes’ if you like to suit a Survivor challenge theme
  2. Assign each student a number from 1 to 5  (or they pick themselves)
  3. Give Relay 1 questions to each group and a piece of blank paper for solutions. No discussions allowed at this point.
  4. Student 1 answers Q1 and pass answer and questions to Student 2.  Student 2 needs Q1 answer to solve Q2, Q2 answer to solve Q3, etc.  It’s up to you if you want students to work individually or cumulatively help each other such that by the time they get to Q5, the whole team works on it. This is my preferred option for differentiation purposes, i.e. those I think need the  most help will be Student 5.
  5. First team to get the correct answer wins.  If a team’s answer is wrong, trace back for errors.
  6. De-brief to help students identify where they might have struggled a bit and therefore need more revision.
  7. Run Relay 2 in the same way, i.e. build on from Student 1 with Q1 to the end.

That’s it. This idea can also be used at the start or end of school as well or even just as a team-building exercise, e.g. before a group sets off on a project.

Can you think of any more adaptations?