Open-source fever

I’ve developed a fever over the past week.  I found a program called MacPorts, an open-source project aimed at making other open-source projects available to people.

It all started when I was looking for a way to run Windows-based programs on my Mac.  There is a program called Wine out there that “tricks” the program into thinking the necessary components are there in order for it to run.  I’m not totally sure how it works, but it was suggested as a good alternative to mirroring or even hard-drive partitioning.  (If that sounds good to you, there is a great step-by-step tutorial here).

Long story short, I had to install a couple of other programs (including MacPorts, from which all other installations were completed), but I didn’t end up using Wine.  I did, however, begin to play with MacPorts and some of the open-source freeware available.  I’ve caught the bug.

I’ve always had an interest in astronomy, but living in Seoul (population 18 million) makes it a little difficult to see much more than Jupiter on an extremely clear night.  In my toying with MacPorts, I found an open-source program called Nightshade, which is by far one of the best astronomy simulators I have ever seen.  I am now thinking about proposing a new astronomy class to be offered at my school because of the capabilities.

Like I said, I’ve caught the fever.

Jeopardy in class

I’ve written a lot lately about general chemistry, but I’m also using technology in my AP Chemistry class when I can work it in around all of the podcasting.  That isn’t a great excuse (I don’t even feel like that’s the right word) but the podcasting has definitely taken up most of my technology time.

Anyways, I decided to play Jeopardy with my AP Chemistry class this year.  Now, the funny thing is, none of them (well, very few) have never even seen the show…all they know about it is what their American or Canadian teachers say about it.  So, after I finished trying to explain the whole answer-in-the-form-of-a-question concept, we got going.  It went really well because I put together a hyperlinked PowerPoint presentation that linked each question value to the slide.  There was no back-and-forth, searching for the slide, etc.  I ended up liking it so much, I’m posting it here if you’re in need of a quick time-saver for a review game or for whatever else.  Just click and download the file.  The file is set up such that all you need to change are the category titles and then add-in your questions for the appropriate unit.

Right now, I only have single Jeopardy.  I’ll get a double template posted this week (hooray Thanksgiving) so if you’d like to do a double round, you don’t have to go through and change every single slide.

I hope some of you find this helpful…enjoy!

Jeopardy! (Template v2.0)

The Mol Project

I started teaching the concept of the mol (not the animal…the amount) in chemistry this week.  The problem is, the mol is such an impossibly large number to comprehend (6.02 x 10^23, or 602 sextillion, or 602 followed by 21 zeros) students often don’t grasp the quantity of things we are attempting to count.  So, I had them do a quick project on quantifying the number of things…anything…in a mol.  They had to relate one mol of an object to a concrete idea for people to visualize.  Many students just looked at the length of an object like a pen or a keyboard key.  Some others measured area, and still others measured volume.

For the project, they gave an example of a dozen, a gross (a dozen dozens), one million and one billion.  I got some great projects from this…better than I anticipated when I assigned it.  Below are some of the projects I had students turn in for the assignment.

Moving to Moodle

I’ve been running my course thus far via Google sites (which I love).  The site itself is easy to set-up, although the customization can take some playing around with.  After a PD session or two, I’m happy with my class website.  For my testing, I’ve been using another site called  It is functional because of its class-organization system, so I can track each student for each test.  What I don’t like is it’s randomizing capabilities.  It can only randomize questions and their answers, and even then, only to a certain degree.  Also, there is no import function for test questions, so I have to enter each test item-by-item (and for roughly 100 questions per test, that can be very time consuming).

I have never used Moodle for my own class, but after seeing how other teachers use it, I’m a fledgling convert.  Moodle will organize all of my class materials by unit as well as host ALL of my testing.  Moodle’s testing also randomizes about 100x more efficiently than any subscription testing site.  It has a test import option…no more typing every question.  It also will randomize everything, including short answer questions!  It take some parameters for the questions (let x=1-1000) and it changes for every student on every test.  It really tests student’s ability to use the information rather than try to remember the question from the last time they took the test.

The only thing that is daunting is that my school doesn’t have an on-site server…which means I get to learn about web hosting over the next few weeks as I try to figure this out.  I think I can sort through it, but if anyone happens to read this and knows how to perform an installation on a web host like GoDaddy or BlueHost, I would love to talk some more.

More coming as I work though this…

Periodic Table of Cereals

Update 9/18/2012 – Unfortunately, the videos no longer work because the students closed their accounts. Feel free to use this Google Doc for the activity.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about students putting together a periodic table of cereals for a project.  Well, the final drafts are in and I got some work this year that blew my mind.  Some of the best are shown below if you’re interested in browsing through some.

As an overview, students picked 25 cereals and then had to organize them in a comprehensive table.  It had to classify both rows (periods) and columns (groups) as well as 3 other properties of their choice.  Some students opted to use this as a test grade and were also required to submit a video answering some questions other students chose to write about.  Anyways, enjoy their work!

These are two of the videos that stood out amongst the rest.



Objective-based grading implemented

The first attempt at anything is usually inefficient, clunky, and unpolished.  That’s how I feel with my class at the moment.  I’m trying to polish and refine, but I need to be patient, because I will probably never be completely satisfied…but I think good teachers are never comfortable with everything they do.  We need to be finding ways to constantly improve our methodology and be refining our pedagogy.

The biggest challenge I’ve had thus far with mastery is the unbelievable volume of daily grading and checking I’ve been doing and the brainpower it is taking me to think about 10 different assignments all being shown to me at once.  Feeling fried out (after one unit, mind you) I queried Jonathan Bergmann, a mastery guru (he’s in his 4th year using the method right now).  A recent blog post of his had to do with how he and a colleague switched from grading every assignment to grading specific objectives they wanted students to accomplish.  Needless to say, I loved it.

I will be using this with my next unit, but I wanted to share his thoughts.  I am in no way responsible for coming up with the idea…I’m just borrowing from him to try and improve my class…thanks Jon!

Coming Up: Student Periodic Tables

Part of the mastery system is assessing students through their own, unique work.  For this next unit (beginning today) students have an opportunity to show me what they know through their own digital periodic tables based on…cereal.

While this isn’t true student-driven assessment, it’s a step in the right direction for my class.  I’m hoping to be able to do something like this for every unit…I’m just not there yet.  For this project, they have to do a lab in which they produce a periodic table based on different cereals.  They have the option to turn in a supplementary video to be used as their chapter assessment.  I’m really hoping I can get some of the more creative students to jump at this opportunity.  We’ll see in a week or two what I get.

Parent conferences…how to explain?

One of the challenges I’ve faced so far this year is explaining to parents how the class works and trying to convince some of them that this method is pedagogically sound.

The biggest question I get from parents is: “With instruction based on videos and podcasts, what do you actually do in class?  How is my son/daughter benefiting from this experience?”

This is a great question because then I get to explain that I’m not shirking their student.  What this is allowing me to do, essentially, is one-to-one tutor their student every single day.  Because I’m not standing up front and talking to some passive listeners, I can actively engage their student on a day to day basis and do some real engaging and focused work.

It really seems to get through when I give this example: in my largest class, I have 27 students.  In this class, maybe four of those students work at an advanced level, 20 of them work at the average level, and the last three may feel bogged down and lost.  In a traditional class, my time is focused on the instruction and then maybe some question and answering, trying to engage students.  Those students who feel left behind have no interaction and may feel scared to ask their questions.  In the mastery model, I spend no time on class instruction.  Those four advanced students work ahead on their own, because they get it.  I just make sure they’re on task.  The 20 average students get my time split between groups, but most of the time they can work collaboratively to learn the material.  Those other three struggling students can have the bulk of my time with focused instruction.  On average, face time with the teacher during the class has increased exponentially.

Some parents are still skeptical, but it gives me an opportunity to speak with them more than I normally would have, which is another great opportunity.  I’m all the more excited after open house last night because of the support I felt from most of the parents who came.  I’m looking forward to things to come.

Easy web conferencing options

Part of the challenge of teaching today is finding a good time to meet as a group.  And in a city as large as Seoul, meeting in person isn’t always an option.  I’ve had a lot of trouble finding time to meet outside of school with students, so I decided to do some research on web conference meetings where students and I could “meet” and discuss class topics or just do some one-on-one tutoring.

There are plenty of commercial-level options such as and Webex that serve small businesses and corporations.  But, for a classroom teacher’s needs, these are very expensive (most starting at $50/month) and contain many features that just aren’t necessary.

What I was looking for were inexpensive options to meet with small groups…here is what I’ve found.

The best option for one-on-one meetings is Skype.  It is totally free and even includes a screen-sharing option if you’re working on a document (English/literature teachers) or if you have a whiteboard program installed (science, math, etc) to show students step-by-step processes.  Skype also offers VoIP conference calls (audio only) or small group video conferences (up to 4 people), but neither support screen sharing.  Overall, Skype is a great solution for one-on-one situations, but is limited for true group instruction capabilities.

Another free resource is an up-and-coming website called DimDim.  DimDim is a browser-based service that has a free option as well as payed upgrade options.  The free account works well for small group meetings (up to 10 people, including the presenter) as it has screen sharing capability (plugin download required) and built-in document sharing/editing and a whiteboard.  I tried this with a group of AP Chemistry students and it was fairly functional, but the only discussion option for attendees is a group chat, which tends to lag depending on student input.  The video and audio refresh rate for the presenter is slow, which led to many instances of “I think it froze again…” and the meeting productivity was limited.  The DimDim upgrades began at $10/month and only upgraded the number of attendees allowed and the capability to record your session.  This is tempting, but you can easily record your own screen with other free downloads.

The best option I’ve found so far is supported by Adobe Acrobat’s ConnectNow.  When you sign up for the free Acrobat account you automatically have a designated file-sharing platform (very similar to Google Docs, but not as large) as well as a web-meeting room (shown below).  Space in the meeting room is also limited (4 participants, including the presenter) but the functionality is far superior to other free services.  First of all, every participant has VoIP capability, so no cumbersome text-based chat window is necessary.  You just need to make sure that each participant has headphones on, or else you get a nasty echo effect.  Secondly, the refresh rate is on par with Skype, so video doesn’t freeze for the participants.  Acrobat also allows for true collaboration because you can had over presenter controls to an attendee, which allows students to show work or lead a discussion group.  The other great factor is that the teacher does NOT need to be present for the meeting room to work.  You can designate your meeting room as “always open” on the account dashboard.  Students go to your meeting room URL (for independent collaborative study groups) and then work from their home.

In a nutshell, there are few free web conferencing services that would allow for large groups to meet.  If budgeting isn’t an issue, there are many options out there that allow large-group meetings to take place.  But for small meetings, I would definitely go with Acrobat and just split students into small groups for each meeting.  Adobe also allows for paid upgrades, but they are at the same expense as Webex and GoToMeeting, targeting business options rather than education.