More on my trip down the SBG road

I wrote earlier about my decision to go SBG, and my early observations of implementation. Well, at about the half-way mark through the year I compiled my thoughts about it, and put them into a video. So if you have a few minutes, let me walk you through my experience so far:

Is Physics a language class?

When I teach Physics, I like to focus heavily on the conceptual side, as well as the process of problem solving and how to think about problems in general, rather than just the mechanics of the math. After all, the math we do in Physics is typically a year or more behind what they are actually studying in Math class, so they should be pretty good at it. In other words, I like to get metacognitive about the subject.

Physics is not exactly about the real world. Physics is about studying mathematical representations (models) of reality, in hopes that those representations can be predictive. For the cognoscenti, real science hides in the places where the math does not predict what we see in the real world, but we rarely delve into those places in school. Instead, we focus on how the models do match and predict reality. In any event, we need to translate what we see around us into math in order to manipulate the model, and then translate it back from math to real world.

It is that translation piece that got me thinking about the title of this post. When we do physics, we are really “translating” from the language of the real world top the language of mathematics – a bit like translating a question from German to English, answering the question in English, and then translating it back – the grammar doesn’t always match, so we have to be judicious in how we translate. And when we study languages we learn to recognize the nuances of each, and the differences in how they work to express things. Likewise in Physics, we need to recognize how a mathematical representation is similar to, and how it differs from the real world.  There are of course other ways to represent reality – artistic, linguistic, and so on, as well as other analogies for translation (thinking gene expression here…), but I’m not sure they convey the same sense of how Physics operates.

Here’s the thing – though I have learned other languages, I have never taught other languages, so I don’t really have a sense of the metacognition of that process. I think it’s about time I explored that in order to develop a full toolkit to help my students understand more about the process of doing Physics.


We need more invisible refrigerators

This year I am taking part in an EdTech/21st century year-long PD program called Cohort21. We had our first face to face session last Saturday, and the morning discussion centred around the use of technology in the classroom. The following are some thoughts arising from that session:

During the morning discussion of technology in education at the first face to face session of Cohort 21 we discussed the idea that technology should be transparent, invisible, in the background supporting learning, rather than being the focus. Like a refrigerator – it does an important job, but we don’t focus on refrigerators when preparing dinner, we focus on the food. Since we don’t focus on the refrigerator, it is effectively invisible when cooking.

Digital technology, however, is not. While we really want it to be, we have to spend a fair bit of and energy getting the applications to do what we want, making sure the students know how to use them properly (and actually use them…), and adjusting our methods to fit the paradigm of the software. All of this prevents the software (educational and otherwise) from becoming invisible.

I spend a good deal of time checking out educational apps and software, hoping for new tools that can support my classroom without getting in the way. Most often I find parts of of each of them to be quite desirable, and then other parts that make it almost useless (think smartphone apps for marking MC quizzes, but don’t give any feedback to the students).

Evernote is one application that does an awful lot, and is very flexible for recording observations, note-taking, tracking progress, and really anything else you want to make note of. And it’s shareable. Google Apps is on it’s way, but not there yet (but if Evernote could save to Google Drive, now that would be something!). But I’m having trouble thinking of other software that might fit into this category.

Most Educational software requires us to deliver in a certain way, or assess in a certain way. What we really need in EdTech is more invisible refrigerators.

A little organizational idea

So, I had this idea. And here’s the funny part – it came to me in a dream. No. Seriously. But it’s not the sort of thing I would ever think up, so I must have heard it from someone and it’s been fermenting in my brain for lord knows how long. But anyway…

In this dream I was volunteering somewhere (because it was a dream the “somewhere” was kind of vague, but maybe a museum?), and there was a box full of little slips of paper. On each slip was a job that needed doing. We volunteers would take a slip, do the job, initial it, and drop it in the “done” box.

See? beautifully simple. Totally unlike me.

This little idea, id seems to me, would be perfect in the classroom (and is probably being used in classrooms all over the place – like I said, this is not likely an original idea). Not only can you get jobs done – sorting craft supplies, organizing resources, returning materials to the library, etc – you have a record of who did what, and you can do a quick check to see how well each job was done.

While this would likely be very useful in an elementary class, an art room, music class, etc, I am not entirely sure how to implement it in a grade 11 Physics class, nor what motivation I could use even if I did have jobs.

But if I was organizing volunteers…

Desmos is another great math tool

Yesterday I wrote about g(Math), a tool for adding formulas and graphs into Google docs, like an equation editor on steroids. Today I’m going to talk about Desmos, a full-featured, web-based standalone graphing calculator.

Desmos can be run from the website, or installed as an app in Chrome. You don’t need an account to use it, but if you create an account you can save your work – even saving a copy to Google Drive, which is nice. The interface is clean, with the list of functions down the left side, and a large central grid (which can be switched between Cartesian and polar) to display functions. It responds well to double touch, so using it on an interactive whiteboard is easy.

There are many, many saved examples on the Desmos site which highlight it’s capabilities – including animation and drawing pictures with multiple equations.

I’ve started using it to illustrate the parabolic functions of acceleration, finding the roots, intersection of functions (solving two equations and two unknowns), and illustrating standing waves and beat frequency. I’ve just scratched the surface – there is a lot more that can be done with it, I just need to find the time to figure out what all else it can do. But for teaching transformations of functions? Just throw in a function with sliders and watch what happens. It is a very user-friendly interactive tool.

It’s teacher friendly, student friendly, works beautifully on the interactive white board, it runs animations, and it’s fun. What’s not to like?


g(Math) is a great addition to Docs and Sheets

Many schools use Google Drive with Docs, Sheets, Presentations, and any number of other plugins. But in Math and Science, there are a number of shortcomings. Hand drawn diagrams and equations are not easy to insert, and up until recently, the equation editor was quite limited.

But with g(Math), you have the full power of LaTex equation formatting at your disposal, and can generate complex formulas including vector arrows, matrices, and pretty much anything you might want. There is a bit of a learning curve for anyone not familiar with LaTeX syntax, but there is a large set of tools that can be used to generate a template which can be modified as necessary. With practice, anyone who is at all familiar with markup languages (such as html) will figure it out pretty quickly.


In addition to equations, you can also use g(Math) to generate graphs of functions that can be inserted into a document, which is very handy when generating Physics notes for class. gmath1

In Sheets, g(Math) lets you insert equations and graphs into cells, but also gives you some options for stats, and a nifty feature that will generate a form using the equation and graph images inserted into cells – a nifty feature for creating quizzes.


This is a great addition to GAFE, particularly for math and science. It would be nice to see it included with Presentation too, but until then one can always cut and paste.

Now we just need to work on getting digital ink into Google docs…


The straw that fixed the camel’s back – Moving to SBG

I am always on the lookout for ways to improve my courses. Recent(ish) innovations include flipped learning, layered curriculum, modelling, SBG, and on and on. I like them all – or rather, I like most of most of them, and parts of all of them. But inevitably there is something about them that either doesn’t fit, whether it’s with my subject, my teaching style, or the requirements of our Ontario curriculum, there always seems to be something.

But recently, while perusing again through resources on SBG (Standards Based Grading), I re-read this post by Kelly O’Shea. But this time, something clicked, and I realized how I could mesh SBG with the Ontario ministry requirements of assessment and evaluation, layer the content in a meaningful way, and have it all make sense. And It all works with how I like to do things, which is probably the most important thing.

So here’s what I’m doing:

I started by going through the list of ministry expectations for the course, and then through all of my tests and assignments, and figured out exactly what it is I want my students to know. The list came out at 82 things, which were further subdivided into categories of Knowledge, Inquiry, Communication and Application (it’s an Ontario thing…). I also identified which standards involved core knowledge and skills, and which were more advanced.

Every standard is graded on a 0-3 proficiency scale, and all standards are effectively weighted equally. The core skills, such as  I can draw and interpret d/t and v/t graphs in uniform motion, and I can identify/determine whether forces are balanced, will earn students a score up to B+ (we don’t officially have letter grades here, we have number levels, but they correlate: 1 is a D, 2 a C, 3 a B, 4 an A. You get the idea). Advanced skills add on top, bringing the mark up into A territory. Which means, technically, a student could get a B+ in the course without ever even attempting an advanced skill (but hey, if they are ninjas with the core skills, why not?). I have a few additional rules – mostly to force conversations of a student earns a 0 or 1 on a core standard, but you probably get the gist.

On any given assessment, I will typically have three or so questions for each standard (sometimes multiple standards per question), and will generate an aggregate grade of 0-3 (whole numbers only)  for each standard based on the results. The only way to get a 3 is to get 3’s on all questions addressing that standard. Two 3’s and a 2 is a 2 (since they have not fully mastered that standard). Errors on things that are not addressed by a standard in a question are given feedback, but not penalized. There are no overall grades for tests and assignments, only on standards.

Students will have regular opportunities to be re-assessed on standards.

I have only been using this method of assessment for a month now, and I have already noticed many  advantages. Because all standards are weighted equally, it forces me to create assessments that cover a balance of topics, as well as a balance of core and advanced level questions. Students and I know exactly where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and ask for specific assistance in order to achieve proficiency. And, frankly, as I start working on my first set of reports, It is ridiculously easy, as at a glance I can see a student’s progress through each standard.

I have to say, so far so good!

Making a flipped class video

I have experimented with a number of formats for making videos for blended or flipped classes, and I have settled on a style that seems to work well in terms of ease of creation and student engagement.

Allow me to explain here:


Don’t accept corrupted files

With greater reliance on technology for student work, we run into the possibility that there can be technology issues with student work – connection problems, version issues, lack of access, etc. Though as the technology, and availability thereof, increases, these issues seem to be declining.

But there is one issue that seems to be on the increase, and that is students having problems with files becoming corrupted and inaccessible. As supportive educators, we don’t want to be punitive if there are legitimate issues. But having been around the sun a few times, I know a statistical rat when I smell one.

As computers become faster, storage is ubiquitous, and there is less and less saving to removable media the opportunity for files to become corrupted by accident is declining. It can still happen, if for example a flash drive is removed while a file is being copied or saved, or the computer crashes while a file is being saved, but since saving a file is so fast, the chances of this are very, very slim. So what’s going on?

Mainly, this: There are plenty of sites, and YouTube videos, and how-to’s about corrupting your own files so they can’t be opened. Then it is just a matter of acting surprised, and bingo! The teacher asks you to please re-do the work as quickly as possible, giving you extra time to complete the work.

Well, I’m on to them, and now so are you.

So let’s look at a few ways files can be corrupted, and how to recognize a corrupted file, and how to tell the contents of the file (I am a PC user, not a mac user, so I will focus on what I know, but I’m sure if you are a mac user you can find someone who can help you out similarly).

1. Changing the file type. This one is dead easy, but also very easy to detect. The idea is to take a file – such as an image or a video file, or an exe or whatever you have around, and simply change the extension to .docx or .pptx instead of .jpg or whatever it was. Since most users don’t even have the file extensions visible, this one is fairly effective. The application just chokes, and is unable to “repair” the file. The solution? Open the file with notepad. You can just open notepad and drag and drop the file in. While most of it will look like gobbledygook, there will be clues, mainly in the first line, where you may see something like “PK    »¬fB” or “JFIF” or some other clue. A quick Google search may help you identify the file type – PK is a zip file (or an Office document – since office docs are a collection of information files saved together as a zip), JFIF is a jpg image, and so on. Try changing the file extension and opening in another application. Other clues lie elsewhere in the file – Word documents may end with a sequence like:

“word/numbering.xmlPK-    ! ÷ÝJÆ¿ Q  °Z word/people.xmlPK-    ! ©Ó¢Ùñ ‰  œ\ customXml/item1.xmlPK-    ! —IqE   æ` word/fontTable.xmlPK-    ! õøÍ ¾  [c word/commentsExtended.xmlPK-    ! $ï¶D ÿ  _e word/webSettings.xmlPK-    ! ¶Ëëš\ ˜  ¤f docProps/core.xmlPK   — 7i”

Which clearly identifies it as a word doc. So if you get something purporting to be a “corrupted” word doc, and it has none of these, then it is likely not actually a word doc.

Powerpoints also have clues, like: “ppt/slides/_rels/slide9.xml.rels¬MKÄ0†ï‚ÿ!Ìݤ-“‹lº<Éú†dš›2Y±ÿÞˆ—-“. If there is nothing like this, then it probably isn’t a powerpoint.

2. Corrupting the header. It is easy enough to delete a few characters from the start of a file (using Notepad as above, for example), which will render it completely unusable. However, if you can go into the file in notepad as above, you should be able to see if it is the right type of file. If the internal clues are still there but that first line with the file info is missing, it probably had that info deliberately deleted. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to recover a file corrupted in this way. But I’m working on it…

3. Online tools. Yes, there are tools online specifically to mess up your files so they data cannot be retrieved. A hallmark of these tools is that they overcorrupt, so the file is comletely unrecognisable. Compare the screenshots below of a powerpoint file and the resulting corrupted file:





Though hard to prove, but there is no way for an office document or powerpoint to wind up looking like that by accident.

So, with this information,  what do we do?

Firstly, there are proactive strategies such as having students submit drafts regularly, and requiring students to make backups. Also, you can have students use tools such as Google Drive – where the back end file is inaccessible and all changes are tracked –  in order to minimize the risk of file corruption (intentional or otherwise).

Secondly, arm yourself with knowledge of what tricks people may be up to. If you suspect a file has been tampered with, drop it into notepad and have a look, or bring it (and a copy of this post) to your IT department and have them look at it.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, keep the lines of communication open, and let students know that legitimate reasons for a delayed submission are open for discussion, so that maybe they will never feel like they have to resort to this.


Trouble with Static Kits

My grade 9’s are doing static electricity at the moment, and I am experiencing some weirdness and frustration with the kits I have. Firstly I have a combination of new and old kits, but they all come with a standard collection of items – glass, ebonite and plexiglass rods, fur, felt and silk pads, and a few other odds and ends. My problem is I am finding it hard to reliably, and consistently, get a good charge, especially a positive charge.

The instructions usually suggest rubbing glass with silk to produce a positive charge on the glass. This, in my experience, never works. Last year I discovered that rubbing the glass rod with the plastic baggie the kit comes in worked well – but with the new kits I just received that doesn’t seem to work, no idea why not.

And then there is the mysterious flip-flopping plexiglass. Acrylic when rubbed with fur should become negative – but when I held it up to a negatively charged electroscope, the leaves dropped – indicating a positive charge. I tested it with a positively charged electroscope, and the leaves spread apart, confirming the positive charge. Okay, so it’s positive. But then when I tried to demo that it was positive, it suddenly had the opposite effect. It was bizarre, and my students were totally confused – as was I.

I love a teachable moment as much as the next guy, but when the message seems to be that science is arbitrary and unpredictable, I don’t think it is the right lesson to convey. I hate it when that happens.