Month: March 2014

Socrative is the Best App for Education

Perhaps the greatest app ever created for education: Socrative. It’s greatness is beyond belief.

It is a web-based app. If your class has iPad or Android devices, you and your students can download it; if they have Chromebooks or laptops, they can use the website. It allows teachers to assigns quizzes and get a spreadsheet of the students’ results when they finish. It also has a feature called a “space race,” where students can take a quiz and compete each other to see who finishes the questions first.

That being said, the greatest, most awesome feature of Socrative, is simply the ability for students to communicate with the teacher. Let me know show you:

You create a classroom space, and students log in to the classroom. Like many other apps / websites, there is a code. My students have logged in so many times, they have it memorized!

Now, you can post a question through a projector, have them do multiple answers with name login, and they can answer it. I often do grammar exercises by posting something like this on the screen:

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They will then complete it, and I will see a list of students with their answers.

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I can immediately see that most of them get the idea of direct objects, but Bob does not. I can simply walk over to Bob, tell him to try again. After a few exercises like this, I find that Bob usually gets it. Before Socrative, he probably would have walked out at the end of class not knowing how to do it. This feature, in my opinion, is invaluable as a teacher. Not only do I get instant data, but I can also give instant corrective feedback.

This feature does not need to pertain to just grammar errors or math or chemistry problems. Sometimes in ELA or social studies, I ask students to answer a higher-order thinking question, demonstrate which is the best response, and the class votes on the best response.

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Another way that I use it is to check in with students to see how they are doing on a group project. Sometimes, students and parents have complained that there is not enough time in class to work on projects. In response, I have begun asking student to tell me how group work is progressing.

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In this case, I would go to Frank’s group and help the group overcome the challenges. Recently, I was able to help out two groups having difficulty getting their work done, and I knew that others had finished.

I find Socrative to be immensely useful, but because I don’t do the quizzes or the space race, I am currently using about 10% of its full capacity. If you haven’t used Socrative yet, what’s stopping you?

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Finding God in my PLN

For a long time, I felt alone as a teacher. The profession is, by its very nature, very isolating. I have observed other teachers give five full lessons in the past ten years, and I work in a school with few other middle school teachers.

During recent years, I went through some darkness as I drifted away from my original call to be a passionate teacher. I felt like I was no longer called to be a teacher, and I thought that maybe I has chosen the wrong vocation. Out of this pain, I learned to turn to God. After reading Philip Yancey’s book on prayer, I learned how to pray authentically to God. I learned to turn to Him in complete honesty and tell him exactly what I was thinking or wondering about my life. I sometimes said, “God, did I make the wrong choice? Did I blow it? Dear God, I don’t know what to do with my life right now.” Many times, not knowing what to say, I tended to repeat (several dozen times a day), “Dear God, please help me.” Through this period of suffering, I developed a much stronger faith life than I would previously thought possible. I felt connected to God in ways that I had never experienced before. I learned that even if I were to suffer permanently through unresolved issues, God would always be with me.

Recently, however, there has been a major change in my life. I have been introduced to Twitter. I have used it as a means to find other teachers, chat with them, and follow them. It has connected me to hundreds of teachers, and I have formed a Professional Learning Network (PLN), where I talk informally to teachers all across the country. We are all committed to developing student passion and empowerment, and we all do whatever it takes for us to become better teachers.

This “network,” in many ways, has become more than just a “professional network.” I previously had a hard time making real and lasting friendships since I graduated from high school many years ago. I find that I don’t have much in common with many people, and I have drifted apart from my older friends. That has changed since I discovered Twitter. I find that I can share professional insecurities (How can I do a better job teaching vocabulary? How can I improve class discussions?) and receive support instead of judgment. I also find that I am often able to help others, by introducing them to new tools like Socrative or TodaysMeet. There are also many times when Twitter veers away from education into silliness. Sometimes discussions become strings of non sequitors or popular culture quotes (which I usually miss, to the comic benefit of everyone else). In other words, we are becoming not colleagues, but friends.

I am finding that I am not turning to God in the same way as I had before. I still pray several times a day, but not as despairingly as I had before. I believe that it is due to the fact that I am connected to something larger to myself and connected to people who believe in the same mission. As St. Paul writes, “You are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.”(1 Cor 12:27) When we help and support each other in our mission, we are acting as the body of Christ. This is not to say that all members of my PLN are Catholic, Christian, or even believers of any religion. I know that many of them are not. Nevertheless, we all know that God sometimes does amazing things through atheists, and horrible crimes are sometimes committed by the most devout. Even though some might no longer believe, I believe that God’s love still works through them. They are very, very committed to helping the young men and women in their classroom and for their own children, thereby living out Jesus’ call to care for children. (Mt 19:14)

Because I am much happier and feel the love and support from my PLN, my utterance, “Dear God, please help me” has been transformed into “Thank you, thank you, thank you, God.”

Thank you, God, for my PLN.

Gone Fishin’

It has been awhile since my last post. I’m sure many of you have been wondering, “Where are you, Travis? What have you been doing?”

I have been out fishing. I have spent an entire week fishing, day after day after day.

“Wait, wait,” you say, “You don’t seem like much a fisherman. You seem like more of suburbanite than an outdoorsman. I have a hard time seeing you sit quietly on a boat.”

To which I reply, I have not been catching fish, but catching students.

Last week, we began the Reformation in 7th grade social studies. I have sometimes used a hook to snare students at the beginning of a unit. I did the same thing this time.

I entered the classroom in my Catholic elementary school in a sad and dejected manner. I was completely down in the dumps. When some of the students asked what was wrong, I asked if they had heard the bad news about the popes. I described the many sins of the Renaissance popes without actually specifying that these popes were from 500 years ago; I implied that they were recent popes. Although my students realize that popes are not perfect, they were not prepared for the ghastly abuses of power I described. When I told them that these popes were long gone, they felt a sigh of relief but also a sense of horror that these actions were once very real. It can be shocking to a 13 year-old Catholic student that a Cardinal may have killed criminals for sport.

At this point, I had cast a line for the beginning of the unit. The students were engaged and interested after hearing about papal abuses of power. This was nothing inherently new; there have been many times in many subjects where I had begun a unit with a hook. This time, however, I decided to hook them again.

On the following day, I announced that the school was going to modify its behavior system. Due to the cost of renovating our outdoor area next to the junior high wing, the school was going to raise money by allowing students to donate money to the renovation fund in exchange for removing behavioral consequences. If they donated money to the fund, they could remove detentions or suspensions. There would be extra fees to erase future consequences and friends’ consequence. To put some icing on the cake, I was very vigilant in assigning consequences for talking; what I would normally let slide was suddenly targeted. At one foul stroke, the stakes for misbehavior were higher, but students did have a lifeline, the “donations” to the renovation. When I finally conceded that this activity wasn’t real and connected it to the use of indulgences from the Renaissance popes, the students were incredulous that popes could attempt to sell salvation so blatantly, and they were outraged that the Church could do such a thing. I then launched into the sales spectacle of selling indulgences as I pretended to be Johan Tetzel with outstretched arms saying, “SHOW ME THE MONEY!” I also decided to end class with the declaration, “Somehow, without anyone noticing, the modern world began on October 31st, 1517,” leaving students with a cliff hanger for the next lesson.

As you can see, I had already introduced two different hooks for this lesson. The kids were into the Reformation. Nevertheless, I decided to begin a class on the English Reformation with yet another hook. I began with the statement, “My wife and I are going to have a baby soon. We are going to be just as happy with either a boy or a girl.” I let it sink in, and then I said, “I want you to try to think of any reason why a baby’s gender could lead to war and conflict. That could take an entire country to civil war.” Some of my students were stunned, but others realized that royal blood needs boys. This led perfectly into the do-or-die genetic roulette of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Once again, the students were shocked and appalled at the craziness of life in the 16th century. By “hooking” the students time and time again this unit, I have not only begun a unit with heightened interest and engagement, but have sustained it throughout.

As you can see, I have not caught any trout, salmon, or anglers. Luckily, some eager students have taken the bait. I have them, and I’m not letting go.