Category Archives: Thoughts

Digital Storytelling

Last week, we were fortunate enough to have Alan Levine talk to our class about digital storytelling. It was a really interesting discussion all about engaging students using storytelling. This could either be done by presenting the lesson in a storytelling format, having the students present something about themselves in a storytelling format, or even, have the entire class collaborate in a shared story.

The big takeaway message from this discussion was: storytelling is a way of creating a conversation with students in order to engage the class in a learning experience. My initial thought was: Great! But is this something I could realistically use in a physics/math classroom?

The answer: totally.

To a smaller extent, this was something that I stumbled upon during my block. During the momentum unit in physics, I gave a presentation about my experiences at SNO. The presentation contained information that was part of the curriculum, but – and I didn’t realize it at the time – I ended up presenting it as a story. I noticed that they were really engaged in the story as I was telling it – although I didn’t actually realize why until Alan talked about the power of storytelling.

Here’s another example that Alan shared with us on how storytelling can be used in a math/science class.

What I really liked about this ‘story’ is that it has no words! A narrative with a strong inquiry element for students to fill in the blanks. After showing something like this to a science class, we could have a great discussion about how her setup worked.

During the background chat, people were also talking about using storytelling in a science class to present the history of some discovery. Totally. Those lessons about the history of something are usually pretty dry. But spice it up with a story format, maybe add some side notes about the eccentric scientists involved, and it suddenly becomes engaging.

Alan also gave us some great resources. I recommend bookmarking his wiki page dedicated to digital storytelling, and his wiki page dedicated to 50 web 2.0 ways to tell a story (inspired, of course, by Paul Simon’s 50 ways to leave your lover).

Some other really amazing ideas he left us with: he used voicethread to record his mom’s voice talking about a family picture (great way to record voices/experiences from the past). Beyond teaching, he also introduced us to Pechaflickr (which he invented!) as a fun game to play with a class or with friends – creating a story based on random flickr images.

Thanks, Alan! It was a really great talk that I’m definitely going to use in my future classes.

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The Google Site Resource

Well, block 1 is all wrapped up now, and I’m kinda bummed. I had a great time with it and I just want it to keep going. I’m walking away with a bunch of resources to stash in my toolbox, along with some tips and tricks that I will definitely pull out the next time I’m teaching a class.

One of the tools that ended up being a fantastic resource was the google site that I made for my grade 9 math class. I posted all of the handouts from each lesson as well as solutions to the homework problems. That way, when I ran out of time to take up homework problems in class, I could just say, ‘check the class website for the rest of the homework solutions.’

Was it extra work to write out and upload the homework everyday? Yes. But it was worth it knowing that the students weren’t going to be panicking when they got stuck on some homework.

The math classroom ended up being somewhat low on technology. But you know what? It wasn’t such a bad thing at all. I think a teacher should be able to teach an effective class using nothing but a paper clip and some duct tape. Anything else is just icing on the cake. So I ended up busting out a few colourful overheads … where the screen was held in place using a mangled coat hanger. MacGyver has nothing on me.

Some things I’d change for next time:

As much as I liked the google site as a resource, I would’ve loved to incorporate the web 2.0 aspect to the class site as well (like with edmodo or ning). I’d also really like to be able to easily contact the whole class without using their school emails – another benefit of edmodo/ning. Side note: Of the school emails, I found that a) they were always crashing and b) students couldn’t access them easily from computers outside of the school. Um, doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?

So, in conclusion, I miss teaching. Would it be weird if I started delivering lessons to my cats?


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A crafty math application

A lot of people find math pretty dry. If math class is composed of going over pointless problem after pointless problem with very little practical application, then, frankly, I don’t blame them.

My favourite thing about math is its applicability. It can describe anything and everything! If I asked you to think of your favourite thing, I bet math could be used to describe, predict or analyze some part of it.

Don’t believe me? One of my favourite hobbies is crochet (the one that involves yarn, a hook and results in blankets that tend to be made up of granny squares). Now, crochet isn’t something that anyone would typically try to throw math at … unless of course you’re a serious math geek like me.

One day, when I found myself with some free time on my hands and an abundance of yarn, I decided that I wanted to crochet a perfect sphere. I wanted to know the exact number of stitches required in each row to make an ideal sphere. I thought to myself, if I sliced a sphere up into thin, horizontal slices, each slice would look like a circle. The circumference of each circle-slice would represent the number of stitches I would need in each row of my sphere – so that’s what I set out to find.

After I threw a little bit of math at it, I came up with a pattern for the number of stitches required in each row to make an ideal sphere! I posted the pattern on my craft blog along with a description of how I solved the problem.

Ideal Crochet Sphere

Voila! Math used in a decidedly non-mathy situation.

Here’s the cool thing: since I posted the sphere pattern, lots of people have used it! Not only did I share with people about how math can be applied to a real life problem, but I also created a pretty basic pattern that people took off with. Lots of people actually shared photos of things that they made using the sphere pattern on a craft website called Ravelry.

If you crochet and are interested in the pattern, here is the link to the pdf.


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Interactive Learning = Advancing Science

I came across an interesting link the other day, and it reminded me a little bit of the benefits of gamification because:

1) It’s fun (it’s a game).
2) It involves learning through hands on activities.
3) It’s score based (so it has a bit of a competitive element).

But here’s the part that really made my eyes pop out of my head: by playing this game you are actually advancing science. Woah.

The game is called foldit. Have you heard of it?

The purpose of the game is to interactively move around protein molecules into a configuration that puts them in their lowest energy state. The lower the energy of your molecule, the higher your score in the game. Molecules in real life will tend to exist in their lowest energy state. Once scientists figure out the shapes of the bad proteins that are involved in diseases, they can create other proteins to combat the bad ones!

foldit Screenshot

The only problem is, proteins are really complicated. Devising a program that will systematically solve for all of the degrees of freedom in a really complicated protein would be extremely time consuming. The solution? Use people! People are great problem solvers. So, a bunch of scientists decided to set up a game where players can figure out the protein shapes just like a puzzle.

The craziest part of all: it actually worked. Recently, the people behind foldit released a journal article discussing how players of the game were able to discover the actual shape of a protein that causes AIDS in monkeys.

I think it might be neat to introduce this game in a biology class. Students could get a ‘hands on’ feel for hydrogen bonds, amino acids as building blocks, hydrophobic and hydrophilic portions of the molecule and how this all relates to the interactions with other parts of the molecule. The only issue I will say after spending some time with this game: it’s kind of hard. The intro puzzles would probably be useful to play within class and would generate some discussion, but working up to the really complicated puzzles might take a bit of time.

Here’s one that I’ve really caught on to: Moon Zoo. It’s not actually a competitive game, but it’s another one that relies on input from participants to advance science (cue Space Odyssey music). Basically, you are shown a bunch of zoomed in photos of the moon (taken by the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter) and you are asked to pick out craters (larger than a certain size) as well as other interesting features.

Moon Zoo Screenshot

This one might be neat to introduce to a science class after talking about the evolution of the solar system. By using the data from Moon Zoo, astronomers are going to get a really great picture of the moon’s history and age. A much better picture, it turns out, than if computers alone were used to pick out the features! It tickles me to my geeky core to think that I’m looking at a part of the moon – up close – that very few people have seen.

Oh, and it you’re really lucky you might get to spot a landing site, or one of the rocket stages from the Apollo missions that crashed on the moon.

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Learning Happens

This week I learned about the concept of gamification for learning. An idea that says: Hey, learning happens all the time in life so why not make it explicitly fun and meaningful?

I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t think it’s necessary to have learning activities always labelled as ‘learning activities’. If they’re fun to do and you happen to learn something from it, I can’t see a down side to that. Life, it seems to me, is just one giant unlabelled learning activity. Learning happens.

Life doesn’t come with warning labels. (Except this one, which I just made.)

learning warning

Where would you put it?


Google for Teachers

Did you know that Google’s informal motto is ‘Don’t be evil’?

Pretty amazing motto, right? As I’ve been learning more this week about the technology available out there to assist teachers in the classroom, I’ve been put onto some Google products that are incredibly useful to teachers. My conclusion: Google seems to be on the right track to maintaining that motto.

First of all, I started watching some helpful screencasts posted in iTunes that explain some specific Google products. The guy who made them is John Sowash and you can subscribe to his podcasts called Google Tools. They’re clear and very straightforward. I haven’t watched them all yet, but they’re super informative.

So, after I watched a couple of videos, I was ready to play with the tools.

The first one was iGoogle. With iGoogle, you can centralize everyday information like your calendar, the weather, some rss feeds that you require to start your day, your email, and your virtual hamster. I thought this might be handy for me, since, among other things, I want to follow a number of teacher and teacher candidate blogs.

So, here’s my iGoogle page:

iGoogle home page

As you can see, most of my iGoogle page is taken up with blogs that I want to follow. And, of course, I’ve got my hamster whom I’ve tentatively named Spartacus.

There are a ton more applications that can be added by clicking ‘Add Gadget’ on the top left. This centralization idea is fantastic because it saves you massive amounts of time. Instead of checking every single blog separately to see if they’ve posted something new, you can go to one place and have the new information come to you.

<Slightly tangential aside> As I was looking at iGoogle, I really wanted there to be a gadget that combines all of the blogs that fall into one category, so that there’s not an explosion of blogs all over your iGoogle home page. I couldn’t find a gadget like this available (if there is one, I would love to know). This led me to a free application called NetNewsWire (for Mac users) where you can group the blogs that you follow into categories. It generally just looks a little neater:


Anyway, I think I’m going to try both NetNewsWire and iGoogle and see which one I like better for following blogs. So far, the downfall with NetNewsWire: no hamsters. </Slightly tangential aside>

The next Google-related tool I wanted to use was the Custom Search. Let’s say you want to assign a research project to your class (example: a project on Spartacus), but you want to limit the number of sites that they can get their information from (example: you don’t want them accessing all the movie-related web pages). Well, you go to Google Custom Search and set up a new search engine!

Ideally, you would embed the search box into your class site or blog. Although not, apparently, if you are on WordPress (live and learn). Just for fun, here is a hypothetical search engine that I set up for a project on Spartacus.

One of the Google tools that I’m looking forward to playing more with is Google Docs. That one has some major implications in the classroom that I’m really interested to learn more about. It seems like there’s some serious room to get creative with Google Docs.

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The Joy of Discovery

In October 2008, I was fortunate enough to attend a conference at Cornell University put on by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society. It was a really informative conference on a beautiful campus and I had a really great time.

My absolute favourite part, however, didn’t involve any of the talks during the day, or the poster session, either; my favourite part of the conference was the guy introducing the public lecture. The introducer’s name: Bill Nye.

Yes, that Bill Nye.

Bill Nye (the Science Guy) is obviously big into science education. So am I. The things he said during his 15 minute introduction stayed with me. He spoke about his involvement with the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. He was part of a committee that chose the following message to be written on these rovers, among all the scientific instrumentation:

“To those who visit here, we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery.”

I got chills. I thought to myself, Yes! That’s what it’s all about: The joy of discovery. That’s what science education should be all about.

Bill wasn’t done:

“And I hope one of you one day will go up there and read it.”

More chills.

“When it comes to science, it’s got to be important to everyone” … “Science isn’t a thing. Science is something done by people. Science is an idea, a process that humans came up with to embrace and enjoy the joy of discovery.”

Critical chill capacity.

Don’t get me wrong, the speaker who followed Bill was fantastic; he was someone who very successfully brought astronomy and science to the public in an engaging way. But it was Bill that stayed with me. And now that I’m starting my journey to becoming a teacher, it’s something that I keep thinking about. “The Joy of Discovery”. In a nutshell, that’s what I want to bring to the table as a teacher.

So, thanks, Bill.

(Oh, and if you think that I left that lecture without snagging a picture with him, you clearly underestimate my love for the Science Guy.)

Bill Nye

By the way, the lecture (in its nearly-two-hour entirety) can be found here, posted by Cornell University. Bill’s part finishes up about 17 minutes into the video.