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Too Hot For USC

I was profiled for USC's Master of Arts in Teaching program last month. The interview covered my (short) professional bio, advice for new teachers, along with a question asking me how awesome I thought my own master's program was. I'm pretty sure they canned my interview off my qualified response to that last question but there were elements of the interview I liked (and haven't ever discussed at this blog, like my lifelong struggle with Restless Leg Syndrome) so I am posting it here.

USC: What and where do you teach?

DM: I teach high school math — a mix of Algebra, Geometry, and remedial math. I teach math to a lot of students who don't enjoy math.

USC: How long have you been teaching?

DM: I just finished my fifth year. The fifth year is much more fun than the first. There isn't any comparison, really.

USC: What inspired you to teach?

DM: I never wanted to teach. Now I'm a third-generation fourth-generation teacher. [Mom informs me my great-grandfather taught in a one-room schoolhouse. -dm] Both from a spirit of childhood rebellion and because I saw my dad work incredibly hard to support my family on a single teaching income, this job was never my ambition. I wanted to make movies but I was exceptionally untalented at filmmaking, a fact which various film school admissions boards also confirmed. In my final year of a mathematics degree, I interned in a pre-calculus classroom where I found myself exceptionally empathetic to the struggle of the learner and moderately gifted to resolve that struggle. Therefore, teaching. Because I wasn't terrible. Put that on a mug. Of course, I moaned for three years that my passions and abilities hadn't aligned. After my second year I made another unsuccessful leap at filmmaking. After my third year, my passions and my abilities aligned a little more, and it was hard, after my fourth year, to imagine doing anything but teach.

USC: What classroom methods are most helpful in pushing students towards their goals?

DM: I started using a digital projector in my third year teaching. In terms of methodology, nothing before or since has affected student achievement more. Runners up, however:

  1. I assign one homework problem per night. The longer I have taught, the less time I waste on discipline, which has made it easier to get enough done in class to let us take the evening off.
  2. I measure student achievement on a series of skill rankings, which are fluid and updated weekly. This has struck me as more accurate than a series of comprehensive unit exams.

But that's methodology. And functional methodology in a toxic classroom culture is a bullet train to nowhere. I have made a lot of intentional steps, then, to promote "curiosity" as a cultural value of my classes.

USC: What is the one thing you wish you'd known when you started in the classroom? (i.e. advice for new teachers).

DM: Your students will excavate with profound determination and speed every social anxiety you thought you buried. It will take them minutes to decide that you are insecure about your appearance. Do not wonder if they notice your post-adolescent pimple. They do. They will exploit these anxieties as often as you allow them to. Determine quickly what matters to you and rid your psyche of the rest. Interest yourself in your students as often and as genuinely as possible. Love this job. Love your students. I'm not kidding about that last one even though I'm positive my 21-year-old self would have scoffed at that kind of attachment. Take it from me, please: you do not want to be the teacher I was when I was 21.

USC: If you have a masters in education, what did your training teach you that was most helpful in preparing you to enjoy and thrive in a classroom today?

DM: I hold the teacher preparation program at UC Davis in high regard. My coordinator, Allan Bellman, selected a cohort of chatty, introspective educators who responded to their profound, daily incompetence by talking and talking and talking. And when we stopped talking, Bellman asked good questions that got us talking again.

The same school awarded me a master's degree, for which I now receive a modest yearly stipend from my school district. In terms of "enjoying and thriving in a classroom today" or even in terms of "students learning more from their teacher" that money is not well spent. I enjoyed the program. It taught me to think about my practice in more academic terms. But I thrived in my job and enjoyed it not even a little bit more after I finished the program. Find a good community of good teachers. Find them online if you must. Read blogs. Write a blog. Tweet, as a last resort.

I interviewed Alex Grodd, founder and CEO of BetterLesson, via e-mail and then in a follow-up by phone. I think my objections to BetterLesson's current trajectory are fairly transparent through these questions, though I'll make them explicit in my forthcoming site review. Objections aside, this was an extremely fascinating discussion with someone who has invested far more into the issue of teachers sharing with teachers (online) than anyone else I have met or read.

Dan Meyer: Think back to an effective lesson you taught as a classroom teacher, one which you would now upload to BetterLesson. What made it effective and what steps has BetterLesson taken to make that effectiveness obvious from its search listings, from the lesson pages themselves?

Alex Grodd: Most recently, I taught 6th grade English at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. Let me start by describing an effective 6th grade English lesson:

It would likely start with a silent grammar-based ‘do-now’ activity that was full of inside jokes about the students. It would then transition into interactive direct instruction, delivered via a Smart Board, that incorporated samples of previous student work, reality television clips, and PG-13 hip hop. This would be followed by a bizarre writing prompt and an even more bizarre model essay and then small group brainstorming and pre-writing sessions. The last 20 minutes would be consumed by the beautiful buzz of engaged writing and collaboration while I tutored students at the front of the room.

It’s difficult to say what makes a lesson like this "effective" — it could certainly be classified as student-centered, highly engaging, culturally relevant, and academically rigorous. It used diverse media and technology; it differentiated instruction, and appealed to different learning modalities. It also reflected my unique relationships with my students and my own personal character quirks.

One of the most important and difficult things we will do at BetterLesson will be to measure, identify, and promote “effective” content and effective teachers. In order to do this, we are currently iterating (and will likely continue to iterate in perpetuity) around the following questions:

What rubric should we use to rate “effective” content? Do we use some of the categories mentioned above (engagement, student-centricity, etc.)? How do we make these categories measurable? Should effectiveness be tied to student achievement data? What data should we use?

Given the diverse nature of the educators on our site, these aren’t easy questions around which to achieve consensus. But we are in the process of working with teachers across the country to begin to achieve some general consensus about what makes content “effective”. We have just begun promoting “Recommended Units” which are identified by an instructional advisory board as having strong pedagogical merit. And we promote popular content throughout the site using “Most Viewed” and “Most Downloaded” metrics to crowd-source “effectiveness.” Throughout our alpha process we experimented with different user-generated ratings systems (Thumbs up/down, 5 star systems, etc.) but haven’t yet found the right one for educators. As with everything in a beta process, we are aggressively seeking user feedback and this feedback will drive our decision-making process.

DM: As a classroom teacher, did you enjoy the lesson planning process? If so, how have you designed the lesson planning process within BetterLesson to reflect that fun?

AG: I enjoyed the creative/artistic elements infused in the process — in particular, I enjoyed designing writing prompts and creating strange/entertaining model essays for my students — but overall, I felt the time and energy that I was spending on the process each night was making it increasingly difficult to effectively execute all of my other teaching responsibilities. For me, the greatest joy was not in the planning but in the execution of a highly effective lesson. These joys were unique and I currently miss them.

When designing the way lessons are created and organized on BetterLesson, our first goal was to create a platform where teachers could share their full curriculum the way that they actually teach it (as opposed to the decontextualized files and 'lesson plans' that you find on most sites). Our second goal was to create a core organizational framework (Course > Units > Lessons > Files and Materials) that was relatively universal across different pedagogical perspectives. We wanted to create a platform where teachers could use our mostly neutral canvass to exchange diverse pedagogical points of view. Again, we’re just getting started and this approach will continue to be driven by user feedback.

DM: One of my most effective classroom lessons was a video series called Graphing Stories, which was downloaded from my blog more often than any other lesson material I have posted since. I take this as evidence of some demand for multimedia teaching resources. Which file formats does BetterLesson support and what plans to do you have for expansion?

AG: Currently we support the most common file formats — Microsoft Office documents and images. Our multimedia support for movies and sound is nearly complete. Our goal, however, is to support the upload of all file formats (Smart Board files etc.), although a preview/online reading may not be available for some time.

DM: I have built a significant percentage of my curriculum around copyrighted material — TV shows, cartoons, movies, in particular. I am not a copyright lawyer but my understanding is that I can post an excerpt of a TV show to my blog, build lesson material around it, and fall within the boundaries of fair use. YouTube, understandably, isn't interested in that kind of legal parsing. Is BetterLesson? How would BetterLesson respond to a DMCA takedown notice on a teacher's lesson plan?

AG: As discussed above, we acutely recognize the importance of providing students with a highly engaging, multi-media/sensory instructional experience. As a result, we are committed to defending fair use. We will deal with any issues on an individual basis.

DM: From BetterLesson's about page: "Lesson creators should have their intellectual property protected and receive real recognition for their original works." What do you have in mind for that "real recognition"? Is it monetary? The only reputation ranking I can find on a lesson page is "number of views."

AG: Every successful social network/file sharing site has some viral metric that bestows recognition on a user (On YouTube, it’s views; On Facebook/MySpace/LinkedIn, it’s friends/connections; On Twitter, it’s followers; on Tumblr, it’s Tumblarity—an algorithm that incorporates many of these metrics). These metrics become a powerful source of status within the community, and users are often able to translate this status into modest (and sometimes immodest) celebrity, professional opportunity, and money. We are attempting to harness the power of these metrics to identify and reward innovative teachers and lesson artists. Right now, we display views and downloads prominently in our interface but we will continue to iterate on what metric(s) make most sense to provide teachers with some of the long-overdue recognition they deserve. In addition to these quantitative metrics, we also incorporate qualitative recognition via colleague comments and instructional coach feedback.

DM: As long as we're talking about money: does BetterLesson have a business model or plans for monetization?

AG: BetterLesson is exploring a "Freemium" business model that will allow us to charge for premium tools and services while keeping the core platform (currently released) free for teachers and schools. In the short term, our focus is on continuing to improve our platform and build our community.

DM: Here's Alexander Russo speaking for Scholastic: "Only the most motivated and Internet-savvy teachers go online looking for lessons. It still takes time for teachers to search for lessons, much less rate and share feedback about them." From the BetterLesson blog, you've seen a lot of enthusiasm from novice teachers still in teacher preparation programs. How will BetterLesson appeal to a demographic of good teachers who less inclined toward social networking?

AG: This is a great question. I think there are three things that we can do on our end:

  1. Continue to aggressively reach out to teachers that are not as inclined to using social networking websites, solicit their feedback, and incorporate their feedback into the interface.
  2. Continue to strive to make our interface as intuitive and user-friendly as possible.
  3. Continue to aggregate great content and great teachers on BetterLesson. I think that all teachers, regardless of Internet savvy, would be excited to quickly and easily find great lessons and connect with innovative teachers in their respective fields. If we can create this user experience, I think that we will provide a compelling incentive for them to make the leap into the wild world of social (or professional) networking.

DM: How will you know that BetterLesson has become successful? Has the BetterLesson team set goals for user registration, total uploads, total downloads, or for some other measure of success?

AG: Our goal is to continue to build the community and continue to increase the depth and breadth of high-quality instructional content. We are focused on continuing to improve our user experience and grow the number of committed users — those who return to the site frequently and stay for a while once they’re on it.

Nicholas Felton is a graphic designer working in New York City who, every year since 2005, has produced an annual report — everything from where he traveled to what he drank — using infographics which I'm pretty sure he stole from my math classes. His work inspired this blog's annual report contest, which you'll see again at the end of 2008. His annual report also inspired my classroom assignment, The Feltron Project. After struggling with my students to reproduce his accomplishment, I had several questions, which Felton was gracious enough to answer.

Dan Meyer: Can you describe your workflow, from (eg) a day's subway ride to its appearance as an infograph in your final report? What hardware and software shows up along the way?

Nicholas Felton: As I'm in front of my computer for most of the day, I use the mac's calendar application to keep track of all the day-to-day statistics. I arrive in the office, and immediately note anything of importance from the night before and the current morning. If I am away from the machine, or I am accumulating too many specific notes to keep track of, I will use the notepad in my mobile phone to write them down, or email them to myself. If I'm travelling, I tend to use my sketchbook to keep tabs on everything, which I will later enter into the calendar. For more infrequent activities, I also keep running lists in excel or on backpackit.com.

Throughout 2007, I also kept monthly maps of Brooklyn and Manhattan on which I traced the streets I walked each day.

DM: How much math goes into the final product? My best guess, for the record, is that you use Excel to turn (eg.) pie chart percentages into degrees and then pull that information into InDesign or Illustrator.

NF: A lot, a lot, a lot of adding. A lot of dividing by 365. A lot of multiplying by 360.

Nearly everything goes through a spreadsheet before it goes into the report, but none of the math is terribly complicated…. mostly calculating percents and angles (I should use excel, but I do this with a calculator). I have used an online tool that will output the diameter and radius of a circle if you provide the area, which has proved useful, but I don't believe I've applied it to my annual reports.

DM: My students were somewhat shocked you spend only 20.6 minutes per day (as reported in your 2007 Annual Report) recording these piles of data. What corners have you cut to save time?

NF: Actually, that measurement was 20.6 measurements each day in 2007. I don't know what it's corollary in minutes would be, but certainly less than 20. My best guess is that I only spent between 5 and 10 minutes a day on notation. But 2007 was the most complex year of datalogging thus far, and I ultimately found that I had too much… which bogged down the tabulation and design process. This year I've decided to refocus my data collecting in a way that only requires a couple minutes on most days, but occasionally gets much much more complicated.

DM: How much of your final report comprises data you have PASSIVELY collected, data generated from last.fm's music service, for example? What other sources do you use?

NF: Unfortunately, not enough data comes from passive sources yet… probably less than 10% of last year's report was captured in that way. As you mention, last.fm keeps tabs on all my listening through itunes and my ipod. I let netflix keep track of the movies I rent, and flickr tracks how many people have viewed my photos. I have also purchased weather records for New York City, which I augment with out of town records for the last 2 years in order to help determine my average temperature as well as the maximum and minimum.

DM: My students didn't have much trouble making infographs but the designs didn't stray much beyond Microsoft templates. What essential advice would you give a high school freshman for creating a compelling design?

NF: Reduce, reduce, reduce. I find that you can eliminate nearly all the elements that Microsoft wants to include in a graph with considered editing and placement. In most cases, I can get away with eliminating a key or an entire axis altogether.

DM: My students are quick to accuse anyone of your dedication of having "no life" or "too much time on his hands." Aside from the obvious intrinsic value you get from this project, do your reports benefit you tangibly? What do you get out of this?

NF: For the record, I prefer to consider myself curious or inquisitive, rather than the victim of dull circumstances. The truth is that the more I do, the more interesting I find the reports to be. Like everyone, I tend to be a creature of habit, so it's the outliers of activity that interest me. I am indebted to the project for a host of benefits. Without the report, I wouldn't have a very good reason for counting how many coffees I drank in a year, which truly intrigues me. The additional acclaim the report has received is terrific and has helped me forge a name for myself in a crowded field of talented graphic designers, leading to more commissions, as well as a refocussed dedication to continuing the project.

DM: Can you preview any new statistics you're tracking for your 2009 Annual Report?

NF: I'd rather surprise you in January…

[photo by Ellen Warfield]