The Best App for Your Teaching is Already on Your Smartphone

tl;dr – It’s the camera. And using it thoughtfully can change your teaching in substantial ways.

I spent most of the fall in eighth grade classrooms, watching lots of teachers enact the same set of Desmos lessons in different ways and in different contexts and with different results.

Some classes were high energy, some were low energy.

Some classes seemed to learn a lot, others learned less.

There are lots of important explanations for those differences, of course, many of which have nothing to do with the teachers or students themselves. But it was also interesting to sit in some high energy, high learning classes and palpably feel that these teachers are really, really curious about their students. Curious about them personally, sure, but curious about their thinking in particular.

Students feel that curiosity – “My teacher wants to know what I’m thinking about.” – and I find it easy to attribute some significant amount of those classes’ high energy and high learning to that feeling.

Teachers expressed that curiosity using the snapshotting tool when students recorded their thinking in Desmos. When students recorded their thinking on paper, teachers expressed their curiosity with their cameraphones, taking photos of student work and projecting them up on the board.

You see this on Twitter all the time! Curious teachers share diverse student thinking with other curious teachers.

And that practice creates no fewer than twelve virtuous cycles, a few of which I can quickly describe:

  1. When teachers express curiosity about diverse student thinking, students feel that and feel license to express even more diverse kinds of thinking.
  2. The more perspectives on an idea a teacher can help students connect, the more students learn about that idea.
  3. That all feels great so the teacher becomes more curious about student thinking and consequently re-evaluates her curriculum and instruction to emphasize tasks and pedagogy that are more likely to elicit diverse thinking.
  4. The teacher becomes interested in learning more mathematics because the more math you know, the more you’re able to identify and connect diverse student thinking when you see it.

Run that cycle for a few months and you have a different class.

Run that cycle for a few years and you have a different teacher.

Run that cycle across a department and you have a different school.

It starts with your cameraphone.

BTW. If your students’ diverse thinking currently fills you with more anxiety than curiosity, I encourage you “act your way into belief” instead of the reverse. Take two minutes at the end of class to share “My Favorite Whoa,” a photo of student thinking during the day you thought was so interesting and why you thought it was interesting. That’s low commitment with a lot of upside.

BTW. If you already use your cameraphone to express curiosity about student thinking, head to the comments and let us know how you do that. Your colleagues want to know your workflow.

Featured Comments

Daniel Peter uses whiteboards:

Need to be able to put up multiple solutions at the same time so the teacher can use questions to help students create explicit connects between the solutions: similarities/differences, aha (unique, elegant, just plain interesting) and help students make connects to the underlying properties, principles of mathematics. The advantage of paper/vertical whiteboards (or old school individual slates) is I can create the congress or bansho to make those connections explicit through the organization.

Several people use Reflector. Here’s Gretchen Muller:

It turns my phone into a portable document camera. Multiple devices can be shown at a time so I can do compare and contrast between different pieces of work at the same time. I now use it in my work with educators. The first question I always get is “How did you do that?”. I use it both as a live camera so that students can explain from their desk or still pictures from my phone and iPad when I want to compare.

Allison Krasnow describes students using their cameraphones to take pictures of student work:

I received three texts (I use remind.com) this evening with students sending photos of their homework showing where they got confused and asking for help. Them texting me photos of their homework when they are stuck and at home with no one to help them is incredibly powerful.

About 
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.

19 Comments

  1. Reply

    Featured Comment

    Need to be able to put up multiple solutions at the same time so the teacher can use questions to help students create explicit connects between the solutions: similarities/differences, aha (unique, elegant, just plain interesting) and help students make connects to the underlying properties, principles of mathematics. The advantage of paper/vertical whiteboards (or old school individual slates) is I can create the congress or bansho to make those connections explicit through the organization.
  2. Reply

    This is an awesome idea that can serve to show that all the steps in the process of thinking about math are valuable! It also opens a door for a conversation about digital citizenship.

    Featured Comment

    Before employing the strategy you described, perhaps the teacher could say something like, “In this class, we value curiosity. I’m going to be documenting your thinking by taking pictures and sharing them with [whoever the audience will be]. If you would prefer for me to not take your picture, just let me know and I will honor your request.”

    I remember the first time I learned that a student had taken a video of a teacher without her knowledge and posted it to YouTube. As one might expect, the teacher was not at the top of her game in that moment and would not have agreed to be filmed if the kid had asked. The other adults and I were horrified. But, as I thought about it… we sometimes model that behavior for kids by not asking their consent before we record them and post the picture or video for a wider audience to see.

    • The power relationship between students and teacher feels like it tilts one way all the time. I really like how your suggestion rebalances that relationship.

  3. Nickolas Corley

    January 15, 2019 - 8:04 am -
    Reply

    Just wanted to comment that recently the phone has been a power tool in my classroom in another way. I allow students to use their camera to take pic of our math in the classroom. This has allowed my students to be more active in the conversations going on in the classroom, and not worry about COPYING unique problems or notes.

  4. Gretchen Muller

    January 15, 2019 - 8:25 am -
    Reply

    I use a program called Reflector that’s installed on my laptop. It turns my phone into a portable document camera. Multiple devices can be shown at a time so I can do compare and contrast between different pieces of work at the same time. I now use it in my work with educators. The first question I always get is “How did you do that?”. I use it both as a live camera so that students can explain from their desk or still pictures from my phone and iPad when I want to compare. It’s been great when I want to share a more reluctant student’s work when they don’t want to go up in front of the class. The student knows I am honoring their thinking without putting them on the spot. https://www.airsquirrels.com/reflector

  5. Reply

    I use a document scanning app to take pics of student homework/quizzes (I like CamScanner — but any scanning app will increase contrast and correct parallax so things are more legible when projected). I pull out (anonymized) surprising answers, or answers that might not work for the given purpose but show insight into a different question, and project them next day. My favourite discussion prompt is “why might a reasonable student think this.” (aka, ask students, “What is ‘whoa’ about this *to you*?”

    Or save them for later and use them to introduce a lesson on that topic.

    Student thinking that seems like a misconception makes me a lot less anxious now than it used to. I mostly owe that to Brian Frank — see especially Why I’m Going to Brag About Student Misconceptions (about the research on student misconceptions), A Misconception Is Just An Insight Without a Productive Place to Go, and Collateral Damage (about why students who think that mass affects speed of gravitational fall are more right than we give them credit for).

    If we’re brave, the extension problem is to concern ourselves with teachers’ misconceptions… including possibly the assumption that student misconceptions are bad (see Brian again on Me Learning To Examine the Pedagogical Thinking of Future Physics Teachers). How can we get curious about our colleagues’ thinking — where it comes from, what insights it offers, what questions it answers even when we disagree? Can we get as curious about our own assumptions about teaching, as we hope our students will get about their assumptions about math?

  6. Reply

    I haven’t used it in my classroom, yet, but you can snap photos with your cell phone and instantly upload them to a google slides that are being presented! Now to figure out how to use this with smart notebook, or figure out a way to abandon smart notebook altogether…

    • This sounds really interesting, Melissa. I can’t seem to find information on how to do it though! Any links?

  7. Reply

    This is a great post for so many reasons. My favorite being that teachers need to never stop learning. If we want our students to be curious we should as well. Twitter is an amazing tool to connect and grow with so many amazing educators.

  8. Reply

    I am going to use the iPad and Apple TV this year to share different ideas with my class. I love the idea of being curious about student thinking and how it breeds ideas. I think this is my strength in teaching but would not have been able to articulate it. Now need to work out how to share more than one idea at once. Always learning new things at whatever age.

  9. Reply

    I LOVE Gretchen’s suggestion of using the reflector app. I have used this in the past to model something on my ipad or iphone to a large group at a PD, but never thought to use it as a portable document camera. Going to play with that in class this week. This post is so powerful in its simplicity. So much yes from me. I often use my camera when students do work on vertical white boards. I find that it’s hard for me to manage the class effectively with a gallery walk, so I take photos and quickly email them to myself to put into slides so we can discuss as a class. Also very useful when students in 1 period don’t finish but I want to archive their work to discuss tomorrow since the next class period will need to erase their work.

    Featured Comment

    Finally…there’s equally as much power in KIDS using their own cameras. I received 3 texts (I use remind.com) this evening with students sending photos of their homework showing where they got confused and asking for help. Them texting me photos of their homework when they are stuck and at home with no one to help them is incredibly powerful.
    • I teach math and PE and use the Reflector App to display HR data. Super easy to use and would recommend it to any teacher. Our school is 1:1 and also lets students cast their display to my computer so I can see what they are doing or share with the whole class.

  10. Reply

    I am looking forward to trying some of these ideas. My students use their cameras in two different ways – first, a lot like to do their work with dry-erase markers on their desks and take pictures of their work. I’ve also encouraged students to follow along during what is typically a note-taking portion of class and take a picture of the end result.

    Anyone using digital portfolios where students can store their photos? If so, please share how.

  11. Reply

    Love hearing how y’all have students use their cameras in and out of class.

    I added several of your comments to the main post to help teachers figure out how to manage the tech workflow here.

  12. Reply

    I like hearing about this idea being used in tandem with reflector! Does anyone have more specific details on how reflector 3 works and what successes you’ve had in the classroom? I LOVE the concept of being able to use my phone’s camera to instantly project student work on my projector via my computer.

  13. Reply

    Featured Comment

    This post spoke to me because you and I seemed to speak in person about this very topic. Yes, snapping photos with my phone is essential to enacting the 5 practices. Specifically: selecting student work, uploading it to google drive in a specific sequence, which is essential to orchestrating important discussions.

    Kids get excited when I ask to take a picture of their work because they know everyone will see it.

    If it’s an especially visual idea, and the person is a bit introverted/shy, I’ll say “this person showed their thinking so clearly, I bet you know what was going on in their head just by looking at their work.”

    Of course it also saves me the work of writing up their work if they are explaining it verbally and when they see it’s their peers work their attention immediately perks up and increases.

    This also shows them that Mr Joyce is not the only person in this room that understands this and if my peers can do it, I think it helps them have the authentic beliefs that they can do it too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *