I Really LOVE These Math Tools, But…..

While the meat and potatoes of my recent ISTE session dealt with classroom use of the Desmos graphing calculator, a number of conversations with attendees after the session, both in person and via e-mail, moved in a different direction.  Specifically, the teachers I spoke with want to know where free apps fit in a handheld graphing calculator world?.  Some Q&A here….I’m hoping other will share their experiences and ideas.

Q: I’m not a 1-1 school.  How does this fit in my school?

Even though I work (and live) in a “nice” suburban district with decent financial support, I struggle to get technology working in my classroom.  A teacher across the hall from me has a cart, but the laptops there are slower than Cecil turtle and generally the educational payoff is not worth the technology aggravation.  We have a few computer labs available to use, but a lab scenario is often not what I am seeking for in my lessons.

cell phone

But all of my students have cell phones, and by the end of the first week with me we have used them a number of ways to explore and communicate.  Desmos works remarkably well on a cell phone, kids pick it up immediately, and many have it on throughout class time to use.  While the app is nice, our wifi is quite good so we prefer using the web version. For stats class, Stat Key was a welcome online addition, and allowed for many class investigations.

Q: But don’t your kids end up texting in class?

Yep, kids are generally weasels, when provided the opportunity.  But I recall my own 8th grade math class, where I passed notes constantly.  I’m relieved that none of my teachers told me I had lost paper and pencil privledges over my middle-school note-transit system.

I’m constantly reviewing my classroom management style, and make revisions based on readings and discussions.  I’m confident that handheld devices aren’t going anyplace soon, so I have two options: utilize the technology or bury my head deeper in the sand.  Sure, there are moments where I resort to silly tactics to focus my high schoolers – cell phones face down, corner of the desk, or away altogether.  But making sure students understand responsible use of technology should be build into our classroom mission; I’ll do my part to prepare them for these eventualities.

Q: Do you mandate your students purchase graphing calculators?

This question has many tentacles for me.  I teach honors freshmen, so my suggestion has usually been to consider purchasing a device, learn how to use it well in our courses, and this will put them in a good place for AP Calculus.  Also, I teach AP Statistics, where a graphing calculator is an indispensible tool and I do expect them to have one. (Yes, there are some great individual sites and apps for statistics. But the TI products are still ideal for what we do in AP Stats).  I also have a class set of Nspires, which helps with our non-AP students.

So, the short answer here is a conditional “yes”, but it is becoming much more difficult for me to stand in front of parents at Back to School night and justify the purchase, especially after I discuss the many tools we use in my class.  I also understand that while I am comfortable with many new, free tools, many of my colleagues are not.  I need to consider where I reside in my department’s tech eco-system.

I’m expecting that my answer to this question will shift to a definitive “no” in the next few years.  Until then, some creative solutions, like graphing calculator loan-out programs, may be a way to go.

Q: What about standardized tests?

In AP Stats, students are expected to bring a device to use to the exam, and know how to use it.  So, there is responsibility on my end to ensure that my students have meaningful problems and practice.  There has been chatter of AP eventually moving to an online administration, but I didn’t hear anything concrete about this at last month’s AP reading.  SAT and ACT exams still expect students to bring their own approved calculator devices.  With many of the recent bad press there has been over exam exposure and cheating, I have trouble seeing a scenario anytime soon where any communication devices would be allowed.  Put another notch in the “I still need my students to have a graphing calculator” column.

But if you take a look at some online versions of state and national assessments, you’ll see students provided tools within the test.  And there are some exciting things happening regarding ipads and other non-traditional devices. Texas recently approved the Desmos test-mode app for use on state assessments, where the first attempts at implentation occured recently. Cathy Yenca chronicles her experiences with this on her blog, and you can read more about implentation issues on the Hooked on Innovation blog.

It’s an exciting time to be a math teacher, but also one where some technology growing pains will occur.  Looking forward to hearing what other schools and districts are thinking.

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