Jun 18

Testing “Tips and Tricks”

I love reading McSweeney’s. I especially enjoy the “Ruminations from the Test Prep Industry” series.

Read this particular article, and replace “SAT” and “ACT” with “SOL” instead.

The article makes me ask the following:

Should we be spending so much time reviewing and preparing for the test and teaching “tips and tricks,” or should we be spending time creating engaging, relevant, and interesting lessons in the first place?

And my answer is similar to how the author would respond:

Yes, students benefit from practice with the SOL format and learning “test taking strategies,” but the best way to prepare them for the test is not to focus on the test. Let the focus of your classroom be your course curriculum and content skills.

And if your answer is similar to mine, the next obvious question is…

So why do we spend 6+ weeks out of the school year (17%) devoted to “tips and tricks” and test prep rather than the important stuff (you know, real learning)?

Jun 17


I’ve always wanted to make a “real” GIF, but I just haven’t set aside the time to learn the process. In classrooms, I’ve used a number of online GIF creators where the user simply chooses the images to include and decides upon the frame rate, but I’ve found that these tools are fairly limited. These tools often have layer limits and they don’t always offer options to cut frames from a video source. So in the interest of learning something new this morning, I watched this short tutorial on GIF creation using Photoshop Elements.

We’ve had a number of “technical difficulties” with email, Schoolspace, and other online services this year, and in these cases I often get emails asking about the cause of the issue. In the majority of these cases, I have no idea about the root cause. So in the interest of adding a little levity to these situations, here’s the GIF I created…

 “Sorry for the inconvenience, but (insert technical service here) has been attacked by dragons and will be down until further notice. Technology is aware of the issue and is currently enlisting all able bodied men and women for a counterattack. 


A couple thoughts/questions for those of you who are GIF masters:

  • In order to get the frames I wanted, I just paused and unpaused the video as quickly as I could and then copied the new frame. Is there a better way to do this?
  • I had some trouble with saving the final version of the GIF, as it was initially “too large to publish.”  Ultimately, I narrowed the GIF down to 15 frames, decreased the PPI to 72, and cropped the image substantially.  Are there any other settings that I could play around with in order to make smaller GIFs?

Jun 12

Layout for That!

Here are some associative trails…

This morning, I read through some of the ThoughtVectors archives. While I was reading, I stumbled across two different posts (by Eric Johnson and Alan Levine) in which the authors described their thinking as a state of “flow.” This made me think back to my own post on the topic, and how I generally achieve flow while doing something athletic. As my mind is apt to do, it started wandering in the direction of ultimate frisbee, and that’s when I started thinking about the following:

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of ultimate frisbee plays on Sportcenter’s Top 10. Before ultimate started being showcased more frequently, I never really cared too much for the Top 10 segment of Sportscenter at this time of the year, mainly because the highlights are always bogged down with boring baseball plays. Yes, home runs are neat and take a ton of athletic skill, but these and many other baseball plays are not the visual spectacle that I hope for when watching Sportcenter’s flagship segment.

This does not mean that I don’t appreciate any baseball plays. I can watch wholesale “layouts” (body parallel with the ground, as opposed to “falling catches“) all day long. I remembered a Top 10 from a week or so ago that contained ultimate and baseball layouts back to back. This made me return to a question that I’ve always had since I started playing ultimate in college…

“How much harder is it to layout and catch a baseball than it is to layout and catch a frisbee?”

Layouts in ultimate frisbee are frequent and very often are wholesale bids, whereas wholesale bids in baseball are not nearly as frequent. I understand the two sports are different (and the physics of the games are different as well), and I’ve always assumed that layouts occur more frequently in ultimate because you have a lot more time to react to a floating frisbee than you do a falling baseball.

In the spirit of #thoughtvecotrs, I wanted to investigate the issue and find out once and for all.


I know my methods are not perfectly accurate and there is a lot of “fuzzy math” here. This methodology ignores many of the the physics specific to baseball and frisbee, but I wanted something I could calculate relatively quickly to get a general sense of which layout is more difficult and how much more so. I also thought this scenario might make an interesting application lesson for 6th or 7th grade math.

That said, I decided to find a video of each type of play and calculate the rate of movement of the frisbee or ball during the play. To do this, I’ll use the basic formula, Distance = Rate*Time. After calculating the rate or speed of each object in the video, I can then calculate the amount of time the object would need before it hits the ground on the play in question. Then I can compare the calculations between the two sports to determine which athlete had more time in order to make the play.

We’ll start with ultimate:


  • Distance: It looks like the thrower throws the disc around the thirty four yard line. The catch is made around the two yard line. That’s a total of 32 yards, or 96 feet.
  • Time: The disc is in the air for about 2 seconds. I know this is not perfect, and leaving out fractions of seconds will effect the calculations, but again, I just want to get an overall sense of the difference between the two plays.


Distance = Rate*Time

96 ft = r * 2s

r = 48 ft/s

If we say the disc would have traveled another 3 yards (9ft) on the plane of the field before hitting the ground then…

9 Ft = 48ft/sec * t

t =.187 sec

the catcher had .187 additional seconds before the frisbee hit the ground in order to catch up to the disc and make a play.



  • Distance: The fielder appears to make the play about 5 feet from the warning track (which is ~15 feet long). The fielder appears to make the catch halfwayish between the 404ft and 370ft markings on the field wall (so we’ll say 387 ft). Given that information, the ball travels 367 feet.
  • Time: About 4 seconds from contact to catch.


Distance = Rate*Time

367ft = r * 4s

r = 91.75 ft/s

If we say the ball would have traveled another 2 feet on the plane of the field before it hit the ground then…

2ft = 91.75 ft/s * t

t = .022 seconds

the fielder had .022 additional seconds before the ball hit the ground in order to make a play on it.


The Ultimate player has nearly NINE times more time to get his body in a position that would allow him to make the catch.

Even though baseball layouts may be harder, they’re a lot less beautiful:

Jun 10

Nugget # 1 – As We May Think

“Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.

Something about phrase “record of ideas” triggered my inner history teacher. As soon as I read this quote I couldn’t help but analyze the “As We May Think” essay from this particular perspective. There were a number of quotes within the essay that could easily be applied to technology’s role in preserving, teaching, and learning history. This one in particular stood out to me:

“Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.”

It almost sounds like Dr. Vannevar Bush predicted the future.


I can’t count the number of classroom lessons and personal investigations that have started on Wikipedia. And yet, instead of using this resource to its fullest potential and teaching our students to do the same, we frequently ignore it completely or tell students point blank not to use it. That’s why I made this tutorial for students several years ago, and try to model Wikipedia best practices when I’m in the classroom. Granted, these particular skills may not help our students pass the SOLs, but hopefully they will allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience.”


Jun 10

What does it feel like when I think?

This is my first post for the “Thought Vectors” class at VCU this summer. I may not be able to complete every assignment, but I’m going to try to keep up when I can!


My best thinking has always come when I’m oblivious to the world around me. I realized this about myself early in adolescence when I started reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time fantasy series. I immediately related to the characters in this book that used a concentration technique known as “The Flame and the Void.” As I grew older and began to participate in more and more athletic activities, I began to identify this state as “flow” or “being in the zone.

This particular quote from the video stands out to me:

“You become oblivious to what is going on…you don’t think about your surroundings or what’s going on with the crowd or the team… You have to really try to stay in the present, and not let anything break that rhythm.”

This is what thinking feels like to me. Thinking feels like nothing. I don’t feel it. I don’t “see” it. If I try to go “looking for it” to examine my thought process, the rhythm breaks and what I’m looking for slips from my mind entirely.

I most often reach this state when I’m doing something athletic (Biking, running, playing ultimate, or playing disc golf). While participating in these activities, with my surroundings and emotions pushed from my mind, I begin to make connections between ideas and items in ways that never would have occurred to me had I purposefully tried to think of them.

I can sometimes achieve this state without being physically active, but being “in the zone” generally requires that I feel a sense of competition. Without competition, my thoughts wander. Competition requires me to concentrate fully on the task at hand. This “competition” does not necessary have to involve beating other people, it can be completely self-imposed. As long as I am doing something I care about deeply and want to do to the best of my abilities, I can find “the zone.”

Interestingly enough, I feel as if I achieved “flow” while writing this post. And while being in this state I made the following connections/realizations that I have never really thought about in these terms before:

  • I think one of the main reasons I miss the classroom nowadays is because there are less opportunities to achieve “flow.” In the classroom, there were distractions, but these distractions could be minimized with proper management and lesson planning. A large number of the distractions were within my control. Distractions in my position now not so easily minimized. Granted, I could turn off my walkie and my email (and do on occasion – when I’m in the classroom), but if I did so completely, I’d be ignoring parts of my job.
  • I most often often achieve “flow” at work nowadays when lesson planning with teachers. Part of that is because I care deeply about teaching, but I’m sure the the added “competitive” elements of Henrico 21 help as well.
  • I lose many of my best ideas because when I’m working out at the gym, on my bike, or at the golf course, I don’t have paper handy to write down items. And, when I do have paper nearby, I often end up with gross, sweaty, nearly illegible notes. Therefore, I’m going to try to set up a voice memo recording system for myself. I just looked into a system where I can call my voicemail, record a note for myself, and receive it in my email inbox, but that’s not working as intended currently… I can send myself texts, but the voice option is not working. Need to keep tinkering I guess.




May 20

Visualizing US Census Data

In my digital travels yesterday I came across Census Reporter, an interesting tool that visually displays US Census data. The user can view census data by state, city, county, or even zip code. The tool displays data on a variety of topics, including income, household value, education, and race. Here’s a sample of what this data looks like for the state of Virginia.


Visual Display of Demographics for Virginia

The site also allows the user to search for specific data sets and compare and contrast a variety of locations in table or map form:

Census Tool - Compare

Poverty in Maryland vs. Virginia: Table View

Census Tool - Compare Map

Poverty in Maryland vs. Virginia: Map View

I see a ton of value in this tool for both social studies and math classes. Here are just a couple ideas that I had immediately after exploring the tool:

  • Earlier this year, World History teachers at Moody completed a unit on Rome in which they discussed the idea of the “haves and the have nots.” This tool could allow students to search for patterns of “haves and have nots” within the United States.
  • For Algebra 1, students could select 10 different counties in Virginia. Students could document the high school graduation rates of these counties and then discuss which census statistics might have a correlation with graduation rates. Based on this discussion, students could create an Excel spreadsheet with the information of their choosing and then use the graphing tools of Excel to see which census stat has the strongest correlation. As an extension to this activity, the teacher could provide students with a county or city that the students did not research and see if the students could use the census data to accurately predict its graduation rate.

I know there are many more lessons just waiting to use this tool. When you think of something you’d like to do with this tool, just let me know how I can help!

May 09

Magic: The Gathering and Vocabulary Acquisition

This post is long and does relate to education, but if you don’t care about why I started thinking about this whole idea, skip to the section entitled “Classroom Application” at the end of the post. However, the tools and process described in the first part of this post may help to provide you and/or your students with resources for the assignments described at the end of the post.

Hobbies and Literacy:

The other day my friend sent me a link to an interesting infographic that shows the depth of vocabulary for various rap artists. The methodology used to create this infographic was to count the number of unique words within the artist’s first 35,000 lyrics.

Rap Infographic

Click for Interactive and Full Size Version

The infographic and the accompanying analysis were quite interesting and made me start thinking about how hobbies can help to expand an individual’s vocabulary. I have played Magic: The Gathering since 1995. I was introduced to the game by my middle school friends and we played the game religiously. We played in study hall, at lunch, during after school meetings for clubs, and in between our tennis matches. We played so much Magic in school that we were probably the reason that Magic and other trading card games were banned by the administration. Magic is still a hobby of mine, and I often tell people that I believe it had a significant positive impact on my development as a reader and writer. The fact that the cards are used to play a competitive game made me read the rules text of each card critically and for complete comprehension. More importantly, I believe the game had a huge impact on my vocabulary. People always laugh when I say this, so I’ve always wondered if there was some sort of “proof” to back this up.


I wanted to replicate the methodology used within the rap analysis (as closely as possible) so I could compare Magic’s data with the various rappers. I copy and pasted the the spoiler for several sets of cards (Alpha-Homelands) into Textalyser in order to get relatively close to 35,000 words. For those not familiar with Magic, here’s a sample spoiler (for the Alpha set). Each card contains a name, rules text (to tell you the effect that the card has on the game), flavor text (to tell you the story of the Magic world), the card “type” (spell, creature, etc.), casting cost, and the artist of the card’s artwork.

Before looking at the results, I believe there are are several problems with this methodology. These spoilers have some words that are not actually located on the physical cards themselves – the name of the set and the rarity. Also, the name of the artist really wouldn’t have a huge impact on a person’s vocabulary acquisition, and there are a large number of different artists for Magic cards. Therefore, these names could inflate the number “unique words” in the following graphic. That said, here are the results:

MTG Text Analysis (Alpha - Homelands)

Several things stand out to me here:

  • The unique word-count is at the high-end of the spectrum for the rap infographic. (However this unique word count could be artificially inflated as discussed above).
  • The readability score for these Magic cards is 5.5, while the recommended age for the game is 13+. The readability score is probably not as accurate as possible due to the fact that there are many phrases (artist name, card title, etc.) along with complete sentences in this analysis, but this score is still interesting. Based solely on readability, Magic could be geared towards younger players. However, 13 is probably appropriate age for the game given some of its artwork, themes, and the complexity of the game’s rules.
  • The average word in the English language is around 5 letters and 1.6 syllables, so Magic appears to be above average in terms of word length.

Based on the limitations discussed above, I wanted to try one more test. Although I feel like the rules text of the cards definitely helped with my reading comprehension and critical reading skills, I don’t think it helped my vocabulary as much as the card titles did. You can often use the card’s rules, flavor text, and especially the artwork to develop context clues and understand new vocabulary within a card’s title. So in this second test, I uploaded just the names of all Magic cards (from core and expansion sets) to Textalyser.

MTG Text Anal (Card Names Only) 1Looking solely at card titles, Magic goes WAY above any of the rappers included on the infographic. Now, that may have something to do with the following…

MTG Text Anal (Card Names Only) 2

As you can see, the word “Phyrexian” is one of the most used words in the title of a Magic card, but it’s not an English language word (that I know of). I’m sure plenty of the “unique” words referenced in this analysis are words similar to “Phrexian.” These fantasy type words reference Magic’s story line, geography, people, etc., but are not necessarily English language words. However, I think the same could be said for rap lyrics. I have not listened to the majority of the artists listed in the original infographic so I’m not the best judge of this, however I would imagine that a number of these lyrics include words that are not necessarily found in an English dictionary.

Finally, the word length and syllables per word is still above average, even moreso than when the rules and flavor text are included in the analysis.

MTG Text Anal (Card Names Only) 3


MTG Text Anal (Card Names Only) 4

In conclusion, I don’t think it’s possible to “prove” one way or another that Magic improved my vocabulary as a child, but this data seems to suggest that it could have had a positive impact. Given that exposure to new vocabulary is so important for improving literacy, a game with so many unique words can’t be a bad thing!

This whole investigation left me with a couple questions:

  • I wonder how Magic compares to Pokemon or other trading card games.
  • I wonder what an analysis of the “Wheel of Time” fantasy series would show in terms of vocabulary. Along with Magic, I attribute this fantasy series with helping me become a stronger reader and writer.
  • What other games could be effective for improving literacy and vocabulary?


Applications for the Classroom:

I see a lot of potential for this type of analysis in an English classroom. You could use the resources and links discussed in my methodology as a hook/introduction for these lessons. Here are several possible ideas:

  • Have students develop a list of games that could be effective for improving literacy and vocabulary. Have students develop a process for analyzing these games. Students could look at readability, unique words, word length, etc.
  • Have students predict which musical artists have the biggest vocabulary. Develop a process for the whole class to use and have each student research an artist of their choice using that process. Students could compare the readability, unique words, word length, etc.
  • Have students develop a large list of books that they enjoy and believe could help students develop their vocabulary and reading abilities. After generating this list, assign each student 1 (or more) of these books to analyze using Textalyzer. You could assign these books based on who has electronic copies of each one (because students will need an electronic copy or a free version of a text online to complete this assignment). Then, create a Google Form to have students enter data for their book. Possible fields include readability, unique words, word length, etc. Provide students with this data and give them the following performance task:

“You are a reading specialist for Henrico County. Your job is to create a summer reading list for grades 6-8 (or 9-12). The goal of this summer reading is to encourage students to read books they find interesting while also improving their reading comprehension and vocabulary. Use the data from the class survey to recommend several books for each grade. In your explanation, include specific data to justify why you chose each of these books for various grade levels.” 

The students could even use charts and graphs to make their recommendations!


As much as I have enjoyed writing this post and coming up with these ideas, now I’m just sad because I don’t have any Magic tournaments on the calendar until July. 🙁


May 01

Hours of Engagement. Only 8-Bits

I think Mental Floss is trying to tell me something…

I read this article on how far Mario has to run in Super Mario Brothers a few weeks ago and bookmarked it with the following comments:

“This could be a great lesson starter for ratio, proportion, and estimation. Show your students an image of one of the Mario levels, ask the students to predict how far Mario would travel within that level, and then have the students create a process in order to answer the question. Students could then calculate the total distance Mario travels in the entire game. Reveal the article after students have made their calculations.”

Today I found this article…Jackpot!

Talk about hours of learning enjoyment after SOLs are over. This is a great addition to the above task. Ask students to devise a process for and calculate the following:

  • How far does Mario travel in this speedrun? 
  • Calculate the proportion of the game that this speedrun completes/leaves incomplete.
  • Based on the time it takes for this speedrun, what’s the fastest that you could beat Super Mario Brothers 3 if you completed EVERY level?

Here are the level maps you would need for this task, as this speedrun is for Super Mario Brothers 3, not the original.


So…who wants to save the Princess with me?

Apr 10

A History Lesson Plan “Template”

At the start of the school year, I remember talking to Tom Woodward about wanting to create a repository of “interesting history media and resources.” In this conversation, I remember Tom asking me if you could create a “template” for an effective history lesson, similar to what Dan Meyer has done for math with his “3 Act Mathematical Tasks Model.” It was an excellent question, and I struggled to put together a complete answer on the spot. My initial response was something to the effect of how in history we often present students with the information/content first and then have the students complete activities using that content afterwards. I believe the ideal “template” for a history lesson is to switch that approach. Provide students with activities first to build meaning and understanding, and then when we discuss those concepts, the students will have a better foundation from which to build upon. I truly believe in this approach to lesson planning, but overall, my answer felt lacking at the time. “Discovery learning” allows for richer, deeper, and more meaningful school experiences, but what if the students have no interest in the content to begin?

I’ve thought all year about this idea of a history lesson “template,” and yesterday I finally stumbled upon what my answer was missing: perplexity. In a talk that Dan Meyer gave at CUE in March, he discusses how his ed-tech mission statement is to “Capture, Share, and Resolve Perplexity.” The entire talk is excellent, and I would highly recommend it to any teacher looking to improve their craft and wondering what role ed-tech can play in their classroom or in their own professional development. However, I think the most important piece of Dan’s talk comes at the very end. Take a look:

Basically, Dan’s idea is to present students with a “perplexing problem” at the very beginning of class. As educators, we often talk about “hooks” and effective lesson introductions, but a “perplexing problem” is different. For example, here’s something I would consider a “hook” for teaching the “geographic regions” of  the US. Sure, the students will sing along and have fun, and it might engage them momentarily, but it doesn’t inspire any sort of curiosity. That does not mean I would not use this resource or others like it, just that I need to find something else to pique interest in the subject/concept at hand. To make students curious, I could simply provide students with this map (preferably without any labels or key – just the dividing lines) and this tool and ask them, “Why are these lines on the map drawn this way?”

This lesson plan “template” is possible in any content area. And, as Dan Meyer explains, this lesson structure does not involve specific ed-tech tools. Of course, sometimes there will be ed-tech tools to help us effectively solve these problems, but that’s not the most important part of the equation. What is most important is that we (teachers), the expert in our content areas, are finding interesting things that pique our interest, and that we believe will help our students become curious about our content and the world around them.

Here is Dan Meyer’s entire talk for anyone who is interested:

Apr 09

Black Out Poetry Ideas

Black Out Poetry

I’ve seen several English and social studies teachers use “Black Out Poetry” activities with good success in their classrooms this year. For those who have never implemented this activity, the basic idea is for students to create a unique piece of poetry from a previously existing text or document. The students find words or phrases within their text to include in their poem and then cross through, remove, or “black out” the words, phrases, and sentences that are unnecessary.

Seeing as it’s April now and SOL review is right around the corner, you could integrate this type of activity into your review plans. It could be interesting to give students a “theme” or essential question that encompasses your entire year of study. For example, US history teachers could ask, “What is the promise of America? Did America live up to that promise?” Then, assign each student or group of students a unit of study from your year. Depending on the time you have available and the abilities of your students, either provide your students with documents from that time period or have the students to locate a primary source to represent their assigned era. Once the students have these documents, they can create a black out poem from the document that summarizes the importance/legacy of that time period and addresses the essential question.

Another idea is to use black out poetry as a method for discussing bias, viewpoint, and historical perspective. Provide students with several different primary, secondary, and tertiary documents all relating to the same event and/or era (or have the students locate these documents on their own). Then, have the students use their document to create a black out poem that discusses the legacy of that event from the viewpoint of the document’s author. Students can then compare/contrast the final products and use them to discuss why there are varying interpretations of history.

This blog post has some excellent suggestions regarding a workflow for creating and sharing Black Our Poetry, including using the iPad app “Explain Everything” to create the product and then using a publishing app to combine the student’s poems. I love this idea. The touch screen features of the iPad make the tool ideal for Black Out Poetry, and students can use the iPad’s video recording features to record a reflection of their process and overall work. At Moody, we will have a class set of iPads next year for this type of activity, but for now, there are a couple other ways that you could complete this type of activity and have students combine and/or display their work in the way suggested by the article:

  • Have each primary source available in PDF form. Have the students use the “Cross Out” tool (Tools>Comment Markup) in Adobe Acrobat. Then, gather and combine all of the PDFs into one document. You could upload this document to Google Drive so that students could collaboratively comment on each other’s work.
  • Have the students use the Highlight feature of Microsoft Word (color=black) to mark up the documents and create their poems. Have the students screencast their process (using something like ActivInspire’s screen capture feature or a tool like Screencastomatic). The student could use video editing software to “speed up” this process for an interesting visual and then narrate over the video to describe their process and final product.

If this is something that interests you, please let me know. I’d be glad to help out!