Words and Pictures Add Up
By William Weber
For some educators, there comes an “aha moment” when they hit upon the signature style or unique approach that will define their teaching for years to come. High school math teacher and winner of a 2009 Cable’s Leaders in Learning Award Tony Alteparmakian says for him it was more of a “duh” than an “aha.
”This California native had been teaching for six or seven years, following the same educational pattern he’d learned from when he was a student, the “sage on a stage” model. Day after day, he would spend his class periods at the white- board writing out and explaining various equations and mathematical formulas. “By the end of the day I was wiped out, and by the end of the class period the kids were tired of listening to me,” he recalls.
Eventually, he began using a computer and projector, which allowed him to create PowerPoint slides, cutting down on the repetitive writing at the board. That also made it easier for him to create handouts for homework help. However, some equations required a lot of explaining, as many as 20 or more slides filled with words and figures. That took a lot of typing and time to prepare. And he wasn’t sure the effort was paying off.
“That was the worst,” he says. “When kids see a lot of text, they’re preprogrammed—they want to write. And they’re not paying attention to me because they’re writing, so I have to wait for them to finish writing and then they can listen … it was a big exercise in futility.
“I started asking myself, ‘why am I doing this if it’s not working?’ And the more I asked that, it changed the way I did things."
Around this time, in 2006, Alteparmakian transferred to his current school, Foothill High School in Bakersfield, and he started using a tablet PC with scribing software.
“That was a lot easier, because I would put up one formula at the top of the page and I could write and change my ink color as I wanted it. That actually saved some time for me, because I wasn’t typing as much.”
This led to his first “duh” moment. By chance one day, he saw a photo of the school’s parabolic-shaped gym building and something clicked. It was a real-world visual representation of one of the formulas he’d been scribbling for years.
“Nowadays, kids have other things to keep their attention and help them get through the boring times—cell phones, iPods. So it becomes sort of a battle. I realized that the less information I give to them—but if I just give them the right information—then it
really helps matters along. The trick is to try to ask the right questions or give them the right information so they take ownership of the problem. And that can happen with a really good picture and just asking the right question.”
So Alteparmakian started puzzling over where he could get more photos and perhaps some video clips to work into his classroom visuals. Or as he puts it, “Duh—where am I going to get this from? It was in front of me the whole time, and that’s cable. I’ve got really cool stuff happening on the different networks that will appeal to a lot of kids in a lot of different ways.”
He started watching and recording segments from cable programs and also scoured the Internet and YouTube for different photos and videos that incorporated or represented some aspect of math. Then he’d bring them to class, using them to illustrate his lessons. It became the inspiration for an approach he calls “Tell Me About It,” where he shows a math-related photo or short video and challenges the students to puzzle through the meaning, raise their own questions, and reach their own conclusions.
“Most textbooks and word problems may give a picture, but they’ll tell students exactly what to think about it or exactly the question they should be asking themselves. I think kids should be able to figure this out themselves,” he explains.
“That opened up a whole new era of teaching for me, where instead of that ‘sage on the stage’ I could be the ‘guide on the side,’ where you put something in front of the students and let it go and see how it turns out.”
Words with Pictures
His technique of using the tablet PC to write on-screen while he talked to his students and of using photos and video clips to drive his points home worked reasonably well to keep his kids’ attention and present them with real-world examples of math’s many abstract concepts. But Alteparmakian still felt something was missing from his teaching equation.
“I realized it gave me this false sense of security,” he says. “Sometimes we have technology and we think, ‘Ooh, this is great. I’m using technology in the classroom.’ But really, it’s not doing anything different than what we’ve had before. It’s just a different medium to do the same things.
Why Does Math Matter?
Having conquered the challenge of using technology and the Web to demonstrate how math works, Alteparmakian found himself listening to another question his students were asking—why do they need to learn this stuff in the first place?
“Again, it was one of those ‘duh’ moments—‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could have someone come in here and tell kids that math matters in their profession’,” he says. “It’s tough to get that to happen, to get a person to give up their day. So I thought maybe we can get that into a video.
“But I know nothing about getting out there and making things look nice, and I don’t have the right equipment. And I thought, ‘If only I had the right resource.’ Well… I’ve got my cable company—they’re always willing to help and never turn me down for anything.”
Alteparmakian approached his cable provider, Bright House Communications, with a proposal: help him make a series of educational videos about math in the workplace and let’s show them to anyone who wants to view them. Bright House responded by dedicating a cameraman, a truck, professional video equipment, editing expertise, and airtime.
“You couldn’t ask for any more help. They’ve given me everything I need,” says Alteparmakian.
“We’re going out to different sites and having people that work in different industries—law enforcement, construction, military—talk about how they use math. We’re going to go interview a banker and a construction worker who is also a small business owner. We did one on the California Highway Patrol.”
Alteparmakian expects to have eight videos ready for viewing by early fall to air locally on Bright House’s on-demand channel and to post on his website.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this is because we have these kids saying, ‘I want to go into law enforcement and I’ll never have to use math.’ The same thing goes for construction or oil fields, and you think to yourself, ‘Are you serious?’ Well, maybe they just don’t know. And they’re not going to go out and find out the answer themselves. So we’re bringing it to them.”
“I came to this revelation that, ‘I have this great tablet PC and all I’ve done is replace my whiteboard.’ And I felt kind-of dumb—‘I have this cool thing and I don’t know how to do anything great with it past what I already had before.’”
Pausing, Alteparmakian said, “I think that everything I’ve done, as it’s evolved, has been from me listening to students ask the questions. For example, when the kids say, ‘how am I supposed to do this at home when you’re not here to help?’, that prompted me to figure a way to provide ‘me’ at home or anywhere for the kids. And for a long time I was stumped.”
He knew that his PowerPoint slides plus the photos and videos made class more meaningful for his students and that his handouts helped them with homework. But he also knew these were no match for the complete package he delivered in class—the visuals, the equations, his writing, plus his own voice walking students through the process of calculation. The nagging question was how to make it that available to students outside of class.
“Then one day I saw an ‘S-video out’ connection on my computer,” he said. Duh!
“I figured if I could record the video, or if I can use this as an ‘out’ to get my audio and visual up onto the TV, then I could record it.” After some experimentation, Alteparmakian settled on a combination of tools. He uses his tablet PC and Microsoft PowerPoint to create slides and show the photos, videos, and his writing; Pinnacle Video Capture software to grab the video; plus a Mac with Garageband software to record his voice. He then synchs everything together using iMovie, allowing him to burn the lessons onto CD handouts or upload them to his classroom website, his blog, or on YouTube where he goes by the moniker Mister2pi.
Alteparmakian admits there was a steep learning curve at first, and that it does take time to create and upload his video lessons (up to an hour to teach, record, synch, and then post a 5-10-minute lesson). But “it worked out that the kids would start to use it on their cell phones and iPods. It made a big difference.
“The students realized that if they needed help, it was right there,” he says. “I had one student who took my advanced algebra class, unfortunately, for two years. In the first year, he got about a 40, but in the second year he was up around an 83. He attributes a lot of it to the pictures and the videos and the videos available on YouTube.”
Tony Alteparmakian offers the following advice for teachers to start incorporating technology and cable content into their lessons:
* Subscribe to some good education blogs and stay current. Take some best practices and try to apply
them in your class.
* Visit cable websites and their Youtube channels often. There is a lot of great programming available.
* Don't tailor lessons around technology. Sometimes that's like pushing a square peg through a round hole. Oftentimes, low tech can accomplish much more in the classroom.
* You don't need a tablet PC to post video notes. Try experimenting with a video camera, different angles, software packages and websites that allow you to capture the work you do on your computer screen
Today, the math-related photos and videos are so integral to his teaching that Alteparmakian has a bank of images built up and he’s always on the lookout for more. “Now I’ll think of a problem that we’re doing and try to think of a still image or video, or I’ll go search for it or go take my own picture,” he says.
“The neat thing is that now we’re all armed with these media devices like our cell phones. We have cameras with us just about all the time. Sometimes it’s as simple as me going to the supermarket. There was a Kleenex sale where you could buy one box for $1.49 or two for $2.99. The better deal was one for $1.49. But a lot of people look at it and think, ‘oh, I can get two for $2.99.’ Now, the other one was only better by a penny, but… I can take a picture of that into the class and use it in all levels, from advanced algebra to calculus all the way down to pre-algebra.”
For Alteparmakian, it’s all about making a connection for his kids.
“The power that a good picture or a video will bring, you’re going to remember that. But my text-filled slide show, nobody remembers that white background and black text. There’s nothing that appeals emotionally about that. That makes a huge difference.”
Listen to the podcast interview here. (link to podcast)
Tony Alteparmakian has three websites and a blog where teachers and students can learn from and learn
about his math videos and other content:
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