Top 5 Teaching Hacks for 2015

It’s time for another exciting start to a school year! This is a big one for me, and I am personally too energetic for my own good this September. I think most of my colleagues are already sick of it.

I wanted to do a different kind of new year post: here are 5 teaching hacks I plan on using this year.

Churrascaria-Style Assessment


If you’ve ever been to a Brazilian steakhouse, you will have experienced the sheer joy of turning your red and green table card over to the light side of the force and watch trays of delicious meats be run by your table for sampling. While I don’t think most children will necessarily find much joy out of it, they will certainly find help, even the most shy students. Using colored post-its for this task is a clever way of quickly diverting your attention to those who need it most during class time on problems and writing exercises.

Wearable Reminders


Even as a techy guy, I greatly appreciate low-tech solutions to important problems, and this one is brilliant. You can buy a sheet of those adhesive bracelets for around $2-$3 at party city. If you need a student to remember to do something, write it on a bracelet and slap it on their wrist! Sure, students should learn how to write things in their planner and remember to act on them, but as most of us know, that doesn’t always work and sometimes you just need the kid to bring in the field trip form so that they can go with you to the museum on the next day. This also eliminates any complaining about students writing things on their body, and what kid doesn’t love a cool neon bracelet?

Phone Jail


I don’t like the “phone hotel” that people always post on social media because it discourages students from actually learning to control themselves with their devices, and instead just removes the distraction altogether. Spoiler alert: that’s not going to help the student. This, on the other hand, offers them the choice, and provides a fun but meaningful consequence when they choose wrong. I love it.

Vistaprint is Your Friend


This is one that teachers really don’t use enough. You can easily print flyers and handouts at your school, however anything more premium generally requires either special machinery, or outsources. Fortunately, Vistaprint is here for you. Sign up for their Pro Advantage program for a flat 40% off everything in their store all the time. Adding a premium touch to special event flyers, making giant banners using HD photos, and bulletin boarding just got a whole lot more awesome. The best part of this program is that they have a lot of first-time deals, like the banner on our NSBA booth which I received for just $5.


I’m not sure if this is a hack, but I think it’s an awesome app idea and actually a subtle, “the teacher is not the bad guy” way of alerting students that they’re being too loud. The noisedown app lets you set a decible level and then leave your phone on your desk. When the room gets too loud, it releases an alarm. I know that it shouldn’t require an app to do this, but here’s the twist: have the students download it and use it to monitor themselves during group work. If teachers are generally aware when a room is too loud, kids rarely are, and this app lets students monitor themselves and also not be the uncool kid telling their peers to quiet down.

What are your teacher hacks for this year? Let me know!


CS50 Bootcamp Roundup


CS50 is Harvard’s introductory computer science course that has become hugely popular across the world as the exemplar of both an introduction to the subject at the college level as well as an outstanding blended learning product. Their new venture, CS50 AP, is a version of the course adapted to the new AP Computer Science principles curriculum which will begin testing in the 2016-2017 school year. I was fortunate enough to attend their bootcamp from 8/5-8/7. The bootcamp’s purpose was to explore implementing the course at the HS level and to get a closer look at the CS50 phenomenon.


When I walked in the building, I knew where I was.


Aside from access to the course’s curriculum and resources, which are extensive, there were a number of key takeaways from the bootcamp. Most importantly was a detailed look at the infrastructure behind the most successful blended learning course today. The instructor, David Malan, has a tremendous staff: around 100 people, on top of resources the course procures from third parties. Much of this staff is put towards actually teaching the course: there are around 70 people who run recitations, conduct office hours, and host walkthrough sessions. The other 30 can be classified as marketing people, including a full-fledged video production team and a print designer. The result is that this course not only has a tremendous teaching staff, but marketing materials equivalent to a medium sized company. Seeing it in person was overwhelming and quite different, but the results are hard to argue with as it currently enrolls around 40% of Harvard and several thousand others through edX.

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Another key takeaway lies in the course’s three trademark events: Puzzle Day, CS50 Hackathon, and CS50 Fair. The first, Puzzle Day, is a first-week activity in which the whole course is invited to come and solve word puzzles. The goal is to foster problem solving and also for students to get to know each other. I think this will be fun to do with jigsaw puzzles, since high school students learn a lot more by touching things and it will accomplish the same goal. The second, the Hackathon, is something that would be logistically impossible to pull off in high school, as it is an overnight coding challenge from Friday-Saturday held in the Harvard library. The third and most interesting, the CS50 Fair, is the end of year showcase of student final projects from the course, in which the whole university is invited to attend. It’s a great event to replicate at the HS, or better yet, have students attend either at Harvard or remotely.




Cecil the Lion’s Avengers Teach Children How to Be Cyberbullies

In case you did not know, a dentist from Minnesota hunted and killed the famous lion from Zimbabwe: Cecil. The internet has been raging ever since this event, causing unbelievable backlash towards the hunter, to the point where I had to write an entire blog post about why all of this is so incredibly misplaced. Here goes.

The Animal Stuff

Whether or not you’re an animal rights advocate, you don’t care about animal rights, or you’re right in between and respect animals but also respect the tradition of hunting, the truth is that according to Zimbabwe law, this was an illegal hunt, since Cecil was collared and living in a protected reserve. He was allegedly lured out of the reserve into a legal hunting area to be killed. Who is to blame for this? The hunter? The guides? I think that if you’re someone hunting this kind of game, you’re well aware of the laws surrounding it, however I can’t possibly imagine this guy woke up and said “let’s go shoot an illegal lion today.” If he wanted to do that, he wouldn’t have spent the $50,000 to buy a hunting permit for the trip.

For more on the ethics of licensed trophy hunting, which I’m not here to discuss nor do I have a stake in, please see this rare item on the internet: a piece of literature surrounding the biological effects of this conservation effort. The short version is that the matter is highly complicated, but there is certainly enough evidence to support ongoing investigation of the effectiveness. In science words, that means that arguing against this practice without a few more years of data is irresponsible, but it doesn’t mean those against it are wrong. It just means that more data is required. Source: I’m a scientist.

Should these hunters have let the animal bleed out for 2 days before killing it? I want to say of course not, but maybe there’s a reason they did. Wounded lions are dangerous. I don’t know, I’m not a hunter, and if I was, I’d listen to the advice of my nationally certified and well-respected guide.

Bottom line: it was a legal trophy hunt, the type of which is endorsed internationally as a promising conservation practice, carried out on illegal territory with an illegal target. We do not yet know whether or not this was on purpose, and any statement to either side of that is just speculation. Worst-case scenario, this deserves legal investigation, with which our dentist has already stated he is more than willing to comply with.


"Be awesome to each other," says Cecil.

“Be awesome to each other,” says Cecil.

The Human Stuff

The backlash to this event has been more disgusting than the actual act. It’s perfectly reasonable to be angry that such an event could occur. It’s even reasonable if, according to Zimbabwe law, which I am not familiar with, the hunter is also liable in this case and is punished accordingly.

So it sickens me that upon his arrival home and the breaking of this news, that this man’s reputable, important, and locally run dental practice has been effectively forced to shut down due to a firestorm of media attention and armchair vigilantes. What these people fail to realize is that by attacking this man’s practice in the way they did, they’ve not only harmed him, but every employee there, as well as the community in which it resides. Does one man’s actions, which could very easily be an honest mistake whilst attempting to follow law while hunting an animal, as much as it could have been an intentional violation, warrant this type of action? Unequivocally not.

But perhaps the most terrible part of all of this is the link people fail to see between this event and the rampant cyber bullying in our country’s schools. I’ve written about bullying numerous times on this blog, because it’s an important issue in our schools. Would you like to know where children learn how to be cyber bullies? It’s from events like this, where a guy is set out to dry because he shot a lion with a longbow.

For whatever reason, this dentist from Minnesota will now be forever remembered as the guy whose life was ruined because he went on safari, not the guy who spent his life building a business that has impacted countless local families in a positive way. Of all of the people to be crucified for hunting, the internet has chosen this man, who at the very least attempted  to follow the laws in place for the benefits of the hunted animals, to make the face of their crusade against poachers and animal cruelty. Poachers are the enemy, and the Internet has taken out its rage against them on a hunter, which is different. It’s just horrible.

Finally, and I have many qualms about the media that I could spend days ranting about, but the language in some of these articles sickens the scientist in me. For good measure in their responsible reporting, CNN and others decided to throw in some biological information in their article:

“The saddest part of all is that, now that Cecil is dead, the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho will most likely kill all Cecil’s cubs so that he can insert his own bloodline into the females,” Rodrigues said. “This is standard procedure for lions.”

CNN is not stupid, but it knows its audience. There is nothing sad about this. This is called nature. There are no emotions involved with nature no matter how much Pixar and Disney want there to be. Worst of all, humans did this to each other less than 800 years ago for the same reason, so I’m not sure why it’s all of a sudden relevant to this article and such a sad thing for lions to do it. It happens literally every day. Whatever sells ad impressions is what they’ll write. I digress.

Next time you see a cyber bullying incident in your school, go ahead and ask yourself how this is different. Let me use the professional lingo. Imbalance of power? Check. Is an individual a victim? Check. Is it ongoing over an extended period of time (24 hours)? Check.

Don’t wonder where our children learn to do this. Don’t wonder where they learn to spread rumors, bend truth, and collectively attack individuals who share different beliefs or ideas than them. Like every other behavior a child learns, we teach them.


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