A series of seven posts on major turning points in my teaching career. A study of where I was, where I am, and where I'm headed.
I have found I like to obsess on the minor details of teachers: just how you make all the stuff it turns out you have to make. I rarely see anyone talk about it, but it's a more important part of the job that you'd think. What are you going to use to make your assignments? tests? graphs?
What about decorating the classroom? Pre-made posters are great, but what if you want to do your own? Let's say you manage to turn math class into a brand, how do you generate the merchandise?
The tools I have found to get the grunt work done have had just as much impact on my teaching as ideas behind lesson design.
Where It Was
Pretty simple. I was issued a laptop by the school district, it had Office and MathType, so I used Office and MathType. You get serviceable results:
What's wrong with this? Nothing really. But you spend enough time making stuff in Office and MathType and you learn the frustrations. Equations won't align, tabbing out problems is fiddly, images won't wrap properly, low-res graphs that don't scale nicely. And WordArt, while very extensible, suffers from the same fiddly nature. I wasn't happy, so I went looking for better methods.
Where It Is
Anyone who has taken a college math/engineering/science class probably knows LaTeX, whether you recognize it or not. The default font typically gives away LaTeX generated documents. Through observations in Twitter land I noticed that there were a few people using it for high school classrooms. Finally fed up enough with Word, I ordered a LaTeX book and set to the work in the summer of 2011. A year later I wrote a lengthy post about some fiddling I had done to make LaTeX comply with my needs. Most of the tricks I discovered then are applicable to how I use it today.
It solved my main problems with Word immediately. If you want 1 inch of blank space under a problem, you will get your 1 inch of space. You want a dotted line separating two sections, you got it. It offers a precision I was looking for with beautiful results. It make sound weird to say I care that my math problems look pretty, but I want my math problems to look pretty. LaTeX was designed to make math look as pretty as possible. It also makes my assignments distinct. Though tedious I find it important to generate my own assignments, it's the best way to give students work that's relevant to exactly what we've been doing. I have never liked being dependent on the disembodied "they" that students think are responsible for the origin of all problems.
I also wanted killer, crisp figures to go with the nice math markup.
I knew enough about print to know the differences between screen resolution (72dpi) and print resolution (300dpi). If you've ever scaled up an image and wonder why it looks horribly blurry you have fallen victim to this difference, 3 inches is not always 3 inches. The best way to always win this battle is correctly sized images from a vector image program. I happened to learn Adobe Illustrator. If you need a 3 inch by 3 inch image, you'll get it and it'll reproduce flawlessly on paper.
Of equal importance was giving students the opportunity to make nice looking products. The best classroom investment by far has been a high capacity laser printer.
Big printers like this do cost a bit of money, but at the scale I operate it's pretty cheap. A set of toner lasts two school years. With all my students hitting it from their Chromebooks, we probably cranked out 3000 pages of stuff last year.
Where It Is Going
Improving the tools behind my assignments helped me improve all other aspects of my classroom. Adobe Illustrator is a powerful print tool, I could now generate any poster I wanted. It is the central piece in managing all my Varsity Math merchandise.
Each iteration is a vector image and duplicating assets from year to year is simple. I get super sharp results every time. Wrapping my head around Illustrator had some start up costs, but it has enabled some really great products. I am by no means a great digital artist, but these tools have given me the ability to craft and develop my own personal brand, whether it's a t-shirt or a worksheet. The quality of my products is important to me.
Being deliberate in your workflow choices is an important part of the process. Find a way of production that works for you. Find tools that makes products that represent you well. You may never have a student say anything about it, but students do notice consistency. I noticed when my teachers put effort into their products. A quality worksheet didn't make many any more inclined to the do the work, but it was a subtle way of communicating they cared. Even when working in industry my bosses could tell who put thought into their products and who didn't. It mattered how you represented yourself on paper.
Take the time to think about how you produce. Find a tool that's outside your comfort zone. Teach yourself something new, you never know what the lasting impact could be.