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'Magic Pen' Helps High School Teachers Dig Deeper Into Math Lessons

Digital recordings allow teachers to walk students through equations, without being in the room.

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Exercises recorded on smartpens allow teachers to walk students through a math problem, without being in the room.
Exercises recorded on smartpens allow teachers to walk students through a math problem, without being in the room.

Pretend you're a high school student getting your nightly Facebook fix. As you scroll through your news feed, what do you see? Photos, gossip, YouTube videos, and calculus homework.

Wait, what? Homework on Facebook?

For students in Donna Noll's calculus and algebra classes, that's exactly what they see—and hear. A veteran math teacher at Seminole High School in Sanford, Fla., Noll posts overviews and sample questions recorded on her so-called "magic pen" to her fan page, SemiNoll Math. She uses Livescribe's smartpen­, which records her voice, as well as what she writes, and combines the two into a PDF, creating a pencast.

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"The students will post questions on the [fan page] like 'I didn't get question number 50 in the homework,' or 'Can you do an example of exponential growth?'" Noll says. "I can explain a problem very quickly, like I'm talking to the student, sitting next to them, and writing down the problem, and it records everything. Then I can post it right on the fan page."

Students also use the smartpen, which has a built-in microphone and an infrared camera to capture anything written, to record their own practice exercises after class. Noll later posts the student-made pencasts to the class Facebook page. The combination of writing out the equation and verbalizing how to work through it helps students build a deeper understanding of the concept they are working on, she says.

Having students record their math homework and articulate the decisions they're making along the way can also help teachers build discussion into their math lessons, making the learning process less about procedure, says Bill Barnes, coordinator of secondary mathematics for Howard County Public Schools in Maryland.

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Teachers can use the recordings to see and hear how students work through a problem. Since there may be more than one way to work through an equation, teachers can also play pencasts in class to get students talking about whether the method used to solve the problems works.

"We're kind of slowing things down and going deeper than just seeing how many worksheets we can finish in class," Barnes says.

Digging into mathematical concepts and encouraging discourse will be critical for teachers working with the Common Core State Standards, he adds.

The standards, which will impact more than 42 million K-12 students and 2.7 million teachers, emphasize thinking and reasoning skills for high school math students.

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