I saw a nifty little presentation today by a TI rep, showing off their latest gadget called TI-84PlusC. To me, it looks like a cross between the TI-83/84 series and the TI-Nspire in terms of functionality. It can import a photo behind the graph for modeling purposes, and it has colored lines and table values. It also allows you to turn on the grid inside the graph, in order to make it easier to estimate points. (These are all features on the TI-Nspire, but this calculator has the same familiar input buttons as the classic TI-83/84s.) The only drawback seems to be that it cannot work with ViewScreen, the piece of hardware that projects the student's calculator work to the wall. It has to do with TI not having enough customer demand for ViewScreen to make it worth it for them to make something that is compatible with the TI-84PlusC. Anyhow, the SmartView still works, and on the new SmartView software for TI-84PlusC, you can tab between the colored calculator view and the plain black-and-white calculator view, in order to support the kids who have different calculators in your class.
The new calculator costs a bit more (maybe 20 Euros more) than the old TI-84Plus, but is comparable in price to the TI-Nspires. I think this might be a viable option for us to order in bulk for our department, instead of TI-Nspires, because from my limited toying around, the TI-Nspires seem to generally require more keystrokes to perform the same function, which -- if true -- would put our kids at a slight disadvantage on timed external assessments like the IB. Anyhow, I am glad that there is an alternative to the TI-Nspire that is a compromise between the "old" and the "new" versions of TI calculators. They're due to be released I believe in March, and in April there will be special teachers' discounts available to bundle the teacher's software (SmartView) free with the calculator order. You can also get a free software upgrade if you already have SmartView currently installed on your computer for the plain TI-84.
Besides that, I also heard today about a very interesting setup at Munich International School, which has to do with a fluid leveling/grouping program that they implement in the mathematics department. There they have common teaching/planning blocks in the middle school, and they agree in advance of every math unit, what the time frame of that unit will look like and what is the common assessment they will do at the end of the unit. Then, they give all the kids a pre-test and then split them up into ability groups, FOR THAT UNIT ONLY based on their pre-test scores. The kids in the lowest group are supported by an extra teacher. (There are 4 teachers for 3 ability groups, so the 4th teacher is sort of a floater who ends up helping out with the weakest group to allow more intensive attention to be given to those kids. I think this 4th teacher is also a more senior teacher who helps to facilitate with curriculum development.) In the years that they have tried this at their elementary and middle school levels, they have really experienced a lot of success for both the top and bottom kids. The last year (and they project also this year), they were able to extract 2 honors/extended classes going into high school, instead of one. They're essentially taking the best parts of streaming (allowing weaker kids to shine, allowing stronger kids to move along) and taking away the stigma that is associated with being "stuck" in an ability group. They also don't do grouping all the time, and the kids start to be advocates of their own learning, sometimes requesting to move down for a certain topic, in order to focus more on the basic skills. There are only 3 blocks a week when the students meet in these ability groups, and for the other periods they still meet in their homerooms, so they understand that the grouping does not define their identity but merely serves a very specific purpose.
It really sounds fabulous. I think there might be some challenges with implementing it at our school, but we're still excited about bringing it back as a radical idea to discuss. I wanted to pass it along in case some of you might be interested in implementing this at your schools....
So far, the AGIS conference is going great! If only I wasn't having the allergy attack of my life, it'd be perfect.