Saturday, April 22, 2017

Tracking Observations & Conversations

In many of the collaborative inquiry projects I'm working on this year, the teams are choosing to focus on student communication. In some cases, we are looking at how a student can best communicate what they have learned. 

Traditionally, this takes place on a unit test (or other culminating activity), supported by a number of smaller assessments leading up to the test, such as quizzes, worksheets, projects, etc.

However, these are all product-based. How can we, in math, move away from assessing primarily through products, and more through conversation and observation?

This is a scary concept for many high school math teachers, who are so used to assessing products. It's easy enough for teachers to observe, or to have a conversation, but whereas you track a level/mark on a product (16/23 on a test, say) that you see directly on that assessment paper, how do you track what you see off-paper?

As I think about being back in the classroom, this is something I want to improve upon. Instead of chalking it all up to my "professional judgement," I'd like to be able to track what I see and hear, and offer that as a record of student learning.

But I have no idea how to start that tracking. The newness of it (to me), and the openness of it, makes the process feel overwhelming. A lot of math teachers are in the same boat.

So who better to ask about tracking observations and conversations than the experts - Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers! Where so much of the learning is done without textbooks, worksheets, and tests, these teachers are the pros in recording what they see.

I did a quick poll of K/1 teachers on Twitter of how they track the learning that happens in their classrooms (click here to see the Storify archive of the conversation), and here are some of their responses:


Some teachers are using paper checklists, created in advance, highlighting the look-fors and the learning goals the students will be working to complete. They can be stored in a binder, always within reach in the classroom for when learning is observed or when the teacher and student engage in conversation.

Amy (@Teach_Laidlaw) shared an amazing post detailing her checklist process. You can find it here:

Photos & Video

Aviva (@avivaloca) is the QUEEN of documenting her students' learning through captioned photos and video. She and her teaching partner collect them and review them throughout the day, using them to not only assess the students, but also to plan future activities.

Brigitte (@BrigitteDupont0) has a busy French classroom with lots always on the go - she uses pictures and video too. She also keeps everything in Google Drive for easy access.

Stickies & Colour-Coding

I think Marcie (@MarcieLew) is one of the most organized people I know. Her tracking method of choice is stickies and colour-coding for at-a-glance overviews of how her students are doing. She can then walk around the classroom with a clipboard and stickies, observing and conferencing throughout the lesson.

Google Forms

Amanda (@amandakmalo) creates online versions of checklists using Google Forms. There would be a drop down list for the student's name, another list for the subject, and then an open answer for comments and quotes. 

Not only could Amanda fill in the forms on a tablet as she was going around the classroom, but the ECE and prep teachers also had access to the form to record what they observed. With a running record of comments for each student, it made report card writing much easier, as well as learning stories.


Geeta (@geetaranikumar) also recorded her observations digitally, but through Evernote, which includes the capability of attaching images and audio files to a "note." Geeta also mentioned that she could add tags to the pages/notes for easy reference and sorting later. 

I'm so grateful to my PLN for sharing their practices with me. I'm a big fan of the paper checklists, but I'm leaning toward the convenience of the digital record keeping. How do you keep track of observations and conversations in your classroom?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

When do they Learn That?

With the introduction of collaborative inquiry (CI) projects in our secondary schools this year, it's been very interesting to see what schools identify as their students' greatest learning needs, and choose how to address those needs.

For our Numeracy CI projects, many schools identified various aspects of communication as a significant need. It was interesting (but, some would argue, not surprising) to see evidence of this need from a number of different data sources, including past individual EQAO results, overall EQAO school trend results, student IEPs/psycho-educational assessments, and/or anecdotal information.

One school decided to look at vocabulary acquisition. How could explicitly teaching and placing emphasis on math vocabulary help students when it comes to problem solving?

Throughout the project, we explored different interventions for students, tried different strategies in class, examined student data, and listened to student voice. In the end, we were able to help a lot of students find success where they didn't experience success before.

But it's one of the spin-offs of this project that I wanted to mention and share.

When do they learn that?

During one of our team meetings, we were discussing which vocabulary words we expected students to know coming in to grade 9 math (and know well), and which words might be relatively new to students.

For instance, we figured students should know the word "area," since they start learning about the area of basic shapes in an early grade. However, the word "radius" is only introduced in grade 8 - having only been exposed to the word for one year, students might not yet have a solid grasp of its meaning.

(And, as an aside, a student who was on a modified curriculum before high school may not have seen the word "radius" at all. Important to note if we are now teaching these students in grade 9.)

But what about the word "angle?" 
Or "factor?" 
Or "ratio?" 
How well can we expect students to know these words?

A Vocabulary Continuum

We took a look at the glossary at the end of the Ontario Grade 1-8 Mathematics Curriculum, and the glossary at the end of the Ontario Grade 9-10 Mathematics Curriculum, and placed vocabulary terms in a continuum based on when they were first introduced. Check it out:

(scroll down to see the five strands, and across to see the different grades)

Being not familiar with the elementary curriculum at all until this year, I found this layout fascinating. I had no idea students learned fractions as early as grade 4/5 (many grade 9 students still struggle greatly with fractions), or that scatter plots - which I've always considered a "basic" skill in grade 9 - is a concept students would have only just learned in grade 8.

Some notes:

  • We chose to only look at the grade 9 & 10 applied stream (not the academic stream) to both keep the chart simple, and keep it aligned with our focus courses in the project.
  • In grades 9 & 10, the names of the strands change. We kept the same strands as in the elementary curriculum and tried to place the grade 9 & 10 words appropriately.
  • The placement of the words in the various grade levels was based on when they first appeared in the curriculum - this might actually be different in real life (and indeed, different from teacher to teacher, or from school to school).
  • As a spin-off of this spin-off, we also made a list of "tricky words" that have more than one definition - you can see those on the second tab at the bottom of the sheet.

What do you notice? 
What surprises you? 
How can this help when it's time to introduce new concepts?

Thank you so much to Kris Oliverio, Megan Parry-Jamieson, Iain Brodie, Randy Porter, and Richard Duffy for double-checking the placement of these words for me!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Finding Validation

I've been home, sick, for the past two days. It's hard for me to come full stop, but I've learned that the best thing to do when you're sick is to heal. And if that means a lot of sleeping and tea and soup and video games and episodes of Star Trek: TNG (all interspersed with coughing fits), so be it.

One day of resting to heal is fine. But on the second day, I'm restless. I even tried to go to work today, but got turned around on my commute. When I walked back in the door, my husband looked at me and said, "I told you so." :) I then fell back asleep for another 4 hours.

But on this second day of rest and healing, I started to think about everything I was missing while I was home, sick - an inaugural event at local schools on science and tech, a separate regional event that all the other board co-ordinators attended, the interactions with my colleagues, and coaching opportunities with my gymnastics team. 

In a profession where I thrive on all those interactions with others, I was feeling left out, and unvalidated. So many people are accomplishing great things today! What am I doing?? Healing. As productive and contributive as my white blood cells are being, I certainly don't feel productive or contributive.

And that got me thinking about my students. When they are in school, what makes them feel valuable and worthwhile? Do they drift through their days feeling as though they haven't made an impact or a difference? Do they feel as though they contribute to their learning, or the learning of those around them? How can we make sure they feel productive and contributive?

Allow students to contribute

What do our students already know? What could they quickly find out? Instead of listing examples of amphibians in a note, could students seek out and find their own examples (and non-examples)? Can they come up with a way to design a lab, instead of always following instructions on how to set one up? How are they creating content for the course's curriculum?

Allow students to share

What can students teach others in a small group setting? How can they best share within the class? What can they communicate with a wider audience? How can students share what they're learning with other classes within the school? How can they connect with community members? Who looks to the students to learn?

Allow students to drive their learning

What interests students outside of school? How can their passions be used to further what they're learning in class? How can we provide choice in what or how the students learn? How can we make sure they are making gains in their learning every day? 

Allow students to provide input and feedback

How do the students feel about how they are learning in our classes? Are students included in the planning and assessment of the presented content? Are their actual learning needs the same as what we perceive them to be? Is their voice heard? How do their opinions on learning shape what happens in class?

How do you make sure your students feel valued, productive, and worthwhile in their pursuit of knowledge?

Monday, January 30, 2017

From Grade 8 to Grade 9

This year, I'm learning a lot about how we can help students (particularly math students) transition from grade 8 to grade 9 successfully. 

There are a lot of reasons why this transition is not successful for all grade 9 students in many boards. Off the top of my head, this is because differences include:

New school:
  • Students go from knowing their way around their school very well to not knowing where to find anything or anyone.
  • Students go from having two nutrition breaks in the day to one lunch break (that's gotta make the period before lunch soooo hard for hungry students!). 
  • Students go from having opportunities to play and get outside (recess is a given) to having nothing like this scheduled (students can go out at lunch time, but don't have to).
  • Students spend more time on the bus. Bus rides, in a rural area like ours, get longer as there is only one high school servicing a large geographical area.

New teachers:
  • Students go from having one teacher who knows them (and the 30 other students in her/his class) really well to having four teachers who know them (and the 70 other students they teach that semester) very little.
  • Students go from knowing all the teachers in their school (having been taught by most of them) to knowing NONE of the teachers in the high school.
  • Students go from knowing what one teacher expects from them to having four potentially very different teachers, and having to juggle a myriad of expectations.

New peers:
  • Students go from having the same peer group to support them all day to different peer groups that change throughout the day.
  • Students may not even be with their usual peer group if their timetable is significantly different than their friends'.

New courses:
  • Students go from unstreamed classes to streamed classes (that carry their own stigmas).
  • Students go from a modified curriculum (such as working at a grade 6 level in math) right into the grade 9 curriculum.
  • Students move into an environment where grades matter, exams are written, and credits need to be achieved. There are consequences for not passing a course.

New Freedoms:
  • Students can leave the school at lunch to walk up to a local restaurant, or just hang around outside the whole time. Some students aren't very good at disciplining themselves to come back to school in time for third period after this new-found freedom.

In short, there's a LOT that students need to adjust to when moving from grade 8 to grade 9. Part of my job this year is to examine how that transition is happening and what we can do to help students better bridge the gap.

So I'm looking for suggestions. What can we, as grade 8 and grade 9 teachers, do to help our students be as successful as possible as they manage these changes? Which of the above factors can we control and exert influence over? If we could make a TOP TEN list of ways to help students make the transition, what would that list include?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Humans vs. Computers

We hear a lot these days about how computers (and robots) are taking over all the mundane tasks we humans do on a regular basis; how we have to change the way we're teaching in order to prepare students for a very different-looking workforce.

Robots/computers can vacuum our floors (hello, little Roomba!), mix fancy drinks for us, and can drive our cars. On assembly lines, robots complete tasks more efficiently and more consistently than we ever could as a species. They can even create abstract works of art and write newspaper articles.

I've often wondered what the limit is: 
Where is the threshold for what humans can do pretty well, but computers still can't do at all?

Last month, I discovered one possible answer: composing music.

Just before Christmas, a sound clip of the first computer-composed Christmas carol was released. This computer was fed hundreds of hours of traditional Christmas carols which it analyzed, decomposed, pulled the most common elements from, and then used to synthesize something completely original. 

Here it is - take a listen:

It's AWFUL. I'm pretty sure some of the youngest students I teach, who have very little experience in music, could come up with something better. Especially those lyrics. Yikes.

A computer can try and combine the most popular elements of existing songs - basically pulling from a huge resource bank, larger than any human would have access to - but can it really push the boundaries of music? Can a computer be daring? Can a computer take creative risks? At this point, I would venture that they cannot.

Humans, however, can. My husband (@christheij) is a music teacher. Recently, while looking for new choir music for the spring season, he found this gem by Katerina Gimon. Take a listen - it's well worth it.

Perhaps my favourite part of this piece is the score, which contains, among other unique things, the following as notation (seriously, this is actually written into the music) (yes, that's forte fire):

Humans are able to take knowledge of music and not just synthesize from it, but expand on it, creating completely unique music that sounds GOOD, even from seemingly random noises. Computers? Not yet.

So what are we preparing our students for? If the mundane and routine jobs will become automated, but computers still can't be THAT creative, then it's probably a good thing to focus on those 6 C's of 21st century learning: Critical thinking, Collaboration, Creativity, Communication, Citizenship and Character.

But that's not to say we should give up rigour. We humans are still pushing: deepening our knowledge of how our brain works, and translating this into robots and artificial intelligence. The "hard" skills of the scientific method, understanding mathematical processes, and logic sequences that come with activities such as coding need to still be at the forefront. 

With these as skills, our students may one day be able to write a program that allows a computer to compose music that actually makes sense to our ears. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

One Word 2017: Patience

Happy New Year!

True to all the resolution-making and reflection that happens at this time of year, I've been giving thought to what my #oneword2017 focus will be for this calendar year.

In 2015, my one word was JumpThis time last year, my one word was Reflection.

For 2017, my one word will be PATIENCE.

In the classroom, there are a lot of new and innovative things you can try and usually see results - of one kind or another - very quickly. Even if you're doing larger projects or trying bigger things that take months to implement, you can get a sense pretty quickly of how things are going.

In my current position as a co-ordinator, a lot of what I do is behind the scenes. I'm no longer the one interacting with the students, trying out the new ideas, or monitoring how things are going. I'm much more of a facilitator: more learning, assisting, and guiding, and less direct implementation.

Because of this, I would like to focus on patience:

  • Patience with my own learning: I'm doing a LOT of new learning when it comes to the collaborative inquiry process, special education, instructional strategies in math, and the transition from grade 8 to grade 9. Learning, and the reflection/digestion process that accompanies it, takes time. I'm not going to become well-versed in all of these overnight - I have to recognize that to learn well and deeply takes time.

  • Patience when implementing change: This school year, we experienced a LOT of change within our school board. I'm directly involved with changing co-ordinator-led professional development (sage on the stage) to collaborative inquiry-based learning (guide on the side). This is a new model for all of us, and we have to remember that though implementation may not go smoothly in the beginning, we'll learn from our school teams to improve the process over time.

  • Patience when working with others: It's been so great getting out and working with teachers throughout the board - I'm fascinated with the different viewpoints and backgrounds I encounter. In order to meet everyone's needs, I need to be patient, not make assumptions (or jump to conclusions), and really listen to those I work with. Not everyone will approach things the same way I would, which is an asset to how the teams work, but I have to remember to step back and appreciate the different perspectives.

  • Patience with filling in the big picture: A lot of what we're working on as board co-ordinators are long-range goals - small cogs in an overall machine that could have huge impacts over time. I have to keep this big picture in mind and remember that even though one particular project may not feel all that earth-shattering or impactful, together with all the other initiatives, we're crafting powerful models of learning and addressing student needs.

What is your #oneword2017 focus for this year?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Revitalizing eLearning

This summer, I was involved in a provincial writing project aimed at giving principals the tools for becoming leaders of learning in online environments. In coming up with ideas for the resource, as well as what shape the resource would take, there was a LOT of discussion about eLearning as a whole.

But one of the more powerful discussions came from a question that was raised several times during our time together: How do we take eLearning classes from "second best" to THE class that students want to take?

Right now, in Ontario education, eLearning takes a backseat to in-class learning. Students only take an eLearning course if that particular course isn't available at their school (or if there is a conflict between two classes the students want). It never seems to be a course students are *excited* to take, or choose to take, over a traditional class. 

Why is this?

Students often love that they can go at their own pace through an eLearning course (even though sometimes this backfires). But many often find the content monotonous (all reading), and find there is little interaction between the student and the teacher, or with other students. eLearning is often perceived as being dry, unengaging, impersonal, and difficult, the latter because students often feel they are learning "on their own." 

Other than allowing students in small, remote communities access to courses that couldn't otherwise be offered at their school, seems like eLearning might be a bit of a dud.

But few would argue that teaching with technology isn't powerful! Think of all the things we can do with technology that we couldn't do in schools fifteen years ago:

  • Provide access to a large range of resources on all topics and all at levels - we are no longer constrained to a single resource in the form of a textbook!
  • Instantly connect with each other - in something as short as a tweet or as in-your-face as a Google Hangout, there are so many ways to instantly connect with others around the globe.
  • Facilitate collaboration on a large scale - see above!
  • Give timely (instant!) right/wrong feedback to any student at any time, both in and out of class time - whenever the student needs it.
  • Demonstrate more complex concepts that can't be done in class. For example, there is no way we could repeat Millikan's oil drop experiment in Physics class. However, with a simulation, the students can actually reproduce the experiment, get results, and perform the same analysis Millikan did when he discovered the charge on an electron.

What can I add to eLearning??

If all of the wondrous things above can be done in an online class, what is my role as an eLearning teacher?

  • Provide access to just the right topics at the right level for the student who needs them.
  • Give personal feedback - suggestions, challenges, ... sometimes, when completing longer math problems, my students just wonder where they went wrong - I can find the roadblock better than a computer can.
  • Facilitate collaboration on a small scale - I can problem-solve with groups in person and coach individuals toward working as a team.
  • Engage my students in hands-on demonstrations. We can do these in-class as a demo or a lab during blended learning, or I can suggest things to try at home and troubleshoot if things don't go exactly as planned.
  • Get to know my students, and allow them a voice in what they are learning. This might just be the most important thing of all.

A real teacher and an online environment - a perfect storm of personalized learning. So why can't we make eLearning an absolutely amazing experience?

I should add that I know some good, and I mean REALLY good, eLearning teachers, who do all of the above and even more. But how many of us don't take advantage of maximizing both our talents and the technology's abilities, to create an extraordinary online course?

What can we do to make learning online powerful, meaningful, and in-demand? How can we make it THE course(s) students WANT to take?