Sunday, December 21, 2014

New Semester - New Technology!

This past week, it was announced that my ORION K12 Teachers' Survey answers had been selected to win a class set of 30 tablets. I am over-the-moon excited for this opportunity, and am greatly looking forward to getting technology into the hands of my students!

At the beginning of the school year, I jotted down several of my big, hairy, audacious goals for my classes. I have been able to pick away at some of them, but it's tough when not all of my students have access to technology. In addition to using the tablets next semester to access learning resources (teaching videos, interactive skill practice, online self-paced tutorials), here is a revised and re-focused list of my goals for the upcoming semester:

Combined Grade 12 University & College Physics Class (SPH4U/4C)

  • Blended Learning through D2L's virtual Learning Environment (vLE). One of the only ways I can see to combine these two courses (which have very different curricula) is to engage the students through blended learning. I was worried that not everyone would have access to a device larger than a phone (small screens are not ideal for the vLE), and we might have had to move out of a science lab and into a computer lab. With the addition of these tablets, we will be able to stay in the science lab and still provide everyone with access to the blended learning resources.
  • Connecting through ORION's O3 Collaboration online community. I would love to be able to connect my university-bound students to Ontario universities and show them what is possible in terms of physics research. I am hoping to connect them with undergraduate/graduate students and professors in fields of interest to them, and expand their horizons even before they leave the island for post-secondary studies.

Grade 9 Academic Science (SNC1D)

  • Genius Hour. My big plan with my junior science students is to devote 20% of our time to them researching and developing their passions and interests. Access to this technology will enable us to engage in primary data collection (through Google Forms), research, collaboration (I anticipate students will choose to work in pairs), journaling (through blogs) and presentation of their products using multimedia. I'm already looking forward to what the students will create.
  • Shocking Comparisons of Electricity Use Around the World. In our school's Learning Cycles math & science PD this semester, the science teachers developed a new unit-long project for the electricity unit. At its biggest level, it involves having the students connect with other students around the world in order to compare our countries' methods of energy production and energy usage, as well as take social action on a larger scale (the project-in-progress can be found here). With the tablets, we'll be able to access tools to help us make those world-wide connections.

Grade 12 University Data Management (MDM4U)

  • Primary Data Collection. The big project in this course involves collecting data (typically through survey) and drawing original conclusions based on the analysis of that data. The samples for these surveys are typically restricted to students at our school. Through the use of Google Forms and Skype in the Classroom, I'm hoping we can reach out beyond our walls to collect and analyze data from around the world. How great would it be to pair up with a similar class in another country and swap data? This would take my students' work to a whole new level.

I'm always on the lookout for new things to try, too, especially when it comes to collaborating with other classes and other schools. Any ideas? Toss them my way!

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Over the past few weeks, @bauerE9 and I joined forces to create a co-curricular assignment for our grade 12 college-level math and English classes. My math class was studying the use and abuse of statistics in the media, while the English class was learning about bias in persuasive writing. A perfect opportunity!

After quite a bit of collaboration from afar (hoorah for Google Docs!), we created Wherein Lies the Truth? Check it out!

We were both VERY excited. The topics seemed to pair so well together, the background info catered well to our Native students, the issues were current, local to Ontario AND controversial. The assignment itself was quite do-able but rich in learning. A great opportunity for students to see how they could use these strategies in every day life, and the perfect blend of math skills and English skills. The students are just going to eat this up.

Or so we thought.

When we introduced the project to our two classes, there was immediate complaining and resistance. I was taken aback by my class - students were loudly whining, protesting; many were griping that this was going to be what failed them in the course. Some questioned why we had to blend the curriculum like this (why should we do English if we're not in English class??), others grumbled that they already had too much work to do - how could we dump this on them all of a sudden?

Students were good in the discussion of the issues at hand, but when it came to talking about what was expected of them in the assignment, chaos ensued. They had no patience to hear the explanation of how to achieve success on this project. When I tried showing them that this was "nothing extra" - just another one of our learning goals covered, they refused to listen. They were turning it into a huge production, when it wasn't any more work than our usual tasks.

I was stunned. This was a unique opportunity for our students - countering the ever-present "when am I ever going to use this??" - and while I didn't expect them to dance in the aisles of the class with happiness, I certainly didn't expect this mutiny. In retrospect, I'm surprised none of them actually got up and left the room in disgust (it was that bad).

So what happened?

Later in the week, I asked my students what fueled their initial reaction to the assignment, and by and large, their reply was "it looked hard." I think this can be broken down further:

  • It looked different: This was very different than a lot (but not all) of what we do on a regular basis. Many students at that age are resistant to changes in their learning , and few have ever engaged in activities that straddle two separate courses. They weren't sure what to expect, or what was expected of them.
  • It looked long: Because we wanted to provide the students with everything they needed to succeed (including the structure for the charts, full background info for students who couldn't be in class, additional resources, and rubrics), the assignment seemed massive. Once they realized which smaller parts had to be completed, they were more at ease.
  • It looked open-ended: It was open-ended. The "correct" answer was not immediately obvious. The students needed to be analytical, creative and original. They recognized that they would need to take a bit of a risk with their work, and it scared them.

Once the students were coaxed into doing the work, though, I started hearing "is that all we have to do?" and "oh, this is easy." Once they came to realize that this was just part of our unit (nothing added on top of existing work), they were more amenable. 

The second day of the project brought students of the completely opposite demeanour. Many had already finished the first part of the assignment and were actively helping others. Many of their paragraphs were creative and made excellent use of the statistics at hand, in ways I didn't even think of.

I'd like to keep creating rich tasks like this for my students.

But I've learned a bit of a lesson in terms of how these tasks are introduced, in order to prevent another mutiny:

  • Put extra info, like rubrics, in a separate document (with links) to reduce length. The assignment won't look as long and might not be as scary, but the same resources would still be available if the students want to consult them.
  • Prepare students by announcing project in advance. Mentioning to them that we have a cross-curricular assignment coming up might allow them to wrap their heads around the idea, and might give them the chance to think about how the two topics might be related. It would also allow them more chances to ask questions of both teachers.
  • Prepare students by having them read something in advance. Having them start thinking about the topic through some light reading - and then discussing the issues in class in advance of the assignment - would help students mentally prepare for the topic and give them a foundation for their work.
  • Do more of this type of thing so it's not a surprise! How can I connect more of my curriculum with other curricula? How can I make it so that my students expect to see these connections rather than be shocked by them?

How do you approach assignments like this? Have you ever experienced the same kickback from the students?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Redefining the Unit Test

I'm about to try something very different with my grade 11 Physics class - something I've been wanting to try ever since starting BYOD practices in my classes last year.

With all the students working through the unit at their own pace, the only hard and fast deadlines I enforce are the unit tests. At the end of each unit, there comes a day when all students must write the test at the same time. In an ideal world, I would rather offer each student the chance to write the unit test when (and only when) they're ready, but that raises a couple of concerns.

Without a set test, what would I do to ensure that all students progress through the course in a timely manner? Some students would stretch a month's worth of material into four months of class time, if they could. Not because they would need that much time to learn it, but because without much structure, they wouldn't be able to discipline themselves enough to move forward. 

I want to give students the ability to work at a pace comfortable to them, but still still give them a bit of pressure to move forward every once in a while.

I also find that if a student falls behind in one unit, he/she usually welcomes the chance to "start again" in a new unit. I have current students who have yet to complete their unit 1 portfolio in math, but who have moved on and made gains in the subsequent units this semester.

I'm also not sure how to structure a test being written by up to 30 different students at different times, and still discourage cheating. And how can I return evaluated & assessed material from the unit to some students so they can review, potentially opening the door for others to copy and hand in the same assignments just for the sake of getting caught up?

Writing a test

So until now, I've had a set test date for the entire class after a suitable amount of time to complete the unit. It's worked pretty well, but it does do a disservice to students who genuinely learn at a slower pace, who usually can't get everything completed by the time the test rolls around.

My Physics class, though, after a class-wide discussion about testing options, has opted to write the test when they are each individually ready for it, provided it is before the winter break begins on Dec. 19. At least one student will be writing as early as tomorrow, while others will push it until a full week later.

This is how my students have chosen to be tested on the unit, and I would like to make it work for them. There's just one problem...

I haven't quite figured out how I'm going to do this. 

Writing 20 different tests is not an option for me at this point in time (though I envision using a randomized test bank, like in D2L's vLE, to create unique tests on the spot for students at some point - we just don't have the access right now). 

Can I give a conventional test and trust the students not to share the details or even answers with each other? Can I create test questions where the students choose values within given parameters and then solve the question they create? 

And how will I monitor the tests? Typically I can ensure a quiet environment for the whole class. If everyone is writing at a different time, can I set aside a quiet space for the test writers, to ensure minimal distractions?

This is quite the experiment for me, and so contrary to everything I've been taught about formal testing. Have you tried something like this before? Do you have any suggestions for making staggered testing run smoothly? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Guest Moderating #BYOTchat this week

I'm very excited (and honoured!) to be hosting this week's #BYOTchat on Twitter, Thursday, December 4 at 9pm EST. 

If you haven't been a part of #BYOTchat, now's the time to start! You will find a most excellent PLN with a huge range of BYOD/BYOT experience, and all willing to share their knowledge. Whether you are new to BYOT, or a seasoned veteran, please join us!

Click to visit the #BYOTchat website & blog!

This week's topic will be BYOT classroom design: just exactly what does a BYOT class look like? We'll be discussing ideas revolving around classroom layout and furniture, access to technology, student vs. teacher areas, and workflow. Hope to see you there!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

BYOD: Not All a Bed of Roses

There are a lot of things that are going well in my classroom since changing over to proficiency-based, independent learning (facilitated through BYOD) - you can see what some of my students have to say about it here.

But while I often share the good things, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. There are things I struggle with as a teacher, and things my students struggle with, even months into the program.

Keeping up with the Tracking

Every single day, I have to be on top of what students have handed in and what they haven't. With everyone in a different place in the course, I sometimes find this hard (especially in my class of 31). Many students can figure out what they need to be working on, but others rely on the tracking board being 100% up to date, and if it's not, they're easily lost. 

I had one student who, because I hadn't listed all the assignments along the top of the tracking board, assumed he didn't have anything more to do for the unit, without even checking the master list for the unit online. The organization aspect is huge, and sometimes I can't quite stay on top of it.

Independent Learning

Some students never get the hang of learning on their own. Many students see the end goal of each learning goal to be the exit slip; they'll try to learn on the exit slip, instead of learning beforehand and then testing themselves. They see it as the quickest way of getting through the material, and as a result, don't actually learn what they need to. Even though there are no marks attached to the slips, because that's what they perceive they need to do, that's all they will do, and allot no more effort to the learning process.

I have students give up because the vocabulary list doesn't already include the definitions (something they have to go out and find themselves), and students who refuse to look at any of the resources available before starting an assignment (and hence, quickly become frustrated with an assignment that makes no sense and quit). It is a challenge for me to be constantly encouraging students to just start the learning process, when I would rather be helping them navigate the actual material, and encouraging their creativity.

Lack of Resilience

When it comes to dealing with technical devices, you have to build up a certain amount of resilience. As a teacher, I feel like I am constantly troubleshooting everything from why a device isn't connecting to the WiFi, to how to get Desmos to do something I've never tried before. To experience success, the students also have to demonstrate this resilience.

Even after a few months of encouraging students to use technology to access resources, I still have students give up because they can't get to a webpage (because they made a mistake in typing the URL), or because they can't immediately figure out how to get a circle to graph in the right place. They dislike having to learn new apps ("how am I supposed to know how to use this?"), and instead of seeking help from each other, they start distracting each other.

Not all students are like this, and in fact most of them have gotten quite good at trying things, researching solutions on their own or helping each other out. But to others, making a mistake is cause to stop and give up. Reference to a growth mindset is continual, as well as modelling how to troubleshoot and praising effort and progress.

Getting past the A in SAMR

With the BYOD I've implemented over the past year and a half, I've gotten really good at Substituting and Augmenting what my students are doing. But I am still not doing justice to the Modifying and Redefining side of the SAMR spectrum. I am fortunate to have students with devices, and access to class devices for students without devices of their own. But am I really using the devices to their fullest capacity?

I know that will come in time, once I have the curriculum under my belt. My list of the gazillion apps/ideas/collaborations to read more about is always there for when I have more time to dive into something new. Still it nags at me that I'm not doing more. At least not yet.

Having said all this, the pros far outweigh the cons in how our BYOD classes are running. But it's not perfect, yet. I'd love to hear how other teachers (BYOD or otherwise) manage some of these challenges. Onward and upward!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What the Students are Saying

Over the past few weeks, I've been privileged to speak with other teachers, at both the board and provincial level, about my experiences in implementing BYOD in my math classes.

At each presentation, I was asked: "What do your students think of their math class being BYOD?" 

So today, I asked my students point blank: what DO you think of our math class running this way? Here is what they answered, many anonymously, and without any prompting. No doctored answers, just the occasional spelling mistake corrected.

I think it’s a good way to run a class because it’s easier to learn this way.

I like it because we move at our own pace so some people can be at the end of the unit and others can only be at the start, and everything is online so if someone needs to do homework they can online.

I think its good because this way we can work at our own pace and do things the way we know how to.

It is better because we can go through work at our own speed. If we need help we can ask.

I like this way of teaching math. I like it because we can all move at our own pace.

It is WAY better than day-to-day teaching lesson, it allows us to learn at our own pace. I love it because we can learn it at home too, on the internet, we always don’t need the teacher with us. Best style ever!

It is much easier because we can work at our own pace.

I like running class like this because it allows you to work at your own pace and also because if you already know the certain topic you’re not just sitting there.

I like the way our class is run because it allows us to work at our own pace and learn how we want to learn instead of being forced to be taught in a way that we may not understand.

I like it because you can work at your own pace so if you miss a day you can get to where you should be.

The thing I like about this class is you have a lot of freedom and I’m understanding math more than I have in my life.

I love this way of learning. You can go at your pace and you don’t feel like you are slowing people down or rushing them.

I like the way this class works. I like it because you can move at your own pace.

I like learning like this because you get to actually do the work instead of getting lectures. I learn better that way. Although it seems a lot harder and you get less help when you are trying to catch up.

I like this classroom, but I would like to work in the hall at sometime. Let the people who work in the class go out. And the people who are always in the hall, work in the class. It would be fair.

I love how this classroom is run. When I have a bad day, I know I won’t fall behind. I can work completely at my own pace. There, in my eyes, are no problems with this way of running class.

I like being able to work with a partner almost all the time. I don’t like the stress of having a deadline and no assigned days to work on certain things (ie. test on the 23rd – if you miss a day or struggle and don’t get a goal done I freak out a bit).

I love to learn math like this because I find it a lot easier to do, work on, and figure out math than I have other years because I have struggled with some types. But I do find it hard to sometimes catch up or keep up.

The way Mrs. T teaches gives you a chance to really think and learn at your own speed. It lets you move at your own pace and makes you set goals for yourself. It also helps Mrs. T, instead of her scrambling trying to help everyone, people who already did that learning goal can help you to catch up.

I like learning like this because we can all learn more about how we work and teach ourselves, and learn at our own pace. However it can be stressful when you have to learn everything by yourself, completely understand it and meet the deadline.

I like the freedom where we learn at our own pace and if we understand something, we can move on to the next, and not have to wait for everyone in the class. I don’t like that there isn’t always textbook pages or worksheets available for every learning goal.

I think it’s good because this way we can work at our own pace to get things done and with the tracking board, we know what we have done and what we need to finish.

I like this way of learning because I get to go at more own pace and I don’t have someone basically hand feeding me knowledge. I can actually learn things. Also, you’re not as embarrassed to ask questions, because only you and the teacher can hear.

I like this way because I get to work at my own speed.

I like running a class like this because you can work at your own pace. It is also less stress.

I like how this class is run because it allows me to move at a good pace. If the unit is one that I understand, I can finish the unit early and if I am struggling I have access to multiple resources to be able to grasp the work.

I like that we can work at our own pace but I don’t like how we are kind of teaching ourselves.

I personally like how this class goes for now.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

BYOD on a Semi-Snow Day

We had a bit of a strange day at school last Thursday: many, but not all, of the school buses in our district were cancelled.

This is a departure from the normal "snow day" routine, which is usually all-or-nothing (either ALL buses are running or ALL buses are cancelled). With 95% of our students requiring transportation, the morning's sporadic cancellations caused a lot of confusion for students and their parents. Many students who could have still taken the bus to school either didn't know their route was still running, or chose to not come in since many of their friends wouldn't be there.

Combined with hunting season (which usually sees a drop in student attendance to begin with), most classes had fewer than 6 students that day.

What happens in class when most students are away?

Teachers were scrambling - what to teach? Or is it just a day to "babysit?" Can we postpone review for a test? Do we try and move forward with the material when so many people are missing? Is there enough work for students to just sit and have a work period?

Students, on the other hand, were loving it! When asked what they did all day at school, one student answered: watched a movie in one class, watched videos in another, and played games in a third. Not much learning going on there.

While I admit I toyed with the idea of taking my classes outside to build a giant snowman (cue song from Frozen), I was instead reminded of one of the reasons I have loved switching my courses to BYOD.

Beauty of BYOD

For my grade 9 math class, every student in attendance was 100% productive. Because everything was front-loaded online, all materials were ready to go earlier in the week. I didn't have to prepare anything special for the day, and I didn't have to alter any of the material just because our class numbers had dropped.

Because every student works at their own pace, I don't dictate the pace by teaching full-class lessons. I didn't have to postpone a lesson until the next day, creating a void in our unit. No deadlines needed to be moved, either.

Because each student simply found where they left off the previous day and moved forward in the unit, we didn't "lose" a day of learning. Just like any other day, the students were able to get themselves settled and write the quiz. Or design their trophy. Or create nets to fold into shapes. Or compare calculated volume with the volume of water that would fit in a solid. Each and every one of them that was there, was productive.

Helping each other get caught up

And what of the students that couldn't make it in? With most of our resources are available online, had they wanted to, they could have worked through the material in order to come in ahead the next day.

If they weren't able to access material or instead chose to take a day to play in the snow, they at least knew that all the resources would still be there upon their return. Whenever my students come back after missing a day or two (for cancelled transportation or otherwise), they ask, "what did I miss?" I am always able to say "nothing! It's all right where you left off." A quick check of the tracking board, and they're back in the game.

To say that BYOD has completely changed my approach to teaching is an understatement. It has also changed my students' approach to learning, and their approach to school. At the end of one day last week, one of my students told me "I like ending the day with math class because it puts me in a good mood for the rest of the day." It doesn't get much sweeter than that.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Morning Inspiration

A few years ago, I went on a bit of a spending spree at in an effort to spruce up my classroom. I had been bounced between rooms for a few years, and finally found myself with a "home" for all my classes. I'm a big believer that students will respect a space that is well taken care of, and I wanted to make my room more visually appealing.

I picked up the usual gamut of topical posters (International Space Station; Famous Scientists; "sqrt(-1) 2^3 sigma pi... and it was delicious" is one of the students' favourites) as well as some encouraging ones, but there was one that I bought mostly for myself:

It hangs by the main door to the room, right over the communal table of scissors, markers, extra pencils and scrap paper (also our coffee club's Corner of Exclusion), and right beside the intercom and our Canadian flag. 

Should anyone ask, I placed it there so students might glance at it while retrieving various implements (or when leaving the room at the end of class) and reflect, albeit for a microsecond, on one of the topics. But really, I placed it there so that while I'm at the front of the room, facing the flag for O Canada, I can pause just for that moment, and reflect on one of the topics myself.

Some days I pick one to focus on for the day. Some days, I read through them all to remind myself of what's important. Though I see it every day, I often find new meaning in many of the topics, or am able to link things back to what happened the day before. It settles me - in the 60 seconds it takes to play the anthem - and steadies me for the day.

What inspires you in the morning? How do you steel yourself for the chaos that is the teaching day? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The (False?) Pressure of Standardized Tests

Yesterday, I was honoured to be able to speak with most of the math teachers in my board about the fun things I've been doing with BYOD. I anticipated a number of questions - many of the same questions I wondered about before starting BYOD: how do the students respond to it? How do I assess the students' work? What do the parents think? Is my administration supportive? What happens when students fall behind? 

But another question came up that I didn't anticipate: how does this method of teaching affect the students' EQAO test results? Before this semester, I had never given it much thought. And if I may be honest, I'm a little worried.


In Ontario, all students are given standardized tests on reading, writing and mathematics in grades 3 & 6mathematics only in grade 9, and reading and writing in grade 10. These tests are all regulated by the province's Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO); the math test results do not count toward the students' success in school - they are just for tracking how well Ontario's students are doing.

However, the results do contribute to the reputation of the school. Every year, the Fraser Institute ranks all Ontario schools based mostly on our standardized test results.

In informal settings, we, as teachers, are told to not worry about the results of the tests - that the pressure to have the students do well on a set curriculum is a "false pressure."

If teachers are to worry, we should worry instead about reaching every student, challenging them at their level and engaging them as best we can, not teaching to the test so we can post the highest numbers. We want them to enjoy the process of learning and make progress through the semester. Posting high scores on the test, while nice to achieve, should not be our goal.

That's all well and good to say, but consider the test results: last year, my school ranked 693 out of 740 schools. We are in the bottom 7% of the province. Knowing that, what is your initial impression of my school? What does that say about our students? Our teachers? 

Fairly or unfairly, how my students perform on the EQAO test will result in me being judged. 

True or False?

Every year, our entire teaching staff sits down to craft and refine our School Improvement Plan - setting goals for the year and reviewing past goals. One of the factors we look at in detail - because all the statistics are available - are the grade 9 EQAO math test results. Not just of the past year, but in the past five years or so. My students (and I) will be compared to all the grade 9 math students (and teachers) over that time period. 

All teachers in the school examining how my students performed on the test - is that a false pressure?

Every year our board develops practice tests, provides all the materials for these practice tests and pays to bring in supply teachers so we can go through the tests and provide feedback. In Learning Cycles professional development - also provided by the board - we pour over exemplars and rubrics to see "what makes a good EQAO answer."

The board clearly spending money on efforts to get the students to perform better - is that a false pressure?

Earlier in the school year, we had some PLC (professional learning community) time set aside in advance of a staff meeting. Members of our school's math department got together to look at the new features of the EQAO portal, which provides more in-depth data on how our students performed. Yes, it's great to be able to see data on our students, but I question whether we need an external exam to tell us what any teacher could probably tell you about her class after spending 90 hours with them.

The math department taking time to review student-by-student who improved and who fell short - is that a false pressure?

And then finally yesterday, when teachers were presented with a new method of conducting their math class, the question was asked of me: how will this affect the students' EQAO results? To be honest, I don't know. I know my students enjoy coming to my class, they enjoy learning this way, stress levels are down and they are getting better at thinking outside the box and challenging themselves. Will this translate into high scores on a very traditional pen-and-paper test?

My methods being judged by the results on a test - is that a false pressure?

I am trying my best to do what I feel is right in my classroom, and to provide for my students the base that I feel they will need to be successful throughout high school and beyond. But every time I have doubts about doing something exciting and new - like the Pumpkin Time Bomb, or the Snack Chip Comparison, or the Ratio Photo Challenge, or even this whole BYOD thing - I have to go with my gut and reassure myself that the pressure to stick to teaching to the test is indeed a false pressure. We'll just have to see what comes of it.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Finding an Audience

One of my goals for this year is to garner a larger audience for my students and their work. I have big ideas and plans of working with other classes (both in the school and in other schools) for cross-curricular projects, but I find one of the biggest stumbling blocks for me is really just getting my students' work out there for others to see.

There are a few things that I've tried so far this semester, and I'm quite pleased by the results. Not only are the students more intrinsically motivated to put more effort into their work, but they are buoyed by the feedback they receive from teachers/adults other than myself.

Grade 9 Math

One of our first projects was creating "Welcome to Grade 9 Math" booklets aimed at grade 8s coming into high school. The aim was to get the students thinking of the basic algebraic skills needed to succeed, and how they could teach these concepts to younger students. 
Examples of some of the booklets
I had done this activity with grade 9s in the past, but this year I reached out to the grade 8 math teachers at our feeder schools, and asked if they would like to use these in their classes. Four teachers from three schools agreed, so the booklets were divided up and shipped off. The only constraint was that booklets made by a school's alumni did not return to that school.

Knowing that their booklets were ACTUALLY going to be used by grade 8s inspired my class to put extra time and effort into their work, and whenever I get feedback from the grade 8 teachers, I am sure to share it with my class so they are reminded that the legacy of their work lives on - this was not just another project to store in a box or get thrown out when finished. 

Here is an example of some of the feedback I recently shared with my students from one of the grade 8 teachers:

"My students have had the chance to view these booklets.  They were very interested in knowing more about concepts that they need to know next year.  Even though many of the concepts are continuations from this year, they were intrigued by these booklets.  I think it was an eye opener for them.  I try my very best to really focus on key ideas that will be required for Grade 9, so this project was excellent!  I might try to do something similar with my students for those coming from Grade 7.  It's a great way for students to review their learning."

In grade 9 we have also shared our creations with a grade 9 math class in Kingston (see the collaboration post on that project here), and collected some data for Jon Orr's Pumpkin Time Bomb project. We are hoping to use the data Jon has collected from that larger project when we get to our unit on correlations.

Pumpkin Time Bomb

Grade 11 Physics

Though we weren't planning on sharing our work outside of the classroom, a collaborative slide show the students were working on for Newton's Laws became a little more public than intended when a couple of teachers on Twitter wanted to see an example of this kind of collaboration in action. It was a two-day project, with the announcement that the end product would be used as an exemplar for teachers learning about GAFE coming on the second day.

The result was this Google Slides slide show. Though the criteria of the project didn't change, most students spent the second day tending to smaller details of the project, and verifying that what they had written was actually correct. Whereas before it was just about crossing off the expectations of the assignment, suddenly the project wasn't just about pleasing me (their teacher) - it was about showing off what they knew, and being creative.

Grade 12 Math

In grade 12 math, we're taking things to the next level as we are actually going to try and sell our creations to make a profit! The students have been working on an assignment using Desmos to create a pattern that will be printed on fabric, wallpaper or giftwrap, and sold on Once the patterns are published, the students will make 10% commission on any sales. The audience has become global, and their reward for their efforts - while partially a good grade - will be any money they make. You can view the assignment here.

One of our patterns for spoonflower, made in Desmos.

Students couldn't believe they would be able to actually make money off of a math project, and it motivated many of them to create some great patterns in Desmos. I hope to have an update on this as we finish the project and get everything uploaded into spoonflower for sale. Some students were even talking about ordering their own pattern on giftwrap so that they could wrap Christmas presents for their family in it!

Toward the end of the unit, students were also asked to design a worksheet with questions not for their own grade level, but, similarly to the grade 9 booklet project above, for students at a lower level (the assignment can be found here: Passing on the Knowledge). The worksheets will be used by other teachers at the school, and must be submitted in a "ready-to-be-photocopied" state. Asking students to produce 15 questions often produces some scribbles on a crumply piece of paper. Asking students to produce 15 questions for another class produces some masterpieces - I have never seen them write so neatly! :) While I knew that creating an audience would help improve student engagement, I had not expected great results like these.

Flattening the walls...

I still feel like these are small steps at this point, but I am getting there (and getting more comfortable with the idea of flattening the classroom walls and letting others look in!). I love the idea of taking the students' demonstration of knowledge outside of the class so that it's not just me that sees their final work. I'm always looking for new ideas - what have you tried when it comes to sharing student work and giving them an audience?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Coffee Club

A long time ago, from some book of which I've long since forgotten the title, I read about a teacher who had a sandwich station at the back of her classroom. It wasn't anything fancy - just a loaf of Wonder bread, a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jam, some napkins and some plastic knives. If a student in her class was ever hungry at any time, she or he was allowed to quietly go to the sandwich corner and have a snack.

The teacher's reasoning for having this in the classroom was to help her students learn by addressing part of the bottom tier of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: if students are hungry, they are not going to be able to learn. Address the basic needs first, and the students will be in a better position psychologically to engage in their learning.

I was jealous. 

Over the years, I've always not-so-secretly wished I could do the same. I would love to have a little corner of my classroom available for students to recharge in the middle of a lesson. Teaching in a high school, though, it was several years before I had my own classroom (I refuse to carry bread and jam - peanut butter likely being a very bad idea in school these days - from class to class). Now that I do teach all my classes in the same room, it's a science lab where food and drink are prohibited.

But I've made an exception (shhhhh... don't tell my board!). The front corner of my room, right beside the entrance, under the Canadian flag and the intercom speaker, is the CORNER OF EXCLUSION. Any student who would like to bring food or drink to class is allowed to keep it and consume it in that corner only.

While I have the students abide by this rule because it's a board rule, it is also very practical for my BYOD class - fewer opportunities for food and drink to get spilled on devices.

I abide by these rules, too. I never have food in the classroom, but I do often bring a mug of coffee or tea, and it lives on the desk in the front corner. When I need a sip (or when any of my students need a sip or a snack), we can go to that corner - at any point during the class - and consume what we need to consume. The only rule is that we do so quietly and without fuss. 

It's worked well - I've had students sit in the corner and listen to full lectures as they eat, as well as students who just take advantage of the corner for a few moments when they need a sip of water before returning to their work.

Coffee Club

My grade 11 Physics class, though, has taken our CORNER OF EXCLUSION to a new level. On Fridays and Mondays, when we have Physics right after lunch, they have created "Coffee Club." One day, a student brought brownies to share. Other days, a different student brought cake, and third student brought pie. This past Friday, the students brought a kettle and some hot chocolate & tea, and offered it to anyone who wanted some.

We worked on a review worksheet on advanced forces & dynamics for an upcoming test - not easy questions for them. And throughout the entire class, I was circulating, answering questions, checking answers, sitting down with students to problem solve with them. The students were working hard, too - nearly all of them made good progress in our 70-minute period. 

But every now and then a few of them would get up, move into the Coffee Club Corner, have some hot chocolate, discuss whatever was being discussed, and then move back to their tables after a couple of minutes. I was amazed at how well the students balanced the social time of the coffee club with their work. The tone of the class was laid-back, stress-free, but productive. No one was slacking off or spending more than five minutes away from the task at hand, but it provided a short break when the students needed it, and it made the class just a little more fun.

(They even wrote some Physics Haikus on the board by the Coffee Club Corner:)

It's not a sandwich station, but I think it just might be the next best thing. I'm looking forward to seeing the students continue to take advantage of it throughout the semester.

Monday, October 13, 2014

ONE big, long, unit project. Does it work?

This year, I decided to try something new with my grade 12 college math class: one big (14-16 learning goals), long (one month), comprehensive (covering everything we need for the unit) portfolio project. I initially wrote about the class and the project here.

Their mark for the unit will consist of the portfolio (with great emphasis), the unit test and a completion mark for some required exit slips that I used as "double checks" to make sure students were on task and mastering the material. That's all. Every day consisted of me checking in with the students one-on-one and helping where necessary.

We're now at the end of the unit, so I'm faced with the task of deciding whether or not the project was worth it. Did it engage the students? Did the format help them learn? Was I able to assess more through observation and conversation as I had hoped? Are they better students (or, more generally, learners) because of it? Did they hate math just a little bit less?

On se débrouille...

Going in, I knew students would not be impressed with dictating the learning themselves. I've found many students are conditioned to sit and listen (or not listen, as is often the case), and then work through whatever is put in front of them (or not work through it). Many don't like the idea of not having everything handed to them, but instead having to choose what they are going to learn and how they are going to learn it.

(Aside: There's a great verb in French for this - se débrouiller (the ability to cope or manage oneself, particularly in a tricky or unfamiliar situation) - that I wish there was an equivalent word for in English!)

But I get it - it's different, and the student perception is that it's hard. It certainly is harder than not having to decide how you're going to spend your class time. I gave the students a post-portfolio reflection survey at the end of the project to see what they thought. Here's what they said (my thoughts are in red):

How much effort did the students put into this project?
(1 = none, 10 = everything they could)
Almost 50% of respondents answered with 9 or 10, with the lowest answer being 4. The average answer was 7.6. Most students felt they put good effort into their portfolio.

This contradicted what I saw in class. About half the class worked well - picking away at it every day and making good progress. The other half did very little in class, even if I was sitting with them offering to help as they learned. They were reluctant to access online or print resources, and did not seem concerned with getting the project done until about three classes before it was due - at which point there was a bit of a panic to finish.

What did you like best about this project?
The students chose what they liked best from a checklist - they could answer with as many choices as they liked.
Click to enlarge the graphic
Other suggestions were "It directly applies to life," (1 response) and "Nothing" (1 response). Choosing order and pace seems to be most important to the students, followed by choosing how to do the work and not worrying about falling behind.

I found students to be less stressed on the whole - with the exception of those last few days leading up to the due date of the assignment - due to not "falling behind" or having to do homework on a regular basis. As I'm designing my next unit, these are the factors I want to try and keep. I was also surprised the students didn't like relating things back to their case study families - in class they seemed to put a lot of thought into their families and their back-stories. Or maybe they just preferred a creative component over doing math?

How well do you feel you understand this unit?
(1 = understand none of it, 10 = understand it perfectly)
While no one picked anything higher than 8, 62% of the respondents answered with 7 or 8. The average answer was 6.5, and the lowest was 2. Most felt they knew the material reasonably well.

The test results themselves were more varied, ranging between 49% and 95%, with an average of 74%. On the whole, these test results are better than I would have expected from a college-level math class. Though the students could use their portfolios during the test, most students used them only sparingly, if at all. On the whole, I think they knew the material better than had this been a traditional class.

I think a lot of the understanding came from conversations in class both between students, and between student and teacher. There was a lot of comparison of budgets, houses, mortgages, taxes that came up organically, and that I don't think would have been there if this had just been a note-and-worksheet class.

What did you struggle with on this project?
The students chose what they struggled with from a checklist - they could answer with as many choices as they liked.
Click to enlarge the graphic
Other suggestions were "Sometimes hard to get help because everyone needed it," (1 response), "There was online help?" (1 response) and "Hate online stuff." (1 response)

It's true - many students were reluctant to even start the learning process. A couple of them took about a week's worth of classes before they could figure out where to start their portfolio, and what they needed to do to master a learning goal. Once they got started, however, they worked pretty well throughout the project. I'm wondering if I should have had physical, in-class organization tools for them (leaving binders for their work in class, providing dividers, etc.).

I will have to re-double my efforts to find good resources, since many of the resources didn't appeal to the students, and as one student commented, I was often pulled in 4 different directions because many students required my help (instead of se débrouiller-ing). If I could locate good teaching resources that students would naturally gravitate toward (any idea what that might be?), this might help engage them.

Would I do this again?

Yes. My students seemed to learn the material better as evidenced on the test, though I'm not sure they enjoyed it any more than they "enjoy" sitting through notes and worksheets. HOWEVER, I would need to re-work entrance points for the project (to help students get started) and provide more guidance for demonstrating their mastery of the material (guided questions? specific examples?).

While I was able to frequently assess the students through conversation and observation as they worked through their portfolio, I wasn't able to nail down a system to record what I was seeing and hearing. In the future, I would create a rubric/checklist in a Google form that I could have on my tablet for easy access as I circulate through the room.

There was a lot of good to this project, but still a lot tweaking that needs to be done for future projects. I'm always looking for suggestions - have you tried a large project like this? What worked well, and what did students struggle with?

Friday, October 3, 2014

My First Collaboration

After one of our Manitoulin IGNITEd (@ManIGNITEd) sessions on global collaboration last year, I've wanted to get better at connecting my students with others. Having never done anything like that before, though, I struggled with how to make that connection and how to approach it with my classes.

I started last year with a collaboration between my grade 10 applied math class, and another grade 10 applied math class in our school. Together, we created scavenger hunts for each other as part of our culminating projects. The students loved having other students checking up on them and eventually testing their clues - it added a whole other dimension to their work.

This year, I've made it my goal to better connect my students with others outside of our school, off our island, and maybe even in other provinces and countries. @TracyZordan has expressed interest in collaborating cross-curricularly with my grade 11s (Tracy - I haven't forgotten! Just waiting to get a little further into my course), but I'm still scared - I wanted to start a little smaller. One step at a time, right?

So last week I threw it out on Twitter that I was looking to connect my class with another class somewhere doing ratios and percentages. @PatGrew responded, and together, we crafted an assignment that has our students capturing images in order to create ratio and percentage questions for each other. 

To facilitate sharing, we created a Twitter handle - @gr9ratio - so that students without a Twitter account could post through that account (Pat and I both have the password), and students with their own handle could tweet to @gr9ratio. And for the past week, the tweets have been flying back and forth!

First, some introductions: 

And then the students started posting their pictures and questions:

Over the next little while, our students will answer each others' questions, and we are hoping to actually connect via FaceTime on Monday while our classes briefly overlap in time. My students are loving having a little portal into another class of grade 9s, and I'm loving their creativity as they pick their images. I was surprised to see them choose things that are personal to them - favourite movies and music, pets, medals they've won - things they want to reach out and share with other teens.

We've had a few technical glitches along the way (our board blocks Twitter on our network, so I have to unblock it on school devices, and even then our connection is not always reliable), but this has proven to be a great way to start each class. The students look forward to having their images and questions posted, and are enjoying solving another student's questions.

It's not a super big collaboration, but it's a first step connecting outside our school. I'm so glad I was able to connect with another teaching willing to try this with me! And with this step firmly in place, I'm already looking forward to the next collaboration project. 

Update: The project has now ended, and you can see the full twitter exchange on Storify here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Tale of Two EdCamps

I spent a lovely weekend in Barrie, Ontario, this past weekend, visiting friends we hadn't seen in over a decade, and attending EdCamp Barrie. This was my second EdCamp experience, having helped host EdCamp Manitoulin Island this past May, and found it to be a completely different experience.

Which, I guess, if you're going to call something an "un-conference," it would be expected that each EdCamp be vastly different and unique to that setting.

Both EdCamps drew passionate educators from all over the province, bringing a wealth of experience and viewpoints with them. At both venues, the conversation was rich and meaningful, and everyone came away invigorated to try new things in their schools. And, of course, we got t-shirts from both EdCamps! But that's about where the similarities end. 


Photo by @aforgrave
Our little EdCamp on Manitoulin was a purposefully small affair. We had 20 participants, which pretty much filled the main room at the Red Lodge Resort on beautiful Lake Manitou. We moved back and forth between rooms that overlooked the water, and rooms that had a roaring fire in the fireplace. The day started with the World Café, as Jenn Chan (@jennzia) led the group through doodles & discussion about where we are as educators along our journey of learning.
Photo by @fryed
Photo by @CarolineBlack39
Breakout sessions were chosen by people announcing topics on which they would be interested in leading discussion, and then as per EdCamp tradition, we "voted with our feet," moving from session to session as we saw fit. 
Though we ended up with a good variety of topics, many were very vague, and we were encouraged to split up into further subgroups as we saw fit.
Just out of photo: the roaring fire in the fireplace to the left of the group.
I was lucky to get connected with Andrew Forgrave (@aforgrave)- a well-known educator in gaming in the classroom circles - to learn more about using Minecraft with my students. Of course, that required time spent PLAYING Minecraft...
Take THAT, creeper!! Photo by @exhibit_change
Thanks to generous sponsors, we were able to have lunch catered by the Red Lodge staff, and we had a sit down lunch. This was a great way to touch base with everyone about what they had talked about during the morning sessions.

While I met a lot of people from diverse backgrounds (I had only met two or three participants face-to-face before the event), the experience still felt small. I came away initially feeling unsure of what I had learned - I tend to be a very structured person, so the whole concept of "learn what you want to learn" left me feeling a little uneasy. In retrospect, I know I got a lot out of it, but at the time, I wasn't sure I liked the idea of these unconferences. I thought I wanted something more concrete, but I wasn't sure.

It did, however, greatly prepare me for the EdCamp Barrie experience.


Photo by @lv2learn2
EdCamp Barrie this past weekend was on a completely different scale. There were about 100 educators in attendance, and the venue was a high school at the north end of the city. As a result, spaces were larger, conversations were continual, and there was much more choice in terms of sessions and spaces in which to work. Even though the event was larger and more structured, it felt less structured and more fluid. It wasn't as cozy as EdCamp Island, but with so many people, a bigger venue was a necessity.
Some of the participants at #edcampb. Photo by @aforgrave
Unlike EdCamp Island, the schedule was built through an entirely collaborative process. On stickies, we all wrote down the questions that drive us as educators, and plastered them onto the wall. The organizing committee took the time to categorize all our questions into main topics, which we then voted on using stickers. The most-wanted topics were selected and the schedule was created. As the day went on, extra sessions (such as the mental health one) got added as teachers found each other and started up a discussion.
Photo by @aforgrave
Thanks to EdCamp Manitoulin Island, I was much more open to just doing my own thing and learning "from the room" instead of from a particular person or focusing on a particular skill. I was also more comfortable with contributing my own experiences to the conversation. I was more ready to step up and talk about what I've learned rather than passively absorbing information, and chose to go to a couple sessions because I could share.

In a session on Math & Technology. Photo by @lv2learn2
The sheer number of connections made at EdCampB was mind-blowing. Meeting up with people I hadn't seen since EdCamp Island, finally meeting people I had previously connected with on Twitter, and getting to know passionate educators with whom I had never before crossed paths made the day that much more worthwhile.

Both my husband and I came away with some amazing ideas to implement over the next few months. We both feel empowered by what we learned, and despite taking up an entire Saturday, we feel rejuvenated by the experience.

There was nothing but positivity throughout the day - from fun activities like the green screen photo booth, to the technology slam at the end of the day, to the upbeat music being played whenever we entered the main meeting space, it seemed people were always smiling. (The poutine truck was also pretty awesome.) I can't wait to experience something like this again.

Back to my Roots

Though I had such a great time at this recent, larger EdCamp, I am already looking forward to helping out again with our small, intimate version of an unconference as we prepare to host EdCamp Manitoulin Island again in May 2015 (I doubt I'll get to another EdCamp before then). I have a much better idea of how informal learning like this works, and I'm anxious to both contribute to sessions and absorb from others. You are all invited!

Have you been to an EdCamp before? What did you think of it? Were your expectations met?