Friday, February 28, 2014

Culture That Comes From Rivalry

February's #blogamonth topic is Culture - school culture, classroom culture, community of growth and learning, culture shifts in school districts, etc. After a crazy month, I'm glad I can sneak this post in before February is officially up! Here's my take on one aspect of school culture:

The recent Olympics turned our classrooms into stadiums, arenas and slope-side bleachers. Regardless of the event on the webcast (though hockey was by far, the favourite), students were transfixed by the athleticism of the participants, the drama of the close calls, but mostly, the Canadian pride.

For a few short weeks, everyone in the school - regardless of background or grade, interest or age - had a common wish: for the Canadian individual or team to win a medal.

I would have been hard-pressed to identify the culture of my school any other time of the year, but from February 7-23, the culture was strictly Canadian.

This brought to mind another aspect of culture which I've experienced in other schools, but have rarely seen at my current school... the culture brought about by rivalry.

I think it is safe to say that most schools have a rival: a school that is similar in terms of sports teams, or Reach for the Top competitors, or school size, or even just geographic area. Any time the rival schools compete, students come out in droves, dressed in school colour chanting school cheers. It brings the school together, with everyone hoping for the same outcome.

I grew up with this. I had more orange-and-black clothing than I care to admit. The cheers still come to me readily 20 years after graduating, I remember full-school spirit days, giant spray-painted banners hanging from walls in the cafeteria, even travelling to rival schools simply as part of a cheer squad to support our school. Every teacher and student got geared up for these meetings, it seemed. It made up part of who were we.

Why was our school better than our rival? It wasn't, necessarily, but we found reasons to be the better school, and we rallied around those reasons.

The school at which I teach now, however, doesn't have a rival.

Geographically, the nearest high school is about 45 minutes away, but it is a much smaller, on-reserve school with which we have very little interaction. The next closest school is a full hour away, and the next one another 40 minutes past that.

Athletically, we play in a league which does not include schools in our own Board, with the furthest "rival" almost four hours away from our school. There are only five schools in the league, and games between any two schools are few and far between.

The rural-ness of our school also plays into the number of opportunities we can offer our students to interact with other schools. With 95% of our students bussed to and from the school, it makes it harder to organize extra-curricular, competitive activities. Not ideal for creating THE RIVAL.

Don't get me wrong - we have school spirit, and we all have copious amounts of gold-and-black clothing and face paint, but we lack those regular interactions with a similar school to really get that rivalry going. We cheer on our teams, and celebrate the successes of our students much like any school would, but we're missing that fire - the fire that came through so clearly with the Olympics - that really rallies everyone together in common cause.

Can a good old-fashioned rivalry (and a healthy one, at that) be created? I believe so, but it has to come from the students of both schools. I'm not sure it can be manufactured "in the name of school spirit," but instead has to happen organically. Is there a way we as teachers can encourage and foster friendly competition, with a hint of "can't wait until we face off against you again?"

I realize that this isn't the only thing necessary to bring an entire school together in an over-arching demonstration of its culture. It seems few things, though, get the whole body of students cheering for the same cause, like a good win over an old rival.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Test Results in a BYOD Class

Another happy outcome of changing my math class over to BYOD last semester was that the amount of student tracking I was doing - and reflection on the results - dramatically increased. I found myself much more on top of who-had-handed-in-what, more on top of my marking, and more analytical of my overall test and quiz results.

These are things all good teachers should be doing (as was drilled into my head at teachers' college), but it often falls to the wayside in the busy-ness of just keeping up with the day-to-day teaching tasks. In fact, as much as I benefited from the extra tracking in my math class, I couldn't get around to the same level of tracking in my other classes. But I felt I had to in the BYOD course.

The reason for this is simple - 
I had a lot more riding on the success of this BYOD class: if I was going to go to the trouble of changing the entire course, and subjecting my students to learning in a way completely unlike anything they had experienced until now, I had better be able to show that it was worth it.

One could argue that improved test scores indicate success - the better the understanding of the material, the higher students would score on tests. Fair enough. I know tests don't tell the whole story, but test results are easy enough to obtain, so let's look at that.

Here is a graph of how my students did on our four unit tests across the semester. Each line is one student; the tests go in chronological order, and do not necessarily increase in difficulty, as each test covered different topics. To avoid identification of any one student, any student who joined the course after the first test, or dropped the course before the fourth test, was omitted from the data.

What a mess!

What I would have LOVED to see is a general upward trend from test 1 to test 4, indicating more comfort with independent learning, and that students had, over time, found their rhythm in the course. An increase in confidence should have lead to better performance on subsequent tests. Instead, I'm getting this scattered mess (and what the heck happened on test 3??).

What else do these test results tell us? Nothing surprising, and nothing unlike what you'd see in any other math course:
  • Many students found the content to be challenging the whole way through the course. 
  • Those who tended to do well on tests at the beginning of the course, continued to do well on tests throughout. 
  • Those who tended to get below 50% at the beginning, continued to get low results on tests throughout.

Initially, I was devastated.
As a whole, the class did not improve in their ability to succeed on tests. Was my BYOD experiment a failure? Did I do these students a huge disservice by switching to independent and proficiency-based learning? What did I do wrong?

But then I got thinking: this doesn't mean that my students didn't get better at math over the semester (they did), or that they didn't improve their inquiry skills (many of them did), or that they were less willing to take risks (indeed, I found the opposite). It really just speaks to my students' test-taking skills, which did not improve.

BYOD is not meant to make students better test-takers.
It is meant to make students better collaborators, better problem-solvers, and better learners. My students became more comfortable with investigative tasks and communicating their discoveries. They became more resilient, figured out how they best learn, and how to best demonstrate what they learned. A summative test is not always the best demonstration (and certainly not the one my students would choose, if given the choice).

If I want my students to do better on tests, I need to teach them how to do better on tests. If I want my students to be better life-long learners and leaders in their fields, I need to teach them those skills. Test preparation is but a part of that.

Test-taking is important - many skills are still evaluated this way as students make their way into college and university - but it is definitely not the whole picture. As I prepare my new BYOD math class for our first unit test later this week, I'll be keeping this in mind.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

New Semester, New Goals

Last semester, when I started BYOD and started this blog, I was trying to integrate technology with with a grade 11 mixed level math class. Some students were coming from an academic stream, while others were coming from a more applied level. I thought it would be an ideal course in which to learn independent study and learning skills, especially since most students taking it would go on to take the grade 12 university-level data management course.

The results were eye-opening at the extremes: some students coming from the applied level, who I expected might struggle with the more advanced theoretical content, ended up with some of the top marks (> 85%) in the class. They thrived in a system of moving at their own pace and choosing how they wanted to learn.  I can't remember the last time I had students work so earnestly to achieve an amazing level and depth of understanding.

On the flip side of the coin, some students coming from the academic level, for whom the level of math should not have posed a problem (a lot of the content was identical to what they learned last year), were unable to manage their time or workload throughout the semester, and accomplished very little understanding (resulting in an overall mark < 20%). I also can't remember the last time I had students do so little in a course.

The majority of the students in the class struggled somewhat with learning independently, but with a bit of a push at the end (exam exemptions based on an overall grade helped motivate them), they finished up with decent understanding of the course material.
Students taking notes from a video

So where does that leave me for this new semester? I'm currently in week 2 of BYOD learning with my grade 10 applied-level math class. As I'm planning my units and the learning goals within, there are a couple of things I find myself coming back to upon reflection of the first semester:

1. The amount of success with BYOD does not depend on academic level.
  • It doesn't matter how much the student knows coming into the course, it's how well he or she can manage one's time and workload to accomplish the tasks set in front of them. This semester I aim to identify students who struggle with this earlier, and to work more closely with them and their parents to explore management strategies. Some students got overwhelmed toward the end of the course in semester 1 and gave up. I don't want that to happen again.

2. Constant reinforcement of curation skills will help everyone.
  • Last semester I allowed students to do as they pleased when it comes to note-taking and organization. About half the students took some kind of note on various lessons, but the majority just wrote down an example or two and moved on. That made it really hard for them to review later on and study. This semester, I started with the introduction of the Cornell note-taking system, and led the students through an example. I aim to remind students of this system often, and have in place an expectation of good, clear notes from which they can learn

3. Skill practice must be enforced for long-term success.
  • Last semester many students would learn the material, regurgitate it for the exit slip, and then promptly forget it. In addition to having the students curate what they learn, I am also aiming to enforce the practice aspect of learning. Before the students can receive an exit slip, they have to show me - or my peer teacher, who I am very lucky to have with me in this class - that they have practiced the skill with success. I'm hoping this leads to more success on summative tasks like tests or unit projects.

Though I made it through one semester, I still very much feel like I am completely new to all of this. We'll continue to tweak and hone our system as we move through the course. As always, suggestions, experiences and comments are welcome!