Friday, March 21, 2014

Discovering Slopes

Along with delivering most of our course material in a BYOD format, I've been trying to get my students to do more hands-on, independent work with their devices. 

I've been a pretty traditional teacher up until now, and the thought of giving my students open-ended tasks still scares me. But they LOVE it, and the work that comes back is not only creative and original, but also demonstrates a really high level of understanding.

Here is a short assignment my grade 10 math students did during our unit on linear equations: Real Life Slopes of Real Life Lines.

Basically, they had to go out into the school and...
  • Find five objects that demonstrated slope
  • Measure the slope of the objects by measuring the vertical displacement (rise) and horizontal displacement (run)
  • Calculate the rate of change
  • Document the objects by taking pictures on their devices

I was amazed both with what the students found, as well as the number of ways they approached the project!

I had thought of a couple of obvious examples (stairway railings, a broom leaning against a wall), but the students went all out, identifying sloped lines in murals, artwork, open doorways, garbage cans, accessibility ramps, magazine holders, tablet cases (propping up a tablet), triangular tiles, pieces of desks... I had no idea there were so many slopey things in the school!

Some students had trouble finding examples of slopes, so they MADE slopes by leaning books up against a printer and tipping a table at an angle. I had never suggested to them that they could make their own - it's something they came up with independently!

One student chose instead to identify right angles within the classroom (on pictures, tabletops) and then use those values as her rise and her run to find the slope of the diagonal connecting the two sides.

The students enjoyed the freedom of being let loose in the school, and they experienced a lot of success. This project has also become a reference point when calculating slope on a graph back in the classroom - they remember doing the measurements larger-than-life, and can apply what they've learned back to a plain old graph.

I would love to do more of this type of activity with my students. Any suggestions? Have you done something similar (or, very different)? I'm always looking for new ideas!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Self-Serve Learning - but only at school?

My BYOD math class this semester (MFM2P - grade 10) is markedly different than my first semester class (MCF3M - grade 11): it is a designated applied level class (first semester was a mixed group), it is a small class (14, compared to 31) and I have a grade 11 peer teacher helping with the organization and keeping students on task (it was just a wee bit chaotic last semester).

But after a full month of classes, there is also something else I'm noticing about this new group of students: they move at a much slower pace.

Because they are an applied-level class, I tried to anticipate what they might struggle with in an independent learning setting. I actively sought out a peer teacher so students wouldn't have to wait as long for help if they needed it. I chunked down the units from 9-10 learning goals to 4-6 learning goals, and reduced the time for a unit from a month to about 2 weeks per unit. I am also designing fewer projects in addition to the basic learning goals - still giving students the chance to demonstrate their learning in a creative way, but not overloading them with work.

We also spent more time as a class, at the beginning of the course, going over how to learn, how to choose appropriate resources, and how to pace yourself through a unit. We talked about how, for the first time, they wouldn't have to wait for me in order to learn (or get left behind by the class if they didn't quite understand something), and how their learning wouldn't even necessarily come from me.

We were making the transition from being spoonfed students to students serving themselves from a buffet.

In-class, the students have - to keep the analogy - completely gobbled up this new system of learning. As I circulate, the students are all watching teaching videos, trying questions on the white boards, and working through online quizzes. My peer teacher and I are regularly answering questions or providing feedback and mini-lessons. I never have class management or discipline issues. The students can chip away at the material without much prompting and track their own progress on the class tracking board.

Regardless of these great work habits and the extra supports in place, though, the students are still just barely getting through what they need to in order to complete the units. The work in class is consistent, but slow. The work outside of class? Non-existent.

As before, all the resources are available online, accessible whenever the students want to learn. I also still have the "help file" available for students to chat with me after hours whenever they need extra help. We talk regularly in class about pacing ourselves through the unit as we approach the test - going back to that tracking board and having the students assess on a day-by-day basis what they need to do at home in order to complete everything on time.

But the all-you-can-eat buffet of learning mentality seems to shut down as soon as the bells ring at the end of the school day. Many applied-level students have gotten through the past few years of school without having to do homework, and they don't even take their books home. 

This isn't an issue if all the learning can be accomplished in class, but if students are going to progress at a slower pace (with which I'm fine), then the smorgasbord mindset has to also be in place 3pm through to 9am the next day in order to compensate.

How can we help students get back into the working-at-home habit, when they recognize that they need extra learning time? How can we reinforce that learning shouldn't be like eating large meals only at given times, but rather like grazing, taking in bits here and there when needed and when possible? Independent learning is great at school, but it works just as well outside of school. How can we encourage and convince the students of this as well?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Get Out of Your Seat!

There has been a lot in the news lately about how much time youth are spending "in front of a screen." A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicated that - not including texting - teens experience about 11 hours a day of screen time (television, tablet, computer, phone with apps, etc.). Further reports (like this one, this one, and this one) indicate that this is leading to depression, anxiety, and an inability to focus in our students.

Results like this lead me to question what I am doing in my BYOD class. By strongly encouraging students to be on their devices to learn, research and practice skills, am I contributing to their eventual downfall? Am I simply buying in to all the connectivity hype? As a teacher, I'm trying to connect with students where they already are (and currently, that's online), but should I be forcing them to come to me instead?

I'm torn - I want to use the devices to engage the students and capture their interest, but I don't want to contribute to the next generation of automatons who are content with just sitting there because all the answers can come directly to them via the Internet while they multitask on 50 different things. I want them to use the devices as they need to, but balance the screen time with critical thinking, physical activity and face-to-face collaboration.

A little piece of my mantra has become:
BYOD does NOT mean 100% screen time
BYOD does NOT mean learning by oneself

With the portability of laptops, tablets and phones, students can learn and be engaged virtually anywhere - not just at their desks. So that's one of the things I'm focusing on - engagement through movement. Here are some of my efforts to get students out of their seats:

Go Big: 

I encourage my students to use portable white boards while they practice the course learning goals. I loved having my own portable white board when I was in high school (I got it for Christmas, and it was fantastic!) - there's something wonderful about being able to write a problem out larger-than-usual, easily change/erase things as needed and highlight with different colours.

Students using the portable white boards in class, 
along with their devices.

When my students use them, I find they are more likely to stand while they work, more likely to share their work with each other (because they are not individually focused on a tiny screen), and more likely to be engaged in what they are doing. They are still using their devices to access material, but then they also use their devices to capture and curate their work, often by taking a photo of their whiteboards and adding the pictures to notes in Evernote.

Go Do Something: 

In math, there is no question that the majority of the learning goals throughout the semester are purely skill-based. While I try to not always have my students "drill and kill," I do recognize that there is inherently going to be a lot of sedentary drilling time. So when I get to learning goals that are more inquiry-based than skill-based, I try my best to get them away from their desks.

In grade 10, I recently sent them out into the school, armed with metre sticks and their phones to find and measure examples of slope. In grade 11 last semester, they had to find examples of periodic motion and record the motion in order to collect data and graph it. And the more I do get-up-off-your-bum activities like this, the more I see the students enjoying the learning and discovery process, and the more amazed I am with the creative results.

I don't always let my students stand on the lab benches, 
but when I do, it's for SCIENCE! And math.

There are lots of great activities out there like this, and I'm trying to integrate more and more of them in my courses as we go.

Get Moving: 

Because the pace of learning is independently-driven, I allow my students to get up and move around as they need to. The tables in the room are set up in pods, and there is no assigned seating. In any class, students may choose to move themselves to someplace a little quieter, or move right into a group all working on the same goal. Often when I'm giving a mini-lecture on a certain learning goal, I will invite interested students to pick up and move to a different area of the classroom together before moving back to their desks.

I don't want my students to sit for the entire 70-minute class. If a student needs a bit of a break and walks over to another student to chat for a few minutes, that's allowed and encouraged (within reason). They are invited to go ask each other for help. When they are ready for an exit slip, they are expected to get up and go see our peer teacher so she can check their work and distribute the slips. Our tracking board is on a wall far from the seating - if they want to check it out, they have to move. There's little chance a student can sit in one spot for the whole class, even if they wanted to.

In a lot of ways, these ideas are similar to what we've always done in pre-BYOD classrooms: it's never a good idea to have students sit still for long periods of time in any environment. How are you keeping your students active? How do you address the balance between screen time and the real world? What other tricks can I use to keep my students active in class?