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.