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?