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!