Saturday, April 25, 2015

Make School Different: Five things to stop pretending

Just in the past two years or so since I started becoming a more "connected" teacher, my eyes have really been opened as to how we, as teachers, can take steps toward making school different. I used to teach how I had been taught, and how my teachers had been taught; the school system basically remaining unchanged over decades. But now that's not enough.

Thank you to @szwildcat (her list is here) and @Dunlop_Sue (her list is here) for challenging me to create my list of five "things to stop pretending" in order to #makeschooldifferent. Here they are:


1. We need to stop pretending that the way we've been teaching for the past 100 years is the same way we should be teaching today. Many teachers still do little more than lecture, because that's all we've known for generations. And there is the thought that lecturing is all they'll get in higher education, so we have to prepare them for that. But there are new tools in the classroom now, that bring new opportunities for student innovation. Traditional teaching is a hard pattern from which to break, but so rewarding once we do.

2. We need to stop pretending that the best education is the one that is mandated to the students through provincially-set curriculum. I'm not saying we totally abandon the curriculum, but I think we need to allow our students more freedom to learn based on their passions, or to focus on fewer topics and really dig in deeply. So many teachers (including myself) really struggle to do an entire course curriculum properly in the allotted time. Paired with this, is losing province-wide standardized testing (don't get me started).

3. We need to stop pretending that we have to be perfect in front of the students. We want to be role models and leaders, but we should feel like we can make mistakes or not know the answers. The best learning role models are the ones that learn right alongside his or her students.

4. We need to stop pretending that the process of assessing doesn't change over time. I learned a great deal a few weekends ago on re-inventing the assessment of rich tasks - the way I had been taught to create rubrics back in teachers' college has changed both in focus and in practice. I should not be using the same rubrics from 15 years ago! The idea of assessing through conversation or observation wasn't even an option at the time. We, as teachers, need to constantly assess our own assessment practices. How do we know the students are learning? Are our rubrics relevant? Specific? Are the students involved in the process of creating the rubric? 

5. We need to stop pretending that we can do it all by ourselves. We routinely allow our students to collaborate on challenging tasks, but how often do we collaborate with other teachers? I'm talking really collaborate - not just use a worksheet that was made by someone who taught the course in the past. Delivering curriculum well is hard, particularly if we're striving to make real-world connections and foster deep learning. We need to seek help from other teachers and real-world experts in order to really engage students and take learning to the next level.

Your turn!

My five seem to be more from a classroom perspective than an administration perspective. I'd like to challenge @hpennie, @jacbalen, @MrJamesEady, @ColleenKR and @ms_e_a to share their five ways to #makeschooldifferent, too. I would love to hear your ideas!

Friday, April 17, 2015

My "Perfect" Classroom

Recently, @dougpete issued a challenge to have teachers compare their classroom to "The Perfect Classroom, According to Science." I've been putting a lot of work into revamping my classroom lately, so I wanted to take him up on that challenge. I figure if I'm working toward making the space better for my students, I might as well aim for scientifically perfect! 

I am fortunate to have my own classroom - many (but not all) teachers at my school do. The school was originally built in the late 1960s for a capacity of about 1000 students, but now only serves 450. So while there is lots of space, there is still juggling for the four science labs, and since I divide my time between science and math, I try to not take it for granted that I can stay put throughout the day.

Be sure to check out the original Perfect Classroom article. Here's how my classroom stacks up:

An older photo, looking from the back of my classroom toward the front.


Alas, my room had only one window, facing east, and into the school's courtyard. It is at the front of the room, perfect for sun glare off the blackboard and interactive white board. As the room extends to the south, we only get direct sunlight first thing in the morning. There is a small (few inches at most) wide opening that runs the width of the window at the very bottom (you can just see it in the photo below), that barely lets in any fresh air. If there was one construction aspect of my classroom I could change, this would be it - more windows, please!

This is the only picture I could find with our only window in it.
Most of the classroom extends back behind this picture.


My classroom is in a quiet part of the building - out of earshot of the cafeteria, the gym, and the music classroom. If anything, the noise coming from inside my busy classroom is the only noise with which we have to contend! In this aspect, it ranks very well.


I'm not sure if it is because of the lack of windows, or due to inadequate air ventilation, but my classroom is usually one of the warmest in the school, to the point of many students finding it uncomfortable when coming from other classes (even through the winter!). We try cracking open the window (see above) and bring in fans when necessary, but I dislike using them because of the noise, and paper being blown around.


Because my room is so long, there is enough space to move around without banging into desks all the time. I might have to move a few items, but I would have no trouble accommodating a student on crutches or in a wheelchair if necessary. We are on the second floor of the school, just down the hall from an elevator.

Lots of space to move around.


This is in a state of flux in my room, but I'm liking the direction in which it's heading. There is ample area to stand while working, or to sit at a small table or large table, depending on the size of the groups students are working in. There are higher chairs for sitting at the counters, as well as a more relaxed area with bean bag chairs, an area rug, cushions and a coffee table. This will change as I swap out the larger tables with smaller, more customizable desks, but for now it seems to work quite well.

Many options for students to work comfortably.


None. I tried really hard back in the fall and winter, but the teacher with whom I shared the class with at the time would often open the window (again, see window note above!), and the poor little spider plants would alternate between freezing and roasting. I've moved them to the school's greenhouse for now, in the hopes they recover and can return! Perhaps a fake plant or two might liven things up...

Wall Decorations

Perhaps my favourite wall decoration at the moment are the safety posters from 1973 that I found in a cabinet last summer. Otherwise, I have student work on the walls, a world map from our global electricity project, a giant periodic table of elements, and some informational posters. I am looking forward to some of the senior art students designing and painting a mural for me to go across the front of the room, over top of the blackboard.
Three of the eleven "vintage" science safety posters. Found them brand new!
Overall, while my classroom certainly isn't the perfect room, it doesn't fare too badly. More natural light would be lovely, but I'll gladly keep the extra space and length of the room over some of the smaller classrooms in the school. 

How does your classroom compare? Is it a perfect classroom?

Thank you to @dougpete for the challenge, and @avivaloca for the encouragement to post!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ditching "Effectiveness" - the Miracle of Page 18

This past weekend, I was fortunate to be included with a group of amazing Physics teachers from across Ontario as we began to re-examine the purpose of rich tasks in the senior physics eLearning courses. We met in Toronto for a weekend of curriculum work and a new look at assessment.

99% of the teachers I might tell this to would roll their eyes at the thought of spending a whole weekend on assessment. It has a bit of a reputation for being dry, boring and anything but inspirational. Anyone simply looking at pictures of us at work might come to the same conclusion...

Action shots from the weekend!

Assessment PD is not known for its excitement factor,
but it was VERY engaging and extremely worthwhile.
However, it was during our work on how to create assessments that I've had one of the bigger light bulb moments of my teaching career.

Lori Stryker, from the Ministry (who was amazing), led us through the creation of rich tasks on the first day, with the expectation that once learned, we would repeat the process on our own the following day. Briefly, here is the procedure we followed:

Creating a Rich Task

Starting with an overall expectation from the provincial curriculum, we "unpacked" what was expected of the students. What knowledge do they need to have in order to complete the expectation? What skills do the students need?
Unpacking the curriculum expectations

From these lists, we created learning goals for each of the knowledge pieces and skills (each beginning with "We are learning to..."), and then from those, we created success criteria (each beginning with "I know I can succeed, because I can..."). 

From these success criteria, we turned to the curriculum documents to figure out the assessment of the task (keeping in mind that we don't actually have the task in place yet!). We placed the success criteria within one of the four categories of assessment (Knowledge/Understanding, Thinking & Investigation, Communication, Application), and narrowed the focus down to one of the Ministry's subcategories. 

Here is the subcategory - under the assessment category of Thinking & Investigation - that our group chose for the success criteria of "I know I can succeed, because I can compare and contrast the environmental impacts of different energy transformation technologies," and the qualifiers for levels 1, 2, 3 (provincial standard, highlighted in green) and 4:

Normally, when making a rubric, what you see above is almost exactly what I use -  I cut and paste the ministry's wording right into the rubric I give the students. But I've never liked the word "effectiveness." How do you judge that? How is effectiveness even perceived from one person to another? Which aspect(s) of the student's work fall under being effective? It seems such a vague word, but since that's what the Ministry gave us, I just took it and used it. I know many Ontario educators feel the same way.

Game Changer

Here's where our minds were blown. Lori pointed us to page 18 of Growing Success, which states:

"What constitutes effectiveness in any given performance task will vary with the particular criterion being considered. Assessment of effectiveness may therefore focus on a quality such as appropriateness, clarity, accuracy, precision, logic, relevance, significance, fluency, flexibility, depth, or breadth, as appropriate for the particular criterion."

In other words... Teachers: Replace the word "effectiveness" in your rubric with one of the qualities suggested. Such a tiny little suggestion, but look what happens when the word is changed:

Success criteria: I know I can succeed, because I can compare and contrast the environmental impacts of different energy transformation technologies

Qualifier: To achieve a level 4, the student uses critical/creative thinking processes, skills and strategies with a high degree of breadth.

We (students, teachers, parents) now immediately know what we are looking for - has the student covered a wide variety of perspectives?

Change it again:

Success criteria: I know I can succeed, because I can compare and contrast the environmental impacts of different energy transformation technologies

Qualifier: To achieve a level 4, the student uses critical/creative thinking processes, skills and strategies with a high degree of fluency.

Now we are looking at the student's ability to communicate their process. Same task, COMPLETELY different way of assessing.
Of course, I had to share on Twitter... 
We were floored. This completely changes how we look at rubric design, task creation, and assessment as a whole. I am loving the fact that I can improve on the rubrics I've made up until now (but at the same time cringing at the number of rubrics I need to go back and tweak!).

After more practice, I'm looking forward to the rich task creation process becoming more streamlined, and seeing how this little change of ditching "effectiveness" impacts my students and my assessment of their work.