Monday, January 30, 2017

From Grade 8 to Grade 9

This year, I'm learning a lot about how we can help students (particularly math students) transition from grade 8 to grade 9 successfully. 

There are a lot of reasons why this transition is not successful for all grade 9 students in many boards. Off the top of my head, this is because differences include:

New school:
  • Students go from knowing their way around their school very well to not knowing where to find anything or anyone.
  • Students go from having two nutrition breaks in the day to one lunch break (that's gotta make the period before lunch soooo hard for hungry students!). 
  • Students go from having opportunities to play and get outside (recess is a given) to having nothing like this scheduled (students can go out at lunch time, but don't have to).
  • Students spend more time on the bus. Bus rides, in a rural area like ours, get longer as there is only one high school servicing a large geographical area.

New teachers:
  • Students go from having one teacher who knows them (and the 30 other students in her/his class) really well to having four teachers who know them (and the 70 other students they teach that semester) very little.
  • Students go from knowing all the teachers in their school (having been taught by most of them) to knowing NONE of the teachers in the high school.
  • Students go from knowing what one teacher expects from them to having four potentially very different teachers, and having to juggle a myriad of expectations.

New peers:
  • Students go from having the same peer group to support them all day to different peer groups that change throughout the day.
  • Students may not even be with their usual peer group if their timetable is significantly different than their friends'.

New courses:
  • Students go from unstreamed classes to streamed classes (that carry their own stigmas).
  • Students go from a modified curriculum (such as working at a grade 6 level in math) right into the grade 9 curriculum.
  • Students move into an environment where grades matter, exams are written, and credits need to be achieved. There are consequences for not passing a course.

New Freedoms:
  • Students can leave the school at lunch to walk up to a local restaurant, or just hang around outside the whole time. Some students aren't very good at disciplining themselves to come back to school in time for third period after this new-found freedom.

In short, there's a LOT that students need to adjust to when moving from grade 8 to grade 9. Part of my job this year is to examine how that transition is happening and what we can do to help students better bridge the gap.

So I'm looking for suggestions. What can we, as grade 8 and grade 9 teachers, do to help our students be as successful as possible as they manage these changes? Which of the above factors can we control and exert influence over? If we could make a TOP TEN list of ways to help students make the transition, what would that list include?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Humans vs. Computers

We hear a lot these days about how computers (and robots) are taking over all the mundane tasks we humans do on a regular basis; how we have to change the way we're teaching in order to prepare students for a very different-looking workforce.

Robots/computers can vacuum our floors (hello, little Roomba!), mix fancy drinks for us, and can drive our cars. On assembly lines, robots complete tasks more efficiently and more consistently than we ever could as a species. They can even create abstract works of art and write newspaper articles.

I've often wondered what the limit is: 
Where is the threshold for what humans can do pretty well, but computers still can't do at all?

Last month, I discovered one possible answer: composing music.

Just before Christmas, a sound clip of the first computer-composed Christmas carol was released. This computer was fed hundreds of hours of traditional Christmas carols which it analyzed, decomposed, pulled the most common elements from, and then used to synthesize something completely original. 

Here it is - take a listen:

It's AWFUL. I'm pretty sure some of the youngest students I teach, who have very little experience in music, could come up with something better. Especially those lyrics. Yikes.

A computer can try and combine the most popular elements of existing songs - basically pulling from a huge resource bank, larger than any human would have access to - but can it really push the boundaries of music? Can a computer be daring? Can a computer take creative risks? At this point, I would venture that they cannot.

Humans, however, can. My husband (@christheij) is a music teacher. Recently, while looking for new choir music for the spring season, he found this gem by Katerina Gimon. Take a listen - it's well worth it.

Perhaps my favourite part of this piece is the score, which contains, among other unique things, the following as notation (seriously, this is actually written into the music) (yes, that's forte fire):

Humans are able to take knowledge of music and not just synthesize from it, but expand on it, creating completely unique music that sounds GOOD, even from seemingly random noises. Computers? Not yet.

So what are we preparing our students for? If the mundane and routine jobs will become automated, but computers still can't be THAT creative, then it's probably a good thing to focus on those 6 C's of 21st century learning: Critical thinking, Collaboration, Creativity, Communication, Citizenship and Character.

But that's not to say we should give up rigour. We humans are still pushing: deepening our knowledge of how our brain works, and translating this into robots and artificial intelligence. The "hard" skills of the scientific method, understanding mathematical processes, and logic sequences that come with activities such as coding need to still be at the forefront. 

With these as skills, our students may one day be able to write a program that allows a computer to compose music that actually makes sense to our ears. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

One Word 2017: Patience

Happy New Year!

True to all the resolution-making and reflection that happens at this time of year, I've been giving thought to what my #oneword2017 focus will be for this calendar year.

In 2015, my one word was JumpThis time last year, my one word was Reflection.

For 2017, my one word will be PATIENCE.

In the classroom, there are a lot of new and innovative things you can try and usually see results - of one kind or another - very quickly. Even if you're doing larger projects or trying bigger things that take months to implement, you can get a sense pretty quickly of how things are going.

In my current position as a co-ordinator, a lot of what I do is behind the scenes. I'm no longer the one interacting with the students, trying out the new ideas, or monitoring how things are going. I'm much more of a facilitator: more learning, assisting, and guiding, and less direct implementation.

Because of this, I would like to focus on patience:

  • Patience with my own learning: I'm doing a LOT of new learning when it comes to the collaborative inquiry process, special education, instructional strategies in math, and the transition from grade 8 to grade 9. Learning, and the reflection/digestion process that accompanies it, takes time. I'm not going to become well-versed in all of these overnight - I have to recognize that to learn well and deeply takes time.

  • Patience when implementing change: This school year, we experienced a LOT of change within our school board. I'm directly involved with changing co-ordinator-led professional development (sage on the stage) to collaborative inquiry-based learning (guide on the side). This is a new model for all of us, and we have to remember that though implementation may not go smoothly in the beginning, we'll learn from our school teams to improve the process over time.

  • Patience when working with others: It's been so great getting out and working with teachers throughout the board - I'm fascinated with the different viewpoints and backgrounds I encounter. In order to meet everyone's needs, I need to be patient, not make assumptions (or jump to conclusions), and really listen to those I work with. Not everyone will approach things the same way I would, which is an asset to how the teams work, but I have to remember to step back and appreciate the different perspectives.

  • Patience with filling in the big picture: A lot of what we're working on as board co-ordinators are long-range goals - small cogs in an overall machine that could have huge impacts over time. I have to keep this big picture in mind and remember that even though one particular project may not feel all that earth-shattering or impactful, together with all the other initiatives, we're crafting powerful models of learning and addressing student needs.

What is your #oneword2017 focus for this year?