Thursday, July 24, 2014

Plans, Plans, Plans

The #blogamonth topic for July is setting our goals for the new school year. Not just any goals, but - in the facilitators' own words - "BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS GOALS!!"

I love the summer because (among other things) it gives me time to read, plan, jot down ideas, plan some more, create learning goals, and finally, plan exciting new units and activities. I'm a definitely a planner. My biggest lament during the school year is that I find all sorts of new ideas to try, but little time to plan things out to the point where I can implement them.

My summer office
This summer, I created a new notebook in Evernote, with a new note for every class I'm teaching next school year, and I've been jotting down ideas as they come to me. I'm amazed at how many ideas I've come up with, but there are definitely a few trends as to what I want to try:

Genius Hour / 20% Time

This is my biggest, hairiest, most audacious goal for next year. In my grade 9 general science class (second semester), I want to take between 10-20% of our class time and devote it to what the students themselves want to learn. I'm having a blast looking through what other teachers have done, and I'm just starting now to feel like this might be possible.

I'm worried about covering class content, though (it's tough enough to get through the entire curriculum well enough to prepare them for grade 10 general science) in addition to this project, and I'm worried about the implementation of such a large project over a large period of time, with a "younger" group of students. But I'm excited by the possibilities, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the students come up with.

Citizen Science / Creating for a Greater Audience

I've always been a big believer in having students contribute to "real" projects. When students realize that what they're producing will have a bigger audience than just their teacher, the stakes are raised, and they have a greater incentive to learn and perform well. It's not just about the mark any more.

In my grade 12 math class, I hope to have them creating products for others (scale model doll houses for local youngsters, resources for grade 9/10 math classes, geometric designs printed on fabric that can be sold through throughout the year.

In general science, I'm looking at getting my students involved in "citizen science" where they can collect and contribute data to real scientific investigations around the world. I'm totally inspired by @jaccalder's success with Earthwatchers and want to try something similar.

In all of my courses, I would love to connect that class with another class in the region/province/country/world so they can share their learning. Do you know of a high school science or math or Physics class we can collaborate with? :)

Active Students

I want to move away from delivering the content to my students, and more toward having them go out and find/synthesize the curriculum. I love the idea of an active class - seldom do I want to be seen lecturing from the front of the room.

In grade 9 math, I'm hoping to use more real data - information collected within the school, information from sites like or sea turtle tracking, or information from hands-on activities (volume of water in water balloons, ratios and volume change in making pancakes). I would love to have all my classes contribute data points to a giant graph my grade 9s have made (similar to this:)

In grade 12 Data Management, I want to have them collect data on a global scale through Google Forms and build catapults that will launch a projectile with the smallest standard deviation in target.

In Physics, I'd love to see more "design your own" labs - break open the whole inquiry idea and really let them try, test, fail, tweak, and design their labs for real experimentation. I'm also toying with having them create a video series for younger students to explain the physics principles we cover in class using demos and kid-friendly language.

Blended, Independent Learning with a vLE

Last year, I ran my math courses - learning goals, learning options, project pages - exclusively off a Google Doc. This year, I want to move everything into the virtual Learning Environment (vLE) that our board and ministry recommend. I've spent a good part of the summer immersed in the vLE as @christheij and I teach online summer school, and I'm looking forward to customizing the courses (the shells just arrived this week!) and automating exit tickets.

While I like the security a vLE offers, I'm still hoping to combine it with global connections (class blogging? class tweeting? class instagram account?). Not sure how that's going to work yet...

But I'm still looking for MORE! What are YOU trying that's new and innovative (either new to you or new to everyone!)? How else can I connect my classes with the world? What works best when opening up the curriculum to include whatever the students want to do? I would love to hear your ideas and goals!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A BYOD Year in Review

Ten months ago, I started changing the way I teach math. I had become disenchanted with the traditional approach of 1. Review homework (which was seldom attempted); 2. Teach a note (which only some of the students paid attention to); 3. Try some questions (which seemed to require me repeating a lot of what was in the original note to students individually), and 4. Start again the next day.

It wasn't working for me (even I was getting bored), and it certainly wasn't working for the majority of my students. So I switched two of my classes over to a proficiency-based, independent learning system that was paced almost entirely by my individual students, and focused on BYOD. And I loved it.

I won't go through all the details of what I tried (read through the rest of the blog for that!), but I did want to consolidate my thoughts as I close out the year and start gearing up for the next.

Love that this was a typical class this past semester...

Things I love about this new system:

Student confidence improved
  • The students who put in the work at their own pace - even ones who traditionally struggled with math - experienced success on a regular basis through the exit slips, improving their confidence on quizzes and tests.
  • Students used the tracking board to quickly see what they need to do to complete a unit, and always had a good idea of what needed to be done to succeed.
  • Students were more likely to jump in and help each other since we were all working together.
  • Students were very comfortable on their devices, and this translated somewhat to their math work.
  • Student stress was also reduced, and many students told me that they didn't dread coming to math class any more.

Students became 100% responsible for their learning
  • There seemed to be a more direct correlation between the work a student put into the course and their mark, and this was a correlation they noticed as well.
  • I had more students be very successful (80%+) because of their efforts. I also had students receive less than 20% (I had never had that happen before), due to them putting NO effort into the course. Their final mark seemed more reflective of their effort and ability than in a typical class.

This was much more fun!
  • My students were never bored in class, and the time just seemed to fly by ("Class is over in 5 minutes?! How did that happen??").
  • The behind-the-scenes work was pretty heavy, but I could just walk into class ready to help whoever needed it - no need to prepare notes, make photocopies, or even have a plan. That was a nice feeling of freedom I didn't expect.
  • The marking load was reduced since there were more exit slips (very quick to assess) and fewer daily worksheets/assignments.

I never lost teaching/learning days
  • I never had to postpone a lesson or lose a teaching day because most of the class is absent due to a sporting event or field trip.
  • Students could be behind, on-schedule, or ahead of schedule all during the same period. There was always something for them to work on regardless of how many of them were present.
  • If connectivity within the community could be improved, this could be extended to snow days - no use losing a day of learning just because the busses aren't running!

I never saw students falling asleep in class
  • Any lectures by me were 10 minutes in length, done for maybe five students at most. We went at their pace, and let them come up with the examples, making them much more involved in the note.
  • Students were choosing to work, choosing what they wanted to work on, and choosing the pace at which they wanted to go.
  • Students never had to wait for the rest of the class to catch up. If they quickly mastered a concept, they work ahead of schedule.
Teaching each other
So is this something I will continue doing? YES. But there were still some big issues that I feel far from having resolved...

Things I'm still struggling with:

Connectivity issues
  • Even with a switch in our classroom, we were still dealing with lagging connection speeds and the occasional outage.
  • There were still many sites blocked (youtube, Google Drive, discussion forums) that I would like to see made available.

Getting students to make good notes
  • Students still preferred taking the easy way out and quickly absorbing and then regurgitating information. Very few took regular notes, so when it came to tests or exams (that were long after the original concepts were learned), many struggled because they couldn't remember what they had learned.
  • Some focus on note-taking at the beginning of the course seemed to help, but it needed to be reviewed regularly to keep the momentum going.
  • Next year I'd like to include a notebook mark in the students' grade - making sure they have a record of their learning (but recognizing that it could be on paper, in Evernote, through pictures, etc.)

Getting students to do some work on their own
  • Because of the free-flowing style of the classroom, students are more likely to get help from each other (yay!) on everything, including work that should be done independently (boo!). There were, unfortunately, a couple of students who got through on the coattails of others, as evidenced by repeated poor performance on tests (but very good results on in-class work).

Having taught this way, and seen some dramatic results, there's no going back to being the sage on the stage! I'm really happy with how this year went, and look forward to conducting more classes in this style next year

This summer, I'm concentrating on moving my resources from Google Drive (not supported by my board) into the ministry-approved virtual Learning Environment (vLE), converting my science courses into this format, and trying to find new ways of having my students share their learning. I'm always looking for new ideas! How has BYOD and/or proficiency-based learning changed how YOU teach?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Meet Your Teachers, With QR Codes!

The more I immerse myself in educational apps, BYOD, and the latest online toys, the more I try and find ways to sneak them in to what I teach and where I teach. 

This past spring, one of my colleagues decided to put together a display in our front foyer introducing the familiar faces within our school (teachers, office staff, counsellors, custodians, cafeteria staff, etc.) to the new grade 9s entering the school in September. She envisioned a yearbook-style display with photos and names so the students feel more at ease and put faces to names on their timetables.

Can you find Pippen, the empathy dog that ate our scavenger hunt clue??

But why not kick it up an notch??

So we added a little extra touch: beside everyone's name is a QR code that links to information about each teacher (that we collected from everyone through a Google Form), so not only can new (and old) students see who their teachers are, they can also learn a little bit about each of them.

Scan the codes to see what kind of information the teachers are sharing!

Why a QR code??

  • They don't clutter up the display - they each have potentially a lot of information, but we don't have to worry about fitting all that information by everyone's picture!
  • They are dynamic - thanks to suggestions by @robert_kahlman and @MahfuzaLRahman, each QR code (created with a Chrome add-on) links to a Google Doc, so I can change someone's information on the fly without needing to print off a new QR code!
  • They will (hopefully!) make students take more notice of the board - instead of just giving it a passing glance, I'm hoping students stop, scan, share with friends, compare teachers, etc. The codes make the display so much more interactive.
  • They will introduce students to another way to use their devices - not many know what a QR code is or how to scan one. This will give them one more tool in their BYOD arsenal. We've included "how-to-scan" information with the display too.
  • This also introduced teachers to the idea of QR codes! When I pitched the idea at a staff meeting, many of the teachers had never heard of a QR code before or knew how to scan one. With more teachers using the technology, it might creep in to more classroom activities too.

The only downfall? As it is now, the codes are too small/too far from the viewers to be scanned properly. I'll be printing out another copy of the names with the QR codes to list down either side of the main display that the students can get right up to the codes to scan them.

I'm excited to see what students (and staff!) do with this display in the fall as the new semester starts up. Next step - a little augmented reality embedded in the photos? :)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Culminating Project: Quadratics Toss!

While the Scavenger Hunt took up the majority of the time we had devoted to our culminating project this year, it wasn't a true culmination as it left out one of our units: Introduction to Quadratics (our partner class wasn't able to fully cover the unit, so it was omitted from the scavenger hunts we created for each other).

I was so incredibly fortunate to have an amazing peer teacher in class with us this semester. She was a tremendous help both in terms of helping the students with their work, as well as keeping the class organized (exit slips and the tracking board became her domain!). 

She made anchor charts, marked quizzes, organized hands-on activities (she was the only one who knew the answers to our What's in the Bag? activity, since she made up the bags!), and so much more, all while being there for the students by giving them feedback and keeping them on track. She is an incredible young woman, and I am grateful for all the time and effort she chose to put into our class. 

As we approached the end of the semester, she was tasked with the job of brainstorming an appropriate quadratics project. The resulting activity is pretty much her idea, with a couple of tweaks.

The Quadratics Toss!

As a 1-2 day activity, my MFM2P (grade 10 applied math class) was asked to model the trajectory of a bean bag as it was tossed from one side of a tennis court to the other. (Click here to see the project instruction sheet.)

In short, students had to:
  • sketch what the bean bag toss would look like;
  • after some practice, gently toss a bean bag over the tennis net to hit a target;
  • measure the range from bean bag launch to landing;
  • measure/calculate the height of the beanbag at its highest point;
  • model the trajectory using Desmos.

The idea of going outside and throwing bean bags was enough to get everyone excited! As a class, we brainstormed what the sketch would look like, and hung our parabola anchor charts from earlier in the school year back up. Students came up with a plan for taking their measurements, and then out we went.

Once we got to the tennis courts, we agreed upon a range for the launch: from centreline to centreline over the net. After a couple of trial runs, students started measuring what they needed before sitting off to the side in the shade (it was a perfect, sunny day!) to add the information to their sketches.

Added Bonus

While this activity was only designed to address topics from our quadratics unit, without anticipating it, students made use of a couple of other learning goals from different units. 

They found themselves taking measurements and making conversions (unit 5), as well as measuring height using trigonometric ratios (unit 6). It was great seeing the students comfortably manage these other topics without much review, and explain to each other how they could use these concepts to complete the project.


I love that even though this was a very hands-on, kinaesthetic, get-out-and-run-around kind of activity, we were still able to make use of the BYOD technology at our disposal to model the pathway of the bean bag. To measure height of the bean bag, students used either the SmartMeasure app on the tablets, or a clinometer app to measure the angle of inclination and then later calculate the height.

Some students, who measured one distance in feet and another in metres, used a unit conversion app to make sure every measurement was either metric or imperial.

Back in the classroom, we used laptops and tablets to graph the bean bag's motion from one side of the net to the other on Desmos. The 2:1 ratio of students to device worked well with students naturally coaching each other while creating the graph. It was our first time using Desmos in this class, so there was a lot of trial and error, but the students quickly got the hang of it. They were meticulous when it came to getting the exact height, to the point of cheering aloud when they got it dead on! 

I really liked how this activity got the students up out of their seats, was exciting for them, and yet served as a great review of some of the quadratic concepts we had covered. They enjoyed the challenge, but never felt it was too hard or beyond them. 

This worked so well, that I would definitely do this activity again. With more time allocated, we could also take into consideration the height of the person throwing the bean bag (making our equation a little more accurate), and get the students to document the toss digitally (Skitch?). One of the students even suggested that they could build their own catapult, and then figure out the path of the bean bag! That's exactly the kind of engagement I'm looking for. :)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Culminating Project: Scavenger Hunt!

I've been really intrigued, lately, by the idea of having students create a product for someone other than me (the teacher, the evaluator). For our math culminating project, I decided to do something a little different than just review questions or a giant applied question (both of which have merit, by the way, but I wanted to try something very different for this class).

I put it past the students what they would like to do as their project, and they - half-jokingly, I think - came up with the idea of a contest between our MFM2P (grade 10 applied) math class and the other MFM2P class in the school this semester. I loved the idea of getting the two classes together on a common project, and the idea of a quiz-up morphed into something a little more hands-on: a school-wide scavenger hunt.

Scavenger hunt clues

The Logistics

The details of the project can be found here, but basically, Paul (the other MFM2P teacher) and I split each of our classes into four groups. Each group in my class would create a scavenger hunt for each group in Paul's class, and vice versa.

Each hunt had to have at least nine checkpoints/clues, and had to cover all five of the units our two classes had in common. Students were in charge with coming up with the checkpoint locations as well as the math questions to get them there. They were also responsible for obtaining permission where needed, and testing the whole hunt to make sure it would run smoothly.

The Planning

We had a LOT of fun planning the hunts. We started with brainstorming places for clues, and I loved the great ideas the students came up with: hiding clues in unused lockers (where the search party would have to decode both the locker number as well as the lock combination to get inside); placing a question, embedded in a QR code, on the school's empathy dog's collar; getting other teachers to be clue-keepers; clues inside strategically-placed books in the library; a clue in icing on a giant cookie... and many less feasible ones as well :)
Even Math Teacher Paul was a clue!
It wasn't just the creativity of the location of the clues that amazed me, but also the clues themselves: measuring water flow from a water fountain; finding the intersection point of two lines overlaid on a map of the school; finding a basketball in the gym and calculating the radius by measuring the circumference; measuring the slope of the stairwell; code-breaking, and pacing out certain numbers of steps down various hallways.

It was great getting students out of their chairs (and out of the classroom!) as they scoped out locations and made measurements for their clues. It was a very active time, and I enjoyed seeing the students exert their independence.
One of the clues. Love the "trigonometree!!"

Students came up with questions partly by looking at their learning goal exit slips from the year, and partly off the top of their heads. Working backwards to create a question with a given answer was a very new process for them, as well as wording the questions. While they enjoyed being able to choose what learning goals they wanted to include, all groups needed help in organizing their questions to make sure they had a scavenger hunt that flowed well from clue to clue.

The Hunt

The day of the hunt was very exciting - students could barely stay in their seats for instructions! Some final touches to the clues (including providing me with a solution set), and then some time setting up their clues around the school, and we were ready for the swap.

For the most part, students dove right into the challenge. Groups exchanged their first clues and then took off through the building to find the next checkpoints. I found my students to be very conscientious, looking to double-check their answers with me before taking off for the next clue (they don't take the time to do that during regular classes!). They were persistent, rigorous, and enthusiastic - so great to see at the end of the school year! There were, of course, a couple of hiccups, but for our first time trying an activity of this scale, Paul and I were very pleased with how everything went.

Improvements for Next Time

Would we do this type of project again? ABSOLUTELY. It was a lot of fun for both the students and the teachers. However, there are a number of things we would do differently:

  • Some questions didn't make sense or didn't have enough instructions to go with them, and this was only discovered when a new set of students tried to solve them. As teachers, we would have to do a better job checking over the clues before we start.
  • Some students ended up not being ready to swap on the due date, so while most students were running around solving clues, one group was forced to wait until the next day to start. Not much fun for them - next time we would make sure all groups were ready to go, or re-assign the search parties to include everyone.
  • Some clues got destroyed - rain soaked one of the outdoor clues, while our school empathy dog ate another one (I can't make this stuff up!). We'll have to have a clue-checking system in place in the future.
  • One group experienced frustration and gave up part way through the hunt. However, the frustration was not because they had trouble solving clues, but because the scavenger hunt they made was giving grief to another group, who kept calling on them to explain where to go next or what to even do in the question. This was the first time many of these students had to be accountable not to their teacher, but to another group of students. The fact that the let their peers down affected them more than we could have predicted. 

On the whole, we loved seeing the students work just slightly outside their comfort level. I'm always looking for new, BIG ideas like this to try. What big things have you done with your classes?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Getting Started with Student Blogs

My contribution to OSSEMOOC's 30 Days of Learning (June topic: pic-and-post):

In #cdnedchat tonight, on the topic of technology integration, a couple of us started discussing student blogs. Having had some success with my first blog this past year, student blogging is something I think I'd like to try in the new school year. I wasn't sure why I wanted to jump into blogging with my students - it just seemed like the quintessential "break down the classroom walls" activity.

And then @millerg6 posted this:

...which took me to his blog:

There are so many more good reasons to blog instead of just putting something out for the world to see! In a science class (which is where I'm thinking of blogging first), Greg's post reminded me that we can also use the exercise to foster science communication, improve science literacy and encourage collaboration between students.

Encouraged by Greg's post, I'm looking all the more forward to blogging with my students in the new school year!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Re-discovering a Capital-P Passion

I've just started reading @burgessdave's book, Teach Like a PIRATE. I've only just finished the first section (who knew PIRATE was an acronym?!), but am really enjoying it. I find it to be an inspirational source of new ideas (how to ignite your students during the first few days of the semester) as well as a subtle reminder of what we know as teachers to be good teaching practices (immersing yourself in your class, being 100% in the moment with your students).

The P in PIRATE stands for passion, and Mr. Burgess makes an excellent case for bringing three kinds of passion into your everyday classroom. Subject passion (why we love our teachable subject so much we dedicated part of our lives to studying it), professional passion (why we love teaching), and personal passion (what gets us fired up outside of the classroom, during our personal time). By sharing and demonstrating our various passions for our students, we build rapport with them, and automatically demonstrate enthusiasm in what we're teaching. It makes sense that when we discuss something we love, we transfer a little of our passion as well.

Reading about this prompted me to ask myself, what are my passions? What do I really enjoy doing, and what do I push myself to learn more about? One of these passions is running.

Always a sprinter in my youth, the ability to run distances greater than 400m eluded me. I've tried taking up running several times throughout my life, but it wasn't until about 5 years ago that it suddenly seemed just a little bit easier. I don't know if it was just because I was older, or a better diet, or whether the cleaner air that comes with living in rural Ontario made a difference, but I found I was able to run a full kilometre without being totally winded at the end! I pushed myself over the next few months and found myself running middle distances (5-10km) regularly, and actually enjoying it.

For the past few years now, I've set resolutions of running in at least three races/organized events a year. I've been fortunate to race with 10,000 runners in the Ottawa Race Weekend 5km, along the beautiful St. Clair river in southwestern Ontario, and along the Trans-Canada highway and Spanish River as the sun rose in Massey, among other races. I run in the Terry Fox run most years, and have raised thousands of dollars over the last 3 years for the CIBC Run for the Cure in the fall. I have no interest in running larger distances on a regular basis, although I might challenge myself to a half-marathon in a couple of years.

Half-way through my first 10km race at Massey, Ontario.

Having said all this, I'm by no means fast. I work to beat my personal bests, but I never go into a race determined to come in top place. To be honest, I get a bigger kick out of the fact that roads get closed to traffic so that runners can pound the pavement. I don't run to be competitive, I run because I enjoy it.

My recent target was the 10km race at Sudbury Rocks - a fundraiser for diabetes research, but also a major race day in Sudbury. I was looking forward to a local race, and running along some of the major roads I often drive along - something I would never get the chance to do otherwise. I followed a training schedule and got my distance back up after a long winter of occasional treadmill use.

Three weeks before the race, though, I fell into a week of depression. My motivation (for many things, not just running) was gone. I started eating more, and doing less. When I came out of the depression, I found it hard to get back into running. My bad habits continued, I gained 10 pounds, I missed the Sudbury race, and it became even harder to motivate myself to get back into it.

Until today. With no excuses left (I have no time, it's too cold, I just ate, there's no point - there are always excuses if we look for them), I had my husband drop me 5km from home - no choice to run back. It was slow and painful. But it's a step in the right direction (well, more like 5000 steps in the right direction).

Now that I've started again, I can start goal-setting again, and pushing myself again. Sure it was hard, but it felt good to re-discover this passion. I feel like a slightly different person than when I was making those excuses. A little more well-rounded, and a little more focused.

We can't just be teachers. We have to push ourselves to do new things, try new things, and master new things outside of the classroom. This makes us better learners, better teachers, and better able to connect with our students.

What are your passions? Have you fallen out of them? Can you get back into them? What passion can you bring to your classroom?