Sunday, September 27, 2015

Balancing Act

As most teachers can attest, keeping one's sanity during the school year - particularly in the thick of a semester, or in May - can be a challenge. 

Between "regular" job hours, extra-curricular activities/committees, and the ever-present pile of marking/paperwork to be tackled at home, there are days (weeks?) the work seems never-ending. It is so easy to get swept up in the job, to the point where it becomes all-encompassing. 

I LOVE teaching. I love the challenges that it brings, the learning that comes with it, and the chance to excite students and make a difference. But beyond a doubt, my physical, mental, and spiritual health all suffer as we get deeper into the school year. 

I try to balance with some me-time (singing with a local choir, participating in martial arts) but I found it often leads to more stress as more of my time was taken up. Nothing like being woken up by a panic attack several times a week. I needed to try something new.

So the week before classes started, I changed my morning routine. 

Robin Sharma (author of The Secret Letters of the Monk who Sold his Ferrari) suggests starting each day with a "holy hour" - 20 minutes of exercise, 20 minutes of journaling and 20 minutes of professional reading: exercise to wake the body up and get the neurons firing, journaling (or alternatively, meditation) to focus on the day's goals and to set your outlook, and professional reading to inspire and set you on a path to becoming an expert. 

I found myself drawn to the simplicity of such a plan, and though I had half-heartedly tried it in the past, I wasn't able to make it stick. There is a blog post on it here, explaining it in more detail, as well as Robin's take on it here

And then this started floating around on Twitter: 8 Things Every Person Should Do Before 8 A.M. What the author suggests made sense to me, and though it seems like a big list, it was interesting to see that there was a lot of overlap between this and Robin Sharma's holy hour. I already do #4, and while I REFUSE to do #5, this might actually be do-able! I made the jump.

One month in, I'm loving it.

My new bed time is 10pm - regardless of the size of the marking pile - and I'm up at 5:50am every morning (a very tall order for this life-long night owl). I'm kicking the day off with 30-40 minutes of exercise (right now a run or vigorous walk, outside if possible), followed by 10-15 minutes of silent meditation. My husband is trying it too - completing a P90X-style workout and then joining me for meditation.

Despite the early rise, I find I am more rested overall, and there's something awesome about getting exercise out of the way first thing in the morning. I would love to add in some professional reading - perhaps streamlining the reading that I pick out of Twitter on a sporadic basis throughout the day - but right now the focus is on taking better care of my self. 

My productivity level feels good (though the dreaded marking pile is still omnipresent), and it feels, well, manageable. I'm continuing the routine on weekends and am enjoying the extra bit of time in the morning to get things accomplished.

I realize we're still in the early days of the school year, and what seems easy now is only going to become more difficult. Before too long I'll add coaching, helping run the school musical and the busy-ness of conference travel to the schedule, and that will be the true test of both habit and effectiveness of this plan. But I'm optimistic.

How do YOU do it?

I wanted to share what I've been trying in case it resonates with anyone else. But I'm also looking to improve on the routine over time. How do you keep yourself balanced and on top of things? What "rules" do you follow to stay sane? What can you suggest?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Big Hairy Plans... with a Slower Start

Last summer, inspired by #blogamonth, I posted about my BIG, HAIRY, AUDACIOUS goals for the year. Coming out of my first year of trying BYOD at the time, I was super excited to convert the rest of my courses to a more flipped and independent style of learning. I had lots of great ideas - many of which I was able to implement - and had a fantastic year on the whole.

However, almost 5 weeks of strike action in my board in May left me, as a teacher, rushed and disorganized for the last month of the school year. Some of my big ideas got pushed to the side as we were instructed to forgo all large projects and focus on content delivery instead. I had to drop an entire unit in general science, and in other courses concentrate only on the content I believed would benefit my students the most next year. 

As a result, the process of converting full courses to a more technology-based, independent learning style was interrupted, and I came away feeling unsatisfied with the state of my courses. I won't go so far as to say I was disillusioned or unenthusiastic about continuing to introduce project-based learning and flipped resources to my students, but I recognize that I haven't been as gung-ho to start creating as I was this time last year.

Hence, this blog post. 

I still have ideas rumbling around in my head, and I'm hoping that by putting them out there, I can build on what others are doings and inject a little more excitement into my planning. Classes start in exactly three weeks - how can I share my passion for learning and help students achieve like never before?
In Every Course
I was inspired by the IGNITE sessions I saw at ISTE2015 - five minute blasts of information designed to share an idea or a passion without delving into a whole lot of detail. In what might be my one big, hairy, audacious goal this year, I would love to kick each and every one of my classes off with an IGNITE session. It might be an awesome video or TED talk, it might be me highlighting a new tech tool some students might like to try, it could be a quick worked example or a brainteaser, or even something done by a guest speaker (or maybe one of the students themselves??). Something to start the class where we're all on the same page before breaking off into groups or independent work for the rest of the period.

Also in every course, I'm looking for more collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. The more I can get students to connect with other students elsewhere in Ontario, or to create a product to be showcased to the world, the more authentic the learning becomes. I'm grateful to be part of an amazing PLN and I'm hoping to really tap into the wealth of resources "the room" brings to the table! If you are interested in having your class collaborate with any of my classes, please let me know!

In Grade 12 Earth & Space Science
I want to blow this course wide open. There are so many AMAZING resources online (search National Geographic Geology on youtube alone to find some fantastic videos), and we live in such a geologically rich part of the province, that I want to bring the best of both the technological and the natural world to my students. 

I am going to flip the order of the course (usually I start with Astronomy and then move into Geology, but I'll start instead with Geology so we can get outdoors and explore while it's warm), and have the students discover what they can about the Earth from their own backyards.

I am also looking at:

  • a Layered Curriculum style of class where the students can choose the assignments and resources to help them master the curriculum expectations, using point-values for various tasks.
  • making unit tests mandatory for only two or three of the five units, with students choosing which tests they write and what they do to demonstrate their mastery in the non-test units.
  • making more use of pinboards to curate news on certain topics, like recent volcanic activity, earthquake impact, fossils, or Pluto; or to provide resources like this board I've started putting together on mineral identification. I'm still very new to "pinning," but I love the visual layout.

In Grade 11 Math
While I didn't teach this course last year, it was the first course I flipped two years ago, and I'm anxious to run it again with improvements. 

My biggest goal for this class is to change the format of content delivery (I've tried a couple different ways, outlined here) to make the information easier to access. I am also going to automate the majority of the "exit slips" the students use to demonstrate mastery of a learning goal. Instead of submitting on paper, students will complete the learning check using a Google Form, which will then be marked immediately (and automatically!) using Flubaroo. This will provide them with instant feedback, cutting down on a lot of this craziness, and helping with tracking.

I would also like to put in more inquiry-based activities. I struggle with this in math, so I'm on the lookout for great MCF3M activities others have used and had success with! Eventually I'd like to spiral the course, but I think that will have to wait at least another year.

In Grade 11 Physics
I started converting this course last year part way through the semester once I had time to wrap my head around it. I found it to be very well-received and I will be converting the rest of the course this year. 

I'm looking to review how I test in Physics (there's been a lot of good discussion around the role of math in Physics evaluation), and while I wasn't very successful at introducing more inquiry-based or rich assessment tasks last year, I would like to focus on that again - less learning by rote and more learning by experimentation.

I'd also like to try different ways of engaging the students in the physics that happens around them. Twitter Challenges have worked well in the past; perhaps a class Instagram account (very new territory for me!), or creating a video series as a class?
Now that I've got it down in writing, that's my next challenge - to practice what I post, working toward what will be my best year in the classroom yet. What about you? What are you trying this year?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Physics: It's Not All About the Math

Earlier in the year (or was it last year?), I had a conversation with someone (or was it a Twitter chat?) where the idea came up that when we test students in Physics, 80% (or was it 75%? or 90%?) of what we are actually testing them on is not their ability to do physics, but their ability to do math.

As you can tell, I don't remember the specifics of the conversation very well. But the idea stuck with me. How much physics am I actually asking my students to do on culminating tasks? Of course, there is a lot of applied math in Physics. But when I go back over my tests, sure enough, the majority of the time I am asking my students to perform correct algorithms, not explain the Physics behind the question.

A Lot of Math

Here's a typical question from a quiz last year:

I would hope, first and foremost, that students would read the question carefully, and figure out what they need to do and/or which equation to use, based on their knowledge of the subject matter and the information given in the problem.

But I'm not asking them to show this thinking. All I'm asking them to do is predict the height of the diving board. Showing me this, would get them full marks/Level 4+ : 

While I would give students credit for being "on the right track," even if mathematical errors prevent them from obtaining the correct answer, this, by and large, is a math question. A common major mistake on this type of question involves students not understanding either what they are given in the question or what they are being asked to do, and as a result, selecting the wrong formula to eventually apply. 

Students aren't showing me the reasoning behind choosing that formula/method, because I am not asking them to.

So now I'm re-thinking how I approach testing students on the physics. The math is still important - I don't want to get rid of that completely - but it shouldn't be the only way students can show their thinking for these types of questions. 

A New Type of Question

Here is what I would ideally like students to do:

1) DESCRIBE the procedure they would use to solve a question, 
2) ESTIMATE the solution to the question, and then...
3) PREDICT the solution the question.

Along these lines, perhaps, here is how I might rephrase the question next year: 

In part a), I'm hoping students give proper thought to how they attack the question. Will having them make their thinking visible help them choose the correct formula or recognize which algorithm to use? Do they understand that the gravitational potential energy of an object depends on three things: its mass, acceleration due to gravity, and height? And will practice communicating this reasoning help them better understand the concepts?

In part b), the multiple choice question might seem obvious, but it amazes me how many students will submit a wildly unfeasible solution (skiers accelerating downhill at 40m/s/s, a piece of metal being dropped in hot water only to end up with a lower temperature, etc.) because they are not thinking about what their answer means.

I'm hoping that a question like this will get the students thinking about what their answer is likely to be, and then recognize if their answer is wildly off. I anticipate that some students might skip over this and come back to it after they have predicted the end result (in order to get the "right" answer), but even this might help students realize if they are in the right ballpark; if their answer actually makes sense.

Part c) is basically the same as the original quiz question, asking the students to "do the math" to determine the height.

In the end, I want students to move away from blindly choosing an equation and then pushing through the math in an attempt to solve the question, thinking it is "all about the math." I also want them to make sure they know why they are choosing one method over the other, and not just because "the variables match." 

I'm hoping the focus on math will lessen over time, to be replaced with greater focus on understanding the actual physics behind the problems we solve together.

Do you teach Physics? How do you balance the physics with the math in your classes? How do you present test questions to your students? I'd love to see more ideas!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Genius Hour - Year 1

After reading Daniel Pink's Drive, and hearing about the success of passion projects from colleagues, this year I wanted to try doing Genius Hour with one of my classes. Here is how we did it!

Getting Started

Here is the document (and videos) we started with:

Topics: While a true passion project could be about any topic whatsoever, because I was trying this with a science class, I required that students choose a topic that had something to do with science. In the end, this only limited the students a tiny bit (they couldn't choose to learn how to knit, or how to play the guitar for example, UNLESS they could tie in some science).

Criteria: The only criteria we had for the "final project," was that the students had to share what they had learned throughout the semester. Throughout the project, students had to consider with whom they would be sharing (the class? the local community? the world?), and how they would be sharing
(a presentation to class?, on bristol board in the school foyer? a website to be pushed out to the world? a video to be shared with elementary schools?). The projects were not marked.

Time: We spent every Friday on our projects. Friday was our 90-minute period, so we would spend 70 minutes on research, and then 20 minutes on blogging.

Blogs: The student blogs were a chance for the students to document what they had learned during the week, pose questions and "wonders" to guide them the following week, as well as learn about what their classmates were discovering.

Then the Magic Happened

Here are the project blogs and links (where applicable) to how each student/group shared their learning:

It was great to see the students so intrinsically engaged with their projects. From reading about others' experiences, I had expected the students to be willing to put in the work (which they were), but I did not expect the change in noise level: instead of the excitement of working on whatever they wanted to elevating the overall noise level, the sheer focus of everyone in the room actually made Fridays the quietest day of the week!

As the students worked, there were a number of amazing highlights. Perhaps the most noteworthy events came because of the students' blogs:

Rough Spots

Due to job action, students were out of classes for a month in April and May. Because of this hiccough... 

  • The projects were abbreviated - some students didn't have enough time to explore their topic as deeply as they would have liked;
  • I didn't get a chance to bring in the mentors as I would have liked, providing an outside influence for the students;
  • It was tough to get back into the swing of things after the break. When one student asked if she HAD to work on her Genius Hour project, I replied "Don't you want to work on it?" She said she did, but that was months ago;
  • Several groups never completed the expectation of sharing the project, not showing up on the last day of classes to present to the group, or not getting their website finished.

The Take-Away? 

I have never seen a project foster intrinsic learning as much as this project did. Students were engaged, anxious to show me (and others) what they had learned, and more willing to try new things without teacher guidance. In one-on-one discussions with the students, I was also quite impressed with the amount of science vocabulary that snuck into the conversation! Talk about making your learning real. 

I am thankful for the ORION tablets this class received earlier in the year, as they allowed us to create and maintain our blogs as well as reach out to the world by creating websites and engaging in discussions with people outside the classroom. I am fortunate to have another grade 9 science class next year, and will certainly be doing Genius Hour with them again.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Reflections on ISTE2015

This past week, I was fortunate to be able to travel to Philadelphia and attend the annual ISTE conference for the first time. Now that I'm back, a lot of friends are asking me...

How was ISTE??

It was Huge

I am used to attending and presenting at board-wide PD days, provincial subject conferences (like STAO), and even national astronomy conferences (like CASCA). But none of that prepared me for the sheer size of ISTE. Depending who you ask, counts ranged from 14,000 to 20,000 attendees. Though I live in a rural area, I grew up in large cities so I don't often feel small-town. But here, I definitely did.

The convention centre itself was several city blocks and though I didn't have a fitbit, I imagine we were like the many participants who reported walking over 5 miles a day just back and forth through the conference.

ISTE Central in the Grand Hall:
registration, commons, the ISTE store and various booths

It took us two days to see everything in the The Expo Hall, it was so large. It was quite shocking to be wandering through the hall and then stumble upon an entire bus at one company's pavilion. And then a second entire bus further into the hall (upon reflection, the Expo Hall was on the second floor of the convention centre... how did the buses even get up there?!).

Keynote attendees lined up more than an hour in advance, and once inside the lecture hall (which was more like a giant television studio), were treated to a concert-like atmosphere, featuring ISTE's "house band" (which was the Big City All Stars from Winnipeg!). It was unlike any conference I had ever attended, and it was all very overwhelming.
Opening of the first keynote talk, with about 8,000 people in attendance

It was Humbling

With such large numbers of educators, it was a humbling experience to be a small fish in such a big pond. But it was also with whom I was attending the conference that made it a humbling experience overall. I was able to attend sessions by educational gurus such as Nicholas Provenzano (of @TheNerdyTeacher fame), Jeff Bradbury (of @TeacherCast fame), Rafranz Davis (@RafranzDavis), and Sam Patterson (@SamPatue & @WokkaPatue; unbeknownst to him, he was the first to introduce me to the power of student blogging) among others. 

My husband went to a session by, in his words, "some motivational guy" who turned out to be George Couros (!!). I passed by educators - such as @cybraryman1, @mssackstein, and @kitty_tripp - who populate my Twitter feed on a regular basis. I was more than a little starstruck (and perhaps even slightly fangirling), but it was very empowering to know that we were all at the same conference, all of us exploring and sharing the best use of technology to improve the educational experience for our students.

These are all teachers who make a big impact on my education world, and in a leadership sense, I would like to follow in their footsteps in my own way at some point. It was humbling to just be in the same room as many of them. In the end, I was too shy to go up and introduce myself, despite the encouragement received from my friends back home. Maybe next time.

So, the only "famous" person I had the courage to go say
hi to was Moby, the BrainPOP robot.

It was Comforting

Since starting this whole BYOD adventure, I've often felt like I've been the one reinventing the wheel. I know I'm not the only one trying this in my school or board, but I am one of the first to completely change my classes over to this no-lecture, all student-based style of learning on a large scale. Reaching out on Twitter, I've made many connections with Ontario teachers trying similar things, and those relationships have been invaluable.

So it was comforting to not only be surrounded by other teachers from around the world who are largely also trying new things in their school/board/district, but to also have the chance to meet with some of the educators whose journeys have crossed paths with mine, and from whom I've been able to seek feedback and encouragement over the past two years.

Meeting up with @misspollock and @rolat for the first time face-to-face.

Despite my relative anonymity moving through the conference, I did not come away from the experience feeling alone. I feel more connected, and more convinced that I am indeed moving in the right educational direction for me.

It was Inspiring

Several times throughout the conference, various speakers made reference to the fact that they were addressing very dedicated teachers - teachers that willingly give up part of their summer and spend not insignificant amounts of money to attend conferences like these in order to become better at what they do. I found it inspirational to see and hear how these other teachers were changing the game. There are a lot of people working toward bettering the education system, and it was so inspiring to be among them.

As a different source of inspiration, one particular session stood out. As "flipped gurus" Jon Bergmann (@jonbergmann) and Aaron Sams (@chemicalsams) led the audience through what they found worked when it came to flipping content, they also spoke about what they tried that didn't work. It was very motivational to hear how they dealt with their mistakes and moved on. Even these bigger names in education struggle with some of the same things I struggle with, and sometimes that alone provides me with the encouragement to keep going.

Aaron's & Jon's Flipped Classroom talk

It was Worth Repeating

It goes without saying that there was way more content at this conference than anyone could reasonably take in. There was always something to learn or someone to learn from, and I would jump at the chance to repeat the ISTE experience.

This year, I chose to focus on attending presentation sessions almost the whole time, taking meticulous notes so as to benefit the members of my TLLP team that couldn't attend. That meant, though, that I didn't get to experiment much with new tools and toys in any of the three playgrounds that were constantly on the go, hang out in the bloggers' café to take time to reflect, or visit with many of the poster sessions. While I absorbed a lot, I didn't make many personal connections, which any of these other activities would have led me to. I would definitely change that next time.

We also chose to stay further out from the conference to save on hotel costs, but if I was to attend again, I would prefer to be closer to the action in order to participate in some of the extra community activities, like the ISTE 5k run, or the Canadian ISTE gathering, or even just informal get-togethers with newly-met colleagues.

And even more so, I hope that some day I can go back as a presenter to share what I've struggled with and learned, and perhaps inspire others to try something new.

Monday, June 22, 2015

It's Not Working

Over the past couple of days in grade 9 science, as we condense the Chemistry unit to try and squeeze it in before the end of the school year, it has become clear that our current system of Learn It/Practice It/Know It is just not working. 

Students are just bashing and crashing through "what they have to do" - turning to the Internet or each other to just blatantly copy answers to tasks without even thinking about what they're doing. Only a few are making notes (or documenting their learning somehow); the majority are not even recalling the basics (difference between a proton and an electron) from one task to the next. 

Only a handful are even looking at (and considering/thinking about) the learning goals or using them to guide their learning. When students ask questions, and I respond with "what have you tried?" - the answer is becoming more and more a blank stare. While I don't mind when students work together to learn, there seems to be a LOT more occurrences of students GREATLY leaning on others to help them through.

This worries me. This unit builds through grade 10, and while all of this will be reviewed in the new school year, it would greatly beneficial to them to have a good understanding of atoms and elements, which many of them don't have.

(I should mention that some students are demonstrating an amazing mastery of the material - and it warms my heart to see it! - but they are definitely in the minority.)

Determining physical properties of unknown substances

Maybe it is because I haven't spent enough time emphasizing the learning process over the course of the semester. Or maybe it's because summer is just 3 more school days away, and they just want to get it over with. But when I get the chance to re-do this course again next year (and I will get that chance), I want to look at introducing new components to try and get away from what's currently happening... 

Determining physical properties of unknown substances

More big picture ideas? Fewer assignments? More one-on-one conversations to check learning? New self-assessments of the learning process? More self-guided choice of topics? I don't want to motivate with marks, but do I start assigning marks to "notes?" For most students right now, it's not working, and something is going to have to change.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Evolution of Giving Students Choice

Since starting out on this adventure to offer students choice in how they learn and proceed through a course, I've tried to adapt how the material is presented based on feedback from the students themselves. People taking an interest in BYOD have asked me how I format the "content lists" that I provide my students, so here is a summary of the evolution to date.

The Basic Outline

For the first year or so, in each course, I had a whole unit on one document. It was nice to have ALL the information for the unit on one page, but it was very clunky-looking, especially when accessed on phones.

I have all but abandoned this format, precisely because of the clunkiness, but I do miss having the "on-task" bar - this is a graphic I would move down the document as we progressed through the unit, indicating where the students should be time-wise. This bar really kept students on task, and helped them better manage their time.

Making it Prettier

When I started trying this with my Physics class last semester, I kept the same idea of Learn It/Practice It/Know It, but I put each learning goal on its own page. That allowed me to make it prettier overall, but also allowed me to distinguish between the different types of resources.

It wasn't as easy to see the whole unit at a glance, but I like the cleaner layout. Links to all the learning goals for the unit were found on a master page that the students had access to through the course website. I found this worked very well for my grade 11 students. 

Ideally, each learning goal (hence, each page like this) could be completed in one class, but of course that didn't always happen. Regardless of how quickly the learning goal was mastered, I found that students would tend to stop for the day when they got to the end of the page. With the previous layout, students would just roll from one learning goal to the next. Possibly because of this, I did find that the overall pace of progressing through the material slowed noticeably.

Senior Courses

For my grade 12 Data Management course, I wanted to give a little less direction when it came to looking at resources, so I changed the above format to the following:

It's a bit of a return to the original design, but I kept each learning goal on its own page. I also put what they had to hand in at the top of the page instead of at the bottom. The students would almost always start with my note to see what to focus on, and then move to other resources depending on their preference for learning, before starting the assignment or practice questions.

The Bigger Concepts

In grade 9 general science, I found it wasn't as easy to break the content down into stand-alone learning goals, so I sorted the learning goals into lessons, each designed to take more than one class to master. 

I provided MUCH more structure for the younger students, who tended to always jump right to "what-needs-to-be-handed-in" before even watching videos or reading up on the material. This class also struggled with documenting any of their learning, so more instructions were included on how to approach a new topic, take "notes," etc.

While I love the more visual layout the tables provide (that idea came from @MrHoggsClass), I dislike how cluttered the page is becoming again with the extra instructions and support. 

It doesn't help that this is a large class, and it feels like the best way to get information/instructions out to the students is to put everything on the page everyone will read. Or hopefully read. I think they tend to gloss over most of it, and they still try and jump right to the assignments.


As I'm turning my thoughts to a new school year, I'm looking to improve on what I've experimented with so far. 
What do you think? 
Which of these appeals to you? 
Which would appeal to your students? 
Is there another format I can consider? 
If you do something like this in your class, how do you set things up? 
I'd love to hear your feedback!