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!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

BYOD: Not All a Bed of Roses

There are a lot of things that are going well in my classroom since changing over to proficiency-based, independent learning (facilitated through BYOD) - you can see what some of my students have to say about it here.

But while I often share the good things, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. There are things I struggle with as a teacher, and things my students struggle with, even months into the program.

Keeping up with the Tracking

Every single day, I have to be on top of what students have handed in and what they haven't. With everyone in a different place in the course, I sometimes find this hard (especially in my class of 31). Many students can figure out what they need to be working on, but others rely on the tracking board being 100% up to date, and if it's not, they're easily lost. 

I had one student who, because I hadn't listed all the assignments along the top of the tracking board, assumed he didn't have anything more to do for the unit, without even checking the master list for the unit online. The organization aspect is huge, and sometimes I can't quite stay on top of it.

Independent Learning

Some students never get the hang of learning on their own. Many students see the end goal of each learning goal to be the exit slip; they'll try to learn on the exit slip, instead of learning beforehand and then testing themselves. They see it as the quickest way of getting through the material, and as a result, don't actually learn what they need to. Even though there are no marks attached to the slips, because that's what they perceive they need to do, that's all they will do, and allot no more effort to the learning process.

I have students give up because the vocabulary list doesn't already include the definitions (something they have to go out and find themselves), and students who refuse to look at any of the resources available before starting an assignment (and hence, quickly become frustrated with an assignment that makes no sense and quit). It is a challenge for me to be constantly encouraging students to just start the learning process, when I would rather be helping them navigate the actual material, and encouraging their creativity.

Lack of Resilience

When it comes to dealing with technical devices, you have to build up a certain amount of resilience. As a teacher, I feel like I am constantly troubleshooting everything from why a device isn't connecting to the WiFi, to how to get Desmos to do something I've never tried before. To experience success, the students also have to demonstrate this resilience.

Even after a few months of encouraging students to use technology to access resources, I still have students give up because they can't get to a webpage (because they made a mistake in typing the URL), or because they can't immediately figure out how to get a circle to graph in the right place. They dislike having to learn new apps ("how am I supposed to know how to use this?"), and instead of seeking help from each other, they start distracting each other.

Not all students are like this, and in fact most of them have gotten quite good at trying things, researching solutions on their own or helping each other out. But to others, making a mistake is cause to stop and give up. Reference to a growth mindset is continual, as well as modelling how to troubleshoot and praising effort and progress.

Getting past the A in SAMR

With the BYOD I've implemented over the past year and a half, I've gotten really good at Substituting and Augmenting what my students are doing. But I am still not doing justice to the Modifying and Redefining side of the SAMR spectrum. I am fortunate to have students with devices, and access to class devices for students without devices of their own. But am I really using the devices to their fullest capacity?

I know that will come in time, once I have the curriculum under my belt. My list of the gazillion apps/ideas/collaborations to read more about is always there for when I have more time to dive into something new. Still it nags at me that I'm not doing more. At least not yet.

Having said all this, the pros far outweigh the cons in how our BYOD classes are running. But it's not perfect, yet. I'd love to hear how other teachers (BYOD or otherwise) manage some of these challenges. Onward and upward!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What the Students are Saying

Over the past few weeks, I've been privileged to speak with other teachers, at both the board and provincial level, about my experiences in implementing BYOD in my math classes.

At each presentation, I was asked: "What do your students think of their math class being BYOD?" 

So today, I asked my students point blank: what DO you think of our math class running this way? Here is what they answered, many anonymously, and without any prompting. No doctored answers, just the occasional spelling mistake corrected.

I think it’s a good way to run a class because it’s easier to learn this way.

I like it because we move at our own pace so some people can be at the end of the unit and others can only be at the start, and everything is online so if someone needs to do homework they can online.

I think its good because this way we can work at our own pace and do things the way we know how to.

It is better because we can go through work at our own speed. If we need help we can ask.

I like this way of teaching math. I like it because we can all move at our own pace.

It is WAY better than day-to-day teaching lesson, it allows us to learn at our own pace. I love it because we can learn it at home too, on the internet, we always don’t need the teacher with us. Best style ever!

It is much easier because we can work at our own pace.

I like running class like this because it allows you to work at your own pace and also because if you already know the certain topic you’re not just sitting there.

I like the way our class is run because it allows us to work at our own pace and learn how we want to learn instead of being forced to be taught in a way that we may not understand.

I like it because you can work at your own pace so if you miss a day you can get to where you should be.

The thing I like about this class is you have a lot of freedom and I’m understanding math more than I have in my life.

I love this way of learning. You can go at your pace and you don’t feel like you are slowing people down or rushing them.

I like the way this class works. I like it because you can move at your own pace.

I like learning like this because you get to actually do the work instead of getting lectures. I learn better that way. Although it seems a lot harder and you get less help when you are trying to catch up.

I like this classroom, but I would like to work in the hall at sometime. Let the people who work in the class go out. And the people who are always in the hall, work in the class. It would be fair.

I love how this classroom is run. When I have a bad day, I know I won’t fall behind. I can work completely at my own pace. There, in my eyes, are no problems with this way of running class.

I like being able to work with a partner almost all the time. I don’t like the stress of having a deadline and no assigned days to work on certain things (ie. test on the 23rd – if you miss a day or struggle and don’t get a goal done I freak out a bit).

I love to learn math like this because I find it a lot easier to do, work on, and figure out math than I have other years because I have struggled with some types. But I do find it hard to sometimes catch up or keep up.

The way Mrs. T teaches gives you a chance to really think and learn at your own speed. It lets you move at your own pace and makes you set goals for yourself. It also helps Mrs. T, instead of her scrambling trying to help everyone, people who already did that learning goal can help you to catch up.

I like learning like this because we can all learn more about how we work and teach ourselves, and learn at our own pace. However it can be stressful when you have to learn everything by yourself, completely understand it and meet the deadline.

I like the freedom where we learn at our own pace and if we understand something, we can move on to the next, and not have to wait for everyone in the class. I don’t like that there isn’t always textbook pages or worksheets available for every learning goal.

I think it’s good because this way we can work at our own pace to get things done and with the tracking board, we know what we have done and what we need to finish.

I like this way of learning because I get to go at more own pace and I don’t have someone basically hand feeding me knowledge. I can actually learn things. Also, you’re not as embarrassed to ask questions, because only you and the teacher can hear.

I like this way because I get to work at my own speed.

I like running a class like this because you can work at your own pace. It is also less stress.

I like how this class is run because it allows me to move at a good pace. If the unit is one that I understand, I can finish the unit early and if I am struggling I have access to multiple resources to be able to grasp the work.

I like that we can work at our own pace but I don’t like how we are kind of teaching ourselves.

I personally like how this class goes for now.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

BYOD on a Semi-Snow Day

We had a bit of a strange day at school last Thursday: many, but not all, of the school buses in our district were cancelled.

This is a departure from the normal "snow day" routine, which is usually all-or-nothing (either ALL buses are running or ALL buses are cancelled). With 95% of our students requiring transportation, the morning's sporadic cancellations caused a lot of confusion for students and their parents. Many students who could have still taken the bus to school either didn't know their route was still running, or chose to not come in since many of their friends wouldn't be there.

Combined with hunting season (which usually sees a drop in student attendance to begin with), most classes had fewer than 6 students that day.

What happens in class when most students are away?

Teachers were scrambling - what to teach? Or is it just a day to "babysit?" Can we postpone review for a test? Do we try and move forward with the material when so many people are missing? Is there enough work for students to just sit and have a work period?

Students, on the other hand, were loving it! When asked what they did all day at school, one student answered: watched a movie in one class, watched videos in another, and played games in a third. Not much learning going on there.

While I admit I toyed with the idea of taking my classes outside to build a giant snowman (cue song from Frozen), I was instead reminded of one of the reasons I have loved switching my courses to BYOD.

Beauty of BYOD

For my grade 9 math class, every student in attendance was 100% productive. Because everything was front-loaded online, all materials were ready to go earlier in the week. I didn't have to prepare anything special for the day, and I didn't have to alter any of the material just because our class numbers had dropped.

Because every student works at their own pace, I don't dictate the pace by teaching full-class lessons. I didn't have to postpone a lesson until the next day, creating a void in our unit. No deadlines needed to be moved, either.

Because each student simply found where they left off the previous day and moved forward in the unit, we didn't "lose" a day of learning. Just like any other day, the students were able to get themselves settled and write the quiz. Or design their trophy. Or create nets to fold into shapes. Or compare calculated volume with the volume of water that would fit in a solid. Each and every one of them that was there, was productive.

Helping each other get caught up

And what of the students that couldn't make it in? With most of our resources are available online, had they wanted to, they could have worked through the material in order to come in ahead the next day.

If they weren't able to access material or instead chose to take a day to play in the snow, they at least knew that all the resources would still be there upon their return. Whenever my students come back after missing a day or two (for cancelled transportation or otherwise), they ask, "what did I miss?" I am always able to say "nothing! It's all right where you left off." A quick check of the tracking board, and they're back in the game.

To say that BYOD has completely changed my approach to teaching is an understatement. It has also changed my students' approach to learning, and their approach to school. At the end of one day last week, one of my students told me "I like ending the day with math class because it puts me in a good mood for the rest of the day." It doesn't get much sweeter than that.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Morning Inspiration

A few years ago, I went on a bit of a spending spree at in an effort to spruce up my classroom. I had been bounced between rooms for a few years, and finally found myself with a "home" for all my classes. I'm a big believer that students will respect a space that is well taken care of, and I wanted to make my room more visually appealing.

I picked up the usual gamut of topical posters (International Space Station; Famous Scientists; "sqrt(-1) 2^3 sigma pi... and it was delicious" is one of the students' favourites) as well as some encouraging ones, but there was one that I bought mostly for myself:

It hangs by the main door to the room, right over the communal table of scissors, markers, extra pencils and scrap paper (also our coffee club's Corner of Exclusion), and right beside the intercom and our Canadian flag. 

Should anyone ask, I placed it there so students might glance at it while retrieving various implements (or when leaving the room at the end of class) and reflect, albeit for a microsecond, on one of the topics. But really, I placed it there so that while I'm at the front of the room, facing the flag for O Canada, I can pause just for that moment, and reflect on one of the topics myself.

Some days I pick one to focus on for the day. Some days, I read through them all to remind myself of what's important. Though I see it every day, I often find new meaning in many of the topics, or am able to link things back to what happened the day before. It settles me - in the 60 seconds it takes to play the anthem - and steadies me for the day.

What inspires you in the morning? How do you steel yourself for the chaos that is the teaching day? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The (False?) Pressure of Standardized Tests

Yesterday, I was honoured to be able to speak with most of the math teachers in my board about the fun things I've been doing with BYOD. I anticipated a number of questions - many of the same questions I wondered about before starting BYOD: how do the students respond to it? How do I assess the students' work? What do the parents think? Is my administration supportive? What happens when students fall behind? 

But another question came up that I didn't anticipate: how does this method of teaching affect the students' EQAO test results? Before this semester, I had never given it much thought. And if I may be honest, I'm a little worried.


In Ontario, all students are given standardized tests on reading, writing and mathematics in grades 3 & 6mathematics only in grade 9, and reading and writing in grade 10. These tests are all regulated by the province's Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO); the math test results do not count toward the students' success in school - they are just for tracking how well Ontario's students are doing.

However, the results do contribute to the reputation of the school. Every year, the Fraser Institute ranks all Ontario schools based mostly on our standardized test results.

In informal settings, we, as teachers, are told to not worry about the results of the tests - that the pressure to have the students do well on a set curriculum is a "false pressure."

If teachers are to worry, we should worry instead about reaching every student, challenging them at their level and engaging them as best we can, not teaching to the test so we can post the highest numbers. We want them to enjoy the process of learning and make progress through the semester. Posting high scores on the test, while nice to achieve, should not be our goal.

That's all well and good to say, but consider the test results: last year, my school ranked 693 out of 740 schools. We are in the bottom 7% of the province. Knowing that, what is your initial impression of my school? What does that say about our students? Our teachers? 

Fairly or unfairly, how my students perform on the EQAO test will result in me being judged. 

True or False?

Every year, our entire teaching staff sits down to craft and refine our School Improvement Plan - setting goals for the year and reviewing past goals. One of the factors we look at in detail - because all the statistics are available - are the grade 9 EQAO math test results. Not just of the past year, but in the past five years or so. My students (and I) will be compared to all the grade 9 math students (and teachers) over that time period. 

All teachers in the school examining how my students performed on the test - is that a false pressure?

Every year our board develops practice tests, provides all the materials for these practice tests and pays to bring in supply teachers so we can go through the tests and provide feedback. In Learning Cycles professional development - also provided by the board - we pour over exemplars and rubrics to see "what makes a good EQAO answer."

The board clearly spending money on efforts to get the students to perform better - is that a false pressure?

Earlier in the school year, we had some PLC (professional learning community) time set aside in advance of a staff meeting. Members of our school's math department got together to look at the new features of the EQAO portal, which provides more in-depth data on how our students performed. Yes, it's great to be able to see data on our students, but I question whether we need an external exam to tell us what any teacher could probably tell you about her class after spending 90 hours with them.

The math department taking time to review student-by-student who improved and who fell short - is that a false pressure?

And then finally yesterday, when teachers were presented with a new method of conducting their math class, the question was asked of me: how will this affect the students' EQAO results? To be honest, I don't know. I know my students enjoy coming to my class, they enjoy learning this way, stress levels are down and they are getting better at thinking outside the box and challenging themselves. Will this translate into high scores on a very traditional pen-and-paper test?

My methods being judged by the results on a test - is that a false pressure?

I am trying my best to do what I feel is right in my classroom, and to provide for my students the base that I feel they will need to be successful throughout high school and beyond. But every time I have doubts about doing something exciting and new - like the Pumpkin Time Bomb, or the Snack Chip Comparison, or the Ratio Photo Challenge, or even this whole BYOD thing - I have to go with my gut and reassure myself that the pressure to stick to teaching to the test is indeed a false pressure. We'll just have to see what comes of it.