Saturday, April 25, 2015

Make School Different: Five things to stop pretending

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Your turn!

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

My "Perfect" Classroom

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

Lots of space to move around.


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

Many options for students to work comfortably.


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

Wall Decorations

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ditching "Effectiveness" - the Miracle of Page 18

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

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

Action shots from the weekend!

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

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

Creating a Rich Task

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

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

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

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

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

Game Changer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change it again:

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 13, 2015

I Hate the Pyramid

As a teacher with a strong background in math and physics, I have always hated - nay, LOATHED the pyramid. You may know of it as the magic triangle, or sometimes as a "formula circle." I hate them all.

If you have never come across such a device, it is simply a way of determining how to solve for any of three variables in an equation where two of the variables are multiplied to give the third value. In the first pyramid above, if you wanted to predict volume (V) and were given mass (m) and density (d), you would use your thumb to cover up the V in the pyramid (what you want to predict). Doing so leaves m over d - indicating you calculate mass divided by density.

Want to determine mass? Cover the m, and you see that you would multiply density and volume, since they are side-by-side.

Is it easy? Yes. And that's why many students (and teachers) gravitate toward using them. My issue, though, is that their usage relies on memorization (you have to get the pyramid right before you can use it), and it removes algebra from the process. Sure, a pyramid works very well for "rearranging" an equation like V = IxR, but what about SA = πrs + πr^2? And don't even get me started on the complete lack of unit analysis...

When I was actively teaching concepts like Ohm's Law (in the circle, above), I never mentioned the pyramid, and made all my students rearrange the equations using opposite operations. I've always insisted that they practice the "hard" way, to better prepare them for the day they need to solve more complex equations. I've even been known to "boo" loudly (with a smile!) if a pyramid ever showed up on a student's work.

But now I'm letting the students choose how they learn concepts like Ohm's Law, and even though the majority of the resources I provide (including the textbook) show no sign of the pyramid, lo and behold, the dang things are showing up EVERYWHERE.

Because I'm emphasizing that each student learns his or her own way, I find I can't - and I don't want to - fault the students for using them. I don't encourage the use of pyramids - I won't even mention pyramids in a mini-lesson, and if a student asked me how to solve for a variable, I'll walk them through using opposite operations. But if the students have independently found a method that allows them to master the learning goal, then more power to them! Right?

Incidents like these are forcing me to step back and really focus on the actual learning goals presented to my students. I am asking them to accurately predict electrical resistance when given voltage and current, NOT asking them to correctly rearrange an equation. In that sense, it doesn't matter how they do it - they could even use trial and error - as long as they eventually do.

I'm not 100% sure this is the correct way to proceed, and I'm finding the algebra a tough thing to let go of. I feel my students might be gaining in the short term (by accomplishing the learning goal), but losing in the long term (less rigorous practice). What do you think? 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Classroom Makeover - Part 1

I'm fortunate to have been offered the chance to makeover my classroom, thanks to some funding from our school board and my administrator. With the shift from lecture-based teaching to student-centered learning in my classes, different spaces within the room were needed in order to better accommodate how different students learn.

I wasn't sure how to change things up, so I turned to the #BYOTchat crew and asked the experts. They had tonnes of great ideas, from different levels (standing areas vs. sitting areas vs. floor areas), movable furniture (modular desks), and creative spaces (white boards, projection screens for students to connect to). Click on that link above to see the archive of the chat if you are also looking for ideas.

The Original Room:


It's a science lab, with built-in lab benches on all four sides of the room (the front bench becomes the teacher's desk/bench). 

  • It's a big room (30 students easily fit with room to move about);
  • There are already outlets galore;
  • There is a working sink at the back of the room;
  • There is more storage than I need;
  • There is a counter along the back of the room (under the cabinets) where I already have four desktop computers.
  • The built-in lab benches cannot be moved or removed (since they have old water & gas lines in them);
  • The benches limit the creation of "spaces" - it's hard to get much into the corners;
  • This will remain a science lab, so flammable items must be kept to a minimum.

I'm by no means an interior designer, but together with the students, we came up with some ideas.

Drum roll, please!

After an unexpectedly early IKEA delivery yesterday, here is what the room looks like now:
"After" - part 1
Groups of students can continue to work at the large tables, which are now better positioned to get power. Two smaller table areas exist (one in the centre of the room, one at the very front of the room) for students to work in a group of two or on their own in a more focused setting.

The lab bench along the left side of the picture - which was previously unsuable - is now a standing/high chair area, ideal for students working with laptops. We took the doors off the cupboards so students won't bang their knees. The chairs can be moved to any of the lab benches as the students see fit, and I'm hoping to encourage some students to stand, while they work, on a regular basis.

The area at the centre-back is the most popular area at the moment - an area rug with bean bag chairs, cushions (more to come) and a coffee table for more casual working. I'll be picking up more cushions next week to add to the area. I spent some time marking there during my prep, and it was pretty cozy! There's a rule of no shoes on the carpet; I'll have to remember to pick up a carpet sweeper or small vacuum to keep it clean. Everything in this area is portable, so if we do a lab, it can easily be removed.

Still to come:

In addition to more cushions, I'll be picking up some small lamps to tone the room down a bit and offer an alternative to the harsh fluorescent lighting. I should have those once we're back from the March Break. Done! See below!

In time, all but maybe one or two of the large tables will disappear, replaced by modular tables that better suit the space. Students will be able to re-configure the desks as they see fit, depending on what they're working on.

One of the side corkboards will become a large white board, pretty much exclusively for student use.

The sides of the lab benches (brown in the photos) will be painted brighter colours, and our senior art class will paint a science-themed mural across the front of the room. I'm totally loving JMSS's science mural right now.

So far, the students seem to like the change. The room feels more spacious now, too, and it is much easier to move from group to group. It will be interesting to see how the students choose to use the different spaces, and how they customize spaces to suit their needs. Part 2 still to come!

Update: April 2

Here are a couple of photos of the room with the lamps and the extra cushions. Two banks of fluorescent lights now stay off most of the time, and surprisingly enough, with all the extra seating, more students are choosing to stand along the side benches - which I'm very fine with! Next step - a little more colour for the benches!

New cushions for the comfy area

New lamps along the side
The east side of the classroom with lamps & comfy area

Sunday, March 8, 2015


Tell me, class, what do we know about pioneers? 
(which pioneers? ANY pioneers!

They had it rough! They had to start pretty much everything from scratch. They might not have had all the tools they needed to get the job done, but they improvised, and they made do. They might not have had the knowledge they needed to succeed, but they learned - often the hard way - and they overcame their difficulties! Was being a pioneer easy? No way! But the amount of knowledge and skills they learned and mastered was immense, and in the end they were better off for their efforts!!

Over the past few weeks, we've been trying new things with our devices (both new-to-us as a class and new-to-us as a school) and there has been a lot of frustration. When things weren't working, when the connection was flaky, when webpages wouldn't load, when we didn't know what to click, I kept having to tell my students: we are pioneers.

Our journey has not been easy...

With the receipt of a class set of tablets from ORION, suddenly everyone was connected. Our plans seemed fairly simple: get the students connected with Google accounts so we could do things like share photos through Picasa, use Google Drive efficiently, and blog about our Genius Hour progress using Blogspot. 

But there was something I kept forgetting about the difference between our "simple" plans and reality:

It took at least a day to get everyone registered on their own tablet and connected to the school network (which was originally blocking all the unknown devices).

It took at least a day of troubleshooting to get everyone successfully on Gmail, as many of my students had never had an email account.

It took three days to get Blogger/blogspot unblocked at our school.

It took a week between the school board then telling me that students shouldn't have their own Google accounts (they should have board Google accounts), providing me with the new account names and passwords, and our students actually being able to log in.

This was when most of the frustration set in: issues with initially logging in, classroom icons not appearing, mail icons taking you to external apps instead of back to Gmail, me not being able to see Blogger (but my students could?), browsers being already unsupported for GAFE... many students started giving up. When they got bored, the games came out, and it took a lot of convincing to get people back on track and actually trying things.

"Break it," I'd tell them. "Break Google. Click on anything you can find and figure out what it does."

But then things slowly started to change.

One pioneer changed his profile picture, and many others followed suit. Yay!

Two of our pioneers discovered that typing in "" will take you to where students could access my class, which got around us not being able to get to the Classroom icon. Hoorah!
Using the tablets during Genius Hour
A silly trial assignment posted within the Classroom environment had students helping each other out with how to "complete" it. Sigh of relief!
Using the tablets to connect to online resources to help learn.

We discovered that (default for Blogger blogs) is still blocked, but (which takes you to the same blog) is unblocked. Phew!

Blogging with the tablets 
I played too - customized the header for our Google Classroom, and tried sending emails to my students through the board accounts. There was lots of public trial and error on my part, as well as me continually walking around and asking "hey - how'd you do that??" 

Our class' cover page in Google Classroom

Now we move forward...

Now that we are all connected, we are moving forward at a great pace. Students are consistently using their tablets to connect to our online resources, create blogs for their projects, and reach collaborative documents through our virtual classroom.

Getting everything set up was a painful process, but the students now demonstrate great familiarity with the tablets, and are starting to create amazing things online (which I hope to be able to share soon). They demonstrated resilience and ingenuity, and they started turning to each other for help, which was wonderful to see. 

While we're done pioneering for the time being, I'm hoping the students will be a little more likely to take risks with new technology in the future - a skill that is very much transferable as they become 21st Century learners.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Global Survey - Electricity Usage

I've been doing this BYOD thing for a year and a half now, and I'm much more comfortable working with students and their myriad of devices than I was when I started. I'll be the first to admit, though, that the bulk of what we do with the devices is access online resources that support the textbook and/or labs that we do in class.
Working on learning content.
Using an online circuit builder
In terms of the ever-present (in my mind, anyway) SAMR scale, it's pretty low. Sure, some of the resources we access are a step up from textbooks (like an interactive circuits website, or multiple choice quizzes that give you hints and immediate feedback), but I haven't really been harnessing the power of connecting through the Internet. Until now.

During the first semester, my colleagues and I created a grade 9 assignment on electricity production and consumption around the world. At its simplest, it could be a research assignment. At it's most complex, it could be a chance for students to reach out to other students around the world and personally compare their two countries.

For my class, I decided to break the project into four parts, extending it beyond our electricity unit and into our astronomy unit. The links will take you to each part of the project:
  • Part A: Research (including a global survey) on electricity production and consumption differences between countries;
  • Part B: Taking action by creating original resources (of their choice) based on what they've learned in Part A;
  • Part C: Research on light pollution around the world, and how this links back to the use (waste?) of electricity;
  • Part D: Citizen science as students collect their own data on light pollution in their area, and contribute to the Globe at Night project

Let me just say here that projects of this scale thrill me, but also scare the pants off me. This feels absolutely huge, and almost insurmountable. There are a lot of unknowns out there, but my #oneword this year was JUMP (as in, jump into trying new things, jump outside of my comfort zone), so let's go big!

After introducing the first part of the project, we discussed - as a class - what types of questions we could ask people (from any country) in order to gauge how much electricity they use. The students quickly agreed that "How much electricity do you use?" was too vague a question (though it led very nicely into a discussion of how electricity usage is measured and paid for).

Students worked on white boards in their table groups to brainstorm questions that could possibly go on a global survey. After a bit of time, they copied their best questions (as decided by the group) onto paper and handed it in.

The next day, I gave the table groups a copy of all the questions that had been submitted, and asked them to - again as a group - narrow the 36 questions down to the best ten that would go on the survey. That evening, I tallied up the votes, and created our class survey:

And then we tweeted. And sent the survey to friends on Facebook. And got our parents to send it to their friends. And tweeted some more.

After about a week of data collecting, we have 400 responses from 36 countries - and growing!

The students love seeing the responses roll in - every class starts with a glance at the spreadsheet on the board to see how many responses have come in since the previous class. Our box of pins is becoming depleted as we add more and more of them to our map.

We're not looking at the results so much right now (though the students are quite interested to see who doesn't have running water, or if anyone has left their email address to connect with us), but the discussion of countries has been amazing!
Our map, as of a few days ago. More pins have been added since!

Students crowd around the map in class trying to figure out where some of these countries are (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines??), looking up the capitals (where the pin goes), talking a bit about history and what makes a country independent (is Hong Kong the same as China? Are Wales, Scotland and England all the same country? Which country does Greenland belong to?). If a new country pops up on the spreadsheet during class, the students are quick to point it out. And celebrate!

We will keep pushing for data for one more week, and then delve into it for the projects. I'm looking forward to discussions about what the data means, when to exclude "dirty data," and where bias creeps in (and there's definitely a lot of bias in this survey!). We are also sharing the data with @jaccalder's math class who will help us by making charts and graphs demonstrating trends and correlations.

But for now, the science can wait. The students are getting a tremendous sense of what it means to connect with others around the world, and are opening their eyes to what all (and who all) is out there on the other side of the planet.

I am so grateful to every member of my extended PLN who has shared the survey with their friends, colleagues and their respective PLNs. I'm greatly looking forward to seeing what the students do with this new knowledge and how far they can push themselves to connect in return!