Saturday, April 5, 2014

It's the Little Things!

The other day, I was handing back assignments to my grade 12 Data Management class, when I was asked a surprising question by one of my students.

“Hey Miss,” he said, “do you still give out stickers when we do well on tests?”

(Yes, that was said by an 18-year old, grade 12 boy.)

I had forgotten about that. For years, I would place little star stickers - sparkly, colourful ones - next to students’ marks on assignments and tests when they got over 90%. I would try and do it on every item handed in for evaluation - from large projects right down to the smallest 5-mark task. There were some assignments on which no one received stars, and some where pretty much the entire class got 90% or higher, but regardless of the “importance” of the assignment, my rule stuck.

Photo Credit: Enokson via Compfight cc

I wasn’t sure it was making any kind of a difference in terms of motivation. I had seen a few students, over the years, carefully peel the stars off their work and stick them in rows on their binder. Others would compare stickers (“I got a blue one - what colour did you get?”), and some would ask why they didn’t get one. But I hadn’t heard anyone ever say, “I’m going to work harder so that I can get a star!” 

And the majority of the students never did or said anything about the stickers, at least that I could see. Sure it was fun (from my point of view), but was it making any kind of a difference in the classroom?

I stopped doing it earlier this year when I went to mark a bunch of assignments at home and had inadvertently left my star stickers at school. It was such a little thing, that I didn’t think it would be noticed. And it wasn’t. I handed back the assignments and not a single student asked why there were no stars. 

So the practice fell to the wayside. It’s funny how quickly you can fall out of a little habit like that when there are a dozen things on the go at once. And over time, like I said, I had forgotten that I had even done it in the first place.

Until the other day, when one of my students asked out of the blue if I still gave out star stickers.

“Do you remember that?” he said to another one of the boys at the table.

“I loved those stickers! They were the best!” the second boy replied.

“Wait, you guys used to get stickers? I want stickers too!” said a third, who had never had me as a teacher. “Why don’t we get stickers?”

(Aside: who knew grade 12 boys were so into stickers?)

This made me realize something important - no matter what we do in the classroom, the students notice. Every little act, gesture, comment; even if they don’t acknowledge that you do it, they notice. This can be a good thing - those little star stickers ended up being something they enjoyed, just as I’m sure little comments and tidbits of motivation are, a smile, or a nod of encouragement. But it can also be a negative experience they notice - every eye roll, unhappy face beside a poor mark, every time we neglect to make time for them and their questions.

Anything I can do to make my classroom a happier place for my students, no matter how trivial, I will try. Effective immediately, not only will I go back to using stickers to celebrate success, but I’ll also try harder to deliver as many smiles and messages of encouragement as I can. Because even if they don’t respond, they’ll notice.

What little things do you do in the classroom for your students?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Discovering Slopes

Along with delivering most of our course material in a BYOD format, I've been trying to get my students to do more hands-on, independent work with their devices. 

I've been a pretty traditional teacher up until now, and the thought of giving my students open-ended tasks still scares me. But they LOVE it, and the work that comes back is not only creative and original, but also demonstrates a really high level of understanding.

Here is a short assignment my grade 10 math students did during our unit on linear equations: Real Life Slopes of Real Life Lines.

Basically, they had to go out into the school and...
  • Find five objects that demonstrated slope
  • Measure the slope of the objects by measuring the vertical displacement (rise) and horizontal displacement (run)
  • Calculate the rate of change
  • Document the objects by taking pictures on their devices

I was amazed both with what the students found, as well as the number of ways they approached the project!

I had thought of a couple of obvious examples (stairway railings, a broom leaning against a wall), but the students went all out, identifying sloped lines in murals, artwork, open doorways, garbage cans, accessibility ramps, magazine holders, tablet cases (propping up a tablet), triangular tiles, pieces of desks... I had no idea there were so many slopey things in the school!

Some students had trouble finding examples of slopes, so they MADE slopes by leaning books up against a printer and tipping a table at an angle. I had never suggested to them that they could make their own - it's something they came up with independently!

One student chose instead to identify right angles within the classroom (on pictures, tabletops) and then use those values as her rise and her run to find the slope of the diagonal connecting the two sides.

The students enjoyed the freedom of being let loose in the school, and they experienced a lot of success. This project has also become a reference point when calculating slope on a graph back in the classroom - they remember doing the measurements larger-than-life, and can apply what they've learned back to a plain old graph.

I would love to do more of this type of activity with my students. Any suggestions? Have you done something similar (or, very different)? I'm always looking for new ideas!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Self-Serve Learning - but only at school?

My BYOD math class this semester (MFM2P - grade 10) is markedly different than my first semester class (MCF3M - grade 11): it is a designated applied level class (first semester was a mixed group), it is a small class (14, compared to 31) and I have a grade 11 peer teacher helping with the organization and keeping students on task (it was just a wee bit chaotic last semester).

But after a full month of classes, there is also something else I'm noticing about this new group of students: they move at a much slower pace.

Because they are an applied-level class, I tried to anticipate what they might struggle with in an independent learning setting. I actively sought out a peer teacher so students wouldn't have to wait as long for help if they needed it. I chunked down the units from 9-10 learning goals to 4-6 learning goals, and reduced the time for a unit from a month to about 2 weeks per unit. I am also designing fewer projects in addition to the basic learning goals - still giving students the chance to demonstrate their learning in a creative way, but not overloading them with work.

We also spent more time as a class, at the beginning of the course, going over how to learn, how to choose appropriate resources, and how to pace yourself through a unit. We talked about how, for the first time, they wouldn't have to wait for me in order to learn (or get left behind by the class if they didn't quite understand something), and how their learning wouldn't even necessarily come from me.

We were making the transition from being spoonfed students to students serving themselves from a buffet.

In-class, the students have - to keep the analogy - completely gobbled up this new system of learning. As I circulate, the students are all watching teaching videos, trying questions on the white boards, and working through online quizzes. My peer teacher and I are regularly answering questions or providing feedback and mini-lessons. I never have class management or discipline issues. The students can chip away at the material without much prompting and track their own progress on the class tracking board.

Regardless of these great work habits and the extra supports in place, though, the students are still just barely getting through what they need to in order to complete the units. The work in class is consistent, but slow. The work outside of class? Non-existent.

As before, all the resources are available online, accessible whenever the students want to learn. I also still have the "help file" available for students to chat with me after hours whenever they need extra help. We talk regularly in class about pacing ourselves through the unit as we approach the test - going back to that tracking board and having the students assess on a day-by-day basis what they need to do at home in order to complete everything on time.

But the all-you-can-eat buffet of learning mentality seems to shut down as soon as the bells ring at the end of the school day. Many applied-level students have gotten through the past few years of school without having to do homework, and they don't even take their books home. 

This isn't an issue if all the learning can be accomplished in class, but if students are going to progress at a slower pace (with which I'm fine), then the smorgasbord mindset has to also be in place 3pm through to 9am the next day in order to compensate.

How can we help students get back into the working-at-home habit, when they recognize that they need extra learning time? How can we reinforce that learning shouldn't be like eating large meals only at given times, but rather like grazing, taking in bits here and there when needed and when possible? Independent learning is great at school, but it works just as well outside of school. How can we encourage and convince the students of this as well?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Get Out of Your Seat!

There has been a lot in the news lately about how much time youth are spending "in front of a screen." A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicated that - not including texting - teens experience about 11 hours a day of screen time (television, tablet, computer, phone with apps, etc.). Further reports (like this one, this one, and this one) indicate that this is leading to depression, anxiety, and an inability to focus in our students.

Results like this lead me to question what I am doing in my BYOD class. By strongly encouraging students to be on their devices to learn, research and practice skills, am I contributing to their eventual downfall? Am I simply buying in to all the connectivity hype? As a teacher, I'm trying to connect with students where they already are (and currently, that's online), but should I be forcing them to come to me instead?

I'm torn - I want to use the devices to engage the students and capture their interest, but I don't want to contribute to the next generation of automatons who are content with just sitting there because all the answers can come directly to them via the Internet while they multitask on 50 different things. I want them to use the devices as they need to, but balance the screen time with critical thinking, physical activity and face-to-face collaboration.

A little piece of my mantra has become:
BYOD does NOT mean 100% screen time
BYOD does NOT mean learning by oneself

With the portability of laptops, tablets and phones, students can learn and be engaged virtually anywhere - not just at their desks. So that's one of the things I'm focusing on - engagement through movement. Here are some of my efforts to get students out of their seats:

Go Big: 

I encourage my students to use portable white boards while they practice the course learning goals. I loved having my own portable white board when I was in high school (I got it for Christmas, and it was fantastic!) - there's something wonderful about being able to write a problem out larger-than-usual, easily change/erase things as needed and highlight with different colours.

Students using the portable white boards in class, 
along with their devices.

When my students use them, I find they are more likely to stand while they work, more likely to share their work with each other (because they are not individually focused on a tiny screen), and more likely to be engaged in what they are doing. They are still using their devices to access material, but then they also use their devices to capture and curate their work, often by taking a photo of their whiteboards and adding the pictures to notes in Evernote.

Go Do Something: 

In math, there is no question that the majority of the learning goals throughout the semester are purely skill-based. While I try to not always have my students "drill and kill," I do recognize that there is inherently going to be a lot of sedentary drilling time. So when I get to learning goals that are more inquiry-based than skill-based, I try my best to get them away from their desks.

In grade 10, I recently sent them out into the school, armed with metre sticks and their phones to find and measure examples of slope. In grade 11 last semester, they had to find examples of periodic motion and record the motion in order to collect data and graph it. And the more I do get-up-off-your-bum activities like this, the more I see the students enjoying the learning and discovery process, and the more amazed I am with the creative results.

I don't always let my students stand on the lab benches, 
but when I do, it's for SCIENCE! And math.

There are lots of great activities out there like this, and I'm trying to integrate more and more of them in my courses as we go.

Get Moving: 

Because the pace of learning is independently-driven, I allow my students to get up and move around as they need to. The tables in the room are set up in pods, and there is no assigned seating. In any class, students may choose to move themselves to someplace a little quieter, or move right into a group all working on the same goal. Often when I'm giving a mini-lecture on a certain learning goal, I will invite interested students to pick up and move to a different area of the classroom together before moving back to their desks.

I don't want my students to sit for the entire 70-minute class. If a student needs a bit of a break and walks over to another student to chat for a few minutes, that's allowed and encouraged (within reason). They are invited to go ask each other for help. When they are ready for an exit slip, they are expected to get up and go see our peer teacher so she can check their work and distribute the slips. Our tracking board is on a wall far from the seating - if they want to check it out, they have to move. There's little chance a student can sit in one spot for the whole class, even if they wanted to.

In a lot of ways, these ideas are similar to what we've always done in pre-BYOD classrooms: it's never a good idea to have students sit still for long periods of time in any environment. How are you keeping your students active? How do you address the balance between screen time and the real world? What other tricks can I use to keep my students active in class?

Friday, February 28, 2014

Culture That Comes From Rivalry

February's #blogamonth topic is Culture - school culture, classroom culture, community of growth and learning, culture shifts in school districts, etc. After a crazy month, I'm glad I can sneak this post in before February is officially up! Here's my take on one aspect of school culture:

The recent Olympics turned our classrooms into stadiums, arenas and slope-side bleachers. Regardless of the event on the webcast (though hockey was by far, the favourite), students were transfixed by the athleticism of the participants, the drama of the close calls, but mostly, the Canadian pride.

For a few short weeks, everyone in the school - regardless of background or grade, interest or age - had a common wish: for the Canadian individual or team to win a medal.

I would have been hard-pressed to identify the culture of my school any other time of the year, but from February 7-23, the culture was strictly Canadian.

This brought to mind another aspect of culture which I've experienced in other schools, but have rarely seen at my current school... the culture brought about by rivalry.

I think it is safe to say that most schools have a rival: a school that is similar in terms of sports teams, or Reach for the Top competitors, or school size, or even just geographic area. Any time the rival schools compete, students come out in droves, dressed in school colour chanting school cheers. It brings the school together, with everyone hoping for the same outcome.

I grew up with this. I had more orange-and-black clothing than I care to admit. The cheers still come to me readily 20 years after graduating, I remember full-school spirit days, giant spray-painted banners hanging from walls in the cafeteria, even travelling to rival schools simply as part of a cheer squad to support our school. Every teacher and student got geared up for these meetings, it seemed. It made up part of who were we.

Why was our school better than our rival? It wasn't, necessarily, but we found reasons to be the better school, and we rallied around those reasons.

The school at which I teach now, however, doesn't have a rival.

Geographically, the nearest high school is about 45 minutes away, but it is a much smaller, on-reserve school with which we have very little interaction. The next closest school is a full hour away, and the next one another 40 minutes past that.

Athletically, we play in a league which does not include schools in our own Board, with the furthest "rival" almost four hours away from our school. There are only five schools in the league, and games between any two schools are few and far between.

The rural-ness of our school also plays into the number of opportunities we can offer our students to interact with other schools. With 95% of our students bussed to and from the school, it makes it harder to organize extra-curricular, competitive activities. Not ideal for creating THE RIVAL.

Don't get me wrong - we have school spirit, and we all have copious amounts of gold-and-black clothing and face paint, but we lack those regular interactions with a similar school to really get that rivalry going. We cheer on our teams, and celebrate the successes of our students much like any school would, but we're missing that fire - the fire that came through so clearly with the Olympics - that really rallies everyone together in common cause.

Can a good old-fashioned rivalry (and a healthy one, at that) be created? I believe so, but it has to come from the students of both schools. I'm not sure it can be manufactured "in the name of school spirit," but instead has to happen organically. Is there a way we as teachers can encourage and foster friendly competition, with a hint of "can't wait until we face off against you again?"

I realize that this isn't the only thing necessary to bring an entire school together in an over-arching demonstration of its culture. It seems few things, though, get the whole body of students cheering for the same cause, like a good win over an old rival.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Test Results in a BYOD Class

Another happy outcome of changing my math class over to BYOD last semester was that the amount of student tracking I was doing - and reflection on the results - dramatically increased. I found myself much more on top of who-had-handed-in-what, more on top of my marking, and more analytical of my overall test and quiz results.

These are things all good teachers should be doing (as was drilled into my head at teachers' college), but it often falls to the wayside in the busy-ness of just keeping up with the day-to-day teaching tasks. In fact, as much as I benefited from the extra tracking in my math class, I couldn't get around to the same level of tracking in my other classes. But I felt I had to in the BYOD course.

The reason for this is simple - 
I had a lot more riding on the success of this BYOD class: if I was going to go to the trouble of changing the entire course, and subjecting my students to learning in a way completely unlike anything they had experienced until now, I had better be able to show that it was worth it.

One could argue that improved test scores indicate success - the better the understanding of the material, the higher students would score on tests. Fair enough. I know tests don't tell the whole story, but test results are easy enough to obtain, so let's look at that.

Here is a graph of how my students did on our four unit tests across the semester. Each line is one student; the tests go in chronological order, and do not necessarily increase in difficulty, as each test covered different topics. To avoid identification of any one student, any student who joined the course after the first test, or dropped the course before the fourth test, was omitted from the data.

What a mess!

What I would have LOVED to see is a general upward trend from test 1 to test 4, indicating more comfort with independent learning, and that students had, over time, found their rhythm in the course. An increase in confidence should have lead to better performance on subsequent tests. Instead, I'm getting this scattered mess (and what the heck happened on test 3??).

What else do these test results tell us? Nothing surprising, and nothing unlike what you'd see in any other math course:
  • Many students found the content to be challenging the whole way through the course. 
  • Those who tended to do well on tests at the beginning of the course, continued to do well on tests throughout. 
  • Those who tended to get below 50% at the beginning, continued to get low results on tests throughout.

Initially, I was devastated.
As a whole, the class did not improve in their ability to succeed on tests. Was my BYOD experiment a failure? Did I do these students a huge disservice by switching to independent and proficiency-based learning? What did I do wrong?

But then I got thinking: this doesn't mean that my students didn't get better at math over the semester (they did), or that they didn't improve their inquiry skills (many of them did), or that they were less willing to take risks (indeed, I found the opposite). It really just speaks to my students' test-taking skills, which did not improve.

BYOD is not meant to make students better test-takers.
It is meant to make students better collaborators, better problem-solvers, and better learners. My students became more comfortable with investigative tasks and communicating their discoveries. They became more resilient, figured out how they best learn, and how to best demonstrate what they learned. A summative test is not always the best demonstration (and certainly not the one my students would choose, if given the choice).

If I want my students to do better on tests, I need to teach them how to do better on tests. If I want my students to be better life-long learners and leaders in their fields, I need to teach them those skills. Test preparation is but a part of that.

Test-taking is important - many skills are still evaluated this way as students make their way into college and university - but it is definitely not the whole picture. As I prepare my new BYOD math class for our first unit test later this week, I'll be keeping this in mind.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

New Semester, New Goals

Last semester, when I started BYOD and started this blog, I was trying to integrate technology with with a grade 11 mixed level math class. Some students were coming from an academic stream, while others were coming from a more applied level. I thought it would be an ideal course in which to learn independent study and learning skills, especially since most students taking it would go on to take the grade 12 university-level data management course.

The results were eye-opening at the extremes: some students coming from the applied level, who I expected might struggle with the more advanced theoretical content, ended up with some of the top marks (> 85%) in the class. They thrived in a system of moving at their own pace and choosing how they wanted to learn.  I can't remember the last time I had students work so earnestly to achieve an amazing level and depth of understanding.

On the flip side of the coin, some students coming from the academic level, for whom the level of math should not have posed a problem (a lot of the content was identical to what they learned last year), were unable to manage their time or workload throughout the semester, and accomplished very little understanding (resulting in an overall mark < 20%). I also can't remember the last time I had students do so little in a course.

The majority of the students in the class struggled somewhat with learning independently, but with a bit of a push at the end (exam exemptions based on an overall grade helped motivate them), they finished up with decent understanding of the course material.
Students taking notes from a video

So where does that leave me for this new semester? I'm currently in week 2 of BYOD learning with my grade 10 applied-level math class. As I'm planning my units and the learning goals within, there are a couple of things I find myself coming back to upon reflection of the first semester:

1. The amount of success with BYOD does not depend on academic level.
  • It doesn't matter how much the student knows coming into the course, it's how well he or she can manage one's time and workload to accomplish the tasks set in front of them. This semester I aim to identify students who struggle with this earlier, and to work more closely with them and their parents to explore management strategies. Some students got overwhelmed toward the end of the course in semester 1 and gave up. I don't want that to happen again.

2. Constant reinforcement of curation skills will help everyone.
  • Last semester I allowed students to do as they pleased when it comes to note-taking and organization. About half the students took some kind of note on various lessons, but the majority just wrote down an example or two and moved on. That made it really hard for them to review later on and study. This semester, I started with the introduction of the Cornell note-taking system, and led the students through an example. I aim to remind students of this system often, and have in place an expectation of good, clear notes from which they can learn

3. Skill practice must be enforced for long-term success.
  • Last semester many students would learn the material, regurgitate it for the exit slip, and then promptly forget it. In addition to having the students curate what they learn, I am also aiming to enforce the practice aspect of learning. Before the students can receive an exit slip, they have to show me - or my peer teacher, who I am very lucky to have with me in this class - that they have practiced the skill with success. I'm hoping this leads to more success on summative tasks like tests or unit projects.

Though I made it through one semester, I still very much feel like I am completely new to all of this. We'll continue to tweak and hone our system as we move through the course. As always, suggestions, experiences and comments are welcome!