Sunday, January 18, 2015


I absolutely loved the frankness and honesty in @stoodle's blog post on Exorcising Teacher Demons@MrOrr_geek took this one step further and started #10GoodThings - a list of, well, ten good things that happened to him and his classes in 2014, to remind him (and others) that we are indeed fighting the good fight, and doing great things.

So here is my list. They are mostly BYOD/tech related because that seems to be my focus of late. I'm going to nominate fellow #rdsb21c bloggers and bloggers-to-be (@hpennie, @bauerE9, @henschsci, @MrJamesEady) to complete the challenge as well.

Here are my #10GoodThings from 2014

1. 2014 was the first year I started using Twitter to really connect with other teachers. Not just to say hi, but to collaborate on projects and have my students create something along with other students across Ontario. @PatGrew's Ratio Project and @MrOrr_geek's Pumpkin Time Bomb really stand out, as well as @s_m077's Skype chat between grade 3s and grade 12s.


2. I had great support from my principal and vice-principals on BYOD. Every step of the way, from applying for grants, to taking time to figure things out in class, to letting my students run around the school taking pictures of slopes, they've allowed me to experiment and grow. I'm very appreciative of that (and of them!).

3. 2014 was a banner year for attending conferences and non-board PD! Off the top of my head, I was able to connect face-to-face with colleagues at functions by Ontario Principals Council, STAO, STAO Congress, OTRK12, 2 EdCamps, and Manitoulin IGNITEd. It's tough being out of the classroom, but great to get out and discover new ideas.

4. Along with attending conferences, I also had my first opportunities to share my BYOD experiences and help other teachers get started with online pursuits.

5. I finally had the chance to teach true e-learning in the summer with an online Physics course. I had been wanting the opportunity to really test out D2L's vLE waters for some time.

6. I started overhearing good things - unexpected things - from my math & physics students that I'd never heard before. Some would tell each other that this was their favourite class, some would jump in to help a struggling student learn, many would say that they liked the pace, tone, and informality of our class. One student even told me that she likes ending the day with math because she goes home happy. I'm not pretending all students are in the same boat, but teaching-wise, I think I might be on the right track...

7. I became much more of a risk-taker in 2014, teaching a little more like a PIRATE both in how I deliver information as well as building up the excitement in my classes. My students are STILL talking about the mysterious build-up to our Hallowe'en activity.

8. In 2014, I learned to appreciate blogging a lot more, both as a reflection practice for myself, as well as taking the time to read other blogs (through #comcon and #blogamonth) and participate in conversations by commenting on others' blogs.

9. In the latter half of the year, our school's digital infrastructure was improved immensely, giving students and teachers much better connectivity. Slow connections and inconsistency in actually staying connected were perhaps my biggest frustrations while introducing tech into the classroom, and I'm happy to say it is so much better now. Now if I can just convince the powers-that-be to unblock youtube...

10. My husband (@christheij) started adopting and embracing technology in his own ways in his music classes in 2014. It was a really good year of developing ideas alongside him for our respective classes, and growing together as teachers. He has been a huge source of support, and he helped keep me sane throughout a crazy year.

What are YOUR #10GoodThings??

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Watching Students Struggle

Coming back from winter break, I found myself pressed for time in my grade 9 math class. We have just three weeks before the end of the semester, in which I need to squeeze one more unit (linear equations - arguably one of the most important concepts the grade 9s will take with them as they pursue higher levels of math), a unit test, a practice test for EQAO (don't get me started), the EQAO test itself (lasting two days) and the summative project.

We haven't had a snow day yet, but if we do lose a day because of one, this it going to be cutting things awfully close.

My instinct returning from winter break was to rush the students through the learning goals of this last unit - cover as much ground as possible - in what little time we have left. But I knew, too, that particularly with these linear equations, there needed to be a deeper level of understanding. 

I forced myself to slow down. Instead of assigning many small, quick learning checks, I assigned a a larger activity, forcing the students to also slow down. Forcing them to take their time and really understand what it was they were doing. Forcing them to not get the correct answer right away, but instead have to tweak and place in check what they knew as they went. 

The students found the leap to using equations to represent linear functions to be very hard. On Monday and Tuesday, I heard many students complaining about how much they "hate" this unit, and how difficult they find it. This has really been their first challenging unit in this course, and this is the first time all semester I have heard my students speak like this. It was disheartening.

To make matters worse (in their eyes), the activity I assigned them is in Desmos... which many of them haven't used before and were very hesitant about trying.

We had some pep talks in class, we discussed the value of being challenged and growth mindset ("This is hard!" they'd say; "Good! That means you're learning!" I'd say), and we talked about how the only way to get through this was to TRY things and to make mistakes - to take the time to play with Desmos and play with the equations. That things this challenging don't come immediately. To be honest, though, I didn't think they believed me.

Things started to change, however, on Wednesday of this week. Students started coming into class saying "I did it!!" They told me about how it took them one-and-a-half, or two, or two-and-a-half hours the night before, but they figured out Desmos and they got their initials done. They told me about how they understood this whole linear equation thing. And they told me all this with huge smiles. 

They started telling others in class that it wasn't that hard, but that they, too, HAD to play with it. They started helping each other, and creating things in Desmos together. Students would come up to me with their tablet to ask how to place a line or "cut" a line, and then figure it out on their own and literally cheer with joy. No longer afraid, they jumped into the rest of the learning goals of the unit, and are picking them up much faster than I would have expected.

Within a week, our class went from knowing nothing about linear equations, to being able to graph them (from an idea AND from an equation), figuring out the equation from a given graph, creating tables of values from equations and from graphs, and determining the equations of horizontal and vertical lines. I'm super proud of them for digging in deep and overcoming the urge to give up. I think they are also quite proud of themselves.

As teachers, we naturally want what's best for the students. In the beginning of the week, it was tough for me to stand by, watch my students struggle, and listen to them complain without jumping in to help. There were many times I really had to bite my tongue in order to do nothing but encourage them.

But taking the time to let them struggle paid off with huge dividends in the end. Something I definitely have to keep in mind the next time we tackle something new and difficult in class.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

My Five Most-Read Posts of 2014

2014 was a big year for learning and trying new things. I'm no writer, but I am discovering the benefits of blogging - and hence reflecting - as I find my path through the BYOD jungle. 

Here are my top five most-read posts of 2014. Thanks to @classcollect for the idea, who in turn got the idea from @justintarte.

5) Mutiny! - I nearly lost my class over the introduction of a cross-curricular assignment...

4) Culminating Project - Quadratics Toss! - my students went outside to perform an activity, and then matched the outcomes using both traditional and digital tools.

3) The (False?) Pressure of Standardized Tests - as much as I try and ignore the results of my students' standardized math test, there is still pressure to have them do well...

2) The Student Becomes the Teacher - Video Summatives - highlighting the first time my students created teaching videos for their math class.

1) A Tale of Two Edcamps - reflecting on two very different EdCamps - EdcampIsland and EdcampBarrie.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

New Semester - New Technology!

This past week, it was announced that my ORION K12 Teachers' Survey answers had been selected to win a class set of 30 tablets. I am over-the-moon excited for this opportunity, and am greatly looking forward to getting technology into the hands of my students!

At the beginning of the school year, I jotted down several of my big, hairy, audacious goals for my classes. I have been able to pick away at some of them, but it's tough when not all of my students have access to technology. In addition to using the tablets next semester to access learning resources (teaching videos, interactive skill practice, online self-paced tutorials), here is a revised and re-focused list of my goals for the upcoming semester:

Combined Grade 12 University & College Physics Class (SPH4U/4C)

  • Blended Learning through D2L's virtual Learning Environment (vLE). One of the only ways I can see to combine these two courses (which have very different curricula) is to engage the students through blended learning. I was worried that not everyone would have access to a device larger than a phone (small screens are not ideal for the vLE), and we might have had to move out of a science lab and into a computer lab. With the addition of these tablets, we will be able to stay in the science lab and still provide everyone with access to the blended learning resources.
  • Connecting through ORION's O3 Collaboration online community. I would love to be able to connect my university-bound students to Ontario universities and show them what is possible in terms of physics research. I am hoping to connect them with undergraduate/graduate students and professors in fields of interest to them, and expand their horizons even before they leave the island for post-secondary studies.

Grade 9 Academic Science (SNC1D)

  • Genius Hour. My big plan with my junior science students is to devote 20% of our time to them researching and developing their passions and interests. Access to this technology will enable us to engage in primary data collection (through Google Forms), research, collaboration (I anticipate students will choose to work in pairs), journaling (through blogs) and presentation of their products using multimedia. I'm already looking forward to what the students will create.
  • Shocking Comparisons of Electricity Use Around the World. In our school's Learning Cycles math & science PD this semester, the science teachers developed a new unit-long project for the electricity unit. At its biggest level, it involves having the students connect with other students around the world in order to compare our countries' methods of energy production and energy usage, as well as take social action on a larger scale (the project-in-progress can be found here). With the tablets, we'll be able to access tools to help us make those world-wide connections.

Grade 12 University Data Management (MDM4U)

  • Primary Data Collection. The big project in this course involves collecting data (typically through survey) and drawing original conclusions based on the analysis of that data. The samples for these surveys are typically restricted to students at our school. Through the use of Google Forms and Skype in the Classroom, I'm hoping we can reach out beyond our walls to collect and analyze data from around the world. How great would it be to pair up with a similar class in another country and swap data? This would take my students' work to a whole new level.

I'm always on the lookout for new things to try, too, especially when it comes to collaborating with other classes and other schools. Any ideas? Toss them my way!

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Over the past few weeks, @bauerE9 and I joined forces to create a co-curricular assignment for our grade 12 college-level math and English classes. My math class was studying the use and abuse of statistics in the media, while the English class was learning about bias in persuasive writing. A perfect opportunity!

After quite a bit of collaboration from afar (hoorah for Google Docs!), we created Wherein Lies the Truth? Check it out!

We were both VERY excited. The topics seemed to pair so well together, the background info catered well to our Native students, the issues were current, local to Ontario AND controversial. The assignment itself was quite do-able but rich in learning. A great opportunity for students to see how they could use these strategies in every day life, and the perfect blend of math skills and English skills. The students are just going to eat this up.

Or so we thought.

When we introduced the project to our two classes, there was immediate complaining and resistance. I was taken aback by my class - students were loudly whining, protesting; many were griping that this was going to be what failed them in the course. Some questioned why we had to blend the curriculum like this (why should we do English if we're not in English class??), others grumbled that they already had too much work to do - how could we dump this on them all of a sudden?

Students were good in the discussion of the issues at hand, but when it came to talking about what was expected of them in the assignment, chaos ensued. They had no patience to hear the explanation of how to achieve success on this project. When I tried showing them that this was "nothing extra" - just another one of our learning goals covered, they refused to listen. They were turning it into a huge production, when it wasn't any more work than our usual tasks.

I was stunned. This was a unique opportunity for our students - countering the ever-present "when am I ever going to use this??" - and while I didn't expect them to dance in the aisles of the class with happiness, I certainly didn't expect this mutiny. In retrospect, I'm surprised none of them actually got up and left the room in disgust (it was that bad).

So what happened?

Later in the week, I asked my students what fueled their initial reaction to the assignment, and by and large, their reply was "it looked hard." I think this can be broken down further:

  • It looked different: This was very different than a lot (but not all) of what we do on a regular basis. Many students at that age are resistant to changes in their learning , and few have ever engaged in activities that straddle two separate courses. They weren't sure what to expect, or what was expected of them.
  • It looked long: Because we wanted to provide the students with everything they needed to succeed (including the structure for the charts, full background info for students who couldn't be in class, additional resources, and rubrics), the assignment seemed massive. Once they realized which smaller parts had to be completed, they were more at ease.
  • It looked open-ended: It was open-ended. The "correct" answer was not immediately obvious. The students needed to be analytical, creative and original. They recognized that they would need to take a bit of a risk with their work, and it scared them.

Once the students were coaxed into doing the work, though, I started hearing "is that all we have to do?" and "oh, this is easy." Once they came to realize that this was just part of our unit (nothing added on top of existing work), they were more amenable. 

The second day of the project brought students of the completely opposite demeanour. Many had already finished the first part of the assignment and were actively helping others. Many of their paragraphs were creative and made excellent use of the statistics at hand, in ways I didn't even think of.

I'd like to keep creating rich tasks like this for my students.

But I've learned a bit of a lesson in terms of how these tasks are introduced, in order to prevent another mutiny:

  • Put extra info, like rubrics, in a separate document (with links) to reduce length. The assignment won't look as long and might not be as scary, but the same resources would still be available if the students want to consult them.
  • Prepare students by announcing project in advance. Mentioning to them that we have a cross-curricular assignment coming up might allow them to wrap their heads around the idea, and might give them the chance to think about how the two topics might be related. It would also allow them more chances to ask questions of both teachers.
  • Prepare students by having them read something in advance. Having them start thinking about the topic through some light reading - and then discussing the issues in class in advance of the assignment - would help students mentally prepare for the topic and give them a foundation for their work.
  • Do more of this type of thing so it's not a surprise! How can I connect more of my curriculum with other curricula? How can I make it so that my students expect to see these connections rather than be shocked by them?

How do you approach assignments like this? Have you ever experienced the same kickback from the students?

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!