Tuesday, September 16, 2014

One Week In: Grade 9 Math

After a little more than a week of classes, I wanted to get some thoughts on my courses this semester down on paper (er, word processing document). I started the school year with so many hopes, plans and ideas for my students, but there are always hiccoughs - will students all have access to technology? Will they be willing to try new things? Will ideas that work so well in my head translate just as well into real-life?

This is the second of three posts on my classes this semester (one post per class). My grade 12 math post is here.

My grade 9 math class is a very fun group.

They are a large group (30) who, on the whole, seem to have great work ethic and discipline. We did a Teach Like a PIRATE introductory activity on the first day where they had to each create something that represented themselves, and I was blown away by the creativity of these students!

My grade 9s' strengths.

A diagnostic test (given to make sure that academic math was the right place for them, as opposed to the applied level math also offered in grade 9), indicated that most were reasonably strong in the subject. Even in the first week, they are moving faster and more confidently than I expected - I haven't taught an academic junior class for 7 years, and I've been taken pleasantly by surprise by their zeal.

They are a group of students who take their work very seriously. There was a lot of stress going into the diagnostic test, and worry about not remembering the math they learned from last year or being able to complete the test in time. There were a lot of complaints afterward that the test was brutally hard. We (grade 9 teachers) had tried to reassure the students that the test was only to make sure everyone was placed properly, and while I was sorry to hear that there was so much stress on the students' part, it showed me that they cared.

What my grade 9s have pledged to work at and improve upon during the school year.
Love seeing the commitment to getting better at math, and being outside their comfort zone!

On the whole, the students are very comfortable with technology, though not all have their own devices. We've been using a class set of tablets to supplement, for now, but the applied level class will be taking them over in the near future (the tablets are allocated to the applied classes... I've been lucky to have them up until now!).

The Term:

I've been structuring the units similarly to the math classes (MCF3M and MFM2P) I converted to BYOD last year. Our first unit - Number Sense - went very smoothly, thanks partially to the addition of a peer teacher to the class. I had a great peer teacher last semester, and she was invaluable. Already this semester's peer teacher has been a huge help as all 30 students worked through their first set of learning goals.

Many students are choosing to learn from the textbook, and worksheets are very popular. Students are always encouraged to help each other out, and to take advantage answer keys to assess whether or not they are mastering the skills. Others are choosing online games (like Integer Jeopardy, or Dividing Fractions Soccer), and nearly all of them are working together - teaching and learning from each other - which is great to see.

We've started using a tracking board again, so that the students can see (and double-check) where they are in the unit. It also allows me to touch base with students who are falling behind. It works to help keep both the students and myself organized!

Student Reaction

Even though this is a very different approach to learning math than what the students are used to, they seem to be adapting very well. This could be because everything is new in grade 9 - new school, new timetable, new courses, new classmates. The response seems to be overwhelmingly positive.

The other day, while I was filling out the tracking board for the first time, I overheard some of the students talking as they were watching me colour in their completed squares. They were saying they felt these concepts were easy, that they were proud to see their accomplishments noted on the tracking board, and that they were surprised to see that what they had accomplished in one week this year would have taken them over a month last year. They were thrilled!

Now, granted, these were mostly review concepts, but allowing the students to choose how they learn seems to improve their confidence. Having them choose the pace at which they learn seems to take away some of the stress they've associated with learning math. I'm looking forward to great things with this vibrant group.

Next steps

As we move into our first "new material" unit tomorrow, I'm looking forward to involving the students in more inquiry-based learning, and getting them to set their sights on big-picture math. It will take all of us (including me!) a little out of our comfort zones!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

One Week In: Grade 12 Math

After a little more than a week of classes, I wanted to get some thoughts on my courses this semester down on paper (er, word processing document). I started the school year with so many hopes, plans and ideas for my students, but there are always hiccoughs - will students all have access to technology? Will they be willing to try new things? Will ideas that work so well in my head translate just as well into real-life?

This is the first of three posts on my classes this semester (one post per class). My grade 9 math post is here.

My grade 12 college math class is an interesting group.

My grade 12s' strengths.
I have both academic-level students and students who have just barely scraped by in previous math courses in this class. Many seem reluctant to use technology in many capacities (we did an introductory activity where they picked a graphing calculator app and used it to create graphs and answer questions) - some complain, saying it's hard (read: different), while some refuse to use the technology at all, saying they don't see the point because they'll never use technology in this way. I'm hoping the more we use it, the more they will get comfortable with it.

Though this is an elective class that some need for their college programs, some are taking it just to fill the period, and have no real interest in being there. They can be a tricky group, and I want to be able to offer something for everyone, while still completing the curriculum expectations.
What my grade 12s have pledged to work at and improve upon during the school year.
I was glad to see math so prominent!

The Project:

We have started with an independent unit project on aspects of personal finance. I tried to offer as much choice as possible - everything from how they want to demonstrate their knowledge for each individual learning goal, to what kind of final product they want to hand in. Students create the type of family they want to study, choose how they want to learn about each learning goal, and even decide the order in which they would like to tackle the learning goals between now and the project due date.

Though many of the resources are electronic, there are always "traditional" options for learning, including a textbook and in-class lessons. I am trying to introduce my students to as many new (often electronic) resources as possible, and encouraging them to look many things up or do research on their own devices, in a BYOD-style.

It is a month-long project, not interspersed by full-class lessons, or other activities. This is it. It will give me the chance to assess and evaluate more through conversation and observation than I'm used to. It's a new style of project for the students, and this style of assessment is new for me as well.

So far?

So far, I think it's going well. Having just come off their summer jobs, and being right on the brink of moving away to college next year, the students have fresh ideas in their heads as to income, expenses, and the value of money.

For the students, the toughest part of the project seems to be deciding what to do first, and what to complete in what order. Because we've blown this wide open, some students have a very hard time getting started. Each period, I start with checking in with every student, asking then what their goals are for the period - what part of the project do they want to get done today? - and making sure they have the resources they need to accomplish that goal.

For me, the toughest part of the project is having to be as familiar as I can be with EVERY learning goal at the same time, because the students are all over the place. Budgets, annuities, housing prices, amortization tables and the differences in the various savings plans are all familiar to me, but it has been years since I've had to teach most of it.

Going from helping one student figure out an annuity formula, to answering a question about taxes, to offering suggestions as to how a student can get a house insurance quote is tricky for me. I find it tough to switch gears like this, but I enjoy being able to problem-solve with the students: looking things up together (online, or in real estate listings in the local newspaper), comparing budgets with other students, or working through a calculation together on a portable white board.

Moving Forward

I am a little worried that the students will get bored of the project, since the timeline is so long. To break up the days of project work so far, we've watched a couple of episodes of Til Debt Do Us Part, and I have emails out to try and get financial planners to come in and speak with the students one-on-one about their budgets. I'm always looking for new, relevant ways to break up the periods to keep it fresh and interesting.

Provided the students can set their goals and stay focused, I'm confident their final portfolios will be amazing, and be able to help them with their financial decisions in the future. After giving them free rein for the overall project, I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Next Generation of Exit Slip

I've been trying to think my way through "exit slips," and how I'd like to use them for the upcoming year.

I like the idea of entrance and exit slips (or tickets, as they're sometimes called) - they're quick (for both the student to complete and for the teacher to assess), and they provide a great at-a-glance check for whether or not the student understands the material, again for both the teacher and the student.

They're also part of a solid strategy to reinforce the learning goals of the course (I wrote more on how I design my learning goals and exit slips in a post on Using Learning Goals to Focus BYOD).

In a traditional class, students do the entrance slip on the way into class (or to start the class), while exit slips are done at the end of class. Last year, though, in my BYOD, independent learning classes, I couldn't stick to a before-class, end-of-class schedule, since everyone was always at a different place in the unit (which brought its own set of challenges). We did away with entrance slips, and approached exit slips in a different way.

Throughout the unit, students were expected to learn the material for a given learning goal (in whatever way they liked), and then would test themselves on the "exit slip" to show both me and themselves that they knew the material before moving on. If they got it, great! If not, feedback was prompt and they would go back and practice more before trying again.

Getting ready to hand back exit slips at the end of a unit.
Yes, that's a LOT of paper to keep track of -
something I'd like to change this year.

I'd like to do the same thing this year, but with possibly a couple of changes.

What to call it?
I've struggled with what to call these exit slips, since they're not really used to "exit" the class. Check-ins? (I envision having the check-ins with little cartoon chickens on them hehe) Checkpoints? Learning Goal Checks (or, LGCs for short)? Progress checks? Stoplights?

In the larger of my two BYOD classes last year, there were days when the sheer amount of paper slips was overwhelming. I would love to reduce the amount of paper clutter from these slips but am not sure of the best way. Socrative? Google form? Quiz tool within our vLE? 

I like the idea of the latter, especially if it can self-mark AND I can actually randomize the question the student gets. Last year I had an issue of students helping each other with the exit slips. While I have no problem with students helping each other learn, I would like the exit slips to be more indicative of what each student is capable of.

Learning goals, then project? Or project with learning goals embedded?
This year, I had the students go through the learning goals/exit slips in a linear fashion, and then attack a larger unit project at the end of the unit. Might it be better for me to assign the project first, and then they can complete the learning goals and exit slips as they complete the project?

The journey continues...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Why do Students Stop Taking Science?

Last week, at the STAO Congress, we heard from Maureen Callan (of @OntarioEDU) on "Achieving Excellence" through Innovation. While the focus of the discussion was on the many ways we can bring innovation into the science classroom, one thing Maureen mentioned really stood out for me:

After completing their compulsory science courses in high school, the majority of students stop taking science. 

In Ontario, high school students are required to take grade 9 and 10 general science. They may then choose to take a senior (grade 11 or 12) science, or a French as a second language course, a technological education course, a computer studies course or co-operative education.

From the Ontario Ministry of Education's website

That the students don't take as many science courses as possible doesn't come as too much of a surprise - with the reduction of the high school program from five years to four, many students concentrate solely on the courses they need for their chosen college or university programs. They may not have a lot of room to take science courses for fun.

But the question that really stayed with me was, why wouldn't students want to take science?

I LOVE science. To me, all science is incredibly cool, and it is EVERYWHERE. How does a tree get water to the very top leaves? Why is it so windy outside? How does the International Space Station stay in orbit? Why do eggs go opaque when cooked? Why do I need electrolytes after I exercise? How is my computer allowing me to type at this very moment?

I have a hard time believing students aren't curious about things like this, or similar things that affect them every day. And isn't science class where they can learn more about the everyday mysteries of life?

So what are we, as science teachers, doing to drive students away (or equivalently, what are we not doing to keep students interested)? Why are students deciding that science isn't worth their time? While I often hear "when am I going to use this??" in math class, I never hear that in science. Students know science is useful, and yet they still choose other courses.

Are the topics we provide not interesting them? Are they finding it hard (and what is it they're finding hard? Testing? Math? Memorization?)? Are we too rigorous (too much demand placed on details like significant digits or the individual steps of the Krebs Cycle)? Not rigorous enough (not allowing students to go into more depth on a topic that speaks to them)?

I'm curious. Especially as I start a new year as a grade 9 teacher - how can I instill a love of science in my students that will last them through high school (perhaps even seeing them want to take an optional science course in their senior years), and beyond?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Plans, Plans, Plans

The #blogamonth topic for July is setting our goals for the new school year. Not just any goals, but - in the facilitators' own words - "BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS GOALS!!"

I love the summer because (among other things) it gives me time to read, plan, jot down ideas, plan some more, create learning goals, and finally, plan exciting new units and activities. I'm a definitely a planner. My biggest lament during the school year is that I find all sorts of new ideas to try, but little time to plan things out to the point where I can implement them.

My summer office
This summer, I created a new notebook in Evernote, with a new note for every class I'm teaching next school year, and I've been jotting down ideas as they come to me. I'm amazed at how many ideas I've come up with, but there are definitely a few trends as to what I want to try:

Genius Hour / 20% Time

This is my biggest, hairiest, most audacious goal for next year. In my grade 9 general science class (second semester), I want to take between 10-20% of our class time and devote it to what the students themselves want to learn. I'm having a blast looking through what other teachers have done, and I'm just starting now to feel like this might be possible.

I'm worried about covering class content, though (it's tough enough to get through the entire curriculum well enough to prepare them for grade 10 general science) in addition to this project, and I'm worried about the implementation of such a large project over a large period of time, with a "younger" group of students. But I'm excited by the possibilities, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the students come up with.

Citizen Science / Creating for a Greater Audience

I've always been a big believer in having students contribute to "real" projects. When students realize that what they're producing will have a bigger audience than just their teacher, the stakes are raised, and they have a greater incentive to learn and perform well. It's not just about the mark any more.

In my grade 12 math class, I hope to have them creating products for others (scale model doll houses for local youngsters, resources for grade 9/10 math classes, geometric designs printed on fabric that can be sold through spoonflower.com) throughout the year.

In general science, I'm looking at getting my students involved in "citizen science" where they can collect and contribute data to real scientific investigations around the world. I'm totally inspired by @jaccalder's success with Earthwatchers and want to try something similar.

In all of my courses, I would love to connect that class with another class in the region/province/country/world so they can share their learning. Do you know of a high school science or math or Physics class we can collaborate with? :)

Active Students

I want to move away from delivering the content to my students, and more toward having them go out and find/synthesize the curriculum. I love the idea of an active class - seldom do I want to be seen lecturing from the front of the room.

In grade 9 math, I'm hoping to use more real data - information collected within the school, information from sites like flightaware.com or sea turtle tracking, or information from hands-on activities (volume of water in water balloons, ratios and volume change in making pancakes). I would love to have all my classes contribute data points to a giant graph my grade 9s have made (similar to this:)

In grade 12 Data Management, I want to have them collect data on a global scale through Google Forms and build catapults that will launch a projectile with the smallest standard deviation in target.

In Physics, I'd love to see more "design your own" labs - break open the whole inquiry idea and really let them try, test, fail, tweak, and design their labs for real experimentation. I'm also toying with having them create a video series for younger students to explain the physics principles we cover in class using demos and kid-friendly language.

Blended, Independent Learning with a vLE

Last year, I ran my math courses - learning goals, learning options, project pages - exclusively off a Google Doc. This year, I want to move everything into the virtual Learning Environment (vLE) that our board and ministry recommend. I've spent a good part of the summer immersed in the vLE as @christheij and I teach online summer school, and I'm looking forward to customizing the courses (the shells just arrived this week!) and automating exit tickets.

While I like the security a vLE offers, I'm still hoping to combine it with global connections (class blogging? class tweeting? class instagram account?). Not sure how that's going to work yet...


But I'm still looking for MORE! What are YOU trying that's new and innovative (either new to you or new to everyone!)? How else can I connect my classes with the world? What works best when opening up the curriculum to include whatever the students want to do? I would love to hear your ideas and goals!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A BYOD Year in Review

Ten months ago, I started changing the way I teach math. I had become disenchanted with the traditional approach of 1. Review homework (which was seldom attempted); 2. Teach a note (which only some of the students paid attention to); 3. Try some questions (which seemed to require me repeating a lot of what was in the original note to students individually), and 4. Start again the next day.

It wasn't working for me (even I was getting bored), and it certainly wasn't working for the majority of my students. So I switched two of my classes over to a proficiency-based, independent learning system that was paced almost entirely by my individual students, and focused on BYOD. And I loved it.

I won't go through all the details of what I tried (read through the rest of the blog for that!), but I did want to consolidate my thoughts as I close out the year and start gearing up for the next.

Love that this was a typical class this past semester...

Things I love about this new system:

Student confidence improved
  • The students who put in the work at their own pace - even ones who traditionally struggled with math - experienced success on a regular basis through the exit slips, improving their confidence on quizzes and tests.
  • Students used the tracking board to quickly see what they need to do to complete a unit, and always had a good idea of what needed to be done to succeed.
  • Students were more likely to jump in and help each other since we were all working together.
  • Students were very comfortable on their devices, and this translated somewhat to their math work.
  • Student stress was also reduced, and many students told me that they didn't dread coming to math class any more.

Students became 100% responsible for their learning
  • There seemed to be a more direct correlation between the work a student put into the course and their mark, and this was a correlation they noticed as well.
  • I had more students be very successful (80%+) because of their efforts. I also had students receive less than 20% (I had never had that happen before), due to them putting NO effort into the course. Their final mark seemed more reflective of their effort and ability than in a typical class.

This was much more fun!
  • My students were never bored in class, and the time just seemed to fly by ("Class is over in 5 minutes?! How did that happen??").
  • The behind-the-scenes work was pretty heavy, but I could just walk into class ready to help whoever needed it - no need to prepare notes, make photocopies, or even have a plan. That was a nice feeling of freedom I didn't expect.
  • The marking load was reduced since there were more exit slips (very quick to assess) and fewer daily worksheets/assignments.

I never lost teaching/learning days
  • I never had to postpone a lesson or lose a teaching day because most of the class is absent due to a sporting event or field trip.
  • Students could be behind, on-schedule, or ahead of schedule all during the same period. There was always something for them to work on regardless of how many of them were present.
  • If connectivity within the community could be improved, this could be extended to snow days - no use losing a day of learning just because the busses aren't running!

I never saw students falling asleep in class
  • Any lectures by me were 10 minutes in length, done for maybe five students at most. We went at their pace, and let them come up with the examples, making them much more involved in the note.
  • Students were choosing to work, choosing what they wanted to work on, and choosing the pace at which they wanted to go.
  • Students never had to wait for the rest of the class to catch up. If they quickly mastered a concept, they work ahead of schedule.
Teaching each other
So is this something I will continue doing? YES. But there were still some big issues that I feel far from having resolved...

Things I'm still struggling with:

Connectivity issues
  • Even with a switch in our classroom, we were still dealing with lagging connection speeds and the occasional outage.
  • There were still many sites blocked (youtube, Google Drive, discussion forums) that I would like to see made available.

Getting students to make good notes
  • Students still preferred taking the easy way out and quickly absorbing and then regurgitating information. Very few took regular notes, so when it came to tests or exams (that were long after the original concepts were learned), many struggled because they couldn't remember what they had learned.
  • Some focus on note-taking at the beginning of the course seemed to help, but it needed to be reviewed regularly to keep the momentum going.
  • Next year I'd like to include a notebook mark in the students' grade - making sure they have a record of their learning (but recognizing that it could be on paper, in Evernote, through pictures, etc.)

Getting students to do some work on their own
  • Because of the free-flowing style of the classroom, students are more likely to get help from each other (yay!) on everything, including work that should be done independently (boo!). There were, unfortunately, a couple of students who got through on the coattails of others, as evidenced by repeated poor performance on tests (but very good results on in-class work).

Having taught this way, and seen some dramatic results, there's no going back to being the sage on the stage! I'm really happy with how this year went, and look forward to conducting more classes in this style next year

This summer, I'm concentrating on moving my resources from Google Drive (not supported by my board) into the ministry-approved virtual Learning Environment (vLE), converting my science courses into this format, and trying to find new ways of having my students share their learning. I'm always looking for new ideas! How has BYOD and/or proficiency-based learning changed how YOU teach?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Meet Your Teachers, With QR Codes!

The more I immerse myself in educational apps, BYOD, and the latest online toys, the more I try and find ways to sneak them in to what I teach and where I teach. 

This past spring, one of my colleagues decided to put together a display in our front foyer introducing the familiar faces within our school (teachers, office staff, counsellors, custodians, cafeteria staff, etc.) to the new grade 9s entering the school in September. She envisioned a yearbook-style display with photos and names so the students feel more at ease and put faces to names on their timetables.

Can you find Pippen, the empathy dog that ate our scavenger hunt clue??

But why not kick it up an notch??

So we added a little extra touch: beside everyone's name is a QR code that links to information about each teacher (that we collected from everyone through a Google Form), so not only can new (and old) students see who their teachers are, they can also learn a little bit about each of them.

Scan the codes to see what kind of information the teachers are sharing!

Why a QR code??

  • They don't clutter up the display - they each have potentially a lot of information, but we don't have to worry about fitting all that information by everyone's picture!
  • They are dynamic - thanks to suggestions by @robert_kahlman and @MahfuzaLRahman, each QR code (created with a Chrome add-on) links to a Google Doc, so I can change someone's information on the fly without needing to print off a new QR code!
  • They will (hopefully!) make students take more notice of the board - instead of just giving it a passing glance, I'm hoping students stop, scan, share with friends, compare teachers, etc. The codes make the display so much more interactive.
  • They will introduce students to another way to use their devices - not many know what a QR code is or how to scan one. This will give them one more tool in their BYOD arsenal. We've included "how-to-scan" information with the display too.
  • This also introduced teachers to the idea of QR codes! When I pitched the idea at a staff meeting, many of the teachers had never heard of a QR code before or knew how to scan one. With more teachers using the technology, it might creep in to more classroom activities too.

The only downfall? As it is now, the codes are too small/too far from the viewers to be scanned properly. I'll be printing out another copy of the names with the QR codes to list down either side of the main display that the students can get right up to the codes to scan them.

I'm excited to see what students (and staff!) do with this display in the fall as the new semester starts up. Next step - a little augmented reality embedded in the photos? :)