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!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

BYOD in Science

When I started BYOD in a couple of my classes last year, I purposely chose two math classes. To me, the math curriculum was easier to break down into concrete learning goals, and to find resources that were tailored pretty much exactly to those learning goals.

But I struggled with doing the same in a science class. The learning goals are more nebulous - less a matter of being able to do a certain skill, and more a matter of demonstrating an understanding of a concept.

So I held off on changing over my science classes until this year. In first semester, I started experimenting with different formats in my Physics class, but this semester, I am entirely converting my grade 9 science class over to independent learning. And so far, I'm really liking it.

I'm playing with a new look to the resource page(s) my students turn to once they arrive in class. The way I had previously arranged the resources was functional, but not pretty or easy to navigate. The new format will hopefully make it easier for students to find the resources they want. I'm hoping it also encourages students to jump back and forth between resources, rather than approach them in a linear fashion.

Our new format.

Friday, during our 90-minute period, was our first real chance to try out the new format. There was initially a bit of confusion: students found it hard to choose what to start with. They were encouraged to master the learning goals however they liked, but losing the linearity of the original format led to worry about starting off on the wrong foot. 

Once the students actually chose their first activity, though, they jumped right in. It was a wonderfully busy and noisy class, with students all over the place!

Some students chose to work on learning the content first, through traditional methods (mini-note from me or the textbook), or using online resources.

Some students started to learn by playing (however before they could play with the Van der Graaf generator, they had to explain to me how it worked!):

What happens if the person holding the Van der Graaf generator
touches the person holding the metal tap?

 Some chose to start with a hands-on lab, experimenting with static electricity:
Bringing a charged ebonite rod near a stream of water.
The fabric attracts the rod after being rubbed together - what does that mean?

The ebonite rod repels the other ebonite rod after both were
rubbed with the same material - what does that mean?

Collaborating on the lab
On the whole, I think the students appreciated being able to start learning in their own way. Throughout the class I was peppered with questions to help students understand either what was happening in front of them during the lab, or to clarify what they were reading in the textbook. Just as in math, I found that a lot of the conversation revolved around what the students were figuring out together, albeit in different ways.

I'm looking forward to seeing how they progress with the rest of the unit, and whether the greater flexibility in how they learn the material helps them better understand the underlying concepts.

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?