Sunday, November 29, 2015

New Technology: Photo Spheres & Class Instagram

Half way through the semester, and I'm realizing that I haven't had the chance to blog much. There's been both the struggle of having no time, as well as the feeling that there's nothing worth writing about.

But I've been trying to encourage other teachers to blog and share, because even if it's an everyday occurrence in their classroom, it will be brand new to someone else looking to try something new. So here are some new image-related tech things I've tried this year.

Photo Sphere

If you're familiar with Google StreetView, you're familiar with 360-degree images: photos that you can pan around and see from all perspectives, as if you were really standing there.

Most of these StreetView images were taken with the special spherical camera (mounted on a Google car that has made the rounds through neighbourhoods), however it's possible for anyone to take these 360-degree pictures and add them to Google Maps for all to see.

A flat Photo Sphere of our road on Manitoulin

The process is fairly simple, provided you have the right app. With an Android device, download the Google Camera app: "photo spheres" is one of the options when you go to take a photo.

On an iOS device, download the Google StreetView app, which guides you through the photo spheres process. From here, you can also use the image in Google Cardboard. There appears, however, to be no equivalent option for Blackberry users.

You can see (and play with!) the full image here.
In our Earth & Space Science class, part of an assignment had the students locate examples of local surroundings that demonstrate erosion and take 360-degree images of them (here are some examples: Bridal Veil Falls, road-side rock cut).

It was a neat way to encourage students to get outside and apply what they've learned, and it was a new tool for the students to try (most didn't know they could take photos like this). My plan was to create a shared map for the class using My Maps, and have the students share their spheres to the class map.

Sharing the photo spheres turned out to be tricky, though - the only way to share/publish your spheres is to upload them to the public Google Maps, much like you would contribute a normal photo of an area. This process takes upward of a day (each photo sphere that is uploaded needs to be approved by Google), and once published to the public map, the links seemed to disappear randomly - visible one day, and gone the next. There doesn't appear to be a way to publish the spheres to a private map. Yet.

Those without the app were encouraged to take a panorama photo, and barring that, a series of photos, of their chosen location. Not quite the same effect as a 360-degree photo, but it still got everyone outside hunting for erosion.

Class Instagram

Earlier in the school year, I mentioned wanting to try a class Instagram account, but wasn't sure what to post or how to go about it. My grade 12 Earth & Space Science class seemed interested in taking up the challenge, and came up with the name for the account: @SESforyou (a play on our course code, SES4U (SES = Science, Earth & Space; 4U = grade 12 University-stream)).

A photo posted by @sesforyou on

The account was created, and I gave the students the login and password information so that anyone could post to the account. The plan was to post photos what we're doing in class (with the understanding that we keep students' faces out of images), or their own photos of geology around the island.

A photo posted by @sesforyou on

The account was fairly well-received in class, but even with full login access, only one student has posted his own photo so far. Many say it's too tedious to log out of their own Instagram account and log in to the class one on their devices. This week, I hope to set up the account on one of the class tablets so that students can use that device to take and post pictures.

I love the idea of being able to share what we're doing, especially as some of the projects the students are creating are fantastic (blog post on those, coming soon), but I was hoping to interact/share/connect more with other Earth Science classes through it. We are getting better at using social media, though (especially harnessing the power of the hashtag to get our photos noticed).

What have you tried?

Have you tried either of these image-sharing tools? Any tips or tricks to share? Please comment! We're always looking to learn and try something new.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Autograded Exit Slips - #LazyTeacher?

Since turning the learning over to the students, I have used "exit slips" to both help students focus their efforts as well as help me keep track of their progress through the learning goals in a particular unit.

(I hesitate in calling them exit slips since those are traditionally done just before "exiting" class. The checks we do in our classes can be done whenever the student is ready for them, at any time during the period. Because of this, we're starting to get into the habit of calling them "mastery checks" instead of exit slips. The concept is the same - assessment as learning for the students - letting them know if they are ready to go on to the next topic.)

I have struggled, in the past, with managing all the exit slips that come in - immediate feedback is key on these assessments, and I wasn't always able to provide it. So this year I tried something new.
There was a LOT of paper piling up on my desk...


In my Math (MCF3M) and Physics (SPH3U) classes, we have moved exclusively to online mastery checks, autograded by the Flubaroo add-on for Google Sheets. The fact that this makes the assessment paperless is amazing, however it's how the students are using the mastery checks which has made the biggest impact in my class.

The mastery check is created using Google Forms. Here is a recent one from our Physics unit on two-dimensional motion. Try it out - see how you do!

On the back end of the form, I have installed Flubaroo in the responses Sheet, and set it to autograde. Once a form is submitted, Flubaroo will grade the responses, and send that student an email (at the address they provide), usually within 60 seconds. That email will contain a message from me (written in advance), the student's score (in the above case, out of 3), and a breakdown of which questions the student got right or wrong.

Seriously - try out the above form to see what the students see! I promise I won't judge :)

One of the tabs Flubaroo provides in Sheets - you can see who took the mastery check, their highest score (points), and the number of times the mastery check was attempted.

(If you're interested in trying Flubaroo, there are detailed instructions here on how to set it up.)

Visible Changes

This has completely changed how my students complete (and master the material on) these checks:
  • Students receive feedback almost instantly (no waiting for me to have a spare moment in class to look at the slip, or worse, waiting until the next class to find out how they did).
  • Students immediately (and naturally) go back and try again, seeking help (most often) from classmates or from me.
  • Within a span of a few minutes (or longer if there are bigger gaps in the knowledge of the content), the students have fixed their mistakes and re-submitted their slips. They can re-submit as many times as they like - when they get perfect, they can move on to the next learning goal. Often, this happens without me even knowing.
I'm seeing students become both more independent with their learning, as well as more collaborative (I hear lots of on-topic conversation among students as they find their mistakes and correct them). Those who can master the material quickly are doing so and moving on, not held back by others who may need more time. 

And those who do need more help are realizing it more quickly (without having to wait on me to assess something), and are seeking help. Some students will approach me en masse because they collectively can't figure something out, while others will seek help from me independently because they're just not sure where they're going wrong. And this leads to great teaching moments, because the students are genuinely curious and ready to learn.

Students are taking more ownership of their learning, relying less on me as they master the basics, and honing their own problem-solving skills. 


Earlier this month, I was trying to explain to someone why a teacher might want to become connected on Twitter. One example I gave was that it provides an instant connection to a huge, international network of teachers from which you could seek advice. I mentioned how in August, before I knew about Flubaroo, I had asked my Twitter PLN what apps/extensions were available to autograde quizzes. To this statement, my colleague replied: "hashtag-lazy," implying that this was how I should have punctuated the tweet.

It stung that it was assumed that I was just looking for an easy way out, rather than a way of more effectively managing my time: freeing up more time in class to sit down and work one-on-one with a student who needs extra help, or freeing up more time in the evening to provide detailed feedback where students need it most - on rich tasks and in-depth assignments.

In the grand SAMR scale (or whatever acronym is used for the place of technology in classrooms these days), if technology can be used to engage students in their studies, help them continue the conversations that drive learning in the classroom, and allow them to foster their learning skills, I'm all for it. In the classroom, I'm just as active than ever (if not more active), as are my students. Might I suggest #Empowered?

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Flipping Continues

This September marked my third year of flipping classes. Well, pseudo-flipping. I wasn't requiring or asking my students to front-load the material on their own at home, but I was turning the classroom over to them: students are choosing how they are learning the material, what resources they will access to do so, and choosing their pace of learning.

Most of my success so far has been in very skill-based courses like math. I've struggled, though, with how best to present a variety of resources when the learning goals are more broad (like in general science).

With my grade 12 Earth and Space science class this semester, I was ready to revamp things and try again. But there were also two new factors forcing me to up my game: firstly, I had made it my goal to introduce more rich assessment tasks and project-based learning into my science classes, and I wanted to follow through.

Secondly, I knew I had a student coming in who has been literally learning geology and fossils - particularly as they pertain to our local area - since the age of three. His knowledge is astounding; there would be no way I could teach the geology components of the course in the traditional sense and still keep him engaged. I really had to step back from the idea of being the expert in the room. Change was afoot!

New Format

After toying with the idea of layered curriculum (à la Kathie Nunley) or an equivalent point system, I decided to go with a rich assessment project that tied together the components of the units, and then choice boards for the individual lessons.

Here's what one of our lessons looks like:

Just the Facts

Each lesson starts with the learning goals, as well as materials for learning the basics. These include my PowerPoint notes (now uploaded to Slides, as well as Screencastified videos with me talking through them), textbook references, and a vocabulary list.


Students need to choose one activity from each row. They can do these in any order, and the options are usually open for them to complete the task however they choose (verbally, on paper, visual presentation, 3D model, online graphic, etc.).

You may notice that the rows are roughly themed. The first row is a check of the basic knowledge (Knowledge/Understanding in the Ontario curriculum, or an entry level in Bloom's Taxonomy), the second is Thinking/Inquiry, and the last row is more Application/Evaluation (or, a higher level in Bloom's Taxonomy).

Again, the students can do these in any order - some start with the synthesis tasks and then come back to the specific details, others choose to take the notes first, familiarize themselves with the vocabulary, and then tackle some of the larger tasks. A couple of students, for this particular lesson, loved the idea of creating an online model of a rock record in Google SketchUp, and jumped right in with that before looking at any of the resources. A great hook!

I'm seeing a good range in what the students are choosing, and I'm getting an excellent variety of projects - from the SketchUp files for the task previously mentioned, to a marker-and-paper design, to a pair of students who are reconstructing the rock record seen in one of our local waterfalls in a 3D physical model:

Bridal Veil Falls, Manitoulin Island
image labeled for noncommercial use by

Unit Project

The unit project is tucked away at the bottom of the document, but was available from the day we started the unit. Those who were interested (my in-house palaeontologist included), found it right away and jumped right in. Others waited until I pointed it out and walked the class as a whole through the idea.

Again, some students started brainstorming immediately after the class-wide discussion, while others waited until finishing the lessons (there were three in this unit, all set up similarly to this one) before starting. I have been super impressed by the creativity the students are applying to this project - some of their "futures" are hilarious! - and am looking forward to seeing how they tie the final product into what we have learned. 

This project was my first attempt at creating a rubric on my own using the method picked up from assessment PD in the spring, and I'm glad to see the students making use of it to fine-tune their work.


Overall, I'm very impressed with how this class is functioning. So far, I've been successful at both introducing more project-based learning and rich tasks, as well as meeting every student at their level: the students seem engaged, and students of all backgrounds are finding entry points and ably demonstrating their learning. 

It is a lot of work to frontload each of the lessons, but by opening up the class like this, I find students are taking more risks when they are ready for them:

Some are bringing in their fossil collections from home to identify and learn more about them, many are getting out and exploring their local area from a geology point of view, and one student - in the hopes of possibly teaming up with a local university to re-create the famous Miller-Urey experiment - even emailed a student (now Professor Emeritus) of Stanley Miller in order to find out more about the experiment. We are getting good at breaking down these classroom walls! 

I'd love to hear suggestions or comments - I'm always looking to make learning a great experience!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Balancing Act

As most teachers can attest, keeping one's sanity during the school year - particularly in the thick of a semester, or in May - can be a challenge. 

Between "regular" job hours, extra-curricular activities/committees, and the ever-present pile of marking/paperwork to be tackled at home, there are days (weeks?) the work seems never-ending. It is so easy to get swept up in the job, to the point where it becomes all-encompassing. 

I LOVE teaching. I love the challenges that it brings, the learning that comes with it, and the chance to excite students and make a difference. But beyond a doubt, my physical, mental, and spiritual health all suffer as we get deeper into the school year. 

I try to balance with some me-time (singing with a local choir, participating in martial arts) but I found it often leads to more stress as more of my time was taken up. Nothing like being woken up by a panic attack several times a week. I needed to try something new.

So the week before classes started, I changed my morning routine. 

Robin Sharma (author of The Secret Letters of the Monk who Sold his Ferrari) suggests starting each day with a "holy hour" - 20 minutes of exercise, 20 minutes of journaling and 20 minutes of professional reading: exercise to wake the body up and get the neurons firing, journaling (or alternatively, meditation) to focus on the day's goals and to set your outlook, and professional reading to inspire and set you on a path to becoming an expert. 

I found myself drawn to the simplicity of such a plan, and though I had half-heartedly tried it in the past, I wasn't able to make it stick. There is a blog post on it here, explaining it in more detail, as well as Robin's take on it here

And then this started floating around on Twitter: 8 Things Every Person Should Do Before 8 A.M. What the author suggests made sense to me, and though it seems like a big list, it was interesting to see that there was a lot of overlap between this and Robin Sharma's holy hour. I already do #4, and while I REFUSE to do #5, this might actually be do-able! I made the jump.

One month in, I'm loving it.

My new bed time is 10pm - regardless of the size of the marking pile - and I'm up at 5:50am every morning (a very tall order for this life-long night owl). I'm kicking the day off with 30-40 minutes of exercise (right now a run or vigorous walk, outside if possible), followed by 10-15 minutes of silent meditation. My husband is trying it too - completing a P90X-style workout and then joining me for meditation.

Despite the early rise, I find I am more rested overall, and there's something awesome about getting exercise out of the way first thing in the morning. I would love to add in some professional reading - perhaps streamlining the reading that I pick out of Twitter on a sporadic basis throughout the day - but right now the focus is on taking better care of my self. 

My productivity level feels good (though the dreaded marking pile is still omnipresent), and it feels, well, manageable. I'm continuing the routine on weekends and am enjoying the extra bit of time in the morning to get things accomplished.

I realize we're still in the early days of the school year, and what seems easy now is only going to become more difficult. Before too long I'll add coaching, helping run the school musical and the busy-ness of conference travel to the schedule, and that will be the true test of both habit and effectiveness of this plan. But I'm optimistic.

How do YOU do it?

I wanted to share what I've been trying in case it resonates with anyone else. But I'm also looking to improve on the routine over time. How do you keep yourself balanced and on top of things? What "rules" do you follow to stay sane? What can you suggest?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Big Hairy Plans... with a Slower Start

Last summer, inspired by #blogamonth, I posted about my BIG, HAIRY, AUDACIOUS goals for the year. Coming out of my first year of trying BYOD at the time, I was super excited to convert the rest of my courses to a more flipped and independent style of learning. I had lots of great ideas - many of which I was able to implement - and had a fantastic year on the whole.

However, almost 5 weeks of strike action in my board in May left me, as a teacher, rushed and disorganized for the last month of the school year. Some of my big ideas got pushed to the side as we were instructed to forgo all large projects and focus on content delivery instead. I had to drop an entire unit in general science, and in other courses concentrate only on the content I believed would benefit my students the most next year. 

As a result, the process of converting full courses to a more technology-based, independent learning style was interrupted, and I came away feeling unsatisfied with the state of my courses. I won't go so far as to say I was disillusioned or unenthusiastic about continuing to introduce project-based learning and flipped resources to my students, but I recognize that I haven't been as gung-ho to start creating as I was this time last year.

Hence, this blog post. 

I still have ideas rumbling around in my head, and I'm hoping that by putting them out there, I can build on what others are doings and inject a little more excitement into my planning. Classes start in exactly three weeks - how can I share my passion for learning and help students achieve like never before?
In Every Course
I was inspired by the IGNITE sessions I saw at ISTE2015 - five minute blasts of information designed to share an idea or a passion without delving into a whole lot of detail. In what might be my one big, hairy, audacious goal this year, I would love to kick each and every one of my classes off with an IGNITE session. It might be an awesome video or TED talk, it might be me highlighting a new tech tool some students might like to try, it could be a quick worked example or a brainteaser, or even something done by a guest speaker (or maybe one of the students themselves??). Something to start the class where we're all on the same page before breaking off into groups or independent work for the rest of the period.

Also in every course, I'm looking for more collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. The more I can get students to connect with other students elsewhere in Ontario, or to create a product to be showcased to the world, the more authentic the learning becomes. I'm grateful to be part of an amazing PLN and I'm hoping to really tap into the wealth of resources "the room" brings to the table! If you are interested in having your class collaborate with any of my classes, please let me know!

In Grade 12 Earth & Space Science
I want to blow this course wide open. There are so many AMAZING resources online (search National Geographic Geology on youtube alone to find some fantastic videos), and we live in such a geologically rich part of the province, that I want to bring the best of both the technological and the natural world to my students. 

I am going to flip the order of the course (usually I start with Astronomy and then move into Geology, but I'll start instead with Geology so we can get outdoors and explore while it's warm), and have the students discover what they can about the Earth from their own backyards.

I am also looking at:

  • a Layered Curriculum style of class where the students can choose the assignments and resources to help them master the curriculum expectations, using point-values for various tasks.
  • making unit tests mandatory for only two or three of the five units, with students choosing which tests they write and what they do to demonstrate their mastery in the non-test units.
  • making more use of pinboards to curate news on certain topics, like recent volcanic activity, earthquake impact, fossils, or Pluto; or to provide resources like this board I've started putting together on mineral identification. I'm still very new to "pinning," but I love the visual layout.

In Grade 11 Math
While I didn't teach this course last year, it was the first course I flipped two years ago, and I'm anxious to run it again with improvements. 

My biggest goal for this class is to change the format of content delivery (I've tried a couple different ways, outlined here) to make the information easier to access. I am also going to automate the majority of the "exit slips" the students use to demonstrate mastery of a learning goal. Instead of submitting on paper, students will complete the learning check using a Google Form, which will then be marked immediately (and automatically!) using Flubaroo. This will provide them with instant feedback, cutting down on a lot of this craziness, and helping with tracking.

I would also like to put in more inquiry-based activities. I struggle with this in math, so I'm on the lookout for great MCF3M activities others have used and had success with! Eventually I'd like to spiral the course, but I think that will have to wait at least another year.

In Grade 11 Physics
I started converting this course last year part way through the semester once I had time to wrap my head around it. I found it to be very well-received and I will be converting the rest of the course this year. 

I'm looking to review how I test in Physics (there's been a lot of good discussion around the role of math in Physics evaluation), and while I wasn't very successful at introducing more inquiry-based or rich assessment tasks last year, I would like to focus on that again - less learning by rote and more learning by experimentation.

I'd also like to try different ways of engaging the students in the physics that happens around them. Twitter Challenges have worked well in the past; perhaps a class Instagram account (very new territory for me!), or creating a video series as a class?
Now that I've got it down in writing, that's my next challenge - to practice what I post, working toward what will be my best year in the classroom yet. What about you? What are you trying this year?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Physics: It's Not All About the Math

Earlier in the year (or was it last year?), I had a conversation with someone (or was it a Twitter chat?) where the idea came up that when we test students in Physics, 80% (or was it 75%? or 90%?) of what we are actually testing them on is not their ability to do physics, but their ability to do math.

As you can tell, I don't remember the specifics of the conversation very well. But the idea stuck with me. How much physics am I actually asking my students to do on culminating tasks? Of course, there is a lot of applied math in Physics. But when I go back over my tests, sure enough, the majority of the time I am asking my students to perform correct algorithms, not explain the Physics behind the question.

A Lot of Math

Here's a typical question from a quiz last year:

I would hope, first and foremost, that students would read the question carefully, and figure out what they need to do and/or which equation to use, based on their knowledge of the subject matter and the information given in the problem.

But I'm not asking them to show this thinking. All I'm asking them to do is predict the height of the diving board. Showing me this, would get them full marks/Level 4+ : 

While I would give students credit for being "on the right track," even if mathematical errors prevent them from obtaining the correct answer, this, by and large, is a math question. A common major mistake on this type of question involves students not understanding either what they are given in the question or what they are being asked to do, and as a result, selecting the wrong formula to eventually apply. 

Students aren't showing me the reasoning behind choosing that formula/method, because I am not asking them to.

So now I'm re-thinking how I approach testing students on the physics. The math is still important - I don't want to get rid of that completely - but it shouldn't be the only way students can show their thinking for these types of questions. 

A New Type of Question

Here is what I would ideally like students to do:

1) DESCRIBE the procedure they would use to solve a question, 
2) ESTIMATE the solution to the question, and then...
3) PREDICT the solution the question.

Along these lines, perhaps, here is how I might rephrase the question next year: 

In part a), I'm hoping students give proper thought to how they attack the question. Will having them make their thinking visible help them choose the correct formula or recognize which algorithm to use? Do they understand that the gravitational potential energy of an object depends on three things: its mass, acceleration due to gravity, and height? And will practice communicating this reasoning help them better understand the concepts?

In part b), the multiple choice question might seem obvious, but it amazes me how many students will submit a wildly unfeasible solution (skiers accelerating downhill at 40m/s/s, a piece of metal being dropped in hot water only to end up with a lower temperature, etc.) because they are not thinking about what their answer means.

I'm hoping that a question like this will get the students thinking about what their answer is likely to be, and then recognize if their answer is wildly off. I anticipate that some students might skip over this and come back to it after they have predicted the end result (in order to get the "right" answer), but even this might help students realize if they are in the right ballpark; if their answer actually makes sense.

Part c) is basically the same as the original quiz question, asking the students to "do the math" to determine the height.

In the end, I want students to move away from blindly choosing an equation and then pushing through the math in an attempt to solve the question, thinking it is "all about the math." I also want them to make sure they know why they are choosing one method over the other, and not just because "the variables match." 

I'm hoping the focus on math will lessen over time, to be replaced with greater focus on understanding the actual physics behind the problems we solve together.

Do you teach Physics? How do you balance the physics with the math in your classes? How do you present test questions to your students? I'd love to see more ideas!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Genius Hour - Year 1

After reading Daniel Pink's Drive, and hearing about the success of passion projects from colleagues, this year I wanted to try doing Genius Hour with one of my classes. Here is how we did it!

Getting Started

Here is the document (and videos) we started with:

Topics: While a true passion project could be about any topic whatsoever, because I was trying this with a science class, I required that students choose a topic that had something to do with science. In the end, this only limited the students a tiny bit (they couldn't choose to learn how to knit, or how to play the guitar for example, UNLESS they could tie in some science).

Criteria: The only criteria we had for the "final project," was that the students had to share what they had learned throughout the semester. Throughout the project, students had to consider with whom they would be sharing (the class? the local community? the world?), and how they would be sharing
(a presentation to class?, on bristol board in the school foyer? a website to be pushed out to the world? a video to be shared with elementary schools?). The projects were not marked.

Time: We spent every Friday on our projects. Friday was our 90-minute period, so we would spend 70 minutes on research, and then 20 minutes on blogging.

Blogs: The student blogs were a chance for the students to document what they had learned during the week, pose questions and "wonders" to guide them the following week, as well as learn about what their classmates were discovering.

Then the Magic Happened

Here are the project blogs and links (where applicable) to how each student/group shared their learning:

It was great to see the students so intrinsically engaged with their projects. From reading about others' experiences, I had expected the students to be willing to put in the work (which they were), but I did not expect the change in noise level: instead of the excitement of working on whatever they wanted to elevating the overall noise level, the sheer focus of everyone in the room actually made Fridays the quietest day of the week!

As the students worked, there were a number of amazing highlights. Perhaps the most noteworthy events came because of the students' blogs:

Rough Spots

Due to job action, students were out of classes for a month in April and May. Because of this hiccough... 

  • The projects were abbreviated - some students didn't have enough time to explore their topic as deeply as they would have liked;
  • I didn't get a chance to bring in the mentors as I would have liked, providing an outside influence for the students;
  • It was tough to get back into the swing of things after the break. When one student asked if she HAD to work on her Genius Hour project, I replied "Don't you want to work on it?" She said she did, but that was months ago;
  • Several groups never completed the expectation of sharing the project, not showing up on the last day of classes to present to the group, or not getting their website finished.

The Take-Away? 

I have never seen a project foster intrinsic learning as much as this project did. Students were engaged, anxious to show me (and others) what they had learned, and more willing to try new things without teacher guidance. In one-on-one discussions with the students, I was also quite impressed with the amount of science vocabulary that snuck into the conversation! Talk about making your learning real. 

I am thankful for the ORION tablets this class received earlier in the year, as they allowed us to create and maintain our blogs as well as reach out to the world by creating websites and engaging in discussions with people outside the classroom. I am fortunate to have another grade 9 science class next year, and will certainly be doing Genius Hour with them again.