Sunday, May 1, 2016

Clawing Back the Freedom

The new semester allowed me the opportunity to teach grade 9 science again this year. This course (SNC1D) is one of my all-time favourite courses to teach - it's got a great mix of hands-on and theoretical content in the curriculum, and grade nines are often a group you can have a lot of fun with.

As with all my other courses now, classes were set up in a mastery-based, proceed-at-your-own-pace way. It was a new way of learning for most of my grade 9s, who were used to lecture-based teaching. 

We did a number of introductory activities - getting onto the Google Classroom, trying out various GAFE tasks, learning how to make notes from various sources - before jumping into the content. We started with the Electricity unit, which has lots of great tactile labs and experiments, so students didn't have to rely too much on a lot of new-to-them technology.

To make it a bit more manageable, I reduced the number of choices to start, made some tasks mandatory, so everyone was completing them and they could work together. But students still had to figure out what worked best for them individually, and apply that to being able to succeed in an open-class setting.

For many of these students, all of a sudden it was a LOT of freedom.

What Happened?

Some blossomed immediately. Students who love science and love learning really enjoyed the fact that they were not restricted by the pace of the rest of the class, and could get creative with some of their work. 

Many students have taken the full two months since the semester started to really discover how they learn best. The first unit was a huge flop for many of them, mostly because they weren't sure how to pace themselves, or how to structure their time in class. I am absolutely thrilled at the progress they have made in the second unit (and I share my excitement with them!); I can really see them growing into independent learners. 

While our second unit was much less hands-on (which may have helped with their adjustment - mental note for next time I teach this course), I am confident going into a new unit with more labs next week that they will continue to improve.

But for some, the freedom is still too much. They continue to get very little done in class (for some, their productivity worsens as time goes on), and what does get done is rushed and done only so that they can say the task is "complete." They spend most of their time chatting, and the excuses as to why they aren't working are unending. There seems to be no intrinsic or extrinsic motivation that I can offer to help them make their way through the course material. As a result, their progress is slow and their resulting grade low.

I've been blamed for not teaching.
I've been told I'm "not doing my job." 
I've been told that I am the reason these students aren't learning anything.

But some students, no matter how many times I offer help, or sit down to explain a concept, or offer to fetch materials for them, or check in with them to see if they have any questions, they still refuse assistance. They enjoy the freedom and casual nature of the class (perhaps a little too much?), but they cannot function within it.

A Fresh Start

I have tried changing where the students who struggle congregate in the room to work together (though more often than not, together, they get distracted and get nothing done). I have tried isolating them and providing them with resources to work on their own (though when apart, some take offence and refuse to do anything at all). I have provided digital activities, analog activities, creative activities, rote activities, hands-on activities, bookwork. I've tried strategizing with the students, as well as with their parents... but nothing seems to engage them in learning. 

So with the new unit next week, comes a new tactic. 

For the students who are truly not able to succeed with this much freedom, I am going back to lecture-based teaching and set assignments. But not for the whole class - with a peer teacher in the room, I will be able to take the few students aside, individually, and present them a 10-minute lecture on the day's topic. They can take the note (as they are used to), ask questions, and then be guided to complete a task by the end of the period.

Part of me feels defeated going back to "traditional" teaching. And part of me dislikes the idea of "forcing" teaching on students. I would much rather have them come to me when they are ready to learn. But part of me is happy that because the rest of the students have such good momentum going in class, I now have the time to sit down with these individuals and truly tailor a lesson to them. 

As uncomfortable as it feels to be seemingly "moving backwards" from a dynamic class, I don't think I really am. I have to remind myself that true differentiated instruction requires knowing the learner, and adjusting the lessons so that they can meet with success, and that's exactly what I'm trying to do. 

With luck, as we progress through this unit and into the next one, we can work on independence and transfer skills from this particular lesson setting, to a more autonomous one. We'll see how it goes...

Monday, March 28, 2016

What you Buy Depends on Where you Live

This blog post is part of a 10-day blogging initiative started by @tina_zita back in January. I saw some amazing blog posts from many colleagues during the initial challenge, but wasn't able to contribute, myself... until now! This is blog post number 8/10.

A few weekends ago, we caught an episode of @terryoinfluence's Under the Influence on CBC Radio. It was called Live & Let Buy: Where you Live Dictates What you Purchase.

The episode was full of examples of how residents of any one city could have radically different purchasing patterns than those from another city - everything from big-picture spending habits, down to one city preferring Pepsi over Coca-Cola.

Over and over again, the theme was: What you buy depends on where you live.

But all while listening, I couldn't help but make a similar connection to teaching, and the content we deliver to our students.

I've been doing a lot of work lately on researching and designing rich assessment tasks (see my post on "ditching effectiveness"). Do these activities follow the same theme?

What's a Frost Heave?

A few summers ago, I was part of a workshop in Toronto that had groups of teachers from various strands/grades brainstorming rich task ideas. The curriculum expectation my group was given to work with had to do with structures and materials - how could different materials impact the structures they form?

Our discussion turned to how different construction materials behave with varying temperatures or conditions. How could we tie this to something the students could relate to?

I suggested frost heaves. The urban teachers in my group looked at me for a moment, unsure of what I meant. I explained that where I live, in Ontario's Near North, as the frost comes up through the ground during the spring thaw, it buckles the road, making for some pretty incredible bumps.

Frost heaves

Pretty much every student around these parts would know what a frost heave was, and would likely have experienced the "thrill" of going over one at a good clip on a school bus. This turned into a great discussion of materials used for making roads, what sorts of experimentation students could do with different types of road surfaces, or even how a civil engineer or a road maintenance worker could come in and speak with the class as a guest expert. We had the makings of a great lesson.

Correction: we had the makings of a great lesson for students in my school board. They have personal experience with frost heaves, and have likely seen the types of damage frost heaves can cause on their parents' cars. They know the local roads where the frost heaves tend to form, and they might even know some of the people who have worked on the roads in the area.

Students in Toronto? They (like their teachers) likely have no connection with frost heaves. Sure, you could explain what they are, convince students that it is a very Canadian problem, show figures about the tremendous amount of money governments have to spend on repairing roads that could be spent elsewhere. But even with all that, students in Toronto would care about these seasonal bumps in the road about as much as my students would care about subways (a mode of transportation with which many of them would be completely unfamiliar).

A really great lesson that might take right off with one group of students, would certainly flop with another. What our students buy into, depends on where they live.

Who is our Market?

Like a company or a marketing agency, part of our job as teachers is to make what we "sell" enticing, interesting, and worth consuming. We want our clientele - the students - to be intrigued by it, to buy it, and to come back for more.

And just like the market for luxury cars, cosmetics, or television viewing, what our students will choose to consume will depend on where they live.

So when we, as teachers, design rich tasks (or even every day assignments!) we must consider our audience. How do we make it personal? What interests our students? What do they experience day to day, or season to season? What happens in our communities, and what do we collectively struggle with?

When we are looking to design rich tasks - larger, in-depth projects that demand creativity and problem-solving - we have a choice to make: 

If we are using this task in a particular area, will it appeal to the students who live there? Or better yet, will it be something they care enough about that it drives them to learn and be creative? What personal, geographic or community connection do they have with the task?

If we are making a generic task that could be used by students anywhere in the province, is it open enough that there can be more than one spin on it? Does the task address a challenge to which any student can relate? Or can they take the task and successfully approach it from their unique perspective?

As my colleagues and I move forward with a new project for creating rich assessment tasks, keeping in mind where our consumers live, and knowing that this plays an important role in what they'll "buy," will be paramount.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

New Technology Tricks: Curating Resources

This blog post is part of a 10-day blogging initiative started by @tina_zita back in January. I saw some amazing blog posts from many colleagues during the initial challenge, but wasn't able to contribute, myself... until now! This is blog post number 7/10.

Now that we have access to nearly every bit of information we could imagine through the power of the Internet, there is an ever-increasing need to be able to not just find resources, but to curate them. I admit, I'm not the best at this (at any point in time I have way too many tabs open across the top of my browser - things I want to read but just haven't gotten to yet).

But it is something I want my students to get better at. As they amass more and more information, how will they keep track of it all? A peek at many of my students' Google Drives - and the complete lack of structure therein - shows just how disorganized they can be. So we've been experimenting with new ways of collecting resources and storing them in an organized fashion.

YouTube Playlists

Making playlists was something I was sure many of my students would be familiar with. They are certainly ALL familiar with using YouTube, with many of them comfortable with creating and uploading their own videos. But this task threw many students for a loop:
A possible activity in class
Several students found the required number of videos, but weren't sure how to make playlists, so they just sent me all the links individually. After some coaxing, however, they were able to go back and make the playlists properly. 

Making a playlist is easy, and quite useful - once you have a YouTube account, simply click on "+ Add To" below any video at add it to a playlist you've created. Many students reflected that this was one of the more useful "tech tools" they learned during the course.


How many times have you seen something in the news, and thought "That would be perfect for my class - that's exactly what we'll be talking about next month!" One of the ways that I am trying to better curate resources I find - particularly news articles - is by using Flipboard.

Flipboard is an easy way to curate resources into a magazine-like format. An account is needed (free), but once you have signed up, resources can be collected easily through the +Flip It Chrome extension.
A possible activity in class

The resulting layout is clean and easy to read/follow, and you can make as many magazines as you like - per subject, topic, or date. There are also pre-made magazines that can be searched by topic.

Pre-made Flipboard magazine on Earth Science
Not many students chose to make a Flipboard magazine, but it is something I'd like to push a bit more in future activities.

My Maps

For geographical-based resources, My Maps is a fun way to collect and curate information. 

A possible activity in class
A part of Google Maps, My Maps allows users to pin locations and then add information to the pins, such as text, links, images and directions to the location.

You also have access to all the views and images available in GoogleMaps to further explore the places you pin. Sharing your map is then as easy as sharing any other Google Docs/Sheets/Slides file, or YouTube video.

Of course, there are many, MANY ways available to curate resources. Which ones have you tried? Which ones do your students particularly like?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Why blog?

This blog post is part of a 10-day blogging initiative started by @tina_zita back in January. I saw some amazing blog posts from many colleagues during the initial challenge, but wasn't able to contribute, myself... until now! This is blog post number 6/10.

I have to say, this blog challenge has been pretty fun so far. It's to nice to just have TIME during the March Break to sit, write and reflect. And apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks so:

But blogging is about more than just writing.

It's About Reflecting

Many of my posts during this challenge have come from draft posts I created in the heat of the moment. I usually title them, and sometimes even jot down a point or two on the topic. But then that's it... weeks later, as I take the time to write out my thoughts on the subject, I have to ask myself: what was it I found so important at the time? What impact did this have on me? Does it still have an impact on me? How have I changed my perspective because of this event or topic?

We have so many amazing/crazy/aha moments day to day, but how many do we actually remember and reflect upon later? It may be weeks or months later, but an aha moment can be just as relevant, if only we can think back to what produced the aha in the first place. I love that blogging gives me a chance to sit down and remember (in a coherent fashion!), and tease out what I learned from my experiences in the time since.

It's About Sharing

I love this video: 

I'm trying some new things in my classes. Some of them are big things, a good many of them are small things, but most of the time I'm just tweaking things I've seen elsewhere, trying to get ideas to work for my particular set of students. But maybe some of those things might give another teacher an idea to try something new. Or maybe I'm working to solve the same problem as someone else.

If we don't share, we can't learn from each other or grow as teachers. It's hard to bounce ideas off each other when no one is sharing their ideas. So this is my little contribution back to the collective learning of my PLN.

It's About Learning

I always find that when I take the time to blog, I find myself suddenly getting caught up on others' blogs, too. Perhaps it goes back to the point about sharing - the more I write, the more I want to read what others have written. There are a good many teachers doing amazing things with their students: taking risks, making global connections, trying things I would never have thought to try. 

The conversations that begin after reading a blog post, or about a blog post in Twitter, help me push my thinking, question what and how I teach, and inspire me to become better. I've learned so much from teachers with whom I have yet to meet face-to-face, and yet I feel like I know them through their writing. I know I certainly wouldn't be as active in reading those blogs if I wasn't an active blogger myself.

It's all well and good to be able to write when we're on break, but taking the time to blog regularly in the middle of the busy-ness that is school is tough (I don't know how @avivaloca does it!). If it pushes me to become a better teacher though, it's well worth finding the time. Do you blog as often as you'd like? How do you schedule time to blog?

Student Reflections on Test Preparation

This blog post is part of a 10-day blogging initiative started by @tina_zita back in January. I saw some amazing blog posts from many colleagues during the initial challenge, but wasn't able to contribute, myself... until now! This is blog post number 5/10.

Back in January, I decided my #oneword for 2016 would be Reflection: both personal reflection, as well as having my students perform more reflection as they learn. We don't just learn by consuming, we also learn by creating, and by examining how we learn best. Here is what I wrote as part of the Reflection goal for myself:

This is certainly out-of-habit for me, so getting my students to reflect regularly has been tough. But I wanted to share something I started doing with my grade 11 physics class last semester.

At the beginning of January, I had the students answer the following survey, reflecting on how they prepared for a unit test:

This was a great exercise for both me and the students. I reviewed the generalized data with them in class, and we made connections between predicted vs. actual grade (the averages were only off by 1-2%!), and what seemed to work best for most people when they studied.

I was particularly impressed with how they were able to articulate their next steps:

Based on what you felt worked well for you in preparing for this test, what will you do when preparing for the next test/exam? 
Their answers included:
  • I will look back at learning goals and review ones that I don't know how to do immediately.
  • Preparing with another student is worked well for me [sic]. The best way to review is to teach someone else. I also completed the review as well as studied terms.
  • The same thing just study longer
  • I plan to compile up study notes from all the units and look them over.
  • Study more during the week
  • Study before the night before
  • I find I study best when I have no distractions around me and someone consistently telling me to stay on track. For the exam, I will probably ask my peers to study with me. I plan to rewrite all my notes for the unit and make sure I thoroughly understand each concept, asking you for help when I have trouble with a particular subject.


A couple of weeks later, we had another unit test, and I followed that with another reflection survey. I was hoping to see improvements in strategies and preparation time, but there were a number of variables (different lengths of units, significant differences in difficulty of units, extraneous factors such as being swamped with culminating projects for other courses) that affected how my students approached the test. 

I added a few questions, though (listed below, with some of the answers), that I'm hoping helped the students both feel more confident with their studying strategies, as well as analyze their methods to date:

Did you change how you studied for the unit 5 test, based on how you prepared for the unit 4 test? Why or why not? What did you try differently this time?
  • No, I did well on the unit 4 test so I chose to study the same way.
  • My unit 4 test has been my best test mark so far, so I tried to do exactly the same preparation for the unit 5 test.
  • I studied less for the unit 5 test because I was working culminating projects and I just focused less on the unit
  • I ran out of time studying for unit 5 because I was busy with my projects
  • I spent more time looking at online resources as opposed to studying with a friend.
  • I changed how I studied because I didn't get a great mark on the last one. I used the review and studied longer

Based on how you prepared for the past two tests, what tips would you recommend to a friend that is preparing for the final exam?
  • Make sure you understand all the learning goals, vocabulary, and how to apply the formulas in word problems.
  • study for a week or so before the exam and not just the night before
  • Do the review questions, ask a friend or Mrs. T if you need help or don't understand
  • I would suggest a friend to do questions they aren't 100% sure about. Spend more time on the questions that they're bad at and less on the ones that they're good at.
  • Review, review, review, and try not to stress out.
  • Read over notes and make sure that you know the learning goals
The students' answers were insightful, and they seemed to have a good handle on how to prepare themselves well for the upcoming exam. They recognized what worked, and what didn't. I wonder how I can measure what kind of impact this type of reflection has on the students themselves, if any?

What's next?

How can I continue to build on the students' reflection process? One idea is to have the students complete similar surveys this semester, but then use an add-on like DocAppender to curate their answers into a document they can review at the end of the semester, having written several tests. We can ask, is their long-term strategy working? Were they consistent? What did they do to help themselves improve throughout the course?

Another idea is to have them interview each other about these topics, rather than answer in a form. Can they communicate their strategies to each other? Will good conversation be generated on how to approach tests?

Would it be worthwhile to have the students reflect BEFORE the test? Would that reduce stress or increase stress?

Lastly, I would love to be able to incorporate the reflection right into the test itself. I remember seeing someone, somewhere, put a tiny, short reflection question in the margin of each problem to be solved, to be answered right along with the rest of the test. 

It appears I also still have much reflection to do on this... comments and suggestions welcome! Do you have your students reflect on their progress/achievements? How does it work for you?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Escape Rooms in Schools

This blog post is part of a 10-day blogging initiative started by @tina_zita back in January. I saw some amazing blog posts from many colleagues during the initial challenge, but wasn't able to contribute, myself... until now! This is blog post number 4/10.

This past weekend, I attempted my first Escape Room with a group of friends. I am a sucker for puzzles of all types, and my friends are all equally-minded. We had an amazing time! But I'm now left wondering how we can duplicate an exciting experience like this in school.

If you aren't familiar with Escape Rooms, here's an example of one the crew on The Big Bang Theory tackled last season:

Basically, participants get locked in a room (which has a theme or story tying everything together), where they have to solve puzzles in order to locate the key that will get them out of the room. Did I mention the time limit and the distractions?

(For those of you reading this in Ontario, Escape Manor - the company that runs Escape Rooms in Ottawa - has just created one where you escape from the Diefenbunker, in the actual Diefenbunker! How cool is that?!)

What we loved about the experience was that all the puzzles were do-able, but tricky. With next to no instructions, we really had to work as a group to figure out the clues (some of which had multiple steps involved), and come up with the solutions. There were both physical puzzles (things that had to be manipulated) as well as mental puzzles. The time limit was key: long enough to make it possible, but short enough to make it a challenge. There was definitely some pressure to get things done!

Could we recreate an experience like this at school? Would students be just as interested in it as we were? I put some wonderings out on Twitter, and was thrilled to hear back not only from others who were interested in trying it, but also some who had already done this - with great success!

Check out the Storify archive of the tweets at the bottom of this post.

When we applied for a Teacher Learning and Leadership Program project for 2016-2017 for the creation of rich tasks in our flipped classrooms, we mentioned @breakoutEDU ( as a possible resource for multi-step puzzles like these. The overwhelming recommendation coming from the Twittersphere - as well as my own new experience in this type of challenge - has convinced me it's well worth looking into.

I'm looking forward to exploring this further, and the wheels are already turning as to how we might do this for junior science classes, or perhaps have a senior class create one for a junior class. It certainly takes the scavenger hunt project to the next level!

I'd love to explore how teachers have used this type of experience. Please comment if you can share!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Tech Students Choose to Use in BYOD

This blog post is part of a 10-day blogging initiative started by @tina_zita back in January. I saw some amazing blog posts from many colleagues during the initial challenge, but wasn't able to contribute, myself... until now! This is blog post number 3/10.

One of the biggest arguments against BYOD initiatives in the classroom, is that in order for it to be successful/beneficial to every student, equal access to technology must exist. Rarely is this the case - in any given class, we can find students who don't own a device and have no Internet access at home, to students who have all the latest versions of multiple devices.

I've tried to level the playing field somewhat by providing a small variety of devices for my students to use when they like or need. They've been pieced together over time through various grants, some scavenging around the school, and by repurposing devices initially meant for other uses.

Unfortunately, the students can't take school devices home (though that would be ideal), but it's a start. As of right now, I have:
  • a class set of datawind tablets, thanks to ORION
  • 5 ipad minis
  • 4 new desktop computers (that replaced 4 scavenged computers)
  • my board-assigned laptop, which I do not use (I choose to use my own laptop instead)
There are a few trends I've noticed when it comes to students' choice of technology in class.

Students prefer to use their own devices

Even if the screens are cracked so badly that you can barely read through them, even if they are tiny, even if they are old or out of date, even if students have to use their own data to access resources, students seem to prefer using their own device over a school device. This makes sense, since its operation is very familiar to them, so they can use it quickly and efficiently. 

I've also seen students decline to use a school device, even if newer, faster tech is available, because their device is where they receive their text messages, calls, snapchats, etc. It's tough to give that up, even with the lure of a more efficient device.

Students prefer portable devices

The four new desktops at the back of the room provide the students with large, flat screens, a full keyboard for easy typing, and the speed of use with which that generation is used to accessing all things online (which couldn't be said for the older desktops that were in the same space previously). Rarely, though, do my students choose to use them. They like the portability of smaller devices, allowing them to sit with their friends anywhere in the room, as opposed to being stuck in one spot. 

Having said that, certain tasks do lend themselves well to being completed on a desktop. Students will choose the bigger computers when they are working on typing up a lab or doing major work in a spreadsheet. Just accessing resources, though? For that they'll choose the portability.

Students prefer new technology

Old technology, or technology that is slow, will not get used, even if students have the choice between the older technology or no technology at all. They would rather sit and do nothing than fight with a device or wait for things to load/connect.

Laptops over tablets

Given the choice of the laptop over a tablet, it is the laptop which gets used by students almost 100% of the time. I'm not sure if this is because of the keyboard, or of the larger screen, but the fact that so many students seem to want to use it makes me wish I had more laptops available for them.

The Take-Away?

So if you are starting our BYOD initiatives in your classes, and you are seeking out grants to buy technology, I recommend the following:

  • Don't skimp - buy new technology that will work well.
  • Invest in laptops - a few tablets are a good idea, but don't just have tablets. I haven't used Chromebooks much - they might be ideal for this?
  • No more than a couple of desktops - I am still glad I have them (and I won't give them up!), but don't spend the bulk of your money on these.

Disadvantages of sharing devices

Finally, there is one big factor to keep in mind if you will be providing devices for your students. While shared devices do take a big step toward making sure that all students have access to technology, one of the biggest detractors is that on many devices, it is tough to sign out of the various accounts we access. It is a multi-step process to completely log out of Google Classroom, or even Gmail on a tablet. Many students don't. And while I haven't seen anyone abuse another student's account because of it, the possibility for misuse is always there.

You may also want to take a few minutes every week to "clean up" the tablets. Though it's sometimes hard to find the time, it's well worth it to make sure selfies and random apps don't keep showing up on school devices.