Saturday, October 18, 2014

Coffee Club

A long time ago, from some book of which I've long since forgotten the title, I read about a teacher who had a sandwich station at the back of her classroom. It wasn't anything fancy - just a loaf of Wonder bread, a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jam, some napkins and some plastic knives. If a student in her class was ever hungry at any time, she or he was allowed to quietly go to the sandwich corner and have a snack.

The teacher's reasoning for having this in the classroom was to help her students learn by addressing part of the bottom tier of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: if students are hungry, they are not going to be able to learn. Address the basic needs first, and the students will be in a better position psychologically to engage in their learning.

I was jealous. 

Over the years, I've always not-so-secretly wished I could do the same. I would love to have a little corner of my classroom available for students to recharge in the middle of a lesson. Teaching in a high school, though, it was several years before I had my own classroom (I refuse to carry bread and jam - peanut butter likely being a very bad idea in school these days - from class to class). Now that I do teach all my classes in the same room, it's a science lab where food and drink are prohibited.

But I've made an exception (shhhhh... don't tell my board!). The front corner of my room, right beside the entrance, under the Canadian flag and the intercom speaker, is the CORNER OF EXCLUSION. Any student who would like to bring food or drink to class is allowed to keep it and consume it in that corner only.

While I have the students abide by this rule because it's a board rule, it is also very practical for my BYOD class - fewer opportunities for food and drink to get spilled on devices.

I abide by these rules, too. I never have food in the classroom, but I do often bring a mug of coffee or tea, and it lives on the desk in the front corner. When I need a sip (or when any of my students need a sip or a snack), we can go to that corner - at any point during the class - and consume what we need to consume. The only rule is that we do so quietly and without fuss. 

It's worked well - I've had students sit in the corner and listen to full lectures as they eat, as well as students who just take advantage of the corner for a few moments when they need a sip of water before returning to their work.

Coffee Club

My grade 11 Physics class, though, has taken our CORNER OF EXCLUSION to a new level. On Fridays and Mondays, when we have Physics right after lunch, they have created "Coffee Club." One day, a student brought brownies to share. Other days, a different student brought cake, and third student brought pie. This past Friday, the students brought a kettle and some hot chocolate & tea, and offered it to anyone who wanted some.

We worked on a review worksheet on advanced forces & dynamics for an upcoming test - not easy questions for them. And throughout the entire class, I was circulating, answering questions, checking answers, sitting down with students to problem solve with them. The students were working hard, too - nearly all of them made good progress in our 70-minute period. 

But every now and then a few of them would get up, move into the Coffee Club Corner, have some hot chocolate, discuss whatever was being discussed, and then move back to their tables after a couple of minutes. I was amazed at how well the students balanced the social time of the coffee club with their work. The tone of the class was laid-back, stress-free, but productive. No one was slacking off or spending more than five minutes away from the task at hand, but it provided a short break when the students needed it, and it made the class just a little more fun.

(They even wrote some Physics Haikus on the board by the Coffee Club Corner:)

It's not a sandwich station, but I think it just might be the next best thing. I'm looking forward to seeing the students continue to take advantage of it throughout the semester.

Monday, October 13, 2014

ONE big, long, unit project. Does it work?

This year, I decided to try something new with my grade 12 college math class: one big (14-16 learning goals), long (one month), comprehensive (covering everything we need for the unit) portfolio project. I initially wrote about the class and the project here.

Their mark for the unit will consist of the portfolio (with great emphasis), the unit test and a completion mark for some required exit slips that I used as "double checks" to make sure students were on task and mastering the material. That's all. Every day consisted of me checking in with the students one-on-one and helping where necessary.

We're now at the end of the unit, so I'm faced with the task of deciding whether or not the project was worth it. Did it engage the students? Did the format help them learn? Was I able to assess more through observation and conversation as I had hoped? Are they better students (or, more generally, learners) because of it? Did they hate math just a little bit less?

On se débrouille...

Going in, I knew students would not be impressed with dictating the learning themselves. I've found many students are conditioned to sit and listen (or not listen, as is often the case), and then work through whatever is put in front of them (or not work through it). Many don't like the idea of not having everything handed to them, but instead having to choose what they are going to learn and how they are going to learn it.

(Aside: There's a great verb in French for this - se débrouiller (the ability to cope or manage oneself, particularly in a tricky or unfamiliar situation) - that I wish there was an equivalent word for in English!)

But I get it - it's different, and the student perception is that it's hard. It certainly is harder than not having to decide how you're going to spend your class time. I gave the students a post-portfolio reflection survey at the end of the project to see what they thought. Here's what they said (my thoughts are in red):

How much effort did the students put into this project?
(1 = none, 10 = everything they could)
Almost 50% of respondents answered with 9 or 10, with the lowest answer being 4. The average answer was 7.6. Most students felt they put good effort into their portfolio.

This contradicted what I saw in class. About half the class worked well - picking away at it every day and making good progress. The other half did very little in class, even if I was sitting with them offering to help as they learned. They were reluctant to access online or print resources, and did not seem concerned with getting the project done until about three classes before it was due - at which point there was a bit of a panic to finish.

What did you like best about this project?
The students chose what they liked best from a checklist - they could answer with as many choices as they liked.
Click to enlarge the graphic
Other suggestions were "It directly applies to life," (1 response) and "Nothing" (1 response). Choosing order and pace seems to be most important to the students, followed by choosing how to do the work and not worrying about falling behind.

I found students to be less stressed on the whole - with the exception of those last few days leading up to the due date of the assignment - due to not "falling behind" or having to do homework on a regular basis. As I'm designing my next unit, these are the factors I want to try and keep. I was also surprised the students didn't like relating things back to their case study families - in class they seemed to put a lot of thought into their families and their back-stories. Or maybe they just preferred a creative component over doing math?

How well do you feel you understand this unit?
(1 = understand none of it, 10 = understand it perfectly)
While no one picked anything higher than 8, 62% of the respondents answered with 7 or 8. The average answer was 6.5, and the lowest was 2. Most felt they knew the material reasonably well.

The test results themselves were more varied, ranging between 49% and 95%, with an average of 74%. On the whole, these test results are better than I would have expected from a college-level math class. Though the students could use their portfolios during the test, most students used them only sparingly, if at all. On the whole, I think they knew the material better than had this been a traditional class.

I think a lot of the understanding came from conversations in class both between students, and between student and teacher. There was a lot of comparison of budgets, houses, mortgages, taxes that came up organically, and that I don't think would have been there if this had just been a note-and-worksheet class.

What did you struggle with on this project?
The students chose what they struggled with from a checklist - they could answer with as many choices as they liked.
Click to enlarge the graphic
Other suggestions were "Sometimes hard to get help because everyone needed it," (1 response), "There was online help?" (1 response) and "Hate online stuff." (1 response)

It's true - many students were reluctant to even start the learning process. A couple of them took about a week's worth of classes before they could figure out where to start their portfolio, and what they needed to do to master a learning goal. Once they got started, however, they worked pretty well throughout the project. I'm wondering if I should have had physical, in-class organization tools for them (leaving binders for their work in class, providing dividers, etc.).

I will have to re-double my efforts to find good resources, since many of the resources didn't appeal to the students, and as one student commented, I was often pulled in 4 different directions because many students required my help (instead of se débrouiller-ing). If I could locate good teaching resources that students would naturally gravitate toward (any idea what that might be?), this might help engage them.

Would I do this again?

Yes. My students seemed to learn the material better as evidenced on the test, though I'm not sure they enjoyed it any more than they "enjoy" sitting through notes and worksheets. HOWEVER, I would need to re-work entrance points for the project (to help students get started) and provide more guidance for demonstrating their mastery of the material (guided questions? specific examples?).

While I was able to frequently assess the students through conversation and observation as they worked through their portfolio, I wasn't able to nail down a system to record what I was seeing and hearing. In the future, I would create a rubric/checklist in a Google form that I could have on my tablet for easy access as I circulate through the room.

There was a lot of good to this project, but still a lot tweaking that needs to be done for future projects. I'm always looking for suggestions - have you tried a large project like this? What worked well, and what did students struggle with?

Friday, October 3, 2014

My First Collaboration

After one of our Manitoulin IGNITEd (@ManIGNITEd) sessions on global collaboration last year, I've wanted to get better at connecting my students with others. Having never done anything like that before, though, I struggled with how to make that connection and how to approach it with my classes.

I started last year with a collaboration between my grade 10 applied math class, and another grade 10 applied math class in our school. Together, we created scavenger hunts for each other as part of our culminating projects. The students loved having other students checking up on them and eventually testing their clues - it added a whole other dimension to their work.

This year, I've made it my goal to better connect my students with others outside of our school, off our island, and maybe even in other provinces and countries. @TracyZordan has expressed interest in collaborating cross-curricularly with my grade 11s (Tracy - I haven't forgotten! Just waiting to get a little further into my course), but I'm still scared - I wanted to start a little smaller. One step at a time, right?

So last week I threw it out on Twitter that I was looking to connect my class with another class somewhere doing ratios and percentages. @PatGrew responded, and together, we crafted an assignment that has our students capturing images in order to create ratio and percentage questions for each other. 

To facilitate sharing, we created a Twitter handle - @gr9ratio - so that students without a Twitter account could post through that account (Pat and I both have the password), and students with their own handle could tweet to @gr9ratio. And for the past week, the tweets have been flying back and forth!

First, some introductions: 

And then the students started posting their pictures and questions:

Over the next little while, our students will answer each others' questions, and we are hoping to actually connect via FaceTime on Monday while our classes briefly overlap in time. My students are loving having a little portal into another class of grade 9s, and I'm loving their creativity as they pick their images. I was surprised to see them choose things that are personal to them - favourite movies and music, pets, medals they've won - things they want to reach out and share with other teens.

We've had a few technical glitches along the way (our board blocks Twitter on our network, so I have to unblock it on school devices, and even then our connection is not always reliable), but this has proven to be a great way to start each class. The students look forward to having their images and questions posted, and are enjoying solving another student's questions.

It's not a super big collaboration, but it's a first step connecting outside our school. I'm so glad I was able to connect with another teaching willing to try this with me! And with this step firmly in place, I'm already looking forward to the next collaboration project. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Tale of Two EdCamps

I spent a lovely weekend in Barrie, Ontario, this past weekend, visiting friends we hadn't seen in over a decade, and attending EdCamp Barrie. This was my second EdCamp experience, having helped host EdCamp Manitoulin Island this past May, and found it to be a completely different experience.

Which, I guess, if you're going to call something an "un-conference," it would be expected that each EdCamp be vastly different and unique to that setting.

Both EdCamps drew passionate educators from all over the province, bringing a wealth of experience and viewpoints with them. At both venues, the conversation was rich and meaningful, and everyone came away invigorated to try new things in their schools. And, of course, we got t-shirts from both EdCamps! But that's about where the similarities end. 


Photo by @aforgrave
Our little EdCamp on Manitoulin was a purposefully small affair. We had 20 participants, which pretty much filled the main room at the Red Lodge Resort on beautiful Lake Manitou. We moved back and forth between rooms that overlooked the water, and rooms that had a roaring fire in the fireplace. The day started with the World Café, as Jenn Chan (@jennzia) led the group through doodles & discussion about where we are as educators along our journey of learning.
Photo by @fryed
Photo by @CarolineBlack39
Breakout sessions were chosen by people announcing topics on which they would be interested in leading discussion, and then as per EdCamp tradition, we "voted with our feet," moving from session to session as we saw fit. 
Though we ended up with a good variety of topics, many were very vague, and we were encouraged to split up into further subgroups as we saw fit.
Just out of photo: the roaring fire in the fireplace to the left of the group.
I was lucky to get connected with Andrew Forgrave (@aforgrave)- a well-known educator in gaming in the classroom circles - to learn more about using Minecraft with my students. Of course, that required time spent PLAYING Minecraft...
Take THAT, creeper!! Photo by @exhibit_change
Thanks to generous sponsors, we were able to have lunch catered by the Red Lodge staff, and we had a sit down lunch. This was a great way to touch base with everyone about what they had talked about during the morning sessions.

While I met a lot of people from diverse backgrounds (I had only met two or three participants face-to-face before the event), the experience still felt small. I came away initially feeling unsure of what I had learned - I tend to be a very structured person, so the whole concept of "learn what you want to learn" left me feeling a little uneasy. In retrospect, I know I got a lot out of it, but at the time, I wasn't sure I liked the idea of these unconferences. I thought I wanted something more concrete, but I wasn't sure.

It did, however, greatly prepare me for the EdCamp Barrie experience.


Photo by @lv2learn2
EdCamp Barrie this past weekend was on a completely different scale. There were about 100 educators in attendance, and the venue was a high school at the north end of the city. As a result, spaces were larger, conversations were continual, and there was much more choice in terms of sessions and spaces in which to work. Even though the event was larger and more structured, it felt less structured and more fluid. It wasn't as cozy as EdCamp Island, but with so many people, a bigger venue was a necessity.
Some of the participants at #edcampb. Photo by @aforgrave
Unlike EdCamp Island, the schedule was built through an entirely collaborative process. On stickies, we all wrote down the questions that drive us as educators, and plastered them onto the wall. The organizing committee took the time to categorize all our questions into main topics, which we then voted on using stickers. The most-wanted topics were selected and the schedule was created. As the day went on, extra sessions (such as the mental health one) got added as teachers found each other and started up a discussion.
Photo by @aforgrave
Thanks to EdCamp Manitoulin Island, I was much more open to just doing my own thing and learning "from the room" instead of from a particular person or focusing on a particular skill. I was also more comfortable with contributing my own experiences to the conversation. I was more ready to step up and talk about what I've learned rather than passively absorbing information, and chose to go to a couple sessions because I could share.

In a session on Math & Technology. Photo by @lv2learn2
The sheer number of connections made at EdCampB was mind-blowing. Meeting up with people I hadn't seen since EdCamp Island, finally meeting people I had previously connected with on Twitter, and getting to know passionate educators with whom I had never before crossed paths made the day that much more worthwhile.

Both my husband and I came away with some amazing ideas to implement over the next few months. We both feel empowered by what we learned, and despite taking up an entire Saturday, we feel rejuvenated by the experience.

There was nothing but positivity throughout the day - from fun activities like the green screen photo booth, to the technology slam at the end of the day, to the upbeat music being played whenever we entered the main meeting space, it seemed people were always smiling. (The poutine truck was also pretty awesome.) I can't wait to experience something like this again.

Back to my Roots

Though I had such a great time at this recent, larger EdCamp, I am already looking forward to helping out again with our small, intimate version of an unconference as we prepare to host EdCamp Manitoulin Island again in May 2015 (I doubt I'll get to another EdCamp before then). I have a much better idea of how informal learning like this works, and I'm anxious to both contribute to sessions and absorb from others. You are all invited!

Have you been to an EdCamp before? What did you think of it? Were your expectations met?

Thursday, September 18, 2014


It's so easy to get stuck in your own teaching rut: to put your head down and immerse yourself in your classes, doing your best to keep the enthusiasm up when you're with your students, and to get through the paperwork in some kind of a timely manner.

Today, though, two colleagues (at different times of the day) told me about some of the GREAT things they are doing with their classes. I poked my head out of my teaching shell long enough to take a good look around, and was so inspired by what teachers at my school are doing.

One of my colleagues is using Plickers for the first time in her Law class - it's a quick way to poll the students in her class and project real-time results. But instead of everyone needing a device of some kind, the students hold up cards and she scans the room with a tablet. What a great way of getting immediate (and possibly anonymous) feedback from the students when not all of them have access to technology.

One of the math teachers is looking for ways to get his locally developed math class engaged. He was showing me an activity they were going to do today which involved going outside, throwing tennis balls against a wall and catching them. They had to catch as many as they could in 30 seconds, and then repeat with a bounce. And then repeat with one eye closed. (Oh, and then they had to do ratios and percentages with their data afterward.) I love this kind of active math. I want to be able to do more of that in my math classes too.

Another of my colleagues is doing a Global Read Aloud project with her class. They are in the process of coming up with and choosing the questions to ask their partner class to figure out where in the world they are. Hearing about how invested the students are in crafting the perfect questions, as well as their strategy for unravelling the mystery as they lead up to the actual project, is so wonderful. Talk about investing in your education!

I traded classrooms with yet another colleague earlier this week so he could do a tree identification lab with his class. All the lab benches were covered with branches of various trees as the students made their way through a bell-ringer to identify them. Where did they first learn about the trees? Not from a book... but while out on a hike just off school grounds. Love that they can bring take their learning outside (and then bring the outdoors back into the classroom). 

And how could I forget - another science teacher had his students create cell models using whatever medium they would like. One group donated their project to the science office when they were finished, and it was delicious! I love seeing students get this creative with their work. 

Mmmmmmmm.... organelles......
There's a lot of talk about how Twitter is such an amazing place to find new ideas and examples of innovation in the classroom - and it's true - but I don't think we can forget that amazing things are happening right down the hall from where we already are. I look at what the teachers in my school are doing and I'm thrilled to see what our students are doing. Are you also looking for new ideas? Take some time to find out what else is happening in your school!

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!