Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What the Students are Saying

Over the past few weeks, I've been privileged to speak with other teachers, at both the board and provincial level, about my experiences in implementing BYOD in my math classes.

At each presentation, I was asked: "What do your students think of their math class being BYOD?" 

So today, I asked my students point blank: what DO you think of our math class running this way? Here is what they answered, many anonymously, and without any prompting. No doctored answers, just the occasional spelling mistake corrected.

I think it’s a good way to run a class because it’s easier to learn this way.

I like it because we move at our own pace so some people can be at the end of the unit and others can only be at the start, and everything is online so if someone needs to do homework they can online.

I think its good because this way we can work at our own pace and do things the way we know how to.

It is better because we can go through work at our own speed. If we need help we can ask.

I like this way of teaching math. I like it because we can all move at our own pace.

It is WAY better than day-to-day teaching lesson, it allows us to learn at our own pace. I love it because we can learn it at home too, on the internet, we always don’t need the teacher with us. Best style ever!

It is much easier because we can work at our own pace.

I like running class like this because it allows you to work at your own pace and also because if you already know the certain topic you’re not just sitting there.

I like the way our class is run because it allows us to work at our own pace and learn how we want to learn instead of being forced to be taught in a way that we may not understand.

I like it because you can work at your own pace so if you miss a day you can get to where you should be.

The thing I like about this class is you have a lot of freedom and I’m understanding math more than I have in my life.

I love this way of learning. You can go at your pace and you don’t feel like you are slowing people down or rushing them.

I like the way this class works. I like it because you can move at your own pace.

I like learning like this because you get to actually do the work instead of getting lectures. I learn better that way. Although it seems a lot harder and you get less help when you are trying to catch up.

I like this classroom, but I would like to work in the hall at sometime. Let the people who work in the class go out. And the people who are always in the hall, work in the class. It would be fair.

I love how this classroom is run. When I have a bad day, I know I won’t fall behind. I can work completely at my own pace. There, in my eyes, are no problems with this way of running class.

I like being able to work with a partner almost all the time. I don’t like the stress of having a deadline and no assigned days to work on certain things (ie. test on the 23rd – if you miss a day or struggle and don’t get a goal done I freak out a bit).

I love to learn math like this because I find it a lot easier to do, work on, and figure out math than I have other years because I have struggled with some types. But I do find it hard to sometimes catch up or keep up.

The way Mrs. T teaches gives you a chance to really think and learn at your own speed. It lets you move at your own pace and makes you set goals for yourself. It also helps Mrs. T, instead of her scrambling trying to help everyone, people who already did that learning goal can help you to catch up.

I like learning like this because we can all learn more about how we work and teach ourselves, and learn at our own pace. However it can be stressful when you have to learn everything by yourself, completely understand it and meet the deadline.

I like the freedom where we learn at our own pace and if we understand something, we can move on to the next, and not have to wait for everyone in the class. I don’t like that there isn’t always textbook pages or worksheets available for every learning goal.

I think it’s good because this way we can work at our own pace to get things done and with the tracking board, we know what we have done and what we need to finish.

I like this way of learning because I get to go at more own pace and I don’t have someone basically hand feeding me knowledge. I can actually learn things. Also, you’re not as embarrassed to ask questions, because only you and the teacher can hear.

I like this way because I get to work at my own speed.

I like running a class like this because you can work at your own pace. It is also less stress.

I like how this class is run because it allows me to move at a good pace. If the unit is one that I understand, I can finish the unit early and if I am struggling I have access to multiple resources to be able to grasp the work.

I like that we can work at our own pace but I don’t like how we are kind of teaching ourselves.

I personally like how this class goes for now.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

BYOD on a Semi-Snow Day

We had a bit of a strange day at school last Thursday: many, but not all, of the school buses in our district were cancelled.


This is a departure from the normal "snow day" routine, which is usually all-or-nothing (either ALL buses are running or ALL buses are cancelled). With 95% of our students requiring transportation, the morning's sporadic cancellations caused a lot of confusion for students and their parents. Many students who could have still taken the bus to school either didn't know their route was still running, or chose to not come in since many of their friends wouldn't be there.

Combined with hunting season (which usually sees a drop in student attendance to begin with), most classes had fewer than 6 students that day.

What happens in class when most students are away?

Teachers were scrambling - what to teach? Or is it just a day to "babysit?" Can we postpone review for a test? Do we try and move forward with the material when so many people are missing? Is there enough work for students to just sit and have a work period?

Students, on the other hand, were loving it! When asked what they did all day at school, one student answered: watched a movie in one class, watched videos in another, and played games in a third. Not much learning going on there.

While I admit I toyed with the idea of taking my classes outside to build a giant snowman (cue song from Frozen), I was instead reminded of one of the reasons I have loved switching my courses to BYOD.

Beauty of BYOD

For my grade 9 math class, every student in attendance was 100% productive. Because everything was front-loaded online, all materials were ready to go earlier in the week. I didn't have to prepare anything special for the day, and I didn't have to alter any of the material just because our class numbers had dropped.

Because every student works at their own pace, I don't dictate the pace by teaching full-class lessons. I didn't have to postpone a lesson until the next day, creating a void in our unit. No deadlines needed to be moved, either.

Because each student simply found where they left off the previous day and moved forward in the unit, we didn't "lose" a day of learning. Just like any other day, the students were able to get themselves settled and write the quiz. Or design their trophy. Or create nets to fold into shapes. Or compare calculated volume with the volume of water that would fit in a solid. Each and every one of them that was there, was productive.

Helping each other get caught up

And what of the students that couldn't make it in? With most of our resources are available online, had they wanted to, they could have worked through the material in order to come in ahead the next day.

If they weren't able to access material or instead chose to take a day to play in the snow, they at least knew that all the resources would still be there upon their return. Whenever my students come back after missing a day or two (for cancelled transportation or otherwise), they ask, "what did I miss?" I am always able to say "nothing! It's all right where you left off." A quick check of the tracking board, and they're back in the game.

To say that BYOD has completely changed my approach to teaching is an understatement. It has also changed my students' approach to learning, and their approach to school. At the end of one day last week, one of my students told me "I like ending the day with math class because it puts me in a good mood for the rest of the day." It doesn't get much sweeter than that.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Morning Inspiration

A few years ago, I went on a bit of a spending spree at allposters.ca in an effort to spruce up my classroom. I had been bounced between rooms for a few years, and finally found myself with a "home" for all my classes. I'm a big believer that students will respect a space that is well taken care of, and I wanted to make my room more visually appealing.

I picked up the usual gamut of topical posters (International Space Station; Famous Scientists; "sqrt(-1) 2^3 sigma pi... and it was delicious" is one of the students' favourites) as well as some encouraging ones, but there was one that I bought mostly for myself:

It hangs by the main door to the room, right over the communal table of scissors, markers, extra pencils and scrap paper (also our coffee club's Corner of Exclusion), and right beside the intercom and our Canadian flag. 

Should anyone ask, I placed it there so students might glance at it while retrieving various implements (or when leaving the room at the end of class) and reflect, albeit for a microsecond, on one of the topics. But really, I placed it there so that while I'm at the front of the room, facing the flag for O Canada, I can pause just for that moment, and reflect on one of the topics myself.

Some days I pick one to focus on for the day. Some days, I read through them all to remind myself of what's important. Though I see it every day, I often find new meaning in many of the topics, or am able to link things back to what happened the day before. It settles me - in the 60 seconds it takes to play the anthem - and steadies me for the day.

What inspires you in the morning? How do you steel yourself for the chaos that is the teaching day? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The (False?) Pressure of Standardized Tests

Yesterday, I was honoured to be able to speak with most of the math teachers in my board about the fun things I've been doing with BYOD. I anticipated a number of questions - many of the same questions I wondered about before starting BYOD: how do the students respond to it? How do I assess the students' work? What do the parents think? Is my administration supportive? What happens when students fall behind? 

But another question came up that I didn't anticipate: how does this method of teaching affect the students' EQAO test results? Before this semester, I had never given it much thought. And if I may be honest, I'm a little worried.


In Ontario, all students are given standardized tests on reading, writing and mathematics in grades 3 & 6mathematics only in grade 9, and reading and writing in grade 10. These tests are all regulated by the province's Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO); the math test results do not count toward the students' success in school - they are just for tracking how well Ontario's students are doing.

However, the results do contribute to the reputation of the school. Every year, the Fraser Institute ranks all Ontario schools based mostly on our standardized test results.

In informal settings, we, as teachers, are told to not worry about the results of the tests - that the pressure to have the students do well on a set curriculum is a "false pressure."

If teachers are to worry, we should worry instead about reaching every student, challenging them at their level and engaging them as best we can, not teaching to the test so we can post the highest numbers. We want them to enjoy the process of learning and make progress through the semester. Posting high scores on the test, while nice to achieve, should not be our goal.

That's all well and good to say, but consider the test results: last year, my school ranked 693 out of 740 schools. We are in the bottom 7% of the province. Knowing that, what is your initial impression of my school? What does that say about our students? Our teachers? 

Fairly or unfairly, how my students perform on the EQAO test will result in me being judged. 

True or False?

Every year, our entire teaching staff sits down to craft and refine our School Improvement Plan - setting goals for the year and reviewing past goals. One of the factors we look at in detail - because all the statistics are available - are the grade 9 EQAO math test results. Not just of the past year, but in the past five years or so. My students (and I) will be compared to all the grade 9 math students (and teachers) over that time period. 

All teachers in the school examining how my students performed on the test - is that a false pressure?

Every year our board develops practice tests, provides all the materials for these practice tests and pays to bring in supply teachers so we can go through the tests and provide feedback. In Learning Cycles professional development - also provided by the board - we pour over exemplars and rubrics to see "what makes a good EQAO answer."

The board clearly spending money on efforts to get the students to perform better - is that a false pressure?

Earlier in the school year, we had some PLC (professional learning community) time set aside in advance of a staff meeting. Members of our school's math department got together to look at the new features of the EQAO portal, which provides more in-depth data on how our students performed. Yes, it's great to be able to see data on our students, but I question whether we need an external exam to tell us what any teacher could probably tell you about her class after spending 90 hours with them.

The math department taking time to review student-by-student who improved and who fell short - is that a false pressure?

And then finally yesterday, when teachers were presented with a new method of conducting their math class, the question was asked of me: how will this affect the students' EQAO results? To be honest, I don't know. I know my students enjoy coming to my class, they enjoy learning this way, stress levels are down and they are getting better at thinking outside the box and challenging themselves. Will this translate into high scores on a very traditional pen-and-paper test?

My methods being judged by the results on a test - is that a false pressure?

I am trying my best to do what I feel is right in my classroom, and to provide for my students the base that I feel they will need to be successful throughout high school and beyond. But every time I have doubts about doing something exciting and new - like the Pumpkin Time Bomb, or the Snack Chip Comparison, or the Ratio Photo Challenge, or even this whole BYOD thing - I have to go with my gut and reassure myself that the pressure to stick to teaching to the test is indeed a false pressure. We'll just have to see what comes of it.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Finding an Audience

One of my goals for this year is to garner a larger audience for my students and their work. I have big ideas and plans of working with other classes (both in the school and in other schools) for cross-curricular projects, but I find one of the biggest stumbling blocks for me is really just getting my students' work out there for others to see.

There are a few things that I've tried so far this semester, and I'm quite pleased by the results. Not only are the students more intrinsically motivated to put more effort into their work, but they are buoyed by the feedback they receive from teachers/adults other than myself.

Grade 9 Math

One of our first projects was creating "Welcome to Grade 9 Math" booklets aimed at grade 8s coming into high school. The aim was to get the students thinking of the basic algebraic skills needed to succeed, and how they could teach these concepts to younger students. 
Examples of some of the booklets
I had done this activity with grade 9s in the past, but this year I reached out to the grade 8 math teachers at our feeder schools, and asked if they would like to use these in their classes. Four teachers from three schools agreed, so the booklets were divided up and shipped off. The only constraint was that booklets made by a school's alumni did not return to that school.

Knowing that their booklets were ACTUALLY going to be used by grade 8s inspired my class to put extra time and effort into their work, and whenever I get feedback from the grade 8 teachers, I am sure to share it with my class so they are reminded that the legacy of their work lives on - this was not just another project to store in a box or get thrown out when finished. 

Here is an example of some of the feedback I recently shared with my students from one of the grade 8 teachers:

"My students have had the chance to view these booklets.  They were very interested in knowing more about concepts that they need to know next year.  Even though many of the concepts are continuations from this year, they were intrigued by these booklets.  I think it was an eye opener for them.  I try my very best to really focus on key ideas that will be required for Grade 9, so this project was excellent!  I might try to do something similar with my students for those coming from Grade 7.  It's a great way for students to review their learning."

In grade 9 we have also shared our creations with a grade 9 math class in Kingston (see the collaboration post on that project here), and collected some data for Jon Orr's Pumpkin Time Bomb project. We are hoping to use the data Jon has collected from that larger project when we get to our unit on correlations.

Pumpkin Time Bomb

Grade 11 Physics

Though we weren't planning on sharing our work outside of the classroom, a collaborative slide show the students were working on for Newton's Laws became a little more public than intended when a couple of teachers on Twitter wanted to see an example of this kind of collaboration in action. It was a two-day project, with the announcement that the end product would be used as an exemplar for teachers learning about GAFE coming on the second day.

The result was this Google Slides slide show. Though the criteria of the project didn't change, most students spent the second day tending to smaller details of the project, and verifying that what they had written was actually correct. Whereas before it was just about crossing off the expectations of the assignment, suddenly the project wasn't just about pleasing me (their teacher) - it was about showing off what they knew, and being creative.

Grade 12 Math

In grade 12 math, we're taking things to the next level as we are actually going to try and sell our creations to make a profit! The students have been working on an assignment using Desmos to create a pattern that will be printed on fabric, wallpaper or giftwrap, and sold on spoonflower.com. Once the patterns are published, the students will make 10% commission on any sales. The audience has become global, and their reward for their efforts - while partially a good grade - will be any money they make. You can view the assignment here.

One of our patterns for spoonflower, made in Desmos.

Students couldn't believe they would be able to actually make money off of a math project, and it motivated many of them to create some great patterns in Desmos. I hope to have an update on this as we finish the project and get everything uploaded into spoonflower for sale. Some students were even talking about ordering their own pattern on giftwrap so that they could wrap Christmas presents for their family in it!

Toward the end of the unit, students were also asked to design a worksheet with questions not for their own grade level, but, similarly to the grade 9 booklet project above, for students at a lower level (the assignment can be found here: Passing on the Knowledge). The worksheets will be used by other teachers at the school, and must be submitted in a "ready-to-be-photocopied" state. Asking students to produce 15 questions often produces some scribbles on a crumply piece of paper. Asking students to produce 15 questions for another class produces some masterpieces - I have never seen them write so neatly! :) While I knew that creating an audience would help improve student engagement, I had not expected great results like these.

Flattening the walls...

I still feel like these are small steps at this point, but I am getting there (and getting more comfortable with the idea of flattening the classroom walls and letting others look in!). I love the idea of taking the students' demonstration of knowledge outside of the class so that it's not just me that sees their final work. I'm always looking for new ideas - what have you tried when it comes to sharing student work and giving them an audience?

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?