Sunday, May 25, 2014

Re-discovering a Capital-P Passion

I've just started reading @burgessdave's book, Teach Like a PIRATE. I've only just finished the first section (who knew PIRATE was an acronym?!), but am really enjoying it. I find it to be an inspirational source of new ideas (how to ignite your students during the first few days of the semester) as well as a subtle reminder of what we know as teachers to be good teaching practices (immersing yourself in your class, being 100% in the moment with your students).

The P in PIRATE stands for passion, and Mr. Burgess makes an excellent case for bringing three kinds of passion into your everyday classroom. Subject passion (why we love our teachable subject so much we dedicated part of our lives to studying it), professional passion (why we love teaching), and personal passion (what gets us fired up outside of the classroom, during our personal time). By sharing and demonstrating our various passions for our students, we build rapport with them, and automatically demonstrate enthusiasm in what we're teaching. It makes sense that when we discuss something we love, we transfer a little of our passion as well.

Reading about this prompted me to ask myself, what are my passions? What do I really enjoy doing, and what do I push myself to learn more about? One of these passions is running.

Always a sprinter in my youth, the ability to run distances greater than 400m eluded me. I've tried taking up running several times throughout my life, but it wasn't until about 5 years ago that it suddenly seemed just a little bit easier. I don't know if it was just because I was older, or a better diet, or whether the cleaner air that comes with living in rural Ontario made a difference, but I found I was able to run a full kilometre without being totally winded at the end! I pushed myself over the next few months and found myself running middle distances (5-10km) regularly, and actually enjoying it.

For the past few years now, I've set resolutions of running in at least three races/organized events a year. I've been fortunate to race with 10,000 runners in the Ottawa Race Weekend 5km, along the beautiful St. Clair river in southwestern Ontario, and along the Trans-Canada highway and Spanish River as the sun rose in Massey, among other races. I run in the Terry Fox run most years, and have raised thousands of dollars over the last 3 years for the CIBC Run for the Cure in the fall. I have no interest in running larger distances on a regular basis, although I might challenge myself to a half-marathon in a couple of years.

Half-way through my first 10km race at Massey, Ontario.

Having said all this, I'm by no means fast. I work to beat my personal bests, but I never go into a race determined to come in top place. To be honest, I get a bigger kick out of the fact that roads get closed to traffic so that runners can pound the pavement. I don't run to be competitive, I run because I enjoy it.

My recent target was the 10km race at Sudbury Rocks - a fundraiser for diabetes research, but also a major race day in Sudbury. I was looking forward to a local race, and running along some of the major roads I often drive along - something I would never get the chance to do otherwise. I followed a training schedule and got my distance back up after a long winter of occasional treadmill use.

Three weeks before the race, though, I fell into a week of depression. My motivation (for many things, not just running) was gone. I started eating more, and doing less. When I came out of the depression, I found it hard to get back into running. My bad habits continued, I gained 10 pounds, I missed the Sudbury race, and it became even harder to motivate myself to get back into it.

Until today. With no excuses left (I have no time, it's too cold, I just ate, there's no point - there are always excuses if we look for them), I had my husband drop me 5km from home - no choice to run back. It was slow and painful. But it's a step in the right direction (well, more like 5000 steps in the right direction).

Now that I've started again, I can start goal-setting again, and pushing myself again. Sure it was hard, but it felt good to re-discover this passion. I feel like a slightly different person than when I was making those excuses. A little more well-rounded, and a little more focused.

We can't just be teachers. We have to push ourselves to do new things, try new things, and master new things outside of the classroom. This makes us better learners, better teachers, and better able to connect with our students.

What are your passions? Have you fallen out of them? Can you get back into them? What passion can you bring to your classroom?

Monday, May 12, 2014

To Tech, or Not To Tech?

I try to do a lot of things with tech in my classroom - everything from simple replacement of paper worksheets with online documents to completely transforming how my students use technology to learn. It's a lot of trial and error, but I love the challenge and I honestly believe it's a direction we teachers have to move in.

But I understand, too, the reluctance a lot of teachers have to move in this same direction. I'm not immune to the frustration teachers who are not familiar with technology feel as they work to implement even small technological advances into their classes.

A perfect example is what happened this past week. (Yes, this is a tech rant.)

Thursday, as a part of a lesson on nuclear energy, I set up a class on so my students could do a Gizmo on the different kinds of nuclear decay. Setting up the class and Gizmo was easy - a few clicks and I was done. Bob's your uncle. (Right?)

With the computer lab and the mobile netbook cart booked, we relied on students using their own laptops, of which only about half the students in the class had. No problem - this activity is a good one to collaborate on, so I had students pair up, making sure each group had access to a laptop.

With about 20 minutes left to go in class, just as the online activity was being introduced, the Internet conks out. With ten minutes left in class, the Internet gets reconnected, so I encouraged students to at least log in and make sure they could get to the Gizmo. Only about half of them could - the other half didn't have the right Flash Player plug-in enabled... a few of them said they'd try to download the right update, otherwise we would leave it until the next day.

The next morning, during my prep period, I negotiated with the teacher who had booked the netbook cart to borrow four of the laptops to supplement what tech my students had in class. Anticipating that my technology woes were not yet over, I went to check and make sure the netbooks had the right plug-in that gave my students grief the day before.

The first one I opened had Chrome's default language set to Japanese (a hilarious prank, as no one at our school speaks Japanese). Regardless, I could still get to the Gizmo to check for the plug-in, which was not there (couldn't just install it though, as I didn't know what to click because everything was in Japanese). Booted up another netbook so I could work through the Chrome menus to figure out how to change the language, however the one I picked didn't even have Chrome installed.

Long story longer, it took me 20 minutes to find four netbooks with a browser that accepted the correct plug-in, change one netbook's Chrome from Japanese back to English, and get one netbook out of eternal hibernation mode. That's 19 minutes longer than it would have taken me to just photocopy a worksheet. Add to that the 20 minutes spent in class the previous day trying to get things up and running.

I'm sure when teachers who don't use a lot of tech look at those of us who do, they often see everything going right. But then when they go to try something, they sometimes experience frustration at having to troubleshoot on the fly. The troubleshooting, finessing, fiddling and fixing that seems inherent with implementing technological initiatives takes time and adds to the everyday stress of trying to get it all done. 

So why put so much effort into changing things up tech-wise? With the sheer number of devices, apps, platforms and student entry points it will likely always be a lot of work. And it will likely always be easier to pull a worksheet out of a binder, or assign textbook questions. 

But seeing the students collaborate, discuss out loud while pointing at the giant class periodic table, exclaim their understanding as they watch and control the animations of atomic nuclei decaying, and ask to take turns working the interactive, reaffirms with me that there are so many better options than just a worksheet. The time spent fiddling? Annoying at times, but worth it.

And look on the bright side. I now know how to change Chrome's default language to Japanese.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

That Perfect Class

I hate professional development videos. They always seem to feature the perfect classes. You know the ones - all the students are behaving, listening intently to the teacher, actively engaged in what they're working on, 99% of them putting up their hand to answer the question. 

Before the video is played, we are always told that "these aren't special classes" - just regular kids in a regular lesson (depending on what the PD is highlighting). And while I'm sure the camera enforces good behaviour to a certain extent, I never see behind-the-teacher's-back giggling, or anything flying through the air, or even just one off-task child in the group.

My classes NEVER behave that well. I'm not saying my classes are insane - I've never had to lock the door to keep them all in the room; while giggling happens behind my back, it's never been a free-for-all, and I've certainly never seen my students all-out revolt. But I've also never had that perfect class, and every time I see one of those videos, I not-so-secretly wish that my classes could be like that.

Recently, though, I'm feeling a little better about my classes.

One of the by-products of my BYOD experience this year has been to document what happens in these classes - student behaviours and reactions, frustrations and triumphs. I keep my tablet handy so that I can snap photos of students using their devices in new ways, or to archive their projects (pretty much all of the photos throughout this blog come from my tablet). But I also started taking photos of the students during those moments when they WERE those perfect students in those perfect classes.

And I realized something... those moments weren't as rare as I thought. When I started looking for my students doing spectacular (engaged, on-task, collaborative) things, I started seeing them all the time. 

Don't get me wrong - my class hasn't become that perfect class. Usually, just a few seconds after that ideal moment, something breaks their focus and they go back to being their regular somewhat rowdy selves, but being able to document those awesome moments... now I'm starting to feel like those super teachers in those videos!

Our classes don't have to be super all the time (although if they are - AWESOME!), but I'm more easily recognizing the triumphs in my class, and it's encouraging me to persevere on the toughest days.

Do you have a photo-taking device of some kind? Of course you do! I strongly encourage you to always have it at the ready. Even if you don't make the photos public, create a journal for yourself (or even better, collaborate with the students to make a class journal?) and celebrate what's going right.

We are all those super teachers more than we realize!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Sharing Student Work

I've taken part in a number of sessions lately on the sharing and publication of student work. It's a pretty hot topic, what with relatively new access to a global audience, and it's an area I'd like to explore as I continually work toward the R end of SAMR. 

Ideally, I want my students to be able to contribute to others' learning as they learn, sharing their work and discovery process. But that's a pretty big step from the traditional math approach of "here's-a-lesson-here's-a-worksheet."

And it's not easy.
I've tried to make some progress sharing class work online, but just when I think I'm getting somewhere, I find I run into stumbling blocks. Our school board has just blocked student access to Google Drive, has always blocked access to cloud storage and youtube, and has never been fond of sharing sites like Padlet or Linoit (allowing text posts, but not images). My immediate go-to's for sharing my own material with students are not accessible.

Assuming I could decide on the best way to get student work online, I find I go around in circles trying to decide on the best curation method and how to best spread the word about our work (with what's available to us behind the filters) - class blog? Contributions to class twitter feed? Wikispace? 

So many questions and possibilities that I find it hard to jump right in.
And once we decide on where to publish student work, what then can we actually publish safely? Our school has a "media release form," which most students' parents sign, but it is geared more along the lines of releasing student photos to the local newspapers, not curating student content online. When it comes to privacy, of course we want to be careful in what we post, but the whole point of sharing is that we get our work out there for others to access, share, comment on and discuss. Where does the privacy line get drawn?

It was while going around in these circles (I sometimes feel like I'm trying to get out of the centre lane of a roundabout, completing a dozen revolutions before making it!) that I realized going back to traditional methods of "publishing" student work might not be such a bad idea.

Sharing student work provides a valuable incentive to create quality material, regardless of whether the sharing is done at a global, local or even just classroom level.

I was reminded of this when I asked my grade 10 math BYOD class to create an anchor chart demonstrating the parts of a parabola
Creating anchor charts

Right from the beginning, the students knew that their charts could be used by other students completing exit slips, quizzes, or the unit test. As students further ahead in the course finished their charts, they were immediately displayed as exemplars for students struggling with the material, as well as resources for those moving forward with the curriculum.
Using anchor charts to help with a test question
How does BYOD fit in with creating anchor charts on paper? The students were still responsible for finding examples and learning the material before putting marker to paper (see image below for their list of resources), and using a graphing calculator app to check their work. It's not an ideal use of the world-at-their-fingertips, but it's definitely a start.
Part of our unit 4 resources

I was very pleased with the work that went into the charts, and the extent to which they were used by everyone in the class throughout the rest of the unit. Now... how to share their charts (or other work) with the world?