Saturday, 28 December 2013

Letting Go of the Reins...or Trusting Students

Taking inspiration from Shelley Wright, I decided to change the way I taught the Holocaust to the students enrolled in "Adventures in World History" (CHM4E1).  I wasn't going to teach them directly; rather, they were going to research, explore and create.

To begin, we talked about the question: What does the Holocaust reveal about humanity?  Students were able to recognize that tragedy can bring out the best in people and the ultimate worst in people.  From there I explained to the students that we were going to change the approach to learning.  We watched Chris Lehmann's Ted Talk "Education is Broken".  I remember reading one of Wright's posts and thinking, "Really?  Your students clapped after?" But there was some applause in my classroom.  Most of the students were inspired.  One student recognized that in the our previous unit about Gladiators, students were directing their learning and making it visible.  He said something along the lines, "I see what you're doing".  Yes, exactly...I'm trying to make learning meaningful!
Painting their exhibit about death marches. 

Working and chatting at the same time.
Students did some initial guided research about the Holocaust.  From there, we determined a variety of topics and students selected areas of interest to research more in depth and create a museum exhibit.  We discussed the set up of the museum and our discussion about the set up was interesting and intense.  Would the museum best be set up chronologically?  By topic?  Ultimately, I put two students in charge of this, and they chose a combination of chronology and topic.

To allow students to access an expert, I invited my colleague and friend, Dr. Adara Goldberg, into the classroom via a Mystery Skype.  Students prepared questions for her, as a way to round out their learning.  Additionally, we watched Schindler's List, as a way to give students visual interpretation of one story from the Holocaust, which is really the stories of many people.

Watching the collaboration and discussions that happen while doing is inspiring.  I could overhear students talking about their project.  I could hear them making reference to the Mystery Skype and to Schindler's List and how the ideas applied to their exhibit.

Explaining Auschwitz-Birkenau
to a guest.
One of the best parts of this process was watching the students actually build their exhibits.  This is where the collaboration really took place--not just between students who were working on an exhibit together--but also between students in different groups working together to meet a deadline.

I was nervous that the museum wasn't going to be finished on time, but students came in on their spares to complete all of their work and they all pitched in to help each other get things done.

Students visiting the museum.
The museum was a success. During our class period, four of my colleagues brought their classes to check out the museum and learn about the Holocaust. Additionally, some of my students' parents, and my own, came in to support the class' hard work.  Another teacher brought two of her classes by, for informal visits, as a way to provide context for their novel study on The Book Thief.

Through the museum creation, students had the opportunity to build their skills in research, collaboration, time management, and synthesis.  Skills that will serve them well in "real life".

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Adventures in Mystery Skyping

The first time I read The Rez Sisters, I was in third year university taking the course "Modern Canadian Drama".  When I began teaching at ODSS, I noticed that we had a class set in our book loft.  I soon discovered that the play wasn't being taught in any of the courses, but I knew it would work in ENG3U1.

This semester was the fifth time teaching the play, and every time I teach it, I uncover more and more meaning.

This semester, however, I realized that I could "flatten my classroom walls" and extend my students' knowledge and understanding and that of my own of First Nations students.  Julie Balen is a member of my PLN and I remember her mentioning that she teaches First Nations students.  I am very thankful that she and her students were willing to Skype with us.

Getting Started.  Photograph courtesy Ben H.

As Julie wrote in her blog post, the Mystery Skype was more than just using technology in the classroom.  Technology was a method to expose our students to the experiences of other teenagers living different lives in the same province.  Many of my students made note that there were many similarities between their lives and experiences and those of the students living in Wikwemikong.

Mina noted that she had a negative view of First Nations people, but our conversation gave her a new perspective and challenged the stereotypes that First Nations people are subject to.  Riley detailed the traditions that the students from Wikwemikong practice.  Sam liked that he got to hear about the perspectives of First Nations students directly from them, not from a secondary source, like an article or documentary.

I asked my students to blog about the Mystery Skype, and to specifically answer the question, "What needs to be improved upon for another Skype?"  This forced the students to reflect on the experience.  For example, Hailey and Tristan noted that they needed to organize their questions better.  Mina made mention that they needed to maintain their assigned roles, and another student suggested that more roles be assigned.  I liked Helena's suggestion that we Skype in smaller groups, so that the conversations could flow more easily.  Jesse pointed out that both classes needed to be better prepared.

I loved hearing my students reflections and found it interesting that, for the most part, their areas of improvement aligned with the reflections of the students from Wikwemikong.  I loved that the student themselves were able to determine what they needed to do to improve; I didn't have to tell them.

Overall, the Mystery Skype achieved my goal of making the play more real for my students.  My one hope is that they will continue to connect with the other class.  Some students have already indicated that they have some more questions.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Mystery Skype: Inviting in an Expert

After attending two sessions at ECOO13 (one by Cathy Beach and another by Andrew Campbell), I worked up the nerve to try Mystery Skype.  Over the last two weeks, two of my classes participated in two different types of Mystery Skypes.  I'm just going to detail one experience here.  (Once I have the photos from my other class's Skype, I'll share!)

Dr. Adara Goldberg "visiting" our class.
 Photo courtesy L. Unger.
My first experience in facilitating a Mystery Skype took place in the course Adventures in World History (CHM4E1).  For this Skype, I invited my friend, Dr. Adara Goldberg, into the class.  She is the Education Director at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre--so quite a distance from our school in Orangeville, Ontario.

In the case of this Mystery Skype, Adara knew where we were located, so it was just my students trying to figure out where she was.  In the days leading up to the Skype, many students speculated that she was from Europe, since we were discussing the Holocaust and they knew that our guest was an expert on the subject.  The first 10 minutes of our Skype was the students figuring out her location via "yes/no" questions.  It is very important to ensure that your guest doesn't have her location on her profile, because some students saw it!  It is also important not to make mention of your guest's name (even if it is just her first name), because one bright student simply Googled "Adara Holocaust" and up popped her location.  Amateur mistakes!!!  Fortunately, those students confided to me that they knew her location and promised not to spoil it.

Students getting prepared.  Photo courtesy
either L. Unger or Cody F.
For our class's purpose, determining our guest's location was just for fun.  The real reason for our meeting was to give my students an opportunity to speak with an expert about the Holocaust and gather information for the museum exhibits they are creating.  Previous to the actual Skype, students worked on researching their area of interest, in addition to the background work we did in class.  We took some class time to come up with a list of questions to ask Adara.

List of Jobs.  Photo courtesy L. Unger.
Also before the Skype, we decided on jobs for the day of the Skype.  In an attempt to keep things organized, students were responsible for various tasks during the meeting.  For example, Nick was in charge of welcoming Adara and explaining the process.  Jake and Mason were our questioners.  Cody F. was key in taking photos of our adventure.  Additionally, numerous students jumped aboard to add the information Adara shared to our common Google Doc via the Chromebooks.

I got the job list from various sources, but I don't think I need to be so formal.  My students were able to maintain organization without needing certain jobs, such as the boss or runners.  For future Skypes, I think we will be good with some specific jobs, like greeter, closer, and photographer.  I think we will be fine with students taking control of asking questions without them being funneled to a single questioner.  I feel the same way about the note takers.  I think I will have many students take on that role.

The following day, I asked my class for some feedback about the Skype.  Overall, the students were positive.  They said they enjoyed getting information from sources other than the Internet, videos or me.  They also said that they benefited from having specific questions answered.  One student noticed that they needed to improve some of their questions, because they already knew some of the information that the questions focused on.

Overall, the experience of inviting in an expert was a good endeavour and a different way of accessing information for the students.

My next post will detail the Mystery Skype my ENG3U1 class participated in; it was a very different beast than this one.

Friday, 15 November 2013

I feel duped by a student

This is a conversation (paraphrased) that a student and I had yesterday.

Student:  Mrs. Le, can I tell you something?  I only read up to chapter 7 of The Kite Runner.

Me:  What?  But your participation in the seminars was great.  How did you do it?

Student:  I just listened to the summaries at the beginning of each seminar and based my participation on them.

Me:  <visibly shaken and upset by the revelation>

Student: I wish I had never told you this.  You think differently of me now.  I'll make it up to you.  I'll give you three hundred dollars.  I'll buy your daughters wardrobes from the best baby store.

Me:  I don't want any of that.  What I want is for you to actually complete the reading.  Please actually read your ISU novel.  That is all I want.

The confession and conversation made me feel small and stupid.  How could a student write an essay on a novel he didn't even read?  Where had I gone wrong in my teaching?  I gave class time to read.  The novel was broken down so that we only read a bit at a time.  The essay was written entirely in class.  How could this have happened?

Then I talked to a colleague and did some reflecting.  Perhaps this student just worked smarter, not harder.  He figured out that the regular seminars dissecting each chapter gave him the information he needed to understand the novel.  He was still able to come up with a decent thesis and write a decent essay.  I wonder how much better he could have done had he actually read the entire novel.

I don't know what other conclusions to draw from this experience, except that it hurts when a student doesn't fully complete his work.  I know that students don't always do their work, but it's different when they actually confess.

I don't think poorly of this student.  He has made me think about my teaching and the way students learn and that's a good thing.

I've made a mistake

As the title suggests, I have made a mistake.

At our recent PD Day session, Eric Twaddell came to speak.  I loved his message about learning and assessment of that learning.  The idea that learning is an ongoing process that shouldn't end when a grade is assigned really resonated with me.  It affirmed my belief that students should be able to fix, fix, fix until they really understand.

In my grade 11 English class, many students were upset about their first essay mark.  Upon meeting with a few parents, I assured them that their teenager had the opportunity to demonstrate their learning with the next essay.  In fact, I'm pretty sure I uttered the words, "If the second essay is a better mark, I won't count the first essay."  When I said it, I believed it.  Why would I keep a grade of an assignment that may not demonstrate their true learning, when I have an assignment that is more recent, shows improvement and assesses the same skills?

Then midterm report cards came.  I just couldn't drop the first mark.  Not yet.  Maybe by the end of the semester.  Instead I played around with weighting.  The most recent essay was worth 100 marks and the first essay worth 50 marks.  I felt professionally comfortable with this.

Then a student asked me about his mark.  His mark reflected a combination of the first and second essays and the seminar.  To be blunt, I felt stupid.  I explained to him that I just couldn't get rid of the first essay mark, but I couldn't elaborate.  If I could redo our conversation, I would explain to him my initial thinking and my concern that, professionally, I couldn't use one essay mark to determine a midterm grade.

I feel dishonest and pedagogically confused.  Dishonest, because I said one thing (with the full intention of following through), but then I just couldn't.  Pedagogically confused, because I'm struggling the idea of grades and what they represent.

My only consolation is that I believe the marks are the ones the students earned and midterm marks aren't the be all and end all.

In the future, I will take more time to reflect about and put into practice my new ideas before talking to parents and students about them.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Gory World of Gladiators? Students explore the lives of gladiators.

Over the last four weeks, students in Adventures in World History (CHM4E1) have been working on the creation of a website, using Google Sites, to share their learning about gladiators.

You can check out the site (still a work in progress) by visiting A Closer Look at Gladiators.

Tomorrow we are having a launch party to celebrate the website and their hard work. Below is a copy of the speech I am going to deliver:

Congratulations on the creation of an informative and engaging website about gladiators.  Instead of simply consuming information, you came up with questions, searched for information, asked for guidance, found pictures, and created an information source that you and others beyond the class can use for learning.

I am impressed by your ability to work well independently and with your classmates.  I loved hearing you ask each other questions and give each other suggestions.  What I loved about this was that you used each other as resources and didn't depend on “the teacher” for help or the “right” answers.

I am also impressed with your willingness to give each other effective feedback via the “Stars and Wishes” activity on each web page.  Your acceptance of others’ constructive input about your work is also testament to your maturity and commitment.

I look forward to exploring your finished products and reading your final paragraphs.


Friday, 4 October 2013

Blogging in ENG3U1

Big Ideas (specific to ENG3U1 at ODSS)

Through blogging, students will demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the following two big ideas:

  • A person’s message is best understood by an audience when it is communicated in a clear and concise manner.
  • Considering multiple viewpoints allows people to better understand the world around them.


My rationale for blogging can be found in this presentation.  I do this presentation with students so they understand WHY we are blogging in class.


  • Summative

Students open their own blog and write posts over the course of the semester.  Additionally, they are required to respond to others’ blog posts.

I used this rubric last year to evaluate student blogs.  Essentially, I printed off one rubric for each student, alphabetized them in a duotang and as I read students’ blogs and responses, I put check marks in the appropriate boxes.  At the end of the year, I looked where most of the check marks fell and assigned a grade.  Throughout the semester, students could come take a look at their rubric to get a sense of how they were doing.

This year, I am going to open a folder on UG Cloud entitled “ENG3U1 Blogging Rubrics”.  I will share each student’s rubric with him/her.  This way students can see how they are doing at their leisure.  Additionally, I have re imagined my rubric, so that each post and response will have its own assigned mark.  

Last year, students were required to write 10 posts and respond to 15.  The focus was too much on quantity instead of quality.  This year I don’t have an explicit number of blog posts and responses that need to be completed.  I want the students to focus on writing a few really strong posts that spark discussion and for students to intelligently reply to and continue discussions on others’ blogs.

  • Formative

The first couple of posts and responses will essentially be formative.  Like last year, my responses to the first blog posts will focus on giving them feedback.  Similarly, I will respond to each student’s first response to give him or her feedback about leaving a blog comments.

Furthermore, as students start blogging, we are also having chapter seminars on The Kite Runner.  Students are responsible for leading their classmates through discussion.  My goal is for students to make the connection between having a face-to-face discussion and how it can be translated to an online environment.

Sequence of Learning

There are only three days of formal “lessons” about blogging.  After that, blogging is something that will happen occasionally as a group activity, but mostly students will be expected to blog at home.  Additionally, as we work our way through the novel study and ISU, I will have a couple of Chromebooks available so that students can choose to blog in class, instead of work on their other tasks.

  • Lesson 1

This lesson focuses on the WHY of blogging.  I share with students the presentation I linked to in Rationale.

We also get into the HOW of blogging.  Students actually set up their blog and add me as an author.

  • Lesson 2

In this lesson, we look at digital citizenship.  I really want to avoid the lecture style of “do this” and “don’t do that”.  I developed an informal presentation to help guide discussion.  We also discuss picking a profile picture, because they need to do that in this lesson.

From there, we look again at the course big ideas that blogging gets to and I show them examples of blog posts from last year.  I already have shared the document with them so that they can access it for future reference.

Students have the remainder of the period to select a profile picture and customize their blogs.  They should be able to start writing their first post.  While students can essentially write about anything, some students require ideas.  I have two prompts prepared for them.

The first prompt looks at costumes and culture.  This article about Halloween costumes generated a lot of discussion last year.

The second prompt looks at Grand Theft Auto V.  Students can read Grand Theft Auto V designed deliberately  to degrade women.  

  • Lesson 3

This lesson happens once most students have written a blog post.  Students go back to their first post and read my feedback.  They are then required to respond to my comments and suggestions about their blog post.

Afterwards, we look at Bill Ferriter’s Tips for Leaving a Good Blog Comment.  Students now have the opportunity to read their classmates’ blog posts and respond to them.

Concluding Thoughts

Last year was my first year experimenting with blogs.  I am trying individual blogs this year, which is a change from the collaborative blogs I did last year.  Below are links to my reflections about blogging last year.

Improving the Blogging Experience for Student

Thursday, 3 October 2013

It's Only Once Every Five Years...And It's Scary

I haven't been subject to had a Teacher Performance Appraisal (TPA) since I was a new teacher.  This year is my first TPA as an "experienced" teacher.  When I got the email telling me it was my year for a TPA, my nerves went crazy.  There is something scary about having your performance closely inspected that is stress-inducing.  Fortunately, after the information meeting, the EVENT didn't seem so bad.  I really liked how my principal framed it: the TPA is more like professional development rather than an evaluation.  I like professional development, especially when it is about me and my interests.  (I know...sort of self-centred.)

In preparation for the classroom visit, I got to sit down and decide which competencies in each domain I wanted my principal to focus on.  I put some thought into the competencies I wanted feedback about, but I want to reflect by myself about my performance in each of those areas before getting specific feedback.

Commitment to Pupils and Pupil Learning

The teacher is dedicated in his or her efforts to teach and support pupil learning and achievement.

Being completely honest, it can sometimes be difficult to remain dedicated to pupil learning and achievement when attempting to learn with a less than enthusiastic class.  I am struggling with my afternoon class, and in my head, I have decided numerous times to just stop trying and just give them videos and textbook work.  It seems so simple in my head, but I know that it isn't professional and my job is to teach and support my students' learning and achievement.  I don't try my best just because it is my job, but above all, it is my responsibility.  I am responsible for helping students learn the material, but even more importantly, to learn and practice skills they will need in the future.  Furthermore, it isn't fair to stop being dedicated because some students are frustrating.  I have to remember the students in class who want to learn and do well.  I need to maintain my efforts to meet their needs.  It's just so much easier when a class is pleasant and eager.

The teacher treats all pupils equitably and with respect.

This seems rather straightforward to me.  Obviously, a teacher enjoys teaching some students more than other students, just as a student will prefer one teacher over another.  As a professional, this natural occurance needs to be kept in check.  All students deserve to be treated equitably and respectfully.  I believe that I treat my students equitably, as I institute accomodations to support different learning needs and remain flexible about due dates and tasks based on students' lives outside of the classroom.  I think that when a student is treated in an equitable manner, he is being treated respectfully.

Professional Knowledge

The teacher knows a variety of effective teaching strategies and assessment practices.

I attempt to use a variety of teaching strategies over the course of a semester.  For example, in ENG3U1, we have used small groups to delve into texts, worked as a large group and worked independently.  Additionally, our study of The Kite Runner will go beyond reading and answering questions.  Students are going to become the teachers and lead their colleagues through seminars.  When we get to Macbeth, we will use Twitter to get into the heads of characters and tweet as they would tweet.
I also try to use a variety of assessment strategies, knowing that students need to demonstrate their learning in difference ways. To review rhetorical devices in ENG3U1, we made use of Socrative, an online tool to complete formative assessments.  Students will work on formal essay writing skills, as well as writing short pieces of text.  They will also have the chance to demonstrate their learning through presentations and passage analyses.
In CHM4E1, students showed their learning through the creation of an online photo album.  We're currently working on the creation of a website about gladiators and will soon start a classroom museum about the Holocaust.

Teaching Practice

The teacher conducts ongoing assessment of his or her pupils' progress, evaluates their achievement and reports results to pupils and their parents regularly.

I regularly informally and formally assess students' learning.  For example, in ENG3U1, before the first summative piece of writing is due, students are required to complete a practice analysis for feedback.  This allows me to address individual and group areas of concern.  Furthermore, I will informally check on students' understanding with individual meetings.  Students get one-on-one attention for feedback about their tasks and assignments.
Additionally, I found using Twitter last year in the Macbeth unit to be helpful.  It was a quick and easy way to check students' understanding.  For example, one student tweeted that Macbeth was upset that his dad (King Duncan) died, which is completely inaccurate.
I regularly make contact with parents.  By the second week of school, I had already sent home progress reports and emailed parents, both good news and bad news.  In fact, I am upset that I will be missing parent-teacher interviews this semester because I am presenting at ECOO13.

The teacher adapts and refines his or her teaching practices through continuous learning and reflection, using a variety of sources and resources.

Despite entering my seventh year of teaching and teaching a couple of courses upwards of five times, I almost never do anything the same.  I always think that I could do something better.  I think this is part of my reflective nature.  Previous to last September, my reflections about lessons and assignments were just simply my thoughts in my head or quick discussions with colleagues.  I was encouraged to start blogging and I took the plunge.  I find having a place to write down my thoughts useful.  This lets me to reflect more deeply and I have the ability to now reread my thoughts and remember what I wanted to change or keep the same.

Leadership and Community

The teacher collaborates with other teachers and school colleagues to create and sustain learning communities in his or her classroom and school.

I think this is one of my strengths.  I often work with other teachers to improve learning.  Last year, I participated in Powerful Learning Practice, where two other teachers from my school and three from another high school worked on making learning visible.  Additionally, I make use of the teacher-librarians to enhance student access to their services.  Beyond PLC time, I am the "course leader" for ENG3U1.  Last semester, we worked on bringing the course into line with the other courses.  This required me to talk to the ENG2D1 and ENG4U1 teachers to see what their summative tasks and final exams entailed.  Additionally, I met with my teaching partners twice over the summer to refine the course and we are in regular email contact and share over the Cloud.  We plan on getting together face-to-face to discuss some tasks further.

Ongoing Professional Learning

The teacher engages in ongoing professional learning and applies it to improve his or her teaching practices.

Everyday I engage in professional learning simply by checking out my PLN (Personal Learning Network) on Twitter.  It was via Twitter and face-to-face discussions with colleagues that got me thinking about making learning visible and using technology to do so.  This is why I am now experimenting with blogging and Twitter in the classroom.
Furthermore, last year I participated in Powerful Learning Practice, which is year long PD.  I attended webinars about a variety of topics such as TPACK and PBL.  It was helpful to engage with educators from all over (mostly the United States and Canada) and teachers at different stages in their careers.

While having a TPA done can be stressful and nerve-wracking, I am trying to focus on the positive in that I get to have one-on-one discussions with my principal and will get feedback to improve my practice.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Connecting with Parents

One of the best things about teaching is making nice phone calls to parents, or sending home nice progress reports to parents, or emailing nice notes to parents.

One of the downsides of teaching is making bad phone calls to parents, or sending home bad progress reports to parents, or emailing bad notes to parents.

I try my hardest to make positive contact with parents over the course of each semester.  I love sending home positive reports to parents because I know it makes the parent's day and I know the student feels good knowing that his/her teacher thinks highly of them.

Unfortunately, I often spend more time making negative contact with parents.  I try to make the phone call, or progress report, or email as pleasant as possible, because I know that NO parent wants to have to deal with a child that isn't doing his/her work or is misbehaving in class.

Fortunately, there have been positive outcomes from the negative contact with parents.  Last semester, with two parents, I had regular email contact.  At first the contact was negative, but it soon became positive.  The students then knew that both their parents and I were a team that was rooting for their success, and I think that this communication gave the students greater incentive to complete their work at a higher level, rather than just getting it done to get it done.

So far this year, I have sent home six progress reports informing parents that their children need to improve their behaviour in order to be successful.  I have only made five "happy" emails.  My goal is to change that balance.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The First Three Weeks

I've been meaning to blog for a while now, but (excuses) I've been incredibly overwhelmed with school, extra-curricular activities, and life in general.  I'm looking forward to this week end because my school workload is fairly minimal.  I've been so overwhelmed that I actually forgot to pay my gas bill, and I NEVER forget to pay bills!  Usually I pay them weeks in advance. (Fortunately, it is only two days overdue.)

I figure that three weeks in is as good a time as any to reflect on the start up of a new school year.  Here the reflecting goes, class by class.

My Block A class is ENG3U1--and I love this class.  Despite being first thing in the morning, the students (mostly the overwhelming number of boys in the class) are full of energy.  Very rarely are there awkward silences.  The energy is mostly positive, but I did have to move a group from the back corner in an attempt to "keep them in check".

I am happy with the sequence of the first unit, which is an introduction to cultural texts.  We are exploring the ideas of identity and heritage by looking at poems, essays and short stories.  This unit really sets the stage for the course big ideas.  Students have utilized a variety of strategies to understand texts, and they have explored different perspectives about how people understand themselves.

Our first formative task was an analysis of a poem's main idea.  I spent a good ten minutes on each paragraph giving the students' feedback about idea development, quotation integration, MLA formatting, and clarity. Ten minutes on each paragraph didn't seem like much, then I realized that it took me FIVE hours to provide feedback.  I didn't want the time I spent to be for naught, so I dedicated some class time to having the students log into their UG Cloud accounts and read my feedback.  Then, they had to email me their stars" (things they did well) and their "wishes" (things they wish they had done and will do for next time).  Thanks to Scott Jordan for this activity.  I think, though, the five hours was worth it.  I am expecting strong essays next week.

Just this week, we spent some time setting up our blogs.  We haven't actually begun blogging yet, because I want to spend some time looking at the importance of being a good digital citizen.  I'm working on a lesson to make this engaging for the students.  I don't want it to be a lecture of "do this" and "don't do this".

My Block B class is CHM4E1 (Adventures in World History)--and I love this class.  The class population is incredibly varied: a couple of girls, mostly boys; a student from the Transitions program; four students from the ASD program; a student with an EA dedicated to him; a student whose other classes are at the university preparation level.  Despite this incredible variance, the class gels really well.  I regularly see students helping each other with the course ideas and with the technology, which is a bit touchy right now.  In fact, today, one of the students was VERY overwhelmed because he couldn't find what he wanted using a Google search.  He came to my desk and was clearly agitated.  I had helped with something else earlier and could sense that it was a bad day and things just weren't going well for him.  I suggested that he take a break from the work--go for a walk, play on the Internet.  Another student jumped in and offered to help him come up with some new search terms and show him some websites that worked for her.  She completely got him calmed down and focused.  I loved that students came up with a solution and they worked together.  I wasn't needed--and I was glad.  Community is really starting to come together in the room.

In terms of curriculum, I had to make some changes within the first week of school.  The first unit hinged on access to technology, and because of delays with the refresh, computers wouldn't be available.  I switched the first two units around, because the second unit about pirates didn't require access to technology in the same way.  Gladiators are going to be explored as the second unit now.  As an entire class, students are going to create a website about gladiators to share with the Grade 11 World History classes.  Direct teaching by me will be minimal.  The students are going to direct their study of gladiators and share their learning and learn from each other via the creation of the class website.  I am really excited to start this unit next week.

My Block C class is CHC2P1--and I don't love this class...yet.  I will fully admit that I am lost.  In a previous blog post (here), I detailed how I was going to approach the first unit.  The students were going to create a website, similar to CHM4E1, only theirs would be about World War I.  Unfortunately, because of technological delays, I have decided to move the website task to the second unit.  I have high hopes that the self-directed approach of creating a website, as well as the topic (World War II) will engage the students and change the tone of the classroom.

No matter what, I cannot engage this class.  There are maybe five students (out of twenty-two) who actually want to be engaged and learn.  With the remainder of the class, it seems like history (and by extension me) is a complete inconvenience to their day.  And I feel badly about this.  Whole class instruction is not effective, nor is independent work.  The best success I have is when I work with small groups of students, but that means most of the class isn't engaged in the work they're supposed to be doing.

Because five students were absent yesterday, due to football, they weren't able to do the work.  I utilized 204 and Resource to get the students caught up.  I am hoping that this is a good way to introduce a regular use of the supports.  I sometimes think some students view being sent to 204 or Resource as punishment.  I am hoping that because the first time it was used was solely because they missed class, not because they needed help or were bad, will make it easier to accept being sent there to work.

I am hoping that with some hard work on my behalf, which will require a re-imagining of ways to encourage student learning, we can get on track to a decent semester.  Something needs to change, because I can't handle the complete uselessness and ineffectiveness I feel during the period and afterwards.

While I would have rather had three great starts to a new school year, I am optimistic that at the end of January, I will be able to say that all three classes ended up being a positive experience.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

I'm not going to tell you about Canada during the war

My CHC2P1 class last year was very easy going and completed daily work and assignments with little resistance.  I think this allowed me to become rather complacent in my teaching.  I relied heavily on the textbook because it was easy for me and the students did their work.  I know that there is better pedagogy and I have designed the first unit to force my students to take responsibility for their learning.

I have decided that we are going to create a class website about Canada's identity during World War One and the 1920s.  You can check out the purpose of the task and the responsibilities assigned to the students in this Google Doc.

Students will learn the content required through the creation of the website.  Instead of relying heavily on the textbook, videos, and "sage on the stage", students will be afforded the opportunity to discover the information themselves.  Additionally, they will be able to focus on an area that interests them, which makes learning more meaningful.  Furthermore, students will work on important skills, such as research, collaboration, communication, problem-solving and organization.

Students won't be abandoned to create the website themselves.  We will brainstorm ideas, work on reading primary sources, and analyze images together.  There will be regular, and hopefully meaningful and helpful, one-to-one conversations as students create their web pages.

The website is the method of learning the material.  Students will not be evaluated formally on their web pages.  The department summative task for this unit is the analysis of primary sources, so this will be completed after the website goes live.  Students will use the information they learned, through their research and reading their classmates' web pages, to complete the summative task.

I have high hopes that creating this website will work.  Stay tuned for my reflections when we get into the dirty work.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Would getting rid of grades make for happier students?

On Monday night, Dean Shareski (@shareski),  who everyone on Twitter should follow, tweeted the statement below.  I have thought a lot about his tweet, especially because I retweeted it immediately upon reading it, then I began to question it.

When I first read the tweet, my gut reaction was "Of course, being happy is incredibly important, more important than often meaningless letter grades."  But then I began to think about the ramifications of failing every class in high school (the context I'm familiar with).  If a student doesn't earn a high school diploma, opportunities in life become rather limited.  I can't help but think that the happiness experienced while failing school will be short lived.

Gord Holden's response to the tweet (above) helps put into context what I believe in my heart.  I agree with him that education is "learning how to achieve satisfaction in life".  But Shareski's response that "folks...focused on things they can easily measure" brings to light the struggle in education.  How on earth can you measure "achieving satisfaction in life"?  It is much easier to give the students a literacy test to determine if they are literate.

I think the problem--and why I might prefer students to fail and be happy, rather than be miserable from the stress of earning A's--is that we celebrate the students who get the A's, even if they really haven't learned anything.  Students who are failing might actually be learning more than the students who are getting A's.  I've only been a teacher for a short time, but I am finding it irritating that the criteria for winning the subject awards at my school is simply to have the highest grade.  Most students are focused on getting good grades and not on actual learning.  When we celebrate mostly students with top marks, we send the message that what we value most are A's, not learning and not happiness.

There is most certainly a shift towards fostering learning for learning's sake, but the stumbling block of determining grades is still predominantly present.  I wonder if we got rid of grades if we would have happier students who are learning more and who will see greater success.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Hardest Class I Ever Taught

CHC2D1--Semester 2, 2013

Three weeks after finishing teaching this class, I am confident in saying that it was the hardest class I ever taught.  I honestly thought the hardest class I ever taught was a credit recovery class mixed with students who had been removed from their classes because of disruptive behaviour and students on in-school suspension.  In this class, I dealt with a student who pulled out a beer in the middle of class or another student who was so high and shouting a string of curse words that I didn't even know existed!  I dealt with uncountable discussions of rolling blunts and fights on Saturday nights.
Nothing quite like
a student
having a leftover
 beer in her backpack.

Dealing with those issues seem a breeze when trying to engage the disengaged.  I understand that many people think Canadian history is boring...but I am trying to make it engaging and interesting.

The first couple of weeks were rough because the class was so quiet.  The quiet was uncomfortable.  It wasn't just quiet when I attempted discussion, the classroom was quiet even when working in small groups or when classrooms shouldn't be quiet...when the teacher is trying to get the technology to work or in the last five minutes of class when waiting for the lunch bell.  I realize now that the quiet was probably the result of boring discussion questions and boring tasks.

Another history teacher, Erin (@erinharrison20) and I discussed our issues, because, while her class was the opposite of quiet, both of us had difficulty with engagement.  Erin came up with a great inquiry-based task for the unit looking at the creation of model society via Diefenbaker, Pearson, Trudeau and Quebec.  Students were in groups to research one of the topics with the question "What is the ideal society for Canada?"  Students needed to create a way to share their learning with the other groups.  The culmination of this inquiry was the creation of a podcast, which was my favourite assignment.  It was developed by Lisa Unger (@l_unger) and James Bryson.

Things weren't perfect.  Students weren't used to taking control of their learning or being responsible for teaching each other and learning from one another.  I think this can be remedied by using an inquiry-based approach throughout the entire course.  My goal for next year is to look at each of the summative assignments and figure out how to create inquiry-tasks so that students have control over how they're learning the material and developing their skills.  It is also important to note that I have to let go and accept that students don't need to learn EVERYTHING about Canada from 1914-present.  First off, that's not possible and secondly, that's not important.  It is more important that students have control over uncovering content and concepts that connect to the big idea that "Canada's identity is revealed by its past".  Nowhere in this big idea does it say that students must learn about victory bonds or the dust bowl or NATO.

Now the hard work can I create engaging inquiry questions so the students want to learn about Canadian history?

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Practice makes perfect...but I don't want to be perfect, I just want to improve

I think most (all?) teachers have favourite courses to teach.  I love teaching ENG3U1.  Next year I am excited because I get to teach the class both semesters.  It is also unusual in that there will only be three teachers doing the course, not a minimum of five different teachers, as has happened in the past.  I think this will be easier to create a tighter course through collaboration.

In case I forget everything over the summer months, I want to reflect on what I did this past semester and how I will improve it for next year.

Getting Off on the Right Foot: Close Reading

I think the way I started the course this past semester is fine...but I want to do it better next year.  We discussed the inappropriate use of cultural costumes and used on-topic articles to practice writing analytical paragraphs.  We then transitioned into reading The Rez Sisters.  For next year, I am going to start right away with a unit on close reading.  Close reading is the key to being able to make meaning of a text, so I think I need to start with the skills required to do so.  I am going use a variety of texts, such as poetry, photographs, documentaries and articles.  We will use strategies, including TPLASTT, SOAPSTone and Says/Does Analysis, to uncover meaning.  The summative task for this unit will be an in-class close reading response essay.

Novel Study: The Kite Runner

After a short unit on close reading, we will transition to our novel study, which is The Kite Runner.  Based on my own reflections and student feedback, we didn't spend enough time on the novel.  I felt very rushed, because I spent so much time on Macbeth.  In previous years, we spent time on getting a thorough understanding of Afghanistan and its culture.  We also focused on cultural identifiers, which are key for the ISU. I think this is necessary and I will be incorporating these aspects into the tutorials that the students will lead.  There are a series of skills, beyond close reading, that students will have the opportunity to hone.  In this unit, we will work on presenting, questioning, and leading and participating in class discussions, both face-to-face and on-line.  Again the summative task for this unit will be an in-class close reading response essay.

  • Presentation: In the first chapter of The Kite Runner, Amir alludes to his defining moment.  I really enjoyed the presentations my students did on their defining moments, so I will do this again.  This time I will incorporate some formative assessment Scott Jordan shared with me.  I will use the "Stars and Wishes" technique. After a student presents, classmates will share what they thought was well done in the presentation (Stars) and what needs to be improved upon (Wishes).  Additionally, I will videotape the presentations so that students can actually see how they present.  I will go first.  I know that presenting is a great fear of students, and mine too, so I will share my vulnerabilities with the students.
  • Tutorials: This past year, my students did literature circles.  I have used literature circles in the past, but this year, it was a failure.  I think they failed because marks were not attached to them, so students didn't see their value.  Additionally, I think students were overwhelmed because they were also reading their ISU novel. The purpose of the tutorials is to share appropriate background information applicable to the assigned chapters, ask questions that demonstrate understanding of the text and spark conversation and present in front of an audience.  This "Q Chart" adapted by Lisa Unger will be helpful for the students when they are creating their questions.
  • Blogging:  Once the tutorials are under way, I will introduce blogging.  I have blogged about blogging here and here.  I wasn't happy with the rubric I used to assess the students' blogs, so I have to revamp it this summer.

The Independent Study--Cultural Novels

This past semester, we departed from the usual ENG3U1 ISU.  In first semester, a colleague had the students focus on using secondary texts to support the definitive statement the students pulled from their primary text.  This was developed in an essay.  For second semester, I also used this idea and reworked it so that the students did a presentation on their novel.  I found the presentations tedious, but I take responsibility for that because I did not give the students enough practice presenting.  I hope to remedy that by doing informal presentations, with feedback, throughout the semester.  I am going to keep the ISU presentation, because I believe that the ability to present well is an incredibly important skill.  

Originally, I liked the idea of using secondary texts to support the definitive statement about culture, because it supports one of the big ideas of the course.  I have come to realize that I do not like that big idea, and as such, I am not going to focus the ISU on it.  I explain my concerns here.  The students will still focus on reading a novel about another culture, but they will focus on the perspective the author puts forth, using evidence solely from that novel.  I found that the presentations were rather superficial and the students could easily get away with not thoroughly reading their primary novel, nor thoroughly analyse secondary texts.

The ISU will be worked on concurrently with the final two units, The Rez Sisters and Macbeth.  The actual ISU presentations will take place over the last couple of days of the semester.

Play Study: The Rez Sisters

I was first introduced to Tomson Highway's play, The Rez Sisters, in university and I quickly fell in love with it.  It is an "easy" read, but there are many complexities to be explored within the play.  It brings to light the many issues faced by Native Canadians living on the reserve.  Highway makes great use of symbolism to expand on these issues.  There isn't a lot I am going to change with this unit, except the summative assessment.  The students will still write an analytical paragraph, but the question I used this semester focused on analyzing the perspective of one of the sisters.  I was trying to connect to one of the big ideas.  I found the question to be lame and for the next semester, the question is going to focus on analyzing one of the many symbols in the play, such as the toilet, the can of condensed milk or the 18 wheeler.

I still believe Shakespeare is relevant!

Captioned by Aiden, Branson, Cody and Marjone
Our final unit of study will be Macbeth, one of my favourite Shakespearean plays.  As I previously  mentioned, this unit really dragged on last semester.  I don't think it was because I actually spent more time on it.  The unit was interrupted by March Break, Easter holidays and numerous no bus days, including two that were back-to-back.  With this unit, I am not going to change much.  I will definitely have the students tweet Macbeth.  I detail the experience here.  Depending on time, I will repeat the activity of the students putting Macbeth and Lady Macbeth on trial and The Great Meme Challenge.  The summative task will be an in-class passage analysis, just like this past semester.

The Final Exam

In previous semesters, the culminating 30% was made up of the ISU essay and small group tutorials.  This past semester, we made the change to a written exam worth 30% of the grade.  Students read a series of texts with about hip hop and used evidence to write an analytical paragraph answering the question: What is hip hop?  I was satisfied with this exam, but because I am making a shift in the ISU, students will not have the practice of synthesizing texts, so I don't think this type of exam will work for next year.  In speaking with ENG2D1 and ENG4U1 teachers, I think the exam for next year will be a close reading response essay. This is reflective of the analytical and communication skills the students worked on over the course of the semester.

Obviously, this course of action is not set in stone and I am willing to make changes to the course.