Posts tagged #observe'em
Shifting in Dark Times
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Two and a half years ago, we were given an opportunity to dream about how school could be different.  No box to dream inside, no forms to fill in, no checklist to run down, just make school different.

We had small dreams during this time, that made us feel a tad subversive.

We had medium sized dreams, where we were able to ask interesting questions and find interesting answers.

We had dreamed big, and were pleasantly surprised when you decided to dream along with us.

Today, looking back on two and a half years of hard work by all of you, we realize that this dream is not ending, it’s just changing.  The Shift and by default all you Shifters are in flux.

Next September will come, you will have students in front of you, lessons to teach.  Schools will plan events, there will be high times and low times. But at the end of the day, innovation will happen, school will be different.  It will be different because of the journey you’ve been on with us. It will be different because fundamentally you believe that students deserve our best, and the best we can give tomorrow looks different than the best we can give yesterday.

Our challenge to you is to find the professional network of people inside your school who fill up your soul.  Find the people who challenge you to be better. We’ve learned that we are better when we Shift together. So yes, we might be Shifting through dark times, but it is the people we surround ourselves with who will hand us a flashlight, or spare batteries, or hold our hands as we navigate an unclear path.

We rise by lifting others.  Let’s be each others flashlight.

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What We Don't Know
I’d like to introduce you to Alex.  She was a student of mine who graduated last June.  I met her for the first time when she was in my Grade 9 Academic Math class.  My first impressions of her was that she was a hardworking student who seemed to be interested in school.  I don’t know if a teacher can ask more from a student.

It was midway through the semester when I learned that Alex was also a competitive diver.  I’ll plead ignorance in that I didn’t really know what this meant, except for the fact that sometimes she missed classes for competitions.  Every so often Alex would travel on a weekend to B.C. or Nova Scotia and miss Friday or Monday, or both.  From my perspective, these trips didn’t impact her achievement very much.  She was always on top of her homework and would seek me out when she needed to make up a test.

I saw Alex every once in a while when she was in Grades 10 and 11, but never taught her during that time.  She’d be in “math help” sometimes, or I’d pop into her classroom one day when I was playing #ObserveMe.  Some days she was happy, sometimes when I saw her she’d be frustrated with her academic progress.  She was hard on herself, driven to do well, as she set high academic standards for herself.  

I taught her again in Calculus and Vectors, a course students might take if they are heading on to University to study Mathematics or Science or Engineering.  Occasionally, some students take it just for fun.  In the class, Alex struggled to balance her diving schedule with her school schedule.  She was stressed out about her semester and what to do in the future, unsure if her passion for diving was holding her back academically.

The performance task I gave for Calculus and Vectors was pretty open ended.  Students could solve the two problems I had created, or make up two problems of their own to solve.  In Halton, this task is only worth 5% of a student's overall mark, so I’d rather they not sink too much time into it.  I also ask students to reflect about their school year, what worked, what didn’t and then finally tell me what mark they think they have earned in the course.

Alex surprised me.  Watch her video and see if you are surprised too.  Don’t worry, I’ve edited out the Calculus parts.

I had no idea that she was riding a train from Burlington to Scarborough every day to diving practice.  I had no idea she spent four hours per day without WiFi trying to maintain her marks.  I was blown away by the words she used and the ideas she expressed with her reflection.  She was dedicated, she knew things took her longer to process but she didn’t blame anyone for that, she learned for the sake of learning.  She understood that her part was a bit harder than it could have been but she appreciated the effort she had to use to make it happen.

It’s amazing to me, what I didn’t know about her individual struggles.  I’m so glad I asked my class to reflect on their year because otherwise I wouldn’t have appreciated each student's individual journey as much.  Our students have stories to tell, sometimes more than one.  Listening to Alex reflect made me appreciate how complex those stories can be and how important it is for teachers to create a space where they feel safe telling their story.   
Getting Ready For September 5th

Here we go, all set for another year playing this game called school!  Some of you undoubtedly have spent some time last week preparing for students’ arrival on Tuesday, some of you unpacking after moving schools, or perhaps arriving at your first school.

It is a time of transition, beginnings and reflection:  how are we going to do better this year?  

If you are like us, the inevitable nervous butterflies are settling in.  Imagine how our students must be feeling, especially if they are transition into a new school.

So while you are getting ready for September 5th, here are some challenges we’d like you to consider completing before the first day of school.

  • Sign up for Twitter!  Sit back a listen for a bit, search for some hashtags, follow some cool people.  Join the conversation when you feel like you have something to say, or just participate by watching.
  • Participate in the Observe Me challenge!  Make a sign for your classroom door and invite other teachers into your classroom.  The best way for us to do a better job in our schools is to share what we do with each other.
  • Consider shadowing a student or two for a day.  Talk to your admin team about getting some release time to see what it feels like to be a student for a day.  

The best way we can get better and have fun doing so is to open our doors, talk, share, experiment and play.  If we have fun, that is a great way to ensure our students will too.

What Can You Do With This?
I hate end of period bells.  #Observe’em observation day and the Most Likely To Succeed film gave me a lot to think about how the school day can be structured.  I don’t know if we can get rid of them entirely, but I’ve been working on playing with a timetable that offers some flexibility, as well as some opportunities to go deeper and longer in a class period.  What are your thoughts on this one? Pros? Cons?  Would love to hear your ideas and feedback!

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Observe'Em In Depth Debrief
A few weeks ago, six teachers at our school volunteered to become students for a day.  Each of us was given our own timetable, we were banned from our regular offices, and we were expected to eat lunch in the cafeteria.  After a day of learning, we made some initial observations which you can read about here.  Last Thursday we all (finally!) found ourselves in the same room for a more in-depth debrief.  So what did we learn from our collective time pretending to be students in our own school?

Bryn, true to the student experience, waited in line in our library the morning of to sign out a Chromebook for the day.  This sounded hilarious to us.  It also impressed us that Bryn would go that extra mile for the student experience.  However, it reflected something important in our student community (and we are willing to bet the majority of student communities) and that is that students rely on technology a great deal.  It’s important to them and understanding what our students need to do in order to access that technology should be important to us.

Bryn prepares for period one

Look around your building, how many students are using a cellphone or laptop or tablet?  Many of our students come equipped with multiple pieces of technology.  We all noticed that the abundance of screens made it easy for students to become distracted and zone out.  What surprised us though was how adept at multitasking the students seemed to be.  Several of us witnessed students who seemed to be totally disconnected from the task at hand easily step into complicated class debates and questions.  So students can multitask really well.  Time is definitely spent off task but students are quick to change gears with their technology.  

What we did notice when students were using technology for something school related was some flawed execution.  For example, we saw several students using their phone cameras to take pictures of written notes or examples.  When questioned about what they do afterward (“Save it on my phone”, “How do you organize your pictures of notes?”, “Why would I organize my pictures?”) we found a big lack of follow through.  Ideally, a student using their phone to save images of examples or lessons would spend time later sorting their pictures into some sort of virtual notebook.

This is where the 21st Century Teacher should step in.  Covering curriculum is great, but we have to remember to keep a focus on discussing and improving our students learning skills.  More importantly, we can’t expect students to have the same learning skills we had during our time in high school.  Taking an audio recording of a lesson in order to create a well-written note, later on, is a great strategy for some students who struggle with note taking in class.  It’s our job to help them realize this is a valid strategy.  So how can understanding our students use of technology change our teaching practice?

We all felt a bit of anxiety at different times throughout the day.  We noticed it before we even stepped into our new classes.  There was a lot of perceived pressure around where we were going to sit.  What’s happening in this class?  What’s the agenda?  Really it was the big unknowns of the day that threw us for a loop.  All of us were given timetables that were outside of our comfort zone.  We were the outsiders in our new classes, the weird teacher that was sitting with the students and trying to fit in.  What supplies do I need?  Should I bring out my binder?  Is this class Laptop appropriate?  What’s the Google Classroom Code? Is this what students feel like on the first day of the semester?

Yes, we all brought our flip phones to class...
But there was more pressure throughout the day.  Sahar felt it when she got a few text messages.  The adult in her wanted to ignore her phone because she was a visitor in someone else's class.  Plus, she decided to approach this day as “the student she never was in high school”.  That being said, she still felt the urge to check her phone.  There was a perceived pressure to stay engaged on social media because “It felt important to me…”  It’s easy to forget that in the world of social media, whatever is happening right now can often feel like the most important thing.

We also noticed two extremes of student behaviour.  There was a lot of what we might describe as banter/ribbing/teasing among our students, particularly in the younger grades.  Most of the time it felt like the kind of exchanges that are commonly made between friends.  However, spending a day in the proximity of that banter felt like it would weigh on us over time.  And yet, on the opposite end of this spectrum, we were confronted with just how kind students can be.  Students were quick to help each other, to collaborate, to share resources.  One of us (not saying who) was mistaken for a mature student by a student who arrived late to class and missed the introductions.  This student painstakingly took the time to help us navigate the classroom culture, signing up for Google Classroom, finding the link to the slide show, helping with the activity that was happening, finding notes, and basically explaining the everything.  It was unexpected and it really made us feel connected to the students.

You know what? It is hard to pay attention for an entire 75-minute period.  We should know that!  Our school days are a little inauthentic when it comes to how people learn.  We ask our students to stop whatever it is that they are doing during our 75-minute class, change gears, and learn what we think is important.  And of course it is important, but how do we convince students of that.  If it isn’t something a student is passionate about, that is a hard sell!  We have to recognize that our classrooms are based on curriculum and that 75-minute block is a long time if students don’t understand why they should be passionate about what they are learning.

To top it off, we are putting 30 bodies in a small room and the space they live in is one small desk and chair.  Depending on the timetable, there could be a huge lack of movement during the school day.  The lack of movement in some classes made us realize why so many students ask to take a lap around the building during the school day.  Andreea summed it up the best for all of us, “After 60 minutes I needed a brain was done”.  Sixty minutes of class seemed to be the limit for all of us; after that we had a hard time paying attention.

Of course, there were several classes that offered opportunities to get up and move.  A Grade 9 math class was using manipulatives, the Leadership class offered several different activities throughout the period (some sitting, some moving), a Chemistry class was doing a lab, an art class was working on a big mural, which allowed for movement inside the classroom.  Typically, our attention span lasted longer in situations where we were asked to change gears mentally and physically several times.  A variety of activities helped!

Ashley spent the entire day in courses that were outside of her comfort zone.  Writer's Craft, Business, Chemistry, Math; all subjects that would not have been her first choices when she was in school.  Yet, she quickly adapted to the unwritten rules of her classes.  She partnered up with students who seemed to “get it”.  She figured out who she could borrow resources from.  She found ways to cope with the unfamiliar material she was learning.  She tried her best to be an ideal student.

She quickly discovered that it takes a lot of work to be the ideal student, to pay attention for 75 minutes straight three to four times a day, to take notes and participate in discussions, to collaborate and share but not overshare, to be quiet and listen, to use technology sometimes but not all the time, to learn bell to bell but leave class quickly enough to make it across campus in only five minutes.

The day was full of these little contradictions and the students know how to work the system.  They know what classes require their full focus and which classes they can power down for.  They are willing to admit that they build their timetables with this in mind.  Take it easy in period 2 so they have energy for period 4, study for their period 5 test during period 1.  Optimize their marks so I can get into the program they want.

What if the student felt (believed) that the goal of school was learning and not marks?  What if teachers stopped using marks as currency?  How might that change the choices that are happening in our schools?

We can’t help but wonder what other educators might notice if they were to take on the #Observe’em challenge.  Would you agree with us that 75 minutes is a long time to sit and focus or would you find yourself in a classroom that embraces movement?  Do you do enough in your own classroom to help support students as they use technology?  What does your building do to build culture and community so that students are prepared to act kindly?  Finally, how good are your students at playing the game of school?  Do you agree with us that it’s time to change the rules?  
Initial observations after Observe'em day
It’s 12:25.  Jamie is ten minutes into Grade 10 Boys Phys Ed.  He is dripping with sweat and all he is doing is goofing around with a basketball.  He’s wondering, just how did I end up in this situation?  What he doesn’t know is that in twenty minutes he’ll be suited up in road hockey gear playing goal for twenty moderately aggressive students who want to take a shot on net.  How did he get here?

Matt Coleman, Andreea Stoica, Jamie Mitchell, Bryn Dewar, Ashley Stephenson
and Sahar Monzavi on the steps at the beginning of the school day
Flash back 4 hours to when six teachers agreed to become students for the day.  We gathered on the steps before the bell at the start of the day, waiting with the other students, grabbed a quick photo to mark our day, and after Oh Canada, off we went to our various classes.  Our lead guidance counsellor, Tracey Forde, helped craft our timetables, as guidance counsellors so expertly do, so between the 6 of us, we had a variety of classes across all grades, from math, accounting, tech, art, and fitness.  Our Principal was great in offering up some supply teachers to cover our classes, provided by our schools SIPSA funding (that’s School Improvement Plan for Student Achievement for the uninitiated).  More feedback will follow soon, as we get the chance to sit down with all participants to break down our day.  In the meantime, here are some initial thoughts on the day, while the memories are fresh:

  • Hurry and Sit.  As teachers, being on our feet all day long, we tend to forget that our students do the exact opposite.  Students really do need to hurry to class (big schools, coupled with short transit times between classes makes for a HUSTLE between classes), and chart their route if they hope to make it from point A to point B in time.  And then….they sit, and sit, and sit.  Great discussion, interesting interviews, helpful peer to peer learning, all while sitting.  We weren’t used to that.  In fact, we found it exhausting for all the wrong reasons.
  • Peers Helping Peers.  We were struck by how resourceful and helpful students were, not only to us, but to each other.  I think that at the front of the room, I sometimes miss the quiet discussions happening at the other end of the room.  “Can you help me with this?”  “What does this mean” “how did you answer this” “here, let me show you…” were common refrains in the class.  Students were genuine, helpful and engaged in helping their peers. It was heartening and encouraging to see this collegiality going on in the back of the classrooms.
  • Teacher Student Collegiality.  It is approaching midterm, and it was evident that students and teachers were really in a groove together.  Classes flowed, jokes and ribbing were traded back and forth, it was clear that all involved were comfortable with the dynamic.  In each class, the temperature was different, set, it seemed by both the teacher and students in the room.  Some classes were energetic and quick, and others were more mellow and focused.  All classes felt in their own groove.  It was heartening to witness the level of comfort that comes from teachers knowing students and students knowing teachers.
  • Final 30% Stress. It was evident how the stress of the final 30% loomed, even if it isn’t yet midterm.  So much of the learning in the course needs to be tied to that final 30%; how the test was graded; how to best answer questions, that there seemed to be many moments where students asked questions about content related to this final 30%.  “Is this going to be on the final?” “How would this question be asked on the exam?” “How do we answer this question for the most marks?”  The stress of the test was palpable in students.  It seemed strange to us that the final could be weighing so heavily on the minds of students, and that it seemed to draw them out of the learning moment, not seeking understanding for comprehension sake, rather than as a means to answer a question on a test.  
  • Feeling Lost.  One thing I gained from the day is greater empathy for students who feel lost with the content of the class.  What a daunting task it can be to try to get a handle on the content when you are feeling out of your depth.  Thankfully, teachers were very patient and helpful, fellow students were enormously helpful and patient (see Peers helping Peers, above), and we  had the confidence to stick our head out a few times and ask a bunch of questions to get a handle on things, which helped...a bit, but still.  That feeling of scrambling to just get a general idea of what the heck was happening was stressful!
  • Students can Multi-task!  All six of us ate lunch in the cafeteria and had a mini debrief about the morning.  There were many common themes, everyone felt engaged, everyone learned something.  It was pointed out that one class watched a short video about the waste our society creates.  During the video, it was noticed that one student was totally immersed in the game he was playing on his computer.  This started to bother the “student for a day” teacher who was sitting beside him.  However, she rode out the game playing until the end of the video.  Then she was shocked when that very game playing student put up his hand and made some amazing observations that drove the rest of the class discussion!  
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Jamie was on FIRE that day!
Flash forward to 1:30PM.  Jamie has hung up his goalie gear and he is trying to change pace mentally for his next class, World Issues.  He is finding it very uncomfortable to be sitting down to listen after the physical activity he just experienced.  Maybe it’s because he’s an adult man, staring 40 in the eyes, who isn’t quite used to so much running.  Maybe it’s the fact that he’s red faced and hot.  Something just doesn’t feel right.  After being active, he’d like to keep being active.  But he can’t, because he’s about to listen to two presentations on the Syrian Civil War.  Now don’t get us wrong, Jamie was floored by the quality of presentation and discussion he experienced in his World Issues course.  He understands that the research shows that students learn better after physical activity, but right now it is taking him awhile to settle into listening mode.

By the time the presentations start, Jamie is more focused.  He’s glad he stuck it out, because the overall quality and depth of answers in the presentations is really impressive.  It was interesting to hear student perspective on grown up problems today.  We can’t help but wonder what school and classes might look like if students were allowed more input into how, where and when they learn.  If anything, that’s a common theme we’ve been noticing.  Students want to have the ability to provide input on decision that impact them.  They want that opportunity in a genuine way and they are quick to figure out when adults seek their input without really listening to them.

If our goal is to create innovative spaces where students and teachers are challenged, we have to bring all voices to the table and listen to them equally.  We observed a lot of things that worked really well in our day as a student.  We also experienced some things first hand that don’t work so well, long periods of sitting and trying to focus for 75 minutes four times a day to name a few.  We are willing to bet that our students have solutions, if we could choose to ask them.

We are looking forward to talking with the other four teachers who participated in this challenge at our school and hearing what they thought about the day.  You can expect to hear more from us then.  In the meantime, have you ever spent a day in a student's shoes?  What were your big take aways?