Posts tagged Collaboration
Collaborative Thinking

Being embedded as coaches in a school is providing The Shift with many unique opportunities to collaborate with other teachers.  Two weeks ago, we were approached by two Milton District High School Science teachers who had heard about the Thinking Classroom and wanted to try it out with their Grade Nine Science students.  This was exciting, because it was going to be a challenge for us as well as them. Our own areas of expertise currently lay outside of the science curriculum, we could bring the strategies of the Thinking Classroom to the table, but as far as knowing how to apply it to individual topics, we were at the mercy of the classroom teachers.  But this is how we like to learn and grow, collaboratively.

The topic in question was Bohr Rutherford diagrams and the periodic table.  This is traditionally taught by the teacher leading a lesson on atomic theory, the parts of the atom, how to draw Bohr Rutherford diagrams and then, how these diagrams related to the periodic table.  Traditionally, the periodic table was given to the students first, without creating a reason for them to need it. Hilary Rivett and Jennifer Pratt, the teachers working with The Shift, wanted to change that.  They were hoping that by using the Thinking Classroom model students would better understand and appreciate the need for the periodic table.

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So with those two goals in mind, teaching students how to draw Bohr Rutherford diagrams and making them want to use the periodic table, we got to work.  We spent some time discussing the research and philosophy behind the Thinking Classroom, why it is good for students and teachers and how it can be applied to the classroom.  As luck would have it, we’ve recently released a Podcast on this very topic. You can listen to it here.

The format we decided on was pretty exciting for the educators, and we knew it would be a challenge for the students.  In a nutshell, the teacher would gather the class around one of the whiteboards in the Demonstration Classroom and start their lesson.  The script was simple, “This is how I would draw Lithium. This is how I’d draw Boron. This is how I’d draw Argon”. Total lesson time, about four minutes.  Some questions were asked, like “What makes up the nucleus of an Atom”, but other than that, students were sent to their groups with the challenge question, “Can you draw Beryllium?”.

There was a frenzy of frustrated struggling.  Students were not in Flow, they didn’t know how the teacher drew their diagrams, what the rings represented, what the numbers on the board meant, or how to even start drawing their element.  However, as groups moved back and forth between their boards and the teachers work small hints of understanding began to emerge.

“Every drawing has that thing in the middle with different numbers.”

“I think the dots are the electrons.”

“How do we know how many protons Beryllium has?”

And this was the moment the teachers were waiting for.  The groups were quickly realizing that they needed a tool to help them draw their diagrams.  That tool was the Periodic Table.

“Is there something you’ve seen that might help you?”, asked the teacher.  The words were barely out of their mouth before the groups were rushing to their backpacks to grab their Periodic Tables.  Connections were quickly made between the atomic number of an element and the number of protons. With a bit more thinking, students realized that the number of protons and electrons were equal in these diagrams.  More insight followed with respect to the placement of the electrons. Students were flying through our examples now and by the end of the 75 minute period had drawn several diagrams, listed the steps to draw any of the first 20 elements and were working on consolidating their drawings into an individual meaningful note.

Hilary and Jennifer were pretty pumped with how well things went.  Normally it takes them two days to get students this far along. Everyone was looking forward to day two, which was going to start with a challenge.

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“Draw the first twenty elements, as a class, as fast as you can”

The students didn’t disappoint us, but the point of this exercise wasn’t to see how quickly things could get drawn.  The teachers wanted to consolidate a bit more of the learning from yesterday and have a big visual for the class to refer to.  Students were again divided into groups of three and sent to individual white boards to work. Their question for the day, “What patterns do you notice in our big periodic table of Bohr Rutherford diagrams?”  Some groups jumped right into finding patterns, others needed some nudging. “What if you looked across the rows? Or down the columns?” More thinking from students resulted in some pretty insightful observations around the trends and rules of the Periodic Table.

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There was a bit of a disaster at the beginning of the third day, as the class created Periodic Table had been mistakenly erased in the night.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise to us when multiple students in the class asked if they could redraw it before the bell rang! Afterwards, student groups were assigned two different elements and were asked to use an online source to learn all they could about each element, including how it behaves.  Once groups had a decent handle on their elements, the teacher asked them to circulate around the room and find other elements that might belong to their “family”.  Students were again able to reinforce the connections made the day before with respect to the trends and patterns in the Periodic Table.

The work was wrapped up by one final consolidation with teachers and students, and the teacher asking “Why are some elements more reactive than others?”

To which one student replied, “Maybe because some have less electrons?”

Which is a great point for these students to get to, mostly on their own, by the end of this activity.  On day four they will be back in their regular science lab doing some experiments around reactivity of elements.  It’ll be a great way to test some of the theories and patterns they determined previously. All told, there was about 20 minutes of formal teaching over the three days of this activity.  The bulk of the work was done and lead by students, working collaboratively and thinking critically. The biggest challenge was getting them used to working within the Thinking Classroom model.  One class in particular was very high energy and had several students that were prone to outbursts. The great piece from having students standing, working at whiteboard was that the energy from these students were directed at the problem being solved, rather than the class and teacher.  All in all, a lot was learned by the teachers and us in this process. The Shift was able to mentor two teachers through a planning and execution of a lesson while at the same time teaching them about the Thinking Classroom. As a bonus, we learned a lot about the Periodic Table too!

Gratitude for your PLN
Do you have a professional learning network (PLN)?

When you are planning a lesson, thinking about pedagogy, or learning about something new, do you have a group of people you turn to for guidance and support?



It used to be the people who worked in our teaching offices or schools that we would rely on the most.  Today, access to social media gives us a much deeper pool of colleagues to draw ideas from. If you have an idea for a lesson, chances are there is someone else online who has done something similar and can help.


So while The Shift has lots of people we rely on in person to bounce ideas off of, we also have a much wider PLN online that we can draw inspiration from.


After June 4th and the #LoveMyHaltonSchool event, it would appear that this is true for many of us!  Just how big is the PNL of teachers in Halton? How far does it reach?



Surprisingly, pretty far!  There were almost 400 different twitter accounts active on Monday tweeting about why they love working in Halton.  All together, they created 1,569 tweets that were seen by 162,000 people! Our messages of love were view over two million times.  That’s a huge Professional Learning Network!



Importantly, it benefits our own wellness as educators to express gratitude for the things we love.  There is shown to be strong links in positive psychology research between gratitude and improved mental health and happiness.  There are even apps that are used to journal and track gratitude on a daily basis! (of course there is...there is an app for everything)  So it is important in our working lives to take stock of our Halton schools, staff, students and community.  Expressing our appreciation for these things can only make our day to day work easier. So thank YOU Shifters for brightening everyone’s day, and taking the time to share why you #LoveMyHaltonSchool.




Innovation Journey
WI Dick Middle School in Milton is on an Innovation Journey.  Inside their school they had a large, open area called “The Mall” that was used for Quality Daily Fitness breaks.  Really, the space was being misused and ended up collecting large amounts of garbage throughout the day. As well, WI Dick Middle School had an aging Mac Lab that, while used, didn’t do much to promote creativity or collaboration among students.  The staff identified that they wanted to make improvements to how these learning spaces were utilized. Not to spoil anything, but they were more than successful!



The Mall has since become an extended classroom that teachers can use for group work, combined classes or breakout space.  It has been furnished with flexible seating, whiteboards, a dedicated chromebook cart and other supplies to drive collaboration.  But really, the repurposing of The Mall was a side show compared to what we were about to witness in the old Mac Lab, now rebranded as the “Innovation Lab”. To set up this space, science teacher Mark Maunder has taken the tired, aging computer lab and has transformed it into a dynamic, student centred space where they tackle design thinking projects, learn to empathize, build, code and solve creative problems.



There have been many times when we have had the good fortune of witnessing the energy of empowered students in our travels into schools around Halton, like the Learning Commons at JT Tuck, and Ms. DiGiantomasso’s Grade 8 math classroom at Aldershot. The Innovation Lab at WI Dick Middle School exuded that same level of kinetic energy!  This space is a great example of structure creating behaviour. In this case, by focusing on students creating in teams, and guiding them through the design process, Mark has set the conditions for empowered learning to take place in the room. He reflected on how some of the students that have had difficulty engaging in some other areas of school have found a safe space here where they are engaged, interested and valued.



The space itself has been thoughtfully designed to be flexible, inviting and dynamic.  Students work on whiteboard tables that are able to lift up and store vertically with ease.  The tables allow for risk-free ideation and much like the Thinking Classroom framework, allow students to work vertically.  There were some lost cost design solutions as well including LEGO donated by the community, and some repurposed cork boards and other reinvented materials.   They demonstrated how creating a space like this can also involve solutions don’t necessarily always break the bank.

One of the reasons for success in this project, which is still very much framed as a pedagogical experiment is the presence of The 3 Ps of Innovation (Permission, policy, protection) that nurtures the conditions to allow this new venture to happen.  Mark was given open permission to create this space and program with the focus on learning skills and soft skills as outcomes, rather than specific curricular outcomes and grades.  Mark has noticed that there are many more opportunities for fluid pairings with other subject teachers as needed to cover curriculum. This repurposing of space has worked because Principal Christine Bejjany gave teachers the permission to launch, with the policy and protection to try, fail and learn with a focus placed on learning skills as allowed a flexibility to the project to exist.

In future, the hope is to find ways of bringing this type of learning into all spaces, using maker carts and a design thinking framework in other classes and in other courses.  The insight and the forethought into scaling up is both exciting for the school and welcome that the space fits into a greater plan of change within the priorities of the school.


The Collaboration Conundrum

Kate Power, Kelly Trdin, Charity Wilkinson and Daniel Lustrinelli are teachers at Dr Frank J. Hayden Secondary School.  They have been interested in creating cross-curricular moments with their students for some time. Recently, they were able to execute their plan.  This is their story.

“Collaboration is not awesome.”

Some variation of this comment is often heard by teachers of all grades and pathways, no matter the subject matter. The fact is that collaboration often gets a bad rep. We’ve all seen the GIFs and memes about it, and the seemingly universal eye roll that teachers face when they announce that the next activity or project will be done in groups. Not necessarily because students do not like to work with each other, but because there is a concern about who they are working with and how the work will be divided. At the same time, it is not going away. Collaboration is an essential transferable skill which will be carried over in our proposed ‘revised learning skills’ and far beyond.

Is it possible to combat this negative perception of collaboration and connect our curriculum in an authentic way? This was the question posed in 2017 by a PD group at Dr Frank J. Hayden Secondary School that focused on making cross-curricular connections to solve the collaboration conundrum.

We knew that we wanted group work to be more successful for our students. We had the right classroom design; our classrooms are set-up to encourage this sort of interaction. Yet, many students still prefer individual activities. Sure, they sit in groups or share Google Docs with each other, but we wondered how often they act as a cohesive unit, each with their own contribution toward a final task or product? What we needed to figure out was how to do more than simply go through the motions of collaboration and really ask our students to “buy-in” to the idea of working together.


Our overarching objectives were to make group work more successful for everyone involved, to provide an opportunity for our students to show that collaboration is worthwhile - and maybe even fun! - and hopefully see some great results in the form of critical thought, problem solving and mentorship. The first step to creating a successful collaborative activity for students actually had nothing to do with the students at all. First, the teachers had to come together. It takes a willing and enthusiastic group of teachers as well as a supportive admin team to make a project like this happen. From the PD group who first brainstormed the idea, to the subject teachers who jumped on board and volunteered their classes to participate, to the admin who approved the ‘in-school’ field trip and admin staff who blocked out time and space for those classes to come together, this was truly a collaborative effort. Not just on a practical level, but because collaboration between teachers is important and necessary as it reinforces the impact of modelling the kind of engagement we ask of, and expect from, our students.The activity we came up with paired students from our grade 10 Civics, grade 12 World Issues and grade 12 Accounting classes. It asked students to consider an authentic scenario geared towards mass transit, sustainability, politics, and money; two commuter communities in Halton connected by one rail line.


The students were placed in groups of 3-4, with at least one student from each subject per group and were given two full class periods over the course of one morning to decide on the impact (both positive and negative, and on a variety of different factors/criteria) that moving forward with this proposal would have. From there, they were on their own. They had to assume roles (financial analysts, urban planners, city councillors, etc.), and work together to determine the solution that would work best for all interested stakeholders. At the end of the morning, they were asked to upload a final product to the activity’s Google Classroom that summarized their research and showcased their final decision on the proposal, as well as to reflect on their experience.

The activity was not only created to connect students from different curriculum areas, but also to connect students from different grades and pathways. It was designed as a way to both assess our students ability to collaborate and their ability to solve a problem based on their previous learning.

So, how did it go?

It was, in a word, awesome. Over the course of the morning, the students took a little time to get comfortable with each other, no different than any adult does when working in a new group. Each student assumed their positions in the group based on their class and documented their roles, goals, and ultimate  ‘End Game’. We were really impressed with many of our grade 12s who took initiative to lead the group and help their grade 10 colleagues complete the activity, but our grade 10s were not passive participants by any means. They applied their knowledge and made connections to their previous learning while making a significant contribution to their group’s goals and the creation of the final product. All of this without the motivation of marks and very little instruction about the final product.

Was it perfect?

No. This being the first time we have run an activity like this in the school, there were some items to change next time such as forgotten Chromebook carts and mixing and matching groups on the fly. The students were great and just rolled with it.

In the end, the students made the morning. They were willing and engaged collaborators. One of the great student responses reflects this:
“I applied the concepts from world issues by incorporating local concerns like rail taking up housing space, and bigger issues such as emission efficiency. From a world issues perspective, it is important to consider all factors and stakeholders, such as demographics and sustainability. In order to accomplish my goals, I had to search up other sources to gain ideas on sustainable practices. On the VIA Rail site, there were many environmental proposals that were also realistic for trains. Another source that I used was Google Maps. Google Maps helps with the route and seeing exactly what we would be affecting like farming areas and subdivisions. As far as the other courses, I recognized that there are many aspects of a financial budget such as coverage, labour and materials. Also, by working with the civics class, I was reminded of the members in government and their roles, as well as the values of different parties.”

The overall take away, from both the teachers and students who participated, at the end of the morning?

Collaboration is awesome.


If you want more ideas on collaborative learning, click this link.
Growing into Innovation
Tony Churchill is a Principal at Harrison Public School. He is working with staff at his school on promoting a growth mindset in students through design thinking challenges. He is our very first contributor to the Shift from the perspective of a school principal.


One school’s journey towards innovative thinking...

“So, what is innovation or innovative thinking? How do we foster it...promote it? Once we start to see it, how do we get comfortable with assessing and reporting on it? How do we cover all the curriculum and allow students time to explore without worrying about this lost teaching and learning time?”

These were some of the questions that staff on our leadership team and I worked through last year. The reason: I was the new principal and during the first PD day as I got to know everyone, I took the staff through a process...to draw and write about their ideal school. As we worked through the process, similar themes emerged and we narrowed things down toward the beginnings of a school vision statement. One that aligned with Halton’s vision and captured the pieces of all contributing staff members from that PD day’s session.

“In Harrison Public School’s safe and inclusive community, learners’ voices will be valued in order to engage all learners in authentic learning environments, promoting both collaborative and independent innovative thinking, fostered through a growth mindset.”

Meanwhile, my own professional learning at the time was also focused on innovation. I was working hard to effectively use Twitter to grow my own PLC (Professional Learning Community) and reading Couros’ book and blog, Innovator’s Mindset. As I had sat there reading, book in one hand and cell phone in the other, I began to follow different people he mentioned on Twitter and watched various TED Talks and YouTube videos. What they were talking about made sense to me and spoke to the learning environment I would want to come to each day.


From the vision statement we co-created, it seemed natural to me to begin with “innovative thinking, fostered through a growth mindset.” I had also been following Carol Dweck and her work, reading Growth Mindset, the New Psychology of Success. So, with the leadership team, we divided into smaller teams to begin to develop staff PD about both these areas...innovation and growth mindset.

Providing release time and resources, these staff members were then able to develop learning sessions that were informative and hands on. I said that I wanted the full staff to have the same working definition of these parts of our vision statement. I wanted them to see the power of reinforcing the right skills in the right ways and to see the increased engagement of our students while completing projects that promoted innovative thinking.


Conveniently, we arrived at the start of our work with the new Kindergarten program being released and with one of the four frames, being assessed via pedagogical documentation, entitled Problem Solving and Innovation. So we had kindergarten staff digging into what this meant and they were able to share this perspective/learning around this frame with the grade 1 - 5 teachers.

While we had the leadership team exploring these ideas of innovation and growth mindset, I introduced them to John Spencer and his design challenges. These are some fun, non tech projects that anyone could do with their students. I was reading the “Launch Cycle" and had shared it with a couple of staff members. I wanted to begin to get the idea of a structure to design challenges and the richness of the process work students were involved in. At this point, we had only been looking at the obvious connections to Learning Skills when students were completing design challenges and I wanted to gently move staff along in their understanding of the full potential of these projects.



Staff were getting excited by positive student responses to our design challenges. They were looking for more and wondering what else we could do. I shared the Global Day of Design website with the leadership team. We decided to take this on and decided that our Spring Parent night would also focus on parents and children completing design challenges together. Staff agreed, while working in the rooms that evening, to make efforts to explicitly speak about the learning skills that were developed while completing these challenges. They also worked at promoting growth mindset language throughout the evening. As well as design challenges, we opened up the library’s makerspace resources and had families cycle through so students could teach their parents how to use these activities (students had been taught throughout the year how to properly use these so they could easily shine as they showcased their learning with their parents). The evening was a success...the highest attendance in a long time and not one exit pass, completed by parents, had a concern or suggestion on what to do differently next time!

Where is this going?  I am not 100% sure. I want to be clear it is not just about having FUN even though having fun is important. Teachers still struggle with how this fits in with everything else we are looking at during a school day, month or year. I wonder next about how to bridge the work to be done around assessment and reporting with the design challenges being completed in the classrooms. I think there is learning to be done around pedagogical documentation, beyond the kindergarten classrooms. I think richer assessment, cross curricular connections, reporting, descriptive feedback and relevant next steps are waiting to be discovered in the work we are entering into. These 21st Century learning skills are not just the new eduspeak. It is an exciting time to be a “guide on the ride” with the students in our classrooms.

I think it is always interesting, upon reflection, the many steps we, as a school, have gone through in our journey towards developing an understanding of this thing called innovation. It may appear to the reader that the steps were each planned and sequential and perhaps one lead to another. Having gone through this, I know it did not happen that way. I had a hope that teachers would embrace a vision statement they created. I had an interest in what the idea of “innovation” was all about and wanted to have a group of teachers that had a common understanding...how do we do something better than how it was done before? We dig in...we try things...we watch and listen...we provide opportunities...we stand back...we celebrate...celebrate the process, the mistakes, the questions that get answered and the unanswered questions...we enjoy the journey...as it happens and continues to happen!

I will try and visit again, to see where year two brings us.

~Tony Churchill




Deeper Learning Is...
That’s the prompt we were asked to think about during day one of the 2018 Deeper Learning Conference.  We were expecting to learn about Project Based Learning and High Tech High when we signed up for this conference.  We were caught off guard by the tone of the day. High Tech High played second fiddle to a much bigger idea, Deeper Learning.

The day started with 1200 educators in the High Tech High forum, with a salsa band playing energetic Latin-influenced grooves.  When they started to cover “Descpacito” and educators cut loose and started dancing, Jamie asked “is this Woodstock for teachers?”.  There was definitely an energy and buzz right from the beginning of the day.

So what is Deeper Learning?

Deeper Learning is...modelling the growth we want to see in our students.  Carlos R. Moreno, in his Keynote, stated that “Vulnerability is a part of good pedagogy”.  If we believe in teaching students the soft skills that they need to be successful in life, we have to model our own risk taking and willingness to be open and honest.  “We, as educators, need to be brave enough to share our own stories.”

Deeper Learning is…teaching our students to be competent.  There is a model to Deeper Learning and at its core lies six competencies.  65% of the jobs that today’s students will have haven’t been invented yet.  Armed with these competencies, students will be better equipped to work and learn in the world that is changing exponentially.




Deeper Learning is…a path to equity. Lindsay Hill said in her keynote that the system of school has been created using historical structures, put in place throughout our history to keep certain groups oppressed.” “We need to think about critical consciousness, racial equity, gender equity, classism, we need to talk about all of the ‘isms’ in our systems if we are TRULY about deeper learning.” The more we can talk about our biases, the more we can be the educators our young people need and deserve.



Deeper Learning is...trying something new, taking faith that the outcome may be unclear, but that growth and deeper learning as educators is guaranteed.  Michelle Clark, Co-Director of the Share Your Learning Campaign encouraged everyone to push out beyond their comfort zone.  As educators we were encouraged to leave our comfort zone, and to try something new.


Democratic Education

Deeper Learning is...giving students agency over their own education.  As Michelle said in her introduction, “We don’t give students voice, they already have one.  We just decentralize our leadership roles so that they can try them on to see the leaders they will become.  Many educators are attending this conference because they want to make school different. Gia Truong spoke about equity and how we can help our students feel like they belong.  If we can agree that we don’t like the story of school, perhaps it is time to change the storyteller.  Giving students more voice in their education is one way to do this.



Deeper Learning is...Beautiful work. Ron Berger, of Austin’s Butterfly fame, talked about the power of beautiful work: work that is not necessarily visually beautiful, but work that is made of actions in service of, actions of passion, actions of equity, of social justice.  Social Justice is needs to be at the core of the curriculum.

Deeper Learning is...evolving.  We are floored by how full our brains feel.  Both of us are looking forward to learning more tomorrow and refining our own personal definition of what Deeper Learning is.
Note Taking in a Thinking Classroom
I came across a thread on twitter a month or so ago.  It was about a professor who discovered that her students had spent all semester collaborating on one large google doc.  They took notes together, asked and answered questions of each other.  It was a great example of collaboration.


And I thought to myself, “I wonder if my students would be willing to try something like that”.  I knew I’d be running a classroom where students were up at the whiteboards daily, working on problems together.  I also realized that this might impact their ability to take coherent notes.

So, at the start of this semester, I created a mostly blank google doc and shared it with my students.  I provided the first few lesson titles and suggested that they use this space to collect their thoughts about the days activities.

What they created in two short weeks has surpassed all of my expectations.  Over half of my students contribute to making this document, something I hope to improve upon in our second unit.  It was interesting watching how the document evolved and when I made suggestions for improvement I was shocked at how quickly the students addressed that feedback.


I wonder why some students opted to not contribute.  Perhaps the students were not confident in their abilities, so were worried about contributing something that was “wrong”.  Maybe they were more comfortable being consumers, rather than producers.  It will be easy enough to check in with them at the start of Unit 2 and hopefully I can convince them to move out of their comfort zones.
Reimagining the Final 30%
Jamie Reimagines Exams

A few years ago I got frustrated with traditional exams.  They were not exciting.  They were not a celebration of student learning.  It wasn’t a showcase of a semester of hard work.  It was a stressful slugfest for our students to regurgitate a semester's worth of learning in an arbitrarily short amount of time.  I realized I didn’t like my traditional exam because it was filled with questions, curriculum and content that I thought was the most important.  In a classroom where student voice is valued, I didn’t think this was an appropriate send off to my students.  I wanted to know what they found to be the most important components of my course.  I wanted to know what they learned, without having to force them down one defined path.

So I mixed it up.  Last year I gave my Advanced Functions students a choice.  They could complete a traditional final exam or they could complete a more open ended exam.  I called it the “Modern Exam”.

I allowed my students to change their minds up to the moment the exam was put in front of them.  I spent lots of time leading up to the final exam coaching each student about the choice they wanted to make.  I provided lots of review, study tips and time to prepare.  In the end, about a third of my class chose to attempt the Modern Exam.  This year, I’m providing this choice again and seeing about 50% of my students choose to try the more open ended exam.

The results don’t disappoint me either.

Matt Reimagines Final Performance Tasks

In our Art classes, we were also growing tired of our final performance task in grade 9 art.  The results of project that we had designed and used the last few years ticked all the boxes, it was safe, and well, a little formulaic.  It didn’t provide room for students to flex their creative muscle and lean on their strengths as creators.  So as part of a final 30% pilot, we redesigned the final performance task.  We called the project “Not-A-Box”, a reference to the imaginative children’s book by Antoinette Portis.  Our aim was to provide some structure and boundaries at the beginning of the project, by requiring students to choose two aspects of our learning from the art course.  The other requirement was that the students were provided with a cardboard box.  They had to re-imagine the box into an art piece and they had to use the entire box to do so.   The results were creative, and incredibly widely varied.  It was great to see students pulling this project in different directions.  There was healthy creative friction for some as they worked through what direction they wanted to take their work.  This is the first iteration of this project, so we will tweak and improve the project for the upcoming semester.

Both of us liked how the “Modern Exam” and “Not-a-Box” allowed students to access their own strengths.  Students had to be pretty self-reflective and look back on their own experiences in our courses.  In both our math and art courses we need to get better at supporting students as they explore their own choices in how they show us what they know.  We like that we are moving away from a teacher-student model to a model that more reflects mentorship.

If you had the ability, what would you change about your Final 30% Tasks?
Cycling Back to the Beginning
It’s the last week before the holiday break.  When I teach grade nine math my goal is to always wrap up the teaching of curriculum before the break.  I do this for two reasons.  First, so that we can spend two weeks engaging in review activities to help prepare for the final exam, which in this case is the EQAO.  The second reason is so that we can play around with a final performance task that is a bit more open than usual.

I had no idea if this plan would hold up now that our grade nine course team was trying a blend of project based learning.  When I step back and think about what our team has accomplished over these four months, I’m pretty pleased.  We started the semester with a question that was very loosely defined, “Can we teach Grade Nine Math using projects?”.  We took a risk and dove in.

After playing with Barbie Bungee, Dandy Candies and some intentionally frustrating algebra problems we decided on our next focus:  We wanted to use ratios to help drive home with the class the need for more formal algebra.

A respectable ratio
We started with an activity that asks students “What is the ideal Mullet Ratio?”  This is an activity that I first saw via Jon Orr on twitter but I’ve come to learn has travelled to us from Matt Vaudrey in California.  In this activity students are asked to determine what is the ideal length of “party” to “business” in a mullet.  It’s silly, students laugh, then they start debating, and then they calculate to justify if their opinions are correct.  The two days we spent on this activity were hilarious.


Of course, we needed a suitable project to go along with ratios.  We know from past experience that there are often challenging ratio problems on the Grade 9 EQAO.  The team wanted to spend time working on different ratio problems in order to set our students up for success in January.  We decided on introducing the class to Nana’s Chocolate Milk, another three act task by Dan Meyer.

We adapted things slightly to allow for students to complete a formal project.  We asked our students to find their favourite recipe and then intentionally mess it up. They then had to “fix” their recipe and prove to us that they ingredients were still in the same ratio.  We even asked them to think back on their work with linear relationships and create some graphs and equations for their recipe.

Bacon is ALWAYS the denominator


This one impressed me
After the students finished with “Nana’s Favourite Recipe” we realized that we needed to dive into the Analytic Geometry strands of the curriculum.  We spent a good two weeks doing some formal instruction with our classes as this is probably the most formal component of the course.  At the end of the two weeks we challenged our classes to create their own drawing in Desmos to show off what they have learned.  We asked for drawings with 8 different lines, since that’s all our classes knew how to do with equations.  We were surprised by the level of depth our students went to.  One boy in my class asked me how to draw curved lines.  When I wouldn’t tell him, he didn’t give up, rather he did some research on his own and then shared his knowledge with the class.  



We have spent the past week trying up any loose ends or curriculum expectations that we did not quite cover.  For the final two days before the break we will ask our students to play with cup stacking, running a project that is heavily influenced by Alex Overwijk and his Thinking Classroom.  By the end of the week students will have created models of different cup stacking strategies, analysed them and extrapolated from their data.

That's some good cup stacking!


What came out of our experiment has been an unintentionally spiralled course.  Algebra and abstraction skills became what we dialed down on but we didn’t spend all that much time on the details.  Our students felt the need for the mathematics, asking for more efficient ways to do things.  When we presented the cup stacking activity to them they were already searching for ways to create equations and models.  

There were many days where the students led the class, posing interesting questions and then answering them.  The teachers became facilitators of great discussions, parachuting in on different groups when they needed assistance or a push to go a bit deeper with their learning.  Some days were great, other days were disasters.  On the bad days, the team would go back to the drawing board, talking about what we could do better in order to help students uncover the curriculum.  We tried something new and learned a lot in the process.  I can’t wait to do it again next semester.
Ignite the Spark
Last year, Halton was able to send 25 teachers to the 2017 OAME Conference.  There was lots of good learning and discussions during the three day conference.  What many realized was that there wasn’t much of a secondary conversation after the conference.  People were inspired, but what was lacking was a way to share that inspiration with other teachers in the board.

Enter Janet Juby and Laura Gatey, who were inspired enough to propose a Halton Mini-Conference in order to promote sharing.  Part of this mini-conference was a series of Ignite talks.  If you aren’t familiar with the concept, participants get 20 slides that auto advance after 15 seconds, giving you five minutes to speak about one topic.




Constructing an Ignite talk is a challenge, as you are forced to be very purposeful with what you decide to share.  I spent my five minutes speaking about Risk Taking and why I think encouraging our students to be risk takers is so important.


I was much more inspired by the other nine Ignite speakers.  I was left with a list of things I want to learn more about.


Tammy Knetchel validated my feelings about Interleaving and Spiralling.  She made me wonder what Interleaving might look like in other subject areas.


Erin Kinsella spoke about the need for Wellness in our classrooms.  The more I explore the ideas of Wellness, the more I see it is linked closely to Community Building.


Stephanie Briggs shared a story about her teaching philosophy and her desire to convince others that thinking is always greater than memorizing.


Lindsay Kueh nailed a talk about coding in math classrooms.  She made me want to diver back into coding and find ways to incorporate it into my classrooms.


Sheri Hill asked us why we are so excited about Fridays and asked how we can use play to engage our classrooms.


Todd Malarczuk encouraged us to jump on and off the various educational bandwagons at will.  Find the things that work for you, leave the other things behind and grow your own personal pedagogy.


Virginia Houston told the group about having students build their own Escape Room and show off their own learning by creating something.


Aaron Neal speaking for Michael Szarka, who was absent due to illness, stepped in and improvised a talk from Michael’s slides.  He did a great job convincing us that it’s ok to ask What If?


Matt Coleman joined the math world for a day and talked how we can gain longer periods of time with our students by Hacking the School Day.


What I really loved about the Ignite talks was how everyone focussed on personal inspiration, the teacher’s journey, their philosophy, their “why”, and not necessarily a strategy.   Passion was on display all day long!
Finishing Projects
There is something satisfying about seeing a project come to its conclusion.  I think it’s safe to say that the longer the project takes to complete, the more people involved, and the larger the scope, the more satisfying the conclusion.


I’ve been sitting on the outer reaches of a large project for the past six months, watching my friends Matt Coleman, Jordie Burton and Toge Heersink put crazy amounts of work into the En Masse Collaborative Mural Project.  My involvement started and ended at carrying pieces of the mural between classrooms.  Hindsight being what it is, I wish Jordie explained what the “canvas” was made of, because it felt like granite!

There were many people who were much more involved with me.  Three teacher advisors, 66 students, 3 outside artists, school admin, HDSB facilities staff, City of Burlington employees, City Councillors, the Mayor.  To hear the students involved with the project talk about their mural, it was easy to see what a labour of love the entire process was.

The Mural, installed, finally!

Today was the formal dedication ceremony for the Mural.  Several people spoke, but no one impressed me more than the final speaker, Abbey Kunzli, a student at our school.  She spoke about, of all things, community building!   She spoke about how she feels most at home with her soccer team, when they are sitting around after a game sharing orange slices that one of the parents have provided.  She talked about how that act of sharing makes her feel like her team is a community.  She then compared that community to her school community, and how participating in projects like the En Masse Mural make her feel like a part of a larger community.  Is it any surprise that Abbey’s contribution to the project was to paint one of the orange slices that border the mural?
Abbey, posing with her orange slice

We’ve been focused on intentionally building community in our schools this semester.  Having a safe and inclusive classroom where all students feel supported is one of the ingredients needs to foster innovation.  It’s amazing how far building a positive community can get you, both inside and outside of the classroom.  Community building is how you convince 100 teachers to help carry pieces of a mural through the school and across the street to be installed.  It’s how we empower our students so that they will feel confident enough to talk to strangers about what piece of a mural they’ve worked on.  If I can steal a line from Jordie, community building is how we go from “cement and new build homes” to a place where students can produce and run an entire dedication ceremony.

And I think that is pretty rad.
Tales of Community Building



We started this year with a Community Building Call to Action.  We can sum up the work that many educators have done over the past month.  However, we’d rather present to you the experiences of one Halton Teacher.

Nancy Zigrovic is an French teacher at Iroquois Ridge High School.  She took up our Community Building Call to Action and ran with it!

I have often heard it said that with so much content to cover, how does anyone have time for community-building?  Team-building activities such as classmate bingo and “two truths and a lie” seem to happen in the first week of school and never again.  I have often found myself caught in this same dilemma - is it community or curriculum?  I am here to argue that in a 21st Century learning environment, one cannot happen without the other.

I am currently teaching Grade 9 Applied Core French with a lovely bunch of students who have made it very clear to me that this will be the last time they ever take French.  They tell me that French sucks and ask me not to take it personally.  I don’t, because what they don’t know is that my plan is to change their minds so they see that French actually DOESN’T suck!  The more important point is this:  even if this will be the last time they ever take a French course, they will walk out of our class having built the confidence to fail, because truly it’s only through trying, failing and learning that anyone ever learned to speak another language and increase cultural awareness.

My educated guess is that many of the students in this class have done a fair bit of ‘failing’ in their educational experiences.  My other sense is that they have spent years interpreting these failures as negative - yet another reason to doubt their abilities and resist engaging in the learning process.  So I will do my part to help them reframe their understanding of failure and to embrace a growth mindset, where failure is seen not as the end result, but as an important part of the learning process.

How to begin?  By building a sense of belonging and community in our class that fosters kindness, acceptance, compassion and risk-taking.  At the same time, by equipping students with the knowledge and skills required to try new things.

One of the first activities that we undertook to begin to get to know one another is called My Story/Mon Histoire.  Students created a Google Slides presentation of 5-10 slides that gave us a snapshot of who they are:  interests, hobbies, families, cultural background, dreams, etc.  There were three goals for this activity:  a) get to know one another better, b) assess prior learning and c) continue to develop effective presentation skills.  

Of course, I would never ask them to do something like this without also being willing to do it myself, so I went first and shared Mon Histoire.  They seemed genuinely interested as I shared about my family, interests, challenges and my life’s mission - to make high schools more kind and compassionate places for kids.  As they started to work on their presentations, it struck me that I now had time to connect with students individually as I circulated and helped them create.  Another great way to get to know my students.

For many of the students, the exercise was a very positive one.  We all learned just how many places so many of our classmates have lived in the world and how many languages they already speak!  We had a chance to feel compassion for two students who are brand new to Oakville and to our school.  

It wasn’t all a success.  First, I entirely overestimated the students’ collective ability to actively listen to their peers, without the distraction of a device.  It did, however, allow us to engage in a great discussion about appropriate use of technology and how it’s simply rude to not pay attention when someone is sharing their life story with you.  Second, and while I don’t like to promote gender stereotypes, I observed that many of the boys had a much more difficult time sharing than the girls.  There were two male students who simply decided not to do the exercise.  I am convinced that they had their reasons.  So instead of just moving on, I opened up a new Google Slides presentation and we did it there, right on the spot, with the assistance of the class.  They still shared information about themselves, and I believe they learned a very important lesson that non-engagement is not an option.  

In the end, did we accomplish our goals of getting to know one another better, assessing prior learning and working on presentation skills? For the most part, yes.  Will I do this activity again?  Most definitely, yes!
Here’s what I will do even better the next time:   I will give them a few more weeks to ease into the class and engage in community-building activities that involve less risk at the beginning of the semester, before diving into this level of sharing.  In addition, I will consider asking them to share together in small groups rather than in front of the class.

As for French sucking?  The jury is still out on this one, but our community-building is showing signs of success!  We are now demonstrating our active listening skills and we have learned appropriate ways to show our appreciation after a classmate has presented.  We have also begun to embrace mistakes in pronunciation as wonderful opportunities to learn!  As we continue to engage in more of these activities, I am convinced that we will be able to push our second language learning even further as we embrace risk-taking, failing, and ultimately learning.  Curriculum THROUGH community!

And here are my next two ideas:  community circles and Androidify this week to lead us into a discussion of descriptive language in French.  I’ll keep you posted…

~Nancy Zigrovic