Aaron Neal is a mathematics and physics teacher at Burlington Central High School. After attending some professional development around “Finding Your Why” he was left with some questions about the ingredients that go into great teaching. This is his first guest post for The Shift.
Teaching is not a solved problem. I love that about it. Every conversation with a student, parent, colleague or administrator is an opportunity to get closer to the solution. I will never stop hunting for the right way to teach. It is out there, I just need to keep hunting. My first thought I ever had about teaching was that a good explanation was all I needed. Now I know that sometimes the best explanation is no explanation at all. I have grown and changed, had more thoughts and ideas about education than I can remember; however, I am still on the hunt…
Just because I have never even caught sight of my prey doesn’t mean that I don’t know the scent of it.
I don’t know what the right way to teach is; however, I think that these aspects of how to teach the right way will be the scent that leads me to it.
My time on the hunt has led me to change my practice time and time again. Here are a couple of examples of my personal journey.
Giving Time to “Breathe” in the Learning
There was a time when I had a schedule with units of learning, quadratics for 2 weeks, linear relations for 2 weeks, a textbook section a day until I ran out and then 2 days for review and a test. Why does the test need to come 2 days after the end of the unit? The students have not lived in the topic for long enough, they will cram, succeed and forget. They need to breathe it in make it a part of them, understand it, apply it, see how it connects to the next thing, refine, practice, build something with it. This takes time. I don’t know how to make it work with all the other things that make up the right way; however, when I catch sight of my prey it will include time for the kids to breathe in their learning.
Many of us have integrated large scale projects, labs, essays, cross-curricular builds, presentations and more into our practice. I have been reflecting on this recently as my students embark on the wild adventure that I have built with them. My recent projects have produced incredible creative masterpieces and also a bunch of zeros. When students were primarily lectured to they were forced to engage in some manner. They were locked in place with the teacher staring right at their faces. They would get a base of material delivered to them. They may not have cared about the content, understood much of what was communicated to them or even be paying attention fully. They may not have been able to apply it in new contexts; however, most could recall enough to get by on a quiz or test. When students engage in creative production, most are much more engaged in the problem; however, this is a release of responsibility to them. We design these projects to be a big part of their learning. So for those who fall behind, have a creative block, struggle with group dynamics, etc. they may not just be risking their grades they may also be learning less then they may have in their seats in a traditional lecture. It is clear to me that it isn’t enough to create an awesome creative opportunity. When we find the right way it will include these projects but also instructional strategies to teach students how to overcome creative blocks, manage their time, work in groups and have pride in their craft.
I am sure there are many items on my list that are things that you feel passionately about. You are awesome at some of them, struggle with others. I may not be the best at many of these things but as I grow my goal is to improve at as many of these as possible.
The hunt continues...
The Shift would be interested in hearing what’s on your list? What’s missing from Aaron’s list?
Bijan Nagji is an elementary teacher at Viola Desmond Public School. He has 19 years experience as an educator in the Halton District School Board. His favourite thing to hear in a school is ”sure let’s give it a try!”. His least favourite thing to hear is “I can’t do this, it’s too hard” and “This is just a new education fad”. He is passionate about student voice, empowering students and building a strong classroom and school community. This is his first contribution to the Shift Blog.
The idea of Knowledge Building came across my radar in the middle of the 2017 school year. Ms. Hanmer, one of the Vice Principals at our school, dropped by my classroom to introduce me to a document. Being open minded, I glanced at it and said “Sure, I’ll take a look”. I put it on my teacher's desk (I still had one then). Life got busy, you know how THAT goes! And so, despite best intentions, it stayed there. As I reflect on this, I can still hear that voice inside my head saying “knowledge?” and thinking “why, isn’t that a low level thinking skill?”
Later in the school year, I heard that the Halton District School Board announced that there were some grants available from the Ministry of Education to innovate (what a different time that was!) and try new ways of learning in the classroom. The idea of trying something new, something different sounded good to me! They were looking for proposals around how to teach the New Global Competencies. Knowing that there had been discussion that the Global Competencies were planned to replace our Learning Skills in our Provincial Report Cards, I figured, hey, why not apply? So, a group of us got together and wrote up what sounded pretty impressive (to me, anyway) proposal. Thanks Ms. Horner!
We decided to use the funding to see if we can teach junior students skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Little did I know that it would take me into perhaps one of the best and most gratifying professional endeavours to this day. Using The Knowledge Building pedagogy was a part of that proposal and our proposal was successful! That’s when I started to look into that document, dig a little deeper and get some sense of what knowledge building really was! I learned then that it was about students “identifying problems of understanding”, creating theories about those problems, acknowledging and respecting idea diversity and then collaborating together and focussing on idea improvement! Curious yet? Check it out here!
Sometimes as educators it’s easy to stay the course and do what we already do. Risk taking and stepping outside our own comfort zone is not natural at times. It can be challenging and even difficult. It is great to find a like-minded team, willing to play and experiment with new ideas. We took some of its theories, principles and ideologies and attempted to apply them into our classroom. We started slowly and looked at big ideas and concepts across all curricular areas and incorporated Knowledge Building within them. Some basic KB scaffolds such as “My Theory is”, “I wonder…”, “I still need to understand…” “Building onto this idea…”, “This theory does not explain…”, “Putting our knowledge together…” were introduced to students and we jumped right into using KB circles. When students seemed to have mastered some of these, we increased the scaffolds we were using, changed a few and even created some of our own. One of the topics we explored in our circles was the teenager girl Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun from Saudi Arabia and how she had been welcomed into Canada as a refugee, after fleeing from her family and country.
It soon occurred to me that our grade 5 students were engaged, respectful and actually sounded like empowered students and learners having a respectful conversation. In short, they sounded like adults! Reflecting on this, I think that may have been my aha moment!
As part of the grant process, we brought in some experts to our school to dig deeper into how we could use Knowledge Building to teach some of the Global competencies.
That’s when we were introduced to the Knowledge Forum! The Knowledge Forum is an online software tool used to help support Knowledge Building communities. Students have the opportunity to collaborate online with one another in this platform and build on the ideas of one another in order to focus on idea improvement
It seemed so complex at first, and a bit intimidating too! But, we gave it a go. What an exciting tool!
We continued to take risks, play, fail and eventually learn! Oh yes, there were lots of failures along the way. Really, the kids figured out things quicker than me! They were quick to figure out how to post their comments, how to reply and add to a post and even how to attach relevant documents that supported their ideas and theories. Even at age 10, they are so tech savvy and intuitive!
I was particularly fascinated by the analytics tool in the Knowledge Forum platform. We continued playing and exploring with the students and realized that there was invaluable data that it gave us! I liked that it allowed the silent, more reserved students to have a voice! Not only that, but students and teachers had data about peer to peer collaboration.
Students were looking at their collaboration as a class community and came to the realization that many of them were only collaborating with their friends, as this was the most comfortable for them. This opened the door for great discussion and discourse in our room about what collaboration looked like in the real world. Slowly, we started noticing a change and more authentic interactions with others. But wait, if the goal is idea improvement, we still had a long way to go! Another emerging trend came to the forefront. Students seemed to be really good at creating and stating their own theories, but not as good at building on the ideas of others or putting ideas together.
Knowledge Building is now a way of life in our classroom. If you are an educator, administrator, a policy maker, I have this to say, give this a go. Try, Fail, Learn, Try Again! The way I see it, whether you are an expert or just beginning to dabble with teaching pedagogies such as project based learning, the maker movement, Inquiry based learning, integrative thinking, design thinking or any other classroom practice, they really all fall under this one umbrella of Knowledge Building! So, no, it’s not an add on! Give it a go! I have no doubt that in the end the winners will be our students and our future generation!
Sarah Cronin is a teacher for the Halton District School Board and the program leader for Special Education at Milton District High School. She has written previously for us, sharing her work leading other teachers through their own passion projects. You can learn more about her journey on herblog.
After reading about teacher passion projects in the book Hacking Leadership, I wanted to support professional development in this meaningful and purposeful way with members of my team. Teacher passion projects are when teachers take control of their own professional learning through choosing an area of education on which to focus. Topics are varied and learning is centred around working toward becoming a better teacher overall. Learn about it here!
When I started leading this project I focused on my inspiration, implementation and leadership strategies. As the project began, we had 5 people participate. Topics included
Distributed Learning and how to use it to introduce blogging into pedagogy
Positive impacts of exercise and diet on emotional wellbeing with a student who struggles with mental wellness.
Special Education Additional Qualifications course work to understanding students with learning disabilities better
Website development designed for teachers full of helpful and thoughtful resources.
Finally my own project, enhancing my leadership skills through supporting teachers in their learning - a.k.a. - capacity building.
Some projects took right off and others continue to be a work in progress. What is important to me as a leader is not the final product, but of course, the process of learning itself. The professional conversations happening along the way are invaluable. In addition to conversations between myself and participating team members, they were also asked to reflect on their learning more formally at midterm and at the end of the semester.
Providing the opportunity for my colleagues to learn in this capacity allowed teachers to fuel their understanding of working with exceptional students. They were able to engage with students in meaningful ways ultimately creating positive impacts. The fact that teachers owned their own professional development allowed them to make connections with each other and with students in new ways that were meaningful to them and their practice.
As a program lead for Special Education at Milton District High School, one of my goals for my department is to help embed special education knowledge throughout the school and support strategies within regular classrooms. The team is diversified in their subject areas ranging from English, ELL, Science, Student Success, The Arts - to name a few - and because of the learning communities happening from within the Passion Project, this goal began a successful journey.
Christa Talarowski is a SERT new to Milton District High School last year. Her passion project was to create a website for educators that provided resources. Her intention was that educators be “provided with learning opportunities and resources to build awareness." I hope to be the creator of resources assisting educators in their pursuit of equity and inclusion of students)”. Her work can be viewed here: Create With Positivity
The Blogging Project - Educator and SERT Christina Paquette was so excited to use her passion project as a way to really create a community of learning within her ELL classroom through student blogging: Here is an example of a student written blog that was a response to being new to Canada and seeing snow for the first time: Walk on Snow for the first time.
I set out with the intention to as a leader, support meaningful and purposeful professional development within my department as a means to enhance teacher capacity within the school. It was invigorating for me to work with my colleagues in a way that was supporting all of our learning. As much as they learned, I too learned, growing my leadership skill set. I feel this project was successful and I would absolutely run this initiative again.
The capacity to build professional learning communities within the department is a wonderful way to bring cohesion to a team that works across several different departments. It is hard to connect with each other daily, and this provided an opportunity to check in weekly ‘geek out’ in our learning. The Passion Project opportunity also allows professional conversations to filter through to several different departments, as teachers return to other departments , new ideas and strategies reach into their team practices, spreading the knowledge of supportive and engaging strategies for kids who learn differently throughout the school.
I really like the structure I used to implement the project, and I am happy with the process. I may consider personalizing the reflection questions to more specifically address Special Education as it relates to my own school. I also know that as the school year progresses so does the pace and intensity of the job. People become busier and time is of the essence, as is energy. I recommend running an initiative like this once in a year. Pick a semester and end date the project before the turnover. Why? It puts some parameters on finishing. Although we know learning never really ends and continues on, people also need to feel a sense of accomplishment and closure in their initiatives. This allows them to plan their next steps in where they want to take their learning moving forward.
If you are interested in trying out a Teacher Passion Project, feel free to connect with Sarah any time. She’d be happy to help!
Christine Vanderwal is a grade 7 teacher at Viola Desmond Public School. She is passionate about equity, Indigenous perspectives, building relationships, listening to students' stories, meeting the needs of her learners, and building safe school cultures. This is her first contribution to the Shift Blog.
One day, my students were deep into their inquiry work. One boy wandered over to me. He told me that he was sorry to have gotten off track, but that he was looking into wood extraction and the search somehow took him to a page about his ancestral country of Pakistan. He wanted to show me some beautiful landscape images of the country. We chatted about it for a few minutes.
Then he said, "That's my favourite part about this class."
Unclear about what he meant, I replied, "What's your favourite part about this class?"
"That I can talk so much about where my family originates, Pakistan." He answered.
This coming from a kid who had learned how to code on scratch, created videos, engaged in drama activities, design challenges, built a game for Genius Hour, started a blog, and played with circuits.
I would have guessed that one of those things might be his highlight about our classroom.
I was wrong. His favourite part about our class was that we talked about our stories, we celebrated our identities, and took time to do that.
I believe in empowering students.
I want to learn about new technologies, new ways for students to express themselves. I want to take my learning about how to integrate arts education deeper. I want to inspire kids to tell stories in different ways, to dive into Project Based Learning, Thinking classroom, outdoor education, Integrative and Design Thinking, Knowledge Building, and make everything we do in our classroom authentic.
The more I learn about innovative teaching practices though, the more I want to dive into the work of equity.
I see the two as going hand in hand. Students will never feel empowered unless they feel heard, unless they feel valued, unless they feel welcomed into a safe space everyday. A space where they can truly be themselves, take creative risks, speak their opinions without judgement. If we as teachers are going to empower our learners, it is AS much about the culture that we create in our classrooms, as it is about innovative teaching practices.
The work of equity, exploring Indigenous Perspectives, building relationships, listening to our students' stories, meeting the needs of our learners, and building safe school cultures needs to lay the foundation for innovation and student empowerment.
My students taught me this.
One day in my grade seven class last year something happened in the room.
I went in that day thinking it was not going to be a good one. Rainy days, double indoor recesses can be rough in Elementary school!
After the break, students were yawning, and itching to get outside. I wasn’t sure if it was a good move or not, but I pushed ahead and had them set up the space to continue on the inquiry we’d been working through, which was part of a larger Project Based Learning experience. I didn’t think it would go well. I couldn’t feel the energy in the room, and today, I didn’t have the energy either. It took quite awhile for students to start their investigations, I had to give some reminders to a few to make good choices, people were asking to take walking breaks early into the period, it didn’t feel great.
Then, something shifted.
Two boys ran up to me, computer in hand, wanting to show a video they were watching on the impact of seismic blasting on marine animals. They were excited that the video featured an Inuit perspective.
As they were telling me about it, another student overheard our conversation and said, “Can you throw that link on google classroom, it sounds interesting.”
It was like their energy, their passion was contagious, it began to spread around the room.
A few minutes later someone else called me over to watch an animated video she had found showing the impact of extracting resources on animals. Before I knew it, half the class were up and gathered around her computer. We all shared a bit of an emotional moment, and it sparked ideas about how we might use art to make an impact on an audience. Off another student went to the idea board.
I suggested that a group tweet out some of what they had found using the hashtag we had developed to try to make some connections online. They sat huddled around a chromebook in the hallway, composing a tweet.
Someone else came up, asking if we could have a chart paper up somewhere so that he could put up new learning and thinking that wasn’t necessarily connected to any of our questions, but that shouldn’t be forgotten.
I was about to redirect a couple boys who just seemed to be wandering and chatting, I assumed they needed some help to focus or figure out where to go next. As I approached, they turned to me and said,
“So, we were just talking about how money, the government, business, all this stuff we have, it’s just one big endless cycle that we can’t seem to stop.”
It was so neat, because they were investigating two completely different questions, but were sharing theories and ideas, finding connections. This is the power of fostering a knowledge building community in the classroom.
By the end of the period, every single student had something to add to our knowledge building board. Arrows were being drawn, connecting ideas. I stood back and watched, listened. Even if they weren’t all talking at that point about their inquiry, I was witnessing something special, a little bit of magic. They were connecting intellectually through the inquiry, by sharing ideas, critical thinking and questions. Perhaps more importantly though, they were connecting as individuals, relationships that we had built over the year were strengthening. I realized that all of the work we had done at the beginning of the year and throughout building relationships, getting to know our each other’s stories, talking about issues of injustice and equity in our world, exploring Indigenous perspectives in connection to the land, had laid the foundation for this deep inquiry work and knowledge building to happen, so organically.
Student Thinking up on the Knowledge Building Wall
Teaching this way is not easy, it is so messy, so unpredictable. It does not work beautifully every day. Kids are resistant sometimes, they aren’t always engaged, not every one of them, not all the time. Sometimes I wonder if they are learning enough. Do I give them too much freedom? Do things need to be more structured or less structured? Am I giving everyone what they need? Are my expectations high enough? These questions are important for me to keep asking. We need to be reflective about our practice and what is happening in our classrooms.
Final Knowledge Building Wall
Even though it is messy, I believe in it. I’ve seen the impact that teaching and learning like this can have on kids. The power of Knowledge Building and PBL was so clear to me that day. Teaching this way empowers students, gives everyone a voice, deepens the learning and creates communities of creative and critical thinkers, global citizens who are starting to realize they can be a contributing part of our society now. It helps students develop confidence by discovering their strengths and realizing their passions. Isn’t that what school should be about?
My students make me want to do better.
My students inspire me to learn and to grow.
Their voices are so powerful, when we take the time to listen, when we let them tell their story.
Sarah Cronin is a teacher for the Halton District School Board and the program leader for Special Education at Milton District High School. She is passionate about helping students with learning differences (LD) be confident and empowered and ready to make their mark on the world. You can learn more about her journey on her blog.
My learning journey this year as an educator is centred around enabling and igniting teacher growth through teacher passion projects. I’m a big fan of the Hacking Learning Series - and my favourite book so far is Hacking Leadership by Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis. Chapter 8 highlights running Teacher Passion Projects as a way to develop capacity in staff and to help staff truly benefit from developing as a professional. Teacher passion projects are when teachers take control of their own professional learning through choosing an area of education to focus on. Topics are varied and learning is centred around working toward becoming a better teacher overall. Learn about it here! I was so enthralled by the idea that it inspired me to run a version of this in my own department. I intend to use blogging (~Shifters note: did we mention Sarah has a blog?) to track the journey.
Here’s why I was inspired:
I work with amazing Special Education Resource Teachers (SERTS), and as a leader, I want to contribute to their professional growth in a meaningful way.
Teacher Passion Projects give the teacher choice in what they want to learn - to connect that learning to their passions, with the goal of becoming a better teacher.
I want to be a part of a team that consistently strives to be the best they can be.
The concept is simple and can be easily executed.
Here’s what I did:
I contacted Joe Sanfelippo on Twitter (@Joe_Sanfelippo) and told him that after reading his book, I was inspired to recreate a version of teacher passion projects in my department. I asked for his help in setting this up. Joe connected me with his outline, and templates used in his school district.
I took the templates and modified them to match my team needs.
I presented the idea of participating in the passion project to my team. This was definitely an opt-in choice, it wasn’t mandatory, and it wouldn’t reflect negatively on them should they decide to not participate.
I volunteered to cover one of their classes on a rotational basis of their choice. This allowed them to work on their passion projects within their school timetable, not on a lunch, and not on a prep. (I have the flexibility in my own schedule to be able to offer this - this is key to having teacher buy in.)
I began my own passion project - (Teacher Passion Projects as a way to develop Building Relationships and Develop People by Stimulating growth in the professional capacities of staff - Ontario Leadership Framework.)
We began: Watch one teacher talk about her passion project experience thus far: Christina's Video
My team this year has doubled in size. We were four SERTS (myself being the only full time SERT), and we are now eight. I am excited for the growth in department as we now have in addition to the original four - two Program Leads - one from Science, and one from Social Sciences/French, one teacher from English, one ELL teacher, and one additional EA. Wow! The intimidating part for me as a leader is: all of our new additions had little to no experience as a SERT. How was I going to support and help develop our new additions in all the knowledge a SERT needs to have? Answer: Teacher Passion Projects come to mind….
So out of the nine person team not including myself, five people have jumped on board this opportunity! And so it begins. We just started this journey after the October long weekend.
My Leadership Strategies:
I set a schedule to cover classes of participating teachers. This is a rolling commitment based on our schedule agreement. I book myself as busy in my calendar at these times.
Regular meetings with each person to discuss, inspire, and guide the passion project. So … admittedly, I originally thought this would be more scheduled. However, it turns out I meet with them on a drop in basis. They drop into my office or I into theirs and we talk about how things are going, what resources are needed, the ins and outs of various topics. I’m learning a lot from each about their topics. The casualness of this discussion is what is great - we collaborate in our own professional learning community that has no start time or end time. I like this aspect as I believe it allows the learning journey to flow naturally.
Connecting through social media: We follow each other on twitter and we text regularly. These provide great arenas for discussion and resource sharing. You can follow me on twitter: @Sjcronin39
Examples of some of the Passion Project in Progress:
Passion Project topics included range from classroom pedagogy to leadership initiatives. Some teachers are learning about Distributed Learning and will use it to introduce blogging into their pedagogy with their classes. Another is experiential research that is aiming to document an example of the positive impacts of exercise and diet on emotional wellbeing with a student who struggles with mental wellness. Others are taking Special Education Additional Qualifications and are using this knowledge to enhance their teaching practice by understanding students with learning disabilities better and how to best support them and sharing this knowledge with their other departments. On the leadership end, we have website development designed for teachers full of helpful and thoughtful resources. Finally my own project … enhancing my leadership skills through supporting teachers in their learning - a.k.a. - capacity building.
Connecting with each teacher at mid term in a more formal setting to discuss where they will take their project and their learning.
Gord Donaldson is the current principal at Maple Grove PS who is also currently trying to innovate his golf game to lower his handicap in between trips to hockey arenas and baseball diamonds with his kids.
I had a moment recently to reflect on our school’s journey in innovation. As I pondered how we got to where we are, I never realized how far we have come in such a short period of time. When you think innovation, you sometimes think big, or quick. Our journey was neither. What it is, is impactful.
It all started with a cool spring day in May of 2017 at the Country Heritage Barn. Knowing we needed something to “Shift”, but not sure what it was, we sent about 20 staff members. Did that make it more difficult to have 20 occasional teachers in the building in one day? Sure. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Of course, we learned that we need to move from “ya, but” to “yes, and”, but more importantly we learned that a journey to innovation requires risks. It requires making mistakes and trying again. It requires getting out of your comfort zone. Heck, even those who “don’t dance” (like me!) tried line dancing.
So, now what? It’s great that we can try new things but what does that mean? It was time for Maple Grove to go to the movies. In watching “Most Likely to Succeed”, staff were challenged to rethink school, to rethink what a 21st century learner is, and what it is they need to be successful. We started with flexible seating by incorporating a few bean bag chairs per classroom and a carpet area, even in intermediate. Imagine the stereotypes we broke! Now, only a year later we have bean bags, carpets, hokki stools, chair bands, standing desks, cushions, couches, tables at different heights and more in all of our classrooms. It’s funny how innovation can be contagious when it works in one classroom and everyone wants in! No classroom is left behind.
We also added a stationary bike into every classroom for movement breaks. What did we find? In amongst dealing with the issues of pedals put on the wrong side in assembly or older students over-tightening the tension, we found that students were taking their movement breaks in the classroom instead of the hallways. And after the initial awe of a new tool in the classroom, we found that our students only needed 2-3 minutes on the bike before settling in. Need a break? Now it is happening in the classroom. No more pretending to go to the bathroom or get a drink, just because you need a movement break. Combine these fantastic tools with flexible seating, our halls became empty during class time as students have all the tools they need right there in the classroom. Talk about maximizing learning!
Now that we had innovated our environments, it was time to innovate our pedagogy too. We had to teach students how to use the space. We had to teach students explicitly about self-regulation. By using the Zones of Regulation right across the school, our students began to recognize their learning needs and focus in on the learning. Our teachers realized that the academic learning needed to change too. We shifted from your typical classrooms to 21st century classrooms. We focused on Project based learning and guiding students through Inquiry questions. Are we there yet? Are we masters of Inquiry? Not in the slightest. Are we much better than we were twelve months ago? Absolutely. We started with tasks like “Create a community (either urban or rural) and research the different components about that type of community and present your findings in a form or your choice” and now we are asking our students things like “Will we run out of energy?” and “Why do people live where they live?”. Progress. Amazing progress in a short period of time.
The first reports from students were that project based learning was way more engaging than school work. It was working! We felt like we had fooled kids into thinking that learning wasn’t hard. It was like magic. And as you know with 21st century kids, we had to keep the level of engagement high. That’s where we transformed the Library to our Learning Commons. Not just with flexible seating, but with the tools that are available to students to help both engage and make connections. Chariot Races with robots down the hall to connect to medieval times? You got it! We are currently in the exploring stages with some of these materials, but engagement is high with our Dash and Dots, Spheros, Ozobots, Osmos, Vex Robotics, Greens Screens, Makey Makey and Bloxels. And that’s the next steps on our journey. How can we use these engaging tools to connect to student inquiry and learning within the curriculum?
I set out to write a blog of about 250 words. I missed. There is just so much to say about our journey in such a short period of time. We could not be more proud of our progress, and the “Shift” that has happened in our school. Feel free to check out even more in a Maple Grove Innovation Slideshow. Words cannot describe it all, but a picture is worth 1000 words, I am told. Each step of the way seemed small. But when you look back, the Shift is monumental. We are not finished. We never will be. Innovation is a journey, and ours started small. When will you be ready to take risks, make mistakes, and step out of your comfort zone? Your students are counting on it.
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.
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
This semester, interested teachers in Halton were able to apply for funding for projects that explored Innovation. That is, projects that will improve a Process, Product or Understanding.
All in all, 49 applications were received with 18 of those projects receiving funding. Matt and I have been busy trying to connect with as many groups as possible with the intention of blogging about what we’ve learned. However, we’ve found that many of the groups want to talk about their learning in their own words.
Kelly Bourassa is a Grade One teacher at Brant Hills Public School. She’s working with her elementary school colleagues at Norton and MacMillan Public Schools on peer to peer collaboration around open ended inquiry projects.
Finding innovation Outdoors
Every Friday morning my class goes on a ‘Wonder Walk’ in the forest near our school. It is my students’ favorite part of the week. The children are free to explore and commune with nature, some for the very first time. When I first ventured outside the classroom I had a plan, an agenda of what we were going to do in the woods. I felt that I was not doing my job if I didn’t assign them a task or a focus for their learning.
Over time I have watched the students as they discover this space and I have learned that to encourage creative minds and innovative ideas, you often need to abandon the lesson plan. You need to trust the innate sense of wonder and imagination that children have and let them lead the way to innovative ideas. During their exploratory play they work cooperatively to build structures, create games and toys, and find treasures. The students are mindful, they self-regulate and cooperate. They make observations about the environment that lead to some amazing wonderings about the world. This is where I find my purpose as a teacher. I listen to their conversations and prompt further inquiry and discussion. This journey has allowed me to shift my teaching approach. I realized that I can cover curriculum expectations and encourage the development of global competencies through these authentic interactions.
We are beginning to recognize the importance of teaching transferable skills in order to meet the needs of the 21st century learner. This is going to require moving away from the current structured program and incorporate time in the weekly schedule for practicing interest based inquiry. Long journeys begin with small steps, perhaps in the forest.
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.
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…
But today, we don't want to list our reasons for why we #LoveMyHaltonSchool. We'd rather highlight someone else's reason.
Melissa Hickey is an English Teacher at Aldershot High School. She tried something new this semester that allowed her students to explore their own strengths. Here are her thoughts:
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away…
Grade 12 College English students at Aldershot High School were given an assignment: Write an original horror story, then turn that story into an original short horror film. Students were assigned the task of creating an original short story based on common horror tropes and elements that were covered in class. Students created script versions of their stories, and storyboards to refer to when the actual filming took place. It was not only an exercise in creativity, but also in collaboration and innovation, as the grade 12 students were expected to problem solve the details like location, props, costumes, make-up and sound-effects/music scores to make the ideal films.
But we didn’t stop there.
The next phase of this project was to bring their original short films to the big screen.
We are fortunate to have a theatre like Film.ca so close by, as they were more than willing to work with the films the students created and show them on the big screen at their movie theatre. Students completed their movies, and the files were converted to play at the theatre. On April 27, the Grade 12 College English class from Aldershot high school got to walk the red carpet and attend the premieres of their own films. Students got to see the actual products that they created. They were able to literally see themselves reflected in their learning opportunities, and in the end result of their class assignments.
Thando D. one of the students in the grade 12 College English class, said that he thoroughly enjoyed the assignment, and added that “it was cool to learn how to actually make a movie, and then see my original story come to life on the big screen. I was the writer, the director and the lead actor in my own production. That’s cool.”
Students really got the chance to explore their strengths and work together to create the final project. For those who preferred not to be onscreen, they had the opportunity to focus on make up, hair, and set design. Everyone had the chance to contribute to their films.
This was truly an experience to remember, and an innovative project that will continue to evolve with every new class.
We have the opportunity to explore new ideas with our classes. And that's our #1 reason for why we #LoveMyHaltonSchool!
We had the opportunity to witness an amazing project last week, and rather than write about it ourselves, we have asked the lead teacher on the project, Jordie Burton to share. Here is what he had to say:
We laughed about our day over homemade burgers and a potato salad recipe perfected by Oma. We had just finished the second full day in a blitz of a four day project to complete nearly 700 sq ft of mural. I was eating dinner with three “En Masse pour les Masses” artists visiting for the week from Montreal, who happened to be crashing at my house. The halfway point was a perfect evening to have a dinner with the three artists and three of the teachers from our school involved in the Norton Community Park Mural project. We could debrief the project, plan for the next two days and further develop conversations that we had pulled threads on all day while painting. Our mural project was already successful, as our community was working together.
Brainstorming on the theme of the mural: Community
Here is a little background on this project, which has been grounded in connecting community. In the summer of 2015, I was introduced to the idea of “En Masse” from Katie Green, one of the project's directors. En Masse is a mural collective that focuses on creating a platform for professional artists to work alongside community groups to create unified works of art. We had our sights on a huge blank wall outdoors in the park across the street from our school. Over the past year and a half we have developed relationships with the City of Burlington, tapped into the Burlington Community Matching Fund, generated student interest, community support from students, teachers and parents, worked cross-curricularly to enable students to participate and create the materials and panels for the project, and just this past week, organized about 80 people to flow through an art room and create an astounding work of art. This journey has been a wonderful learning experience to recognize how wonderful community support can be for a project.
The process was truly collaborative, with students, teachers, and professional artists working alongside each other
This project is about empowering individuals to act as a collective. The finished product will be awesome, but truly, the magic in this was the creation. The students came to life on this project in a refined, mature and inspiring way. On day one, En Masse led a brainstorming session around the concept of community. When it was time to start getting drawings onto the panels the advice from Katie was, “If things aren’t going well on your drawing, just walk away from it. Someone else will see the potential in what you started and take it in a new direction.” We were given permission to fail. The funny thing about this suggestion is that perhaps no one walked away from a painting. Instead, students, teachers and artists spoke with each other, planned collaboratively and sought and gave constant feedback. My class had a chance today to look at the finished painting and critique it. We highlighted some really strong areas, and also noticed some areas that were perhaps underdeveloped. Through conversation the students agreed that the bits they didn’t like really didn’t matter because the project as a whole was so strong. Further, the whole project would only be complete with each of those contributions. This was a light bulb moment. Each and every contribution on the mural lent to the overall success.
Student boldly painting the first few strokes on the wall
The classroom during the 4 days of painting was the greatest creative atmosphere I have ever experienced. Two groups of students were on in-school field trips for two days each. This meant that each group would spend two full consecutive days in the class.
The students had equal ownership of the space. As the group settled in for the day, a much more natural ebb and flow of breaks, bathroom, and really hard work was apparent. Students were given autonomy to control their actions through the day, and most had to be pulled off the wall and told to rest now and again. Very quickly into the project the traditional roles of the classroom faded away. The students, teachers and artists worked beside one another, painting, working images off one another's, discussing the artwork and just having great discussions over the constant soundtrack of the art room. There was no longer a teacher in control of the class. There was a group of people working together to explore ideas, take creative risks and support each other’s process. I was very proud to be a teacher in a room that didn’t need a teacher.
Katie Green and Lee Lai from En Masse collaborating with students on their ideas
I loved working on the project for 2 whole days. And for me, I was in there the whole week really. I loved getting super into a project and being able to really put my head into it. We spend so much time as teachers flipping our brains into something different constantly. Every bell, every question, every class, every meeting - all different. It was rewarding mentally and physically to engage more whole heartedly into a task/class. It was exhausting, but in such a good way.
Being free from the bell was amazing. The approaching bell is the biggest buzz kill to any good project. In an art room, you can expect that of your 75 minutes, 10 are for setup, 10 are for clean up and it takes about 20 minutes to really get your head into a project. That leaves 30-45 minutes if you are lucky to actually work on a project. The stress relief from not worrying about the bell was truly palpable in the room. It felt like we were doing something wrong, but so, so right. One of the common factors each day of the project was that the last bell of the school day always snuck up on the group with a surprise. Many students chose to ignore that one as well. Many of the students on the project started the day at 8:30 and worked until 4:30.
“I really liked working on the project for two entire days because we were really able to get into the zone. We didn't have to worry about getting to different classes and working in different subject areas. I was solely focused on art for hours at a time and it was great.” ~Student
In the zone! As a teacher, I always strive to have an engaging classroom. I want a class where kids want to be there, want to be working, want to challenge themselves. This mural project engaged the students. Similar to what Jamie Mitchell mentioned about his time with Second City, everyone was too busy, and too “in the zone” to check their phones all day.
It really was a three week project completed in 2 days, which was amazing. One of the greatest parts was the brainstorm - create- feedback - create etc…it allowed a deep exploration of the iterative process. Because we had the space and time, there was an immediacy to the process that really sparked the class to life. Being able to develop ideas and immediately deliver them is really fantastic and only really doable when you have the extended time like this. Further, once an idea was out, there was a freedom and expectation to leave it behind and move onto the next. Allowing the iterative process to happen naturally and more quickly. As the mural developed and space became more precious, the process demanded that each new piece fit with a neighbour’s, respond to an image, be inspired by another action. Many of these things happen in our class through projects already, but being able to FEEL the project this way was a new experience.
Working with outside, professional working artists is hugely inspiring. It was great to see the students respond so well to having other artists do some work but also become peers with them. By getting feedback and having conversations, the students developed relationships alongside these artists that I believe allowed them to see themselves in a different light. The students had wonderful feedback about the experience. Here are some direct quotations from students reflecting on the experience.
“I believe the best part of the process was designing and planning ideas with the collaboration of peers and teachers. This helped many students develop interesting artwork, and 2 full days of fun:)”
“The most fun was the final stage of painting the mural because it was amazing and gratifying to see it all coming together. Seeing all of the hard work that people had put in come together in something that looked professional and all around beautiful was a great experience.”
“Amazing! Loved it and I totally got in the zone and got to know the people working around me more because I got to spend the whole day with them!!”
“I loved painting on the actual large panels... And being able to hear constructive criticism from professional artists:)”
In my own observations I think the students really enjoyed being brought up to the same level as the artists as well. There are many parts of the finished project that you would not be able to differentiate the professional work from the student. Being given the opportunity to rise up to the occasion allowed the students to really rise.
Artist Spirits are high after two days of painting
As an art teacher I loved having the chance to talk shop with contemporary artists. A big part of our teaching practice involves staying current with the art world and this was a wonderful opportunity to connect with that world. It also was a great platform to make art as well. For all the same reasons the students enjoyed working with the artists, I believe the teachers did too. The flip side of this, I am told by the En Masse crew, is that some teachers have not had as a good of a time. They explained that sometimes the classroom teacher has a really hard time letting go of control of the project and students. The guest artist in this case almost becomes a threat. I can relate that sometimes it isn’t easy seeing someone take a different approach in your room, but to me, this project is so successful because it allows the teacher to step back and the students to jump forward.
As for the bigger picture - what would happen if the regular semester looked like this? I would love to find out.
Here are some Ideas I think are worth exploring:
Having more flexible class times and student autonomy, as well as more large collaborative projects that demanded students develop skills related to conflict resolution and idea sharing
Projects that allowed for on the spot iteration; seeing what works and building onto it.
Projects that give you real permission to fail knowing that because of the efforts of others the work can still be successful.
More projects that connect the school community to the geographical community and the artistic community.
So Shifters, what do you think? What would you do to explore some of these ideas in your class? What have you found success with already?