Posts tagged Students
The Right Way?

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.

Time Management

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?

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 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 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 it happens and continues to happen!

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

~Tony Churchill

Challenging our Current Learning Environments
Amanda Williams-Yeagers wrote a guest blog for us early this month.  She is also leading the HDSB Empower Book Talk.  We’ve enjoy learning with her every Thursday night so much, we asked her to share her thoughts on learning environments and why the classroom landscape needs to change.

I recently held a community circle with a grade seven science class. The students were feeling stressed about looming deadlines and tests, and I wanted to give them a forum to get things off their chest and discuss strategies for coping with management of the feelings they were having.  After a few referenced that this was “Good preparation for high school,” I decided to change the dialogue. I asked them,

“If they could change anything about their current school system and the way that they learned, what would they change?”

Some students talked about wanting more opportunities for hands on experiences and less tests, some talked about wanting more opportunities for creativity and less memorization, and one in particular, directed me to Prince Ea’s video, "I Just Sued the School System."  Curious to learn more, we watched this video as class.  The video references the fact that modern technologies such as the telephone and the car have changed drastically over the last one hundred and fifty years, and yet, the school system remains the same.  After watching  together, I asked them what spoke to them the most about the video. Their feelings and responses were explicitly clear.

Students want to learn in an environment that feels like “home.”  When students feel like they begin with trust rather than having to earn it, they feel more like their teacher believes in them.  The students I spoke to told me that when they enter a classroom that has uncomfortable and “sterile” seating, they feel like they are part of “factory” referenced in the video. They are shipped in, and shipped out, which is why they prefer to work in the library learning commons.  Creating spaces where students feel comfortable, where they feel like they can branch out, productively communicate and collaborate with their peers, and feel “cozy” sets the stage for a community of learners who want to be at  school.

                        A grade five portable that feels like “home” to students.

Clearly,  these aren’t the only learners who feel this way.  I surveyed students from kindergarten to grade eight, asking them about their ideal learning environment.  While some of them had idealistic dreams (“A Starbucks would be great!”), the consensus was clear:  when an environment feels safe, with comfortable seating, lower tables and collaborative seating arrangements- the environment is more conducive to productive learning and a student’s desire to be present.  
One of my favourite books for examining the learning environment in our education system is The Third Teacher.  Created by architects and designers, this books takes a critical look at the connection between the environment and how children learn.  Not only is this book an incredible resource, it comes with a community of support in the form of resources, blog, social media and more through The Third Teacher PLUS.  According to The Third Teacher, you don’t need to have a major budget to “hack” your learning space, you just need an open mind and willingness to let the students be a part of the process.  Oh, and also be open to letting the sun come in. But who could argue with that?
As I reflect more and more on my own practice as an educator, I realize that my favourite place to start when learning new things is to talk to the students.  I thought I did that, but I’m pretty sure I really only wanted them to tell me what I wanted to hear.  I’m realizing that I want my students to take feedback all of the time, but am I willing to listen to feedback myself? If we are open to critical feedback about our practice and our learning environments with students- can it make us even better?  If we begin by asking them what they think, then learning about the pedagogy, perhaps we are improving learning in two different ways at the same time:  Students feel valued because they feel as thought their voice has been heard, and we learn more than we realized we could, because we started with our students in mind.  I think that’s why we are all here in the first place.

~ Amanda Williams-Yeagers

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?
Small Victories
I have been teaching now for over a decade, and I am slowly approaching my 10,000 hours.  I have easily already surpassed 10,000 hours, if you count all the prepping, planning and marking.  So I generally feel that at this point I have a pretty good handle on the classroom.  So it bruises my ego a bit to say that I have a class that is challenging my abilities as a teacher. In fact, I walked into a teacher workroom to loudly declare “I feel like a new practice teacher”!  I have a group of students that struggle with impulse control, focus in class and situational awareness.  This has kept me on my toes, as there are lessons that I have successfully run for years that have gone up in flames this time around.  It has forced me to self-assess how I am running a class period and re-think how I deliver my curriculum.  

The one thing that has helped me through is by reaching out for ideas and support from colleagues.  When I was a newer teacher, I used to think that it was a sign of weakness if I admitted things weren’t going well in my class.  As a result, I probably vented at home to my partner more than I should have and didn’t seek advice and support in school as much as I could have. This time around, I have reached out to other teachers that teach some students, sought out strategies from the Spec. Ed department, and yes, vented to other teachers when it wasn’t going well (every other day or so, thanks Jamie).

Using advice from colleagues, rethinking curriculum delivery, working hard to really understand the learners in my class and keeping a firm hold on maintaining the community building in the classroom have all helped turn things around.  I celebrate the little wins when I can, and the moments of connection I can make with students.  Today, I applied a strategy given to me by my colleague (thanks Mitch!) and it worked: give students an opportunity to be active FIRST, get out of the class for something, then return to class and tackle one task.  So we did just that, we took advantage of a nice sunrise (there are benefits to having a photography class first period in the day!) and ran outside with our cameras to capture the orange-pink sky and the epic clouds.  Coming back together, we all learned a new creative edit in Photoshop, keeping lockstep with each other and helping everyone to stay at the same pace.   We left with the whole class learning a new technique that they didn’t before and all students were on an even playing field.  They all “got it”.  I left the period with a little bounce in my step, thankful for the small victories.

Making Us Believers
Words matter to Amanda Williams, which is why she calls herself a Glitterarian who works in a Learning Commons, rather than a Librarian who works in a Library.  She isn’t happy with compliant students who learn passively.  Her interests lie in engaging students so that they can be empowered by their own learning.
The "Loose Parts" area ready to be used 

How does she do this?  Well, we’re not sure if Amanda is an expert in Feng Shui or not, be we immediately felt comfortable and welcome when we walked into the Learning Commons at John T. Tuck Public School.  Amanda is a passionate advocate for Maker Education and she has transformed the school library into a Makerspace (just don’t call it a Library, it’s a Learning Commons).  It was quiet in the space, so we had a chance to sit down and chat about what Maker Education could offer to students.  Amanda spoke with passion about how grade 3 students were asked to construct models of shelters that could withstand extreme weather and environmental conditions.  By doing this, they were learning about current World events and uncovering the curriculum related to Strong and Stable Structures and Forces Causing Movement.

Jack proudly showing off his hamster house
As it turned out, that quiet space was merely the “calm before the storm”.  Suddenly, it was second break, and the doors of the Learning Commons opened to a wave of students eager to MAKE.  To say that the students were sprinting into the room would be an understatement.  You see, it was “Maker Club” and students in grade 6 had access to the various stations: a Lego wall, a stop motion animation station, a “loose parts” maker area, and a “Makey Makey” station.  There was a station where students were making and playing with slime, a group of students creating their own film using the green screen and a station of students that were constructing their designs out of cardboard, including some complex hamster houses.  The energy and focus of these students was through the roof.  We thought to ourselves, “what if students approached school with this level of enthusiasm?”  Students bee-lined to the area that they knew they wanted to work and got down to business of making with furious abandon.  It truly was a sight to behold.  One grade 6 student and future CEO talked to us about her slime business on ETSY, where she was making and selling all types of slime.  The level of confidence and drive in this young entrepreneur was thoroughly impressive.  
Going crazy for slime!

Creating with "Makey Makey"
We will be honest, before visiting
with Amanda, neither of us really understood what a “Makerspace” meant.  Now, after spending an afternoon in her Learning Commons and enjoying her presentation at the HDSB Innovation Conference on October 28th, we are believers!  Maker Education is a tool that empowers students to actively discover and create as a means to uncover the curriculum.  It is an inversion of how traditional education is usually delivered.  Problems are posed to students, they iterate through a series of failures or even small successes, until they find themselves asking questions that drive the learning.  Makerspaces create the headache that makes students want the curriculum aspirin.  

In a Makerspace, even though the “product” is the final assessment, the process to create that product is valued more.  When learning, students create a product, the teacher observes the process and has a conversation with the students about their project.  Suggestions for improvement are offered, which allows the students a chance to go back and improve their product.  This leads to more observations and conversations and improvements.  The learning is cyclical, not linear.  Done well, the lines between Student and Teacher blur and the classroom becomes filled with Mentors and Facilitators.

Why would you want to explore creating a Makerspace of your own?  Because students who work in a Makerspace create and explore their own knowledge.  They have greater room to be independent and creative.  They will learn the benefit of being iterative in their work, of trying, failing and learning.  Makerspaces are not high tech or low tech, rather they are anywhere in between.

But what Makerspaces really provide is a safe community where students are encouraged to take risks and fail as a part of their own learning.  When we visited the Learning Commons we were overjoyed to have young students explain to us what exactly each ingredient in a Slime recipe will change.  We watched a student prototype and then build a play structure for his hamster.  We were hypnotized by the students working on the LEGO wall as they constructed a track for a marble run.  
Adding on to the LEGO wall to build a working marble run
There is so much more to Makerspaces and Maker Education than we can cover in this post.  When I participated in Amanda’s session at the HDSB Innovation Conference, I was overwhelmed with the task of building “something that does something.”

And yet, creating something in the ten minutes we were given left me with a huge feeling of accomplishment.  I can only imagine how students feel when they take something from their imagination and make it real.  

We still have questions that we’d like to explore with Amanda and we hope that after reading this, you do too.  If you’ve ever wanted to create your own Makerspace, leave us a comment.  If there is enough interest in learning more, perhaps we can make something happen (Google Hangout?  Release time?).  If you have questions, send Amanda an email.  She’s thought out her space well and has lots of advice to teachers who are new to the Maker-scene!
No, I'm Not Listening
Students say the best things when they think I’m not listening.  It’s pretty funny actually, if not more than a little frustrating.  Students can be having excellent conversations about mathematics but as soon as I come over to listen they get just a little bit self-conscious and the conversation ends.

I’ve gotten really good at listening from far away.

We’ve been dabbling in project based learning with our grade nine academic classes this semester.  After our first project, we introduced our students to Dandy Candies.  This activity has been around for awhile.  I first was introduced to it at the 2015 OAME conference when Dan Meyer ran it with a packed room.  Since then, I’ve used this activity on and off with my classes, but never as a project.

The premise is pretty simple, show students the video of a preset number of small cubes assembling into packages (prisms) of various dimensions.  Then ask them some questions about what they’ve seen.

“What do you notice?”
“What do you wonder?”

As the person responsible for steering the conversation, I try my best to guide them to the questions I really want them to ask.  Except this time my thunder was stolen!  Apparently, after doing only one previous project, at least one student in the room was wise to my plan.

“I bet Mr. Mitchell wants us to figure out which arrangement uses the least wrapping paper”, said one student.  The entire classroom kind of gasped and went quiet.  Then there was an explosion of conversation at each table group.  This is a win.  Here I thought I’d have to trick my class into asking the right questions.  Somehow, they did it for me.

We spent a week playing with Math Cubes, calculating surface area and preparing a final report on which arrangement of 48 and 128 cube sized candies would need the least wrapping paper or in math speak, had the least surface area.  Then we spent the following week diving deeper into Surface Area and Volume calculations.  Students showed us their understanding in different ways.  It was fun!

It has now been 7 weeks of project based learning and curriculum wise, the grade nine team was all over the map, covering linear relations and geometry without having developed some of the other tools that would make solving these problems easier.  This was on purpose, we were creating a need in our students for them to ask us for better tools.

Up to this point, I haven’t once mentioned the word algebra to my class.  But it was time to introduce them to some more formal methods of problem solving.  Todd Malarczuk provided us with a simple mini project to drive home the need for algebra.

Students were presented with some pictorial representations of different algebraic equations.  You’ve probably seen these puzzles floating around your Facebook feed.  You may have even witnessed some of the arguments that they create.  Well, it wasn’t surprising that the same thing happened with our students, arguments everywhere!  Yet as I roamed around the room observing how the students were working, listening but not listening, I heard some comments that convinced me this was working.

“Drawing apples in my notes isn’t very easy.”
“If a bushel of bananas is four, do we need to know what one banana equals?”
“I wish there was an easier way to do this”

We had created a need in our students for something more efficient.  They wanted to know how to calculate what a coconut equaled, without us having to convince them that they needed algebra.  It was difficult, but by giving students the time to struggle; to try and fail and learn, we had created a community where risk taking was valued.  It wasn’t taboo to ask questions about the math we were learning or wonder about where we were headed.  Students owned their own learning, without us having to tell them that the learning was important.
Asking Questions
“What do you want to learn?”
“How do you want to show me what you’ve learned?”

These are the questions we hear being asked on our visit to Aldershot High School.  We are sitting in Sarah Spencer's’ Grade Nine Applied Science class.  The students have just returned from a scavenger hunt in a nearby ravine and  they’ve been asked to record some of the things they’ve noticed on the blackboard.  From here, the teacher hands out the Overall Expectations for the course and ask the students to pay attention specifically to the Biology portion of the document.  

This is the student's introduction to the Biology unit of the class, and it isn’t going the way we would usually expect.  Rather than the teacher guiding the students from topic to topic, the students are being allowed to find their own path.  Each student is identifying their own interests from the Biology curriculum and, presumably, their paths will diverge from here.

But we won’t get to find out, because thanks to Kerry Sagar, we are getting a whirlwind tour of the Aldershot Campus.  Over the course of two afternoons we were parachuted into an Art, Math, ELL, Auto Shop, Phys Ed, and SHSM classroom.  We also were able to spend a bit of our time visiting a Grade 8 class, mostly because we got lost while roaming the halls.

We were struck by the variety of questions being asked in all classes, but more than that, we enjoyed discovering the WHY behind the questions.  From “What kind of business do you want to run?” and “What are some ways you can find out specific information about a car?” to “Do you think you can get your heart rate up to 80 BPM?”, we heard lots of questions.  We popped into Ms. Di Giantomasso’s Grade 8 classroom and witnessed students leading the questioning in a group activity.  There was also evidence of students being asked about how they were feeling about their learning.  That sort of check in reminding students that their voice matters.

Visiting Martyn Olenick’s art classroom, we caught the middle of students interpreting a painting by Anishinaabe artist Bruce K. Beardy.  Using the lens of Artist as Global Citizen, students were dissecting areas of the artwork in order to pull out the meaning of the painting, which in this case related to Ethical Standard of Respect.  It was fun to see Olenick’s gentle, purposeful questioning at play here, letting students drive the conversation, with Olenick asking just the right questions to drive the learning deeper.

No questions were more purposeful than the ones we heard when we visited Lindsay Potts’ ELL classroom.  The class started with Lindsay asking each student what they did on their weekend.  She engaged each student in conversation and let other students join in with questions.  On the surface, this just looked like an exercise in community building.  However, looking deeper, Lindsay was diving into her curriculum.  By engaging her students in conversation about their interests, she was also targeting communication areas in the curriculum, in the most natural and empathetic way: connecting with students, relating curriculum to students, and letting students drive the conversation (and thus the learning).  

Zipping into the CanFit Pro Sports and Fitness SHSM, held at the Fitness Firm gym around the corner from Aldershot, we felt like we walked onto the set of a movie.  In this program, led by teacher Cara Greenslade, students were not only getting high school credits, they were getting their CanFit accreditation, as well as a bevy of other accreditations, including Yoga and Nutrition.  The young adults in this program were so eloquent and passionate about their learning we had to pinch ourselves a few times just remind ourselves this was real life.  Students leading the learning, quite literally, with microphone picking out their instructions for burpees, mountain climbers and stretches.  The level of confidence and empowerment in these students was palpable, in the third week of school, no less!  We asked the students WHY they seem to be so empowered and they all pointed to the strong sense of community they felt with their teacher and each other.  We couldn’t help but wonder, how can we replicate this level of student empowerment in other classrooms?
Our focus since the beginning of the school year has been on community building.  Our visit to Aldershot High School has reinforced our belief that taking the time to build community within our schools only makes delivering curriculum easier.  Not only that, by being purposeful when building community, we will empower our students to lead their own learning.  Empowered students who feel safe in their own community are much more likely to take risks and reflect on their own learning.   

From Why to Barbie Bungee
Back when I started down this ever Shifting road, I learned that good Innovation starts with identifying a WHY.  Why might I want to let students access technology in class?  Why is building a positive classroom culture so important?  I spent the summer thinking about the direction I wanted to take my classes this semester and why I wanted to take them that way.  Neil deGrasse Tyson summed up my thinking pretty well.

I’ve noticed that try as I might, the students I encounter lack a spirit of creativity.  It seems that many times they would prefer to be presented with the answer rather than seek out an answer on their own.  Thinking is difficult.  Many students say they enjoy learning, but that the stress of grades and assessments turn passion into anxiety.

I want to change that.

In May, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Ontario Association of Mathematics Educators (OAME) annual conference in Kingston.  I saw lots of great pedagogy that has been put into action and enjoyed many great conversations about how we can move our practice forward.  I felt empowered to try something new and with the course team at my school, we decided to forge ahead with some project based learning in our Grade 9 Academic Math classes.

The course team decided to start with a week of community building, because nothing pumps the brakes harder on curiosity than a week of prerequisite skills worksheets followed by a quiz.  We had fun and laughed by playing team pictionary on our first day of class.  We did some problem solving activities around the game Skyscrapers.  We debated how tasty a banana really is by playing around with Desmos Pomegraphit.  We ended the week by playing Battleship and talking about situations when plotting points might be important.

All in all, in four days we didn’t do much traditional math but the class was primed for our first project, Barbie Bungee.  This is a project that has made the rounds with math teachers for years.  I had heard about it, but never had the chance to try it with a class of my own.

The premise is simple: tie an elastic around Barbie’s legs, drop her, measure how far she drops, add an elastic and repeat.  Then figure out how many elastics are needed for a very high drop and try to get Barbie as close to the ground as possible.

On Day 1 we started with a Desmos Activity followed by a teaser video of some Barbie’s not having much fun.  

We polled the class with various questions: What do you notice?  What do you wonder?  Doing this allowed us to slowly introduce the project and steer the class into asking the real questions:  What makes the “best” Barbie Bungee?  We ended class by defining the “best” bungee as being the one that takes Barbie as close to the ground as possible without physically touching the ground.

On Day 2 we pushed forward by asking students to sketch what a relationship between the number of elastics and the distance Barbie falls might look like.  This prompted some good discussion on what we expected to happen with our Barbies as we added more elastics.  Then it was time for the actual challenge to start.  Without leaving the classroom, students had to build bungee cords for their dolls so that they could be safely dropped from the top of the doorframe.  It was a bit of a disaster, but the teaching team expected that.  Our students hadn’t really been shown the tools to be successful at this activity.  We were, to borrow a phrase, “creating a headache” so that students would feel the need for the math.

After watching our students attempt this initial challenge with no real plans, we pushed pause on Day 3 and did a more formal type of lesson.  We reminded our students about Scatter Plots, and discussed some ways they could use this concept to help them with their Barbies.

No Barbies were harmed...
Given this knowledge, we started Day 4 with a better plan.  Students knew to start small, measure the distance Barbie falls with one band, then two bands, then three and try to find a pattern.  We wanted our students predicting, given that we had not yet told them the real height of our Bungee Jump.  By the end of the period all groups were ready to test their Barbies and were told that the drop on the last day of this activity would be 520cm, or 5.2 meters, or two stories.

Day 5 was the big day, a time to test our students calculations in the real world.  There was a lot of excitement and smiles.  Perhaps not surprisingly, there wasn’t much anxiety.  This was, for all intents and purposes, a test of the students work and knowledge over the past week, yet none of our students approached it this way.  They were eager to have their Barbie’s jump, and disappointed when we told them they couldn’t refine their bungee cord after their failure.  And there were many failures.  

The point of this project wasn’t really to build the “best” Barbie Bungee.  The point was to get kids excited about math class, to get them to think about math class, and to let them have some fun in math class.

At the end of the week the students had learned a lot by doing.  They’ve explored scatter plots, collected data, and made informal lines of best fit.  They were assigned to visibly random groups at the beginning of the week and met people they wouldn’t have otherwise worked with.  

Could my class do well on a formal test about scatter plots and lines of best fit?  Probably not at this point in the course, but this is why I reject testing as a sound form of evaluation.  When a student completes a test and fails, what have they learned?  When students dropped their Barbie’s and they hit the floor, what have they learned?  I’d argue that students that have iterated their way through the bungee jump project have learned much more from their own failures than those who fail a test.  From my point of view we brought some joy into our curriculum and lets students learn through a bit of discovery.  It’s working for us so far!

So that’s my why, what’s yours?
Square Pegs and Round Holes
First, as we learn about our platform for blogging we’ve come across some shortcomings.  We often embed videos in our posts.  If you are reading this post in an email update, you can’t see the video.  It’s worth it to click through to the actual blog to see all of the content we add.  We’d hate for you to miss something.

Second, this post is deviating from our norm a little bit.  I’m (Jamie) offering up some of my opinions and I’m probably being a bit more direct than I usually am.  As always, we welcome feedback in our comments.  Discussion is good.

This was an interesting week for me, as I came across several unrelated things that really got me thinking.  While unrelated, I think they go hand in hand.

The first was the short animated film Alike, which was shown to Matt and I when we were talking about iteration with Wendy Spence, Sarah Alexander, and Kelly-Ann Cameron. Do take a few minutes to watch, if you can.  It is an outstanding video, one that will stick with you.  Trust me!

We started our talk about iteration by discussing how children develop.  Think about a child learning to walk, it’s all risk taking and failure and trying again and failing until suddenly they get it right.  Then it's on to running, same process.  Throwing a ball.  Riding a bike.  Dancing.  Singing.  Playing.  Drawing.  Try, fail and learn over and over again.  Then the child gets to Kindergarten and they play and explore, a lot.  They are trying and failing, a lot.  For the most part, children thrive in this environment.  It’s how they’ve learned for all their lives so far.  However, something changes when children graduate from Kindergarten, and that change is reflected in the graphic that was shared with me by Jeff Catania.

I think we’ve all noticed that as children move through school, their enthusiasm decreases.  Their desire to be risk takers and explore new ideas decreases.  School becomes something to dread.  That’s on us.  By the time a student enters Grade 9 they have spent over 10,000 hours in school.  Long enough, according to Malcolm Gladwell, to achieve mastery in a field like learning.  However, what we’ve probably noticed is that for each hour that goes by, they enjoy their time less. The educational system is leading students down this road, so what is causing this drain of joyful learning and risk taking out of our students?  I don’t have answers, but I do have suspicions.

Which leads to some data I had a chance to read over this past week.  Earlier in the school year, secondary teachers in Halton were invited to participate in a voluntary survey regarding their attitudes surrounding Final 30% tasks and whether we should be returning those tasks to students.  The thing that struck me about this survey was that many teachers felt it wasn’t worth it to return a student's final exam or final performance task.  The reasons were varied, but many centered around the fact that “students only care about their marks”, or that students wouldn’t learn anything from reviewing what they did wrong.

My feelings about final exams are no secret.


So if teachers don’t think students will learn anything from their final exam and looking at what they did wrong, why are we all still so hung up on giving a final exam?  Are we really happy with classrooms filled with students who only care about their final mark?  Aren’t we all trying to create young adults who want to learn for learning's sake?  For me, the implication is clear.  We are a part of a system that is its own worst enemy. As players in this system can we hack the system to break out of this cycle?  Is there something we can be doing about this?  The film Alike, the decrease in school enjoyment, our attitudes about exams are all symptoms of the same disease.

We place too much value on testing and marks and if students are ready for the next level.  Students are square pegs, school is a round hole, and when a peg comes along that doesn’t fit, we shave down the edges and force it through.  Then we keep doing that, over and over again.  Every time we do that, our students enjoy school less.

So why can’t we just make the hole bigger?  Why can’t we find ways to offer rewarding projects, individualized for each student, that hopefully more people would find value in?

You can read the survey data here and draw your own conclusions about final 30% tasks.  We’d love to hear what your takeaways are.

Reasons why we #LoveMyHaltonSchool
There are lots of reasons.

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 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.

~Melissa Hickey

We have the opportunity to explore new ideas with our classes. And that's our #1 reason for why we #LoveMyHaltonSchool!
What Can You Do With This?
I hate end of period bells.  #Observe’em observation day and the Most Likely To Succeed film gave me a lot to think about how the school day can be structured.  I don’t know if we can get rid of them entirely, but I’ve been working on playing with a timetable that offers some flexibility, as well as some opportunities to go deeper and longer in a class period.  What are your thoughts on this one? Pros? Cons?  Would love to hear your ideas and feedback!

FullSizeRender (2).jpg