Posts tagged challenges
Try Shifting!

The Shift has decided it is time to throw down the gauntlet and invite our fellow Shifters to try something new. We love getting out to see other school communities and other teachers’ classrooms in action, but there are only two of us and there is a lot of great work to see. We think now is a good time for some Shift challenges.

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Every so often we will post some #TryShifting challenges here. To start with, there are already three available for you to try, such as starting an educational Twitter account, or convincing a friend to do so. There are no deadlines or due dates. You can spend as long as you want working on a challenge. They can be completed individually or in a group. All we ask is that you share your work with the wider education community using the #TryShifting hashtag. Post some pictures, reflect on how the challenge went. What did you learn?

So what are you waiting for? Try some Shifting!

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

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



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


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


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



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



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




Teaching Creativity

Amanda Williams-Yeagers has written a number of guest blog posts on the Shift. She is also leading the HDSB Empower Book Talk.

Jordie Burton has also written a guest blog post on the Shift. He is an Art Educator passionate about creativity and design thinking. Amanda and Jordie have teamed up with other HDSB educators to use an innovation grant to delve into teaching creativity and design thinking in our schools.

Sir Ken Robinson begins his famous 2006 Ted talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by speaking about the evidence and the range of human creativity. He also begins by talking about the uncertainty of the future. The irony of this, is that this brilliant talk took place twelve years ago.

Today we are still wondering what the future will look like and we are still hoping to prepare our students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. We are also curious about the range and extent of human creativity:


What is the definition of creativity? What environment is conducive to creativity for learners? How can we create an environment that nurtures rather than undermines creativity? How can we support our learners to become comfortable with making mistakes?

Sir Ken continues to say that one of the greatest issues in education is that we educate people out of creativity. He captures this when he says that students,

“have become frightened of being wrong. We stigmatize mistakes. And we're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

While recognizing that this was said twelve years ago, we are left wondering if this is something that still exists in education today. In fact, we have a number of questions about creativity that are grounding our inquiry. We are using a design thinking approach to ask the questions, “How can we improve students ability to learn to be creative?” “How can we empower students to identify themselves as creative?” and “How can we change a single story of student’s self-image to the untold story of limitless potential?”



Our first investigation has led us to investigate a broader definition of the concept of creativity. The organization Creativity at Work defines creativity as “the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality” and that if you have ideas but do not act on them, you are imaginative, not creative. Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind says that creativity is “giving the world something it didn’t know it was missing” or as Hugh Howey says “Seeing something that doesn’t exist and then making it so,”. While we continue to work on our broad definition of the concept of creativity, that application of the topic is what matters to us the most.

So, we are putting it out there and asking other educators to support us in our journey and we have lots of questions! We are exploring the idea that creativity has some core elements that can be shared, taught and built. What is the best way to bring that into a classroom? If we want our students to graduate with the ability to think creatively, how do we achieve this? What does teaching “creatively” look like? Are there examples of lessons that explicitly teach creativity? How do we convince our students that everyone has the potential to be creative? 

If you have any ideas, and are willing to help us with our inquiry, please complete this survey and help us by sharing your experiences. We don’t need you to have all of the answers (we don’t either!) we just want you to help us by coming along for the ride.



And with that we leave you with this:


“Creativity is as important now as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”

-Sir Ken Robinson


Reimagining the Final 30%
Jamie Reimagines Exams

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

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

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

The results don’t disappoint me either.

Matt Reimagines Final Performance Tasks

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Bacon is ALWAYS the denominator


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



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

That's some good cup stacking!


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

There were many days where the students led the class, posing interesting questions and then answering them.  The teachers became facilitators of great discussions, parachuting in on different groups when they needed assistance or a push to go a bit deeper with their learning.  Some days were great, other days were disasters.  On the bad days, the team would go back to the drawing board, talking about what we could do better in order to help students uncover the curriculum.  We tried something new and learned a lot in the process.  I can’t wait to do it again next semester.
What Does Success Look Like?
Matt and I are fast approaching our one year anniversary in this role.  When we started, last February, with the roughest of plans.  We were going to demonstrate how the Halton District School Board is building a shared culture of Innovation.  How we did that was left, for the most part, up to us.  No pressure.

We both really wanted to create our own Podcast, but some advice from Phil Davison and Cindy Cosentino led us to believe that it might be better to start with a Blog first.  So we dove in, blogging and then eventually launching our “Case For Innovation…” video series, followed by a few Calls to Action.  We’ve Shifted at The Barn, we’ve presented at conferences both inside and outside Halton, we’ve been vulnerable and silly.  In short, we’ve tried our best to put our own individual learning on display.



Matt and I have a lot of fun in this role.  We have a very fluid “to-do” list that gets pretty fuzzy around the edges.  With lots of balls in the air it’s sometimes tough to judge if we are making progress.  Most days we spend our afternoons together talking about what to post next, or perhaps we plan an upcoming visit to a classroom.  We worry about how to create more secondary conversations, both on and off the blog.

Matt turned to me the other day and asked, “If we keep doing this, what does success look like in three years?”

To say I was shook up would be an understatement, because I don’t know what our success might look like.  Many subscribers to our blog and lots of views on our videos would be nice, but that in an of itself doesn’t make us successful.  

We’ve learned that Innovation is a process that leads to improvements to a product, process or understanding.  

Given that definition of Innovation and that you are here reading this blog because (hopefully) you want to improve something in your practice, I’m curious what success might look like to you?  If you follow along with us for the next little while, what would your success criteria be?  How would you know if you shifted your practice?

In the end, my own personal success criteria is a moving target and I’m ok with that.  I want to Make School Different and in three years time I’ll be happy if I can look back and see that change.  I’d also be alright with us making a podcast or two.
What We Don't Know
I’d like to introduce you to Alex.  She was a student of mine who graduated last June.  I met her for the first time when she was in my Grade 9 Academic Math class.  My first impressions of her was that she was a hardworking student who seemed to be interested in school.  I don’t know if a teacher can ask more from a student.


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

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

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

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

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



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

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