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



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



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



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

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

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


The Collaboration Conundrum

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

“Collaboration is not awesome.”

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

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

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


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


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

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

So, how did it go?

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

Was it perfect?

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

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

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

Collaboration is awesome.


If you want more ideas on collaborative learning, click this link.
“We really don’t have a plan”
"We really don't have a plan". That is the spirit of risk taking and experimentation that Sylvonna Brennan and Andrea De Mendonca took when launching into the unknown and piloting “Engology”, an integrated Grade 11 English and Biology course this past fall. You may have seen their article in the Toronto Star. We were interested in digging a little deeper to get an understanding into the conditions that allowed this great combined credit course launch and where it will go from here. 

The basics of their integrated course are easy to understand. Students were offered an English/Biology package of courses in the afternoon. Topics from both sets of curriculum were woven together and both teachers worked closely on creating a coherent experience for students.

Both Sylvonna and Andrea were open to admitting that they were working alongside their students in this new adventure. Many times during the semester they empowered their students to advocate for how they wanted the courses to progress. There were times when the students would push back on topics or evaluations that they did not like and the teachers valued that student voice. 
Rethinking Reading Lists in Engology
Both teachers expected to attract the high achievers in their building to the integrated program. However, in practice this isn’t what happened. Their program attracted the dreamers at their school. It attracted students who wanted to take a risk and try something new and because of that, the cohort of students who joined them were the right kids for the course.

The community in the room grew organically over the semester as students had their beliefs about the Engology credit tested. Many thought it was going to be a bird course and they were soon proved wrong. The course was different, but not easier. Students and teachers noticed a strengthening of their “soft skills” as they were asked to think critically and communicate often about what they were learning.

Communicating understanding in new ways
This lead to a culture of risk taking in the Engology classroom. It’s easy to write a test and put down what you know and then forget about it. It’s a lot hard to communicate your understanding in different ways, to apply it, to write stories that weave the science curriculum into english. Students got comfortable with failure because they had embraced a spirit of iteration. They tried, failed and then learned.

For their parts, Sylvonna and Andrea are learning from their successes and failures too. Both are excited to teach the course again in the next school year. They are hopeful that student interest will allow the program to be run in both semesters. Sylvonna dreams about outfitting her classroom with furniture that will help promote discussion in a more relaxed atmosphere. Andrea is looking forward to finding ways to highlight how biology and science are represented in the media. She is dreaming about an assignment where students critique a film or tv show and talk about how science is glorified or misrepresented.
The creation of the Engology course was a project eight years in the making. Much of the day to day planning was done informally, in the hallways between periods. Sylvonna and Andrea exemplify why, when embarking on a creative or innovative act like this pairing of courses, you need to just launch into it, without a complete plan. It is through the lived experience of creating every day that that the magic happens.

What have you dreamed big about? What’s your eight year project that you wish you could try? We’d love to know!