Posts tagged curriculum
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.
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!