Posts tagged iteration
Waves of Gratitude
What would you do if you were asked to nurture a shared culture of innovation within the Halton District School Board?  Where would you start? Where would the journey take you?

There are many challenges in this role.  How do you go about “being innovative” and create spaces and ways for teachers to “share more”?  It would be great to visit schools and classrooms more frequently as there are literally hundreds of amazing educators in our board doing hundreds of amazing things to innovate our classrooms.  We are trying our best to capture a shared culture through this blog, personal Twitter feeds, and The Innovation Gnome.  YET, there are hundreds of ‘on the ground’ stories left to be told by you.
There have been many people who have helped along the way --  providing the framework to define “Innovation”, and inviting us into classrooms to chat or watch awesome learning unfold.  This support has been invaluable. How do you go about thanking so many people for such great thinking?

Here lies the idea of Challenge Coins.  We were intrigued with the private act of gratitude using a Challenge Coin since we listened to a podcast about them several years ago.  If you aren’t familiar with what a Challenge Coin is, we can give you a bit of history.  

Challenge Coins started as a military tradition, during the First World War.  They were meant as a symbol of pride, teamwork and unity. Soldiers who were separated from their units could flash their unit coins as proof they were who they said they were.  The act of carrying these Challenge Coins gave soldiers a renewed sense of belonging as well as gratitude for the teamwork and camaraderie found on the front lines. Military Challenge Coins help to keep the network of support that so often accompanies - and really, defines - the military lifestyle alive, even after a return from deployment.


As time went by, the Challenge Coin itself morphed into a new tradition.  They became a way for brothers and sisters in arms to thank each other for a special achievement.  The ultimate token of thanks would be to pass your Challenge Coin off privately to someone else whose service and achievement could never truly be thanked in a public forum.  Today, the tradition of the Challenge Coin has spread to many other areas -- Educational Institutions, First Responders, Disney World, and so on. Many groups have developed their unique Challenge Coin as a token of gratitude.  To quote the podcast, “they have become physical proof of a hard fought relationship”.


What does this mean for Halton? There are many educators in the Halton District School Board staff who need to be thanked for making school different and at the same time helping others shift their mindsets about education.  This can been accomplished with a low-key, private expression of gratitude through the sharing of a meaningful token of thanks, as educators support each other on this journey. There is much value in knowing that someone took the time to acknowledge effort and express gratitude for the contributions made. There is also empowerment, providing people with the opportunity to “pay it forward” and pass their expression of appreciation along.  It’s not a secret token, rather a private gesture of sincere thanks.

Part of the joy in that kind of moment is knowing that others can also have that same opportunity.  Thanking someone for their contribution to your growth as an educator is an extremely valuable event.  Don’t be surprised if one day, someone you’ve worked closely with quietly hands a Shift Coin to you. Enjoy that moment, because you’ll be asked to pay it forward too for someone else.   Most importantly, if you haven’t seen a Shift Coin in the wild don’t worry, that just means it hasn’t got to you...YET.

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!
Why the heck did I do that?
“Why the heck did I DO that?”  


Have you ever found yourself asking that question after teaching a lesson?  I did, a week or so ago.  I delivered a classic “powerpoint”, with teenager eyes glazing over but I’m powering forward and getting through my slides because “that is the lesson”.  Immediately after finishing the period, I realized I messed up. Students had probably retained 5% of the information that I just talked at them about.  This stung a little, especially since what I just did flew in the face of my current “WHY” as a teacher.


One iteration of the creative process we are playing with.
Let me back up and give you a bit of context.  I’m an art and photography teacher and my colleagues and I are really pushing hard to reimagine the creative process.
WHY are we doing this?  We are finding that when students’ experiment within the creative process and are not evaluated, they engage more in the risk taking and truly embrace their creativity.  Being set up as an experiment, students are taking pictures while genuinely curious about how the shot will turn out, not because the teacher expects something specific to happen.  We ask students to take LOTS of photos.  With curiosity driven outcomes, not mark driven outcomes; where failure has no real consequences and is only a learning tool to encourage students to try again, our classes have been a lot more free in their willingness to try creative experiments.  We are responding to Sir Ken Robinson in our own way and trying to right a wrong.


In photography, we have been working on using a series of active daily shooting challenges to get students out and experimenting.  The goal is this: by getting students to experiment and create with cameras in their hand FIRST before we get into the technical specifics of the camera, this will set the stage for students to uncover the curriculum, not the teacher covering the curriculum.  The challenges work around an idea or a technique, each day uncovering a different aspect of the topic.  I have got to say, these challenges have been going really well; the class gets into a groove, knowing that each day, we will be directing our focus to something different.  It is kind of like a Photography Workout of the Day (WOD).  These Shooting Challenges aren’t evaluated, so students are given permission to fail.  At the end of the week, students select their Photo of the Week, share and post it, and talk about what worked and why.  The emphasis each day is on shooting TONS, being encouraged to play, try weird things and to share with each other, with no expectation that “Today is the day you make a good image”.  The Photo of the Week is a tool for pause and reflection, to look back at those weird experiments and pull out something interesting.


Which brings me back to me messing up last week.  I had just spent the week prior structuring the course to allow for student centred discovery of the material, why did I decide to cap off the learning with some teacher focused “chalk talk”?  At the time, I figured that the students needed to know all the specifics, so I had better give it to them.  I only realized that I had messed up when I saw those glazed eyes. This was definitely the wrong approach.  So I was determined to improve the next week, when we would be tackling a different subject: shutter speed.


The following week, the class started to uncover the next topic in the same way, daily shooting challenges.  Lots of fun, lots of experimenting.  

To cap off the learning, students again choose their “Photo of the Week”, and instead of me talking at them about the ins and outs of shutter speed, I pulled inspiration from a sketchnote created by Laura Wheeler in a tweet I had seen a day before:




I randomized groups by picking playing cards, put up large paper on the walls of the room, and gave students key words for students to group and arrange in a way that made sense to them.  Then I floated and watched as the students started to pull together their learning on their own terms.  I encouraged them to access the information posted to Google Classroom and to Google Search other terms or techniques they were unsure of.  It was great to see students debating and discussing how to lay out their mind map and making connections to their learning in the past week.  What they were putting up on their mind map wasn’t always correct, but that was an opportunity to clarify and start a discussion.  
Students spent their time discussing, mapping and organizing their understanding


What I took away from the last couple weeks in photography class, was that TRY, FAIL, LEARN isn’t just for the students.  As teachers, we need to be more comfortable failing, reflecting and sharing.  Its great to share our amazing home runs on social media and it is also important to talk about when things DIDN’T go as planned.  Let’s open up our classroom, talk to others, share our experiments (failed or successful) with other teachers and let’s start to talk openly about our practice, warts and all, because if we do, we will become more creative and more dynamic in our classrooms and in our schools.  So how about you?  Can you think of when a lesson, a unit, a project went seriously sideways?   How did you pivot and save the lesson, or what did you do differently next time?

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?
Teaching and Learning with Desmos
Me and my math classmate and helper Nikolina
The other day, Jamie asked whether I wanted to become a student again for a math period.  All for it, I grabbed my laptop (as I was told I needed it), and ran for the portable.  You see, Jamie was doing a little recording of Stephanie Briggs’ Grade 10 math class for the upcoming OAME (Ontario Association for Mathematics Education) conference, where Briggs will be presenting on teaching using Desmos with Todd Malarczuk. I had heard of Desmos, the online graphing calculator, because well, Jamie won’t ever stop talking about it!  As an art teacher, I never really knew what he was always so excited when Desmos was mentioned. So here was my chance to see what all the fuss was about.


I settled into a group, hoping that my new math classmates might help guide me through the period.  I have to say, it is a little intimidating diving back into high school math, not having done so SINCE high school *cough* a few years ago.  Briggs introduced the day’s topic quadratic equations in vertex form and did a quick review of standard form and factored form.  I calmly wrote down the equations that she was putting on the board and pretended to follow along.  Really though, I was panicking a little because right from the top, I was lost.  I didn’t know what the formulas were supposed to do, and even what all the letters in the formula meant.  I sidled up to my new math pal, Nikolina, praying that she could help, and she was great.  She quietly explained the formulas we had just written down.


Next, Desmos!  Students seemed excited to get started and they were ready, devices in hand.  We were doing “marble slides” , where you were trying to create the shape of the parabola so that marbles slide down the parabola and pass through stars.  Kind of a like a phone game, but with MATH! The only problem was, I had no idea how to manipulate the formula to alter the shape of the parabola, and we weren’t given specific instructions on what to do.  Frozen, and unsure how to proceed, it wasn’t until I confirmed with my seatmates that it was ok to just start stabbing in numbers and see what happened.  Trial and error, look for patterns, trial and error, look for patterns...  Try, fail, learn. Try, fail, learn.  Now I was starting to get it!  A little journey of self-discovery, which is why Briggs didn’t tell us what to do.  Brilliant!  Slowly I figured out what would happen when I changed the numbers and how it affected the parabola.
desmos_marbleslides.jpg
Then, all of a sudden, Stephanie Briggs paused the activity for all of us.  We were locked out! There was a chorus of collective groans from the students because they were so engaged and invested in what they were doing! With the class’ full attention again, she did a quick revisit of the formulas we were using, asking about what we had learned so far about how the numbers in the formula affected the parabola.  It was an interesting and effective use of a pause in the activity!  After consolidating our thoughts on the process so far, gleaning a bit more understanding in the process, she un-paused the activity, allowing us to get back into sending marbles through our parabola slides.  I was getting the hang of this, starting to gain confidence and have fun with it.  Not bad progress seeing as I was blindly stabbing in numbers only a few minutes earlier. Briggs was constantly circulating through the room checking in with each group individually during the activity.  The whole goal of the activity was for us to discover and develop what vertex form was, which for me and students at my table group, seemed to be sticking a lot more than if we were just told what vertex form was.  

Stephanie Briggs circulating and helping students through the Desmos activity
All in all, it was an insightful window into Math exploration.  I found it a little like the math equivalent of getting a new type of paints that I’d never used before and just going for it and seeing what happens.  I don’t recall that kind of open ended exploration and play in my math classes.  Students are definitely better for it.  Thanks to Ms. Briggs for the lesson, now I can see why they get so giggly and excited every time Desmos is mentioned!


If you want to play Marbleslides yourself you can go here.
If you feel like exploring some of the other Activities provided by Desmos, head over here.
If you want some Desmos activities, organized by course, to use in your class, head over here.