We were sent to High Tech High and the Deeper Learning Conference with questions, and we brought back a heap of answers.
You can read our on the ground impression here after Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 of the conference. Before we headed to the conference we also asked others who had seen the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” to provide us with their own questions. We tried as best we could to answer them, splitting the work up between our Principal Nicholas Varricchio and ourselves. You can read our answers here. If you haven’t seen the film, and would like to, you can still see the film here. And of course, if what you’ve read about our visit sparks new questions, feel free to leave us something in the comments
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.
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.