Yesterday was a great day. Matt and I spent much of our time simply watching the #LoveMyHaltonSchool tweets roll in. We laughed, we liked, we retweeted, we saw things that were happening in other schools and we talked about how to bring that greatness to our building.
And this is why we think sharing our best practices is so important. We both work in a great school, with supportive colleagues and students. But we can’t continue to improve as teachers if we only look within our building for inspiration. We have to broaden our horizons by looking outwards. Yesterday, everyone who participated by tweeting opened a window into their classroom or school.
Watching the tweets were fun, but we couldn’t help but wonder about the reach of the hashtag. Was a small group of teachers just tweeting at each other? Were we making an impact online or were we all just yelling into the void?
Well of course, there is an app for that. We found a free hashtag tracker and the story it told was impressive. By the end of the day 212 users had used the hashtag and sent almost 700 tweets. At peak times, we were sending 115 tweets per hour...breaking that down a bit, that’s almost two tweets per minute. Pretty impressive, but that’s not the best part.
Ask yourself, how many unique individuals do you think saw the #LoveMyHaltonSchool tweets yesterday? Think of a number.
Was it over 100,000? Because that is what happened. Over 100,000 unique individuals saw tweets yesterday about why teaching and learning in Halton is amazing. We think that, in and of itself, is pretty rad.
I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Ontario Association of Mathematics Educators conference in Kingston this past week. I plan on blogging in detail about my time there, which was amazing! At one point the #OAME and #OAME2017 hashtags were trending in Canada. Lots of great sharing was happening, conversations were deep and rich, it was food for the mathematical soul.
Of course, as with all things social media, there were some unhappy voices. These weighed on me, mostly because I can’t understand why an individual would be called out for mentioning a point that resonated with them. Our institutions of education grow by sharing, not by shaming.
So this troubled me on the way home Friday night. It stuck with me Saturday morning until I decided to cut my overgrown lawn. Distractions are helpful, right? I wasn’t prepared for my backyard, it was overrun with dandelions and other prickly weeds. My kids couldn’t play on it without getting bothered. I had to do something about it. Out come my weeding tools and after an hour I had a nice pile of compost for the brown bag and I was ready for the lawnmower. As I was mowing, I was noticing that there were even more weeds hiding under the surface of the grass, waiting to explode onto the scene. Back to weeding! Attack, attack, attack!
Clearly adding value to the discussion here
It was then I realized I was doing it all wrong. I was spending so much time worried about the weeds, pulling them up today only to see a bunch more sprout tomorrow, that I forgot about tending to the lawn. There was another way. I could nurture the grass, water it, feed it, so that it would grow so healthy that it would crowd out any prickly weeds that tried to grow. Of course a few might take root, but if I ignored them and focused on the lawn itself, they would spread much more slowly. This is, I think, the essence of the OAME community and even the much larger #MTBoS (Math Twitter Blog-o-sphere). Together, we are a lush, healthy lawn. We value opinions, we encourage discussion, we seek to help those who need it, we offer advice, we nurture, grow and thrive together. We are the grass of a healthy lawn. Sure, from time to time there are weeds that like to prick us when we walk on the lawn. We could spend all of our time attacking those weeds or we can recognize them for what they really are, a pointless distraction.
We are nice people...
So the next time the implication is made that my membership in the OAME means I don’t care about the welfare of the next generation, or that my teaching style "dumbs" down learning standards I’ll just turn away from the weeds and water my lawn.
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.
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.
I really enjoy our April Professional Development day in Halton. It a chance for our various program areas to get together in one central site to do some sharing. This past Friday, the Business, Computers, Math and Science teachers from around Halton gathered at Craig Kielburger Secondary School to hear about some of the innovative things that are happening around the board.
The day started with a session on Equity. The student reflections about equity that we were provided were a sobering reminder that there is always more that we can do to create safe and inclusive communities in our schools. After reading and reflecting on these quotes we watched a short video on equity by our Director, Stuart Miller. It feels good to work in a board that values student voice and equity. I was glad to start the day this way.
This was followed by learning sessions that we got to choose. I started my learning off by listening to Kristy Morrison and Kristen McCoy talk about ways to provide students with more descriptive feedback. Their tool of choice is Google Forms, which I have a very basic understanding of. They dove deep into their method of crafting online quizzes, their rationale behind why they want to provide instant feedback to their students and the outcomes that they have seen. You can check out their presentation here. There are some really detailed instructions on how to make your online Google Form quizzes. I applied my learning right away and was able to push a short quiz out to my students before the session was even over.
After listening to Kristy and Kristen, I was in the presenter seat for the rest of the day. I led a session with Phoebe Ching titled “Do You Want to Throw Out Your Traditional Final 30%?” The room was pretty full, so we spent the first few minutes of the presentation circulating through the room asking people what made them decide to attend our presentation. My favourite answer was “I don’t want to throw out my final 30%, I’m just looking for ways to make it better!”. Perhaps next time I present on this topic I should retitle it, since I’m not looking to get rid of all final 30% tasks. I’m looking towards creating tasks that are more authentic, something that our students might encounter in the real world. I want to give students a chance to be excited about what they’ve learned and share that learning with the class. As it stands now, I don’t think our traditional Performance Task - Exam mindset allows for that. I think the end of a semester should be a celebration for students. I don’t think they are getting that right now. Of course, I could be wrong, I only really see what happens in math classes. I haven’t found the magic answer to revising my Final 30% tasks, but I’ve tried lots. My favourite to date has been offering my Advanced Functions the choice in what type of final exam they completed. Some chose to write a very traditional final exam where they answered questions that I thought were important. Others chose to complete a more open ended exam where they provided examples of their own learning that they thought were important.
Finally I presented with Troy Tennant again on the topic of “Responsible Use of Technology in Classrooms”. We’ve presented on this topic before and you can read a reflection about it here. The participants really seemed to like the signs that Troy developed for tech use in his classroom and the Green/Yellow/Red signs that Cindy Cosentino, Instructional Program Lead for Science, adapted from them.
I like both, mostly because after establishing the culture of appropriate tech use in your classroom with these signs, your need to use the signs will diminish quickly as students become comfortable with when and how to use tech.
All in all, Friday was a great day. I wish there were more opportunities for us all to get together and share. One day isn’t enough!
In March, staff learning at our school looks a little different. Rather than having one full school staff meeting, various teachers offer up afternoon drop in sessions for learning. Each week there are different options for teachers to choose from, with the expectation that every teacher attends one session. We call it “March Madness”.
One of the topics I sat in on was a presentation and discussion on the “Responsible use of Technology in Classrooms”. With the use of technology fiercely debated in the news, this is a bit of a “hot button” issue. Some believe that cell phones in class is simply a vehicle for “Note Passing 2.0”, making it easier to get distracted from the lesson. They aren’t wrong about this either, you only need to look around any staff meeting, university class or even city street intersection , to realize this is sometimes the case, and not just for teenagers. To give a bit of context, I am in a school that fully embraces technology in the classroom, including cell phones, Chromebooks, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), Google Classroom, Desmos (there you go, Jamie, that is for you) to name just a few facets of that ethos. So how do we create a balanced approach that coaches self-regulation to students in the face of this fruit slicing, candy crushing, snapchat filtering distraction?
Well, we are in the business of education, right? Let’s put it to good use! How are some ways that we can actually teach students responsible use of technology? First and foremost, building a community within the classroom where trust and respect of each other is a central pillar is key. Then conversations about when cell phones are appropriate or not come from a place of mutual trust and respect. But just what are those moments, and when is it appropriate to use technology? There are many times in the learning process where the full use of technology will benefit learning, others when access to some technology is beneficial, and indeed others when it is only a distraction from learning. Troy Tennant, a Halton science teacher devised a clear and visual cue in the form of signs that are placed at the front of the class for his students to help coach them to understand the difference between those moments in class. What he found was that the signs are useful as classroom norms are being ironed out, and that once the norms have been established, students learn the appropriate time for when to use technology and the signs are no longer needed as much to cue students to regulate. Troy found that setting these clear boundaries helped students self-regulate to turn off the chatter of the social media world. Cindy Cosentino, Halton teacher and Instructional Program Lead for Science took his concept and adapted it with a simple visual cue. Ultimately, these are teaching tools that help guide students to understand how to navigate classroom norms around technology use in class.
Should there be universal norms for all classes? While we can definitely agree that there are general expectations of good conduct that would be common between all classes (and all areas of society for that matter), the responsible use of technology in a math class will look very different than an art class or a tech class, which is why a universal can’t work.
In my art classes, we tend to use our phones a lot: looking up visual source images to draw, finding inspiration in other artists, posting progress photos to Instagram and other art blogs. Just today, my students were taking photos of the still life setup that we were painting and adding a black and white filter on it to help to determine the light and dark values of colours in the objects. A typical art class involves more work time than lesson, students may choose to get lost in their own music while creating whatever art piece they are working on. The constant notifications pinging phones are an ongoing struggle, and it is a struggle that we learn together to navigate. While I haven’t tried the signs like Tennant and Cosentino, I still try to guide students to when to refocus when their device is a distraction and actively teach how to empower themselves to create better art using their device. My approach is definitely a work in progress, but it is a tool worth having, so I will continue to hone the teaching of its use in the class.
The other piece of the puzzle, one that is clearly evolving across the spectrum of education in our board is how we actually use technology in a classroom. Tech for Tech sake is hollow. Using technology to do stale lessons is new, but is not innovative. As educators start to explore and learn how to better use these tools for critical thinking and engagement, the arguments for whether or not to include devices in classrooms will hold a lot less water. As we learn to empower students to use technology to drive their own learning, students can start to harness these tools to learn in ways that are native to them. We can’t ask students to make decisions for themselves and tell them what decision they should make in the same breath. So asking students to be responsible with their technology use and then telling them when they can and can’t use technology isn’t the place we want to get to. It might be the place to start, but eventually, we have to trust our students to make their own decisions.
Technology in our hands is now ubiquitous and only going to get more so. Let’s get better at using these tools ourselves and teaching our students to do the same. Do you agree or disagree? What are the norms for Responsible Use of Technology in your class?
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