Why is it that the week before school, when teachers are invariably hauling boxes, moving desks, rearranging seating and running up and down the stairs of non-air-conditioned buildings to consult with colleagues, the weather in the GTA insists on skyrocketing into the 30s?!
This year, I am trying to be very conscious of how the physical plant in my classroom can support inquiry and collaboration; I am trying to create spaces -- given the limitations of the existing furniture and space -- where students can meet as a class as well as in small groups, where they can find a corner to work on their own or with a partner, where they can use their bodies, their pencils or their devices to explore and record their learning.
Like any important classroom routine, the use of devices and digital technology requires considerable input and practice up front to be effective throughout the year. In my experience, "That doesn't work in my classroom" usually means "I didn't bother to set it up properly at the beginning of the year"!!
This year, I've refined some of the ppts I used last year (which had been edited and repurposed from a file I had rec'd from my school earlier), and have included a specific lesson to promote discussion of various scenarios. (Thanks to our instructional tech coach, Jim Cash, for sharing the "Digital Compass for the 21st Century” and scenarios, adapted from work by Mike Ribble!)
My plan is to begin by building on what students already know, like and worry about when it comes to digital technology to foster an introductory discussion about learning technology and appropriate use of BYOD. After co-constructing some class norms (guided by our school and board policy, of course!), I'll introduce the digital compass to students, and have them work in groups to discuss scenarios and decide on the ethics. Then we'll talk about different scenarios as a class, and add any needed norms to our class chart.
Finally, I'll have students review these scenarios and norms with their families, and get them to sign (and possibly comment on) a condensed digital code of conduct when they register for an Edmodo account (more on that in an upcoming blog post).
Once that's all done, I'll invite students to begin bringing their devices to school... then the challenge will be enforcing the rules we've set together, and making sure I'm using technology effectively to facilitate learning, so that there will be less chance of off-task behaviour and fewer opportunities for students to not follow the norms!
This was supposed to be a blog post about classroom management, and structuring small groups in the rotary context for middle school, but I got sidetracked by a bit of a kitchen emergency…
Now that I've sent away my darling children,and have rec'd confirmation that they are back home safe and sound in Toronto with their dad, I am left to my own devices, and... I am finally getting around to a few more items on my summer professional "to do" list
Most recently, I've begun reading Authentic Learning in the Digital Age; Engaging Students Through Inquiry by Larissa Pahamov.
That the first chapter already deals authentically with some of the hurdles typically faced by classroom teachers -- many of us whom are digital immigrants struggling in a complex and rapidly evolving culture -- is a testament to the fact that this book was written by a woman who is herself a classroom teacher. She begins to describe her journey: "The first year I worked at [school name], I made my students print our their essays so that I could comment on them by hand. The second year, I did the same thing. The third year, I finally realised there were a dozen ways I could facilitate that process online, and I haven't looked back". (page 9)
I laughed when I read that comment, having myself been of both mindsets described, and having worked with many of both in schools and at the university level even. How, then, shall we use technology effectively to promote inquiry learning?
Pahamove discusses in some detail the transformative effects of technology: Shifting the emphasis from content to skills, allowing for constant engagement (which really redefines what "school" could look like!), democratising learning (the teacher is no longer the gatekeeper of all relevant "knowledge"), connecting to the real world, both within one's community and well beyond, and of course, simplifying the back-end work (why are we still producing and selling paper agendas to students??!!) She then describes her school's adopted framework for learning.
Five Core Values of Digital Inquiry
Recognizing the possibility for surveillance of studentsand other misuses of digital technology, Pahamov points to the importance of working together with students to set the learning climate. She also outlines five core values her school has adopted: Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Presentation and Reflection.
The remainder of the book is organized into each of these five core values, with each chapter focusing in more depth on one of them, and including practical classroom and school-wide suggestions, as well as "workarounds". The chapters embrace both teacher and student voice.
Adaptations for Middle School
Although this book is written about digital inquiry in a secondary school context, the authenticity with which the information is shared makes me want to keep reading. I am looking forward to the next five chapters, and to thinking about how I can adapt the work of Larissa Pahamov and her colleagues into the middle school setting where I currently work.
As I was walking back along the beach from the lighthouse this morning before breakfast, I came upon an elderly couple and their large sprightly dog also enjoying a morning walk along the water's edge.
"Lovely morning to be walking and thinking lovely thoughts", the gentleman commented.
I had been lost deep in contemplation... but not about nature or spirituality! I thought for a moment before responding tentatively...
"Lovely, well, yes, sort of, I guess... I'm a teacher, and I'm just mapping out my first week back with the students, and thinking about how best to start the school year with them!"
The couple were all knowing smiles and supportive noises: Turns out he is also a teacher from Ontario, retired seven years! We chatted at length about the ups (students, learning) and downs (nasty politics, lack of resources) of the profession, and then wished one another well.
I continued on my way, picking up a few beach treasures for a "first week of school activity" for my Grade sixes before heading back to the red path leading to the house.
It will come as no surprise for those who know me that I found this past school year a little rough, to put it mildly. My much-anticipated return to intermediate was colored by an organizational structure I had limited previous experience with: The last time I had taught grade 7, it was to a single group of students; together, we explored language arts, mathematics, social studies… I also taught instrumental music to grade 8 as well as my homeroom class, but the bulk of my teaching time was spent with a single group of students, so that model was all I ever knew.
In sharp contrast, this past year was spent teaching mostly math and science to six different classes, three "primary" classes and three what I would call "fill in the gaps" classes whom I saw a few times every 10 days to fill in timetable needs.
Between too many students, a computer and projector that didn't really work for the better part of the year, and a window-less classroom that served as the only access point for the students in the classroom next door, it often felt like complete chaos to me!
To modify a quote by Deming, it is sometimes the structure of an organization, rather than the inadequacies of the people who work within it, that causes problems.
Developing Relationships Keeps Kids in School Longer
If Bruce Ferguson says that a single caring adult can impact whether a child chooses to stay in school or become an early leaver, and that we have to develop relationships with young people where they feel their opinion is respected and valued, then needless to say, this goal was nearly impossible to accomplish with 120 students on my roster.
Some time ago, I blogged about textual lineage. One of the things I most enjoy about our family summers on PEI is the time my boys and I spend developing their textual lineage together.
Two examples stand out this summer: A book (or rather, a trilogy) and a movie.
As I was reading the synopsis on the back ("The Breadwinner is set in Afghanistan, where 11-year-old Parvana lives with her family in a bombed-out apartment building in Kabul. When her father is arrested for the crime of having a foreign education, the family...") another mother noticed the book in my hand and exclaimed, "oh, that's a really, really good one! My daughter liked it so much, in fact, we're here picking up the third book in the series today!"
This was accompanied by a vigorous head nod and confirmational smile from said daughter, who looked to be about Simon's age.
I looked quizzically at Simon, who had accompanied me on my quest to pick up suitable summer reading material, and he said, "sure, sounds good, let's get it". So, we purchased the book, and packed it away for our annual tradition of reading together while on PEI.
Interestingly, when I first pulled the book out upon arriving on the island last month, I was met with groans and complaints of "Awww, do we have to? It looks so boring!" It didn't take long, however, before they were hooked: As I often do, I asked my boys to give it a fair chance, which we agreed means stick to it for three chapters before deciding whether to abandon the book.
We needn't have negotiated beyond two: From the get-go, the kids were hooked, and whenever we read (we're currently four chapters from the end of the third book), Alex and Simon beg for "just one more chapter, PLEASE, Mom!"
I must confess, it's hard for me to say no to that request, regardless of how late it is. The Breadwinner really holds ones interest as it graphically and yet age-appropriately introduces the young reader to a world well beyond what most Western children will have ever experienced or imagined. Ellis' work has exposed my Simon and Alex to new ideas, and is helping them to make connections to prior experiences.
Needless to say, we'll be making a trip to Chapters again soon, this time to hunt down the fourth book in the series, My Name is Parvana. And now it will be my kids doing the sales pitch if we see someone else considering the series!
The second piece of textual lineage this summer involves Mozart.
The boys had seen my Director's Cut of Amadeus in our DVD bin in previous summers, and had inquired about it, but due to the mature themes and sometimes frightening scenes and music, I had told them that they needed to be a little older before we watched that one together.
(I remember having watched the film myself when it first came out, and being quite impressed with Constanze's rather ample bosom in one of the early scenes in the movie. And when it really gets into the requiem later on in the film, I had my share of nightmares. Also, as the parental advisory on IMDb notes, "Mozart is very crass and given to scatological humor". But then again, so am I, so it would be nothing new for the boys!!)
Inspired by Tom Chapin's Mozart Duet, which we listened to in the car on the way to and from Ch'town numerous times this summer, the boys once again asked if we could watch Amadeus. This time, I relented, and -- over the course of two evenings -- we took in this masterpiece, pausing often to clarify what was happening, and to talk about historical inaccuracies in this award-winning but often fictionally liberal film.
As was I so many years ago, the boys were very impressed with Mozart's music, and with the lavish sumptuousness of the European court scene. They had many questions, and I answered them all, even reading aloud two online commentaries about the movie after it was over, one of which was quite scathing. ("Come on, Mom, keep reading!" from Simon, when I attempted to skip over some parts in the interest of getting everyone to bed sooner.)
Textual lineage: The texts (music, words, etc.) that form our schema and influence who we become. I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to share two such rich "texts" with my children this summer, and I look forward to next summer's intellectual adventures, as well as all the ones in between! (Intellectual adventures, not summers.)
There's a fellow pounding nails into a dead tree out front of the Confed Ctr in Ch'town.
Turns out Paul Griffin, the Canadian logger-come-Artist responsible for Sarcophagus for an Elm is in town to create Sarcophagus 2, an installation featuring a 110-year-old elm tree and 100 000 electroplated galvanized nails.
I immediately smelled a math problem!
Looking at the whole log structure, and honing in on a small patch of nails, I asked the boys, who had just come from their first day of Art camp, how they thought the artist might have estimated the number of nails required to complete the project.
Paul overheard our conversation, and jumped in to confirm my suspicions: He'd covered half a square foot of the log with nails, then doubled that, and calculated how many square feet of nails would be needed to cover the log, which is in essence a series of cylinders. (I thought fondly of my Grade 8s this past year!)
If you prefer time to surface area, Paul anticipates the project will take 3-4 weeks to complete. That's good for at least three periods worth of estimation and calculation problems Grades Two through Six!!
Having taught in a wide range of schools, I've had the opportunity to observe a variety of school cultures, so when Gruenert and Whittaker's new book arrived at our school library, I was interested to have a look.
School Culture Rewired builds on the message that has been a theme in some of the articles I've been reading in this month's EL, namely, building relationships and harnessing the potential that is already in the building.
After introducing and defining climate and culture, the authors go on to describe six cultures (Collaborative, Comfortable-Collaborative, Contrived Collegial, Balkanized, Fragmented and Toxic), and consider ways to develop the desired school culture, namely, Collaborative. They comment on the value of recognizing and building on existing subcultures, particularly positive ones, and underscore the importance of providing leadership opportunities for positive change agents in the building. Subcultures that are already doing great things for student learning within a school can reduce anxiety and provide parallel learning opportunities for teachers still coming on board, they note.
As I read the book, I recognized elements of almost all of the cultures described from various schools I have worked at. I think one of the greatest challenges is that the "system" (school board, etc.) does not always reward the types of behaviours necessary to build a truly collaborative culture. In particular, self-critique and collegial constructive criticism can be challenging, especially for school administrators, and also for teachers. But it is necessary in order for authentic growth to take place.
Interestingly, one of the institutions I have worked at that I felt was most authentically collaborative was the Education Department at Tyndale University. I felt that my colleagues in the Ed Department there were mostly on the same page when it came to examining personal professional practice and considering what worked and what didn't. Beyond simply sharing tricks of the trade, we learned together and examined our work critically, valuing each other's feedback rather than feeling threatened by it. This culture was developed and maintained by a leader who herself was comfortable with high standards and critical self examination.
If you work in a building that does not have the culture you desire, change is possible but it takes a long time. This is a lesson I am learning myself: Always one to want the best for students right away, I've often been impatient when not everyone jumps on board immediately with something obviously good for kids... and it frustrates me to no end when people want to be polite and superficial and feel threatened by dissenting voices. But understanding the nuances of culture and the nature of entrenchment can be helpful when considering effective school leadership, change and growth.
In its final chapters, School Culture Rewired describes ways to begin conversations and put systems in place that will help move your school from where you are to where you want to be.
Although the book seems to be aimed primarily at school administrators, I believe teachers who are interested in educational leadership and change can learn from and use the strategies outlined. It's also a great read for instructional coaches and others who work with schools to move collective thinking forward. I'm on Chapter 8 myself, and am looking forward to learning the rest of the book's secrets, which will be revealed to me in the days ahead as my partner reads aloud to me in the car while I drive our family around PEI where we are currently spending a few weeks of summer vacation!
Last month's Educational Leadership Magazine focuses on using mobile technology effectively with students. Included are articles about the instructional use of tablets in class, classroom management with technology and intentional selection of teaching and learning apps. A theme throughout was on student doing rather than teacher showing.
Inspired, I decided to attempt a crowd-sourcing activity with my Grade 7 students, to see if I could make their collective learning visible to the class. We'd been learning about Heat in the Environment, and students were completing independent research assignments about a "big question" they had co-developed with peers and -- in some cases -- teacher guidance.
I used a padlet to collect students' discoveries to date; each group posted videos and general information about what they'd been learning, and as they did so, I tried to respond with specific questions to help them clarify, deepen or broaden their thinking. In this way, all groups' summaries to date, as well as my related responses, were visible to everyone.
It was interesting to observe students' excitement as they saw one another's work in progress as well as their own posted publicly in the classroom.
I noticed that a number of students began to access videos and weblinks that other groups had posted on our Padlet, and I marveled at how readily we were able to collectively share resources!
Since being introduced to it a few years ago at a workshop, I've been thinking a lot about the SAMR Model, and how teachers can best climb the ladder from "substitution" to "redefinition", assuming the latter is our ultimate goal.
In particular, I am interested in how digital immigrants begin to effectively incorporate technology into their instructional repertoire in transformational ways. Or, to put it more simply, how old dogs like me learn new tricks!
Something that perplexes me is how we define the various tasks we old-timers attempt... it's all exciting and new to us, but is it transformational? For example, my Science Padlet allowed for ways of sharing information effectively in a manner that would previously have been inconceivable... but did that really place it into the "redefinition" category, or was it merely a fancy, digital chart paper recording our class's thinking, and therefore, simply "substitution" on the SAMR ladder?
I decided to have a look online to find out what others had to say. What I discovered is that the information online about SAMR has literally exploded in the past few years!
Not only is there plenty of commentary about what SAMR is and how it can be used in the context of professional learning and self reflection, but there also exists now a number of handy visuals to provide us immigrants with an overview of where we might be in the general scheme of things.
For example, if I consider the overview provided below, I can see that I am moving forward along a jagged front. For Note-taking and Presentation in my Math class this year, I am firmly in the Augmentation stage, whereas in in Assessment I have dabbled in Redefinition, and in file sharing I am ashamed to confess my residency in Substitution.
This jagged front, however, propels me forward: As I gain comfort with one area, I actively look for ways to improve in others. Desperation and necessity drive my personal professional learning model, as evidenced in the number of OTF Connects technology workshops I signed up for this year, and the amount of time I spent on self-directed learning by reading articles, looking online, experimenting in class, and discussing solutions with colleagues.
After writing for several teacher and multiple birth publications, including ETFO's Voice Magazine, Multiple Moments, and the Bulletwin, Vera turned her written attention to prolific blogging for some years, including BiB, "Learn to Fly with Vera!" and SMARTbansho . Homeschooling 4 was her travel blog in Argentina. She now spends more time on her Instagram (@schalgzeug_usw) than her blog (pictures are worth a thousand words?!) Contact Vera by clicking the photo above.
The views expressed on this blog are the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of her family members or the position of her employer on the the issues she blogs about. These posts are intended to share resources, document family life, and encourage critical thought on a variety of subjects. They are not intended to cause harm to any individual or member of any group. By reading this blog and viewing this site, you agree to not hold Vera liable for any harm done by views expressed in this blog.