Reinventing My Classroom (and Keeping Myself Honest)

I’m dying to share some things today. I don’t have long so excuse the unpolished-as-usual state of things.

In the last few months as I explore a feedback-focused classroom I have sometimes ‘slipped’ back into old habits. I’m not saying this is a terrible thing, but I have noticed it and have found it frustrating that I haven’t been able run my classes exactly the way I dream of running them.

Today a lovely tweet (thread) by @SusanCampo caught my eye; I was at the dentist waiting for my daughter to get her chipped tooth fixed (hooray for Science!) and saw this:

The podcast she is referencing is wonderful – I had a chance to listen today only because of the chipped tooth! @MonteSyrie has wonderful things to say about the power of relationships, the importance of creating a space where kids feel valued and empowered, and the joys of challenging the status quo. He is worth a follow on Twitter – his tweets often lift my spirits and I wish I could spend time in his classroom to feel what his students must feel. In a later tweet, Susan had this to say:

“I strive to have authentic relationships with students but often slip back into transaction/power/control mode, especially as the days wear on me. It’s easy to build relationship when students are happy and doing well, but when you hit opposition or struggle, it’s so much harder.”

These words resonated with me because they described exactly how I have felt SO many times this year. After having taught a course many times, it is easy (and convenient!) to put your hands on an old lesson or activity when there just isn’t time to reinvent something else new. These slips are OK – we are humans, and need to take care of ourselves – but while listening to the podcast I was thinking about how a greater shift in the way of doing things might help me stay on track…and I was thinking that I am getting there, bit by bit.

In one of my classes (Biology) I have been continually frustrated by the moments that seem so traditional, but somehow necessary, since I haven’t figured out how to shake them off. So, for the unit we started today (Evolution), I have been working on a completely new way of thinking about things. I was motivated by the following (among other things):

  • Too much documentation work required of me, not enough done/owned by the students (leading to me ‘slipping back’ into old habits)
  • Despite my best efforts, I was not really offering enough in the way of student choice
  • My students are getting better at having meaningful conversations, and I want to keep that going

So, for the Evolution Unit, I started to develop a sort of ‘activity menu’ that students could select from. The activities are categorized by learning goal (I have 6 overall learning goals for that unit) and each tells the student how much time the activity will likely take and whether it is suited to independent or group work. The activities each have a ’tile’ that looks like this:

Humans love to categorize things, and in my desire to organize things in a thoughtful way, I had two criteria in mind:

  • how creative the activity requires the student to be
  • what depth of thinking is required by the student

With this in mind, I have put the activities on a grid that looks like this:

So, from left to right we move from less creative to more creative endeavours. From top to bottom, we go from knowledge-based activities (important to build understanding) down to in-depth research, discussion, and analysis that will challenge my students and offer them a rich way to engage with the material.

The scale on the left hand side is based on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) (here’s a reference I grabbed quickly…just Google it to find out more). I liked the simple language and could easily categorize the tasks this way. The categories at the top simple describe the type of task: read/watch/write, interact, or create.

Knowing that a balance of all of these types of activities is important, I am currently determining what the requirements will be for choosing from the grid

  • certainly I’d like to see students to at least one activity from each row (surface understanding to deeper understanding)
  • students need evidence for each of the learning goals
  • considering whether to require activities from 2/3 or all three columns; thoughts?
For documentation, students will be using Google Keep. Thanks to @sashwoodedu for the suggestion and to @MsJenLachapelle and @MsMdance for an amazing conversation about where we can take assessment. Connecting with people is how great ideas are born!
OK, so after documenting in Google Keep, my idea was for students to create a portfolio of their understanding in Evolution. I was a bit stuck on this…couldn’t really see how to organize it…and then saw this:
Many thanks to @MrSurti for sharing this at just the right moment! I can’t wait to learn more from @robintg. 🙂

So, my students and I co-created some success criteria for what ‘quality work’ looks like (needed something more generic since they will all be curating different types of activities). The current iteration of the Evolution Portfolio looks like this:

On the first page, students identify which artifacts are evidence of their learning (of Evolution learning goals and also some overall course learning goals).

The second page gives them some guidelines re: self-evaluation. I want them to consider how much they know, but also the quality of the evidence they are sharing.

Starting on the third page, students will select and share their evidence from Google Keep. I included an image from @robintg (shared by @MrSurti), and tomorrow in class we will model how to select and add evidence to the portfolio. 

Whew! That was longer than I thought.

Thank you SO MUCH to all of the amazing educators that helped this idea come to life. I look forward to letting you all know how it goes! 🙂

Student Voice in Science

I have been thinking about ways I can invite student voice into my Science classroom. Here are a things I have found valuable so far this year.

Revisiting Lab Notebooks
Many years ago, I asked that my Chemistry students keep a lab notebook to use for lab work. The purpose of the notebooks, at that time, was for students to record their data during the lab activity, then to write their ‘lab report’ in the notebook when the activity was over. I abandoned this practice at some point, finding the stack of lab notebooks made a formidable marking pile that I dreaded tackling. I think now that it may have been the monotony of marking 30 or 60 identical labs that I was actually dreading.

This year, my grade 12 students are using lab notebooks for some of their lab activities. Their first use of their notebooks was during our first learning cycle when they were asked to design and perform an experiment to electroplate a metal object. I made it clear to my students that their lab notebook was a place to record their questions, summarize research findings, create (and modify) a plan for their experiment, record and analyze data, and answer a few questions about their experiment, results, and process. I asked that they make their thinking clear and organized in the notebook, with headings to help guide the reader through their thinking process.

It was wonderful to have so much student thinking visible during and after the lab activity. These photos were taken when I was assessing the lab activity, and aren’t great quality, but illustrate a couple of things I really liked. This first image shows some great student thinking. This student actually labeled some of their ‘Questions:’ (right side of page) and based on their questions and preliminary research came up with an ‘IDEA,’ I love the science thinking that is visible in the left margin as the student wonders about experimental variables. The diagrams make the planning process more visible, as I can see the student’s revisions along the way.

This second example shows some very detailed notes a student made during their experiment. Rather than create a formal observation table (there will be a time for that; this lab was not that time!) this lab activity involved a great deal of tweaking and experimentation, and students made good use of the freedom to record and report results in whatever manner worked best for them. Notice that this example is ‘Attempt#1,’ followed by ‘Attempt #2,’ and that ‘Attempt #3’ is referenced near the lower right side of the page. Great example of iteration and attention to detail.
Marking these labs was a pleasure, as I could learn a great deal about how a student’s thinking evolved throughout the process. Usually, this evolution in thinking has been invisible to me, hidden behind a shiny, polished lab report. Another advantage is that the notebook lets me into the thinking of all students, not just the ones who ask the most questions during class time. I am definitely looking forward to revisiting the lab notebooks throughout the course to get a taste of student thinking.
Feedback for Me
This year I have been trying to make sure I give students opportunities to give me feedback. I already shared some survey answers from my 12U classes in a previous post, and thought I’d share some of my grade 9 students’ comments from a round of feedback they gave me last week. As with my grade 12 students, there are some mixed feelings about the lack of number grades, but the comments made me smile. I’d like to make this a regular thing; I like that all students have a voice when I invite written feedback rather than verbal feedback. Students seem much less shy about sharing their opinions.

Students Mapping the Curriculum
Last week as we started our study of Space, I asked my grade 9 class to consider the benefits and drawbacks of space exploration and share questions they had about the possibility of humans colonizing Mars. We compiled a list of questions, and students then worked in groups to identify curriculum connections that related to the questions they had generated. The most exciting part of this process was that we were not only mapping expectations from the Space strand; I included expectations from Ecology and Electricity as well, so as students investigate questions about Mars colonization we will be uncovering curriculum for three different strands of Science.

Most students didn’t have too much difficulty identifying connections between questions and the curriculum expectations; the expectations were in the original language, so there were many words they needed to unpack through discussion with each other. The following day, the students’ questions went up on the wall with the related curriculum expectations. The expectations are colour coded by unit so we can see how the topics relate to each of the strands.

OK, that’s it for now. 🙂 More on gradeless classroom next time!

Ideas and Action (after the Anger)

I have been reflecting about the power I have to drive positive change in my school board – the ‘action’ part of the #makeschooldifferentconversation. I enjoyed reading @Dunlop_Sue’s ‘So Now What?’ post that addresses this issue, and thought that I should write explicitly about what I can do to address some of the issues I raised in my original #makeschooldifferent post. Although I am one person, my central role gives me the potential to reach a large number of teachers and students, and I want to make sure I am carrying out my work with purpose.
The following is a list of four things that have become important to me in my work with teachers this year. These are things that I have grown passionate about. These are things that I love to discuss and debate with my colleagues. These are the things that I read about in my spare time. These are the things that I want to focus on in the months to come.
Professional Learning for the Love of It!
One of the frustrations I have voiced this year is the perceived reluctance of some teachers to push their own learning forward. Ideally, school culture would place a high importance on continual improvement in teaching practice and growth in the ability to use new technology in the classroom. Members of my team have run three free events this year to help create an environment that encourages learning for learning’s sake. EdcampBarrie, PUSH Your Learning Conference (featuring GAFE), and our upcoming Arts, Equityand Innovation Conference. These events have helped create a community of learners, and I look forward to seeing this type of learning continue in our school board. In my work with schools I want to help create communities of learning where the staff embraces the challenge to continually improve their practice without direct (and prescribed!) instruction from someone like me.
In my 11 years of teaching before this year, my assessment practices changed dramatically. Interestingly, I believe that my personal growth in the last 8 months has exceeded that of the previous 11 years. My understanding of triangulation of assessment has improved considerably. I know more about how to make use of digital tools to create a more complete picture of students’ learning. I am intrigued by the notion of ‘standards-based’ grading and the opportunity it allows teachers to shift their practice and provide more meaningful feedback. I have discovered that assessment can be a touchy subject, but I am prepared to have challenging discussions with teachers and encourage them to push their thinking.
Advocate for Student Voice
At the start of the year, @lowenesst was the person who brought the significance of student voice to my attention. Her advocacy for students was evident in many formal and informal meetings and her voice invariably helped us focus on what was most important. Now I find that I have internalized Louise’s message and find myself asking people to consider student voice (and choice). Some of my key growth moments this year have occurred in conversations with students, and I want to encourage teachers to engage in the kinds of conversations that will allow students to help drive change in our schools.
Inquiry-Based Learning
Working with teachers who are navigating the world of inquiry-based learning with their students has been challenging and rewarding. Giving students control over their learning while honouring the curriculum can present enormous challenges for first-timers. Imagining a classroom where exploration and creation (think Makerspace) are an integral part of the learning culture has huge potential to transform the student experience. I know can support teachers in building students’ inquiry learning skills and mindsets and encourage the teachers to take ‘safe’ risks as they get started in inquiry.

What are you doing to help #makeschooldifferent in your classroom, school, or school board? Share your ideas for how to take action!

How much do you value student voice?

This year our school board joined the global New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NPDL) initiative, and at a day-long event to launch the project we invited students and parents from participating schools to join our discussions about how we envisioned transforming education in our schools. It felt refreshing to have students and parents at the table with teachers and administrators. This was the first time that I had been at an event where all stakeholders were present, and the resulting change in the flavour and focus of our discussions was positive. Near the end of the day, the room was filled with positive energy and the teachers and administrators felt ready to go back to our schools and do some transformative work. Big dreams, big ideas, big questions.

We were all brought back to Earth abruptly when a student (who had been invited to reflect on the day) shamelessly stated his opinion about the event. To paraphrase, he had not had a good day, and stated specifically that we had spent too much time sitting, talking, watching videos and listening to presenters. (He may have gone so far as to say that the day seemed pointless, though I may not be remembering this clearly.) The student’s comments took our breath away, but we knew he was completely correct before he had finished speaking. On that day, the presence of the students had been valuable to us and enriched our discussions but the day was not designed to be particularly valuable to the students. We listened to some of their ideas and their presence helped us stay focused on our purpose but in their eyes they had been little more than decorative. Not good.


This morning a colleague and I had the pleasure of sitting down with some students to do some planning for our next board-wide NPDL event. We did our best to listen to their concerns and ideas and let them lead the way in creating a plan for the 40 students who will attend our event next month. With their help, we will be able to provide an experience that students will value and we are certain that their voice will not be lost in the stream of ‘edu-babble’ that often saturates days like these. I don’t want to give anything away about the specific plans (more to blog about after the event!) but was compelled to write this post because of the questions that bubbled up when I reflected on my day:

How often have I asked students ‘big questions’ about what they need to help them learn?

How many students in our schools think that their opinions about their learning are valued?

How much value do I place on student voice in my classroom?

If I say that I value student voice, how can I show that I have used it to inform my teaching?

What role does student voice play in driving key decisions at the system level?

If you’re looking for inspiration or for the motivation to make a change, take a moment in the next few days to ask some students their views on their education. Ask them what they need from you to improve their learning experience and make sure that you really listen to their answers. Use the students’ ideas to make your classroom, school, or system work better for them. 

 Not sure if this is a good idea? In the words of a wise father of a dear friend: 

“Can’t hurt. Might help.”

(Good advice in many situations, including this one.)