Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Power of Essential Questions

One thing that I love about our curriculum design is the prompting of "essential questions" which link to curricular standards but provide some interesting topics to discuss as a class and write about. With each student having their own Google doc, each student can answer their essential questions in a way that makes sense to them.

Yesterday, we observed microscopic protists in a drop of pond water. When the students were finished, they washed their samples down the drain. I asked students how they felt about "killing" thousands of life forms. Many of them laughed. I went further to ask "How many of you have stepped on an insect on purpose?" Everyone raised their hand. This brought us to our essential question:

Why are some living things worth "saving" more than others? For example, why do we want to save a polar bear from extinction rather than a pathogen or AIDS virus?

Students frantically wrote answers. Here are some notables from my 11 year old sixth graders:

I think one of the reason’s why we don’t care about bacteria, pathogen, aids virus, and others, since they are small. And so most people can’t see it or don’t know about it. And I also think aids, pathogen, and other virus and bacteria can reproduce and spread much faster than our animals now. And the animals we have now are more rare, then they have of bacteria, aids, virus and much. Since the population of a bacteria, aids, and virus are huge, we are not afraid it will die off soon.

Bacteria can be a decomposer so it very little of them but for a ant we don’t care if we kill it because it reproduce foaster so it has more population and the big things reproduce slowly.

For little organisms, people think that they won’t extinct because usually many little things reproduce many of them at once or they reproduce very fast. Also, we care about things that we can see, the ones that they are easily seen. 

I think it is because that there are a lot of  AIDS virus . Like there is a tons of virus in one room. But like a polar bear it is instinct. And bacteria reproduce quickly but humans and animals can’t reproduce quickly.

Following our group share and discussion I left the class thinking about whether or not it is human nature to protect or destroy. Perhaps its in our own nature to do one or the other. However, since we so callously destroy life that is small and insignificant and don't bat an eye, perhaps this explains why the poor are marginalized in society, the weak students are bullied, and we discredit the accomplishments of the smallest things. My students walked out of class a little quieter than usual, not doubt pondering such dilemmas and knowing that the choice of course was each of theirs. The lesson connected science to their own humanity and allowed to reflect on empathy, respect and tolerance. Can a standardized test measure that?

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Targeting Instruction with Google Docs

Monday, 24 September 2012

Morphing into a student-centered environment

I've hit the ground running with flipped instruction this year. Almost all my parents that I've talked to have commented that their child likes the "open-endedness" of outside assignments. For those of you new to "flipping" the general consensus is that students take notes either from the a.) book, or b.) video. Although this might be a good starting point, I would suggest that you mix in a some differences in summarizing and reflections to make each assignment slightly different and interesting. Here's an example:
  1. Read pages 39-41
  2. Watch the video example of example problems 1, 2, 3 and 4.
  3. Take notes on these examples but in your native language! If you are Korean, take notes in Korean, Vietnamese? In Vietnamese?
  4. Explain what property you would use to solve "k" divided by 2.5 = 6
  5. Reflect: As this is the last assignment of our first unit, write down your thoughts of how math is going for you. How do you think you are adjusting? Keeping up with work alright?
I just finished the first unit of the year and it's been dynamite. I was slow to integrate tech because my students didn't even have laptops for the first two weeks of school so I was taking notes on old school butcher paper so they'd be visible in class for reference. No more.

Since students have started to learn the routine of the classroom and my expectations, I'm starting to vary up new approaches to learning. (I would consider some of what I did in my first unit pretty antiquated but some parents of new students that for their child, it's been a complete paradigm shift in learning)

As the class adapts, it's time to evolve. This evolution is to enhance the experience of debriefing and sharing student's thoughts on outside assignments. So far, I have been the primary facilitator of this process, but I'm shifting the responsibility onto the students for our next unit. For the video example, I've posted a similar assignment to the one above, although I'm adding a section below it entitled questions for discussion in class. Like this:
  1. Read page 64 to 65 of your textbook from the section 2.1 "Rational Numbers"
  2. Watch Videos from examples 1,2 and 3. Write two key points from each video.
  3. Write your own definitions to the following terms Rational Number, and Relatively Prime Number.
  4. Explain how you can be sure that a fraction is simplified.
  5. Connect in your own words how percentages, fractions and decimals are all "cousins". Use "Like" or "as" and write a simile of your own!
Questions for student discussion in class. You don't have to write answers to these, but think about them for the student centered discussion:
  1. Where do we use fractions in our daily lives? Examples?
  2. How could athletes use statistics such as fractions, decimals, and percents to improve their "game"?

The discussion questions are meant to connect the learning to life in order to foster an appreciation for math and make it relevant. By putting the onus on the students, the learning experience becomes student centered and gives more opportunities for leadership and development of intra and interpersonal skills. I'll be taking notes in the background that students can refer to later (imagine that, a teacher who takes notes on his students!) on a simple Inspiration Map that I can add to our Moodle page for reference later. I have some other ideas for homework debriefing such as Socrative Teacher but I shant pilot them till later units. I stepped up for some explanations of applications of this work and to summarize what was said, but my goal is to put the role of 'learner' on the student.

Approaches to learning cannot be static. I think a dynamic classroom is one full of constants and variables alike. As our world is rapidly changing, It makes sense for educators to introduce change to students as a constant process that knocks them off their comfort level and encourages them to take risks as being competitive in our rapidly changing world requires adaptability.

Related Posts
Making Flipped Lessons Meaningful
Using Homework Effectively

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Using the Zin Obelisk to teach problem solving

The seventh graders just completed the "Zin Obelisk Challenge". The challenge is akin to putting together a motorcycle in a pitch black room. One feels the parts lying around but can't see the full picture.

The focus is on completing a challenge utilizing problem solving strategies and transferring these over to a new situation. Research I've read on developing mathematical strategies recommends teaching them explicitly and then immediately asking students to apply them to new contexts. The work that students produced was rad, and there were many different ways of organizing information in order to break down a problem.

I've used the Zin Obelisk for four years now, and feel that I've just polished it to near perfection. It is a great tool for organizing seemingly unorganized information and it correlates nicely with a number of our learning standards related to "mathematical reasoning"

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Voice Thread

I love professional development. I'm in the middle of a 21st century learning workshop with Kim Cofino, an educator from Yokohama International School. We've been learning about this and that, but Mrs. Cofino worked some time into the schedule for "speedgeeking" wherein educators volunteer to share a technology tool and application. During speedgeeking, I learned about Voice Thread.

Voice Thread turns digital media into a collaborative experience. For instance, take this video below. I'm in a biology unit for my sixth grade science class. I could show this video through the blog, upload it to you tube, and even discuss it in class. Specifically, I want students to make a hypothesis on whether or not it is a member of the plant or animal kingdom.

Voice Thread makes the media more interactive. For starters, I can upload an image or video and make narrations. For the example above, I want students to try and make some predictions, inferences and general thoughts on whether or not the organism above is a plant or animal.

With Voice Thread, I can upload the video to the site, make comments or drawings over it and invite students to do the same. I think it has some great applications as a formative assessment tool. For instance, a math teacher could upload a mere image of a graph and ask students to identify trends in the data. A language arts teacher could have a picture of a poem that they read out loud and invite students to comment on, using language arts strands. In the example below, I've uploaded the same video to Voice Thread, asked students to comment on the question through text or audio and the conversation is all contained and organized around the media.

The downside is that every user gets three free uploads. After that, they have to delete old Voice Threads or upgrade for a 79$ a year subscription. Perhaps something for your school's wish list?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Suzy Gets Organized

I think all middle school teachers can relate to this exchange. I seem to be having many of these moments in the early weeks of school. Take heed my brethren, eventually, it becomes easier.

On this tech side of this post, if you've never made an Xtranormal video, they are SO easy. However, the best characters and backgrounds do cost a little bit.

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Suzy Gets Organized
by: gjohnston1976

The Power of the Practice Test

As my math class comes to the end of our first unit, I'm preparing students for our final unit test through a practice test. I'm a big fan of project based learning and alternative assessments, but old school summative assessments are the most reliable form of measuring student learning and lets face it: students need to learn good test preparation for high school and college.

An overemphasis on testing is all the rage in the education blogosphere. Testing and more testing seems to be the bane of many educators and parents alike. However, if done well, tests can give some valuable insight through data indicators of student learning. In many schools, the solution is unfortunately more testing, but I think that testing can be an opportunity for helping identify student weaknesses. Unfortunately, they often happen after they're administered.

Offering a Practice Test
A couple of years ago, I started offering a "practice test" before all my major assessments. I collected data on student achievement and found that students did far better on my end of unit tests after doing a practice test ahead of time. Obviously, they take time and effort to develop and if your curriculum is tight, you might find the time a luxury. However, in addition to higher scores from my own data, students too felt by the end of the year that their use was invaluable.

Tips for Developing Practice Tests
  • Have the practice test be similar to, but not the same as the final test. The key in this is that there is "transfer" of skill and abilities from one to the other. No one wants to "teach to the test" but having similar problems is great preparation afterwards.
  • Develop high quality assessments. Most math curriculums will have standards regarding mathematical reasoning and it is these standards which students will most likely practice in life. We want students to develop into good problem solvers, and although there will be some numerical problems, having open ended word problems with more than one correct answer is a great measure of a student's ability to utilize problem solving strategies.
  • Have some "essential questions" for student to reflect on. We use "Understanding by Design" curriculum with some overarching questions that tie into the big ideas of each unit. The questions are open ended, and inquisitive. I use "Google Docs" and have each student keep track of their learning. With "Google Docs" each student can answer essential questions on their own document and have a record of the curriculum. 
  • Allow time to debrief the practice test. The practice test is the last homework assignment of the unit and we'll spend the entire period answering essential questions, self-grading the practice test with the answer key, and having a final meet with the teacher. I have a review packet for interested students, but the purpose of having a whole class session is for students to have one more opportunity to get that final "OK". I can review the student's curriculum guide, mid unit quiz, practice test, old assignments and make sure that all students feel more confident. 
Offering a practice test will not help every student immediately. I've found that some students take a few units to realize its power and usefulness. I've had a few students few the years that felt they needed to inflate their practice test scores (even though they're not graded) in an effort to look good and then do poorly on the final test later. These disparities brought student to my attention and statistically, and eventually, I learned ways to help their confidence and skills. Class averages were ALWAYS higher on the final test following a similar practice test so I concluded that it was a great learning tool, one that I learned to always make time for.

As we're currently using data to help drive instructional practices, this is an easy one for educators to do. Consider using a practice test for an upcoming unit or in preparation for a project. If you use the same assessment compare the scores from a unit from which you offered a practice test and another from a unit you did not.

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Monday, 10 September 2012

Modelling Finch Feeding to Teach Evolution

I've struggled to teach evolution. Not in any ideological way, but as as science teacher, I've found that I've merely paid it "lip service" with some flimsy examples. I have a host of fossil replicas that suggest change over time, but the agent of change is subtle and change very slow over time.

Teaching evolution is definitely in my teaching standards: 
  1. The diversity and changing of life forms over many generations is the result of natural selection, in which organisms with adaptive traits survive, reproduce, and pass those traits to offspring. 
  2. The life processes of organisms are affected by their interactions with each other and their environment, and may be altered by human manipulation.
I've taught evolution in the past by using x rays to compare similar skeletal structures, compare DNA similarities of related species and study the work of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, especially his finches. Despite all of this, I felt there was gaps in the understanding. For example, I wanted to better model the concept of adaptive traits and how subtle variations in populations is a slow catalyst for them to evolve. I wanted students to "see" evolution in action, and I wanted to create an activity that showed:
  1. How small mutations of living things create similar living things
  2. How these new species move into new environments and utilize new food sources
  3. How new traits can be adaptive or non-adaptive
  4. Data that students could collect that shows a correlation between all of the above
I've done an activity over the years called "observing evolution" but feel that I've really polished this this year with my collegue Brett MacRury, a high school biology teacher. I won't lie to you; the activity is complicated. But, my goal is to make this complexity visible and distinguishable. I've decided to video tape some segments of the activity in action, but essentially, students act the role as "scientists" and study the "living things" (students playing the part of finches) in an environment. They collect data on their choice of habitat and food acquisition frequency.

Lesson: Observing Evolution

Warm Up
Take a virtual trip aboard the Beagle with Charles Darwin!
Share some of Darwin's observations on a Google Doc

Tell students that they are Charles Darwin. They've just arrived at the Galapagos Island and they are going to study the finches that live there. They will be collecting data on what type of finches live there, what they eat and look for trends and patterns in data that are collected and observed.

  • Different color shirts for each finch (4 different colors with 3 of each color) 12 total
  • 4 large pails: 1 at each table. Have each pail labelled as a specific island of the Galapagos such as Santa Cruz, Isabella, Baltra, and San Cristobal.
  • A variety of implements to be the different beaks, (small spoon knife, poker, fork, tweezers)
  • A number of items for food (Sequins, styrofoam balls, marbles)
  • A food collection cup (Best if it's a necklace hung around the neck)
  • Clipboards for student scientists

Introducing the Activity

Tell the students that you will be observing a species of finch. Have a volunteer be the first 'finch'. This first generation of finch will try to get as much food as they can in 30 seconds. Afterwards, the finch will tell us how many food items that they collected and what type of food that they ate. If they gather and eat enough food, they reproduce. As scientists, note which island that they did their feeding at. Collect data on a simple "Google Spreadsheet" and graph and look for quick trends between generations.Google Spreadsheet is a great tool, for if you have some data that is rapidly changing, you can instantly create a new chart to show these changes.

After generation 1, add another member to the same species, rinse and repeat. You may also choose integrate the concept of "carrying capacity" of an island. Eventually, introduce a new species with a new implement that is the mutation; when released, this new species will find a food source at another island and find a underutilized food source. Some living things (like those that

The purpose of this activity is to see the connections that Darwin did. The reality of Darwin's work was that he formulated his theory for years after making observations and collecting specimens on the island. Eventually, Alfred Wallace contacted him with a similar theory and Darwin postulated the concept of "Natural Selection", namely that adaptive traits make it easier for certain organisms to survive which have a better chance of perpetuating their species.

Making the most from quizzes

I just had my first math quiz of the year. The average was 80% which is awesome, but the range was all over the place ranging from a low of 5 to high of a perfect 10 out of 10 points. Using a quiz to measure learning is nothing new to teachers, but there is much variance on how quizzes are used. I think that there are some good practices that can be done with formative assessments like quizzes, and if there is good follow up to using these tools, they can be a great snapshot of student understanding and identify areas of remediation and help diagnose student weaknesses.

We had a great inservice workshop last year with Tom Schimmer. Mr. Schimmer is a Canadian who wrote a great book called "10 Things that Matter from Assessment to Grading" which I think is one of the best books I've ever read on assessment practices. He has a great resource packet for educators that has a variety of rubrics for standards and outcome based understanding. Before I show how I've used some of these tools, I think it's important to identify myths about quizzes.

Myths about quizzes
  •  Kids understand their mistakes. Giving a quiz back indiscriminately and telling kids to "learn from their mistakes" is an assumption many educators make. Although we may make notes or even write down what the correct answer was on a particular problem, how are we to know if they can do it then by themselves after the matter?
  • Quizzes are about putting "something" in the gradebook. A mid unit quiz should not be about grading something to give the illusion of learning, but rather assessing foundational skills or understanding that are essential to higher understandings later on. 
Making the most from quizzes
  • Provide time to conference with students. I find that a 10-15 minute session at the beginning of the next class is great to debrief and meet with students. It's possible that 10-15 minutes is not enough time to completely debrief the assessment for some students, but if there is good record keeping, this can be finished during break time, office hours, or subsequent class sessions.
  • Have a record of how well students have "met" curricular objectives. I use a google doc that has our curriculum standards that students periodically make little amendments to throughout the unit. There are many different versions that can be done with this such as using numerical indicators, or learning targets. My quizzes are disaggregated by sections, so if students missed all the problems of a particular section, it becomes easy for me (and them) to recognize areas for remediation during a "one-on-one" session. It also gives the student more diagnostic criteria for review later in preparation for summative assessments. Down the line, instead of saying "Ok class, review for our test/final project" every student has a record of their own personalized curricular understanding. For instance, Johnny would know he should review some videos or do sample problems from 1.5 on subtracting integers, and Sally would know that she should review section 1.7 on solving equations by adding and subtracting.
  • Give students the ability to reflect on their own learning.  This is where Mr. Schimmer's work is dynamite. He gives a lot of ideas on some cover sheets that you might use with a variety of descriptors. In the example below, students reflect on whether the mistake was a "simple one" or a "major misunderstanding". Most educators like the idea of students being involved in the assessment process, (or even assessing themselves) but this method does not give a rubber stamp to learning and does not distort their grade through inflation.
  • Keep a record of conferences. There are many different versions of this, but basically, by keeping a record, a teacher has a document of follow up with student. I use a simple three ring binder that has a log sheet of what work we reviewed and some examples of follow up questions that I did with the student post quiz.

Quizzes are a snapshot of student learning, and learning from this data can relieve headaches down the line. All educators have had moments when they've felt they've successfully taught a concept with blazing inspiration only to feel deflated later following terrible quiz or test scores. If good records are kept and students have opportunities to learn from their mistakes, learning takes the form of student-centered reflection rather than teacher mouth pieced lip service. That's how to make the most out of learning. That's how to make most from quizzes.

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"Ten Things that Matter from Assessment to Grading"-Tom Schimmer

Saturday, 8 September 2012


I just started exploring Tumblebooks. They're like an online version of talking interactive picture books for kids. Our school has a subscription but the applications are fantastic. In addition to having a great library, users can post reviews of books, check out videos, it's awesome!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Classification and Taxonomy

We've just gotten into Classification and Taxonomy. You know. Kings play chess on fine glass stools?

I found this activity really made classification levels more apparent. What it did was ask students to take a deck of cards into two colors, then two suits, then values within each color and suit. As the levels of classification got broader, the number of individuals in each got less and less as well.

From this we made taxonomic key using some leaves around the school campus. Our first attempt so naturally there were some questions in the taxonomic process that need refinement, but that's learning!

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Balance Scale as a Math Metaphor

As students work their way through math in the elementary years, I notice one resounding thing they all have in common: they all write their answer to the side of an equation. Our grade 7 math program is a spring board to opportunities to take algebra but with multi-step equations, the grade 7 math year really aims to gets students to break out of old habits in math and start simplifying below an equation in steps.

I used some simple two pan balance scales as a metaphor for this model. Essentially, to keep an equation "balanced" you must do the same thing to both sides; albeit take 2 away from both sides or add 8 to both sides or take away "m" or add "n". For some students, the concept was a little weird.

Some students immediately got it. For some others, it is too great a paradigm shift and need a little more practice. Although one might argue that the end result is the most important thing in math, good problem solving habits set a good foundation for better skills development later on.

With this, some students more practice than others, but with enough practice, I'm confident they'll eventually come around. As anything in education, it's a process.