Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Final Thoughts on the Science and Technology PBL

In my previous post, I wrote that I was afraid the students lost the history part of the assignment.  Upon reading their documentary proposals, I was right.  There was a lot of discussion about NOW, but not so much about how the scientific or technological development impacted HISTORY.  I have compiled a list of what I will change for next year if I am lucky enough to teach the course again.

Ideas to Improve for Next Year:

1.  Use one or two documentary proposals from this year as exemplars.  This way, students will have an idea of what needs to be included and will also have an idea of how to improve upon last year's students.  For example, on the exemplars, I will note comments about how they could have been improved.  This way I can show the students where more of the history could have been incorporated.

2.  Students will have, as a follow up to the brainstorming about "best", an informal discussion with me about how their development fits into the criteria they determined for "best".

3.  I will "Gini-Newmanize" the assignment.  To truly decide what is best, I will have students brainstorm a short list of possible best developments so that they have developments to compare against.  I think this will foster more critical thinking.

4.  Students will have practice answering questions about their work in informal settings.  They have been completing debriefs after each assignment, so I may make the questions more specific or I might have more informal presentations where an expectation will be for students to ask each other questions.  I also plan on using blogging, so that will also be a way for students to read and respond to each others' work.

Ideas I'm Proud of and Will Keep Doing:

1.  I'm glad that the students worked with partners or small groups.  I got to see different aspects of the students, as some took on definite leadership roles.  Students also got to experience negotiating with their group members and reaching compromises.  I also had one student make a difficult decision and break off from his partner because he wasn't doing any work and was holding him back.

2.  I liked having a teacher panel come in.  The students took the one-minute pitches more seriously because they had an authentic audience.  I also think that it is important for students to share their work.  One student commented to me that he liked having the opportunity to see what his classmates were working on.

3.  I liked going beyond the essay or the research report.  I think having students write and present for different reasons and audiences strengthens their ability to communicate ideas.

I think with some tweaks and experience, I can improve this unit.  My goal is to bring PBL to my other units and other courses.

Reflecting on Science and Technology PBL

I started off designing this task with a lot of excitement.  I had great visions in my head...engaged students deeply learning about the historical impact of science and technology on our world.

We started off by discussing the impact of science and technology on our personal lives.  I figured this would be a way for students to see that, even if they "hate" science like one student told me, science and technology influenced their everyday lives in a positive manner.  Some students talked their cell phones or laptops and others discussed how medical advances impacted their lives.

This led into the discussion of "best".  We brainstormed what "best" meant and how we could decide if a scientific or technological development was the "best".  You can see their work in the photo above.

To prepare for our work, we did some textbook work to get some background information and we also looked at the curriculum expectations that our tasks were supposed to illuminate.  Since the task was to write a documentary proposal, we watched a documentary in class, so that we had a frame of reference for what a documentary looks like.  Obviously, the students have viewed many documentaries, but this gave all of us the same reference point.  While watching the documentary, which was "Christianity: God and the Scientists", we used TodaysMeet as a back channel.  I value the use of a back channel while watching a documentary because it allows real time discussion of key points and engages the quieter students.

To allow the students an authentic audience for their work, they had to create one-minute pitches to sell their documentary.  I invited teachers in to see the pitches and to ask the students questions.  This made me nervous, because I feel it puts my teaching on display to my colleagues and I didn't want to mess up or appear to be a crappy teacher.  In hindsight, asking my colleagues to come in was a good idea, as it seemed to force some of the students to take the work more seriously because teachers they had before would be seeing their work.  They don't want to impress me; they want to impress last year's teacher!  It was fun hearing students (in a panicked voice), "I know Mr. Richards is going to ask this.  We have to have an answer."  Or "Mr. Nelson's coming?  Now I'm nervous".  Or "Mrs. King's intense!"

What I really enjoyed about this task was listening to the students collaborate.  At the beginning of the task, I sat down with each group to help them create a task list, so each student knew what they were responsible for.  I backed off checking in with them towards the end, because I could heard each group working together, challenging each other and coming up with solutions.  One day towards the end of the project, the students were working so intently that when the bell rang, most of them were visibly startled.  (This gives me an idea for a new post: The Problem with Bells.)

My concern about this task is that I forgot the "history" part of the unit.  Yes, at the beginning we talked about Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, etc. and discussed how technology played a role in the Industrial Revolution.  I'm afraid that in their work the students focused too much on present day and not the historical progression of how the technology changed society.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Actually PBLing...if that's a verb

At the beginning of the month, I blogged about my desire to try Project Based Learning with my Grade 12 history class. I introduced the task last Thursday and so far, so good.  The first couple of days were devoted to discussing the curriculum expectations, establishing common understandings and defining the word "best".
The students easily created their groups, and most selected their topic quickly.  One group had some difficulty because they didn't want a topic that was "too easy".  I LOVE that they wanted a challenge.  
The first day we went to the library was quite uncomfortable for me and for some of the students.  They wanted me to TELL them what a documentary proposal was...and my heart started beating quickly because I felt like I was letting them down because I wouldn't tell them.  (I had given them some leads as to where to look to find out.)
Today was excellent.  I sat down with each group and discussed their progress so far and gave them some suggestions about dividing up tasks and making use of Google Docs to collaborate.  One student asked if he could create evidence during the conference.  I was taken aback, because while the task is creative, it is IMPERATIVE that the evidence be factual.  I soon figured out that he didn't actually want to imagine the evidence, but rather compile various statistics to support his argument.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  I have also noticed students who don't appear to be leaders, take a leadership role in their group.  Additionally, one group is created from students who I don't even think spoke to each other previous to this task.  They seem to mesh really well and I am excited to see their progress.
In my previous blog post, I asked about converting a Word Document (that has a "sophisticated" table in it) to a Google Doc.  I couldn't find a way to make it work.  Using the Word Document provided by the Buck Institute for Education, I created a PBL template in Google Docs.  Feel free to use it.  It is at this link:

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Trying Out PBL

So I am going to be trying project-based learning for the next unit in my Grade 12 history class.  So far, I have had my students work on defining and designing their own assignments, so that they have choice about what they are going to focus on.  Up to the actual assignment, I have been directing their learning via focused questions, textbooks, readings, group work and videos/documentaries.

The next unit focuses on science and technology in world history from 1500 to present.  With such a huge time frame and the fact that the course looks at the West and the world, it would be impossible to teach deeply anything of real significance.  Instead, I am going to have students, in partners or small groups, research a scientific or technological development that is of interest to them.

I am really quite nervous about doing this.  I gained some confidence from reading Ted McCain's book, Teaching for Tomorrow and the Buck Institute for Education's resources regarding PBL.  I found the Buck Institute for Education's online resources to be invaluable.

See the link below for my unit.  Any feedback is appreciated. (Note: I prefer to use Google Docs, but I couldn't upload the BIE's planner nicely into Google Docs because of the tables.  Does anyone know of a simple way to transfer Word tables to Google Docs?)

What have been your experiences with PBL?  Do you have any suggestions or tips for me?


What do numeric grades really tell us?

This past week, I attended ECOO 2012, which is a conference in Ontario regarding technology in the classroom.  Not all of the sessions focus on technology, though.  I attended one session that didn't focus on technology, but rather on student assessment.  The speaker was Scott Kemp, an English teacher in the Wateroo Region District School Board.
I found Scott's session to be informative and challenging.  It informed me of a way to more authentically evaluate my students' work and it challenged me to think about how I can change my grading practices.  Before the session I had been doing some thinking about how superficial specific grades are.  What is the difference between 81% and 82%?  What does an 82% paper have that an 81% paper doesn't?
I think that numeric marking is here to stay, but in Ontario, we only need to give numeric marks twice a semester (midterm and final).  My goal for second semester (I don't feel comfortable starting a new way of grading in the middle of the semester) is to focus on providing students with useful feedback, but no number grade.  Like Scott, I will provide a numeric grade only at the required times, and the numbers will only be in increments of 5% (ie. 75%, 80%, 85%).  I plan on documenting my students' work more thoroughly, especially through the use of teacher-student conferences.
I am not putting these new (to me) ideas on complete hold until second semester.  This week end, I was marking Grade Nine English ISU assignments.  I focused on providing useful feedback and I looked at the rubric and assigned a grade based on where most of the check marks fell and I only used increments of 5%.  Additionally, my Grade Twelve History class is starting on a presentation task tomorrow.  I created a "checklist" to guide my student-teacher conferences, as a way to keep track of the formative feedback I will give the students while working on the presentations.
How are you evaluating your students' tasks?  What are your thoughts about numeric grades?  Do you think it is possible to get rid of numeric grades completely?

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Today's PD--More about 21st Century Skills

I attended round two of PD with Allison Zmuda, but this time I was with the Canadian and World Studies department.  I thought that the sessions were supposed to be the same, but I found them to be quite different.  Allison's approach today was different in that our discussion seemed to be more concrete and delved more deeply into the various 21st century learning skills. 

The skills became clearer as we applied them to authentic tasks that can be used in the history classroom.  For example, our department decided that key skills we want our students to have by the end of high school are: critical thinking, communication, information literacy and self-direction/initiative.  I believe that we always knew that we wanted our students to have these skills, but we didn't have clear language or a continuum to articulate exactly what we wanted.  We also knew that these skills were important because when we went through the variety of authentic tasks, the tasks we chose lined up with these skills. 

Our next step is to look at the great tasks we have already developed to ensure that they align with the authentic tasks we selected.  For example, one of the authentic tasks that we selected is a performance or product.  The law course culminates in a mock trial.  It seems obvious that the mock trial is a performance, but we have to ensure that it meets the skills associated with a performance or product task.  Another example is the document analyses completed in CHC 2D1 and CHY4U1.  We have to ensure that our students are actually analysing the document to develop an explanation or interpretation.  It isn't a matter of reading the document and answering questions about it.

At the end of the session, Lisa and I stayed behind to talk with Allison a bit more.  The discussion came to effective rubrics.  I often struggle with making rubrics student-friendly.  In fact, I find that rubrics can also be teacher-unfriendly.  It is hard to qualify limited, some, considerable, effectively and many other adjectives used in rubrics.  Allison gave some clear examples of friendly language, such as "The mistakes are so annoying it is difficult to focus on the ideas."  (I'm paraphrasing.)  But the point is this,  that is a clear Level 1. It is much clearer than "Spelling and grammar are used with limited effectiveness."

By the end of the day, I was so overwhelmed by all of the information and by all of the tasks I want to complete.  I am going to set small goals for myself to improve my assessments and rubrics.  For example, I need to develop an assignment for CHC2P1.  I am going to focus on designing this one assignment and rubric using my new knowledge and not beat myself up that I want to work on so many more assignments and different rubrics. 

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Yesterday's PD--21st Century Skills

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a PD session with Alison Zmuda with my English department colleagues.  (Tomorrow I'm with my Canadian and World Studies colleagues).  The topic of conversation was 21st century skills.

I thought that many interesting ideas were brought up.  For example, Zmuda stated that 21st century skills are a reinterpretation of skills from the ancient world.  Skills that were important "back then", including effective communication, critical and creative thinking, and collaboration, are still important today.  What has changed, though, is the way people do these skills.  To explain, people need to be cognizant of the variety of ways to communicate and how to effectively utilize and manage these ways (tools) of communication.  Additionally, critical and creative thinking is even more important today, I would argue, because of the vast amounts of information that we are exposed to on a daily basis.  Collaboration has also changed.  We have new tools to help us collaborate.  No longer do we need to be sitting in the same room with our collaborators.

Another interesting idea was the belief that learning needs to be personalized.  As educators, I think that this is so important.  If students have an interest in and a connection to their learning, they will be more successful.  The learning has meaning for them.  I also think that it is interesting that we are encouraged to personalize learning for our students, but oftentimes, teachers aren't afforded the same opportunity.  We are told what we need to be learning in order to become better teachers.  Many teachers wish that they could be supported in developing their craft.  They also wish that they could be afforded the time to pursue their own personal learning.  Fortunately, I have the right balance.  I am afforded the opportunity to participate in PD that is important to makng ODSS even better and I get to participate in PD that is of interest to me and supported by my school and board.  (I'm sure I will have a few blog posts about my PLP experience!)

Zmuda posed a thought-provoking question (paraphrased), what does the Ontario Secondary School Diploma signify?  I find this question very challenging to answer.  If you listen to some folks, the OSSD isn't worth the paper it is written on.  They argue that students are simply pushed through the school system to satisfy a government initiative to graduate x-number of students.  I wonder if the reason these people don't value the OSSD is because students aren't graduating with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in today's world.  This is where I struggle.  We know what skills we want our students to internalize, but how do we teach our students these skills?

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Kids are All Right

Oftentimes people complain about younger generations, teenagers in particular.  They are selfish, lazy, inconsiderate, insert any other negative generalization.

Today I had three examples of proof that the kids (teenagers) are all right.

Example #1:
A student in my Grade 12 history class emailed me to let me know that he had strep throat and would be missing most of this week.  He wanted to know what work he could complete at home, so he wouldn't be behind.  This is proof that teenagers aren't all lazy and irresponsible.

Example #2:
I was walking down the hall carrying four or five heavy textbooks, a binder, my agenda and pencil case.  It was a heavy and awkward load.  A student (who I only know vaguely) noticed my struggle and offered to help carry some of my load.  This is proof that teenagers are not the self-involved beings that people often rail against.

Example #3:
A student in my grade nine class walks past my desk every day, at the end of class, on the way out to lunch.  He always pauses, smiles and says "Thank you."  This melts my heart.  His "thank you" makes my day.  He probably doesn't realize how awesome this make me feel.  This is proof that teenagers can be considerate.

These three examples happened on a Monday BEFORE lunch.  What an awesome way to start the week.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The First Week

I was quite nervous to be returning to teaching after having 14 months off.  Colleagues told me that it would be like riding a bike...it will come right back.  I doubted them.  I shouldn't have.  The first 15 minutes of Block A were kind of awkward, then I was right back in the groove.  It was like I didn't leave, except that when I go home, I have two babies to look after instead of just myself.

The first week was exhausting, but fun.  I feel so fortunate that I can say that my "job" is actually fun.  I'm teaching two courses that I've never taught before, which stressed (stresses?) me out.  So far I'm really enjoying the content of the classes.  It also helps that my students seem to be eager to learn.  So far.