Monday, 11 February 2013

Reflections on Teaching CHY4U1

I was very nervous about teaching The West and the World (CHY4U1).  There is a lot to know and I was moving away from the typical essay/document study/seminar format.  In case I teach the class again, I want to make note of the things that I think worked and the things that need to be improved upon or completely dismissed.

1.  For the 2013 school year, the Ministry of Education changed the course to "World History".  As a result, I think the big idea will need to change to better reflect the curriculum expectations.  I could be wrong and won't know until the new curriculum documents are released.

2.  I decided to stray from a chronological framework.  The main reason I decided to structure the course thematically is to allow students the opportunity to learn about what they were interested in.  I felt that a chronological structure (first we learn about the Enlightenment, then Romanticism, etc.) would limit the students' choice, because they would have to stick to a topic that was applicable to just the time period we were studying.  Additionally, in a course that covers 500 years, the more recent history often gets missed.  This happens in the grade 10 course and we're only dealing with 100 years of one nation's history!!

Because the course was structured thematically, I thought the students needed some chronological framework.  As a result, we completed a collaborative Google Document to get some basic background about the various time periods.  The document is here.  For some reason, I felt that the students needed to have a quiz.  Why?  My reason is admittedly lame...ensure that the students learned the material.  Obviously, a quiz of this nature doesn't really measure a student's learning.  In the future, I would encourage students to complete the task and use it as reference as needed.  My true goal was to have students create a framework to refer to, not to know the minute details.

3.  Right off the bat, we worked on defining the Western world.  I think this was an important task because it introduced the students to the various interpretations of what constitutes the Western world.  Depending on the curriculum changes, this may not be necessary.  If this definition is necessary, I would not have the students write an essay.  I think an analytical paragraph would suffice.  I had the students complete an essay because I knew that they wouldn't be writing a formal essay.  I was fearful of removing an essay completely from a grade 12 university preparation course.  Upon reflection, a short essay at the beginning doesn't really do anything of substance to prepare the students.  I would rather focus on the skills that an essay attempts to get at:  creating and defending an argument using appropriate evidence.  The essay assignment is here.

4.  Throughout the course, students completed three document analyses.  These were completed in class.  If I teach the course again, I would continue with the document analyses.  I think it is important for students to engage in primary sources because they encourage students to read materials closely, think critically and express themselves in a clear and concise manner.

5.  The first unit of study was Revolution.  This unit and the second unit about war were more traditional because the content was teacher-driven.  I chose to do this because I wanted to gradually give the students more control to self-direct their learning.  We focused on the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.  I wouldn't change the summative task, which was the creation of a pamphlet.  Students had complete freedom to choose a revolution of their choice to study.  Additionally, as a class, we created the parameters of the task.  The templates used to design the task were based on Ted McCain's book Teaching for Tomorrow.  The assignment is here. 

I didn't want the summative task to assess the content that the students learned about the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.   I am more interested in assessing the skills the students have developed.  These skills include the ability to complete research and synthesize that research into a well supported argument.  That doesn't mean that the content doesn't matter...the content has to be historically accurate and thorough to demonstrate the important skills.

6.  The next unit was War.  The unit followed a similar format to the previous one.  We did some work about World Wars One and Two and the summative task was to research the influence of a person from one of the wars.  This assignment is here.The students shared their thesis and supporting evidence in a presentation.  Unfortunately, the presentations were long and, oftentimes, boring.

I still think that the ability to present is important, so I wouldn't get rid of this assignment.  I would do more formative presentations to give the students feedback.  Additionally, I would do away with the requirement to include video and/or images.  Students didn't do a good enough job actually using the audio-visual to support the thesis.  I think that through the other assignments, students will get enough practice using images as support.  I will have the students focus on presenting their understandings using their language.  I don't want them to rely on audio-visual to do it for them.

7.  The next unit looked at science and technology.  This was the first time that I really jumped into Project Based Learning.  The links below are my reflections on the unit.
Trying Out PBL
Actually PBLing...If That's a Verb
Reflecting on Science and Technology PBL
Final Thoughts on Science and Technology PBL

8.  The final unit was Colonialism.  This unit was very rushed, because there was only eleven days to complete it, including the summative task, which is here.  Because it was so rushed, I am having trouble reflecting on what I would do differently.  Part of me think that I would only have three units and dedicate more time to those units and more skill development.  I don't know what unit I would delete.  While the colonialism unit was underdeveloped, I think that it could be a powerful and interesting unit.  I also think that there will be less time to complete a full four units, because I intend on incorporating a blogging component and that will easily take eleven class periods.

9.  As previously mentioned, I would have the students contribute to a blog throughout the course.  I think blogging is an excellent way for students to think about course material, share their ideas and collaborate with others.  This Google Presentation further explains the role of blogging.  (Ideas contributed to the presentation come from PLC with Alanna King and Lisa Unger.)

Blogging also allows reflection, which I attempted to have my students do after each assignment.  The debrief questions are here.  I found that the students didn't take the debriefs seriously.  I am hoping that by making their reflections visible (and not so formal), they will see that others shared similar problems and perhaps a conversation can take place between students about how they can improve their skills to improve their learning.

10.  I was very happy with the culminating task.  The task was the contribution of a blog post to a common blog about the future influence of the Western world.  The collaborative blog is here. Originally, the task wasn't in the form of a blog.  I didn't have a concrete idea as to how I wanted students to share their learning...I just knew what I wanted the students to demonstrate.  I took a risk with using a blog, despite the fact that most students had little to no experience with blogs.  I was impressed with students' ability to demonstrate their learning in this format.  I liked the blog because students had an authentic audience.  On exam day, students had to respond to two of their classmates' blogs.  We did some practice with responding during class and I was impressed by the level of thought students demonstrated on exam day.  I can only imagine how great the students' work can be if we blog throughout the semester.

Overall, I enjoyed learning with my students and think that the semester was a success, but I see where I need to make changes and improvements to aid in student learning for future semesters.


  1. Excellent reflection Sarah. I've enjoyed following your process through this course for the first time all semester. I think this post demonstrates the consistent reflection you had on what you did all semester.
    I was really impressed with your commitment to what you were trying, as well as your openness with regard to what you felt uneasy about. I think it all worked out quite well.
    In terms of fitting 4 full units in as well as allowing time for blogging I think you could do it. I remember that the first essay assignment took a great deal more time than you thought it would (close to 2 weeks I think). Paring that down to an analytical paragraph (if it's even necessary at all with the new curriculum) should cut down the time a great deal. I also don't know that I would build in a lot of time throughout the semester for blogging during class. I think I would approach it as a homework expectation. Maybe allow some class time in the beginning to offer support, but after that they should be able to do it on their own time - including the commenting.
    I really appreciate that you took the focus away from being content driven. I believe you managed to do that without taking away any of the academic integrity. You kept a focus clearly on the skills the students need and allowed them to demonstrate those skills in areas that were of specific interest to them individually.
    I too was really impressed with the student blogs. I think they showed their individual interests and learning in a way that was unique to each student. I appreciated that the blogs allowed them to incorporate various graphics that they wouldn't have been able to do with an in class essay. And I think the depth of some of the comments they were able to leave each other demonstrates a great deal of success in getting them to think critically about arguments. As a grade 10 teacher I thought it was great practice for them to comment on the grade 10 blogs. If we were both doing this again, I would like to see if we could get the grade 12s commenting on the Canadian history blogs even earlier. I think it could be mutually beneficial.
    Thanks for sharing your learning!

  2. Lisa, thank you for taking the time to read my post and respond.

    You are right that the first essay took much longer than I thought. I will gain those extra days to make room for the fourth unit. I worry about making the blogging a homework component. Students have so much on their plates and I think they wouldn't see the importance of blogging when compared to their other work. I am also afraid that by making blogging homework--with limited class devoted to it--it will appear as though I don't value the time to write and respond to posts.

    Thanks for the vote of confidence that despite not being content driven the course still had integrity. That is one of my biggest's fears. I really don't want to be that "sage on the stage", and this course seemed like a way to move from if only I could do that in my other classes.

    I agree. I really liked the culminating task. I would definitely have my grade 12s comment on the Canadian history blogs earlier. We could probably do that this semester with our grade 10 classes.

    Thanks for being so supportive!!