Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Marking Wrongful Conviction Day at ODSS

View of the display upon entering the Learning
Commons. The bright colours seem to contradict
the gravity of the injustice, but there is also a
level of happiness about being
In Grade 11 College Preparation English (ENG3C), we do a unit about the wrongfully convicted. Traditionally, the viewing of the film Conviction culminates in the writing of a letter to the Innocence Project in the United States. Students are responsible for researching a person who was wrongfully convicted, and writing a letter of gratitude to the Innocence Project.

Taylor's poster
Three semesters ago I did some research and discovered that there was a Canadian equivalent to the Innocence Project: The Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted (AIDWYC). I decided that students would learn about Canadians who were wrongfully convicted and AIDWYC helped to exonerate. Some of the exonerees include Steven Truscott, David Milgaard, and Guy Paul Morin.

Students in both my classes last year wrote letters of gratitude to AIDWYC. One of the best parts of this activity was AIDWYC's personalized response. I was pretty excited when AIDWYC wrote me a letter acknowledging my class's work.

Then things got weird.

Alex's poster
I noticed that my students were being called down to the office. I couldn't figure out why until one student informed me that they were getting letters from AIDWYC. The wonderful people at AIDWYC found the time to write PERSONALIZED letters to each of my students. They also shared my students' work with the exonerees. I was amazed.

This year, instead of writing letters of gratitude, my class put together a display to mark Wrongful Conviction Day, which is October 2, 2015. Students still completed research, but instead of writing a letter, they had to make a poster to educate the ODSS community about the exonerees and to raise awareness about the grave injustices that unfortunately occur in the Canadian legal system.

I am grateful that AIDWYC exists to protect the rights of Canadians and to play a role in bringing the outside world into the classroom.

Friday, 18 September 2015

The Importance of Sharing

Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking about the role of sharing in education, and how the act of sharing is important in developing better teachers and improving student learning.

To me, sharing is a mix of practical and emotional. There is the electronic and physical sharing of resources; the informal discussions of particular content and skills; the sharing, as appropriate, of pertinent student information; and the sharing of emotions.

In the last three semesters, I have benefited greatly from the ease of sharing resources via UGCloud. I have taught three new courses, and for all three courses I have had EIGHT colleagues share their folders with me. This helps to lessen the anxiety of teaching a new course and it prevents the need to "recreate the wheel". I especially benefit because I get to see what other people are doing in their courses and then shape the course to fit my teaching style and the needs of my students.

Additionally, sharing doesn't just take place on the cloud. Sharing also happens in informal ways as department members drink their morning coffees or eat lunch together. I have added excellent resources to my repertoire, such as handouts about effective presentations, deconstructing visual texts to make meaning, or using transitional words.

Sharing isn't just the electronic or physical exchange of course content and skills. It is important to share information about students on a "need-to-know" basis. This is especially true at the start of a new semester. It is nice to have students' former teachers tell me the techniques they used to best help a student or what warning signs to be aware of.

There is also the sharing of emotions. Oftentimes, teaching can seem like an individual job. It is possible to simply close the classroom door and teach. But I think that the sharing of our ups and downs about our experiences creates a realistic picture of what being a teacher means. It is buoying for me to hear teachers talk about their successes, and it is helpful to be able to share perceived and actual failures and challenges. This allows me to realize that I'm not alone and that all teachers have their wins and their losses.

Now this isn't to say that sharing is easy. I'm sure that there are many reasons why sharing is hard. For some, they may not share their resources. And I bet this isn't because they don't want to; it may because they lack confidence in what they're creating. I think this may also play a role in sharing emotions. No one wants to come across as a braggart when talking about the impact he or she has had on a student or recounting an awesome lesson. Additionally, it is hard to talk about the fact that all teachers fail. Some lessons flop. Some classroom management decisions backfire. But we need to share this and learn from each other.

Essentially, I am thankful that I have colleagues who are willing to share and are eager to support. I think this goes a long way in making me a better teacher, which in turns helps me improve learning for my students.

Thank you.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The first day of school...the plans have changed

The Syrian refugee crisis has shaken me. I look at the faces of Syrians still in Syria, those who have made it to Europe, and those who have gotten to Canada. I can't imagine taking such risks, and this drives home the fact that, for Syrians fleeing their homes, the risks outweigh staying.

I want to do something, and the first thing I wanted to do was sponsor a Syrian family. This seems especially fitting for me, as my husband was one of the 68,000 Vietnamese refugees to make it to Canada as a result of the nation's sponsorship program. Obviously, this is a big step, and we're not quite ready to make a commitment.  But I still want to do something. 

This led me to make the decision to delay my first week plans for school. Instead of jumping right into short stories and plays, two of my classes are going to complete guided research about Syria and the Syrian refugee crisis. The ultimate goal is for students to write letters to Hon. Chris Alexander (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) and MP David Tilson (our local representative). Fortunately, I am able to delay getting into the regularly scheduled program, which is already full, because I have a department head who encourages us to try new and different things, and a principal who is more interested in deep learning than content coverage.

I have struggled to figure out how I can bring this topic to my students. Fortunately, I am connected on Facebook and Twitter to a great number of educators who have been sharing articles and their experiences. My rough outline of what I think I am going to do is here.

A colleague and I were talking about images, specifically the horrifying image of Alan Kurdi drowned on a beach in Greece. We also brainstormed some quotations, but the one that really stuck out to me was Joseph Stalin's quotation “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”. I decided against using the image of Kurdi drowned, which has spurred the increased interest in helping Syrian refugees, as his aunt has requested that people remember her nephew as he was: smiling and happy. I decided that I am going to have students look at an image of refugees in Germany and an image of Alan Kurdi in happier times.

I am hoping that these images and what they represent will bring encourage discussion and interest, before students are tasked with doing some research. Because it will only be the first day of school, I have found the research for the students. They will have access to a variety of articles, images, and videos to help them (and me) understand the crisis and what Canada is (or isn't) doing.

To be honest, I am rather uncomfortable with my new first day plans, as I am taking three risks:
1. students will engage and discuss on Day 1 (what if they don't?)
2. my clear goal, but vague "travel map" will get us to the letter (what if the goal is only clear to me? what if we get lost?)
3. the technology will work (please don't fail me!) 

Hopefully, by the end of the week, the students and I have powerful letters to send and strengthened empathy for the Syrians forced from their home.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Why I Love Teaching

Periodically, I will receive emails or cards from students to tell me about the impact I had them. Every so often, I will run into a parent who will thank me for my dedication to their child.

In the last two weeks, I have been reminded why teaching is a great profession. I don't know why so many things have come together to remind me of this. Perhaps it is the nicer weather that is allowing me not to be so negative and actually see the positive. Nonetheless, I appreciate the renewal.

  • Teaching is a great profession because... I get to run into former students. Just last night, I was out for supper with my family, and a former student came out of the kitchen to come see me. This was a student who I often worried about...things just didn't seem to be going well for her. Now in her early twenties, she is working three jobs, going to college, and planning on transferring to university to earn a degree to work with youth in the criminal justice system. She seems to have her life on track, and I am sincerely honoured that I got to be her teacher for two semesters.
  • Teaching is a great profession because...I get to send home positive progress reports. I have a student who is having some academic and personal issues. In these last two week, he has really taken to the unit we are working on and has seemed to dedicate himself to getting his work done. I showed him the positive note I was sending home, and I could see him trying to hide his look of pride.
  • Teaching is a great profession because...the small things make a difference. For example, students stopping to say "Hi" in the hall, students joking around, students who finally get how to write a beautiful paragraph with a topic sentence, an integrated quotation, and sophisticated analysis.
These are people and situations I need to remember when the pressures of teaching becomes overwhelming. Teaching truly is a great profession.

Using Podcasts in ENG3C: An Alternative to the Traditional Text

A colleague introduced me to the podcast Serial. I was immediately hooked, and further recommended it to others. My colleague mentioned using it in the classroom, and the idea stuck. Last semester I taught ENG3C for the first time, and my unit on social issues and research did not go very well. I needed something that was different than the typical ¨abortion is bad" or ¨capital punishment should be brought back to Canada¨arguments. I decided that Serial could be used to meet curriculum expectations and the goal of writing a research report.

The goals of the unit were threefold:
  1. Work on active listening to understand text and complete notes
  2. Complete secondary research to support interpretations of the primary source (the actual podcast)
  3. Write a research report using proper APA formatting
To begin the unit, I used the hook designed by Michael Godsey. Trying to get students to think back six weeks in their lives got them thinking, and they realized that their memories weren't what they thought they were. It also got them to connect to the challenges Adnan faced when asked to remember a specific day.

We then focused on what active listening looked like. You can see my students' ideas in the photo. I found brainstorming active listening as a class made it easy for me to keep them on task. I often just had to point to the list, and students would know that they couldn't fully engage if they were looking at their phone or weren't taking notes.

After the first episode most students thought
that Adnan was "not guilty". For the most
part that belief didn't change.
Students also had individual journals where they were responsible for tracking the information. Prior to listening, I would give the students people, ideas, or events to pay attention to. I also made use of Google maps to help students track and visualize Adnan's apparent actions on the day of Hae's disappearance. We alternated listening as a whole class and listening in small groups or independently. I found that this allowed the students some freedom in how they wanted to engage with the text. When we listened as a whole class, I would stop the podcast occasionally to model note taking and to give students an opportunity to discuss.

We also kept track of our thoughts about Adnan's guilt as we worked through Serial. One of the most engaging, yet frustrating things, about the podcast was the constant uncertainty. After each episode students were responsible for moving their magnetic pin from "guilty" to "not guilty" or vice versa, as they saw fit.

Overall, it appeared that students were engaged in the podcast. There would occasionally be heated discussions in pockets of the classroom about the evidence presented.

For the most part, I was happy with the summative research report, but there are aspects that I need to improve upon. The large number of formative work we did focusing on point, proof, and explanation paid off in their reports. For next year, I need to work on bringing in secondary sources and helping students to incorporate them into their work. Additionally, students struggled with the format of a research report. I think they had difficulty with the template I created. I will need to be explicit in my teaching of it. They also need more guidance to complete their references page.

I think that the unit was a nice alternative to using traditional texts in the classroom. I have included my folder of resources below, and please don't hesitate to give me feedback to make the unit better for next year. The actual Serial website has great resources to use, and the Serial sub-reddit on Reddit was also very helpful, especially since people had typed up transcripts of each episode.

Serial Teaching Folder

Friday, 17 April 2015

Demystifying University and College

Yesterday morning I had the opportunity to attend an open table discussion with some of my colleagues and university and college professors from history and geography. The purpose of the discussion was for us to better understand the transition that high school students experience.

A few things stood out to me.

Note: After publishing this, I contacted some former students, and within hours, they had gotten back to me with their thoughts about this post. I have added their information and experiences in blue. Thanks to Teslyn who is at Queen's, Aiden (Waterloo), Kelsey (Laurentian), and Jason (Carleton).

1. Professors are human and care. A lot of teachers try to scare students into thinking that they will just be a number and that their instructors will be too busy to care about them. This just isn't true. The professors were clear that they know that students are coming to them younger, and that this is their first real taste of freedom. They also know that students have other struggles to deal with, personally. And professors WANT students to come for extra help. They are accessible.

Kelsey: "Overall profs definitely do care about their students' well-being and are accommodating for the most part."

Jason: "Professors do care about students. They are always wanting to get to know you through email or extra help."

2. Professors highlighted the skills students need, but they didn't blame high school teachers for the deficiencies. They know that it is a work in progress. Some skills professors want students to be developing include:
  • filtering the vast amounts of information coming at them
  • writing concisely
  • speaking assertively to other adults
  • managing their time
3. Students hardly read in high school, and they don't read in university or college. Just as we have trouble getting students to read (and hopefully read actively), professors are facing the same struggle. To compensate, in first year, professors are giving shorter readings and building in reading response assignments.

Teslyn: This is the "most inaccurate part....If I don't do my readings I will fail the course absolutely. And I find myself reading at least a chapter of a textbook each week per course in my science course".

Jason: Readings are "crucial to success". Essentially, you are reading a chapter for every class (and there are two or three classes a day).

4. Professors want students to be successful. Instructors work to make their courses engaging. To quote one professor, "Students are telling us how they want to be taught". And there has been a shift back to paper and pen notes! Additionally, students are not failing in high numbers in their first year of post-secondary. To explain, one professor brought us the statistics of his first year history course. Of 301 students, only about five failed and the average was in the low seventies! Another professor seems to offer some sort of credit recovery. Despite the fact that her marks were already submitted, she is still accepting assignments!

Aiden: "Kinda sad but I found my first year experience to kind of be the stigma ie the profs need to cut out the weak and class avgs were in the low 60s."

5. Students need to be able to write concisely. The professors were impressed that we are working on shorter writing pieces. As one professor said, "No boss wants to read an essay." Some of the professors are only requiring two page assignments (roughly 500 words). One university assignment that was shared with us required 1000-1200 words--so nothing too long!

Kelsey: The amount of writing depends on your subject, but the profs ease you in.

Teslyn: Students in first year are expected to write ten-page long essays depending on the discipline.

Jason: "In science I found I was writing 1-2 pages, which is great."

6. Citing is important and INTEGRAL to their work. All of the professors agreed that students need to be working with a variety of sources, including academic journals, news reports, monographs, and even Wikipedia (but please use the sources cited at the bottom of the entry). But above all, they need to cite their work!! One professor didn't care what type of citation method was used, as long as one was used consistently. The college professors were adamant about the use of APA, and two other university professors want students to be using Chicago.

Kelsey: "Also totally right. The citing is CRUCIAL. Every assignment, every presentation, every lab, EVERYTHING needs to be cited."

Jason: "Citing was the one thing professors and teaching assistants always repeated doing correctly when doing assignments." 

7. Attendance is an issue. Professors are coming up with incentives to get students to attend class.

Aiden: This sounds accurate.

Kelsey: Attendance is an issue. Some professors have exit quizzes at the end of every class that are worth 10% of the final grade.

Jason: Professors give exam clues during lecture.

8. Professors are not a fan of multiple choice. In fact, some of them have done away with the exam. As one professor pointed out, "Students have been demonstrating their knowledge and understanding all along the way, what's the point of cramming for a two-hour exam?"

Kelsey: Most of her classes have final exams, but they usually aren't cumulative.

Teslyn: "I haven't had an exam yet that doesn't have multiple choice, actually multiple choice is usually a pretty big part of my exam."

9. Overall, the professors are pleased with the students that are coming to them. In fact, one professor told me that he finds Upper Grand students to be well-prepared for university. Another said, "We don't expect fully-formed academic stars in the first year."

Congratulations to us!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Thinking about final assessments

This past Friday, I was issued a challenge regarding the format of final exams. Now, the email was to the entire English department, but I took it as an opportunity to challenge myself about the format of the exams in two courses that I thoroughly enjoy: ENG3C and ENG3U.

Both exams require students to use class time in the days leading up to the exam to outline an essay that responds to a prompt. Students are required to use the texts studied in class to answer the prompt. This requires that students understand the texts we studied because it is essential that they be able to make connections between the texts.

The email that spurred some new thinking made these suggestions:

"Consider adding a new poem/story/article/image on exam day and having them apply their understanding of the 'big ideas' to that text, OR use that text as an additional piece of evidence to support their overall thesis.

The final exam should be a test of their ability to apply their understanding and skills to a new situation (which, for us, most often means a new text). "

I think important points are made in this email, but I also think that having students use texts they are familiar with still tests their ability to understand and demonstrate their skills. Students are being required to "apply their understanding and skills to a new situation" because they are now being asked to make connections between the texts studied, something that they haven't been required to do. That said, making connections isn't new, but making connections in response to new prompts is a new situation.

There may be some level of "ease" because students are given the prompts ahead of time, and are allowed the time to prepare. But this accommodation is used, because in previous years, administration has suggested that students be given the final exam ahead of time; there should be "no surprises". Now this can be remedied by giving students a variety of prompts ahead of time to get students thinking, but there be a new prompt provided on exam day.

As I am a teacher that likes to experiment, I came up with some ways to alter the ENG3C and ENG3U exams so that there is a different level of "new". As I am not teaching ENG3U this semester, I haven't put much thought into how that exam could be changed. For ENG3C, my teaching partner and I have some decisions to make about how we want that final exam to look.

Overall, I don't think there is a RIGHT or WRONG or BETTER or WORSE answer to what the final exams look like. I think that as long as a final exam assesses student understanding of the course ideas and skills in a fair and reasonable way, then we are doing okay.