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Friday, 29 March 2013

Teaching Towards the Future

I finally found some time to watch Teaching Towards the Future, an episode from the Agenda's special report called Learning 2030.

I think every teacher, principal, consultant, and superintendent in Ontario should watch it.  Steve Paikin interviews Michael Fullan who speaks about the future of education.  Mr. Fullan explains why the current system, while seemingly successful, must still change.  Other speakers include Cathy Bruce from Trent University, Camille Rutherford from Brock University, and Ron Daniel from the Canadian Education Association.

They also featured Kourish Houshmand, a student trustee from TDSB.  He was very well-spoken, and described our current education system as the "National Regurgitation Institute".  Though only in Grade 12, he also said, "We cannot bring about change by being irrelevant".

Steve Paikin also spoke to Hamilton teacher, Heidi Siwak, who is truly a 21st Century teacher.  She shared how she immersed herself in social and digital media to better understand who her students are and how they learn.  Then she changed the way she taught, letting go of the reins so that her students could become the motivated self-directed learners we need children to be.

Do yourself a favour, pour yourself a glass of wine or a cup of tea, put your feet up, and watch.  It is time for a change folks!

Using the RAN Strategy for Inquiry-Based Learning

There are many definitions out there for Inquiry-Based Learning, and I think with true student inquiry students decide what topic they wish to learn about.  In my class, I try to cluster the curriculum expectations into a Big Idea and then I like to create an Inquiry question that we will explore - so students aren't truly selecting their own topic.

For our Social Studies unit on First Nations, we asked, "How did the environment impact the way Aboriginal people lived their lives prior to contact with the Europeans?"

I use the Literacy Block - which I consider a "workshop" - for students to conduct their inquiries.  This way, I am killing many birds with one stone; my students are learning their Social Studies content while developing their  Reading, Writing, and Media Literacy skills.

I always use Tony Stead's Reading Analysis Chart for reading non-fiction texts and I always start by modeling how to do it.  So I created a RAN chart to use on the SMART board.  I started by choosing a First Nations tribe that we had a lot of background knowledge about - the Wendat.  Together, we brainstormed what we thought we knew about the Wendat.  Beginning with what we think we know sets a purpose for reading.  We are reading to confirm our thinking.   ( C- refers to confirmed facts, M - refers to misconceptions).  I have used this strategy with First Graders to Sixth Graders - it works!

Over the next couple of days, we continued to share-read information on the Wendat, and I modeled for my students how to take jot notes.  What we were doing was becoming experts on the Wendat.  We didn't write in full sentences, so as to avoid the temptation to plagiarize later on when it came time to share our learning.

When the chart was complete and we felt we knew enough about the Wendat to be able to answer our guiding question, I gave the students RAN charts of their own and they repeated the process with their tribe of choice. (Click on the link for RAN chart to edit for your students).

Students worked in collaborative groups of two or three for two weeks to complete their RAN charts.  When they had finished, I modeled how to take this information and turn it into text.  We had several mini-lessons on report writing. We focused on paragraph writing and using the elements of style even for reports.  We talked about the difference between opinion and facts and discussed how and when to include our own opinions and voice in report writing.  I wrote a report on the Wendat with my students so they would know how to do it.

My students spent the next week writing their reports.  We then had a series of mini-lessons on revising and editing.  We talked about the importance of word choice and sentence fluency. We also had several lessons on convention use and using the electronic tools available to us to help us edit our work.

Lastly, we discussed publishing. I introduced my students to several media formats such as Power point, Key Note, Explain Everything, Prezi and Microsoft Publisher.  My students decided how they would like to present/share their information.  I modeled how to create a brochure on the Wendat using Microsoft Publisher.  I suggested they use Youtube to learn how to use different publishing tools. (We can't always be the expert in the room!)

They spent a week creating their published reports, and then it took a week to present them.  During our presentations, I decided to focus on both presentation skills as well as listening skills.   I explained that they had to be attentive listeners and ask questions.  They did such an excellent job! Click HERE to see an example.

This entire process took about five weeks, which seems like forever for a project on First Nations.  But I was able to teach so many Language expectations through this process, so it was time well-spent.

My students really enjoyed the whole process.  They were excited to work on these projects.  They were teaching me!  They presented their information in a wide variety of formats, and I think that is very valuable way to differentiate.  They even gave each other feedback on how they could do "even better" next time!

Monday, 25 March 2013

Learning Goals in Math - Update!

Today I went to school and I told my students about the debate I had on the weekend about whether or not we should be posting Learning Goals in Math before the lesson or during the Consolidation.

I asked them their opinion, thinking (of course), that they would agree with me because in the past they had told me how much they appreciate having those learning goals.  I was quite surprised by their responses.

One of my students confessed that he didn't think the learning goals helped him at all, he stated he never pays attention to them.  But the other students felt very strongly about those goals, and they said that they felt it would be better to post them during the Consolidation, or in their words - "in the middle, when we've figured out the Math."

One of my students said, "We may not figure out the learning goal that you wanted us to have, but that is okay.  We will still learn something, and this way you'll find out what we learnt."  I love the way they teach me how to be a better teacher every day!

So that is what we did for our Math class today, mind you, we were learning about adding fractions, so we weren't very far into our Minds On when they told me that they knew what the learning goal was.

One thing that I've really learnt this year is how important it is to give my students a voice.  They often amaze me with what they have to say.

Before our School Effectiveness Review, my principal asked us to ask the students what they thought about Learning Goals, Success Criteria and Descriptive Feedback.  Here are a few of their responses:

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Learning Goals in Math

I had a very interesting conversation with my friends Janice and Celiza the other night.  Janice and Celiza are currently Curriculum Consultants in two other school boards in Ontario.

We were discussing the use of Learning Goals in Math.  Janice was of the mind that we shouldn't be naming the Learning Goals up front at the beginning of the Math lesson if we are truly teaching through problem solving.  I understand her point.  If you are teaching Math through problem-solving - which I hope you are - then you are using a constructivist approach, and you want the children to construct their own learning.  You don't want to give away the punch line.  Janice was adamant that the Learning Goal should come out during the Consolidation (the third part of the three part Math lesson).

<For a brief review of the Three-Part Math Lesson click HERE.>

I was very fortunate to go and hear Dr. Marian Small speak last May (I reference her often, I am quite a fan of her work).  She addressed this very question.  She said that we have to tell the students something about what we want them to do.  She asked (and I quote) "Can we say: 'We are going to develop strategies to compare two fractions'?"

What I liked about Marian's talk was that she never told us what we should be doing.  She only ASKED us what we might want to consider.  The fact is, there is no right answer here.  It is trial and error.

I have tried it both ways, not telling my students anything, and also giving them a simple statement about what we are hoping to learn about.  Not what we are going to learn specifically, but what we are learning about.  I have found that giving them a Learning Goal up front helps give them more direction.  It sets a purpose up front for why I am giving them the task that I am giving them.  And, I admit, it speeds up the problem-solving and consolidation.  The fact is, I don't have unlimited amount of time to teach them everything I want to teach them.  I only have 9 months to teach them 10 months of curriculum (because I have EQAO testing in the beginning of June).

What I don't do is give them Success Criteria for the content expectations up front.  That is what I want them to come up with in the consolidation.  I DO however, give them Success Criteria for the process expectations up front. (The process expectations include communication, representing, selecting tools and computational strategies, problem-solving, reflecting, reasoning and proving). Confused yet?

For example, I might write:

  • We can reflect on the reasonableness of a solution 
  • If we determine our solution doesn't make sense we can look for a different solution
  • We can share our solution with others in a way that makes sense to them
  • We can explain our thinking so that someone else "gets it"
  • We can connect our solution to someone else's solution
  • We can restate the problem in our own words

Here was our Math Learning Goal from Thursday and Friday:

For our Minds On, I gave the students fractions to add to a number line.  This allowed me to differentiate by giving different students different fractions.  As the students placed their fractions on the line, I asked them how they knew where to put it.  "Tell me what you are thinking in your head as you are deciding where to put that fraction."

Here are some strategies we came up with for comparing fractions in our Consolidation:

We are still using the "ShowMe" app and "Explain Everything" app to show how we solve a Math problem.
Here is a video from one of the problems my students solved on Friday.  I was only going to give them one problem, but some of the students solved it so quickly and easily, we went to the text book to find a second problem.

I think it is important at this point to mention the obvious.  This lesson could not have happened if it weren't for the previous lessons.  We spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday reviewing what fractions ARE.  Before students could begin comparing fractions, they had to fully understand what a numerator and denominator are, and they had to understand what mixed and improper fractions are.  For example, many students knew that an improper fraction was a fraction with a numerator larger than the denominator, but very few students knew that this meant we were talking about a number greater than one.

I also had one student who could compare fractions by using a common denominator.  He had learned how to do this in a previous school in grade five.  But he did not know how to represent those two fractions, and he did not know how to compare those two fractions without using a common denominator.  For example:  students should know that 5/6 is less than 7/8 because sixths are larger pieces than eighths. Just because they can convert them into 20/24 and 21/24 doesn't mean that they understand that concept.

I guess my point here is this:  You have to be extremely deliberate in everything you do when you are teaching.  Before you post a Learning Goal, you have to think, "How should I word this?" "How will knowing this help my students?" "What do my students already know and think?" "What skills do they need?" We have to be reflective practitioners; I am very fortunate to have friends that are interested in having these conversations with me!

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Language Block

One of the most common questions I get asked by other teachers is "What does your Language block look like?"

I have a really difficult time answering this question; it is something that would really take days to describe.

I think the problem lies in the fact that we are so used to thinking in terms of our "timetable".  By definition, in our timetable we show each subject and strand as a discrete entity.  But that is not the reality at all, at least not in my class.  

For example, last week we were watching videos about the new pope, Pope Francis.  We watched and discussed a video on YouTube about how to become a pope, we watched a CNN video about Pope Francis' first public appearance, and we read a couple of related passages from the Bible together, John 1:41-42 and 21:15-17.  At the end of the period, one of my students said, "Was that Religion or Language?"  I answered, "Yes."

Admittedly, I have "Language" penciled into my timetable, along with "Social Studies" and "Science".  I have the Language block further delineated into "Reading", "Writing", and “Word Study".  But in reality, any mixture of those items is happening simultaneously. I have tried to create a timetable that accurately reflects what happens on a day to day basis in the classroom, but it isn't a true picture of what goes on during the day. 

For me, what is truly important is ensuring that I have a comprehensive Literacy program, and by "comprehensive" I mean all-inclusive. I make sure that my students are reading and writing something every day.  I also want to make sure that there is a balance of Modeled, Shared, and Guided Instruction along with oodles of time for Independent practice.  

How do I build it all in?

Well, I spend a great deal of time during the beginning of the school year teaching my students to be independent, self-directed learners.  I do a lot of explicit instruction on how to become exactly that, and then I help them to build their stamina gradually.  So my Language block looks vastly different in the fall than it does in the spring.  In the fall, I start with a modeled or shared reading lesson, then they read for about 10 - 15 minutes independently while I take students for guided small group instruction.  I provide some direct instruction on Writing, then they work on a writing piece for 15- 20 minutes independently; I intersperse direct instruction in Reading, Writing and Word Study daily with independent practice. I decide when it is time to switch activities.  

But that is not what my Language block looks like at all at this time of the year.

I'm at that happy place right now where my students can work for 60 minutes independently (and by "independently" they may be working by themselves or collaboratively with a partner), without being off-task or disruptive (with the exception of one or two students who need occasional reminders and re-direction). 

In order for this to be possible, the students have to have highly engaging tasks that they are motivated to do, and that serve authentic purposes.  My Language block truly becomes a Language Workshop.  I list all of the items I would like students to accomplish by the end of the week, much like a menu. Students then select from the menu what they would like to work on.  Sometimes they choose based on what they enjoy doing the most, other times they choose based on what is a priority, or what they are struggling with and need to spend more time on.  I prefer to start with a mini-lesson on Reading, Writing or Word Study, but lately, I have an EA at the beginning of my Language block, so I take advantage of the extra adult in the room, and we begin our Workshop right away.  That way, she can be that support person in the room for students while I take groups to the horseshoe table for small group instruction.  I save the last 15-20 minutes of the Language block for some direct whole-class instruction

Here are a list of activities my students currently have to work on:
  • Become familiar with word patterns in Word Wall Words by writing sentences and paragraphs using those words
  • Post to their blogs
  • Create or add to a Discussion Thread about the novel I am currently reading aloud to them
  • Revise their recounts
  • Swap their recount with another person in the classroom, and using Co-created Success Criteria, provide one another with descriptive feedback
  • revise their recount based on descriptive feedback given by a peer
  • Independent reading - focus on being metacognitive while reading
On Friday, I asked my students if they enjoyed working this way.  They gave me a resounding 'yes'.  When I asked why, they said:
·         Because except for the Word Study work, everything we have to do has a purpose
·         Nobody is fooling around and everyone knows what they have to do
·         The work is not too hard
·         The work is fun, especially when we get to use electronic devices
·         Nobody bugs anybody else when we work like this

Is my Language block ALWAYS like that?  No.  It depends on what we are working on.  When we are learning a new writing form, for example, I have students  in collaborative groups working with writing exemplars so that we can co-create success criteria for that writing form.  I find that whole process takes up 80 minutes. Next week, I'll explain what my Language block looks like when we are working on an Inquiry project, because that looks different again!  Stay tuned...

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Digital Literacy, Web Literacy, Media Literacy, Information Literacy - or Just Plain LITERACY???

We are well-into our third topic of #etmooc.  We were asked to consider the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be digitally literate? 
  • What is the difference between being digital literate and web literate?
  • What digital competencies and skills do your learners demonstrate through their daily use of technology?
I can honestly say, that until this #etmooc, I never considered these questions before.  I thought of digital literacy as being equivalent to the ability to use Web 2.0 tools. But  I never even stopped to think what is meant by "Web 2.0 tools". 

So, today, I looked up "Web 2.0 tools" and my first hit brought me to Discovery Education which said "Web 2.0 is about revolutionary new ways of creating, collaborating, editing and sharing user-generated content online. It's also about ease of use." 

As I've pondered these questions this week, I became aware of how very little I have considered this topic in the past and how little I know about it.  

On Wikipedia, I found the following definition of digital literacy:

Digital literacy is the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies. It requires one "to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms".[1] Digital literacy does not replace traditional forms of literacy, it builds upon the foundation of traditional forms of literacy.[2] Digital literacy is the marrying of the two terms digital and literacy, however, it is much more than a combination of the two terms. Digital information is a symbolic representation of data, and literacy refers to the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about the written word.

In our province, we report on four strands of Language - Oral, Reading, Writing and Media Literacy.

I'm not even sure what is meant by "Media Literacy".  Is that the same as "Digital Literacy?" It seems more encompassing than Digital Literacy.  In fact, isn't every form of communication a medium and therefore part of Media Literacy?  Or should we consider Media Literacy to refer to multi-media literacy?

You see, the more I think about it, the more questions I have and the more confused I get!

So, today I decided it doesn't matter.  

What is important is that I consider what it means to be LITERATE.  To me, being literate means being able to use expressive and receptive communication skills to collaborate, innovate, create, and participate with others.  Being literate means being able to think critically about incoming information and being able to synthesize that information.  It means being able to share ideas in a coherent way so as to be understood by others.

When I was a Girl Guide, (a long, long time ago), I had to learn how to use flag semaphore, (a way to communicate using flags) in order to earn certain badges.  I never understood why I needed to learn flag semaphore.  What good is knowing a form of communication if there is no one out there to communicate with using that particular medium?  I don't know how to speak Latin, and yet I still consider myself literate, but fifty years ago, I might not have been considered literate without a working knowledge of Latin.  Years ago, you had to be fluent in Morse code to be a pilot - that is not longer the case either. 

What it means to be literate changes with time.  As the world changes, and we develop new ways of communicating with one another, we must adopt these new methods to be currently literate.  What it means to be "literate" changes as our modes of communication change.  I believe that in this 21st Century, in order to be literate, we have to have a working knowledge of digital tools in order to communicate most effectively.  And that is what Digital Literacy means to me.