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Saturday, 27 April 2013

On Blended Learning

Blended learning is a form of education that combines face-to-face classroom methods with computer-mediated activities.[1] According to its proponents, the strategy creates a more integrated approach for both instructors and students. From Wikipedia. 

This year I have been experimenting with blended learning.  Blended learning is a combination of face-to-face learning with eLearning.  I call it an "experiment" because I believe EVERY teaching strategy we try is an experiment.  I see my classroom as a giant laboratory.  I try different teaching strategies and then I measure their impact on student learning.  Some are more successful than others; some are very successful with some students and not so successful with other students. 

In Ontario, the Ministry provides teachers with a Learning Management System called the D2L for our blended learning.  Eight months into the experiment and I have to say that I love it and so do my students.  It is fun and engaging.  But has it positively impacted student learning?  I believe that it has; looking at the work that they are producing now compared to what they were doing in September, I think every student has made significant gains, and some of them have made dramatic gains to their learning.  

Because my students have access to the D2L 24 hours a day, they can decide when they need to access information.  I like to post a variety of different types of media to support their learning.  For example, we are currently studying Flight in Science.  As part of this unit, we are learning about the properties of fluids.  To learn these properties we have been conducting experiments together in class.  If anyone doesn't understand the experiment, they can view it or a similar one in a video on the D2L.  They can also access interactive learning activities from the Ontario Educational Resource Bank (OERB) that I have uploaded for them.  Lastly, if they still don't understand, they can email myself, or one of their classmates for clarification. (The OERB is only accessible to Ontario teachers, I'm afraid. It has great learning activities for the Ontario curriculum, but you can link to any online learning activity.) 

Having the D2L available to access information when they need it has really helped the majority of my students become responsible for their own learning.  It has given them control; they know that if they are not understanding, they can do something about it. Dylan William and John Hattie both explain that if students see intelligence as incremental, they will believe that the choices they make can lead to increased intelligence, and that will motivate them to take steps to improve.  But if students believe intelligence is fixed, "I'm not a math person, I'll never understand this", they don't even bother trying.  In fact, they will choose to NOT do their work so that they will look lazy because looking lazy is far better than looking stupid.  I have found that most of my students have come to believe that they can achieve in any subject if they help themselves. 

Using the D2L has made it easier for me to give my students feedback on their work.  They post something, and I can give them personal written feedback immediately.  We've also gotten into the habit of posting the success criteria for their work on our class page so they always have access to it.  They have also begun to give one another feedback, and they use the success criteria to help them decide what to say to one another.  

We have been using the Discussion tool for many of our reading activities.  This has really helped my students to learn how to have conversations around critical literacy.  We use a reciprocal teaching format.  I suggested they post questions they have about what they are reading, seek clarification from one another when they don't understand something, summarize what they have been reading, and make predictions.  I also ask that they consider what the author's message is, and share what they think the author is trying to tell us.  I had to explicitly teach them how to comment on one another's discussion threads at first, but now their discussions are rich and meaningful.  I no longer have to be the one explaining everything - they do that for one another, and I can peek in to see who gets it and who doesn't.

I learned a lot about the power of blogging from the #etmooc I participated in.  In February, we started using the blog tool on the D2L.  I was tempted to have my students create blogs using edublogger, but I am still nervous about having their blogs in the public domain - it is something I am still considering and exploring. (Click on the links to learn more about blogging from Sue Waters). Using the D2L, their blogs can only be seen by students in our board, and they are not nearly as visually appealing as they would be if they were using edublogger because they can't add widgets.  But that hasn't inhibited them.

It turns out my students LOVE blogging - every single one of them.  (I know because they are always asking to have time to blog, and they are doing it on their own time at home). Sometimes I assign topics to blog about.  Then I give them feedback, and ask them to improve their post given the feedback.  Some edit their original post, some opt to write an entirely new post and keep both as "evidence" of their learning.  But the posts I like best are the ones that they decide to write.  Currently, they have decided to have a "video contest".  They are posting their favourite videos. Through my comments on their blogs, I have asked them to develop a critical stance and try to determine what the intended message of the video is. 

One thing I don't like to do is have all of my students on-line at the same time.  We NEVER use the computer lab to access the D2L.  We use the devices I have in the class (five iPads, 3 desk tops, and 4 laptops).  That is enough for half of my class. They either work in pairs, or, because I use a workshop model, some are using the electronic devices, while others are doing something hands on, and still others are working with me in small groups.  Having the D2L has really enabled them to work independently for long stretches of time so that I can easily conference with students one at a time or work with them in small groups. 

Do you use blended learning in your classroom?  If so, how is it going?  If you have any ideas or suggestions to share, I would really love to hear them.  

Next week, I will ask my students what they think about blended learning, what they like and don't like.  Check in soon to hear about blended learning from the student's perspective.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Why I Teach

Today I stumbled upon an Edudemic blogpost: Why Do You Teach? Tweet Your Story With The #whyiteach Hashtag.  So I went to Twitter, and searched the hashtag to see what other people were saying about why they teach.  It was inspiring.

So I asked myself, why do I teach?  The answer is simple - I teach because teaching makes me happy.  I love teaching.

I love my students:

My students are amazing.  They make me laugh and they make me cry.  They surprise me with what they know and they shock me with what they don't know.  (Two weeks ago one of my students asked me what the word "triumph" means.  Last week, a different student asked what the word "contribution" meant.  How can kids in Grade Six not know these words?!?)  Being with them keeps me young.  We forget what it is like to not know.  I love to look at the world through their eyes.  But the best thing about my students is that they need me.  They need me to inspire and guide them.  They need me to love them and teach them.  They need me to tell them how unique and wonderful they are and to let them know that I believe in them.  Sometimes I feel as though I am opening up the world to them, letting them know what is out there for them to explore, and giving them the tools and permission to explore it.  Being a part of that makes me feel necessary and worthwhile.

I love the challenge:

Teaching is not like any other job in the world.  There are so many variables involved in the job that you have no control over.  Sometimes it seems that the likelihood of success is nil; there are often so many obstacles that seem to be working against us, like lack of time, lack of resources (often human), lack of space, lack of parental support, and far too many expectations.  And yet we do succeed time and time again.  In order to be successful, I have to be creative.  I have to find out what makes each child "tick" in order to inspire and motivate that child.  I can't make a child learn, but I can inspire a child to want to learn.  I love that challenge.  When I am successful, when I see a child excited to learn something new or proud of an accomplishment, I feel as though I have climbed Mount Everest.

I love to learn:

But the BEST part about teaching is that I get to learn.  The number one learner in any classroom is the teacher.  I learn about children and how they learn.  But I am also still learning my Math, Science, Language, Social Studies and Art.  These kids teach me something new every single day!  I might have five different ways to solve a Math problem, and still they will come up with some interesting new strategy that I never thought of before.  I might think I understand a poem or text, but they will teach me a whole new way to look at it so that I see it with new eyes. Now that I've made technology and digital tools available to them, they are teaching me at an alarming rate!  I show them a new app in the morning - that afternoon they are teaching me how to use it.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I work 50-60 hours per week.  I work in the summer (preparing and planning), I work on the holidays (marking and reading professional resources), I work before and after school, I work on weekends.  I dream about my class.  I talk about them at dinner.  I know that so many people out there think we teachers have it so easy.  They just don't understand what an all-consuming awesome responsibility teaching is.  But it is a wonderful job and I feel extremely fortunate to be a part of the teaching profession.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Bread for the Journey

                                                            CC licensed photo  shared by Flickr user avlxyz

If you've been reading my blog, you know that I like to teach several things at one time.  Don't confuse this with multi-tasking.  This is about sifting through the curriculum, and finding connections between different expectations.  This is about finding the "Big Idea".  Determining that "Big Idea" or Guiding Question is what makes teaching exciting for me; it's like solving a puzzle.

Jeffrey Wilhelm is one of my favourite speakers, and I once heard him say that one of the problems with education is that we teach everything in isolation, so children don't know how to transfer their knowledge and skills to new situations, or even across subject areas.  I agree.  Integrating expectations from various content areas to work on authentic tasks helps students to make connections and apply their learning in new situations.

I am very fortunate to be able to teach in a Catholic school.  I don't know how much longer we will be able to hang on to our Catholic education in Ontario - I don't want to get into politics here, but as long as I am able to, I will continue to incorporate Catholic themes and traditions into my teaching of the Ontario curriculum.

We are now in my favourite time of year - the Easter Season! (Remember, Easter is not a day, it is a season.)

As a teacher, the question becomes - "How can I teach my students about the significance of the Resurrection AND teach Language, Science and Math and fit it all in?"

I thought I'd share with you what I am doing to make learning fun, connected and authentic and still fit it all in!

Last week, we began exploring the Parables of the Yeast and the Mustard Seed.  (I've added links to the Scripture readings so that you can find them easily.)  As we share-read these passages, we talked about visualization as a comprehension strategy.  We also talked about the importance of background knowledge.  I explained that the people in biblical times would have been very familiar with mustard seeds and yeast.  I then passed out mustard seeds and yeast to my students so that they would have the necessary background knowledge to make sense of the text.  I explained what an analogy was.  As a class, we made connections and inferences to help us understand what the author, Mathew, was trying to convey to his audience.

Next we read John 12:23-26: 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

Again, we discussed the importance of background knowledge.  I like to use mentor texts to help students understand themes in the Bible. I read aloud the picture book "Bread Comes to Life" by George Levenson.  This text explains the process of how a kernel of wheat eventually becomes a loaf of bread.  We also watched time lapse videos on the germination of wheat kernels.  With this background knowledge, we were ready to have a discussion about what Jesus meant when He said:  unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  It was exciting to observe the rich deep conversation that ensued.

In Science, we are nearing the end of our unit about Space Exploration.  We have signed up for the Tomatosphere project to explore the potential of growing tomatoes in space.  We are participating in a blind study to learn more about the germination of tomato seeds.  Last week we planted our two groups of seeds, the control group and the test group.  Hopefully, this week we will see how many of these seeds have germinated, and eventually, if we are lucky, they will "bear much fruit".  Well of course, we had to read the True Vine, John 15:1-17:  No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the the vine.  Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me." We discussed how Jesus spoke in metaphors to help us understand our relationship to one another, Himself and God.

I believe my students will truly view the germination of these tomato seeds with the wonder and awe that should be afforded to creation.

This coming week, we will read "The Lotus Seed" by Sherry Garland.  It is a beautiful story about a Vietnamese girl who brings a lotus seed with her when she comes to America to remember her homeland.  She is devastated years later when her grandson buries the seed, only to discover that once buried, it can finally give life!

We've also been talking about the importance of bread as a staple for survival, especially for ancient cultures.  We connected this into our Social Studies unit as we learned about how the First Nations tribes ground corn into meal to make bannock.

This week, we will read the Road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35, and we will note that it is in the breaking of the bread that the two disciples finally recognize Jesus.  We will explore the concepts of "bread", "life" and "sustenance".

In Writing, we will be looking at procedural texts.  We will read different recipes from "Looneyspoons" by Janet and Greta Podleski.  I  like using this cookbook as a mentor text because these brilliant sisters use all of the elements of style in their procedural texts.

We will read a recipe for making bannock.  Together, we will follow the recipe, make our own bread, and break that bread together.

I'm hoping that my students will put all of this together to understand the connections between bread and life in the Bible; that they can make the leap, and understand how Jesus, through His death and Resurrection, becomes for us, the bread of life.