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Saturday, 22 March 2014

Empowering Students Through Blended Learning

Last year, I used the Ministry's Learning Management System to teach my Grade 6 class through a Blended Learning format. It was the most exciting and inspirational year of my teaching career to date. 

Next week, my friend and colleague, Penny, will be joining me to present our experiences in using the D2L Learning Management System with our Elementary students at the On The Rise K-12 Conference. Preparing for this presentation has fired me up once again with the excitement that I experienced last year.  

I think Education is one of the most exciting professions that exists.  My motto is: If I'm not having fun, then my kids are not having fun.  And if my kids are not having fun, they are not learning to their potential.  If they are not thoroughly engaged and inspired, if they are not "lost" in the learning, they are not learning deeply enough.  

When I began to use the D2L with my students, incredible things started to happen.  My students began to take ownership for their own learning!  Having a Science background, I approach every new experience as an experiment.  I have often commented on the fact that I see the classroom as a laboratory.  Using the D2L then, was just one great big experiment, and as is always the case in Science, in order to learn, we need to make observations and collect data to definitively determine the impact of the changes we make to the environment.  

I had hypothesized that using a Blended Learning format would positively impact student achievement as measured by report card marks and EQAO scores.  For the vast majority of my students (but not all), this was the outcome I achieved.  But what I hadn't anticipated, was the impact the tools in the D2L would have on my students' Learning Skills.  With the exception of one student, the kids in my class became more self-directed and took greater ownership for their learning using the tools found in the D2L.  

When I began to notice this shift in their Learning Skills, especially their collaboration, communication and self-regulation, I had to pause and think why is this change happening? 

What hit home for me was the the impact of the Assessment For and As Learning practices, (or what I prefer to generally refer to as Formative Assessment practices), that we implemented in the classroom and how the tools in the D2L supported those practices. 

Last year, I really tried to change the format of discussion in my classroom from Teacher - Student - Teacher to Teacher - Student - Student - Student.  But we found old habits are hard to break.  It was easier to develop this flow of discussion using the Discussion tools in the D2L.  Not only that, but we could go back to the Discussion threads and USE THEM as formative assessment.  We could look at our conversations, and talk about how could we have said that differently to extend our peer's thinking or to gain a deeper understanding into their thinking, or how we could have expressed our thoughts more clearly.  As a teacher, I could look at the conversations my students were having and know so much more about what they understood and what they didn't understand so as to tailor my instruction more expertly to meet their needs.  I was able to find patterns in their misconceptions that I wouldn't have noticed otherwise. 

I think the other thing that led to the change was the fact that I could provide my students with more immediate feedback.  They used the paging tools regularly to let me know when they were struggling with concepts.  Students told me that they were more comfortable asking me questions through the D2L than aloud in class because no one but me knew that they were struggling.  However, as the year progressed, and they saw the positive impact their questioning was having on their learning, they began to ask the questions in class as well, and more excitingly, they began to answer one another's questions while I sat back and took on the role of observer rather than expert.

They started to pay greater attention to what helped them learn and what didn't help them learn.  Their communication to me changed from "I don't get it" to explaining to me exactly what they were having difficulty with "I don't get how you know whether you have to multiply or divide the decimal when converting to different units" to eventually saying "I watched the video to see how you solved it, but I solved it a completely different way, and my way is easier and works too because I got the same answer as you did". 

My students began to take ownership for one another's learning as well and truly became a community of learners to the point that they were letting me know which videos I had posted were helpful to their learning, and which ones weren't. They would search for alternative videos and additional links and urge me to share them with the class because they felt their peers needed to see them.  

Using the tools in the D2L, my students were making their thinking visible.  They became more metacognitive and paid attention to their learning.  The Blended Learning format gave my students a voice, and they learned to use that voice.  They were empowered, and teaching doesn't get any more exciting than that!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

What's in a Blog?

I haven't blogged since the fall.  I really don't know why, but I've been missing it terribly.  Last night, I joined #etmchat on Twitter.  I'm so happy I did. #etmchat is a hashtag used by people who participated in last year's ETMOOC, (Educational Technology Massive Open Online Course).

To see some of our conversation, click here.

It was so nice to chat again with members of a wonderful PLN (Personal Learning Network); and their thought-provoking questions and tweets really got me to think about why I blog, what blogging does for me, and why I haven't blogged in such a long while.

I think different people blog for different reasons, but I can only speak for myself.  I blog because it helps me to think.  As you may, or may not know, this year I'm in a new role.  I no longer have a classroom of my own.

Last night, I started worrying that perhaps the fact that I haven't been blogging indicates that I haven't been thinking!  YIKES!

Mostly, over the last few months, I've been blaming my lack of inspiration on the loss of my students.  I felt I needed to be inspired by the kids; it is from them that I gain wisdom.

But if I'm really honest with myself, I think I haven't been blogging because sometimes I worry that maybe it is best to edit myself. Should I be sharing my thinking "out loud" even when it is not entirely positive? I realized suddenly that this has been my dilemma.  I am LOVING my job, and have been working with and meeting some amazing people.  I feel truly blessed.  But not all of it is positive and I guess that is the rub.

I find I am in a delicate balancing act where I am on the one hand working hard to build positive, collaborative relationships, but on the other hand, am also trying to apply some gentle pressure to get people to shift their thinking.  It is challenging, but it is also energizing and exciting.  I'm just not so sure how wise it is to blog about it!

In analysing my current drought, I stumbled upon a blog post by Beth Kanter. It is titled Nonprofit Blogging in the Workplace: Apologies or Permission? It thrilled me to see that someone else had put into words exactly what I had been struggling with but was having so much difficulty to name. To quote her blog, I have been wrestling with what I should and should not write, so it became easier to simply not write.  Last night, however, thanks to the  #etmchat Twitter chat, I realized that not blogging is not a solution! Blogging is cathartic for me, and maybe, just maybe, someone else needs to read what I write.

Late into the night last night, I sat with my iPad in bed, and jotted down all of the thoughts I've been curating for the last five months using my trusty Evernote.  It felt so GOOD to let it all loose!  Evernote is my Pensieve for those of you who are Harry Potter fans.

Dumbledore: "I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure.  It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form"

Harry: "You mean... that stuff's your thoughts?"

Dumbledore:  "Certainly."

I'm hoping to share my thoughts on 21st Century Learning in subsequent posts in the very near future, so long as I can manage to do it delicately.  Stay tuned.  I hope you'll come along for the ride.

If you are thinking of taking up blogging yourself, here are some useful tips and ideas from Evernote About Blogging.