Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Continuing the Conversations on Cell Phones

This semester, I have three grade 9 classes, and even though they are exciting to teach, they can be very distracted, very scattered, and very much in need of classroom and teacher supports to keep them focused on the learning.

I've been following the debate around cell phone use closely. I saw a report on CBC news about a Social Studies teacher in Toronto who had ordered the pouches for his class; the report included a brief interview with students who reported being able "to focus more", so I sought the approval of my principal and we decided to run an experiment out of my class.

I ordered 30 Yondr pouches (seen in the image) for experimentation and spent time planning how I might use them, when I might use them, and I began drafting a letter Informing parents.

Donna Fry wrote recently about cell phones here: http://blog.donnamillerfry.com/5posts5days/cell-phones/  She seems to question the banning of cell phones, and asked some very valuable questions.

When have we scaffolded the development of self-regulation with mobile devices? 
When have we empowered students by showing them how to connect with experts from around the world? 
These questions or similar concerns were expressed by other Department Heads at my school. Before I could take action, I felt that I needed to understand the debate more clearly and I wanted to engage my students in the experiment.
A Classroom Experiment:
One day during a station activity where students were trying to use literary devices in creative ways (write a menu or advertisement for Hyperbole cafe), I noticed that they were particularly rambunctious and nearly every student had a cell phone out and in use. I observed many Snapchat users and overheard discussions about a social situation that was drawing their attention. 
The next day I spontaneously decided to take action. I brought the pouches into the class and had students lock their phones before doing 6 vocabulary stations. The students knew about the pouches and understood that I was supporting them in creating a sense of focus; at least, that was my intention. I had students complete a Google Form about the experience and the next day I ran the stations again, with different words, and this time with their phones. I was fortunate to be in the middle of a collaborative inquiry cycle and had 7 teachers observe my students during the vocabulary stations so I got lots of interesting observational data.
What Happened?
On the first day using the Yondr pouches, I asked my students how they felt about working at the vocabulary stations without their phones and these are their unedited responses:

Before the activity, your phone was locked in a Yondr pouch. How did this affect the way you tried to work through the tasks at the station?
Did not effect me at all because I don't use my phone in English.
It made it easier to concentrate
We needed to search some songs up and it was hard to do when the phone or the Chromebook was locked away so it was hard.
It didn't change it much, I still did the work the same as I usually would have.
Doesn't matter I didn't have a phone
It made it a bit harder because i couldn't look anything up

It didn't really affect me to much, only when I may of forgot what a word was but I couldn't search it up.
I found that it was much less of a distraction for me and my group members because i was able to focus more on my work and the entire group was able to focus and contribute to each station.We also were able to complete most of the stations in a reasonable time because we did not have a phone to distract us from our work, i think everyone can talk to a neighbor or group member and still complete work without access to our devices.
I found it made it easier to not have my phone because I wasn't constantly checking it, or wanting to go on it. I wasn't even worried about it and I got more work done, probably because I was more Focused on my work than my phone.
I'm fine without my phone. It didn't effect me very much.
Couldn't look up the words which made it tricky

On the next day, when they could use their phones, teachers observed students struggling with vocabulary and making decisions to skip words rather than use their phones to look up definitions.
Donna Fry wrote about the power of cell phones as sources of information. However, I discovered something unexpected with my students. 
What I Learned and Next Steps:
I should preface these next statements by the fact that I am a seriously dedicated social media fanatic and I have an obsession with Media Studies. 
Lesson #1: My observations in this early stage of my experiment, have led me to feel that often grade 9 students don't see their cell phones as "powerful computers".The distraction is the powerful pull of social media and the chance to interact virtually with their peers. In my school and in my classes, this is mainly Snapchat with some limited use of Instagram. As someone who once held the philosophical belief that  if the lesson is "engaging enough" students will use their cell phones wisely. I've realized that I'll never be as engaging as their peer group or some Youtube videos. I can and have spent hours designing for engagement, but if the teenaged mind is consumed by emotions generated by the amygdala and they are immersed in some peer group drama, they will not be able to focus with or without a cell phone.
Lesson #2: But the experiment taught me even more. It's not all about focus. It's actually about working memory. My students relied on their phones so much, and the ways that they consume music is so different from previous generations, that they did not have working memory of songs or vocabulary words that we were using in class. 

Lesson #3: It can't be all or nothing. Students need help understanding how and when to use their cell phones. They need help managing the use of the phone in and outside of the classroom.

This isn't going to be an easy fix. We aren't going to solve this with traditional measures or absolute controls. We need to continue the discussion, to involve students in understanding the potential and the dangers of cell phone use.

I'm continuing by listening to the debate on CBC Radio's Ontario today.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Reading to Children

Reading to Children:

This week, my students in Grade 9 Applied English chose children's stories and read them to some young children at the school Daycare program.

To be honest, they were somewhat apprehensive at first, and entered the room which was bustling with the activity of busy, energetic young children.

I got the sense that they didn't quite know where to move, where to sit, what to do. This wasn't a classroom or an environment with which they are familiar, so it took a bit of prompting, some encouragement and eventually the natural aspects of storytelling just took over.

And then something remarkable happened...
I've tried several times this year to create some experiential learning without much success. Cost is always a factor and with cut backs being experienced everywhere, it's difficult to find rewarding experiences for my students. However, this experience was unanticipated and the payoff was something unexpected.

Reading to younger children gave my students in Applied English a boost to their confidence. I don't even think they realized the changes they experienced, but I could see it visibly in the way they walked back to the classroom, in the way they then approached their own reading. More importantly, it showed up in my data; I had them write two short reading comprehension quizzes right after reading to children, and the results were nothing short of remarkable.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Listening to Senior Citizens at South Carleton High School

I've been thinking about the Oral Communication strand of the English curriculum and the challenges of evaluating listening skills and speaking skills. We've had many discussions in the department about the role of oral presentations and those who know me, know that I'm not a fan of the whole class presentation for all students. I've used podcasts in the past and this tool requires that they listen to their own voice in ways that oral presentations to their peers cannot accomplish.

I'm still working my way through the journey of finding meaningful options for all students and I recently had great success with interviewing Senior citizens.

My grade 9 students brainstormed a list of questions to ask a small group of Seniors who visit the school regularly to participate in some of the social activities.  The students worked in pairs and shared the role of speaking and listening.

I walked around the library and observed them practicing listening to the stories of  a generation without electricity, where attending school was a privilege, and where war became the back drop for their early lives.

When students were stuck and conversation stalled, I stepped in to model expanding questions, and ways to show the in person being interviewed that we were listening carefully.

There was a pervading atmosphere of respect and deep appreciation for the lived lives of these senior citizens.

After the students had interviewed the seniors and made notes about their responses, we walked to the foods room and sampled some of the student chili creations. This was an opportunity to learn about other programs in the school and a nice was to bring closure to our meeting with the Seniors.

Back in the classroom, we talked about what they learned from the exercise and some pointed out that they found it difficult to listen and take notes at the same time. Others found this a useful way to concentrate on what was being said, to think about the meaning of the speaker and to condense what was being said. Despite having no formal evaluation for the task, I ended the day seeing the value in the activity as greater than what information it could generate for assessment purposes.

On Remembrance Day, the Seniors were visiting again, and without much planning, I decided to invite them to share their wartime experiences with my grade 11 students. Mary, who is 92 years old, shared her story of getting engaged by mail, Vera, who grew up in Yorkshire, England, shared her stories of wearing a gas mask in the playground at school, the house exploding next to hers, yet the sense of unity they all felt in the war years which can come from a common struggle. Pat, whose Uncle was born in Germany, was seven years old when his parents sent him away to live on farms rather than be recruited into the Hitler youth movement. With pride, she shared the fact that the Canadian soldiers eventually rescued him as the war was ending and gave him bread and cheese as they brought him back to his family. In a final act of generosity upon his return, he gave the bread and cheese to his sister, who was having a birthday. It was a touching moment and the room was very quiet.

I observed and reflected on the experience; every one of my students listened with respect and admiration. I think the most important lesson that I learned is that students excel when they have opportunities to listen to authentic stories. I'm still not sure about whole class oral presentations, but I know that listening and speaking with the senior citizens was meaningful for everyone involved.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Cultivating Thinking in the Classroom

Reflecting upon the first few weeks of school has helped me purposely and precisely decide what is important in my classroom. It has allowed me to shed the burden of teacher guilt about not doing enough content, not grading enough papers, not being successful in the application of new teaching strategies. I'm letting that go as I work on modelling patience, perseverance, using mistakes to revisit tasks.

I'm spending more time thinking about what I am doing and how this will be visible in the learning of my students. And because I want to see the learning, I'll need to track some of the details from day to day.

I've used two tools to help me with this and both tools require complete transparency with the students. I want them to own their learning and to value assessment as a tool for improvement.

One tool is my Observation Template:
I'm using this tool for looking at the process of learning that is visible in the classroom.

The other tool is Feedback:
I'm using this tool for looking at specific skills. One of the most useful articles that I've ever read about feedback is here. If I'm honest with myself, I've been doing this feedback thing all wrong.

Once a mark goes on the work, the learning is over. Feedback, on the other hand, gives students information that the task needs changes before the learning is evaluated.

I am going to let my students know that the comments will be about the work and not the person. I still value praise and encouragement, but I won't give this on papers. I will give it in person so conferencing will become a regular part of my class routine. For each assignment, I'm going to check in with the student and give them targeted praise and encouragement.

Cultivating thinking in my classroom will take time. It will take more than observations and feedback. But for now, I'm shedding the guilt and focusing on making positive changes which visibly promote learning and deepen understanding in myself and my students.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Change takes time and care

I started teaching at a new school two days ago. It's always a challenge to learn the new rules: where's the photocopier? where's the bathroom? who can fix my computer? which printer?

But, this week, I tried to see this change through the eyes of a grade 9 student at South Carleton and I realized that my anxieties are small compared to theirs. Watching the fear on their faces as they entered the gym to meet their cheering Link Crew members, nearly brought me to tears. Some of them needed some quiet, some space, more time for such a big change in their young lives.

I feel fortunate to have two classes of grade 9 students and the four days of this week will focus on making them feel welcome, and creating a caring environment where they know they will be supported in learning.

I started my classes sharing information that I thought they should know about me.

I then asked the students to complete a few short questions on a handout. I asked them what they felt I needed to know (do they play competitive sports, or music, or travel between their parents' homes). I also asked them what they would study if they could study any topic possible, what they are concerned about in English, and what they are really good at.

Most had difficulty answering questions about themselves, and even though this task is not directly linked to an expectation in the curriculum, the observations gave me information that will shape my practice around meta cognition. It's the first time that I have used this questionnaire, and I'm glad that I did it. I'm glad that I decided to follow the Finnish model and take time to learn about my students. All change takes time.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Discovery Day: Mentoring Students at South Carleton High School

I made a great discovery at South Carleton High School on Thursday, March 31. The heavy rain did not dampen the spirits of the many students who gathered in the gym to hear the keynote speaker, Jay Gosselin for Discovery Day.

Candace Carson, Instructional Coach for Co-op, OYAP, Dual Credit, and Pathways at the Ottawa Carleton District School Board told me about the day. She said,

"Discovery Day was born out of a desire to provide hands on experience for students in high school who need to see the many possibilities available to them in their future.  The most efficient way I could conceive of doing this was to bring the community to the students. I needed to bring community partners representing a variety of sectors, services, and interests to the school to share their expertise, and even more importantly, to share the details of their own personal pathway. We wanted them to tell students how they got from where they were as a student in high school to where and who they are today. The hope was for students to have opportunities to engage in authentic conversation with the community partners around pathway planning, to develop some skills in areas of general interest, and to experience something new."    

After listening to him speak, I found some more information on Jay Gosselin's website and it is clear that his personal experience led him to identify a gap for students. High School students often don't know what careers are available, and they don't know enough about themselves to make significant decisions about the future. Jay offers an interesting mentorship program for students who leave high school and want to take a "gap year".

Some students visited classrooms and heard presentations about college or University programs. I had the opportunity to introduce students to health care options at Ottawa U.

These students went on a field trip to Versailles Academy 

Other students had a yummy visit from Edible Sins

and there were so many options for everyone.

I came away from Discovery Day thinking about the significance of this event for all high school students. In fact, it felt like a day could not be enough, but I know the event left the students with a sense that they have options, that they can actively consider a future in post-secondary education, and in the world of work.

Even more impressive to me was the list of teachers who helped make the day possible and who welcomed me to the event. I've heard it said that South Carleton High School is a gem in the OCDSB and I got to experience this first hand.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Setting Matters: Making Learning Stick

I've been thinking a lot about the design of my next classroom, and it's exciting; it's like buying a new house and designing the space for living. I want my classroom to create a sense of community and safety. I want it to promote critical thinking and discussion, so it will be important for  me to consider each element of the room. I will need to think about the walls as well as the floor space.

Wall space has occupied my learning a great deal this year with the popularity of "vertical non-permanent surfaces" or VNPs. I've learned a great deal from two math teachers, Alex Overwijk and Laura Wheeler, but these are math teachers, and I'm an English teacher.

How can these surfaces work on the walls of an English classroom?

How can I use wall space and stations like my former student, now Elementary teacher, Kim Noxon? These are photos of her classroom.

I also read this article from Edutopia about classroom design and it got me thinking about a new classroom model for next year when I'll be teaching at South Carleton High School.

Another inspiration came from this picture posted on Facebook by Kelsey Brown from Longfields Davidson Heights High School.

She said "the idea started with the thought bubble post it notes that I found at Walmart. My grade eleven class has some very enthusiastic learners and some very observant students. I find with Life of Pi, the discussion part of the course and sharing ideas is quite important for comprehension. Depending on the day, discussion can occur and be quite successful; however, I decided to put up the 'What Stuck with you today?' board to encourage the students who are not as comfortable with speaking in front of everyone. The board is getting a wide mixture of ideas - some direct quotations, some interpretations of theme, and some general words of wisdom."

Next Steps:

Finish reading Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning