Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Projects-- Thinking "Outsiders" the Box

          On April 18th I was fortunate to once again attend a Surrey School's "Digital Learning" session, part of a series of six that I have participated in this year. Entitled "Creating a Culture of Inquiry", Neil Stephenson, District Principal of Innovation and Inquiry in Delta, spoke of the incredible potential of technology to impact student learning. Prior to Neil's presentation, teachers from Kwantlen Park Secondary and Woodward Hill Elementary shared some amazingly innovative and creative teaching practices that they have worked to integrate at their respective schools. Woodward Hill played a video capturing some of their practices that brought many in the room to tears. One imactful lesson that I came away with from all three of these presentations, is that as "experienced" teachers we can sometimes fall into a comfortable, somewhat complacent routine, and that if I am feeling too comfortable in my classroom, it probably means I'm not taking enough "risks" with my teaching.
          For every teacher, those "risks" may manifest differently, but I think it is vital that we strive to push ourselves to move out of that comfortable, safe, and yes, mostly effective place we may occasionally find ourselves in after we have graduated from the "survival mode"mentality that many new teachers experience. I challenged myself to do exactly that...
         Nearing the end of our English 8 unit for the novel The Outsiders, (a classic, and still highly relevant piece of literature encompassing various topics including gang violence, conflict resolution, abuse, and family) I began to construct a project that would challenge my students to demonstrate various and specific learning outcomes for the unit. I reviewed several past projects, and to be honest, they were pretty darn good. But, they were also pretty darn "safe". And so, I began to revise and rework. Ultimately, I envisioned a project where the end product was the choice of the student. I began by thinking about what learning I wanted them to demonstrate, and worked backwards. The challenge was to devise a rubric that could encompass any varied, diverse and creative project that my talented English 8s could dream up! I decided that students should be able to demonstrate an awareness and understanding of significant events, characters, literary terms, themes and issues from the novel.
          With the final assessment completed, I began to create the actual project sheet. As I'm quite familiar with the various learning needs in my classroom, I felt that it was important to offer some concrete suggestions in addition to providing the freedom of choice for my students, and so I offered three options; a newspaper, an iMovie trailer, or a product of their choice. They also were able to choose whether they wanted to work independently, or collaborate with a partner, or within a group. For some of my students, offering only the third "choice" option could be overwhelming and daunting. They prefer to have some basic guidelines, and then add to those minimum requirements in a creative and unique manner. I also wanted to ensure that only those students who were familiar with iMovie chose that option. After all, I am an English, not a Technology teacher, and my intent was not to assess them on how well they use technology, but on how well they could demonstrate their understanding of the novel.
          So where does the idea of necessary "risk" enter in? After handing out and explaining the parameters of the project, I made arrangements to book our library and iPads to facilitate the range of projects indicated by my students after they were given an opportunity to brainstorm various ideas. We met on the specified day, I ensured that everyone had a sense of what they were doing, and then I stepped back and got out of their way!
          At times, I had only a vague idea of where my students were. At times, they had rather expensive iPads in their possession AND I only had a vague idea of where my students were! Some were in the library using the computers to format newspapers, some were collaborating in groups designing board games, some were outside recording voices for Puppet Pals, and some were up on the sports field covered in dirt and fake blood recording "rumbles" for iMovie trailers. As an individual who is occasionally described as a tad controlling, this was a bit anxiety causing! But, ultimately, I trust my "kids" and they all returned at the agreed upon time with their technology intact. I did occasionally set out on scouting missions to "spy" on my students (old habits die hard!) and what did I see? Students having an awesome time demonstrating learning. And does it really get any better than that? With this and other projects, I am challenging myself to think "Outsiders" the box.

Project rubric for The Outsiders

Project Sheet that includes a range of choice.
And then, get out of their way! Students working outside to record voices using Puppet Pals App.
Students working in Library designing Outsiders board game.

Students working outside creating iMovie trailers for the novel. I didn't include the photo of the student covered in fake blood, and very real dirt after filming the "rumble"!

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

"Teachers as Learning Partners"- Moving into Mentorship

          Today I was the student. At various times throughout the day I felt anxious, I felt awkward, I felt uncertain and I felt inadequate. I also felt empowered, excited and energized to embark on a new journey which will allow me to apply some of my new found knowledge in "real life" scenarios. Hmmm...probably quite similar to how many of my students feel on any given day...
          Aside from the numerous new skills and practices that I was introduced to today, I think perhaps one of the most valuable lessons was the reminder of what it feels like to be the student, to ask the questions, to come to a place of understanding after struggling with new content, new vocabulary and new contexts. The opportunity to engage in ongoing professional development as a teacher not only serves to provide valuable skills, but to remind us what it's like to be on the other side of the desk. Four years out from completing my Masters of Arts in English, I had almost forgotten the exhilaration and yes, exhaustion, that comes from intensive learning.
          Now briefly to the content of my learning experience. Sullivan Heights is embarking on a pilot Peer Mentoring program, "Teachers As Learning Partners". This will provide both new and experienced teachers a framework in which they are able to collaborate with colleagues in a supportive, confidential and non-evaluative manner. I was gifted with an opportunity to spend the day with a diverse and dedicated group of teachers and facilitators who are all excited at the prospect of implementing this new model. Together we hope to establish a mentorship model that provides teachers with a new resource. Through a reciprocal, dynamic and evolving process, we seek to provide colleagues with a range of tools and supports that allows for ongoing growth. Mentors and mentees alike will be learning together as we embark on this new and exciting initiative!