Sunday, October 28, 2012

Technology and Engagement (Part 2)

As discussed in a previous post, I made it a priority this week to get into classrooms and see what is happening in our fantastic school.  In my last entry, I wrote about how teachers were utilizing technology to enhance the learning in their classrooms.  It was exciting to see the risks being taken and the sharing among colleagues, and the feedback from students was overwhelmingly positive.  In this post, I want to look more closely at Student Engagement, focusing on several classes I observed during my own No Office Day, where students were fully immersed in their learning, this time without the aid of technology.

In the first period of the day, I was invited to watch presentations from students who had entered the Charmin Challenge (similar to what is seen here). Using toilet paper and pink garbage bags, Ms. Celine Jackson's Grade 9-12 Textiles students had to design, create and present outfits that signified what they felt it meant to be a woman, and brought attention to the fight against breast cancer.  Students had to collaborate, problem-solve, think creatively and then present their efforts to the rest of the class.  Each of the 6 presentations that I saw was a masterpiece and a creation that the students will be proud of for years to come.

In second period, I was invited to Ms. Stephanie Davis' Psychology 12 class.  Students had been studying developmental milestones and had invited in a group of Preschool students from the neighboring West Richmond Community Centre.  Our students had created games for the youngsters to play that would provide some insight into their developmental stages.  The four-year old students excitedly entered the room and immediately engaged in the games being shown to them by the Burnett students.  I observed several of our more "reserved" students suddenly transform into interactive and excited leaders.  I asked one of them what  they felt the difference between them and the 4-year olds was.  He explained that the youngsters had no inhibitions and no reluctance to engage.  He stated (and I agreed) that as we age, we often become more self-aware and thus less-willing to take chances with people we don't know.  Fortunately, the enthusiasm of the kids was contagious and the entire room was alive with learning, interaction and engagement.

In third period, I followed our guests from the Psychology 12 class to Ms. Farrah Meralli and Ms. Stephanie Davis' Humanities 8 Incentive class.  Under the guidance of student teacher Ms. Wendy Lai, students were to lead the children through some interactive games and craft building.  The activities were designed to bring out the leadership skills in our students, since for much of the year there has been too much focus on marks accumulation and not enough on learning and building community (a common concern for many Burnett students).  The activities were a smashing success for the class, since students, both young and older, were immersed in connecting with one another, getting out of their comfort zones and learning how to effectively communicate and share.  Like in the Psychology class, it was amazing to watch how infectious the enthusiasm of the 4 year-olds was, how they took attention away from grades and marks, and put it on engaging and learning about self, each other, communication and sharing.

In last period, I was invited to watch Ms. Andrea Lam's Math 8 class, as the students were making presentations called "Iron Chef Burnett".  The students had been studying fractions and as a way to bring the concept to life, Ms. Lam had them draw a food item, get into partners and then find a recipe that used those foods. The recipe would then need to be expanded from its original size to something that could feed a class of 30.  This required converting fractions from mixed numbers to improper, and multiplying by another whole or improper fraction to make enough for 30.  Students were encouraged to make the food and bring it to class.  Many groups did and following the presentations of the mathematical steps they followed, a party was held.  The students had to communicate with each other and to classmates during their presentations, they had to problem-solve, think creatively and like in the parabola lesson from my previous post, the real-life example made the concept so much easier to understand and much more memorable.  I was so excited about sampling the products and talking with the students that I forgot to take any pictures.  My apologies!

At the end of the day, I went to the gym to watch the annual Breaker Classic, a Senior Boys Volleyball tournament.  The tournament featured 12 teams from around the Lower Mainland, and was organized and staffed entirely by students.  The gym was alive with athletes, scorekeepers, referees, concessions stand staffers, team hosts and several coaches.  Mr. Wes Bevan and former student Mr. David Tam, the team coaches and sponsor, oversaw the event, but allowed students to take the lead and make decisions about how to run it, what to sell, costs to be set and met etc.  A project of this size is no small feat, but the students were up to the challenge, and after 2 solid days (all night Friday and Saturday from 8 AM until 7 PM), the feedback from the coaches and competitors was that it was an exceptionally well-run tournament.  Events like these may not show up on a report card, but they comprise a significant part of the learning experience that is part of high-school life.

What I saw on just one Friday had students fully immersed in what they were doing.  Through project-based learning they were developing critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, collaboration and so many more 21st Century skills.  While student engagement is something that we need to continue to improve, I would argue that students can not be more engaged and developing skills that will greatly enhance their futures than what I saw on Friday.

I was so proud of and inspired by what I had seen, that I struggled to keep myself from getting emotional re-living the day with some colleagues. So, to all the critics of the education system, please take the time to actually set foot inside the schools in your neighborhood. I am sure you will be more than impressed by what you see. I know I was.

Technology and Engagement (Part 1)

After an invigorating but tiring RASA Retreat last weekend, I made it a point this week to see what is going on in our school.  I consider myself a good communicator and engage in many valuable conversations with staff and students about the things they are doing, but despite my attempts, I often find myself wanting to be in classes more, so this week, I made it my number one priority. 
Some of the things I wanted to observe, following much discussion about the BCEd Plan, 21st Century Learning and Skills and reading several education books (which I will review in a future post), are the levels of Student Engagement and the Use of Technology to enhance teaching and learning in our schools.  These things are often portrayed as lacking in our education system.  

While I agree with many of the suggestions for how educators can help improve the system, sometimes I find myself frustrated that teachers are not being given enough credit for already doing many of the things being discussed.  Two of the 5 components of the BCEd Plan are "Quality Teaching and Learning" and "Learning Empowered by Technology".  In the past three days, I have had the opportunity to get into several classes, both by invitation and sometimes just "popping in", and have seen some amazing student engagement demonstrating quality teaching and learning and some phenomenal efforts to enhance learning through the use of technology.  In this post, I will focus on the technology aspect of what has been happening at Burnett Secondary.

One of our Senior Chemistry teachers, Mr. Robbie Kailley, came to me awhile ago expressing some interest in pursuing the "Flipped Classroom" model.  He found some very affordable technology (a tablet and headset with a microphone-about $90 at Best Buy), and tried augmenting his lessons with examples that could be posted to his website.  These videos would reinforce things that were discussed in class, or would introduce new topics for future lessons.  While Mr. Kailley has admitted that the production of such videos is front-end heavy, he has enjoyed making them, and the students are finding them extremely valuable.  Just one of the many Chemistry 11 examples that he has posted to his website for students to review can be found here.
Much of what Mr. Kailley is trying to replicate is offered through the Khan Academy, which is a free, Internet-based educational service.  There is quite a buzz about the Academy, both positive and negative, but one thing that can not be denied is that a review video that students can access on their own time, and can watch as many times as needed, can reinforce much of the concept that is trying to be learned.  While the Khan Academy can not, in my opinion, replace the valuable interaction between a teacher, his/her classmates and a student, it does allow for repeated review of certain concepts.  This alone can help students who learn in different ways or at different rates.
An added bonus is that Mr. Kailley has been willing to take on a leadership role piloting this type of work, and is now sharing his efforts with other staff.  He has presented at Educational Facilitator meetings, worked alongside staff testing other products and will be leading a tutorial session for teachers at an upcoming Pro-D day.

Not one to assume things are good, Mr. Kailley has also decided to survey one of his classes to get some feedback about whether or not the videos are beneficial.  The class of 28 students responded as follows:
  • 21 people watched
  • 20 found it helpful (1 said "not yet")
  • all of them want more videos
  • 8 think it would help in math/physics
Some comments were:
  • The video helped because in class we do not have enough time to do other examples, so it is a good review.
  • Helpful since it is audio and visual combined
  • It helped me a lot because I wasn't here for the class when we covered this, and after I watched the video, I understood it.  I could visually see how to do it, while pausing and replaying the video.
  • Good to see more examples!
  • This gives me more time to understand the lessons.
  • It wasn't too fast and just like the explanation that was given in class.
  • It helps me understand more when I am at home and don't know how to do the homework.
  • I could review the videos before I come to ask you questions.
Another teacher I spoke with this week was teaching her Math 11 classes about parabolas, and using her iPad decided to film some staff (myself included) shooting three pointers.  Using an app she found called Explain Everything, Ms. Sara Haave was able to embed the basketball video inside a white screen that she could type or write on to make notes and explain the concept she was trying to teach.  The class was provided formulae and notes regarding distance, time and height, and then she paused the video.  Ms. Haave asked her students, based upon what they had seen and the calculations they had made, "Would the shot go in?".  The level of engagement and enjoyment from the students and the teacher was astounding.  The real-life example of the concept made the lesson more engaging and the use of technology helped keep the students focused and curious.  Another by-product of this work is the excitement the teacher has about what she is doing.  Ms. Haave is excited to try new things, and is sharing her experiments with teachers across disciplines, as evidenced by a conversation I witnessed between her and a Senior English teacher just down the hall. 
One other tech-related class that I had the chance to get into this week was a Science 10 class where I had been invited to share information about technology tools that students could access for their upcoming Biomes presentations.  Following some staff meetings where I had used things like Prezi and Animoto, Ms. Sam Jessa has started playing with those programs.  While I am sure she could have led her students through a discussions about how to augment presentations using these tools, she invited me to come and speak with her class.  I relish these opportunities, because I do miss the regular interactions with students.  I jumped at the offer, and spent about 30 minutes in a couple of classes looking at Animoto, Prezi and Glogster as presentation aides.  Many students were already aware of the sites, and were able to add to my understanding of how to best use the tools.  I hope that the technology will help add to their presentations and make them more engaging for the presenters and their audiences.  More important than my lesson, however, was the chance to interact with students and have them see me as a human and a teacher.

I was very impressed with the efforts being made, the levels of student learning and engagement occurring as well as the excitement the staff had to test these technological tools in their classrooms.  We have had staff sharing these practices with each other at Professional Development days, in Educational Facilitator Meetings and in staffroom discussions.  The energy and excitement that changes like these are creating is beneficial to both staff and students.  While technology is only a tool, observing the discussion and sharing of ideas and practices reaffirms for me that we have exceptional teachers who are trying new things and making the learning environments for their students more engaging.  Thank you for all your efforts.  Do not think they go unappreciated, by your students, their parents or me.
In an upcoming post, I will be writing about some of the extremely engaging lessons that I had the opportunity to observe that had nothing to do with technology....

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Presence and Intent

The Richmond Association of School Administrators hosted their biennial retreat this past weekend at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler in beautiful Whistler, BC.  As the first village snowfall of the season came, we engaged in professional conversations about "Leveraging our Leadership Through Times of Change". 
Thursday night's keynote speaker was BC educator Tom Schimmer.  He gave us some helpful reminders of what stage staff may be at in terms of willingness and capacity to make change.  Tom's humorous style and ability to tell stories made the session easy to follow and related well to the environments we are all facing.
Friday we had some engaging conversations facilitated by Diana Cawood and former Richmond District administrator, Stephanie Hardman.  We spent some time analyzing our "best selves" and discussed how we need to remember the values that lead to those examples.  The opportunity to connect with feeder-school families was beneficial and has prompted us to schedule time to connect with one another more regularly.  Friday concluded with a dinner and social event that highlighted just how likeably human all of the people in the group are, proving that each of us is so much more than "professional educator". 
Saturday had a slightly slower pace and concluded the weekend with some EdCamp-style conversations on wide-ranging topics including Assessment, the BCEd Plan, Technology in the Classroom and Student Engagement.  The most important element to these discussions was recognizing and sharing with each other the passion we all have for what we do, and promoting the opportunity to connect with each other to share the ideas, practices and philosophies.
A Google Doc of the weekend can be found here.  The conversation all weekend was rich, but two things stood out to me more than anything else: 
#1 Intent must be clear
This is not a new idea, but I was reminded that while my intent may be clear to me, it can be easily misinterpreted by others.  Any intent needs to be clearly articulated, but it also must be supported by consistent behaviours.  While the discussion reminded many of Simon Sinek's "Start With Why", I reflected upon a video by Dan Pink I stumbled across earlier in the week titled "2 Questions".  If our sentence is clear to everyone, then the intent, or "Why" we are doing something should be understood by all with whom we work.
#2 Presence matters.
While this idea is not new either, I was reminded of both physical and emotional presence at the retreat and in a couple of circumstances this past week.  I made a point to get out of my office on Wednesday, and observed several classes.  In each example, I was fully engaged in the class and activities and got feedback from students and teachers, thanking me for my "presence".  The students were excited that I was taking an interest and participating in what they were doing, and the teachers were proud to showcase the efforts of their students and of the new things they were trying in class.
On a more personal note, I also got the chance on Wednesday to watch my eldest son participate in the "Fun Run" at Minoru park.  I got to see him as he approached the finish line, and the look on his face and the elevated effort once he saw me was palpable.  The run was at 4:30 PM, which is much earlier than I usually get home from work, and my son told me after he finished that he was worried I wouldn't be able make it.  That stung a little, because he needs to know that I would never miss an important event in his life, but the appreciation in his face and the extra effort that he gave when he saw me reminded me that staff and students are the same.  Everyone appreciates being seen and will work that much harder when someone who is fully-engaged and "in-the-moment" is there to cheer them on.
Thanks to the RASA Pro-D committee for organizing the event and to all of my colleagues for inspiring my thinking and contributing to my enjoyment of the time in Whistler.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Difference We Make...

Friday, October 5th is World Teacher Day.  On this day, please take the time to acknowledge and appreciate the important work that teachers do.  With its arrival, I am reminded of a post I started last year, but never published.  Now is the time to share that post. 

At the end of a confusing and challenging year in British Columbia Public Education year, a teacher on the J.N. Burnett staff brought me the following note.  He had received it from a parent of a student he had taught a couple of times during her five years with the school.  It was an uplifting reminder of the positive impact teachers can have on young lives.  With the permission of the teacher and the parents who authored the letter, I share it here (names have been changed to protect the anonymity of all the parties involved).

Dear Mr. Johnston;
I wanted to not only express my sincerest thanks to you for being a very special  teacher to my daughter, Kirsten, for the past two years, but also to comment that you have the qualities for reaching a more challenging student like Kirsten.  Not all teachers have this talent.  To teach the easiest and brightest in the class is not tough, but to reach those with low marks and seemingly little interest and also to rope in those such as Kirsten who is not unintelligent, but who has had a lifetime of challenges due to her severe ADHD, that requires talent and caring.
Poor Kirsten has had her older brother (Jim), 10 years her elder, fly through highschool and UBC as a gifted student academically, musically and socially.  They love each other and Kirsten tried desperately to emulate him, but what a hard act to follow!  Jim never had you as a teacher, but recalls you as a TOC and remembers you fondly.
Kirsten's two biggest problems with English were reading too quickly, thus jumping words and then missing the point and much of the content.  But she always hated to go back (impatient like many of us...).  Her second big problem was editing, which you picked up on right away.
I tried for years to look at her writings and subtly make suggestions when she veered off topic or it didn't quite make sense.  But you, sir, are a teacher, and I am a nurse.  And who wants to listen to their mother, anyway?  Especially a mother who has had some serious medical issues this past year (Kirsten has many conficted and complicated feelings about this).
This year she was afraid of failing English.  But then she got you for a second time and you continued to, rather than just mark things "wrong", make suggestions or give her hints and ideas for how to make her thoughts "more correct" or "easier to understand".
You have also stimulated her interest in what she was reading in class, to the point, this year, that she would actually come home from school and tell me all about it!
The third (and probably most important) thing you did was create in her a desire to read for PLEASURE.  We are a large family of readers and to see her reading for joy (and not because she has to) is a pleasure for me and a happiness for her that is beyond words.
Little did she realize the tribute she was giving you last week when I asked her what she thought you had done for her.  She replied, "He gave me confidence in myself".  And so you did.  We can not thank you enough for instilling her love of learning and belief in herself.  You are a treasure of a teacher.  Thank you so much.

As has been stated before, "You make the weather" and teachers do make a difference.  Sometimes we don't hear it enough.  Thank you to the parent for taking the time to acknowledge the efforts and to the teacher for making such a positive difference for students at J.N. Burnett.
 Happy World Teacher's Day!