Radical Revamp … in Small Increments

From the original image Pupae by Moonrhino  Quote by John Seely Brown, as seen in the 21st Century Learner video on YouTube.

Embracing Change posted by Keri-Lee Beasley; From the original image Pupae by Moonrhino Quote by John Seely Brown, as seen in the 21st Century Learner video on YouTube.

As this school year and my COETAIL course comes to an end, I have begun the task of setting my “Summer Reflections and Actions List” … you know what I mean … that list of educationally-focused tasks that, in an ideal, perfect world, I will diligently work through over the summer.  In my dream scenario, before reality takes over, I begin with honest reflection on my current practices, identifying what has worked and more importantly what has not worked this school year.  After careful consideration and copious research (remember … dream scenario) I want to devise changes for improving the classroom experience for my students, refining what has worked and completely revamping what has not.  (Please note that I did not say “for improving my teaching” as I hope to move steadily toward a more student-centered educational experience.)  Having thoughtfully and thoroughly worked through the list, blogged about my reflections (a nod to you Jeff), and updated current lesson plans to accommodate my new direction, I hope my teaching next year will be vastly improved, … and since I am still in my dream scenario … the sense of being constantly behind will be a distant memory, and I will leave work at a reasonable time everyday knowing that I am fully prepared for every eventuality that could occur …EVER.  And, of course, my students, after a few hours of exposure to my new direction and outlook, combined with my calm nature, will be transformed into independent learners, with strong critical thinking skills … they will become effective collaborators and clear communicators … they will, of course, perfectly model our core school values of respect, responsibility, honesty and kindness … they will be held up as role models to be emulated by others, they will bring about world peace and an end to poverty … and when asked the reason for their radical transformation, the students will smile a knowing smile and say “Ms. Connor” …  Ahhhhh!!

Oops … sorry!  I think my dream scenario went a little too far!  Let’s get back to reality.

Seriously though, I hope to spend some time this summer reevaluating my current teaching practices and choosing a few small, yet significant areas of change to implement for next year.

Realizing that this may change in the coming weeks, I currently have three key areas that I want to consider.

  1. I want to design a new homework system that will motivate and reward students rather than discourage and punish.  A system where positive reinforcement in the form of individual and class rewards can be worked towards.  (Unless Loren manages to finish his Gamification homework plan before he graduates, then I will just test out his plan.)

    The Joys of Homework by Cayusa

    At the end of last school year, a colleague and I were contemplating new ways to assign and grade homework.  We wanted to make it meaningful, efficient and authentic.  But after some discussion, we decided that there was no perfect way, and perhaps not even a “better” way to check that students were completing their homework in a manner that would enhance their understanding of the topic.  So this year I continued with my same old approach.  In all its’ unimaginative glory, here it is:  At the beginning of the year I use class time to carefully check homework for completion.  Student’s work is examined for evidence that every question is attempted and that work is shown.  Part of homework is to check the answers with the aid of the back of the book so  students can ask questions of me or a peer (preferably before class) for all those problems that they could not solve correctly.  Corrections are then done in a different color as a visual reminder of concepts to be aware of in the future.  Having used significant class time early in the year to establish my expectations, I then turn the task of grading homework over to the students and have them do peer grading of the homework at the beginning of class.  With that inauspicious starting point, there has to be a way to improve the process and the expectations.  Gamification seems like it could help, so I am going to start the reflection and research there.

  2. I want to identify one key concept/unit/topic that can be taught using the flipped classroom model.  Once that topic is determined, I need to begin to plan the unit and hopefully record some of the lessons.  Currently I think that Vectors from the IB Higher Level Math curriculum might be suitable to be presented in this manner.


  1. I want to develop a plan for how I can use the Harkness Method of teaching to enhance the effectiveness of the problem-solving portion of each lesson.  (Coupling this with a reward plan might be investigated in the future, but I need to think the process and consequences through first.)  How can I use the challenging problems tackled during class to encourage collaboration and communication of solid mathematical processes, and make it student-centered?  The vague outline that I want to reflect on and develop involves blocking out set portions of time during all (or maybe just some) classes to have students present solutions to difficult problems, whether from the class notes or from the homework and then have them discuss alternate problem-solving strategies or more elegant approaches.  The idea would be to analyze each person’s work through open and judgment-free discussions, providing a safe place for students to ask questions.  A key to making this work is going to be identifying problems that can be solved by numerous methods as well as having questions that require the synthesis of multiple skills and strategies.  But as I said, this all needs to be thought through more carefully to make it a truly positive experience and to optimize the chances of it succeeding.  My original thoughts were that this would be diametrically opposed to the flipped classroom model, but now I am not so sure … something to think on further.
At The College Preparatory School

Students and instructor seated around a Harkness table

This time next year I want to look back and see significant changes in the experience students have in my classroom.  I don’t want to feel that it was one more year of doing the same thing.  I know that my current teaching practices meet the needs of some students, but there is always room for improvement if I am willing to step out of my comfort zone.  Some of the changes may fail miserably, but at least that will give me a new starting point for my “Summer Reflections and Actions List” next year.  So, armed with my new tech skills, a lot of reading and contemplation, I hope to walk boldly into next year.

Now, if I can just follow through on this brilliant summer plan and not get distracted by the thought of sitting under a palm tree, looking out over crystal blue water, and reading a book for the whole summer!

Beach, Nilandho, Faafu Atoll, Maldives. By Shazwan

Flipped Out

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Thanks to Jasper for allowing me to use footage of his airborne antics!

Having been motivated and challenged by the esteemed likes of Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams, the pioneers of the flipped classroom, Peter Pappas through his blog exhortation, and Brian Bennett through his google hangout interaction and blogging, it is time to figure out what this flipping process is really all about.

Jonathan Bergman in The Flipped Class Blog outlines the potential benefits of the flipped classroom saying:

“We believe strongly in the proper implementation of the Flipped Model because it has so many benefits which speak to the heart of education reform.  The Flipped Model allows for:

Furthermore, Peter Pappas says:

“Instead of class time being filled with the pointless transfer of information from teacher to student, you and your students would have the time to apply and explore the content in a more engaging and project-based classroom.”

His statement is what started the rusty wheels of my imagination turning, as I started to dream of all the possibilities and benefits of this process for preparing my students for life after high school.  Actually, what it did was bring to mind the conversations I have recently enjoyed having with some of my students, as described at the beginning of my previous post Less is More.  Though we talk about student’s hopes, dreams and thoughts, it is not those particular conversations that I want to focus on.  Instead, it is the learning-driven, sometimes curriculum-based, problem-solving discussions I have been privileged enough to listen to and be part of.

To set the scene …

timepiece prime time clock closeup watch by zoute drop

When I think about the learning that I get most enthusiastic about, it is not the “learning” I hope is going on when I deliver my carefully prepared and scripted lesson.  This is teaching … not learning.  I don’t know (and probably don’t want to know) what is going on in the minds of my students as I lead them through our proscribed material for the day.  At the end of the class, I try to gauge how much they took in by seeing how effectively they can solve the examples.  Unfortunately, these examples are often straightforward as students need some proficiency in a topic before I can give them the more interesting questions and we just never have time to do these FUN questions.

But, I hear you ask, “Where is the problem-solving discussion you said you were part of?”  Where indeed!

I have had those discussions and enjoyed the thrill of hearing students engage in true learning.  Unfortunately, as indicated above, it is rarely happens during classtime.  Instead, this year I have experienced this pleasure in two unique settings.  Firstly, I have started offering bonus questions, when possible, to my BC Calculus and IB H2 students.  Students are invited to come and solve these problems with a partner after school.  The questions push the boundaries of what students know and provide them with the opportunity to try, and to fail, because they do not know exactly how to go about solving the problem.  But as they try and fail, and try and fail again, they start to truly share and discuss their problem-solving strategies.  They are engaged … they are motivated … they are INSPIRING!!  Some students have come back multiple times to work on the same question, making success that much sweeter.  Celebrating when someone succeeds after multiple attempts is a fabulous experience.

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The second place where I have listened to and been part of such extraordinary conversation is in Math Team.  Each week multiple questions are proposed and groups of students work together to reach a solution.  They wander from group to group, questioning, arguing, analyzing, evaluating, THINKING, until they can eventually put all the pieces together and reach a solution.  One night a dedicated group worked on one particular problem for three hours, only to finally head home, not having reached a solution.  But each time we met in the hall or in the classroom, we would ask if anyone had made progress on the question.  I proposed it to students in my classes and they started bringing in new approaches to spark further progress.  Students not in Math Team or in my class were also bringing their ideas to me, having heard their friends talking about the question. What joy!!  To date, no one has reached a solution, but someone did find the solution online.  Despite this, many do not want to know the answer yet as they know their own solution is just around the corner.  Their next approach may just be the one that finally works!!


Problem Solving by Martino

Brian Bennett’s characteristics of an effective flipped classroom outline many of the outcomes that I find most invigorating about these problem-based conversations with students.  He says: In a flipped classroom

What these articles have finally driven through my exceptionally thick skull is that a flipped classroom would allow me to experience that rush of watching students learn and grow and struggle and fail and keep struggling until, having passed through fire, they emerge victorious and empowered on a daily basis, not just after school or in Math Team.  So, rather than saving these questions for after school when only those who want the extra credit show up, the flipped classroom would make them available to everyone.  And all students would have the opportunity to be part of the discussion.  And who knows, maybe while I am having so much fun, my students might just learn some math, and more importantly, learn to be independent thinkers and problem-solvers that truly are ready for the real world.  WOW!!  I can’t wait to get started!

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Less is More …

Conversations with students are such a rewarding and stimulating part of being an educator.  These discussions reveal so much about the thoughts and perceptions, the joys and challenges, the interests and frustrations, as well as the expectations and motivations of today’s youth.  I consider it a privilege to be invited to hear these insights.  It motivates and inspires me to do all I can to help them be prepared for life outside of these walls.  Yet it also terrifies me that I will let them down; that they will reflect back, years from now, and feel that I failed them … (ok … I realize that most will have forgotten my very existence, but that does not change my desire to make a difference!!)

I loved the way Peter Pappas in his post “Teachers, Have the Courage to be Less Helpful” describes what students need for life in the “real world”:

“If students are going to be productive in a dynamic society and workplace they will need to be agile, fluid learners. Student(s) that are encouraged to explore their own approaches and reflect on their progress. Students who can work collaboratively with their peers to plan, implement and evaluate projects of their own design.”

Yet he says that:  “Unfortunately, most of our students get a steady diet of force-fed information and test taking strategies. We’re giving a generation of kids practice for predictable, routine procedures”.

So if I want to help prepare students for the future and perhaps have a real impact on them, I need to provide them with opportunities to learn rather than opportunities for me to teach!

Peter offers this challenge followed by an exhortation in the pursuit of the worthy goal of transforming students into true, lifelong learners, ready to think creatively, problem-solve effectively, and ultimately change the world.  (Yes … sometimes we just need to shoot for the moon in our dreams!!)

Full Moon at Perigee by Kukkurovaca

The challenge:

“Every summer, teachers get to re-invent themselves – to rethink their instructional approach. Here’s your essential question for the coming school year – “How can I stop scaffolding every task for students, and have the courage to be less helpful?””

The exhortation:

“So be courageous – remember, the same students who seem to be unable to function independently in school are highly motivated by the uncertainty of video game. You can retrain them to “figure it out” at school, as well.”

Reflecting on this challenge, it seems one of the most obvious ways “to be less helpful”,  and to encourage independent learning is through the implementation of the flipped classroom, as described by Jonathan Bergmann in his “The Flipped Class Blog”.  Of all the ideas we have evaluated for bringing technology into the classroom, this is the one that has me most excited!  With the school year well underway, the thought of trying to dramatically change my approach right now is overwhelming, BUT … this is a change that I want to see happen in my classroom in the future.

My goal and response to Peter’s challenge:  to try out a flipped classroom for a few lessons this year with the ultimate goal of rethinking my courses next year!


Photo by Susanica

Over the course of the past year we have been slowly, piece-by-piece, thought-by-thought, prejudice-by-prejudice, reexamining our view of what our classroom of digital natives should look like.  We have implemented small changes here and there to either integrate (or hopefully embed) technology into individual lessons, but it is now time to take that big step and create a unit that utilizes technology.

When considering options for this process the idea of a flipped classroom was very intriguing.  However, I feel it would be impractical to try and implement a flipped classroom for one unit so close to the end of the year.  As Brian Bennett mentioned in his google hangout presentation during our last COETAIL TAS face-to-face meeting, it takes time and patience to train a class in the ways that most effectively utilize the idea of a flipped classroom.  So before I flip, I want to take the time to work through the “training” stage for a class.  If I have not clearly thought through how to implement a flipped classroom, then I set the process up for failure. Whenever we take a risk, failure is a possible outcome, but I do not want that failure to be simply because I did not do my part in preparing.  To start getting a clearer picture of how the process works though, I am going to try and implement a flipped classroom on a small scale in a couple of individual lessons now but I will save a full unit until I have gained greater confidence with the process.

Hell Freezes Over by erutan

Instead, for my project I want to go back to an idea I addressed in Course I: the digital gathering of notes.  In the post Shortcomings … and Hell Freezing Over” I said:

The Techticker site maintained by Mike Bogle, Educational Technologist at the University of New South Wales contained one entry in particular that has inspired me:  “Student Engagement and Technology in the Classroom”.  Mike Bogle uses Richard Buckland as an example of how “the combination of an engaging instructor and empowering technology can have incredible results for student participation.”  Richard Buckland did what I am afraid to do.  Having identified that students were not taking notes in his classes and therefore had trouble recalling details in the future, he began to post his notes on a wiki.  Richard’s presentation “Wikis for Collaborative Learning and Teaching” on this problem can be accessed through this or directly from Youtube.  This presentation intrigued me because Richard Buckland began with some of the same fears that I have, yet his courage to open his notes to the world enhanced the learning experience for students in his class. …

So if you check my OLC, you won’t find my notes posted there yet.  I am still cautious, but I am considering the possibility of changing.  See … miracles do still happen … and I think you will see my “notes”, as generated by students in my classes posted long before Hell freezes over!”

So let’s make a miracle!

The current intention is to have either one or both of my Honors Calculus A classes take notes using googledocs for one chapter.  Though I have not worked out all the details, I intend to have one student responsible for taking notes each class.  These notes will be designed to present the main ideas of the lesson, the key underlying concepts to understand, the “tricks” or hints to look for or help with solving problems and connections with previous topics.  The number of examples they include will be up to them.  The reason for having only one student take notes at this point is two-fold.  Firstly, if the whole class is taking notes on one googledoc, there will be some students who will be off task, letting the rest of the class take their notes for them.  Having one or two official note-takers each class will hopefully help the note-taker stay focused despite having their computer open; and since the class will not see the quality of the notes being produced, they will hopefully be motivated to stay focused.  Secondly, once the notes have been taken, everyone else will have to write a summary reflection on the content of the class as presented by the notetaker(s).  The benefit of this reflection is that students will become reflective thinkers and learn to provide constructive criticism.

It is hoped that these notes will provide benefits for both the students and for me.

For the students, this experience will:

  • Encourage collaboration as they build knowledge as a community of learners.
  • Allow them to go back and revise their notes as their knowledge improves.
  • Archive their growth as learners.
  • Provide them with the same content from multiple sources (classtime, notes and peer reflections).
  • Provide a valuable review tool in the form of a personalized textbook.

For me, this experience will:

  • Provide me with an extra avenue of feedback for students.
  • Allow me to rapidly identify misconceptions.
  • Provide data that will hopefully highlight whether my current method of presenting notes is cumbersome and restrictive or beneficial and directed.

Some of the challenges will be

  • Embracing the changes that occur in the classroom where one or two computers are always open.
  • Structuring pre-project information so students know exactly what is expected of them.
  • Surrendering the control!

Initially there is a strong potential for this to have a disruptive impact on the class simply because it is different from the way we have run class for the previous six months.  Anytime we change routine, there is a period of transition.  Strong scaffolding will be needed to help students know what is expected of them.  This relates to both the note-taking and the reflective comments.  A rubric for tone and quality on how they take notes and comment will be essential.  An example of notes taken in another class would help give direction; as would previewing comments that address both the content of the notes and any missing information, highlighting positives to encourage the note-taker and identifying areas for improvement.

Having started to think through the structure and implications of this project my innate fear is beginning to be transformed into eager anticipation.  I can see the possibilities and dream of the benefits that will result.  For example, how cool would it be if the note-takers began to supplement the notes with external resources they have researched and found, such as YouTube videos, or online university material?  Imagine if the reflective comments began to do the same.  The students would be creating their own version of a flipped classroom where the supplemental material directly addresses the issues they are having rather than the ones I think they might have.  Imagine if the person addressing their areas of uncertainty were their peers through the reflective comments.  Imagine if the reflective comments helped them gain a deeper sense of empathy for others as they see how positive and constructive comments can benefit, encourage, challenge and build up, but destructive comments tear down and destroy.  Imagine if they went back later and referenced where a particular days material was used (eg: “This content is important for when we study derivatives.”) or linked it to content they already know.  Imagine …

Well the groundwork has been laid.  Now all that is left is just to  … JUMP …