Hallowe’en Decorations

I finally put up my Canadian Tire Halloween decorations up in the classroom today! Nothing too fancy, just a trail of plastic spiders, as well some mini pumpkins hanging from the ceiling.

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I initially didn’t mean to write too much other than that, but I had a realization … during my first few years in the north, I felt too stressed to care about this kind of stuff.

It was my first time teaching as a full-year teacher in a public school. I had four courses in total: one which I had previously taught, but three others I was unfamiliar with. I struggled on a daily basis with classroom management and was constantly tired. There were many days I absolutely dreaded  going to work.

I can`t say that I liked my job much at this point. Part of this was a lack of confidence too, as I was intimidated by `perfect teachers` who always had perfect-looking classrooms. I knew I had a knack for the actual process of teaching kids, but being able to juggling it all – running a full classroom with minimal issues, always having everything properly laminated and hole-punched, having beautifully decorated doors every month – none of these things were even in my peripheral vision. I was just trying to figure out my job!

It slowly dawned on me that it was silly for me to compare myself to others. In fact, I realized that it was simply crippling to do so. Only when I decided to stop comparing myself could I start feeling relaxed. And as long as I performed at my best, that`s what counts. We wouldn`t be able to progress anywhere if we constantly used other colleagues as a professional yardstick.
Fast forward to today, my high school classroom is running much more smoothly. My students are more independent, there’s less shouting and I have very few behaviour issues to deal with. I don’t spend my recess picking up everything off the floor (although I still have to deal with candy wrappers). My stinkeye works quite well and my students trust me. Altogether, my skills as a classroom teacher are becoming more well-rounded. I can confidently say I feel happier on a day-to-day basis and WANT to decorate. And why not? A little bit of colour does brighten up the room!

Reshaping an Environment and Reshaping Behaviour

Our computer lab has not had a very good reputation the past few years. Kids will goof off and play games towards the end of the school day. This happens most frequently towards the end of the year, when teachers are exhausted and burnt out. Substitute teachers might also use the room when they are at a loss of what to do.

Poor design can also shape poor behaviour too. The computers were previously arranged in two long, cumbersome rows. Therefore, instructors often awkwardly run back and forth, down the narrow alleys, with kids switching to games the moment the teacher was far away in the next row.

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ABOVE: Image from Yok Artik Ya

During the summer, the computer technician rearranged the computers; he created a better configuration that made it more conducive to monitoring delinquent behaviours. The technician placed all the machines along the walls with only two in the middle so that a supervisor can – at a quick glance or turn of the head – see who is working and who is not!

This environment places all students at an equal level and makes them accountable to each other. No one receives more attention from the teacher because they are physically more accessible nor can any individual hide away in a corner.

Clarkson Elementary Computer Lab
Image from Ninjas in Pyjamas

 

Since the end of August, I have worked tirelessly to reset the tone of our lab; I make it explicit each and every time we enter the computer lab that we ONLY do hard work and learning. We never, ever go to the computer lab to goof off. All the designated periods I choose are in the morning, when your mind is at it’s best state to tackle a difficult job. If they want to play a game, they are allowed to once all their work is complete.

Like the classroom, I’ve also created a protocol as we enter the space; each student picks up their “independent study” booklets from a basket, according to their individualized “ninja  numbers”.

The booklets are simply a piece of folded construction paper:

Students always refer to the booklets and not the teacher for instructions. This is considered independent study time (as the booklets are titled). If they ask me what they’re working on, I will silently point at their papers. It may sound harsh, but I am conditioning them not to rely on me.*

Each week, there are a set of tasks for them to complete. Often, they are either reviewing vocabulary card set on Quizlet.com or going through the science modules on Facile Learning:

You can see that I don’t give more than 2 or 3 tasks. The tasks mainly require students to review concepts they’ve recently learned, but they will never be asked to teach themselves from scratch. A well-chosen task helps put their minds in the zone of proximal learning. The “sandbox” time also allows them to reassess information that they learned and to strengthen or create neural connections.

Again, I try hard not to help or prompt them. What ends up happening is that they start off independently, but begin to discuss and help each other when they are stuck. I allow them to discuss questions and possible solutions, as they will get randomized questions when their quiz starts (to prevent copying and cheating). Giving these ELLs an opportunity to practice and articulate scientific and mathematical ideas in both their first** and second language really allows them to deepen their understanding more than I ever could, in my nagging, annoying voice!

On occasion, we do a fun open-ended Desmos activity together, just to switch things up. Additional opportunities to explore math concepts through play and gamified activities reinforce a growth mindset, since these activities are open-ended tasks that do not have concrete solutions.

So after I have explained all the intention that goes into these periods, I have to share a silly anecdote!

This morning, I reminded the Grade 10s there are 9 days left until term 1 report cards. I told them to finish their science modules #1.1 to #1.5, as the multiple choice quizzes are a part of my assessments.

Now, as a teacher, you learn from experience to expect trouble. You are trained to imagine the worst case scenario and be prepared at a moment’s notice. You have kids cutting their fingers off with safety scissors or wrestling each other when you least expect it (sometimes you get an eraser in your eye and you burst into tears and run out due to embarrassment).

And I have to say, I don’t think I’m normally on edge. But I kept expecting something to happen … rather in an anxious and frenzied state! When was chaos going to start?!

Yet as I looked around me, however, I found myself in disbelief, amazed at how quiet, focused and hardworking the entire class was! I kept expecting them to start complain and give up, possibly leave the classroom in a huff.

And they just chugged on. Nearly everyone was sitting quietly, focused on the screen. Very few students were looking at their smartphones. A few wandered around chatting and helping each other out. I heard the word ‘boron’ and ‘valence electrons’ being muttered. It was incredible.

It was like I wasn’t even there.

So things were good, I kept reassuring myself. The waters are calm.

It’s really important to be thankful for the days like this, because good teaching is invisible and we often forget this when all that pays off.

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*In the classroom, I have a rule called “Ask 3 Before Me”. I will not answer simple questions and tell them to check with their table partners.

**East James Bay Cree

Using Desmos Activities: Waterline, Polygraph and Marbleslides

Earlier this week, the Grade 10s tried the Waterline on Desmos*. Yesterday, the Grade 11s had an amazing time with Polygraph, which is a “Guess Who” game; students have to figure out which linear function another student choose by asking questions and eliminating incorrect choices. They really got it and had great fun being paired up with other kids around the computer lab.

Currently out of town in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec and enjoying the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend in the city. I decide to take an hour at the hotel to explore Marbleslides. In his game, you have to adjust the slope and y-intercept to collect the stars (i.e. gamifying linear functions). It’s actually been pretty fun!

I’m super excited to try this next week!

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*This game involves plotting time versus height for a vase being filled with water. You can vary the shape of the glass. 

Scheduling Posts and Communicating with Parents

Two years ago, I used the Remind app to contact students. Last year, we tried out Class Messenger. Both apps had mixed results and the efficacy of the system kept sliding as the school year went on.

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Some of the barriers included:

  • Lack of #BYOD tools: Not many of my students have cellphones. Most of them have iPods that do not have data. They only receive the message when they get home and connect to their wireless router.
  • Phone numbers change frequently: Due to the financial barriers that some parents in the community face, cellphone bills may not get paid in a timely manner. Cellphones can promptly be disconnected by service providers, but students do not inform me and do not attempt to reinstall the app or update to a new numbers. Months pass before I find out they’re not receiving messages or announcements.
  • No phones: Some parents do not even have phones. They use Facebook Messenger to make calls at home.
  • Difficult to replace phones: Broken phones are not easy to replace when you’re a student and don’t have money! We aren’t close to any stores either.

This year, I’ve resorted to using a Facebook page. Yes, I know, I know …  Facebook is generally frowned upon by the educational community. It’s also blocked in most public schools, for obvious reasons. However, in a small town in the north, Facebook works like a phone book, a community board and radio station. I am not kidding when I say you can’t live without Facebook!

When I initially moved up north 5 years ago, I actually did not have a Facebook account. Eventually, I was forced to make an account to find out about community postings and get an idea of what was happening around town (i.e. snowstorms, blocked roads, store closures, trading, post office hours). I felt out of sync with the community until I finally signed on!

Our current school board’s policy is that teachers cannot add students as friends. This makes sense. However, it is acceptable for teachers to use Facebook as a means of communication to broadcast annoucements.

Last year, I made a private Facebook group for parents and students. It’s been extremely effective, this being our 2nd year using it. Parents really like being able to see what is happening. Having transparency as a teacher is very important, in a community where distrust of the school system* has a very strong emotional impact. I occasionally share photos that help give them an idea of what the classroom expectations are and how we have fun. I’ve even had an excited parent come to my classroom and ask, “Where’s the poster my son made? I saw it in your photos!”

However, I miss being able to schedule posts ahead of time; that was one of the best things about the Remind app!  My students seem to read posts most frequently at night, but sometimes I am already in bed.

On the weekend, I finally tried doing some scheduled posts on HootSuite. The main interface is free, but posting into Facebook Groups requires a paid account. Guess I’ll make use of the 30-day free trial for now. It worked beautifully this morning and posted my message!

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It’s great to have these tools. And tonight, I also discovered a Chrome extension too. Yay!
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*Due to the history of residential schools in Canada, where children were removed from their homes and forced to go through “cultural cleansing”. The last residential school only closed in the 90s and many victims suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse.