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.

Testing Apps: GradeCam

A fellow colleague tipped me off on an interesting app last week, GradeCam. You create multiple choice worksheets and students can either use an Elmo or a laptop camera to scan the answers into the system. The website will then mark the paper and you get the data logged right away!

It was fun to play around with it, but considering I only have 25 kids in my largest class (of two!), it’s not something I would need to use right now. This would be much more useful if I had 5-6 large classes, or if I taught at the college level.

I should have saved this app for the end of the year, when we start practicing for multiple-choice style answers for the provincial exams. Ahhhh well, guess I’ll just let my 60-day free trial run out and just stick with practicing multiple choice on Socrative.

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Getting the Green Light: OAME 2017

I’ve been going to the annual conference run by Ontario Association for Math Education (OAME) for several years now, even while working in the north. In 2014 and 2015, I participated in the eConference but managed to get myself to the one in Toronto last year in-person.

Two weeks ago, I received an email calling out for speaker proposals. OAME 2017 will be held in Kingston, Ontario and will feature the (usual) big names like Dan Meyer and Marion Small. I thought nothing of the email and forgot about it.

Then last week, a second call for speaker proposals was sent out. The email stated:

We are particularly interested to hear from people with expertise in the education of FNMI students both in remote communities or in urban/suburban venues.

I’ve done a couple of workshops now, one on #BYOD tools and one on growth mindset. Both were well-received and fun to create. I had hands-on activities and a high rate of participation. Lots of people left happy.

So I ran the possibility through my head; what if I did a presentation at a big conference in Ontario? I mulled it over, but what got me was the phrase “people with expertise in the education of FNMI students”.

I’m not an expert. I have never taken a course on Aboriginal studies. I’ve read a few papers, but I can’t say I’ve immerse myself in native culture. As a vegetarian, I don’t hunt nor am I interested in smoking Canada goose in a meeshwap. Friends and family have applauded me for working in the north for the past 5 years, but I say, “I’m just teaching kids and treating them the same way I’d treat anyone else.” I’m not up here to be a heroine. I’m up here because I enjoy my job as an educator and I like the financial perks of being in an isolated place.

Anyway, I let the idea go.

A few days after, I received an email from a friend and a colleague. He suggested that I put in a proposal and that I’d do quite well.

It’s funny. We live with doubt so much in our lives. Even when we say yes, we feel like imposters.

Fact of the matter is, it isn’t the first time someone suggested I put in a proposal. T., a professor whom I befriended in the past year, had also mentioned it. Having two people make that suggestion now, the excuses still ran through my head. Yet despite the negative thoughts, I wrote to the executive directors:

Hi ****,

I am an OCT-certified teacher originally from Toronto. I have been teaching on the East James Bay for the past 5 years and am starting my 4th year as a full-time high school teacher with the ******* Board.
I have attended OAME for the past few years but never worked as a speaker before.
I know that you are looking for speaker proposals. I have no background research and do not consider myself an expert educator in working with FNMI students. My experience with native students has only been tied to this area. Would an anecdotal approach of my experiences still be fitting for a one-hour presentation? I have specifically been using growth mindset, BYOD and interactive notebooks in this community.
Anyway, I just don’t know what you’re looking for, but I wanted to inquire for more information, as I consider future possibilities. If you could give me some better ideas, perhaps I could find other math teachers who might be able to put out a good speaker proposal to enhance the upcoming conference.*

On Sunday morning, I got a very exciting email:

Good morning,

Short answer: YES!

Longer answer: We would love to see a proposal from you. Your first-hand
experience carries a lot of weight in my books. Considering, too, it is with the
Cree nation, whose geographical expanse covers half of Ontario, and that others
who have come forward would be speaking with the experience of working with
Ojibwe and Mohawk, we would have a good geographic balance.

Some of the audience will be other First Nations communities such as the one in which you work; however, some of the audience will be teachers in urban and other “southern” settings where First Nations students are mixed in with other cultures – hearing from you about cultural accommodations and learning styles will help them as well to better address their First Nations’ students’ needs.

B*********
Co-chair
OAME 2017

Guess I have to figure out a way to overcome the Imposter Syndrome. And guess I’ve got some writing to do.

*You see how imposter syndrome kicks in so easily? I devalue myself in this last paragraph.

A Peek into the Classroom – Part Deux

Since I got a lot of great feedback on the last post – A Peek into My Classroom – I decided to post a part 2! I’ve learned a lot from reading other teachers’ blogs and I enjoy sharing with others too.

Keep scrolling to read about each picture:


ABOVE: Having a place value chart above your whiteboard or chalkboard is great. You can see I went over the value 427 just by writing underneath the each place value. The signs are from Math Equals Love. I also recently purchased these elementary word wall organizers. They are perfect for the first month, when I am reviewing general math for all the Grade 10s and 11s.

ABOVE: I was originally trained for Tribes right after my B.Ed. but have put off doing cooperative learning until this year. I will be using more Kagan structures each week to develop cooperative learning. We have four groups in Grade 10s. Each group is assigned an animal – moose, beaver, snake and caribou – and these milk crates are an easy way for the “equipment manager” to grab the necessary supplies for their peers. I try hard NOT to laminate unless they are for posters that will sustain years and years of use. I used binder clips and plastic sheet protectors to attach the labels to the milk crates.

ABOVE: My teacher’s desk. I don’t sit here much until the end of the day, or to enjoy a cup of Turkish tea (I have a stash of tea leaves and white sugar at school). I had to put a sticker on the edge of my desk that says, “Students are not allowed to sit at the teacher’s desk”; it’s taken me nearly 3 years to train students NOT to go into my stuff! The sense of boundaries is a bit of different up north, so I had to adjust to that when I first started. Hanging on the pin are growth mindset cards for the Encourage role in our student groups. I bought them off Kate Coners on Teachers Pay Teachers. She has amazing stuff! For a close-up of the cards, check out my photo from Instagram.


ABOVE: My backpack, which has a pocket for my laptop, and an Indigo book bag that I use to carry my lunch. I also have a Bing Bong keychain on my bag, because creativity is soooo important in life! He was definitely my favourite character from Pixar’s Inside Out. I even hunted throughout DisneyWorld (April 2016) just to get a collectible pin of him.

A Peek into the Classroom

Last year, my classroom was on the first floor. I’ve moved back upstairs, next to the science lab. The room is spacious and has a great view towards the front of the building (I can see if kids are skipping and headed home!)

I’d been planning on taking a few pictures of my new classroom, but kept forgetting. Here are a few shots and some of the changes I’d implemented this year:

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ABOVE: Since we are going totally shoeless* this year, I put these foam mats in the corner of the room. It’s super cozy and a lot of kids like to just curl up with the blankets or the yoga mats. The yoga mats are for a yoga club that I’m trying to get going. So far, I’ve only had one session and one participant from Grade 7. That’s a start!

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ABOVE: I plan on having students develop better group work skills, with the use of Kagan Structures. I haven’t had time to get things started yet, but the poster in the middle is for “Oopsie Points’. Students can call out mistakes that the teacher makes. Spelling errors are 1 point, while conceptual errors are 2 points each. I initially started this when my students were too afraid to correct me on the board, even if the error was glaring and obvious. I want them not to have blind trust in authority figures and to challenge them if they truly think something is wrong. Now I can’t get them to stop correcting me, ha! As additional motivation this year, the winning class gets a pizza party!

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ABOVE: Ahhh my beloved handy  Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces (VNPS) a.k.a. whiteboards! Plain on one side and Cartesian plane on the other. We just finished a unit on growth mindset verus fixed mindset. One of my students drew a cartoon character from the Class Dojo videos that we’d been watching. You have to exercise your brain to make it strong … Otherwise it gets lazy! Check out episode 1 on YouTube.

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ABOVE: A great poster from Sarah Hagan-Carter of Math Equals Love. I will be using this to reinforce what a good, well-rounded and complete answer looks like in both math and science.

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ABOVE: A lot of students struggle with these terms. I thought I’d put them up for Term 1. Hopefully by the end of the term, I can remove them and they will be using them properly. They helped me colour the letters. I’ll probably clean them up and laminate them later on for reuse.

*Some more info on why shoesless classrooms are better.