Giving Compliments

As term 1 is coming to a close, I am doing a last run to collect assignments and tests. Some students are completely caught, while I’m tutoring others and trying to get as many papers as I can. I wanted to give my hard working students a break, so I printed out a stack of these growth mindset banners* off for them to colour and decorate.

I noticed two students sitting beside each other working quietly yesterday afternoon. One boy, S., pointed at the poster and said to the girl, T., who was colouring it, “That’s you.” She smiled in response. It was apt; I have been teaching T. since she was in Grade 7 and while she is a very quiet and tiny person, she has a good head on her shoulders, is tenacious and always driven to learn.

It was just so sweet! What a beautiful moment I just happened to catch!

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*The print-outs come from Kate Conners of TeachersPayTeachers. You can buy her resources online.

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.

WiM #1 – (Re)Teaching Growth Mindset

Recently, I discovered that Jo Boaler was running a great series of free lessons called Week of Inspiration Math (WiM), through Stanford. I’m kicking myself, as I had no idea of this program and it’s already in it’s second year!

The purpose of WiM is to provide lessons and videos to teachers on how to encourage students to approach mathematics through a growth mindset. In North America, there is a strange mentality that “being bad at math” is a badge of honour. I don’t believe this phenomenon exists as extensively in other parts of the world, but it’s definitely an issue that teachers have to deal with in the classroom (and even amongst their colleagues).

Having already taught the idea of growth mindset and fixed mindset to my students – even running a teaching workshop in October 2015 – I thought that this would be a great way to expand on my existing lessons*. Plus, the kids who are repeating my course won’t want to do the same thing from last year!

Anyway, yesterday, we played “Four 4s”. The idea of the game is to use four number 4s to make equations that make up all the numbers from 1 to 20. Initially, I was doubtful that they’d get into it; most of my students can be shy and afraid to try new things. However, given that they have a very strong and trusting relationship with me already, they are usually game for anything!**

I decided not to use the term growth mindset that day. Instead, I framed it around the idea of “sandbox style thinking”. The purpose is to get them not to look for a quick fix or a formula when approaching a problem.

I asked them, how do you play in a sandbox? Are there any instructions? Are you given explicit descriptions of what to do and what not to do? Not at all! Often, we just play and fool around until we figure out something that works for us. I mean, wouldn’t it sound silly if I had to tell you how to build play with sand?

The buy-in was great. Both the Grade 10s and 11s ate it up. I encouraged risk-taking by using Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces***, specifically whiteboards. Students were able to try an equation out, test it in their calculator and share their responses. I encouraged them to discuss and check each other’s answers and engagement in the room was extremely high.

In the end, the Grade 10s actually beat out the 11s; they were able to find 16 solutions out of 20!

*My workshop and class lessons are based of off Sarah Hagan’s lessons from her Math Equals Love blog.
**It’s actually quite funny when visitors come and they completely shut down and go tacit. I didn’t realize how much of their confidence is built around me until I saw this happen multiple times. It’s not necessarily healthy but I’m trying to encourage them to engage with the outside world without doing too much handholding.
***More info on VNPS through Slam Dunk Math.

The Power of Speech: How Oral Presentations Impact ELLs

As a teacher, I am always trying to figure out to improve my own skills and my classroom. One of my initiatives this year is to focus on developing better metacognition within my students and developing their speaking skills.

First of all, they’re pretty shy. I can’t speak for native students everywhere in Canada, but my students are known to be pretty taciturn. And although they know me quite well and trust me, most of them are still hesitant to solicit an answer or voice their opinion in a large crowd, even if they are amongst their peers that they’ve grown up with for most of their life.

One of the methods I’ve used to encourage more verbal participation is to make a game of it. Each term, students are awarded “Oopsies points” if they see that I’ve made a mistake. At the end of the term, the two people with the highest number of points are given a prize*. Specifically, spelling mistakes are low-level mistakes and only get a single point. Conceptual errors, whether on a test, assignment or chalkboard, are worth three points.

A game setting encourages participation in a light-hearted way and gives some friendly competition. It keeps me on my toes and it also encourages students to challenge authority. I do not want them to think I have all the power in the room. They need to be encouraged to think on their own and to question elders, very much the opposite of Cree cultural norms, but by no means am I encouraging disrespect. I myself grew up in with Confucian values as a Chinese person, but I think it’s important to help young people speak up when they see something is wrong. Without this capacity, horrible things can happen – sexism, racism, violence, exploitation, abuse – the list goes on. Therefore, this skill is important not only in the classroom, but outside the school and in their community.

The second initiative I’ve set out is to have students do one oral presentation each term. For science, both the Grade 10s and 11s were given the last month to research one element of their choice and to make a short Powerpoint presentation. Most students had 3-4 50 minute periods to work on it. Each presentation averaged four or five slides; the most important information that was:

  • basic information about each element – mass, colour, boiling point, melting point, atomic structure
  • interesting facts about the element
  • where the element is found and how it is important to people
  • references and websites used for research

Overall, most of the students did pretty well! There were lots of interesting facts that I learned myself and didn’t even know about. And in fact, several students put up some great puns and ChemCat memes. This was probably one of my favourite ones, and I had never seen it before!

What I really didn’t expect was to see that presentations affected their overall understanding on a much deeper level. While this might seem obvious, remember that my students are ELLs (English Language Learners); Cree is their first language and a large portion of my students struggle with literacy. I’ve been working in the north for 3 years and I have never seen such a strong impact in such a short amount of time!

The unit test scores were the highest they had ever been**, students were using the vocabulary regularly and there was a lot less misunderstanding about scientific terms. I even heard more students helping each other and defining terms. Therefore, ELL students spending time to research an idea deeply and working to develop an oral presentation helps their literacy skills in multiple ways. This makes sense when you look at Bloom’s Taxonomy.***

In the past, I had students repeatedly ask me what ‘atomic mass’ and ‘valence’ mean, despite having explained it many times quite thoroughly. When students worked on their presentation, during their research and reading through websites, they would come across these terms pretty regularly. They would quickly realize that they would need to figure out these terms in order to understand what they were reading. They would also be analyzing the information to see if it was pertinent and evaluate whether they would include it or not (i.e. using higher levels of thinking). The process of creating criteria forced them to think more deeply about their topic and helped them understand concepts that translated to better test scores and improved performance on assignments. 

It is great to see how my students are doing so well. Working in the north is challenging and it’s easy to fall into the pitfall of making excuses. I know in the back of my mind I had doubts of whether they’d be capable or not. I sheepishly admit I was afraid of being disappointed. I imagined the worse scenario; that the computer lab periods would become a big waste of time. What actually happened is that most of them stayed focus and worked far harder than if I had just given a simpler assignment!

It is amazing what is possible when you trust your students and give them the opportunity to set the bar high!

*The term 1 prizes is a medium-sized poutine and drink at the local diner.

**The highest score was 61 out of 63 on the unit test. A large portion of them had done extremely well. However, there is the condition that my Grade 11s are repeating the science course, so this is not to be compared with a new cohort of students.

***I know there are revised copies, but for the sake of simplicity, I will only refer to the most commonly used version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

“Test Flashbacks”: Science Lab Safety

This is my third year of teaching. One of the things I’ve neglected to do in the past two years is to to take up tests.

Often, I felt that students didn’t care about correcting their mistakes and/or it would take too long to go through every single question. But was this a projection of my own feelings? It really is the responsibility of the teacher to set the right tone if a task is important; just because I get the impression that they don’t care doesn’t justify not doing it.

And we started with the most important unit: science lab safety. I have an obligation to fix major misconceptions. I cannot afford to have students misunderstand a major safety rule when working with chemicals and dangerous lab equipment.

So today, I told Grade 10s and the 11s that I’d like to improve as a teacher, because having a growth mindset is important. I said that this year, we will always have a “test flashback” to discuss where we went wrong. This is how we learn and this is how I can enhance students’ metacognition.

There are four main purposes to the flashback:

  1. To note major mistakes – Which part did I struggle with?
  2. To learn from our mistakes – How can I improve next time?
  3. To see how the class did as a whole – Did everyone flunk? Did everyone do really well? How did I do?
  4. To review important ideas – What were the “big ideas” in this unit? What should I remember?

I don’t go through every single question. I look at the larger trends and identify the strengths and weaknesses of the group. I take photos of actually answers but never, ever reveal who wrote an incorrect responses; however, I might point out a nice drawing Joe or Sally made.

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I asked students, “How many got at least 8 out of 10 on the lab equipment section?” Nearly everyone raised their hand. I asked them to think, “Why was this an easy section?” We discussed how we had used digital flashcards on Quizlet to play a game and familarize ourselves with the equipment. We had talked and practiced saying words aloud (most of my students are English Language Learners so verbal practice is important).

Then we looked at “My Favourite Mistakes” and discussed the correct answers as a class. This idea comes from “My Favourite No” from the Teaching Channel.

Here’s one example:

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I made a joke out of this one. I held my coffee mug in my hand, turned it upside down and said, would this be a good way of heating my cup over the fire? Everyone laughed. Will they remember it? Of course!  Laughter helps with your memory.

At the end of the Powerpoint presentations, I gave everyone a slip of green paper. They were asked to choose one of the three mistakes and write an explanation of the correct answer. They were given thumbtacks and stuck it up on the bulletin board, which acted as “The Parking Lot”. Students were asked to write their response on the back and others could come and see what other responses were written.

It was a great little lesson and an easy way to give another mark!

Growth Mindset v. Fixed Mindset

What a rewarding day!

Did a two-day lesson on growth mindset, which I took from Sarah Hagan. We discussed what it meant and how fixed mindsets hinder us. We talked about common put-downs that we hear from ourselves or other students and how we could change those phrases*. We also did a self-assessment* to see how each of us think. We also watched Angela Duckworth’s video on grit** and discussed grit as an acronym* to help us stay “grittier”. The last task of the day was to write down some new personal goals for the upcoming year.

  

Perfect lesson!

Hmmm, I might just have a teacher workshop on my hands!

*Once again, all of these links are sourced from the ever-lovely Sarah Hagan of Math Equals Love.

**One girl felt so inspired she clapped at the end. She would have stood up, but one leg was in a cast …