Experiencing Learning

The other day, Zach (at Reflections on Holes in Graphs and Reasoning) wrote about how he was reminded of how it feels to be a learner while auditing a Hapkido class.

It made me realize how quickly us professional learners forget what it’s like to be in the learner role.

I’m having a similar experience to Zach this week. I am taking a knitting class to learn how to make socks. This is something I’ve wanted to learn for many years, but have shied away because it seemed “too difficult” and too “above my level”.  REMINDER 1: it’s often our immediate reaction to shy away from challenge.

The first class was fine because it involved doing things  I already knew. Awesome! I love it! I’m great at this! I’ll knit socks all the time! REMINDER 2: class is always awesome when you already know how to do it.

In the second class, we started by learning the heal flap. I was a bit confused, but I was doing okay because the stitches weren’t too different than what we were doing before. REMINDER 3: class is still pretty good if it’s not too far of a stretch.

But then we started running out of time and the instructor went very quickly through the heel turn, picking up stitches for the gusset, knitting the gusset, then how to do custom decrease for the foot if needed. WOAH. WOAH. WOAH THERE!! That was too fast! Too much information! I wanted to try it, not just watch it! I wanted to do this in class so the instructor could help me if I had problems! REMINDER 4: too much information that comes too quickly is way too confusing and can be paralyzing; REMINDER 5: trying it yourself really helps with learning.

During this burst of information, the instructor made a couple passing comments that made me start questioning my ability as a knitter. REMINDER 6: even small negative comments can have a lasting effect on students.

I went home to try out what the instructor showed us, and it was a complete disaster. I had made a mistake, tried to fix it, and it just got worse and worse. I got SO frustrated and angry. I was annoyed at myself for not being able to do it, and at the instructor for not covering the most difficult part of socks during class time.  REMINDER 6: Learning can be frustrating, and it can come out in different ways.

This morning, I had a friend help me fix my sock. I’m back on track, but I’m a bit gun-shy about moving forward. REMINDER 8: Failure can be a big stumbling block for some.

Here are some things I’ll need to remind myself of:

  • It’s important to encourage a growth mindset, but understand that it takes a lot of time to embrace it and most will stumble along the way
  • Challenge is good, but not too much and not too fast all at once. Slowing down and ensuring everyone is on the same page is crucial
  • Make sure that students have ample time to try it themselves and offer support (though my flipped experience flopped, I think it really has merit on this point)
  • Be careful with wording and don’t be too negative
  • Frustration can manifest itself in many ways; it’s important to empathize, but help students find ways to cope with and overcome it.

Like Zach concluded in his post, I think it’s important that we put ourselves in the role of a learner so we stay in touch with what our students are dealing with every day.

Posted in Reflection | 7 Comments

Low Work Ethic Vs. True Barriers to Learning?

I’ve had this post in my drafts folder for over a year now, where I was struggling to help a student (and their parents) figure out what was the underlying cause of a drop in performance.

Something I’ve struggled with on my road to becoming a high school teacher is accommodations for students.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and my background is largely academic, so needing help of any kind was seen as weak. You get the mark you deserve (whatever you got on the test), and that was that. If you didn’t do well, the fault was entirely placed on your shoulders. It was your responsibility to learn the material, NOT the responsibility of the teacher/instructor/professor.

Now things are very different. We know more about how different learners can be, and how some have much different needs than others. We have a better understanding of what we can do to help learners reach their potential and have the same opportunities to learn. I think this image sums it up wonderfully:

And it makes sense for all students to have an equitable opportunity to learn and to demonstrate their learning. But I struggle with what is “fair”. Sometimes it is more laid out for teachers – when students have an IEP, for example. We know what accommodations and/or modifications should be made for those students.

But what about for students who don’t have an IEP? And not only does this rely on  a teacher’s professional judgement, but many other factors come into play: the student, the parents, the administrators, etc.. Sometimes, these players can combine to help hone in on what is most useful for a student. But, other times, opinions are at odds with each other, creating tension and pressure between all parties.

How can we decide on the line between 1) the student is not taking responsibility by not studying or doing work, 2) there is an actual barrier to learning such as undiagnosed LD, anxiety, or other underlying issue and, don’t forget 3) both of the above.

In an ideal world, to answer this question we would work with professionals in education psychology, neuroscience, and sociology – or be all these things ourselves. But, obviously reality means this is not possible for every student who is struggling.

So, here’s where I get stuck: what things can we do as teachers in these situations? How can we best “guess” what is the underlying cause of poor performance, and what’s the best starting point to help? 

Posted in Learning, Philosophy, psychology, Reflection | 2 Comments

Flipped Flop(?)

I wrote before about using an electronic flipped classroom method for a grade 11/12 split physics class (3U/4C) that I adapted from Heather’s resources. I really loved and believed in the method. It was well thought-out, gave the students learning and assessment options, and utilized the iPads the students had access too.

Other teachers, admin, and a learning coordinator seemed impressed with it, and gave me very positive feedback and encouragement.

But, the students just hated it. I had complaints from students (and parents) about how

  •  I wasn’t teaching
  • it was too hard to learn physics “on their own”
  • they didn’t feel like (or know if) they were learning anything

Their resulting performance on the assessments (mastery checks, labs, projects, quizzes, tests) told me they were doing great. In fact, the average for the class was about an 80%.

Even with this evidence, I decided to back off rather than push forward because of the negative feedback. I first did a hybrid unit: some flipped-style, some lecture-style.  The next unit the 4Cs did self-guided investigations of simple machines, and I did straight-up lectures with the 3Us for advanced kinematics. Once they got a taste of the lecture-style, that’s all they wanted when given the option (even the 4Cs), so I felt I had to continue with that method.

This decision  was disheartening and disappointing for me. I really thought 21st-century high school students would appreciate more innovative teaching methods, but it seems lecture-style is seen as the epitome of what teaching is supposed to look like.

Looking back, I wish that I hadn’t given up on the flipped method so easily or so early. I think many of the students appreciated what I was trying to do, but the negative voices were the loudest, and I let that dictate the direction of the classroom.

I do think I will try this method in the future if I get the chance again. Three things I will improve are:

  1. Sticking with it longer. Two units wasn’t long enough for the students to really get comfortable with it and realize how consistently well they were doing.
  2. The support given needs to be in place longer than I thought. In the first two units, I was doing homework checks, keeping track of when the students handed in their assessments (using a Google spreadsheet they could check), provided check points so they knew they were on track, would allow them to resubmit their work, and gave bonus tickets for completing additional tasks. I then started pulling back on these, giving the students more responsibility, but perhaps I did this to0 quickly.
  3. The lecture choice needs to be there for every lesson, but they should be pre-prepared and shorter (some were turning into full-period lessons). Also, I’d like to ensure other students don’t feel they have to listen to a lecture if it’s going on. One of my colleagues suggested that I allow other students do their readings/watch videos while giving the lecture as long as they’re quietly working.

If I do use this method again, I’ll be sure to write about it!

Posted in flipped classroom, physics, Reflection, teaching | 1 Comment

Newbie Reflection

It being the beginning of a new year, it’s a good time to do some reflecting on my first months of teaching in a public high school. Here are some things that have been running through my head lately:

  • I let the complaints (and wanting to make everybody happy) guide me too much
  • In the beginning, I focused too much on staying on the schedule rather than ensuring a deeper understanding
  • I think I tried to implement too many methods/strategies for starting out (this is the problem with having such an awesome PLN: there are so many amazing teachers doing amazing things. But, they’re also tweeting what things NOT to do. So, it’s inspiring and overwhelming at the the same time.)
  • I had trouble staying consistent (teaching methods, classroom management, even marking) – perhaps the idea of keeping it simple might help?
  • Direct communication is key (found this out the hard way: trying to gloss over things or avoid situations to “be nice” does not work)
  • There will always be difficult situations/people to deal with
  • Teaching can fill up every second I allow it to

Many of those sound negative, but I certainly have a lot to learn from it all. On the more positive side:

  • I had several compliments about my teaching from other teachers and admin.
  • Students like and appreciate choice
  • I found that creating personal connections make a huge positive difference

In fact, some of my favourite moments involved making surprising connections with students: like having  a student who told me many times they didn’t want me around come to my door when they were bored and having a 30 minute conversation about their art.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: this job has a steep learning curve, but I’m not giving up just yet!

Posted in Learning, Reflection | Leave a comment

I really had no idea

Here I am, about three months into to my first public high school teaching gig, and the one thing that I cannot stop thinking to myself is “I had NO idea how hard this job is.”

This is a second career or sorts for me, because I spent the first 15 years of my adult life learning, doing research, and coming up with fun/cool activities that would help teachers. I remember getting stressed out once in a while then.

That was nothing.

Being a high school teacher is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and that includes my 8-hour PhD comprehensive exam (and preparing for it for months), my MSc OR PhD defence, giving birth twice, and even recovering from a stroke.

I’ve tried writing this post several times over from this point on, and keep deleting my thoughts because I just don’t feel brave enough to share my true experiences at this early stage in my teaching career.

So, instead, I was to send out a public service announcement of sorts, as someone who can still see this world from an outside perspective: please, please respect your teachers, and your kids’ teachers.

Every teacher I have met is trying to do the best they can with the resources they have, with the background knowledge they have, and with the students they have. They are all trying their best to make your child(ren)’s life at school as educational, interesting, happy, and safe as possible.

They deserve your kindness, your respect, and your gratitude. Thank a teacher today!

For those other new teachers out there – do the best your can, hang in there, and I’m right there with you.

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STAO 2016

I spent Thursday and Friday at the STAO conference in Toronto, and it was so awesome to be back! I used to go when I coordinated the CPSX outreach program, in an exhibitor/presenter role. This time, I was there as a teacher, of course.

It was a great conference, for so many reasons:

  • I got some awesome instructional ideas for the classroom
  • I got to hang out with a teacher I work with, and we had a great time
  • I found out about some cool programs and online resources that would be great for my current and future classes
  • I caught up with several people I’ve known from my outreach days
  • I picked up some pretty sweet swag

There were SO many sessions to choose from, and I could only attend 7 out of the 200-ish available on the days I was there. They were:

Mindset: Collaborative Learning for Smarter Science: this was an introduction to growth mindset, and how two teachers implement it into their classroom teacher. If you follow me, you know I’m a strong proponent of Growth Mindset, but it was good to hear how other teachers use it.

STAO’s Demo Collection for Physics Grades 11-12: this was clearly right up my alley, and was a great introduction to STAO’s huge resource bank. I’ll admit that I’ve know about it before, but never really looked too deeply at it. I will now! There were some great demos that were shown, and I hope to use some of them soon!

But is Everyone Buying In? Gender Inclusivity in STEM: most of this presentation was at an introductory level about the what the research shows about girls & women in STEM (more go into biology/health-related fields than engineering/math/computers/etc). I’ve been following this type of research already for years, but they made reference at the end how ensuring there’s relevance/context can help with engagement, especially with girls.

And Yet Another Fun Friday: though the activities in this presentation were biology/chemistry-based, I got a lot of good ideas for different types of fun activities. I very much liked “evolution telephone”, the flower dissection, and the pandemic simulation.

Intuitive Physics and Why it Matters: honestly, I was unsure about this one, because it was a university presentation, but I found it very useful! They talked about how they need their incoming students to have more of a intuition about physics/science, instead of thinking it’s memorization and plug&chug. It gave me more confidence that what I’m doing with my students – especially the 4Us – is on the right track.

ScienceWorks: Grade 9 Astronomy: This was presented by a friend of mine, and amazing science teacher, @HTheijsmeijer, and it was awesome (and I’m not just saying that because I know her!). Even though I know more than the average bear about Astronomy & teaching it, she showed some awesome resources that would be great the next time I teach the course(s).

Exploring the Edge of Black Holes: The Event Horizon Telescope: okay, to be perfectly honest, I went to this one because it sounded way cool, but it ended up being one of my favourite things about the conference! First, I had never heard of the EHT, so it was cool to learn about it (coming online in 2017, people!). Second, the activity presented about interferometry was very well put together, easy to follow, and engaging. Finally, the presenters themselves were excited and fun to listen to!

Overall, I found the sessions well-done, engaging, and very useful! I’ve walked away with a lot (probably too many) good ideas! Some I’d love to do/try out soon are:

  • look at the STAO resources online
  • Subscribe to the Physics Girl YouTube channel
  • Use foldables for review on Monday (not new to me, but a good reminder!)
  • Show 4U students the info from Waterloo to show what we’re doing will be very helpful when they go to post-secondary
  • Peruse the PI resources

Can’t wait to go again! If you didn’t get a chance to go, you can download the handouts here!

Posted in Learning, PD, physics, re-thinking, Reflection, teaching | 1 Comment

Reformed Physics Teaching in SPH4U

I have adopted Chris Meyer’s Reformed Physics Teaching method for SPH4U and I have been incredible impressed!

We have finished the intro unit and the first major unit on kinematics, and I  (and some of the students already) have seen great value from the strategies he uses.

The courses he has created are collaborative-, inquiry-, and critical-thinking-based. It involves:

  • students working through tasks as a small (3-4 students) groups that guide them through their learning
  • daily homework so students can practice individually (typically 1-2 problems)
  • collaborative group problem solving challenges
  • quizzes/tests (which have a collaborative component at the beginning)

One very interesting and important aspect is how students are taught to solve physics problems. Instead of focusing on the the mathematical solution only, the students need to show their understanding using sketches, motion/force diagrams/vectors, word explanations, and evaluations of their answers (this is why homework are only 1-2 questions, as it takes much longer to do each one).

As someone with a looooooong education in physics, I see this aspect of the course incredibly valuable. Knowing how to crunch the math and having a true understanding of the physics are two very different things, and this focus on the understanding will help students* immensely as they move forward into their post-secondary education. So, even though the problems take much longer to work through, it forces students to understand physical situations and concepts from different angles, therefore increasing their understanding.

This is certainly a more challenging method for students, but one that will come with a lot of pay off if they put in the effort.

* and I definitely see a difference in my own understanding!

Posted in physics, Reflection | Leave a comment