Thursday, April 28, 2011

Inspiring Education in Alberta

Our government has released a new vision for education in our province.  I wanted to share some quotes, which I believe show great improvement in the education system, which Alberta has called Inspiring Education.

Why is a Transformation of the Education System Needed?

Evidence is mounting that many problems experienced by students in middle and secondary schools – such as disengagement, dissatisfaction with their schooling experience, and dropping out – are significantly linked to the learning environment.

A changing workforce, rapid advancements in technology, and increased global competition mean that learning is more critical than ever.

There will never be a better time than now to begin the transformation of our education system so that our students are ready for the future. Every school year that we let pass is another year for which we have limited the learning opportunities of more than half a million students in Alberta. Our world has moved in a new direction, and education must keep step.

Key areas of change for new legislation will be based on the following.... students should be able to access instruction in a variety of settings, times and at a pace that reflects their individual needs;


Learner-centred. Decision makers should consider the needs of children and youth first and foremost when making decisions.

A responsive, flexible approach. Children and youth should have meaningful learning opportunities appropriate to each learner’s developmental stage, including learning that is experiential, multi-disciplinary, community-based, and self-paced. To ensure the learning opportunities are relevant, the education system must be nimble in responding to the changing needs of communities and the world.

Personalized Learning with Flexible Timing and Pacing Through a Range of Learning Environments

Personalized learning means that:
  • students progress in programs at a pace that suits their needs and enhances their success.
  • students build on individual strengths and achievements, pursue their passions and interests and learn in ways that are consistent with their individual learning styles.
  • barriers to learning are reduced to allow more flexible hours of instruction and schedules.
  • students to apply their learning in real-life contexts.
  • there is a greater emphasis on assessment for learning (i.e., an ongoing exchange of information between students and teachers about student progress toward clearly specified learner outcomes).
  • students are lifelong learners who thrive in, and adapt to, a complex and rapidly changing world.
Education that is student-centred means that:
  • there is less focus on schooling and more focus on education.
  • there is an increased focus on ensuring that the needs of students are central to all decisions relating to their education.
  • students are responsible for being actively involved in their learning.
  • students collaborate and have a voice in how, where, when and the rate at which they learn, and are responsible for their choices.
  • all students are empowered to participate in self-reflection and evaluation throughout their education.

There is much more in the document, but I wanted to provide a "snip" of the 30 page document.  One good read!! GOOD JOB ALBERTA EDUCATION!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

No more repetition in math class

Before, I used to teach finance in the following way:

Hand out a notes page, where the students would follow along and we would answer various questions.  I would use charts, usually years old, and students would fill in answers I completed on the board.
This year, I took an extremely different approach.  I handed out my finance project:

I no longer required my students to calculate the mortgage by hand, or by using a chart, but allowed them to determine the payment how most citizens would; using a program.

The students completed the project entirely using the Internet.  By booking a computer lab, and bringing laptops into the class, students became extremely engaged in the project.  After completing the sheet, they were required to create a presentation on their information.
Usually, when a student completes an assigned task they are assigned more of the same type of concept they just completed. (Which usually results in DRILL AND KILL). I took a different approach by assigning an entirely new task.  When students completed the original task, I asked them to develop a budget for one month's spending, including their calculated mortgage payment.
The learning amazed me.  In one instant, I had a student working on an excel sheet, which is a concept I plan on covering in two days.  Other students were learning the difference between an open and closed mortgage; an outcome not required by the course. 

Not once did I hear "When am I going to use this?" When students were having troubles they started researching all on their own.  As I walked around the computer lab, I witnessed students on electricity websites, cell phone plans, cable companies, and other various utility websites.
Some students completed the extended tasks, and then analyzed if their "dream job" would cover their monthly expenses.  Here are two of the presentations I received: 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

More on Creativity in Calculus

Recently, I wrote about Creativity in Calculus.

Here is another project.
 Also, Susan Cantey showed me some projects she had completed.

Susan (Macintyre) Cantey was born in Scotland in 1950 the daughter of two mathematics professors. She came to America in 1959 and currently resides in Ohio. Susan has been composing music and writing songs since she was twelve. Her biggest sellers are math songs, but she writes across many genres. Her music is available at CDBaby and itunes. Susan graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Cincinnati in 1978
with a BA in Mathematics and a BS in Secondary Education. She completed her Master’s Degree in 1983. Susan makes her living teaching mathematics at Walnut Hills High School. She has taught every math course offered at the school sometime during her career, but her favorite subject is calculus. She won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching in 1987 and has been National Board Certified since 1997. She is married to David G. Cantey, has one son and three grandchildren.

Awesome Job Susan!!!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rewards and Punishments

"Vacuum the floor and you will get to play your video game"

"Keep whinning and you will be grounded for the week"

"Do your homework and then you will get dinner"

We all have heard of parents saying the above comments in one way or another.  The idea of punishing and rewarding, in our society, is not uncommon at all and in fact, to most, are the norm.  Extrinsic rewards and punishments are used, so commonly, because "they get us what we want" from children, but at what cost?

The main arguement of using consequences and rewards is "it teaches responsibilty".  I would ask you stop, take 10 seconds and answer the question, "What does a responsible student look like?"


I believe most would label this student as one who follows the rules set out, does what they are told, is quiet in class, and truly compliant.  If this is what we want our students and children to act, then yes rewards and punishments will get us there.  They will give us obiedence and compliance, but only for a limited time. 

However, I hope no one wants complete obedience and compliance!  Alfie Kohn writes, in "Punished by Rewards",

Good values have to be grown from the inside out.  Praise and priviledges and punishments can change behaviour (for a while), but they cannot change the person who engages in the behaviour - at least not in the way we want.  No bevaioural manipulation ever helped a child develop a commitment to becoming a caring and responible person.  No reward for doing something we approve of ever gave a child a reason for continuing to act that way when there was no longer any reward to be be gained for doing so.

If you believe that true responsibilty is the ability to act carefully, make moral and thoughtful decisions and act in acordance with these judgements then we should be listening to Constance Kamii

If we want children to become able to act with personal conviction about what is right....we must reduce our adult power and avoid the use of rewards and punishments as much as possible.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Ignoring the price tag of change

Seems like everybody's got a price,
I wonder how they sleep at night.
When the sale comes first,
And the truth comes second,…
Wanna make the ED CHANGE,
Forget about the Price Tag
Yes, I am quoting Jessie J’s song “Price Change” with a slight adjustment of my own. 
Recently, I have been reflecting on my own actions, words, and ideas and when I heard this song on the radio it became clear.  Over the last 4 months I have heard:
Change is glacial
Things can’t change over night
When you ask questions, you may offend someone
Is fighting the system worth it?
Some comments have discouraged me, while others have created a sense of empowerment.  I have seen, first hand, that some comments come with a “price tag” and Newton is definitely correct in saying “For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction”.  However, I am now “Forgetting about the price tag”.
By worrying about whether or not a comment might offend someone or if the fight is worth it, we might be inhibiting needed improvement.  For some, change is a criticism of tradition, but in reality, change could be an improvement of regular practice.  I disagree with change for the sake of change, however some may argue it is blatant ignorance to say the current education system in flawless in design.  Already, some have reported on the real 7 lessons of schooling.
Of course, there are many positive aspects to our education system and I am extremely proud to be a teacher, but does this imply that I should not question tradition?  Some educators are ruled by policy and law, but feel that their own ethics and morals come into question when they follow these rules.  Which one should “trump” the other?  Should a teacher be able to stand up with honour and a constructive virtue in the face of a policy, and say “Why do we allow this?”?  And if so, should he/she be able to do it without the fear of consequence or remorse?
Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague who stated
“We are people of hypocrisy; we teach students to critically think, to respectfully question authority, and truly be a confident and progressive student, then we turn around and become a follower of policy without ever thinking on our own.  Those who do inquire about the reasons are immediately conquered, sometimes, by the exact policy they are fighting in the first place!”
This is a powerful statement, if it is true.   My heart sank when he told me that.  Do you feel as you can challenge policies and be heard?  Are you scared of being repressed by means which are out of your control?
In my district, we do have avenues to follow which are set in place to allow teachers to offer feedback and critique.  I pray and hope these are offered to ALL teachers!
If you are scared of the “price tag” of change then consider the following statement.
Fear of repercussions may influence your actions; however the gratification of attempting to produce needed unquestionable change can never be stolen from you.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Declining top marks in English exams puzzles educators

In October 2009, the Edmonton Journal posted the following article:

Declining top marks in English exams puzzles educators

In the article it states:

A shrinking proportion of Alberta students writing their Grade 12 English diploma exams are scoring top marks on the important test…

The key problem with the English diploma exams, according to Alberta Education officials, is the written portion, which requires students to write both a personal response and a critical/analytic response to texts…

…"It matters because how your best students do affects how your average students and how your poorer performing students do," said John Rymer, Alberta Education's executive director of Learner Assessment…

Still, McCabe [Edmonton public’s principal of student assessment] said, the results might say something larger about how teens communicate today
"It's very different from 10 years ago, but we haven't changed the format of the exams," she said. "I think it's time to examine, are there other ways for kids to show what they know other than a formal essay?"...

… "The new curriculum allows so many different ways to engage with text and so many different ways to express what you've found and learn," Rymer said. "So if there's a subtle shift in the classroom from written work to oral presentations, have I given up on other things?"

This article sums up, what I believe, are some of the issues with standardized testing. 

First, Rymer states that it is the best students who determine how the rest of the students perform.  If this is true, then in reality the test is ONLY informing the school how smart their “best” students are.  I wonder how parents would react if they realized that their child’s mark (on this test which makes up 50% of their mark) depends on how other students perform?

Second, I 100% agree with McCabe when she said it is time to realize there are other ways for students to illustrate their learning.  Recently, one of my math students, showed me how talented he is at Photoshop.  Below are two demonstrations of his talent and creativity.

He is one amazing student, and has demonstrated how creative he can be multiple times. 

I fear that on diplomas, the only way students can demonstrate creativity would be to doodle on the blank pages. I believe it is time that our standardized test “makers” realize that traditional testing is not the best way to assess knowledge, learning, or passions and need to start allowing students to be creative.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What is your focus?

Justin Tarte is a German teacher in St. Louis Missouri.  His blog is  Even though I have never met Justin in person, I feel as I know Justin quite well through our conversations through Twitter.  Here is a post from this site:

Dave recently wrote a post titled, "Learning on a test day? You bet!" This post focuses on how you can assess your students while simultaneously giving them the opportunity to learn, collaborate, and share.

What an awesome concept!

I never put too much thought into it, but I have been using a very similar model with my German students for most of the year. The shift in my classroom has taken the focus off of grades and points, and now my students are focusing on learning, collaborating, and real world application.

The days of typical vocabulary quizzes and assessments are over. My students are now doing projects and collaborative type assessments. My 2nd semester final is going to a web based project where my students create their own set of standards and guidelines, and they do a presentation on something of their choosing that they are interested in sharing with others (all in German of course!). Check out some of the presentations my German students have created so far this year by clicking the German 2 and German 3 tabs on my Herr Tarte blog!

The most important takeaway I got from Dave's blog post is to simply step back and think about...

                                      what are we really focusing on...?

If we are not focusing on learning, developing social and collaborative skills, real world application, and giving students autonomy and say in their education, then we as Educators need to make some adjustments. We need to help create an environment that supports student driven learning. We need to tell our students it's okay to focus on the learning, and to take a risk even if it means not getting the correct answer the first time. We need our students to be excited and enthusiastic about learning...not stressed or frustrated because they are worried about getting a bad grade.

What's your focus as an Educator? What are you doing to align your foci with your instructional and professional practices...? What are you doing that goes against the traditional norms of education to have more of an impact on your students...? I can't wait to hear how you are making a difference!     

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Professional learning, not development

Recently, I have had multiple discussions around the area of PD (Professional Development).
Teachers have been asking:
·         What is PD?
·         What is personal PD?
·         What is mandated PD?
The list goes on.
I believe we should be focusing on teacher learning and not about teacher professional development.   Some Canadian teachers only associate PD days with the term professional development, and therefore actually believe PD is an event, a workshop, or a program, rather than an ongoing daily part of a job.  Fullan, Hill, and Crevola, in their 2006 book Breakthrough wrote:
“We have deliberately selected the term professional learning over the more narrow conceptual terms of professional development or professional learning communities because Breakthrough means focused, ongoing learning for each and every teacher…
...How, then do we make deeper daily learning a reality for teachers?  Replacing the concept of professional development with professional learning is a good start; understanding that professional learning “in context” is the only learning that changes classroom instruction is a second step.”
PD is an ongoing, continuous, and never ending expectation of teachers.  It does not start and end with the times of a conference, or workshop.  Also, recent research shows that traditional methods of presenting classroom innovations to teachers in workshops does not generally result in either changed classroom practice or improved student learning.
The planners of PD need to avoid the “one size fits all” approach and remember different educators have different expectations.  At my school, during our PD times, teachers put on different sessions from engagement to technology integration.  Teachers can choose which session to attend, and thus become more responsible and motivated for their own learning. 
Mandated PD in top-down programs sometimes do not recognize the differences required by the teachers it is mandated to and thus can destroy the teachers “will to learn”.  Andy Hargreaves said, “most teacher development initiatives, even the most innovative ones, neglect the emotion of teaching.” We need to understand that classroom practices will improve, assessment will change, and more learning will occur if we motivate instead of mandate.  One teacher has said,
“I think you learn so much more just sitting down with your colleagues and just sharing ideas than you do sitting [in] an auditorium with 600 other teachers listening to some speaker from the States.  The trust that we are going to use these PD days to better ourselves is gone.  They feel like we might just sit and do nothing if we had a day that wasn’t filled for us.”
I believe that true professional learning could range from formal credentialed post-graduate courses to simply having a conversation with a colleague over a beverage.  Teachers, myself included, have learned many innovated educational ideas solely from “googling”.  From Beyond PD days:
“Guest speakers with PowerPoint presentations are the norm and informal learning time is viewed with suspicion.  Administrators with board or school improvement plans to implement may insist that PD opportunities meet the latest “edu-babble” criteria; (for example, does a certain activity count as “capacity building”, and is it “standards based”?)”
My district allows for personal professional development by having early dismissal on Mondays.  The majority of this time is truly personal.  Teachers can choose their route of professional learning by their own means.  If professional learning is truly personal then it cannot be mandated to a teacher by anyone.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ten obvious truths that we shouldn't be ignoring.

Recently Alfie Kohn wrote “Ten obvious truths that we shouldn’t be ignoring  He asks
If we all agree that a given principle is true, then why in the world do our schools still function as if it weren’t?
Here are the 10 truths, with a little blurb about the meaning of the truth.
1)      Much of the material students are required to memorize is soon forgotten.
The more closely we inspect this model of teaching and testing, the more problematic it reveals itself to be. First, there’s the question of what students are made to learn, which often is more oriented to factual material than to a deep understanding of ideas. (See item 2, below.) Second, there’s the question of how students are taught, with a focus on passive absorption: listening to lectures, reading summaries in textbooks, and rehearsing material immediately before being required to cough it back up. Third, there’s the question of why a student has learned something: Knowledge is less likely to be retained if it has been acquired so that one will perform well on a test, as opposed to learning in the context of pursuing projects and solving problems that are personally meaningful.
2)      Just knowing a lot of facts doesn’t mean you’re smart!
Even students who do manage to remember some of the material they were taught are not necessarily able to make sense of those bits of knowledge, to understand connections among them, or to apply them in inventive and persuasive ways to real-life problems.
3)      Students are more likely to learn what they find interesting.
A group of researchers found that children’s level of interest in a passage they were reading was 30 times more useful than its difficulty level for predicting how much of it they would later remember.
4)      Students are less interested in whatever they’re forced to do and more enthusiastic when they have some say.
If choice is related to interest, and interest is related to achievement, then it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that the learning environments in which kids get to make decisions about what they’re doing are likely to be the most effective, all else being equal.
5)      Just because doing x raises standardized test scores doesn’t mean x should be done.
If a test result can’t be convincingly shown to be both valid and meaningful, then whatever we did to achieve that result -- say, a new curriculum or instructional strategy -- may well have no merit whatsoever. It may even prove to be destructive when assessed by better criteria. Indeed, a school or district might be getting worse even as its test scores rise.
6)      Students are more likely to succeed in a place where they feel known and cared about.
As one group of researchers put it, “In order to promote students’ academic performance in the classroom, educators should also promote their social and emotional adjustment.” And yet, broadly speaking, we don’t. Teachers and schools are evaluated almost exclusively on academic achievement measures (which, to make matters worse, mostly consist of standardized test scores).
7)      We want children to develop in many ways, not just academically.
If we acknowledge that academics is just one facet of a good education, why do so few conversations about improving our schools deal with -- and why are so few resources devoted to -- non-academic issues? And why do we assign children still more academic tasks after the school day is over, even when those tasks cut into the time children have to pursue interests that will help them develop in other ways?
8)      Just because a lesson (or book, or class, or text) is harder doesn’t mean it’s better.
If it’s pointless to give students things to do that are too easy, it’s also counterproductive to give them things that they experience as too hard.
9)      Kids aren’t short adults.
More generally, premature exposure to sit-still-and-listen instruction, homework, grades, tests, and competition -- practices that are clearly a bad match for younger children and of questionable value at any age -- is rationalized by invoking a notion I’ve called BGUTI: Better Get Used To It. The logic here is that we have to prepare you for the bad things that are going to be done to you later . . . by doing them to you now. When articulated explicitly, that principle sounds exactly as ridiculous as it is. Nevertheless, it’s the engine that continues to drive an awful lot of nonsense
10)   Substance matters more than labels.
A skunk cabbage by any other name would smell just as putrid. But in education, as in other domains, we’re often seduced by appealing names when we should be demanding to know exactly what lies behind them. Most of us, for example, favor a sense of community, prefer that a job be done by professionals, and want to promote learning. So should we sign on to the work being done in the name of “Professional Learning Communities”? Not if it turns out that PLCs have less to do with helping children to think deeply about questions that matter than with boosting standardized test scores.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Creativity in Calculus

This year I gave my students an open-ended project.  Below is a video that a student submitted.  The project was entirely open-ended and when I assigned it I informed my students that it will be worth NO MARKS!  Here is what I got from one student.  (I will be uploading more but most are too large for YouTube). 

Three students completed a 17 min video, another student completed an amazing powerpoint video, while a third group integrated calculus into a the world of Harry Potter.  I truly was inspired when I witnessed the level of creativity and engagement completed by the students.

Was the motivation really from marks?  Can't be that, as there were no marks.  Maybe the motivation was from the chance to be autonomous and creative?  I did not force my students to complete the project on a specfic outcome, nor did I force the tool they were to use to illustrate the outcome.  All the task was "Show me something cool you have learned"

Here is the project that my department head created and I tweaked.

 Math 31/35  Multi-Media Project
To date you have covered several concepts within your math units.  You now have the opportunity to use your other talents to share your knowledge with others via a multi-media presentation!

What kind of presentation?
That’s up to you….Powerpoint…video tape an interview with an expert… videotape yourself teaching a concept…videotape a skit showing mathematical instruction… a website.. a math lab…an everyday application of a learned concept…the possibilities are unlimited.

Some questions you might want your presentation to answer:

  • “When am I ever going to use this math?” and/or
  • “How could I help other students better understand a concept?”
Your presentation could focus on a single concept or on an entire unit

Do I have to do this on my own?
You can if you want, but that’s up to you.  You can form a small group, I would suggest 3 or 4, but if you need more talk to me.  Your group members can be from this class, any Math 31/35 class, or friends outside of class that have a talent that could add to your presentation.

What do I get out of this?
You gain an increased understanding and appreciation for mathematics.  You would also be leaving a legacy behind here at the school, as I intend to use these projects to introduce and supplement unit material to future Math 31/35 students.

How do I get involved?
All you need to do is fill in the attached Project Proposal sheet and have all members of your group sign the release that allows me to use the material.  Then let the fun begin!

What if I start it, but don’t finish, or if there are problems with the group?
Keep me informed on your progress.  Whatever support or assistance you need I will try to provide.(ex.  Video camera, computer access, talking to group members, assisting with an expert to contact etc..)    Whatever you have accomplished by the due date I would like you to submit, even if it doesn’t turn out exactly as you thought it would.  If you need an extension you must speak to me early regarding the reason for the request and then we will discuss it.

When is it due and how long does it have to be?
The Project Proposal sheet is due to me by Thursday, Febuary 11.
The presentation is to be submitted by Tuesday, April 14th or sooner.  
As for the length of the project, the only direction I can give you is that it needs to be long enough to answer the question that you have set out.

Learning on a test day? You bet!

I remember back to my first year of teaching when my principal walked in during my class to complete an evaluation.  He stepped in, took a look around, and then walked right back out.  I was scared out of my mind, while I thought “should I have been doing more?”  After school I approached my principal and asked if I was doing anything incorrect.  He quickly responded, “No, not at all, but I can’t do an evaluation during a test day”.
Most administrators would agree that an evaluation can’t be done during a class where there is a “test”, and most wouldn’t question that.  I believe the reason is because “there is no way to witness how the teacher teaches, or how the students learn”.  Some might even argue that test days are the days where the least amount of learning occurs.
How does this change?
Recently, I administered a quiz to my students but in a new way, and I saw an entire new outcome.  In the past, during “quiz days” students would put up dividers (since they sit in groups of 4), remain silent, complete the quiz independently, and leave the occasional answer blank.  This adds up to very little or no new learning occurring, just summative assessment.
 This year, I administered a quiz and told my students it was not for marks.  I told them to take down the dividers but to treat this like a test.  After 5 minutes of silence, I noticed one girl whispering to her classmate.  I walked over and informed her that she can’t cheat. She replied with, “I am not cheating but asking for help”.  I smiled and asked her to continue.  Minutes later, I saw another student pointing out some information to a different classmate.  After informing him that cheating would not be accepted, he replied with “I am teaching Sally how to do this”.
After 20 minutes had passed, all of my students were collaborating on questions, comparing answers with a classmate, or teaching a student who had a question blank.   My students were learning from a quiz, not because I graded them on their mistakes, but due to collaboration and determination from each other.
Now the cool part, I would still call this assessment.  I did not need to take in the quizzes to assess which students were struggling with the material and which students were at a level of adequate understanding.  By pacing the room and listening to the conversations, I gained the knowledge of which students needed remedial help and which students were ready to move onto the next topic.  Of course there is no possible way I could say Sally knows 74% of the material, but I would argue that even if Sally’s quiz was marked at 74%, I still couldn’t rightfully say that. 
Overall, students were learning while I was assessing them; that was a great lesson in my books!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Teaching Prepositions through Clay

Once again, I am honoured to have Jennifer Kofin as a guest blogger on my site.  She is an ESL teacher at my school, and a damn good one at that!

Here is her engaging lesson:
Teaching Prepositions through the use of Clay

Last week I had to prepare a lesson on location prepositions for my ESL students. Knowing that teaching this particular topic could be quite boring, I searched for ways to make it more engaging.

I found a story that covered the prepositions that we were learning in class. I had the students read the story and then had them highlight all of the location prepositions that they could find. Students were then given clay and asked to sculpt the examples of prepositions from the story. Students took this task and thrived on it!

Every student had to represent the same prepositions, but there were no limits on how the students had to design their objects. Each student had a different interpretation of what to create. Students found meaning in the task and effectively learned how and when to use these prepositions.
Below are the prepositions that were used in the story:
  • Above
  • Below
  • Under
  • Over
  • On
  • In front of
  • Beside
  • Behind
Students were then asked to write a story using these prepositions. Once students understood the prepositions they were good to go! Each story was unique and used the prepositions properly. Their learning was extended because they had to create meaning from the stories that they wrote. Students were actually excited to write and did a great job!  Here is one of clay pictures:

Personally, I gave Jennifer a high five!  I am pleased to see another example where not every student needed to get the same answer to be correct!  True demonstration of creativity in the classroom.  GO JEN GO!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why I blog and tweet

Over the last 4 months, I have tweeted 1500 times and written 90 blogs.  The total of this text would be over 100 pages.  Lately, I have been asked, “Why do you do it?”, with which I responded with, “Why don’t you?”.  I will now share my story.
First, I feel that I have done more PD in the last 4 months than I ever have.  This is not a criticism of conferences I have attended or speeches I have heard, but actually a compliment of the power of twitter and sharing my knowledge through this blog.   Here are some stories:
I would not feel right if I did not say a very huge thank you to Joe Bower (@joebower) as he was the inspiration that started my transformation.  Joe, an amazing teacher here in Red Deer, has shown me the power of sharing.  His blog “for the love of learning” is where I started reading articles about education reform.  He has truly been my “connector”, and I feel as our friendship has grown deeply.
Next, I have helped Paige McClement (@pjenn86), a teacher in Cochrane, in her teachings of mathematics.  Even though she is a flames fan, I looked past her shortcomings, and still responded to her tweet asking for help.  When I shared a perspective with her, she responded with an alternate perspective on a topic I had blogged about.  I was truly sharing with another teacher whom I have never met face to face.
This brings me to Chris Wejr (@MrWejr), an elementary school principal in British Columbia, who has given me more support than I can ever say thanks for.  During a time of frustration, Chris and I had a conversation, through Twitter, where Chris gave me needed guidance and encouragement to keep “trucking”.  If it wasn’t for his advice, this blog may have been closed down months ago, and I would not be writing this today; Thanks Chris!
As the MCATA (Math council of the Alberta teachers association) co-conference director, I was looking for two keynotes for our upcoming math conference in Edmonton.  While searching I had met Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) and David Coffey (@delta_dc).  After conversing with them, I have booked them both as our keynotes for the conference.  I cannot express the anticipation and excitement I have to meet with these two amazing educators face to face.  Little do they know, but I might be asking for autographs!

Lastly, my blog on the "Sound of Music" day,  was read to the students of the play by the director.  I was informed that the majority of students started crying with "happy tears".  One comment from a student, to the director, was "I can't believe we have inspired a teacher at our school!".  Also, three other teachers have approached me saying they are also going to try this "Sound of Music" day.
The list could go on and on as I could probably list hundreds of amazing educators I have met online but never face to face.  I would, however, be lying if I said it has all been green grass.  My blogs and tweets have caused multiple people question my intentions, disagree with my statements, ask for clarification on a topic, and even dispute research.  But….I don’t see these as negative occurrences. 
Debate, discussion, argument, and dispute, when done respectfully, should NEVER be discouraged.  Only when these tasks are promoted, can positive improvement occur.  I encourage people to disagree with me, as it is a powerful strategy to see an idea from another perspective. 
Last, if you are reading this and do not tweet or blog I will now ask you a question: “Why don’t you?”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Are you teachable?

Lolly Daskal is from New York city, and she also has a blog.  Recently, she had the following message, a message which made myself think. 

Are you seeking? Are you curious?

What most of us don’t understand that if we are seeking, we are questioning and if we are questioning we are learning, if we are learning we are teachable, and  if we are teachable we are growing.

But lets be honest most of us are stuck and we are spinning in circles and we need help.

The wisest among us seeks to be taught.

The wisest among us seeks counsel

The wisest among us is always teachable.

The wisest among is always learning

The wisest among us is listening.

This world needs more people who can be role models and leaders.

What we want is for more people to be teachable.

Lead From Within: Have the awareness and attitude that everyone and everything you see, feel, do and meet has something to teach you. Approach your life as you are always teachable. Because the ones that are seeking to be taught are the ones that are innovating and influencing,

Friday, April 8, 2011

Why make up data?

If you are using made up data in your class, I would like to ask one simple little question "WHY?".  There are massive amounts of real data available, and also many opportunities for students to create their own data. 

Made up data creates pseudo-context questions, meaningless answers, and most likely confusion.  Real-life data provides the students with the ability to develop, learn, and apply their understanding of past lessons into an actual context.  When you use real data, you show the true power of mathematics; making the unknown known.

Here is how I use to teach regressions in my Math 30 Applied Course:

 As you can see, the numbers are meaningless and create zero motivation to solve the problem.

Here is how I teach regressions currently:


This question has zero data points, more reading, and asking higher level questions.  However, students are more willing to complete the “new” way than the “old” way.  They understand why each number is created, the meaning of the answers, and it also creates motivation to solve the problem. 

After this, I used data of world hunger, population density, and standard of living.  Students were able to truly understand the problems third-world countries are facing.  The mandated outcome is “students will demonstrate an understanding of quadratic, linear and sinusoidal functions”, but my students discovered much more than that.

The discussion which was created was truly inspiring to me as a teacher. Another teacher, who was walking by my class, also entered into the discussion explaining how exponential growth applies to investing money.  If the numbers of poverty did not shock them, I also showed them pictures, some which are below.

I promote collaboration and discussion in my class, and when I turned off the photos you could have heard a pin drop. 

The challenge, I have for educators, is to use real data for their questions and even allow the students a chance of creating their own data. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sound of music day

I was truly inspired yesterday.  Last night, I went to our school’s play “The Sound of Music”.  My inspiration started with the curtains being drawn back displaying the perfected and detailed set created by Rick Knievel and students.  The inspiration continued with the flawless sounds coming from the pit, conducted by Glen Traquair.  Continuing to motivate me was the seamless direction from Jennifer Warder.
The highlight, however, were the faces of the students showing true satisfaction and fulfillment at the end of the play, while they were showered with applause.  The students’ performance was outstanding and mind-blowing.
Why was this the highlight?
The students were not part of the play for a grade, nor did it help them to improve their performance for an exam.  The set designers did not have to complete hours of redundant homework, but instead spent quality time completing one single project.  The musicians in the pit, who could barely be seen from the audience, had zero extrinsic rewards, but instead the internal satisfaction of a marvelous job done.  Finally, the actors and actresses understood the importance of each word in the play, and the reason behind the execution of each scene.
I ask one simple question, “Why does this only happen in fine art classes?”
Simply put, the students are part of the play because of true intrinsic motivation.  Each student is allowed to work on the part of the play he/she chooses.  This teaching practice should be demonstrated in all classes of school.
 Some have called it a “Fed Ex day”, or an “Artlassian day”, and now I will call it a “Sound of music” day.  I am making an oath to my students:
Before the semester ends, I will give them one “Sound of Music” day, where I will provide them with multiple resources so they can work on WHATEVER they deem necessary.  There will be no limitations, no suggestions, no constraints, but one challenge: Learn something that you have always wanted to know! 
Of course, there will be one requirement of this class; you must be ready to demonstrate the learning that has occurred.  I will not test my students after this day, nor will I require more homework to be done.  This day, will not improve their test scores, it will not improve their mark in my class, nor will it cover a mandated outcome.  “Sound of Music” day will demonstrate what can be accomplished when you put the reins in the students’ hands, and say “Show me where you want to go!”

Monday, April 4, 2011

When no mark is better than a mark

Recently, it was report card due date.  In the past, I would input the marks into my grade system then attach comments to the grades and submit my marks to the appropriate people.  Afterword, I would go home and enjoy a drink.
This year I decided to do things a little differently.  I inputted the marks, just the same, however after I decided to take a closer look.  Between my three classes, I noticed four students who were not meeting success in my course.  Instead of ignoring the failure, and attaching the canned “Please see me at parent teacher interviews…” comment, I took a different approach.
Before, I failed to realize that the failing mark was actually destroying the self-confidence of the student and informing him/her “You are a failure.”  This year, and in future years, I am no longer sending this message home to parents and, more importantly, to the students themselves.
This year, I removed all the marks of the students who were not meeting success in my class. Instead of sending a mark of 40%, 34% or 48%, I sent a mark of “—“ home.  Instead of having the “you are failing the course” conversation, I sat down with each student and had this conversation with a student:
Me: Suzy, currently, you are not meeting the expectations of my course.
Suzy: I know, and my mark is low.
Me: How about this?  Instead of giving you a mark we will leave it blank and over the next two weeks, you and I will review the first three units until you can truly demonstrate the knowledge at an acceptable standard.
Suzy: Huh? What is my mark?
Me: Do you feel like you understand the material I have covered in class?
Suzy: No, but I really need to pass this course.
Me: Alright, then does it really matter what your mark is?
Suzy: No, but I don’t think I will be able to pass the class, because I am pretty sure my mark is really low.
At this point Suzy started to cry.
Me: That is my point.  I don’t want you to think that.  We will wipe the slate clean, spend some time going over the material and then reassess you.  If you can demonstrate the material next week, then I will ignore the first month.
Suzy: Wow, can I give you a hug?
Me: Ha ha, no but a high five will do!
All the conversations went very similar to this.  Also, when I phoned home, EVERY parent thanked me profusely.  
Marks are not causing problems solely for failing students, but for more students than you are probably aware of.  This year, already, I have had multiple students drop a class of mine because their midterm mark is lowering their average.  Every student, when talked to, informed me that he/she enjoyed the class, has learned a lot, but he/she is too concerned about their average mark.
The students were dropping my pre-calculus class, which runs as a first year post secondary class.  Some would argue that this is a positive experience as I am “weeding” and “opening the eyes” of my students to the true post-secondary experience.  When I hear comments such as these, I want to join Suzy crying!
Even my high-end students are being negatively effected by these midterm marks.  I have heard, several, of them say similar comments such as: “I have to make sure I stay on the honor roll, and since I am well over that, I can stop trying”.
Education should NEVER be about destroying confidence, weeding students out, or informing them that they can stop trying, but unfortunately this is the message sent home when we become marks orientated.
At first, I believed for failing students “no mark is better than a mark”, but as I listen and talk to my other students I have concluded that for EVERY student “no mark is better than a mark”.  Imagine what we could accomplish if, instead of giving a mark, teachers just had to answer one question “Will this student be successful at the next level?”