Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The grass is different on the other side.

The secondary science classroom is my natural environment. I have supervised fetal pig dissections involving 34 students and put my trust in hundreds of teenagers as they melt, boil, mix, and observe chemicals. I have labeled and stored a large number of dangerous substances and dealt with hazardous waste disposal. Outside of the classroom I have helped students put on musicals, organize dances, navigate relationship breakups, choose post-secondary programmes, and deal with all of the pressures they face as young adults. These things are part of the natural rhythm of my day. When I teach Chemistry courses I am teaching students who have chosen my class as an elective; everyone is there with some kind of agenda. Although we find time for fun and for indulging curiosity there is a great deal invested in grades at this level. The enjoyable bits of learning sometimes get lost as students focus on their numerical grade and their chance of being accepted into their university or college of choice.

My biggest 'wow' moments so far this year have been in elementary schools. This is not a surprise. I spent four weeks in a middle school during teacher's college, but aside from than I have been living my work life inside high school science departments. Last week I spent one morning in a grade 2 classroom. This was my first opportunity to stand back and watch a primary class in action. I got to see the morning routines; the students' roles and responsibilities were clear and they moved naturally from one task to the next. The class is doing some neat activities (genius hour and Global Read Aloud, among others) but it was the vibe in the classroom that really got me thinking about the differences between my teaching experience and this environment. The culture in an elementary classroom is different for several reasons, the clearest being that students spend more time in one room with one teacher instead of moving from room to room as they do in my high school. Being in the classroom space got my creative instincts tingling with thoughts of cross-curricular integration. I have often yearned for more time with my students during the day. It can be tricky to cultivate relationships with certain students - the introverts, for example - within a 75-minute time limit sandwiched between math class and a bus home.

On Friday last week I spent the entire day in an elementary school library. I worked with the librarian to help students in grades 2, 3, 6, and 8 create green screen videos. The highlight of my day was sitting on the floor along with the grade 6 students, fielding their insightful questions about the green screen. We tried our best to answer each question and used hands-on demonstrations to illustrate whenever possible. The curiosity and engagement of the students was different from what I experience in secondary: more creativity and wonder, less skepticism, and much less fear of failure. The looks on students' faces were more trusting than those I am accustomed to, and the average 'thank-you' at the end of the day was more sincere.

I'm not naive enough to think that after months or years in elementary school I would come home from work every day eager to tell everyone about how fabulous my day was. I am also keenly aware than my new role allows me to interact with students in a way that may differ from a student-teacher relationship in a classroom. It's possible that I wouldn't last a month as a teacher in elementary school. What I find sad is that I won't ever get a chance to try. It is a shame that our system prevents people from 'jumping the fence' to the other panel without taking a serious hit to our seniority. The potential for rich learning experiences and for creating a sense of unity among elementary and secondary teachers is astounding.

I find myself wondering what some of the first impressions of my elementary teacher colleagues has been when they go into a secondary school. Please comment if you have any thoughts to share.

The gratitude I feel for the learning opportunity my new job affords me is unmeasurable. I will do my best to pass on what I learn to my colleagues in secondary. Maybe on my birthday I'll make a wish that the future will provide more chances for elementary and secondary teachers to work and learn together. (Someone had better remind me to make the wish. Or maybe I'll wish it right now.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

'Spoiling the Surprise' - Is this something we need to worry about?

Indulge me by participating in a little visualization:
You're strolling down the hallway of your school and are walking past the classroom of a colleague who teaches a grade lower than the one you are currently teaching. Your ears perk up when you hear something familiar. A feeling of panic rises inside you when you realize what you're hearing: your colleague is using an activity/demo/video/whatchamacallit that you usually use during your unit on widgets! The moment of surprise you would have had with your future students has been ruined.

This has happened to me many times before. I have been a Chemistry teacher for the most part and I have in my back pocket a wide array of demos and other activities that do an exemplary job of driving home key topics for my grade 11 and 12 students. It used to make my uncomfortable when one of these 'key' demos was done by another teacher in grade 9 and 10. (It isn't that I don't do any demos with the 9's and 10's...just different ones!)

Over time I learned that a demo being 'spoiled' wasn't the end of the world. One reason is that my school was quite large; in any of my Chemistry classes a certain activity was still likely to be new for a majority of students. Another reason I learned to relax about demo spoilage is that when experiencing the same demo for the second time students have an opportunity to think more deeply about what they are seeing. Viewing something that is unusually entertaining or unexpected can cause excitement and confusion that may not aid a student in performing a critical analysis of the event. Subsequent viewings allow more time for reflection and students are more prepared to ask good questions about the science behind the event, going deeper than 'How did you do that, Miss?'

Surprise-spoilage is on my mind because of the 'green screen' fun I had this weekend at my daughter's birthday party. The girls are all in grade 3 and we made some sweet 'Wanted' posters at the cowgirl party:
Sweet, right? Our family is on a green screen roll...we even made some funny photos of my in-laws this weekend. Nerd alert.

Today I found myself wondering whether I had spoiled a moment the girls might have later this year, or maybe next year, when their teacher decides to do something epic with the green screen at school. Have I ruined his or her 'Ta-da!' moment? The answer is probably yes; the girls will not be as wowed as they would have been otherwise. On the other hand, maybe the girls' green screen knowledge will have them more prepared to think up something really creative for their class to do. I'm hoping that in taking away from the 'wow' moment I have given a little something to the moments that follow. Maybe I've helped create some movie-making mavens. Time will tell.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

If I Could be a Student for One Semester...

Today I decided that I want to go back to high school so that I can take some tech classes. I spent the day with a group of communication technology teachers who were meeting to share and learn about some of the toys and tools available to them. My role today was to support the teachers' introduction to GAFE by providing login support and demonstrating a few of the tools (forms, Classroom, docs). Easy, right? Nope. I has some serious competition.

Representatives from Canon were on hand to demonstrated some of the features of their XA camcorder. The demonstration of the functionality of this camera made me seriously consider whether I had something I needed to make a documentary about right now. For instance, maybe I need to show people how to use GAFE on their smartphones whilst rollerskating on the waterfront trail. That might be useful, right?

The TriCaster was another gorgeous piece of equipment on display. I had never been exposed to this type of equipment before, and the possibilities it offered for broadcasting events were mind-blowing. Wouldn't it be great to cover a school event and intersperse the live feed with live or pre-recorded interviews (shot in front of a green screen, of course), commercials (made by me ahead of time), colour commentary, participant bios, and shots of the audience? Mindblowing.

The granddaddy of technology show-and-tell items today was a GoPro camera attached to a drone. It was like something out of a James Bond movie. It is flown with a remote control, knows how to return 'home' if it runs low on power, and has terrific image stabilization. Is this a gadget that everyone needs? No. Is this a gadget that inspires people to think big? Absolutely.

Today I am left thinking about what I would do if I were in high school right now. Tech seems like the place to be for anyone with a creative streak. The tools at students' fingers allow them to realize a larger artistic vision than students in the past were able to. So, what would I be creating if I was a student in Comm Tech right now? Only a secondment from my secondment would let me answer that question. I wonder if my bosses would let me go back to school for just one semester...

Friday, October 10, 2014

EdCamp Reflections

September was filled with many new experiences as I started my central position. You could almost hear the energy crackling in our workspace (which has been nicknamed ‘The PIT’ as we are the Program and Innovation Team). Some of the energy in the PIT was focused on planning EdCamp Barrie, held on September 27th. Several members of my team have been working on this for many months. Their efforts and vision culminated in an energizing day of PD for participants from across Ontario.

Mental Preparation
I first heard about EdCamp last June when I started following my new colleagues on Twitter. I had no idea what it involved and was happy to see a ‘What is an EdCamp?’ link on the event website. My personal preference is that events in my life proceed in a predictable and reliable fashion. I prefer to have a concrete home and work schedule. I do not like making last-minute plans for dinner parties. When I go to conferences I always carefully read the programme and make decisions in advance about which sessions I want to attend. As a result, my mind was baffled by the organic, crowd-sourced, open-ended nature of an ‘unconference.’ I wasn’t sure what to expect, and had no choice but to be at peace with that.

EdCamp Barrie took place on what I consider to be home turf. It wasn’t only that it was happening in my city; it was taking place in the school I have taught in for over 10 years. That, coupled with the familiar faces of the organizers, made me feel at home from the start. (Definitely a good starting point for an introvert.) Our keynote address was given by two local elementary students, and was a great catalyst to focus our attention on our most important ‘Why?’: our students. The keynote speakers and student volunteers were surprised and pleased to see so many teachers participating in an activity like this on such a beautiful fall day. I suppose students are accustomed to seeing teachers put in extra time in gyms or music classrooms but hadn’t often (or ever) considered the extra time many of us commit to professional development. Perhaps more of us should share our professional learning activities openly with our students so that they can understand that we are all lifelong learners.

Watching the schedule for the day come together from attendees’ suggestions was really neat. Reading a description of this process does not do justice to the flurry of activity (reading/comparing/grouping) that actually takes place as organizers do their best to group similar questions from the hundreds that we generated. The resulting schedule was beautiful to behold and elicited a sense of pride in the group before we had attended a single session. Our collaborative session notes allowed the conversation to continue after EdCamp, when we could revisit shared resources and questions and take advantage of new relationships to embark on formal and informal collaborations.

Being relatively new to the Twitterverse, EdCamp was the first time that I found myself looking into the face of someone who I had known previously only as ‘@--- that tweets about widgets’ or ‘@--- whose class is learning coding this week.’ It was really neat to make a personal connection with some of these people who have unknowingly been teaching me so much these last weeks. The value of face-to-face is evident during EdCamp sessions. Live conversation takes on a depth and urgency that cannot be replicated in a Twitter conversation. At EdCamp you can ask a question and get five completely different answers, each backed up by rich experience and insight. Within sessions the generosity of those sharing their ideas and experiences was only matched by the honesty of the ignorant. I had the opportunity to be one of the generous contributors in a GAFE session and then admit complete ignorance in a coding session. I found myself wondering what was a bigger influence on participants’ amazing attitudes: that EdCamp attracts individuals who are this way, or that EdCamp by design brings out the best in everyone. I’m guessing that nature and nurture play equal roles in this.

Early in September I had begun tweeting back-and-forth with a friend from my days in the Faculty of Education at Brock University. She indicated an interest in attending EdCamp Barrie and was successful in convincing her husband (also our classmate at Brock) that they should come to Barrie and be guests at the home I share with my husband (yet another Brock classmate) and my daughters. Considering the location of their current home - Manitoulin Island - I crossed my fingers that the Barrie event would be a success and that the 10-hour return trip would be worth their while. I hadn’t seen my classmates for 12 years and wanted our reunion to be a success. It was. We attended EdCamp together (scoring this reunion photo in the process) and reminisced long into the evening, waxing poetic about everything from education to home improvement. I look forward to visiting Manitoulin this summer so we can continue these conversations.

Thanks, EdCamp!

*This portmanteau is brought to you by ‘Look Around You.’

Saturday, October 04, 2014

First Real Blog Post (teenagers made me do it)

I have been waiting for the reality of my new job to set in. I think I'm about 50% there. I am an instructional resource teacher with a focus on Science K - 12 in our new 'Program and Innovation' department. After 11 years in the classroom this is a big change for me. My 3 minute drive to work has transformed into long drives in the country as I move from school to school. I have enjoyed the extra time for quiet reflection and the opportunity to catch up on the backlog of podcasts waiting patiently on my iPod.

While I have not started supporting teachers in collaborative inquiries yet I have had a chance to visit a number of schools across the county to support teachers as they learn to access and use their GAFE accounts. My incredible team has gone beyond the call of duty to reach out and answer teachers' requests for help by organizing after school "GAFE Cafes" at about 15 locations across the school board as well as 'lunch and learn' sessions in nearly every secondary school. Teachers have responded with "Thank you. More, please!" as they get a taste of what GAFE has to offer them. Together with the new training I have received and my self-directed quest to have a deeper understanding of the GAFE, iPad apps, and Microsoft resources available to our teachers and students my brain is left aching at the end of each day. For the most part it is a happy ache.

This week I had the pleasure of visiting one of our secondary schools to see BYOD in action. All Grade 9 students at the school are BYOD this year. I learned a great deal about the logistics involved: device charging, log-in lags, wifi limitations, cross-platform problems, etc. The best part of my visit was the opportunity to interact with students. Their honest appraisals of BYOD and willingness to share their learning with us was fantastic and energizing. It wasn't until later that day that I realized what made it even more special. I miss teenagers.

If someone had told me in June that I'd be craving the company of teenagers by October 1st I would have called them crazy. It's not crazy, though. I miss my classroom. I miss face-to-face connections with students. I miss the 'Wow!" moments in science class. (Btw have you seen this STEM teacher recruitment video? I love it:

I can't wait to visit more classrooms and have contact with students. I also can't wait to get back into my own classroom when my two year secondment ends. This is a wonderful feeling because it is an affirmation of my decision to enter this profession. Students are at the centre of what we do.

I am grateful to have an incredible two-year learning journey ahead of me and delighted that I will have the chance to work with a large number of teachers and students. The thought of the classroom that awaits me at the end of this journey will keep me focused on what is important. Missing teenagers this week is what prompted me to write this blog post. It is as if I have found my muse.

I need to end this post by putting a blogging goal in writing (because I know that will help me stay on track). My goal is to write an average of once each week until the end of my secondment. I reserve the right to blog about knitting, camping, road trips, quilting, or other such matter during the summer. (Just saying...)

If you have read this far I am humbled. Thank you.