Sunday, November 23, 2014

How I Got Hooked On Science Fair

Tonight I met with several members of the Simcoe County Regional Science and Technology Fair committee. It's only my second year on the committee but I truly enjoy spending time with the other members. On the way home tonight I took some time to reflect on why.

At a glance the members of the science fair committee seem pretty diverse. Although many of us are teachers, some are not. Those who teach do so in public schools, Catholic schools, private schools and colleges. Some of us have young children at home (who occasionally get dragged out to meetings) and some are retired empty-nesters. We often hold our meetings in restaurants and I'm betting it's hard for strangers to figure out what could possibly bring us all together.

Two years ago I attended the regional science fair as a judge. It was my first time at the fair (my school hadn't participated anytime in recent history) and all it took was one conversation with a 4th-grade scientist for me to be hooked. There is something wonderful about an 11-year-old kid who can speak passionately about their science project to a complete stranger. Not all of the students oozed with passion; some of the students were nervous, others robotic in their delivery. I recall one boy who provided one-word answers to every question I asked him (including 'What would you do differently next time?', "What was the most difficult problem you had to solve?" and other open-ended questions). Despite the nervous laughter and awkward moments, the energy in the room was unmistakeable. I loved every minute of that evening and immediately decided to get more involved with this event.

I think that's why I like the science fair committee members so much. At one point in time each one of them had their own 'first' experience with science fair that eventually led them to where they are today. Hours of volunteer time spent organizing the local fair and chaperoning students at the Canada Wide Science Fair are fuelled by the determination and passion of our budding student scientists. The type of person who believes in science fair is someone who believes in the power of young people to create new knowledge and make real change in our world. Who wouldn't want to be in that club?

I look forward to the day when I get a chance to attend the national science fair so that I can see our students perform against a backdrop of the best young science minds in the country. There are students in our county turning their garages and basements into laboratories, forming partnerships with world-class researchers, and designing technologies that make our world better. I'm very thankful for the opportunity to play a small part in helping them get their hard work acknowledged.

If you're curious about what science fair looks like in Simcoe County or wherever you live, volunteer to help out this year. You can be a judge (best job ever!) or simply pass out T-shirts - whatever your comfort level is. These fairs need the help of dedicated individuals to function. They also need teachers in schools to be willing to support budding student scientists, so if you're a classroom teacher who has never 'done' science fair, maybe this is the year. What better way to incorporate student-led inquiry into your science class?

Here are links to a couple of resources if you're curious... (social network for student scientists and engineers with a great science fair guide: (ideas and inspiration)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Twitter and My PLN

Our recent board-wide launch of our New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NPDL) project saw students, parents, teachers, and administrators gather in the same space to share their vision for education. We discussed barriers to progress and helped find ways to overcome them. We talked about the value of community connections and the power of student voice. We struggled with the open-ended nature of the project and the feeling of responsibility that comes with creating new learning in our schools.

During the NPDL launch we were encouraged to share our thinking throughout the day through Twitter. Many of us were happily ‘tweeting’ during many of the presentations and discussions. We tweeted to help us share insights, distill out the ‘big ideas,’ and acknowledge the contributions of other individuals around us. At about the midpoint of the day I overheard a comment from a teacher that could have come from me six months ago. To paraphrase, he said: ‘It’s a shame so many people are so busy Tweeting that they’re not listening.’ His words stopped me in my tracks. I understood his feelings completely. It was only about five months ago that I started using Twitter as a tool for professional learning, and it is only in the last month that I have come to appreciate its value.

Your professional learning network (we all have one) includes anyone you are connected to that enriches your work. When my daughters were born and I was on maternity leave, the other new mothers in the neighborhood were part of my professional learning network for parenthood. Friends and family who could offer advice or expertise on the telephone or by email were also part of that network. I would also consider strangers who shared their questions and advice on the web to be part of my network (like when you Google 'how to get my kid to eat vegetables?').

My professional learning network as a teacher has always included my colleagues, teacher friends near and far, and occasionally those teachers who shared their experiences and resources on the internet in a way that was searchable (many thanks to those strangers, by the way!). New tools like Twitter have significantly changed my ability to connect with like-minded individuals in a meaningful way. On Twitter I ‘follow’ people who post information that enriches my learning. Many people I follow tweet information about current education research, the incorporation of technology in the classroom, or ideas and philosophies that challenge my thinking. Another subset of people I follow includes teachers in my school board that are sharing the work they do in their classrooms.

I don’t have time to read every tweet that I have welcomed into my account, but I have the power to organize my Twitter account in such a way that I won’t miss the most important bits. Tweeters use hashtags to help sift through the billions of tweets on the internet to find useful information. During our NPDL launch we used two hashtags: ‘#NPDL’ and ‘#SCDSB.' During the BringIT Together conference we used ‘#bit14.’ During the Science Teachers' Association of Ontario conference last week we used ‘#STAO2014.’ If you do a search on Twitter for any of these terms you’ll find a rich collection of thoughts, ideas, photos, resources, and links posted by the people tweeting at these events. I can go back to these searches to find a link or idea that I want to explore further. I can look at my own tweets to recapture my state of mind during a keynote speech. I can see who else was tweeting if I want to connect or reconnect with people who were at the event. I think of these searches as collective ‘meeting minutes’ created by a giant human flock of tweeting attendees. This type of communication is called ‘backchaneling’ (participating in an electronic, real-time conversation during a live event) and can be a great way to hear and record opinions of all types of people. I would have been the last kid to put my hand up at school but I might have produced a flurry of on-topic tweets in the background given the opportunity.

So, back to the comment made at the NPDL launch. Confronted with someone who held the same opinions I held six months ago regarding social media I had to think carefully about my response. Aside from a 30-minute lecture on the wonders of Twitter, my options were limited:

“We are listening,” might sound too defensive.

“Here, let me show you how awesome this is!” might be a little too pushy for some.

My choice? “I know it looks like we’re not listening, but we are. {insert big smile} Think of it like taking notes as a group.”

Hopefully that was enough to raise some curiosity about the process. Hopefully I was able to communicate that I was listening and participating.

If you’ve read this far and you’re Twitter-curious (but reluctant to actually give it a go yourself), check out these ‘Storify’ collections of Tweets from the three events I discussed. Each little story is only a small subset of the tweeting that went on, but will hopefully give you a taste of what it is we’re all doing when we hear a speaker say something wonderful only to turn to our devices and start tapping away at a tweet.

Tweet collections from Storify (there are three here; check them out!):


ECOO conference (#bit14):

STAO conference (#STAO2014):

Monday, November 10, 2014

'Bring IT, Together' Conference Debrief - Part 2

Part 1 of my conference debrief can be found in my previous post:

This post is a summary of my take-aways from conference sessions I attended. They're here for me more than anything, but I would like to invite you to browse - you might find something interesting to you! If you want more information about any of these presentations I'll do my best to help you find it. I have included Twitter handels for presenters if I have them.

STEM Lesson: How to extract DNA from a banana
Martha (@marthajez) and Drew Jez from Fair Chance Learning. Loved this session; as a science teacher I love the idea of recording observations using video and photo documentation as well as in writing. The USB microscope for class viewing was neat. We Skyped with a scientist to discuss our findings and ask questions (VROC program). Partners in Research, in addition to VROC, offers other exciting opportunities including STEM summer camp.

The Flipped Classroom - Rethinking the Math Classroom
Excellent talk to teacher Adam Agar about the flipped teacher model used by his school's math department ( As a teacher who has done some flipping I appreciated that he focused on the important part: what happens IN the classroom after students have watched video lessons at home. He discussed grouping students on like tasks, seating arrangements for small-group instruction, and the neat ability they have to offer mixed 10D/12U math classes. Think about that...10D and 12U together? Very neat. Key ideas to take away: it's OK to have videos from multiple teachers (different students learn differently), exit tickets and quizzes are key to ensuring students are progressing, students write tests when they're ready, and there is a focus on individualized support. Equity issues addressed with DVD or USB. Adam reports greater student ownership of learning and understanding.

Quick to Prototype: Integrating and Iterating Ideas
Unexpected talk about going gradeless in secondary English classrooms. The teachers (Scott Kemp - @kempscott and Anne Doelman - @adoelman) published midterm and final grades only. Use of 'Body of Evidence Chart' and 'Reading Log' to track progress. The take home messages were simple but powerful: systems resist ideas and we need to accept that; the focus shouldn't be success or we'll never get there; don't use leeches to treat the flu (a.k.a. the old way likely isn't the only/best way; for 'going gradeless' to be a success, relationships with students and parents are key.

Junior Students Virtually Paperless
Paperless in a grade 6 classroom. Josh Ellis (@Joshuaellis34) uses Edmodo as his LMS. Students can BYOD but there is a one-strike rule (misuse = no more device at school) that he has never had to use. One neat idea was that if students used a web-based assessment or learning tool (eg. Gizmos) they can upload a screenshot to the LMS when they're finished to keep the grading all in one place. Josh has students create how-to tools or sets down challenges (like the one he gave us - to upload a selfie to the LMS ASAP) to help students learn new tech tools.

Capturing Student Learning in the Secondary Classroom
Kendra Spira (@KendraSpira) shared her Science adventures. Students made an instructional video on how to tie your shoes before making one to explain protein synthesis; using an everyday task as a starting point helped students learn the tech and identified need for improvement. She showed a neat 'recreate the picture' assignment where students in Grade 10 Optics needed to recreate an image using curved mirrors and explain how they did it/how the optics work. Kendra's students have blogged about Science in the news and she has seen really meaningful contributions from introvert students. Student inquiry on genetics provoked lots of thought and interesting products such as the 'Enviro Pig Song' about GM pigs.

Global Teenager Project
Students connect with a community of learners from all over the world in a learning circle. The themes have wonderful connections to many different subject areas and great way to 'go global' with your class. Students shared products and feedback with each other throughout the project. Teacher Laura Thompson described her success with a difficult group of intermediate students; great engagement and investment in this project because it was authentic.

Motivate, Engage and Learn - Using Thinglink, Padlet and Blogs
Great presentation from a principal (Jay Sugunan - @JaySugunan) and two teachers (Gurmeet Sandhu - @gurmeet3601 and Jenny Parr - @MsJParr) about using digital tools to engage students. Thinglink example about First Nations people and their traditions; picture linked to information about many aspects of culture. The use of padlet as a research collaboration tool (collaborate to collect ideas and information on one topic) or to accomplish a goal (eg. create a timeline of the history of flight) was neat. Google forms were being used with Grade 3 to collect feedback and ideas, and teachers are introducing multiple choice to get students familiar with this type of test question.

Providing Dynamic Feedback Online
Great tips from Paul Hatala (@phatala) to spruce up rubrics in D2L by adding videos, photos, exemplars, built-in feedback, personalization, etc. He showed us how to build up competencies and learning objectives so that we can assess most recent, most consistent. The power of ePortfolio was discussed: tied to student, not teacher; can be shared for feedback or flipped into a presentation at the end of a learning cycle. I liked the demo of iDoceo app ($8) for collecting anecdotal observations.

Storytelling with the Moving Image
Why video? Gives voice to ideas and creativity, great for cross-curricular projects, great for community engagement. Certainly most of the work involved in producing a film is in the planning: storyboards; plan shots; practice; shoot; edit. Ernest Agbuya shared his students' TIFF award-winning short film. Daniella Marchese (email: shared some TIFF learning resources. Teachers are encouraged to hold their own film festivals to share students work. Filmic Pro and Videon were suggested as apps as alternatives/upgrades to iMovie.

Genius Bar: Leveraging Student Expertise to Build a Tech Support System
Great presentation describing how a club of about 12 junior students was formed to provide tech help to the teaching staff. Students has to submit resumes and show evidence of tech problem-solving in a group interview. Grade 3 students were brought on as apprentices. Document to help with planning a Genius Bar at your school: . What a great way to give your students important responsibilities while improving availability of tech support in the school.

Breaking down walls: cross-divisional collaboratoin
Grade 10 Applied Civics/Careers/English class (Andrew Bieronski - @AndrewBieronski) paired up with Grade 4 Extended French class (Alison Bullock - @aliringbull). Students in Grade 4 class were challenged to create an ancient site or structure to be part of a museum exhibit. They had to provide QR code audio guides to their product. Grade 10 students created planning packages to guide their Grade 4 team regarding content, timelines, and success criteria. Grade 4's blogged and Grade 10's responded. Google Hangouts used to allow the students to 'check-in' virtually. In the end, the Grade 10 students visited the museum exhibit. The engagement and ownership was outstanding for students in both classes.

Whew! Now that I have made some room in my brain I can get ready for STAO.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

'Bring IT, Together' Conference Debrief - Part 1

As a new blogger this is my first attempt to summarize a conference experience in writing. I don't want to assume that all readers have been to a conference before, so I'll attempt to describe the overall experience before sharing the good bits.

Picture a place where hundreds (sometimes thousands) of like-minded people converge in a single location to share their passion. There are conferences for dentists, weavers, physicists, philosophers - if you can think it up, it probably exists. Last week I spent three days in Niagara Falls at 'Bring IT, Together 2014,' a conference hosted by ECOO (the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario) and OASBO-ICT (Ontario Association of School Business Officials - Information and Communication Technology). This conference is for people interested in the use of digital tools to transform education and there were over 1500 attendees. Over three days I attended three keynote speeches, four in-depth hands-on technology sessions, and 12 talks given by educators (or organizations that partner with educators). My brain is full to the brim and I have a happy afterglow that is not unlike a post-Thanksgiving-dinner glow; maybe too much of a good thing, but totally worth it.

I wanted to summarize my learning and share some links to resources. The first bit is covered in this post; more coming soon!

Keynote Speeches

Wednesday: Technology and the Art of Learning (Artemis Papert and Brian Silverman)
My take-home: Kids learn best when working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. Technology can't be the teacher; good teachers must understand their students. Programming is a new medium for learning and creating. Great demo of TurtleArt. (remember programming in LOGO in the 80's? I do.)

Thursday: The Power of Technology to Prepare Students for the Future (Richard Byrne)
My take-home: The 'thinking economy' is universal; jobs will come and go but thinking skills remain important. Instead of 'today we will learn about,' try 'today we will explore.'

Friday: Impressive, but not Convincing (Ron Canuel)
My take-home: Use technology in moderation and use it for things that are transformational. Relationships are key; students remember who we are, not what we say. We need courage to change. Early technology adopters don't make the difference; 'mid-adopters' do.

Wednesday: Minds on Media Hands-on Sessions

Makey Makey
I've been waiting to get my hands on one of these for a while. If you don't know what it is, check it out: Makey Makey on YouTube. I played 'One Button Bob' with a button I drew with a pencil, played a keyboard drawn on a piece of paper, and played Tetris with Play-Doh. Serious fun.

3-D Printing
Excellent demonstration and explanations by grade 7 and 8 teachers. If you're interested in 3-D printing something you create yourself, you can use a 3-D drawing program like Google SketchUp. A simpler alternative is Tinkercad; it even allows direct upload to manufacturers who can print your designs if you don't have your own 3-D printer. Golden statue of your family mascot, anyone?

Coding for Kids
I tried out some Scratch and some Tynker. I have a way to go here; it took me a while to figure out how to activate the laws of physics in Tynker. (Things were more interesting when Physics was on.) An interesting side note is that I got to watch a Sphero (app-controlled robot ball) in action.

I mentioned this above; it was demonstrated in the first keynote session. It was fun to get a chance to play with the program and talk to Artemis Papert. I've had lots of fun playing with this since and would love to use it as a way to teach coding; I like that it's a one-trick pony; why not start with art? I made this image this afternoon and it's just one of many created by me and my daughters.

To be continued...Thursday and Friday conference sessions covered in next post.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Much more than a new perspective.

I became a teacher in 2003. I taught science for 10 years before, give or take a mat leave or two, before taking on my current central role. I had (and still have) excellent mentors who taught (teach) me the value of routines, relationships, organization and balance. I could have taught very happily for 10 or 20 more years without changing anything.

In April I saw the job postings for IRT positions in an email attachment. I read the attachment more than once, but thought up many excuses for not taking action. There were commitments I had made to the school that I didn't want to back out on: student government, academic awards assembly, etc. There was my family to consider; a new job might mean irregular hours and would certainly take me farther away from home. The third major excuse I made was that I was probably not cut out for this type of role. I am an introvert and have always carefully navigated my workplace spaces and relationships in a way that allows me to feel calm and in control.  Subject closed. Stay put and continue to blow students' minds with the wonders of science.

Just as I was beginning to forget the job postings, my principal re-emailed them to me. In a cleverly-worded and encouraging email she pointed out that I might not see another posting for a science IRT any time in the near future. My excuses started to look pretty lame and I had to re-examine my decision to ignore this opportunity. A few weeks later I was excited and speechless as I accepted my new position. A mild feeling of doom crept over me as it often does when I leap into the unknown.

I suppose I'm similar to Scaredy Squirrel in some ways; I like to be in familiar places with an emergency kit at hand. I like the familiarity of regular work hours and workspaces. I like having a departmental team who know my strengths, support my needs, and put up with my quirks. I like eating my leftovers at 10:40 and setting up tomorrow's labs at 2:45.

Now that I am here in 'the unknown' I have been forced to acknowledge that I should have done more to make connections outside of my school sooner. The new learning and new relationships of the last few weeks have been transformative. I have been surprised how content I am to be a part of the whirlwind of activity generated by my team. I think it is wonderful that a job change has allowed me to redefine or reimagine my place in the education machine.

A few things I have discovered about myself so far:

  • I really like being a mentor.
  • I'm an effective tech teacher (and tech cheerleader, when needed).
  • I miss having contact with students.
  • I quickly overcame my trepidation about walking in to a new school.
  • I am better at remembering names and conversations than I thought I would be.

The next two weeks will bring two conferences (ECOO and STAO) and two major project launches. Lots to think about. Lots of action. As long as I get some quiet time in the evenings I know I'll get through the over-stimulating days and be able to process everything new that comes my way. The personal growth and potential to make positive change are worth the discomforts that come with my new roll.

I think that blogging has become part of my emergency kit, and I am forced to wonder whether Scaredy Squirrel ever thought about blogging. :)