Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Twitter & The Lesson that makes me Cry

Recently, while facilitating a workshop with a group of colleagues, I was asked about the relevance of Twitter and how it might be used in the classroom. I took some time to share with them the importance of building a Professional Learning Network (PLN) and listed all of the positives that come with a Twitter presence.

  • It’s fun to follow people.
  • You can facilitate student voice.
  • It is a great source for news as it happens and therefore ...
  • is a social disruptor and galvanizer (Arab Spring, Russian annexation of Crimea).
  • It is great for quick hits of Professional Development.
  • Great educators share resources all the time.
  • You can build a PLN specific to your interests and grade level.
  • A Principal may (should?) ask about yours in an interview.
  • It is ongoing evidence of your best practice - because you curate it.
  • If you follow comedians, you will always have timely jokes.
  • Growing your following rewards your ego (I’d like to say I am better than this … but I have learned that I am not)

When asked about using it in the classroom, I shared the unit that I have dubbed “the one that always makes me cry.”

One would think that, after delivering this unit more than five times, I would have developed a thicker skin. This has not been the case and I am now a firm believer in Andropause. My cynical and hardened veneer has increasingly been showing cracks.
  • I struggle through sad movies...particularly those by Pixar (The first 10 minutes of “UP” gutted me).
  • I more actively avoid media that is tragic and I have far more difficulty processing it when I encounter it.
  • I quickly block any Facebook post that is potentially disturbing (I’m looking at you PETA).

I recognize that this softer side is likely evidence of emotional progress and I realize I am genuinely sharing an empathetic aspect of my personality with my students. However, there remains a nugget of neanderthal masculinity buried deep within my amygdala that steadfastly cautions me - “Emotion bad! You strong! Make joke to relieve tension!.... Good talk about sports!”

The Activity

It begins with an open discussion about the word “homelessness” using a strategy called Post it, Pile it, Pin it. I may start by showing a few photos of homeless people and ask my students to think about words, ideas or opinions that come to mind. They are encouraged to share with each other by writing down their ideas on a post-it note. Another member of the group can also post ideas that are shared orally. A pile of these notes is created in the middle of the table. Finally, the notes are brought to the front and pinned to a chart paper. This also serves to sort the responses because similar responses are grouped.
An updated “techy” version of this involves laptops and a virtual wall - through a program called Padlet.
Obviously, responses will vary but; my experiences have seen the words tend to fall into two categories. One group of posts will contain negative opinions which castigate the homeless (drunk, criminals, lazy, dirty, scary, drug-users). The other set tend to show more compassion or sympathy (misunderstood, mentally ill, helpless, sad, poor). It seems likely that the students are merely parroting opinions that they have heard from others (perhaps the adults in their worlds). The ultimate goal of the lesson is to help them discover their own opinion and move past stereotypes. The Ontario Grade 6 Health curriculum connections fit in nicely here.
C1.3 identify factors that affect the development of a person’s self-concept (e.g., environment, evaluations by others who are important to them, stereotypes, awareness of strengths and needs, social competencies, cultural and gender identity, support, body image, mental health and emotional well-being, physical abilities).
I do my best to list these responses without showing judgement. It is important that students feel comfortable sharing their opinions and we regularly talk about how our perspectives can change when we have additional information. At this point, I share the picture book “Fly Away Home” by Eve Bunting with them. Well, actually, because I struggle to get through it without blubbering - I show the YouTube video of it.

There are some great discussion points available and many students are able to make the connection between the symbolic escape of the bird and Andrew’s life. We can also revisit some of the post it notes and talk about which ones apply to the characters in the story.

The Twitter Connection

So, how does this connect to Twitter? That comes in the next step. I share the following video in which homeless people read mean tweets about the homeless.
It is powerful and requires some setting up (It can also make me weepy). The word “piss” is used. Consequently, that requires some editing or a class discussion about language before it is screened. I prefer the latter. Students respond positively to frank conversation about word choice and this can be empowering for them.
We have a discussion about Tweets, Twitter and Hashtags. We use Edmodo as a classroom forum; so, they are already well versed in Social Media etiquette, online bullying and the T.H.I.N.K. approach to posting.
Again, we can look at our pinned notes and reflect on stereotypes and empathy. I then present the following challenge.
In 140 characters, can you write a kind tweet about homelessness which includes a hashtag to identify it.

As a class, we brainstorm and choose a hashtag. Suggestions and past examples have included #KindnessCounts #EHStudentsCare (EH is Eagle Heights) #HelpHomeless or maybe #KindTweets4Homeless.

I provide the students with a strip of graph paper with about 140 boxes available. The students develop their ideas on scrap paper and then, once satisfied, print them out on the graph paper strip. I log on to my Twitter account and they are invited to type in their Tweets. I do ask that they call me over to confirm things before posting. Over the next few hours, we look forward to alerts that “like” or “retweet” our efforts at kindness.
If you would like to help us, drop me a line. It would be great to organize a day of kind tweets around a common hashtag. If not, look for our tweets this fall. I think I may take the coward’s route and encourage my student teacher to deliver this unit.
Good … Make joke...Sad feeling go back down!

Thursday, 14 July 2016

A Rough Guide to Genius Hour

After participating in professional dialogue at #PubPD last night, I stumbled upon a #2ndChat which broadcast the topic of #GeniusHour as its theme. I tried my first Genius Hour this past year and I still had some beer left in my can from the previous session (I couldn’t make it to the Pub in person, so I participated at home via Twitter). More PD seemed like a good idea, so I jumped into the second chat. 

As I answered questions and shared my experiences (140 characters at a time) I was approached by some of the participants who wanted to know more. We shared emails through Direct Message (DM) and I told them I would type up some notes and share some of the Google Doc resources that I had available. As I was typing them out I thought - Why not just write this in a blog… so, here we go.

Full details on Genius hour can be found at this site. There, they define Genius Hour as “a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom.  It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school.” The idea was spawned at Google who “allow its engineers to spend 20% of their time to work on any pet project that they want. The idea is very simple.  Allow people to work on something that interests them, and productivity will go up.” Consequently, it is sometimes called “20 Time”.

My colleague and I decided to try Genius Hour with our students this past January. He had a Grade 6 class and I had a Grade 5/6 class with about 28 students in each. Our school has many new Canadians and more than half our classes are composed of students learning English as a second language. Some are very new and needed support from our ESL teacher but, most are quite competent in their new language. However, a lot of the terms we planned to use were new to them or had nuanced meanings ("pitch", "genius", "passion", "grill"). Consequently, we included opportunities to teach these ideas and build comfort with these words.

Step One

We launched a discussion by showing the short film Caine's Arcade about a 9 year old boy who made a carnival style arcade using cardboard boxes and household objects. We talked about ...
  • “how cool” his idea was.
  • how it would be fun to make something, even if it was just for ourselves.
  • his “inspiration” and the idea of being "inspired to make something".
  • the terms “passion” and “passion project”.

Step Two

We took the kids to the computer lab and provided them with access to desktops and Chromebooks. With nearly 60 kids, we needed to have access to many devices so they could explore independently before sharing. They were asked to research the following by sharing this document with them through a Google Classroom link. To start, they were given 10 minutes to find out anything they could about Genius Hour, 20% Time or 20 Time Projects. After they explored, we mixed and mingled around each other's screens and shared our findings.

Step Three

The rest of that same document details a full introduction and a step-by-step guide (through questions) to make a plan for a passion project. It even includes a worksheet for deadlines.

Step Four

The students prepare a "pitch" using this Google Doc to guide them.

We let them work in small groups to practice their pitch and to ask each other probing questions to make sure that their Genius Hour plan ...

  • made sense (supplies were attainable and didn’t take up too much class space).
  • could be achieved  (was practical for a classroom environment).
  • would take approximately 6 hours (six - 1 hour blocks) to complete.

We also sent notes home to parents to let them know about this project. (We both use Class Dojo as our parent communication tool). We wanted parents to know that they may have to purchase some supplies or to dissuade their students from project choices if they were unable to provide these supplies.
Step Five
They made their pitch and were “grilled” by the teacher and students. We talked about “being grilled” in an interview. The “grilling” was good natured but important questions were asked. Some students did have ideas that needed tweaking. For example, one student wanted to learn how to “juggle" a soccer ball 25 times in a row using his feet. That was not something he could practice for six hours in a classroom. Instead, he compromised and chose to make an interactive Google Slideshow of the top ten greatest soccer goalies.

Step Six

We then blocked off 1 hour of time (every Friday during the first 100 minute block of the day) and launched our Genius Hour work time. For those who forgot their supplies, I prepared guided reading activities and I did some Diagnostic Reading Assessment. To create mood, the best of Mozart was played in the background. Students were reminded that they should be working quietly and independently. This did not have to be policed as engagement was high. After each Genius Hour block, students were given about 20 minutes to document their progress. I took photographs and shared them through Google Photo links on Edmodo. Some chose to write in journals and others used a Google Doc. Some even recorded a short speech about what they had done as a voice memo. This hodge-podge made it difficulty for me to evaluate their progress effectively.


Final Projects

After about 8 weeks (there were unavoidable interruptions) we shared our projects. Each class set up a make-shift Passion Project Museum that allowed visiting classes to wander through the exhibits. My students created video games, foosball tables, comic books, doll houses, desk organizers, board games and cardboard villages. One girl knitted a hat for her doll while several made interactive slideshows on subjects like "The History of Modern Dance" or "Sea Creatures of the Deep".

Next Steps

My teaching colleague has moved on to a new position but, I will try Genius Hour again. The changes I will make are as follows...
  • I will share pictures of the best examples from the previous year.
  • The notes I send home to parents will be more detailed and will let them know that they do not have to buy expensive supplies (other choices are available).
  • I will have students all use a Google Doc Journal to document their progress.
  • Progress updates will require a photograph and at least a single paragraph entry. I will provide them with feedback each week too.
  • I will make sure we have 6 consecutive Fridays available without interruption.
  • Spend more time on the idea of "passion". Some students picked things they "liked" but were not passionate about.
  • Encourage them to consider creating things that can be shared with the world to increase the likelihood of feedback.

















Tuesday, 12 July 2016

A More Amazing Race

I have made use of The Amazing Race and The Amazing Race - Canada to help deliver the Grade 8 and Grade 4 Social Studies curriculum for over ten years. If you are unfamiliar, “The Amazing Race” is a television program where teams of two, with an existing relationships, race around the world (or Canada) trying to find a predetermined location or "pit-stop". Along the way, they must arrange transportation, find clues and complete multi-disciplinary challenges. The goal for each team on each episode, or leg of the race, is to avoid arriving last at the pit-stop - where they face probable elimination. On the last leg of the race, the remaining three teams strive to be the first pair to make it to a Final Pit-Stop and be declared the winners of The Race. They receive a prize of $1,000,000 or $500,000 on the Canadian Version.

For the last two years, when I was teaching Grade 4, the first season of the Canadian version was ideal for introducing our beautiful and diverse country to my students (more than half of whom are recent arrivals to this vast and splendid landscape). It was the perfect vehicle to explore the Political and Physical Regions of Canada from the Social Studies section of the Ontario Curriculum - see page 102. We were even lucky enough to have Season One participants Jet and Dave visit our classroom to answer questions about their experiences on the show.

Last year, I made the transition to Grade 5/6 and thought I would have to retire the unit. However, near the end of the year, my teaching colleague reminded me that he had attended my workshop in 2011 and had adapted my Grade 7/8 unit to fit the Grade 6 curriculum. Specifically, he used Season 10 as a jumping-off point to discussions about Canada's Interactions with the Global Community (Pg 124). Additionally, he reminded me of all the connections we could make to the Ontario Learning Skills (Pg. 17) - particularly Collaboration, Organization & Initiative.

Furthermore, Season 10 boasted a wonderfully diverse cast of participants which would allow for in-depth discussions of Stereotypes - an important element of this section of the Grade 6 Health Curriculum:

By the end of Grade 6, students will assess the effects of stereotypes, including homophobia and assumptions regarding gender roles and expectations, sexual orientation, gender expression, race, ethnicity or culture, mental health, and abilities, on an individual’s self-concept, social inclusion, and relationships with others, and propose appropriate ways of responding to and changing assumptions and stereotypes.

On Season 10, teams included:
  • Asian-American brothers
  • Devout Muslim friends
  • Beauty Pageant winners
  • A married gay couple from New York
  • A father and his gay daughter
  • A rural Kentucky couple
  • African-American, single mothers from Alabama
  • Two triatheletes - one of whom has an artificial leg
  • Friends who are recovering drug addicts
  • An Indian-American Couple

In their opening interviews, many team members emphasize that their goal (aside from winning the million dollar prize) is to help break the assumptions and stereotypes associated with their particular race, gender, culture, physical ability etc.

Our class discussion of the teams (following their introductions) provided us with a safe environment to discuss the stereotypes often associated with these varied individuals. As the show progressed, students had the opportunity to see many stereotypes broken. Mary, one of the Kentuckian participants, summed this experience up for many of my students when she stated; “I’ve never met Asians before, or any gay people...they’re really nice.”

Throughout the unit, engagement was high. We did not simply “watch” an episode...we interacted with it. We paused to discuss learning skills, debate sportsmanship, speculate on strategy or sympathize with the participants.  We kept a score sheet at the back of the room for each leg of the race and awarded teams with a variety of honours, including “most cooperative”, “most organized” or "best self-regulation" at the end of each episode.

Students were given an option of using a printed map or the Google My Maps application, to locate and mark the destinations to which the racers travelled. Additionally, a "Canadian Connections" chart (on paper or through Google Docs) provided students with a space to share things that they saw, they learned and they researched about each destination and Canada. (I had no idea we imported nearly 100 million dollars worth of goods from Madagascar! Thank you for the vanilla & coffee!

My teaching colleague and I arranged our schedules so that we could show the episodes simultaneously. This would prevent any spoilers leaking from one class to the next. At the end of the unit, his class prepared an Amazing Race day for our class with a dozen challenges from multiple areas of the curriculum (Phys. Ed., Math, Science, Art, Language, Dance and more). We returned the favour with our own version a few days later. I hope to write about that shortly. It was a wonderful success.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Summer Goals

My summer officially started today, Friday, July 8th. It was slightly delayed because I had the opportunity to teach a course with fellow educators that was sponsored by the Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario (ETFO). The course was designed to help teachers transition to a Blended Classroom environment in the Junior Grades (4-6). Overall, it seemed to be well received by participants.

I am now looking at approximately 60 days before greeting my new Grade 5/6 class. Past summers have taught me that, left to my own devices, I will increasingly accomplish less. I have learned that I need to plan ahead and I must set the same S.M.A.R.T. goals I encourage my students to embrace. I need to be sure that my summer has some clear objectives that will keep me from too many late nights playing video games and/or watching television. I am also fighting a losing battle with my waistline. Although an extra ten pounds over the winter is understandable, gaining weight in temperate weather is just sad. (You can read between the lines and add "drinking beers" and "eating junk food" to my list of summer distractions.

With that in mind. Here is what I want to get done.

Beyond this, I still plan to have an awesome summer with my family and friends close to me as often as possible - with lots of beer, food, kayaking, hiking, campfires, laughs...a Mud Hero obstacle course race with my sister and, a 10 day vacation in Halifax, Charlottetown and Cape Breton to celebrate my 30th Anniversary with my wife! Perhaps I should reconsider the “A” in S.M.A.R.T. goals. These may not all be achievable - but it will be a great summer trying! I hope your summer is wonderful too.