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Classroom Structure and Social Learning

Classroom Structure and Social Learning

Last week I was at St Marys DCVI for one of our board’s teacher inquiry meetings. At the end of the session, Richard Farmer, an English teacher with an interest in technology and cooperative learning, asked me if I would like to see some of the structural changes he has made in his classroom.

Richard does not have expensive, new materials in his room. He has salvaged tables from around the school, but the arrangement of his classroom space speaks to the value he places on social learning. Here are two video clips and some pictures. Richard has given me permission to share.

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Effective Teaching Practices for Reaching Boys

In the December/January issue of Phi Delta Kappan, Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley explore effective teaching practices for reaching boys. In their study, they looked for common characteristics of effective practice reported by a large sample of teachers and boys. Teachers were asked to recount the story of an effective practice they have used and male students were asked to tell “the story of a class experience that stood out as being especially memorable.” Schools from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, South Africa and Australia participated in the study.

Reichert and Hawley note the following:

Boys are relational learners.

Teachers who experience success with boys emphasize the relational dimension of teaching, “regardless of the subject”. The boys Reichert and Hawley interviewed recognized and acknowledged when a teacher was open “to what interested, excited, and worried them.”

Boys elicit the kinds of teaching they need.

If either the content or the way it is conveyed to boys is not ‘right’ boys will disengage. As Reichert and Hawley explain, “boys will engage in either passive inattention or diverting disruption.” The teacher will know when he/she has made the proper adjustments when “better engagement, sustained effort and mastery on the boys’ part” is evident.

Lessons must have an element that interests students and holds that interest. Examples include unexpected surprise, kinesthetic activities or competition.

What can we do in Avon Maitland?

Continue to focus on knowing the learner through individualized conversations with students.

Use class profiles, interest surveys and student feedback when designing lessons and activities.

Create fluid and flexible lessons that allow us to make the proper adjustments when we see that students are not engaged rather than expect students to conform to a specific teacher’s prescribed approach.

Recognize that student interests and readiness may vary from semester to semester and from class to class.

Differentiate instruction based on student readiness and interest.

In order for this to happen, the teacher must be an empathetic, reflective practitioner and willing to take risks and try new teaching and learning strategies.

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Creativity and Critical Thinking: An Unlikely Comparison?

Sir Ken Robinson and Steve Martin

As I began sorting through the idea of creativity and critical thinking, I remembered watching Steve Martin’s biography. In 1993, Martin wrote a play called Picasso at the Lapin Agile in which he creates a fictional encounter between Picasso and Einstein in the year 1904. In Martin’s words, “the play attempts to explain, in a light-hearted way, the similarity of the creative process involved in great leaps of imagination in art and science.” Picasso brags about his artistic ability, commenting that it is all in the wrist and the wrist starts in the head. He says, “If I think it, I can draw it.” Einstein confesses that he works “the same way” and makes “beautiful things with a pencil.”

I started thinking about Picasso at the Lapin Agile after reading this statement by Sir Ken Robinson:

A big part of being creative is looking for new ways of doing things within whatever activity you’re involved in. 

Einstein and Picasso did this.

Robinson also states that you “can be creative in math, science, music, dance, cuisine, teaching, running a family or engineering. Because creativity is a process of having original ideas that have value.”

Martin understands that the creative process applies to any activity (as well he should, since he is an art collector, musician, comedian, actor, author, director and playwright).

If you are interested, watch part of Charleston Stage’s version of Picasso at the Lapin Agile (a little explicit language at the beginning). If you cue the video to 8:35 you will see Picasso and Einstein compete to make something beautiful with their pencils. When they are done they argue.

Picasso: Mine touches the heart

Einstein: Mine touches the head

Picasso: Mine will change the future

Einstein: And mine won’t?

Photo by: / CC BY-NC 2.0

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Exploring the Relationship Between Creativity and Critical Thinking

One of the problems that I face in my job as a curriculum co-ordinator is making sense of large amounts of new information and research, particularly if the new information pushes against some of my previously held beliefs and understandings. I am also challenged to turn a sea of information into a clear picture or message I can share with others. If I exposed my process for sorting through information, you would see that I take a lot of tangents, engage people in conversations that help me verbalize my thoughts, and make connections to texts that provide examples, or non examples, to help me clarify my thinking.

Over the next few posts, I am going to expose my thinking as I try to sort through something that Sir Ken Robinson said about creativity and critical thinking in his a September interview for ASCD’s Educational Leadership. He stated that “people see creativity and critical thinking as being opposed.” I am guilty of this. When I think of critical thinking, I think of analyzing and deconstructing, questioning and challenging. When I think of creativity I see inspiration and the formulation or making of something. I agree with Robinson when he says, “you can’t be creative if you don’t do something” and I also agree when he goes on to explain how creativity applies to any subject or activity. In this particular interview, however, he alludes to the idea that creativity and critical thinking are not opposites, but he doesn’t help me reconcile my definitions of creativity and critical thinking. Add to this all of the reading I have been doing about 21st century skills (including creativity and critical thinking) and my thinking is muddy.

If you want to wade through the mud with me, click here to listen to an excerpt of Why Creativity Now? A Conversation with Sir Ken Robinson or click here for the full interview.

Photo by: / CC BY-NC 2.0

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Wordle – Key Words from all 2009 Open School Network Posts

To Reflect on our work in 2009, I created a wordle from all 2009 Open School Network posts. I simply pasted the text from all 2009 posts into wordle. The more frequently a word occurs, the larger the word appears in the image. I think that this wordle image speaks to our focus on improving student writing in the Avon Maitland DSB. It is also interesting that the word “students” ended up at the centre, since students are at the centre of all that we do in education.

Click on the image for a closer look and try playing with wordle yourself. Many teachers are using it in the classroom to help students edit for overused words or to create poetry.  How could you use wordle?

Image by

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Big Ideas: Character, Environmental Education and Equity should include conversations about Technology

Beginning last spring, a group of board consultants, administrators and curriculum resource teachers, met to explore how we would implement the big ideas coming forward in many of the Ontario Ministry of Education documents. Our guiding question for our work is: What are the skills, knowledge, and principles needed to live and to work for sustainable development? Although technology does not have its own ministry document and receives remarkably little attention in any of the ministry materials, we felt it was crucial to our conversations about sustainability. My sense is that if the ministry is rolling out documents around character education, environmental education and equity, to name a few, the internet should be a significant part of these conversations.

Character Education

If teaching students about respect, citizenship and leadership is important in our brick and mortar spaces, it is just as important in our virtual spaces. I recently received a letter home from my daughter’s school explaining that someone had generated an email with a list of girls’ names (called a ‘hoe list’ note the spelling). This list had circulated online inviting students to add new names and ‘rank’ the girls. The students involved are in grade 7 and many were very upset. I am pleased to report that the school is treating this as a learning experience for the children and an opportunity to talk about character and online behaviour. Personally, I’m interested in how this event differs from a note being passed around the school. It isn’t quite the same thing. The action of passing the email version of a note takes place outside of school time. It would be interesting if the outcome saw these same students participate in a online activity to reinforce positive character attributes. Anytime, anywhere learning applies to the unwritten curriculum too. Environment: Our Ecological Footprint

This is not an area of strength for me. I rarely reflect on where my possessions ‘go to die’. Yet, in the past 8 years we, as a family, have gone through 1 Personal Computer, 3 laptops, a netbook, a number of cell phones, satellite radio devices, and much more if I move into what we did with our VCRs or the many MP3 players that were lost. So, there is an issue around materials consumption and waste when we make a connection between the environment and technology, but also around the energy required to operate home/office computers and data centres. Internet data centres require energy to operate and to run cooling systems. Bill St. Arnaud claims that the internet is the fastest growing source of CO2 to the atmosphere. This doesn’t mean that companies aren’t taking a green approach; many, such as google have developed zero-carbon policies.

Equity and Universal Access: Who gets access and how?

There are many logistical issues that impact internet access, such as limited bandwidth in remote areas (Northern Ontario is a local example). When we think globally, Africa is an example of a continent with limited internet access. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, “Africa’s only connection to the internet backbone is an undersea cable running from Portugal along Africa’s west coast.” Add to this that

  • monopolies held by telecommunications companies make internet access very expensive;
  • the hope of another fiber optics project was stalled for political reasons;
  • East Africa is primarily dependent on satellite connections for internet access;
  • “land-locked countries” such as Rwanda, “face a special challenge as they will only be able to access bandwidth via an intermediary country.”

When we talk about equity and internet access, we have to ask, “who gets what content and how?” Even when we reflect on recent events in Iran we recognize that this is an issue as countries develop different regulations around accessing content on the internet. Our schools are a microcosm of this issue when they block sites like YouTube. They are doing more than inconveniencing teachers and students, more than sending a message about internet safety and undesirable content. They are embodying the kind censorship that we fear and that we would not tolerate if imposed on a national level in Canada. They are preventing the students who need internet access the most from learning with and about the internet (I am referring to those students who may not have internet access at home, or may not have permission to use the home computer).

Other Equity Questions

  • In what languages is content available?
  • Will all countries be supportive of the free use of knowledge?

I want to mention that our Big Ideas group doesn’t focus on technology alone. We delve into ministry documents that we are expected to implement and topics like student voice, aboriginal education and inclusivity. The important part is that we are working at making connections and trying to incorporate these big ideas into our work with teachers, but we would be remiss if we did not make connections to technology. I welcome your thoughts on the big ideas and hope that you will push my thinking.

Compare internet world statistics

Read more about Internet access in Rwanda

Listen to Bill St. Arnaud on CBC Radio as he discusses how Canada’s broadband access compares to the rest of the world.

See how Google is reducing their footprint

Picture by / CC BY-SA 2.0

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Avon Maitland Web 2.0 Experts at ECOO – Second String Steps-Up for PD Day

Tomorrow I’m giving a presentation on using Jing, Bitstrips, Google Apps and Glogster in the classroom. This wouldn’t be an issue if I felt confident about it. But, it’s a board PA day, our Web 2.0 experts (like @msjweir) are at the ECOO conference and teachers want PD that fits with 21st century learning (surprise). When I expressed my concern about the level of my knowledge with these programs I was told (by a few teachers) that teachers don’t want to hear from an ‘expert’. They want to hear from someone who is learning and closer to understanding the challenges that teachers face with using technology (the truth is, their choices are limited this week).

Is this true? I began thinking about the people whom I admire for their use of technology in the classroom and to generalize about their characteristics and teaching styles.

Our tech adopters are willing to take risks. They are reflective practitioners, so when something does not go as planned with their teaching, they are able to problem solve and try again without any major blows to their egos. They believe in the pedagogy behind 21st century learning and work for inquiry-based lessons; collaborative learning; and the analysis and creation of media. But they would never call themselves experts. They see themselves as continually learning and they have a genuine interest in doing so. If a challenge arises, they would use their Personal Learning Networks (PLN) to tap into or co-create the expertise required for a given question or situation. They use the internet to access people, and people, collectively, offer expertise.

So, in the spirit of the collective, my PD day audience and I will explore Jing, Bitstrips, Google Apps and Glogster together, using my fake class wiki, new netbooks and the wireless access now available in many of our high schools. Words of wisdom and student work samples are welcome @kimmcgill

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What Does Reading Look Like?

Literacy activities look different in subjects across the curriculum and I have done a poor job of modeling literacy strategies in subjects other than English or arts-based courses.

A few years ago I was invited to present the think aloud strategy to my colleagues at a staff meeting. A think aloud is a strategy where teachers model their thinking and decoding while reading aloud to students. For the presentation, I wanted the reader to be unfamiliar with the text they were reading, so I found an English teacher to perform the strategy for the staff. That part was easy. The difficulty was in finding a text that would challenge the English teacher and be relevant to non-English teachers. It was important that the text not be too ‘Englishy’. My audience represented various subject disciplines, and therefore expertise in different types of texts. Since the high school I taught at had an amazing Technical Education program I decided to find a ‘tech text’ for the think aloud.

Transportation Tech Class

I approached the Transportation Tech teacher in his classroom, car on hoist, kids in coveralls, music playing and me in my high heels stepping over tools and looking concerned – a funny picture I’m sure. The teacher welcomed me and I explained the upcoming presentation. Then I asked him, “What does reading and writing look like in your class?” He walked over to an area of the shop with desks, a blackboard, and a shelf holding a class set of textbooks. He pulled one textbook off the shelf and opened it to a chapter.

“This is what we read,” he said. I scanned the text noting that key vocabulary words were bolded and notated in the margins. I could work with this. “And this is what we write.” He turned the pages to the end of the chapter to show me chapter questions, but as he did, the book cracked like the spine had never been broken in.

“How long have you had these books for?” I asked.

“4 years.”

“They’ve never been used?”

“Yes they have. When the kids do something wrong I make them read and answer questions for their detention.”

I found this funny and disheartening at the same time. So I asked, “Why did you tell me that the textbook was what you read in class?”

He confessed, “I thought it was what you wanted to hear.”

Then, the teacher walked out into the shop and picked up a piece of paper from the floor. He looked doubtful. It had a footprint on it and greasy smudges. He handed it to me and I couldn’t understand the diagram, the vocabulary or the instructions. I could make out the image of a tire, but all of the other items on the diagram meant nothing to me. “This is what we read. We download it off the database, print it and put it on the floor because we’re working under the car. This isn’t going to help your presentation.”

But it Did

The teacher had provided me with a text that was authentic to Transportation Tech. Since then I have learned about other literacy activities that Transportation Tech teachers use, like work orders, log books and diagnostic trees. These are all texts that students would never learn from me, an English teacher.

Personally, I want to understand what communication looks like in disciplines other than my own (History and English). Literacy activities look different in subjects across the curriculum and I have done a poor job of modeling literacy strategies in subjects other than English or arts-based courses. It’s no wonder some teachers resist the idea that they are teachers of literacy. Many have never seen themselves in the examples provided and often secondary school literacy coaches and literacy consultants are former English teachers who are not comfortable modeling instructional strategies in subjects outside of their own disciplines.

Back to the Think Aloud

Admittedly, the think aloud did not go well for the poor English teacher who did not have any background knowledge that would allow her to decode the text used in the Transportation Tech class. But the discussion with the whole staff was incredible. We talked about background knowledge, making meaning and the importance of subject area teachers in teaching discipline-specific literacy skills to students. Most importantly, we valued the literacy skills the Transportation Tech teachers possess and the fact that only these teachers can impart their subject-specific literacy skills to their students. We need to do more of this.

What does reading look like in your class and what is happening in your school to support all teachers becoming literacy teachers?

Photo by / CC BY-ND 2.0

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