Sunday, December 7, 2008

Math Anchor Charts Address the "Big Questions" in Grade 9 Math

Grade 9 Applied Math representatives from Avon Maitland’s nine secondary schools met to discuss the EQAO questions from 2007-08. Even though our board is at the top of the province with 52% of our students at or above the provincial standards (level 3), we know there is more to be done.

Half of the day was spent focusing on five open response questions that covered the big topics of the course. In groups of two, we developed possible answers and discussed the coding of these questions with regards to the EQAO rubric. Then, with a different partner, each pair worked on a different question, looking for a different way of approaching the question – perhaps using manipulatives or technology. Finally, with another partner and question, teachers developed an anchor chart that broke down the steps to solve these “big questions”.

The following pictures show the product of their work – the two solutions and the anchor chart for each question. As a group, we discussed the power of producing these charts with the class, and posting them as students work through the entire course, since these questions should come up a number of times throughout.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Teachers Want Hands-On Time to Experiment with Technology

Secondary teachers want to learn about using technology in the classroom. As department heads embarked on planning Avon Maitland's December 5th PA Day, this common message emerged: give us hands-on time working with the tools. Subject Councils advocated that teachers don't want ‘sit and git’ style presentations about the benefits of technology. They already recognize the important role technology plays in engaging today’s learners and in differentiating instruction. What teachers need is time to do what their students do with technology – experiment. And, since many teachers are digital immigrants, they want a lifeline nearby should their experiment go terribly wrong.

The result? Many of our December 5th PA Day events include guided experimentation (an expert, or teacher experienced with the technology, will be available to help participants) with SMARTboards, Web 2.0 tools, or software. Some subject sessions have built in opportunities for teachers to create lessons or assignments that incorporate technology.

The following subject sessions will include a technology in the classroom component.

- Science (SMARTboards)
- English (Web 2.0)
- Canadian World Studies (SMARTboards, Web 2.0 and Arcview)
- Visual Arts (Blogs)
- Co-op (Gmail)
- French (SMARTboards)
- Math (SMARTboards)
- Student Services (My Blueprint)
- Library (Blogs)

Since this is a hot topic, please share suggested readings by posting a comment. I recommend Footprints in the Digital Age, an article by Will Richardson that appeared in the November Issue of Educational Leadership.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Six Goals: Antiracist Teaching and Aboriginal Education

Antiracist teaching is a core consideration as we develop Native Studies courses and look at the integration of Aboriginal education into other subjects in Avon Maitland secondary schools. Across the DSB we are offering 11 senior level courses in Native Studies, with the hope of improving awareness of Aboriginal issues, history and culture for all students. Although there is a focus on Aboriginal Education, the responsibility of antiracist teaching does not fall to Native Studies teachers alone. Students will benefit when all teachers incorporate antiracist teaching into their classes.

The key points that emerge from a review of research on antiracist education follow:

1. Move beyond multicultural teaching that teaches kids about diversity, and help students understand social issues through antiracist and anti bias teaching. A favourite exercise for several Avon Maitland Native Studies teachers involves viewing and discussing Jane Elliott’s blueyes/browneyes documentary, available on video from the AMDSB media centre. One brave teacher actually reenacts this exercise with her students. The activity addresses ethnocentric perspectives and internalized oppression. Elliott’s website explains that

Jane Elliott, internationally known teacher [and] diversity trainer . . .
exposes prejudice and bigotry for what it is, an irrational class system based
upon purely arbitrary factors. And if you think this does not apply to you . . .
you are in for a rude awakening.

2. Use examples that incorporate different lenses. Introduce real life current issues into all subject areas, but be careful not to focus on negative news all the time. Kids need to hear about the positive things going on in the world too; otherwise, they will learn to be indifferent in self-defense. Good things are happening somewhere every day and could enlighten kids in a much more powerful way than a steady diet of tragedy and human failure.

3. Deepen Character Education by fostering inquiry and analysis of one’s own values. Move beyond merely telling students about values, but get students to delve into the nuances of the values. Eg. Does fairness mean sameness? Studies show that people with higher moral development have lower levels of racial prejudice.

4. Promote cross cultural group contact. In diverse student populations, this can happen within schools. Teachers in less diverse schools and rural areas may have to explore alternative ways to bring different cultural groups together to learn and share. This is one reason why every Native Studies teacher is trying to incorporate an experience into their course in which the students get to interact with First Nation, Metis, or Inuit kids/adults.

5. Acknowledge that racism exists. Examine issues and offer counter examples of stereotypes. ETFO has plans to publish a new antiracism kit this year; the Human Rights commission also has great resources that are free and very useful.

6. Present knowledge about cultures, racism and power in ways that concern students, in ways that have personal meaning and importance. Native Studies offers plenty of opportunities to address this in a very powerful way. Meeting and sharing with Aboriginal people can help to get past the victim/victor images and help kids to understand the human side of issues.

Take Jane Elliott’s take action survey.

Watch Jane Elliott’s original documentary from 1968.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Helping Teens Talk About Racially Charged Issues

In the weeks following the American election, mainstream media described President Elect, Barack Obama, as African-American, black, biracial and, thanks to Lindsay Lohan, coloured. In classrooms and staffrooms, the election inspired dialogue about these words and about appropriate language. But, in spite of our efforts to provide students with tools for discussing racially charged issues, they aren’t always comfortable having conversations about race.

Real Life Example
Last week my daughter, 15, used the word ‘coloured’ to describe a person she saw in a YouTube video. I was surprised because we don't use that term, and it isn’t something that I expect to hear from my daughter. When I began to question her about her choice of words, she started to cry (which added to the surprise). “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,” she explained through her tears. “Everyone is talking about it at school. It’s so important.”

It = Barack Obama elected President of the United States

In the period of a few seconds, she had exposed her good intentions, her ability to quickly switch focus (YouTube to Barack) and her uncertainty around language. I decided to talk, not just with my daughter, but also with a group of her grade ten friends (how embarrassing).

The Grade Ten Perspective
  • They admit that they aren’t confident when speaking about race and racial issues.

  • They worry that they may use the wrong words or express ‘the wrong’ opinion.

  • They believe (and so do I) that they have positive intentions.

I had to confess to this group of grade tens that many adults feel the same way.

What Do We Do About It?

Long before the pedagogic encounter, the teacher should have set the atmosphere by explaining the rules of engagement and explaining the rules of dialogue.

- Jonathan D. Jansen

According to Jonathan Jansen, who writes about antiracist education in post apartheid South Africa, we need to set parameters for students around the language that they will use during discussions about race and this should happen well in advance of the discussion. Everyone should be clear on the expectations and feel safe to express their thoughts without worrying about judgement. Learning needs to occur through conversation and students won't talk if they don't feel safe or if they feel they are being judged.

In Context

After Lindsay Lohan made her faux pas by referring to Barack Obama as the first coloured president, the NAACP commented that it was no big deal. After all, the NAACP hasn’t changed its name. They remain the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. They argue that the word coloured is antiquated, but it isn’t evil.

It isn't about the words. It’s the intent behind the language that we need to be worried about.

Next: Tips from a Survey of Research on Antiracist Teaching

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Scaffolding Learning: How Does This Apply to Unwritten Curriculum?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to help kids improve their learning skills and build character. There is no written curriculum that provides expectations in this area, although I realize it is embedded in many subjects’ curriculum. This question was on my mind all week, while I attended two seemingly unrelated sessions in the Hamilton area – a Ministry symposium on the expansion of co-op and a workshop on questioning structure. When a common message began to emerge from these sessions, my soupy thoughts became clearer. Scaffold student learning.

Scaffolding is the process by which we layer student learning. The goal is to
build upon what students already know in order to help them learn something they do not know.

At the Ministry symposium on co-op, I discovered that, in an effort to prepare learners for a full co-op placement in grade 11, some schools have developed
experiential learning programs for grade nine and ten students. These are attached to guidance courses (GLE, GLS, GLN and GLD) which couple the explicit and repeated teaching of transferable workplace skills with short workplace experiences. They scaffold co-op.

At the workshop on questioning structure, I learned that in order to build higher order thinking, we need to take students on a cognitive journey through levels of questions. In other words, we need to scaffold our teaching and our questions carefully if we hope to help kids become critical thinkers.

So, it comes down to scaffolding.

The Ontario curriculum builds learning expectations from one course to the next. It also differentiates learning expectations according to students’ pathways.

But what about the unwritten curriculum? What about learning skills and character building? We cannot possibly expect the same things of students' learning skills in each grade and pathway. What does organization look like in grade nine applied, grade nine academic and grade ten applied? And how does this learning build?

When working with leaders’ councils and
inquiry teams, teachers question how to explicitly teach organization, initiative and character traits such as empathy. So how do we build this understanding? How do we build this type of student learning, a type learning that transcends our subjects' boundaries? In my opinion, this is the work of a collective. It requires planned, school-based dialogue and consensus building across the curriculum.

Perhaps you've already begun this process. I don’t think we have one simple answer, so please, share your ideas by commenting on this post.

You can also send me an email at

photo by appratt

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Performance Walls Help Students Improve

I’ve facilitated 21 Inquiry Team meetings over the last month and a half, and during those meetings two instructional strategies are frequently discussed: anchor charts and performance walls. I've explained anchor charts in an earlier post and now, after meeting with the SHDHS Transition Inquiry Group, I have some great examples of performance walls. The group tried this assessment for learning strategy as part of their plan for improving achievement in their applied grade nine classes.

What Are Performance Walls?
A performance wall provides a student with explicit directions for moving any level of performance to the next level and models the standard that we expect students to reach. To develop a performance wall, teachers need to have exemplars for at least two different levels of work. Next, explicit 'how to' steps explaining how to reach the next level should be recorded on strips or arrows. Developing these steps and phrasing them in explicit, student-friendly language is often the most challenging part of creating a performance wall. An example of a next step might be, include an example from the text.

How Do Teachers Use Them?
When the performance wall is introduced to the class, teachers should review with students the steps required to reach the next level. When work is returned to students, the feedback should consist of the same instructions or language used on the performance wall. Then, the students get an opportunity to revise their work. This revision process is explained and modelled by the teacher when the performance wall is introduced.

Improving Metacognition
Essentially, performance walls are an assessment for learning practice that allow students to improve their work by comparing it to exemplars and by following explicit next steps. They help the teacher communicate clear expectations and help students develop the thinking skills required to become evaluators of their own work.

Watch this clip to see a geography teacher explain her performance wall for mapping.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Leaders Councils Plan for December PA Day

I received an email with the subject line, "So Good, We Have to Share". The email praised both the Canadian World Studies Council and the Business Council for their PA Day plans. Student achievement data, curriculum revisions and research-based strategies informed the creation of their agendas for the subject-specific PA Day on December 5th. These planned professional activities also indicate what our teachers are concerned about in terms of student learning.

Based on their analysis of student achievement data, Canadian World Studies (CWS) teachers plan to explore strategies for improving the achievement of boys in applied courses. CWS teachers will also host a session addressing the use of hypothesis in the CWS classroom, a session that stems from Chapter four of Marzano's The Art and Science of Teaching. Their afternoon will focus on technology in the classroom, with a hands-on Web 2.0 workshop and SMARTboard and Arcview (GIS) workshops.

The Business Council is inviting a presenter to speak on business ethics; they will explore business ethics through case studies. In the afternoon, the integration of social issues into their business courses will focus their session, with the goal of making explicit the teaching of character education and social responsibility within their course content.

The Avon Maitland DSB has 14 subject councils and each council consists of a department head or leader from each high school. These councils meet twice per year to share best practices and resources; to brainstorm solutions to problems; to gather information from the board and the Ministry of Education and to plan their subject specific PD day.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Math Teachers Develop Anchor Charts

Avon Maitland Math teachers are using anchor charts to guide students through specific tasks and to reinforce concepts that have been introduced through lessons. Anchor charts provide an explicit framework for student learning and independent work and are used in all subject areas. They help students be successful by explicitly showing them how to reach the expectation. During recent school visits, Math teachers shared their anchor charts and how they are using them.

One Transition Inquiry Group (TIG), developed anchor charts for written communication in grades 8, 9 and 10 Math, elaborating on key terms from the EQAO test, such as explain, compare and describe. (Pictures are also posted below.)

Although the most effective anchor charts are developed with students and can take many forms (t-chart, steps, a diagram), this team decided that part of their chart needed to be pre-created, and the examples would be co-created with students and posted on the classroom wall.

What do AMDSB Math teachers have to say about anchor charts?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dilemmas Help to Focus Inquiry Based PLCs

In our first round of Inquiry Team meetings, teachers identified a dilemma they face in their practice. A dilemma is what I call a ‘bang your head against the wall’ problem with teaching and student learning. A teacher has a dilemma when he thinks, no matter how many times I’ve taught this concept/expectation, I still see a considerable number of students struggling with it.

You aren’t dealing with a dilemma if you know the solution or if you’re on your way to resolving the issue. Most importantly, it isn’t a dilemma if it is about changing someone else. Thus, it isn’t a dilemma if you want the elementary school to better prepare students for your grade 9 course or if you think, my Principal needs to buy me a SMARTboard for this to work. Ultimately, a dilemma needs to be phrased as a How can I question such as, How can I help students learn to provide complete responses to questions and show evidence of higher order thinking? When teachers struggle to distill their dilemma into a concise question, the PLC helps them clarify their thoughts. I have yet to meet a teacher without a dilemma.

Some of the questions teachers posed to their PLCs include:
  • How can I help math students who aren't communicating their thinking?
  • How can I help students learn by bringing more collaborative learning into my classroom?
  • What can I do to improve students’ written responses to questions?
  • How do I get students to initiate and engage in reflective writing?
  • How do I help students learn to add supporting detail to their writing?
  • What can I do to help students reflect on and write details about their coop placements in journals and logs?
  • How can I help students improve their procedural writing in construction technology?
  • How do I get students to complete and use process work to improve their writing?
  • How do I help students improve their use of science-specific vocabulary in written communication?
  • How can I help my students correctly apply the structures they are learning to their writing?
  • How do I get students to improve their lab report writing, specifically their hypothesis and conclusion?
  • How do I, as the SERT, help students transfer their understanding of written structure from one subject to the next?
  • How do I get students to give clear written responses using technical language?
  • How can I get students to provide thoughtful writing that shows they are making connections to historical events?

Our teachers will be focusing their PLC inquiry around these questions. Do any of the questions resonate with you? Which ones? Have you tried any strategies that might be helpful or inspiring?

Professional Learning 2008

This year, each Avon Maitland Secondary School has two teacher learning teams dedicated to developing an open and collaborative practice and to improving student learning. The first team will focus on student writing and consists of teachers from various curriculum areas (WAC - Writing Across the Curriculum). The second team will dedicate their studies to issues that affect student achievement in the transition years. In many schools, these teams consist of grade 8, 9 and 10 teachers (TIG – Transition Inquiry Group). Team members are not required to present their new learning to the whole staff, but may do so if they wish.

Learning Team members will drive their practice deeper and take steps towards building a sharing, collaborative culture by

  • identifying challenges they face when teaching;

  • sharing these challenges within a PLC;

  • using conversation structures (protocols) to focus inquiry and

  • looking for and trying strategies to improve student learning.

Student work, assessments, lesson plans or classroom observations are always on the table and at the heart of the conversations. Like the protocols, these records of practice help to focus dialogue and discussion.

Informed by Teachers
Teachers want more time to work in their buildings, on their own practice, with their own staff. Our 2008 Professional Learning model moves away from the centralized professional development of teachers to a model that provides structure and support to teacher learning and collaboration within schools.

Informed by Research
This model of professional learning stems from the research of
Lynne Hannay, Bob Garmston, Richard DuFour and Rebecca Dufour, Michael Fullan and Richard Elmore.

Across the DSB
As I spend time with the Inquiry Teams, I will share their process, work and photos (with permission, of course) and hopefully, teams will begin to share their strategies and successes.

Next - read about the first round of Inquiry Team meetings.

Why Blog?

When I thought about starting a blog, I believed I would write clever and witty articles to prompt discussion about teaching practice and instructional strategies. After writing my first posts, I realize that I may have to leave clever and witty up to you. I will focus on facilitating networking between inquiry groups, department heads, literacy chairs and anyone else who chooses to join in.

My posts will share ideas from conferences and ministry sessions; they will also share conversations and strategies that emerge from inquiry team, literacy chair and leaders’ council meetings. I hope we break down barriers, not dwell on them. I hope we build on each other’s knowledge and practice, and grow because of our collective intelligence.

I hope you will post.
I hope you will question.
I hope you will share.