Friday, September 30, 2011

Hands-On Minds-On Math! -- Blog #40

Today in my locally developed math class (grade 9 and 10) we had our first monthly auction and it was AWESOME!

Our entire course is based on the life skill of money. Every day the students both earn and spend money, keep tabs of their money and journal about it. Counting money, calculating change and estimating costs have been three skills we have honed this month. We have our own little micro-economy going on!

At the end of each month we have an auction. Most of my items are donated by my twitter follower and for this I sincerely thank a wonderful PLN community.

The money we use is fake but looks like actual Canadian currency and coins. I felt that using monopoly money would not have had the same impact on the learner’s experience. Students earn money by getting to class on time, helping each other, remembering to put up their hands, and during math games we play on the smart board. They also lose money if they are late, misbehave, etc.

Today I had 5 Xbox games sell for prices between $42.00 - $350.00. A student spent $262.00 on a cup of noodles! Students were especially interested in buying items they could give to their mothers or items that would help with their learning, ie. Packages of pencils, ruler with calculator built in, loose leaf!

Even my silent ESL students who I didn’t even know could talk were swept up in the bidding! The Pinoy twins who I thought were mutes got so caught up in the action they started to YELL! The “bad boy” who is on the brink of expulsion spent all of his money on a set of candles to take home to his mom!

One million thanks to our amazing Educational Assistant who makes my life, and that of our students, easier in this class!

Next month I am going to have a videographer in my room to record our auction! Even describing it while I write this blog makes my heart beat faster! This is one of the richest, most authentic learning tasks I have ever shared with my students. I was doubled over with laughter during some of the bidding, it was so intense. I am filled with love and pride at the accomplishments of this class. Just four weeks ago we were working on “How many nickels in a dime!”

If you have any items you wish to donate to future auctions I am happy to receive them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Understanding that Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration are Opposites – a hands On Science Activity Blog Post #39

Teaching a grade nine applied science class photosynthesis and cellular respiration and how these two reactions of life are opposites can be challenging, even when only using word equations. Last week I experienced a Eureka moment when some of my students got it!
Carbon dioxide + water + sun’s energy ® glucose + oxygen

Cellular respiration:
Glucose + oxygen ® carbon dioxide + water + usable energy

We started out simply exploring the word “opposite” which I felt was an essential place to start since 1/3 of my students are not native English speakers, 1/3 have learning disabilities and all this happens during the last period of the day! So we reviewed common opposites, which was much more meaningful than reading a definition of the word “opposite”. I gave each child, in turn; a word and they had to tell me the opposite of the word, ie. Black–white, up–down, in–out, etc. This was easy for most of them and so they were proud of their success and eager to experience more!
We looked at a comparison chart of the two reactions and noted that the reactants of one were the products of the other and vice versa. We also talked about how there are different forms of energy and the fact that the sun’s energy was essential to drive photosynthesis and usable energy was produced by cellular respiration.
We watched a short, simple video explaining the concept. We used the smartboard to look at the word equation with symbols to represent each of the chemicals and types of energy. We moved the reactants and products from one side of one equation to the opposite side of the other equation. We drew a picture and colour coded the chemicals. I even made a cut and paste activity where the students had to physically cut out the appropriate chemicals (there were two of each) and glue them onto a diagram.

Finally it hit me! I enlarged all the terms in both equations, including the plus and yield signs, and printed them out on coloured paper, using a one colour for each part of the photosynthesis equation and a different colour for the cellular respiration.  Each child was given one word or symbol. (The paper that had Sun’s energy on one side had usable energy on the other side. Otherwise all the papers were single sided.)
The students broke into two groups according to the colour of their paper. They were then instructed to line up, holding their signs, so they made the equation for photosynthesis. (The equations were prominently displayed at the front of the room.) 

Next they were told to rearrange themselves into the order of cellular respiration. This process was repeated several times with less and less chaos each time. Eventually a student shouted out, “Everyone stay where you are. The person holding the arrow (yield sign) just has to point it in the other direction!” Eureka! The light bulb moment! Slowly the students started to understand, they explained it to one another while the student holding the arrow kept changing its direction and saying, “Look photosynthesis!” Flipped the arrow. “Now its cellular respiration!” flip the arrow. “Now its photosynthesis again!” flip the arrow. “Now its cellular respiration!”

By this time I was euphoric but exhausted. To consolidate the activity we taped our signs onto the wall. One set read the equation for photosynthesis and the other read the equation for cellular respiration.
Try it! It works!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pass – The – Paper Food Web Activity (Blog Post # 38)

It’s a new school year and I have a new group of students in my grade nine applied science class.  This semester I have this extraordinarily energetic group during the last period of the day. Although they are still “full of beans” when they come to my science lab they are unwilling, or unable to focus on anything for long. If I was expecting them to sit still and copy down notes or work from a textbook we would all be sadly disappointed and more than a little frustrated.

One of the activities I did with the students this week was a Pass – the – Paper Food Web Activity. Prior to engaging the learners in this activity we had already been outside one day to observe the flora and fauna in a local field and constructed food webs from the data we collected, we had done some food web activities on the smart board and we had watched a video about food webs. Thus, the students were familiar with food webs so this was a consolidation strategy.
(It had become apparent during the former activities that many of my students, who are new Canadians, had no idea what the local fauna eat so some just-in-time teaching took place.)
Since the students sit in pairs at tables in my room I assigned them partners who were also their table mate. Each pair numbered off, we had ten pairs of students numbering 1 through 10. The class was instructed that when they heard the words, “Pass the Paper” group one would pass their paper to group two, group two would pass their paper to group three, and so on with group ten passing to group one. 
Each pair was given a large blank sheet to paper and a thick marker. Instructions were all oral. Instructions were as follows:
            “At the bottom center of your paper write down the name of a plant.”
            “Pass the paper.”
            “On the bottom right of the paper you have now, write the name of a plant that is not already written on that paper. (It may be the plant you wrote on the first paper.)”
            “Pass the paper.”
            “At the bottom left of the paper you have now, write the name of a plant.”
            “Pass the paper.”
            “Four inches above the center plant write the name of a local herbivore.”
            “Pass the paper.”
            “To the left of the first herbivore, write the name of another herbivore.”
            “Pass the paper.”
            “On the right hand side of the paper, write one of the following: worm, squirrel or robin.”
            “Pass the paper.”
            “Draw arrows from any of the plants TOWARDS the animals that could eat them.”
            “Pass the paper.”
            “Above the row of herbivores write the name of a top carnivore, which would be found in Ontario!”

            “Pass the paper.”
            “Draw arrows to the top carnivore from any item it might eat.”
            “Pass the paper.”
            “Put down your markers, pick up your pens. Beside each plant write “Producer’”
            “Pass the paper.”
            “Beside each animal that eats plants write ‘First level consumer’.”
            “Pass the paper.”
            “If there is a worm anywhere on your poster write the word ‘Decomposer’.”
            “Pass the paper.”
            “Find the animal(s) on your poster that is not eaten by anything. Label it “Top Carnivore’.”
“Pass the paper.”
Final Instruction: “Find the sheet of paper you started with and put an appropriate heading on it.
Our end products were ten posters of food webs that were created collaboratively. Because each step of the process was open to both small and large group discussion each poster was perfectly correct. As we put the posters up on the wall the students were checking the time and exclaiming, “How did we get to the end of the period already?”, “Why does time always go so fast in this class?” “Are all the periods in this school 75 minutes? It doesn’t seem like it.”
Eureka! Collaborative learning strikes again!

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Evolution of a 21st Century Educator -- post #37

Anyone that is involved in education has heard the phrases “21st century education” and “21st century learners” ad infinitum. I don’t know their origin but these words, and more importantly, their meanings slowly crept up on us during the last decade or so.
There are a wide variety of educational, and other, resources which attempt to define and expand on what 21st century education is, or should be. One of the most succinct and comprehensive is Learning for the 21st Century: A Report and Mile Guide for 21st Century Skills , an American publication from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.              
It is outside of my purpose for writing this blog post to argue for definitions around any of the “21st century . . . “terms. If you are unsure of what I am referring to by these terms, this publication is a good overview of what I understand them to be and I am using this as my standard reference.
This summer I started purging all the paper I have accumulated over my ongoing career as an educator. This included filling recycling boxes with dozens of obsolete Ministry, Board and School publications but much more interesting was the walk-through-time that my own personal binders provided. I have taught many courses over the years; suffice it to say that my binder portfolio included 90% of every science course that ever existed in the province of Ontario along with a smattering of courses from completely unrelated subject areas. Being the type of person I am I have always kept beautifully organized binders for each of these courses, and the more times I taught the course the bigger and more numerous the binders became.
So here is what I observed as I purged through my personal binders. At the beginning of my career I used a lot of material that I photocopied from other educators. These included worksheets, projects, assignments, and even tests. The notes for the students were long and detailed, I would write them word by word onto the blackboard and they would sometimes spend entire periods copying them down. In fact, I remember the advice of my mentor, a master-teacher, gave me during my first year teaching when I had a particularly unruly class, “Just keep them copying out notes all period and they won’t have time to cause any trouble.” Now, I am horrified to think that I actually took this advice and relished in its effectiveness!
Over time the work in my binders became more and more my own. Beautifully designed and produced worksheets, text book activities and lab assignments. All the labs were strictly “cookbook” labs with the purpose, safety, materials, procedure all precisely laid out step-by-careful-step. Observation tables and questions were purposely designed to keep the student tightly focused on the task, analysis and discussion questions flowed one from the other and the conclusion was not even always present! Oh, how magnificent these labs were! The preparation for them, although time consuming, was a very exact affair and I would often leave my classroom at night with everything methodically set up for the next day’s lab -- exactly the right number of beakers, and other required equipment laid out next to my carefully measured and prepared solutions of which I would have neither too much nor too little because I knew exactly what would happen during the upcoming lab.
Do not think, dear reader, that I was alone in my anal ways of teaching high school science. My techniques were widely admired and my resources eagerly sought after by colleagues both near and far. I was well respected for never asking the students a question whose answer could not be found on a specific page of our current text book, for integrating literacy and numeracy throughout my curriculum (before it was cool) by the use of teacher guided practice, for running carefully controlled labs whose outcome was never in doubt and which never took longer than the allotted time. Oh yes! I would proudly share my work with anyone that was interested and even gave workshops and made presentations highlighting my wonderful skills. Imagine how flattered I was when publishers took an interest in my magnificence!
But that was then and this in now. As I continued purging my beautiful binders I could see how my teaching had gradually shifted over time. Some of the change was prompted by the powers that be but most of it was in direct response to what worked and what didn’t work, a little thing we like to call “personal reflection” in the teaching field. Lessons that at one time worked like a well oiled machine had to be tweeked as the nature of the learner changed. Rather than stress myself out because the students no longer carefully read the cookbook lab prior to doing it, sketched out the equipment set up and even answered the analysis questions prior to lab day it was much easier to meet them where they were.
At the time I would have described my evolution as “choosing my battles”, after all one has a finite amount of energy, but in retrospect I see it now as being respectful of who the learners were and what worked for them. Gradually I learned to release control yet facilitate the learning occurring. As the years passed, my binders became less dictatorial and more loosey-goosey. Instead of going from day one to day ninety with rigid lesson plans for each and every day they started to reflect the unit we were working on the “big ideas” that we needed to cover on a weekly basis.
My classroom labs changed from being teacher-directed and controlled as well. Over time I started producing lab handouts with less and less detail filled in thereby allowing the students the opportunity to think about what we were doing. I did, however, keep control of what the lab purpose was; but I expected them to do more of the design, observations and analysis themselves.
Luckily for my students, as the 21st century progressed I became familiar with the Smarter Science way of teaching science. This approach is strictly inquiry based with the students not only designing and conducting the labs themselves but also coming up with the purpose, or question. Through brainstorming the students generate a list of questions that they are wondering about. Then, they answer the ones they can through research. Due to having 21st technology in the classroom this research component can be incredibly quick, even as short as five minutes, depending on what the questions are and what strategy the teacher employs. No more booking the library, searching through vertical files, card catalogs and encyclopedias for this generation! Instant access to quality information is the order of the day. The advent of the Internet has truly been a game changer in our quest for knowledge.
After finding the answers they can by research, the students are now left with maybe one or two outstanding questions. Following the Smarter Science framework and 21st century educational philosophy it is time for them to design their lab investigations to answer the questions they are wondering about. This means they have already established a purpose for doing the lab.
Developing hypotheses often flow from a combination of knowledge acquired during their self directed research and ensuing lively classroom discussions. The teachable moment here is the concept that all hypotheses are acceptable, proving them right or wrong is the point of the lab investigation. Literacy is also naturally built in as the teacher demonstrates the correct method of wording a hypothesis. Since each student “owns” their hypothesis they want to learn how to state it correctly, there is nothing rote or boring about it.
In my binders, which I am now thinking about as historical archives, I actually had activities where I gave the students the crux of the hypothesis and they had to phrase it correctly and even worse than that, labs with the hypothesis given! No wonder there wasn’t any critical thinking happening in their poor little minds.
Once the students have determined for themselves why they are doing the lab (purpose) and what they think the outcome will be (hypothesis) all that  is left for them to do is the fun stuff –design, perform and analyze the lab. This is where it is essential that the teacher is an expert in their field because they are the ones ultimately responsible for the safety of their students. They must ensure that nothing the students propose could potentially cause any harm. They must also be prepared to advise student on various techniques in a just-in-time teaching manner. This means that we teach the technique when the student needs to use it, not when it is on the next page of the text book.
In my binders I had an entire lesson plan with the objective of learning to use a graduated cylinder! I used overheads to show a picture of a meniscus and distributed worksheets with diagrams of graduated cylinders for the students to read the volume level. No actual graduated cylinder was ever in play! I am so embarrassed! And this was a lesson plan I really liked and shared widely!
As I conclude this blog post the recycle truck is actually rolling up my street. Three recycle boxes full to over flowing are being heaved over the side of the truck; all my 20th century teacher “gold” is being hauled away. It was fun while it lasted but nothing compares to the excitement of teaching the 21st century way! I wonder what great discoveries my students will make this year, and in the years to come?