Capitalize On Failure To Maximize Learning

fail.Most successful people have gone through at least one experience that they would deem a failure. Before Harry Potter launched J.K. Rowling into the stratosphere of the rich and famous, she stated that “by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.” She faced career setbacks, personal hurdles and a very large pile of rejection letters. She’s not the only one. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple long before he became its billionaire CEO. Einstein struggled with speaking clearly until the age of 9. Oprah was fired by a producer who deemed her unfit for television, and Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor who told him that he lacked imagination.

It shouldn’t surprise us to hear that those who achieved great success overcame great adversity. The world is filled with these stories. Outside of our classrooms, these failures are viewed as opportunities and cherished as valuable learning moments.

This reality exists for our students as well. Millions of young people embrace failure as part of their learning and engage in repeated practice until they successfully learn a new skill. Tom Chadfield’s Ted Talk 7 Ways Video Games Engage The Brain speaks to the fact that the built in reward schedule and progression of difficulties in video games is designed so that players enjoy working through a series of progressively more difficult tasks. In games, failure is temporary, multiple attempts are rewarded and success is often only a matter of time. When gaming, students often exhibit the growth mindset absent in our classrooms. This is because video games are designed so that failure is a necessary component of play whereas our school system has taught students that failure is an end in itself.  

If we want students to embrace failure as a tool for learning, than it needs to be embedded into everything we do in our classroom. Failure needs to be an expectation just like literacy and numeracy. It needs to be taught as a normal part of the learning process.  

Establishing a culture that values failure can be immensely challenging for teachers. We all teach in climates where standardized tests are omnipresent and 6-8 week reporting cycles race towards us at warp speed. We struggle with new curriculums often with limited (if any) time for collaborative planning while also struggling to support our students social, emotional and academic needs. It is a lot.  However, despite these valid concerns, there are still things that we can do in our classroom to incorporate and embrace failure.

In the last few years, I have started my classes by telling my students that I have failed far more as a teacher than I have succeeded. However, as a teacher, I get to try again. Many times these failures have made me a far better teacher.

Often, students don’t get that. For them, assessments and tests are one and done. So how do we change that?

If a student fails a test or an assessment, shift your focus to viewing this as an opportunity for learning. Conference with the student and give them an opportunity to showcase their learning. A colleague I work with, Darren Abenstein, orally conferences with students who struggle on written assessments. This allows him to assess their thinking skills apart from their written communication skills. This is important. It flips the assessment so that it is designed to find out what students have learned versus focusing on what they haven’t. It also allows him to tap into their learning while identifying specific areas that they need support in. Alternatively, I know some Math teachers who use tests as a starting basis for assessment. Tests are marked and returned to students. Then students are given a specified amount of time to correct their mistakes and write out or create a video explaining what they learned from the correction process. Both tools are used to determine a student’s final mark on the test.

Another tool to consider is student-teacher negotiated assessment marking. This requires a bit more careful time and planning and the ability to have courageous conversations. In student-teacher negotiated marking, both the student and the teacher separately mark the student’s assignment using the same assessment tool (i.e. a rubric). Afterwards, the teacher and the student meet to explain their rationale behind the mark they assigned. Through conversation, probing questions and reflection the teacher and student strive to achieve an agreed upon mark. I tried this in my Grade 12 Politics class and was extremely nervous about this process. However, prior to doing this, I had built a rapport with the class, established norms for challenging conversations and practiced both peer and self assessment. Despite this, it was uncomfortable to give up some of my ‘teacher control’ and enter assessment as a co-learner. What surprised me the most was how detailed the student’s feedback was for their own mark. Oftentimes, it was a couple of pages and they were often far more critical than me. Part way through the process, I realized that this marking exercise was incredibly worthwhile if for no other reason than that my students were looking at their work through a reflective metacognitive lens that helped them to understand their own achievements better.

More than anything, as educators we need to make failure a mindful experience for our students. Where possible, it shouldn’t be the end to their learning but a starting point to a deeper conversation about how to move their learning forward. A failed test or assessment should never be returned without a student-teacher conversation attached to it. We may not all be ready to gamify our classrooms yet, but we can create learning environments that facilitate multiple opportunities for learning, provide real time feedback and values failure as a necessary tool for authentic learning. If we teach students to view failure as a necessary component of learning than we can remove much of the fear that inhibits authentic learning in our classrooms. 

Why It Pays To Teach About The Olympics

Even if you’re not a sports enthusiast, the Olympics are an incredibly powerful tool for engaging your students in real world learning opportunities.

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It’s A Treasure Trove Of History

In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Jesse Owens won four gold medals: 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4 X 100 meters. This would be an historically impressive feat on its own, but even more so as Adolf Hitler was in power and white supremacy was dominating the NAZI party controlled propaganda machine. Who can forget the People’s Radios? If you were an Aryan German citizen, you received a free radio so that you could listen to the government’s message at all hours of the day. Jesse Owens success directly attacked and dismantled this white supremacist messaging, and this played out on People’s Radios across the nation.  Not only did Jesse Owens defeat German athletes in one sport, he defeated them in four. No, unfortunately, this didn’t change the horrific history that unfolded, but Jesse Owens did show not only Germany, but also the world, that he was a living example that their racist ideologies were wrong. Other events that you can look at in class, are the 1968 Black Power Salute, the Boycott by African Nations in 1976, women being allowed to participate for the first time in 1900 and the kidnapping of Israeli athletes in 1972. Exploring the significance of the historical and political issues that led to these events at the Olympics are excellent tools for exploring cause and consequence as well as historical significance.  One idea is to ask students to identify the five most historically significant events that have taken place at the Olympics, identify their root causes and explore the impact that these events still have today.

Growth Mindset

When people embrace growth mindset, they believe that their abilities can be improved through dedication and hard work. They view failures as opportunities for improvement, and learn from their mistakes to improve themselves. Olympic athletes are living embodiments of growth mindset.

No Olympic athlete makes it to the Olympics without failing and literally falling a number of times along their journey. Not only that, but even competing in the Olympics requires recognition that you are probably not going to win. Very few Olympic athletes actually achieve gold medals, but they compete anyway. Olympic Athletes put their heart and soul into their performance and achieve physical feats that many of us wouldn’t believe possible. These physical feats are not just examples of impressive athleticism, they require prodigious mental strength. Tapping into the brain-training secrets of Olympic Athletes in our classroom not only provides students with powerful examples of achievement via growth mindset, but also helps them map out their own tools for personal achievement. Check out this article by Carolyn Gregoire The Brain-Secrets of Olympic Athletes for a few ideas that you can incorporate in your classroom today.

Female Athletes Are Celebrated

In Western society, male athletes dominate the sports on our televisions and social media feeds. Over the years, I have learned that the female athletes I teach are acutely aware of this. In Grade 10 History, when I ask students to select their Heritage Fair topic, I always have a couple female athletes who choose to look at women in sports. One of the underlying takeaways from those presentations is that these athletes want to see themselves represented in sport. The Olympics offers women that. All of a sudden, news broadcasters, mainstream television and social media feeds are praising female athletes. As a Canadian sports enthusiast, I was glued to the Canadian Women’s first hockey game. However, I wasn’t the only one. The game was trending on Twitter and filling up my Instagram feed. As teachers, we should take this moment to celebrate female athleticism in our class. It can also be used as a great tool for discussion: Why do we care about female athletes in the Olympics but ignore them the rest of the time? Can this be changed? How? You get the idea – it is an opportunity to both celebrate female athleticism and encourage your students to think about how they can challenge the societal norms that normally exclude them. Check out: 7 Historic Feminist Olympic Movements, Because Female Athletes Have Always Slayed and/or Key Dates In The History Of Women In The Olympics.           

The Olympics Are Politically Relevant

The Olympics are political. The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have barely begun and Russia has been excluded, North Korea and South Korea walked in together for the first time since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and athletes like Gus Kenworthy are using their fame to advocate for the LGBTQ community. Even without this, propaganda and the Olympics have always gone hand in hand. This lens can be explored in the classroom to help students understand current societal and political issues. Check out:  The Olympics Have Always Been Political.

The Olympics Need To Change

The Olympics are also expensive and environmentally damaging. It is estimated that South Korea is spending 13 billion to host the Winter Olympics. Although South Korea engaged in many environmentally sustainable initiatives this year, most experts believe that the environmental cost of the Olympics is devastating. The question becomes: Are the Olympics sustainable? Students could research and create a costs and gains analysis of continuing the Olympics. They could then work in teams to design an alternative, less expensive and more sustainable format for the Olympics. They would not only be looking at current economic, social and environmental issues but be working together collaboratively in teams to create a real world solution.

They are relevant to your students

Even if you’re not watching the Olympics, many of your students are. They are talking about it with their friends and family. If you give them a chance to bring what they are doing outside of your classroom into the learning environment, I guarantee that you will see an increased level of engagement. Engaged students are more likely to learn, interact and critically think about what you are presenting them.  Its time to start talking about the Olympics in your classroom.

 

The Time For Courageous Conversations In The Classroom Is Now

Educators have to engage in courageous conversations in our classrooms. Teaching is a political profession. Our students look to us to help them understand the complex issues they hear about in the news or via social media. The reality is that it is all too easy for us to look the other way.  

Tackling these conversations in our classrooms requires courage. Sometimes it may mean going against the leadership of your school who prefer that you leave ‘that topic’ out of your classroom. It means being prepared to hear a range of opinions from your classes that may fundamentally differ from your own. It requires you as an educator to get uncomfortable, to make your students uncomfortable and to realize that discomfort is a necessary prelude to discourse and change.

I am definitely not an expert on having difficult conversations, but I wanted to share with you some of my experiences, resources and strategies for tackling courageous conversations in the classroom.

  1. It is important to discuss explicit and implicit biases with staff and students and recognize that we are not immune.

We all have biases. So do our students. Our beliefs and values are products of our socialization. We need to recognize this before change can occur. The video series Who, Me? Biased from the New York Times effectively examines how our implicit biases impact our actions. Each video is only about 2 minutes long and could be used at a staff meeting and/or in the classroom as a discussion prompt for looking at our own biases. Another activity is to have students reflect on their own political socialization. I recently had my Grade 12 Politics students create a reflective piece examining their political socialization. Some students recognized that many of their beliefs are shaped by their family/social media and that they themselves know little about the issues. The point is to get students thinking about their thinking (metacognition), and reflecting on how we are influenced to believe what we believe. Teachers/Admin need to do this as well.

  1.         We have to build a climate in our classroom for courageous conversations.

When Trump first proposed his immigration ban, I tried to discuss this topic in my classroom. I had a number of articles, resources, quotes, videos, etc, that I had stayed up late curating. I was nervous, but I felt prepared. I wasn’t. My class became extremely emotionally charged and divided. I had to stop the lesson, apologize to my class and tell them that we would revisit this topic. I think this happens to a lot of us. We plan to tackle a difficult issue, we lose control of the class and we decide to walk away from it. However, I wasn’t prepared to walk away.

I went home that night and worked on a presentation on how to have Difficult Conversations. We also looked at the Oatmeal Comic The BackFire Effect. We then practiced having courageous conversations with some historical topics. Later, we revisited Trump’s immigration ban and were able to tackle the issues as a class together courageously.

This year in my Politics class, I reused my presentation on Difficult Conversations but I turned to a lesson plan from Facing History to help me tackle issues of race in my classroom and create a contract for courageous conversations. Before discussing Charlottesville, we looked at our own biases, practiced how to have difficult conversations and created a contract for courageous conversations in the classroom. You can see the overview of this lesson here in:  After Charlottesville adapted from the lesson plan: Lesson: After Charlottesville and the Fight Against Bigotry.

  1. There are certain issues we need to address explicitly. Our goal as educators is to teach students how to think not what to think. We want our students to be critical and creative thinkers. This can make us uncomfortable to share our beliefs with our students. There are many times when teachers should keep their opinions to themselves and try to facilitate a conversation that reflects/values differing viewpoints. However, there are times as teachers where we have to be worried about the dangerous middle ground. Sometimes there is no middle ground. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, prejudice and discrimination are wrong and have to be called out by teachers in the classroom. We need to talk about why the middle ground that we are often taught to value can sometimes be dangerous and perilous. We need to stand up for human rights – otherwise all of our courageous conversations are little more than empty words.

 

Teacher-Teacher Relationships Matter

When I first starting blogging in June, I didn’t know how important it would become to me. It is hard for me to always put what I am thinking into words, and writing has been a tremendous release for me. I took the last 2 ½ weeks off from blogging because I finished my Masters and wanted to fully devote time to my family, friends and recharge a bit before September. My first ever blog post was about the importance of student-teacher relationships. However, as we head into a new school year I wanted to write about the importance of relationships with other educators.

In my last blog post, I shared a curated Google Doc inspired by Melinda D. Anderson’s hashtag on Twitter #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. I started curating these resources because I didn’t want the great ideas that I witnessed being shared across Twitter to be lost. I shared the Google Doc on Twitter thinking that a few people would be interested, and instead the Google Doc collected over 19 pages of resources. It is difficult to put into words how much this impacted me. I experienced first hand the power of collaboration and I felt overwhelmingly connected to other educators who like me were using part of their summer to find, curate and share anti-racist resources, because they recognized that protecting our students was our first priority. It reminded me how lucky I am to work with people who commit their lives to educating others.

As teachers, we don’t just teach curriculum, we support students through social-emotional issues and sometimes we make a connection with a student and discover that we are one of the few caring adults they have in their lives. This is overwhelming, immensely rewarding and sometimes incredibly stressful. Our job is hard – it is wonderful, I truly feel that this is what I was meant to do, but it is hard. If it is hard for us, then that means that it is hard for our colleagues as well.

Student-teacher relationships are incredibly important, but as educators we also need to reflect on how we treat and talk about our colleagues.

First, be kind to yourself. I have never ended a teaching year and thought to myself, “Well, that was a perfect year.” You are going to make mistakes. You are going to have a kid you didn’t reach and beat yourself up about it later. You are going to deliver a sub-par lesson a few times throughout the year. You are human. You are flawed. You are enough.

My fifth year of teaching, I left on the last day of school and cried in my car pretty much the whole way home. That year had been extremely hard for me personally, and I felt like I had failed my students professionally. I was angry at myself, frustrated and saddened by what I had achieved in my classroom that year. I thought about quitting teaching. I wanted to quit teaching. I was tired.

At the time, my Department Head invited me to meet up with her later. She didn’t give me a hard time for all the mistakes I had made that year, and there were many. Instead, she told me that my bad days were still pretty good, and that next year I had a clean slate. She told me that I was only human, and that sometimes life gets in the way of who we want to be in our classroom. She gave me the courage and support to teach again.

This may not seem like much. But she could have done something very different.

Too often, I have been to Professional Development sessions or see Tweets on Twitter that begin by disparaging teachers. Sometimes this is posting their Syllabus on Twitter and ripping it to part as outdated for all to share and retweet and comment on. Other times, it is idle chatter in the hallway or discussions in the staff room. At times, I am guilty of this.

Now, I firmly believe that we should definitely be critical of teaching and teaching practices when we are focused on improvement. I don’t believe it does anyone any good to close the blinds and just pretend that everything is lollypops and rainbows in the education system. Also, I want to make it clear, if a teacher is harming a student, you have an obligation to speak up. You have to.

However, if one of our colleagues is struggling and feeling overwhelmed then we should offer help, support and share resources/ideas as opposed to disparaging them.  If they are struggling, we should see what we can do to help them as opposed to making their job harder.

I am so fortunate to work with the people that I do. They are my colleagues and my friends. They support me through the good and the bad, and I value their insights, creativity and friendship. Most of all, I know that the people in my department truly put the welfare of kids first everyday and want to support their students. We don’t always agree, but I never doubt their commitment. They love their students and they want to support them just like I do. The teachers I work with and the students I teach make my work meaningful. Without the support of my colleagues, I would feel lost.

Professional Learning Network’s (PLN’s) on Social Media are extremely powerful. However, we all need to work at building our own PLN within our schools as well. This job can feel very isolating and places like Twitter can offer solace and help for that, which is wonderful. However, there is nothing better than a face-to-face relationship with a supportive colleague. 

 

We Can’t Be Silent

Most of my blogs are about instructional strategies, lesson ideas or useful educational tools. I try to keep my blogs helpful and filled with practical real-life examples that you can start using immediately.

However, the reality is that the most important part of our job as educators does not involve instructional strategies or the latest educational technology. The heart of teaching is relationships. Our job before anything else is to love, protect and fight for all of our students.

The violent, Neo-Nazi, white supremacist rally that took place this past weekend showed us that this alt-right populist movement isn’t going away, and is growing in numbers and violence. Please read the blog: My Fellow White Americans – Blog.

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In response to the events, Melinda D. Anderson (@mdawriter on Twitter), contributing writer for The Atlantic created the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum on Twitter to collect resources devoted to antiracist education. Today, I became inspired by her hashtag to create a shared Google Doc that curates the antiracist educational resources being shared (with her permission). It is completely editable, and anyone who has the link can add resources. The purpose of this is to support and curate resources for educators engaged in anti-racist teaching. Here is the link to the Google Doc: Charlottesville.  This Google Doc has been shared on Twitter and Facebook, and many educators are contributing very insightful and helpful resources. I hope you will consider sharing and adding  your voice. We can’t be silent on these issues if we want to love and protect our students.

 

 

 

Make Assessment Meaningful And Empowering

Assessments requiring sophisticated student responses such as writing assignments, debates and/or presentations are recognized for fostering critical thinking and problem solving skills.  However, faced with large class sizes, teachers are overwhelmed by the marking these types of assignments require.  12225331274_fdeb7d98c4_b.jpg

A high school teacher often teaches up to 100 students per semester. If this teacher assigns 100 essays, and spends only 5 minutes per paper this creates 8 hours of additional work. Also, who can mark an essay in 5 minutes?!?!

However, this traditional marking system creates several other issues. Research shows that students learn best from assessment when they receive timely and relevant feedback.  One teacher marking 100 assessments takes a long time and feedback becomes less meaningful as time passes. I also find that the quality of my teaching goes down when I am overloaded with marking. It is difficult to create and execute engaging lessons when you are drowning in paperwork.  Another problem is that students only see their own work.  Seeing and critiquing peers’ work is said to promote deeper analyses of the student’s own work, and leads to better quality work, yet this rarely happens.

I would love to embrace the gradeless movement, but as a high school teacher grades count heavily towards their post-secondary acceptance. Here, in Canada, it seems like the GPA needed for most post-secondary programs is continually rising putting added pressure on our students (but that is a post for another day). Although we can’t eliminate grades in high school, we can provide assessment opportunities that offer our students rich, meaningful feedback. Not everything should be graded, and formative feedback needs to guide our teaching and assessment practices. 

Ultimately, I believe three tools hold the answer to making marking meaningful and manageable: peer assessment, self assessment and assessment of conversations.

Peer Assessment

Peer feedback allows assessments to be marked simultaneously resulting in feedback that saves teachers time and provides students with descriptive feedback in a more timely manner. Assessing other students work is also believed to be connected to improving a student’s understanding of their own work. The assessment process becomes transparent helping students understand how their own work is assessed and graded. This shifts the power dynamic in the classroom so that students have a voice and are equal partners in their own learning.

It is important that peer assessment is confidential. This can be done by assigning random numbers to student work or using an online marking system like Peergrade. The Peergrade system is an online tool that is customizable by the instructor. This allows instructors to make peer assessments confidential. It has the additional feature of providing immediate real time feedback to students while also giving them time to reflect on this feedback. Teachers can create rubrics or use rubrics and lesson plans already designed by the Peergrade team. Teachers can also decide how many students will assess each student’s work. Educators can also see the student’s work before, during and after feedback to see how the work has progressed over time. Also, this tool is free for teachers to use.

Self Assessment

Self-Assessment involves students evaluating their learning progress. Through self-assessment, students apply metacognitive skills to evaluate strengths and gaps in their learning. This can help students in goal-setting, tracking their learning progress and making critical decisions about what areas they need to work on. Personally I have found that self-assessment is most effective when students co-construct the rubric with the teacher. This often results in more student-friendly assessment criteria that is easier for the student to apply. I usually have my students write a max 250 word response explaining their self assessment. One thing I am hoping to try this year, thanks to the suggestion of a colleague, Zack Teitel, is to try out self-assessment as self-marking. Students self-assess their work, provide a detailed reason for their assessment and give themselves a mark. Then, I would look to see if I agree with their assessment or not. If I don’t, then I would have a conversation with the student explaining my viewpoint and the student could explain theirs, and we could decide together what grade they should receive. This again shifts the traditional power dynamic by giving the student a voice. Here is a link to a Google Form Learning Skills Survey that I use for self-assessment of learning skills (designed by my amazing husband jeffboulton.ca)

Conversations

Often our classrooms have very rich conversations that don’t get assessed or ‘count’ for marks. I personally do not think that we should ever ‘mark’ students without telling them or allowing them to prepare. However, I do think that unstructured conversations offer rich assessment tools that we often overlook. In my blog Build A Student-Centred Classroom By Maximizing Student Voice I discussed a number of tools that could be used to promote conversation in the classroom (i.e. fishbowl debates, Socratic Dialogues, Newspaper headlines, etc.). All of these types of conversations can be used as assessments providing that you discuss this with students ahead of time. Here is a link to a Conversation Tracking  sheet that we designed for our Grade 10 History students. I also like using this as a Google Form as I can quickly track it on my IPAD, Computer or phone.

Effectively using peer assessment, self assessment and conversations can transform our classrooms. Before using any of these, it is important that we use assessment criteria with our students and practice using it together. Ultimately, these tools empower students by giving them a voice in their learning and empowering them with the tools they need to succeed.

References

Paré, D., & Joordens, S. (2008). Peering into large lectures: examining peer and expert mark agreement using peerScholar, an online peer assessment tool. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning,24(6), 526-540. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2008.00290.x

Sadler, P., & Good, E. (2006). The Impact of Self- and Peer-Grading on Student Learning. Educational Assessment,11(1), 1-31. doi:10.1207/s15326977ea1101_1

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). Cell Biology Education,13(2), 159-166. doi:10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054

@ZackTeitel Twitter

 

Yes! Genius Hour Can Work In A High School Classroom.

Genius Hour 2My passion for Genius Hour started last summer. I learned of it earlier, but it wasn’t until I came across resources created and curated by A.J. Juliani, Joy Kirr and Gallit Zvi that I became truly inspired.

However, despite my inspiration, I was concerned. Many of the resources that I uncovered focused on its use in elementary schools. Could Genius Hour work in a high school classroom? I wanted to bring 20% Time, Passion Projects and Genius Hour to my classroom, but what would that look like?

What is Genius Hour?

If you’re not familiar with Genius Hour, it is a project inspired by Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s Montessori School Experience. Every Google employee spends 20% of their time working on projects that are of interest to them. By 2009, 50% of all Google products, including Gmail, emerged during this 20% time. Similarly, these types of projects have worked wonders for students in the classroom. If you are interested in learning more about the steps that I used in this project, please check out my Genius Hour presentation created for an EdTech conference. Also, here is the link to the Genius Hour Website assignment that I created (including rubrics). In this blog, I focus on how Genius Hour can be achieved in a high school classroom, and what I learned from the experience. 

Bringing Genius Hour to the High School Classroom

Do not expect a standing ovation when you introduce the idea

When I first introduced Genius Hour the reaction was mixed. Some students rushed to talk to me about it immediately after class – brimming with ideas. Others were very nervous about the freedom. Still others were concerned about writing blogs and/or creating vlogs for a public audience.

However, what struck me most was that many of my students stated this was the first time they had been asked what they wanted to learn in school. These were students in Grade 12 (17-18 years old). Some were excited and some were scared. Yet, I truly believed that this project could empower my students and give them ownership over their own learning. I told them this and promised to help them every step of the way, and this alleviated a lot of concerns.

Rethink the Role of Student and Teacher in your Classroom

My students engaged in a lot of projects that I knew little about. At times, this made me uneasy. I truly became the guide on the side. I was not the ‘expert’ in the class. The students were the ‘experts’ and they were teaching me, while I assisted them in their inquiry process. I had to learn to give up control. This project wasn’t about me, it was about them.

Focus on Process not Product

I spent a lot of time on process as opposed to product. This included – creating essential questions, an elevator pitch and blogs/vlogs. I concentrated on research and inquiry skills as well as tips for oral and written communication. I did not spend time on product. All of their products were different, and there was no way I could teach 30 different product styles – nor should I. One of my students built a car (after researching the evolution of cars and technology over time), another built a model of the Blue Mosque, still another created a website supporting women in the Arts and another created a documentary on the history of Witchcraft, whereas another did a murder mystery. I focused on teaching them ‘how to think, not what to think’, and the results were incredible.

Think of this project as a road trip not a destination

If you’ve ever been on a great road trip, you know the best parts are usually the detours. This is the same thing with Genius Hour. My students created an essential question and presented their elevator pitch to the class, but their projects often changed along the way. They were very nervous about this, “Ms, is it okay that I want to change my focus?” My answer was always, “Yes.” This was a passion driven project and it evolved along with their learning. Allowing them this freedom required me to take a step back, and I am so glad that I did.

This Is NOT the Solution to all of your teaching problems

I experienced increased engagement, more critical thinking, student centred learning and closer relationships with my students.  However, this project did not run perfectly. Joy Kirr wrote once on twitter that with Genius Hour you can expect about 80/20 results. I would say in my class that I generally experienced this. Most of my students fell in love with their projects – even if they were hesitant in the beginning. Others struggled with the freedom. They really wanted to ‘get the right answer’ or ‘meet my expectations.’ In the future, I hope to more effectively address these fears in my classroom. Like the students, I am learning and hopefully improving as I go.

You might actually ENJOY MARKING & BE EXCITED to go to class

Like most teachers, a stack of essays to mark is not my idea of a fun weekend. However, with Genius Hour, I was honestly excited to read what my students were creating. I looked forward to their blogs/vlogs and enjoyed commenting on each one. Every student’s project was different, personal and engaging. I became a student in my own classroom. I was excited to go to class. I looked forward to discussing their work with them. My questions were genuine – I truly wanted to know what they discovered.

Overall, Genius Hour was an incredible experience for me. I am continually brainstorming ways to use it in my other classes. This experience taught me that as high school teachers we need to stop putting limits on what we think is appropriate for the high school classroom. Our goal is to empower our students, and we should use every tool in our toolbox to achieve this purpose. If we want our students to take risks in our classroom – we need to model this ourselves. 

Suggested resources for further reading: 

Launch

The Genius Hour Guidebook

Shift This

Build A Student-Centred Classroom By Maximizing Student Voice

As educators it is important that we focus on maximizing student voice. According to Edgar Dale’s Learning Pyramid, we learn very little of what we hear, read or see, but retain 50% of what we discuss, 75% of what we practice and 90% of what we teach others.  Although this has proven to be an oversimplification of learning – the message holds true. Students need to actively engage and interact with the material to learn. Learning Pyramid .png

Critical conversations teach students how to develop well thought out responses and arguments supported with specific evidence. They facilitate collaboration and can effectively build community in the classroom. When done properly, they create student-centred classrooms and empower student voice. As such, it is important that we learn and incorporate instructional strategies that maximize conversations in our classroom. Here are a few that I find useful:

Fishbowl Conversations

I set this up with four desks in the middle of the classroom, and arrange the remaining chairs in a circle around those desks. I put a bowl of papers in the middle that contain the questions or topics of the discussion. I also include a bowl of gummy worms – the bait – for the students who participate in the Fishbowl. I begin with four volunteers who select a question from the bowl and begin discussing. During the discussion, the other students are watching, listening and taking notes. If at any time, another student wants to replace a student in the centre they tap on the student’s back and they switch places. From my experience, Fishbowl conversations tend to work best for controversial topics or topics that students are familiar with and/or passionate about. You want students on the outside of the circle to want to come into the discussion. In order to do that you have to frame your questions in an engaging manner. Source:  Teaching History: Fishbowl

Socratic Dialogue

Before the day of the Socratic Dialogue, students will read an article, watch a video or engage in critical research on a particular topic. The teacher will provide the students with questions or themes to explore. Another option is to ask the students themselves to come up with three critical questions on the assigned task. On the day of the Socratic Dialogue, the students sit in a circle. The first time that I do this, I act as the moderator to model, but by the second Socratic Dialogue a student should be acting as the moderator.

I would generally suggest that the teacher chooses a moderator who is comfortable speaking in front of the class. From there, the moderator will lead the class discussion. The moderator is responsible for ensuring that all students get a chance to speak, that the conversation is respectful and on task.  During the dialogue, the students will discuss and debate in turn. If it is a large class, you can have the students form two circles. The inner circle will engage in the Socratic Dialogue, and the outer circle will watch, take notes and they can pass questions to the students in front of them. When done correctly, the teacher should be observing, taking notes on student conversations, but not verbally participating.  Source: A History Teaching Toolbox  

Use Technology

Technology provides a wonderful tool for conversations. Many – myself included – prefer texting to speaking on the phone, and you can use this type of conversation in your classroom.  You can run a twitter chat for your class on a particular topic. This could be particularly beneficial if you have already set up a class twitter page and have some followers. For example, you could invite an outside expert to moderate a class twitter chat. Similarly, you can also use Google Classroom for an online class discussion or tools like poll everywhere and padlet as classroom brainstorming tools or exit cards. Likewise, blogging when done effectively, can be a great tool for students to share and respond to each other’s ideas. Similarly, you can have your students take on a role and engage in a SnapChat or Facebook chat in character. These online conversations may be particularly advantageous to your more introverted students.

Increase Wait Time

A simple but effective strategy to get more students talking is to increase wait time. When you ask a question to the class and hear silence, it is easy for the teacher to rush to fill that dead air. Instead, get comfortable in the silence. Give students the time to think about what you have asked. Ask them to engage in a think-pair-share or write down their thoughts on the question, before opening it up to a full class discussion.

Conversation Prompts: Newspaper Headlines or Photos

Post a number of different newspaper headlines around the classroom. Get the students to choose one that they think is interesting and discuss in pairs or groups what they think it may be about. You can do this same activity with photos around the classroom. Ask them to look for evidence in the headline or photo that can tell them what the article is about? What do they know? What questions do they still have? 

Post-Its

Provide the class with three-five questions. Post each question at a different point in the room. Then distribute Post-Its to the students. Have each student write down their response to the question on a Post-It and paste it under each of the questions. Afterwards have the students walk around the classroom and discuss the answers that they see.

Give Students Choice

Choices give students a sense of control, purpose and ownership over their own learning. You can give them a choice board where they are asked to discuss one of the topics on the board. Or you can give them a choice in the format of their discussion. Maybe some students want to talk about it in small groups whereas others want to do so on Twitter. Sometimes the format of the discussion may matter to you, but when it doesn’t than allowing students ownership over how they communicate can be a powerful tool to facilitate greater participation in your classroom.

Let Students Play

In my last blog, Practical strategies to engage students and increase critical thinking through play I outlined strategies to promote play in your classroom. When we play, we engage in material deeply, negotiate rules of communication and work together collaboratively to achieve a particular goal. Role plays, simulations and games can be great tools for enhancing and empowering student conversations in your classroom.

Overall, when we design our lessons it is important that we think about what the students will be doing. How will they be actively involved in their own learning? This may require some creative thinking, but it will arguably result in a much richer learning experience.

 

Practical Strategies to engage students and increase critical thinking through play

FranklinTechnology Auctions

Have you ever been to an auction?  I haven’t, but I have watched pretend ones on TV and that was enough to make me believe that I could run one in my classroom. When my students walk into my class to learn about different technologies, I am dressed in a full suit with a bow tie – my version of an Auctioneer costume – ready to auction off technologies. I have two types of Technology Auctions that I run.

The Secret Auction

The students are not told what types of technology they will be bidding on, or how many items there are but only that they are allowed to purchase three and each item has a secret point system attached to it that will be revealed at the end. When I reveal the points at the end, the students can either accept my results or try to prove me wrong. I have never had a group accept my results yet. Instead, the teams start researching everything they can find on the technology to prove me wrong whereas the winning team is out to prove me right. Its madness, and so much fun! During the auction, I am speaking at a ridiculously fast pace as I believe an auctioneer would be jumping all over the place managing the bids and then afterwards, the students are recording all of the new information in spreadsheets or on the whiteboard.

Technology in World War One Auction.

The Prepared Auction

I tell the students that we will be having an auction in class tomorrow. I break them up into their groups, give them the rules of the auction and a list of the items that they could possibly bid on. I then give them the class to research the items, identify their strengths and weaknesses and come up with a list of items that they want to get – ranking them from most important to least important. The next day, the madness of the auction begins and after the technology has been distributed students have to explain why their purchases are superior to another teams.

Both are fun, both are effective, both are loud and noisy, and both require a teacher willing to make a fool of herself. Either way, they leave after having a lot of fun and learning a lot more about the evolution of technology and its impact on whatever time period in history we are looking at.

QR Code Treasure Hunts

This is an idea that I adopted from Russel Tarr’s book A History Teaching Toolbox. Place QR codes all around the school with questions/clues that you want the students to answer.  Make sure that each group has access to a Smartphone with a QR code reader, and then send them off around the school on the treasure hunt. As they solve each question, they should get a clue that leads them closer to finding the ‘treasure’.  You can have them submit their answer in a Google form and then have the ‘clue’ revealed in the answer spot. QR Code Generator

Socratic Soccer or Capture the Flag Socratic Soccer

I adapted this idea from B’s Book Love.  One way of doing this is that you take a marker and you draw questions on the soccer ball that you want the student to answer. When the student has the ball kicked to them or thrown to them, they have to pick a question on the ball to answer. Another way of doing this is my own version of Capture the Flag Socratic Soccer. Take your students outside to the field with a soccer ball, create two teams or if it is a large class create four and have two separate games going. Have four or five posts that each team has to get before they can get to the final post and capture the team’s flag. At each post, the team has to answer a question, solve a puzzle, etc. If they are successful they continue. If they lose the ball is stolen from them, and it is the other team’s turn. When they are not at a particular point, the game carries on like a regular game of soccer, students can steal the ball from each other, etc. However, when at a point, they have to stop the game and listen to the answer. The other team also wants to hear the question and answer, because if the team gets it wrong than they may have a chance at it in the future.  It is chaos, but is a lot of fun.  This is a great review game or introductory activity.

Simulations/Mock Trials

I have had incredible luck in my teaching career with simulations and role plays. A few that I do include: A Congress of Vienna (adapted from Yale University), The Trial of Louis XVI, Town hall during the Great Depression, Model United Nations and many different Mock Trials.    These simulations require students to take on different roles, engage in research, critical thinking and argue in character for their position. My students love it, and take their roles very seriously. They end up doing far more research than I would have ever asked them to do, and I often end up learning way more on the topic from them. I also wear a judge’s room and have a gavel that I use when the debates get too lively. My Grade 10 History and West and the World Website have links to the assignments. I will be changing these sites over to new Google Sites, but right now all of the simulations are there.

Bring in the Arts

I am not an artist. However, I draw for my students all the time. I draw planes that kind of look like sick penguins. Also, when I teach about dances from the past, I like to bust a move in front of the class. They laugh, they remember, they appreciate that I am willing to be silly in front of them – it works. However, some of our students are incredibly talented. I am talking unbelievably, take my breathe away, leave me in awe talented, and they love to show it off. Give the students whiteboard markers or window markers and let them create a mind map on the windows, ask them to make a song on a particular topic, give them play doh or lego and see what they build. Have them work in pairs or groups, make the only criteria be that it has to be collaborative and teach the class something about what we are learning, and then let them run free! They’ll have fun, so will you and they get to showcase their talents while teaching others.

Balloon Debates

This is taken directly from Rusel Tarr’s A History Teaching Toolbox. I haven’t adapted it or changed it in the slightest – this is all his brilliance. Basically, a balloon debate begins with the premise that a hot air balloon in which we are all in is losing height rapidly, and will soon crash. Each student is given a character that they have to research for and come up with arguments for why their character should stay in the balloon. The students will go up in groups of four and only present the positives of their character. At the end of all four presentations, the students will vote on one person to keep in the hot air balloon. After all of the groups of four have presented, the class has a set of finalists. Now, those people who were with the finalist but were eliminated become their teammate and seek to find out negatives on the remaining character. When the finalists present in front of the class, the finalist and their team point out reasons why other characters should be eliminated from the balloon. In the end, only one person is left standing in the balloon.  

Games

There is a great website called Gaming the Past that links to online games that you can explore for you use in your classroom. You can also consider incorporating games that the students may already by playing such as Civilizations and/or Minecraft. Just make sure that you try out all of the games before, make sure they are class appropriate,  have clear learning goals in mind and design something to accompany the game whether it be questions or a quest that you want the students to solve at the end of the game.

Escape Rooms/Breakout Edu/Digital Breakouts

Escape rooms have become extremely popular. Basically, people are locked into a room and they have to work together collaboratively to get out.  I haven’t tried this yet in my classroom, but this is definitely on my list for fall. This article How to Create an Escape Room Your Students Will Love  outlines the steps this teacher took to create an Escape Room for her students. You can also checkout Breakout Edu which sends you a kit and games that your class can engage in to break open a box. Probably what I am most excited about, is Digital-Breakout EDU they provide games and templates that you can use to create your own online Breakout game. I like the idea of this because you can create a digital game for groups of four to work on through Google forms and other online tools. This is great because it is free, easily accessible and easily changeable when things go wrong or you want to change things for next year.  I looked online, but I haven’t found any for Canadian History, so I am hoping to use this template to create one for the Cold War and Igor Gouzenko’s discovery of a spy ring in Canada.

Have your students create a game

Instead of creating a review game for your classes, make this a student assignment. Break the students into groups of four and have them design a game for other students. Give the students a class to play the games and provide each other with feedback. Then keep a copy of some of the games to use in your classes. 

 

 

What Gamification Can Reveal About Learning

If you read my other blog posts, you may notice that I write about the importance of play a lot. I have to be honest, I didn’t always recognize or value how important play was for learning. Then I had kids.

I am the mother of two young boys, both under four.  When they hit about two, they started to engage in unstructured play. I watched them negotiate the rules of play, solve puzzles or create – as they did today- a boat with blankets, pillows, one of my shirts, a chair, some canned goods and a rope.

As an educator, I was struck by all the learning I was witnessing and knew that I didn’t always see this in my classroom. Or if I am being honest, I rarely saw this same type of engagement in my classrooms. As such, I became very interested in the power of play and its impact on learning.

Gamification employs characteristics typically affiliated with video games and uses them to engage people in different learning activities. 

Five things happen in play that educators often seek, but struggle to achieve, in their own classrooms: motivation, collaboration, higher order thinking skills, improved problem solving skills and perspective taking.

Motivation

Games tap into both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.  Most games involve a community of players that work together to achieve a particular goal. This type of collaboration facilitates a student’s sense of belonging and safety. In game play, students are faced with complex tasks that are divided into smaller, more manageable challenges and as they achieve success at different complex levels they develop feelings of esteem that motivates them to take on more challenging learning tasks.  Finally, gaming is fun. The 61 billion dollars recorded in digital gaming sales illustrates that people enjoy playing games.  This is because games make otherwise tedious exercises engaging and enjoyable.

Collaboration

Collaborative learning occurs when students work together interdependently to achieve a common goal.  Digital game players are heavily reliant on one another as they need each other’s strengths and expertise to achieve a certain level or meet a particular goal. Minecraft is extremely popular with more than 100 million users. It has often been referred to as virtual lego – you work with others to build amazing things.  The creators of Minecraft have also released Minecraftedu. A version of Minecraft specifically designed to be used by classroom teachers. Minecraftedu allows teachers to create and manage classes inside Minecraft for a variety of different subject areas. Teachers are given access to templates created by teachers for teachers  specifically designed to facilitate collaboration, design and decision-making skills.

Higher Order Thinking Skills

Gamification is linked to improved critical thinking skills. A study conducted by Steinkuehler (2011) looked at the reading abilities of teenage boys and found that they were able to read above reading level during game play while scoring two years below grade level on traditional standardized tests. These findings point not to an issue with literacy, but to an issue with student engagement and the impact that disengagement can have on a student’s academic achievement. Similarly, the Computer Science Department at North Carolina State University created a digital game called Crystal Island to look at gaming and learning. This game requires students to work together to stop a disease from spreading by using investigation skills, making reasoned hypotheses and applying deductive reasoning skills.  The study revealed that students who played Crystal Island increased their scientific content knowledge far more than those who learned the same material traditionally. The study also found that low achievers were more comfortable and persistent in using trial and error to achieve their aims then they were in traditional assessments.

Improved Problem Solving Skills

Regular digital game play has been linked to increased brain matter, excellent multitasking skills, fluid intelligence required for problem solving and the ability to work together collaboratively.  Video games have also been shown to improve spatial awareness and/or map reading. In some games, students achieve flow. This is a psychological state where the individual is completely immersed in the task at hand and this focus contributes to improved performance.

Perspective Taking

In the Peacemaker game students make real life decisions as either Israel or Palestine to respond to real world events. Cuhadar and Kampf (2014) conducted a cross-national experiment looking at the use of Peacemaker among Turkish, American, Israeli-Jewish and Israeli-Palestinian University students. All groups were required to play the game from both Israel’s and Palestine’s perspective. 147 students participated in the study. The study was used to assess how games like Peacemaker can influence perspective taking. Both American and Turkish students entered the game with a particular bias. In general American students were pro-Israel and Turkish students were pro-Palestine. This noticeably shifted after their participation in Peacemaker, as both American and Turkish students recognized the legitimacy of arguments raised by both Israel and Palestine after playing Peacemaker. Conversely, Israeli-Jewish and Israeli-Palestinian participants did not change their perspective after game-play. The study also revealed that all participants gained deeper knowledge of the conflict. Although, this simulation was not transformative for all participants it does provide positive insights into how these types of simulations can be used to educate and help students engage in peaceful conflict resolution. Similarly, having third parties gain a more impartial attitude, by breaking down misinformation is important. Overall, these types of simulations engage students in investigation, problem solving and decision making skills.

Final Thoughts

Gamification motivates students, encourages critical thinking, resilience and collaboration.  As Chatfield (2010) argues, gamers build worlds that tick the evolutionary boxes that our brains need to engage in learning.  The principles that guide gaming and have led to the popularity of games, like Minecraft, can help to improve our teaching practices. We can look at these principles to create simulations and play-based activities in our classrooms that engage and support student learning.

Interested in starting Gamification in your classroom check out these great tools/blogs below:

9 Awesome Gamification Examples in the Classroom

12 Examples of Gamification in the Classroom

Class Craft

Beyond Badges: Why Gamify?

Gamification Co blog

Also check out this video that looks at the brain science behind gaming:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyamsZXXF2w

References

Callaghan, N. (2016). Investigating the role of minecraft in educational learning environments. Educational Media International, 53(4), 244-260. doi:10.1080/09523987.2016.1254877

Chatfield, T. (2010, November 01) Retrieved March, 2017, from

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyamsZXXF2w

Cuhadar, E., & Kampf, R. (2014). Learning about conflict and negotiations through computer simulations: The case of PeaceMaker1. International Studies Perspectives, 15(4), 509-524. doi:10.1111/insp.12076

Creativeme.co. (2015). Minecraft edu: About Minecraft Edu. Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.creativeme.co/index.php/minecraft-edu?id=231

Dakers, J. (2005). Technology Education as Solo Activity or Socially Constructed Learning. International Journal of Technology and Design Education Int J Technol Des Educ, 15(1), 73-89.

DiChristopher, T. (2016, January 27). Digital gaming sales hit record $61B: Report. Retrieved April 03, 2017, from http://www.cnbc.com/2016/01/26/digital-gaming-sales-hit-record-61-billion-in-2015-report.html

Ferriman, J. (2014). Why you should not use gamification? Retrieved March 2017, from https://www.learndash.com/why-you-should-not-use-gamification/

Gilakjani, A. P., Leong, L. M., & Ismail, H. N. (2013). Teachers’ Use of Technology and Constructivism. IJMECS International Journal of Modern Education and Computer Science, 5(4), 49-63.

Junco, R. (2014, April 28). Beyond ‘Screen Time:’ What Minecraft Teaches Kids. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/04/beyond-screen-time-what-a-good-game-like-minecraft-teaches-kids/361261/

Klopfer, E., Osterweil, S., Salen, K. (2009). Moving Learning Games Forward: Obstacles, Opportunities and Openness. The Education Arcade. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

http://education.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/MovingLearningGamesForward_EdArcade.pdf

Lastowka, G. (2011). Minecraft as Web 2.0: Amateur creativity & digital games. Retrieved March 2017, from http://ssrn.com/abstract=1939241

Lynch, M. (2016) Can Gamification Help Struggling Students? Retrieved April 03, 2017, from http://www.thetechedvocate.org/can-gamification-help-struggling-students/?utm_source=ReviveOldPost&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=ReviveOldPost

Richter, G., Raban, D. R., & Rafaeli, S. (2014). Studying Gamification: The Effect of Rewards and Incentives on Motivation. Gamification in Education and Business,21-46. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-10208-5_2

Romero, Margarida., Usart, Mireia., Ott, Michela., and Earp, Jeffrey, “Learning Through Playing For or Against Each Other? Promoting Collaborative Learning in Digital Game Based Learning” (2012). ECIS 2012 Proceedings. Paper 93. http://aisel.aisnet.org/ecis2012/93

 

Zaino, J. (2013, July 22). The Pros and Cons of Gamification in the Classroom. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://www.edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2013/07/pros-and-cons-gamification-classroom

 

Zichermann, G. (2011). How games make kids smarter. Retrieved March, 2017, from https://www.ted.com/talks/gabe_zichermann_how_games_make_kids_smarter