Can you make a 3D map of Canada? Constructionist vs. Instructionist Strategies

This post is also posted here.

I’ve been teaching grade 9 Geography for over 15 years now and when I say 15 years, multiply that by two semesters and multiply that by at least two sections each semester. So many, many times. I’ve never been happy with how my “Landform Regions of Canada” lessons have turned out. I don’t know why but it’s very difficult for the students to connect their theoretical learning with pictures. I have tried graphic organizers with notes from the textbook, slide shows with many pictures, picture books and art from each landscape, videos, webquests, starting from the geological history, starting from issues based in each region, starting from national parks in each region, students presenting different regions/ecozone to the class. I wish I could take all the students on a cross-country drive so they can see it for themselves so I’ve been looking for a good VR experience (if you know of one, PLEASE let me know!).

Then there are the philosophy shifts. They need to know every region→ They only need to know that you can make regions based on different physical and human characteristics→ They can learn about one region in depth to understand interrelationships of land and people→ By doing an inquiry situated in one region, they will learn all the human and physical characteristics of the region and develop geographic thinking skills of spatial significance and interrelationships (depending on the issue)→ They need to know every region.

But isn’t that the beauty of teaching? We design learning experiences for our students, try them out, gather data through conversations, observations and products, reflect on how effective the learning experience was and redesign for the next course. In addition, what works for one group of students might not work with the next.

This big buildup is to introduce my newest iteration of Landform Regions of Canada. This time, I decided to take a constructionist approach.

  • We started with the learning goals and how they connect with the course overarching learning goals.
  • I discussed the learning theory of constructionism with the students.
  • Then students were put into small groups and each student was assigned two landform regions to research. This was a strategy to foster increased positive interdependence of the group members. Each student’s research was required for the group to be successful.
  • The groups were given a tiled map of Canada to assemble like a puzzle (from Canadian Geographic). I printed the document with four pages per letter size sheet and when completed, the map was about the size of chart paper.
  • The students were then required to create a 3D map of the landforms, vegetation and population distribution of Canada. This was facilitated by all the “low tech” makerspace supplies I have gathered including such items as plasticine, popsicle sticks, left over game pieces, styrofoam balls, fabric, tissue paper, Legos, Mechanics, blocks and all sorts of other craft supplies.
  • What followed over the week was a lot of discussion and negotiation in the groups. Trial and error. My student teacher and I conferenced with the groups every day, asking probing questions about how they were going to represent each feature. Whole class discussions occurred about the importance of a legend, if many groups missed a feature and when they started putting too many people in the arctic, for example.

  • Once the maps were done, we created a peer assessment Google Form with about 20 “look fors” for the map and “two stars and a wish.” Each student filled this out individually, not as a group, for three different maps→ meaning they read through the look fors once as a class while we made it, then at least three more times during peer assessment.

  • The Google Form was used with DocAppender which pushed the answers from filling out the form to a specific student’s assessment document. Students read all the feedback they were given by their peers, then completed a self-assessment Google Form, also pushed to their personal document.

  • This was followed by a Kahoot quiz on the Landform Regions. Unfortunately we ran out of time to do the full quiz, so we will do another one on Monday or I might do a formal quiz. We will develop the success criteria for the learning goals together.
  • Eventually, the students will post their assessment document, a picture of the map and a reflection on their achievement of the learning goals in Sesame.

I don’t know yet if this constructionist strategy was successful. My gut feeling is that it has to be better since the students have touched the regions with their hands. They discussed, often passionately, how to represent each feature. Students co-constructed and used a list of look fors which are the main features of Canada’s landscape and population distribution. They literally constructed a map with four layers on it (provinces and territories, landform regions, vegetation regions and population density) so I am sure that they will understand GIS mapping concepts easier when I introduce digital mapping next week.

As a bonus, it was fun!

Reflections on my first year in a “gradeless” or feedback-focussed classroom

This is cross-posted on our group blog: THROWING OUT GRADES TO ENHANCE LEARNING: FEEDBACK-FOCUSED EVALUATION

We have now had two weeks of school and the rhythm is returning. Clubs and teams are up and running and classes are even going on their first field trips. It’s amazing how quickly everyone gets into the swing of things. However, I have been taking it pretty slowly in my classes. This is partially because all the “official documents” that I need to give the students are still not complete and partially because I don’t want to overwhelm students with the whole gradeless, feedback-focused, place-based and inquiry-based program all at once.

I ran my grade 9, Issues in Canadian Geography, classes as gradeless last year. Essentially, the whole course was inquiry-based and we used five overarching learning goals that followed the inquiry cycle and that were organized into a learning map. Students completed guided and then open inquiries based on the curriculum. I consulted with students as they moved through the inquiry cycle and gave verbal and some written feedback (usually through Google Forms and docappender). Each overarching learning goal was described by success criteria. Near mid-term reports, students created a digital portfolio with artifacts showing growth and highest achievement of the success criteria and then used the learning map rubric to determine a grade. We had an individual portfolio conference where we discussed their achievement and negotiated their grade. The same thing occurred near the end of the course, which determined their 70% term work grade. An individual inquiry project, also evaluated using the success criteria of the overarching learning goals, was completed for the 30% final evaluation.

Some positive outcomes of my first year of gradeless classroom:

  • Students learned about Canadian issues through inquiry. 
  • Many authentic action projects to make Canada a more sustainable place to live were designed and some were enacted in the local community, with social media campaigns or with submissions to local and federal governments. 
  • After the first few weeks, once they started to experience feedback-focussed assessment, students did not ask what activities were “worth” or if it was being marked. 
  • This led to risk-taking and “thinking big” because students were not afraid to fail. 
  • Students were self-motivated and nearly all students completed all their work. 
  • We honoured the process of learning, not just the end result. All parts of the inquiry cycle were assessed, not just the final product. 
  • I became more and more convinced that feedback-focussed assessment was good for my classroom. I was quite shy to tell anyone what I was doing at the beginning (although I had very supportive admin and none of the parents complained). By the end of the year, I started sharing more.

Some not-so-great outcomes of my first year of gradeless classroom:

  • I tried many different documentation tools during the last two semesters. Nothing really worked to my satisfaction. I had many assessments for the students but since they were not entered in a “markbook,” were not quantified, but in text or were verbal, and were all over the place (Google Docs, Google Classroom, emails, etc.), it was difficult to get an overall snapshot of how a student was doing except after the first portfolio interview. This is too late. 
  • Although, during the second semester, students reflected more about how they demonstrated the success criteria, I still need to help the students to learn more about self-assessment and goal setting and what the success criteria mean–what do they look like. 
  • There wasn’t enough individual accountability during group inquiries.
  • The creation of a digital portfolio (the way we did it, anyway) was too onerous on the students. All inquiries had to stop for at least a week to accomplish this. A few students did not complete their portfolio in time for us to have a conference before the mid-term report. Frankly, assessing all the portfolios at once, especially at the end of the year, was quite onerous on me, as well. 
  • Not all students did inquiries that lead to learning of all the overall expectations of the course. The open nature of how I allowed students to pick issues and to explore them in depth was not conducive with breadth. 

There were many more successes and setbacks, but these are the main ones. So how to move forward? There are two main changes I am making for this semester. The first is to add an overarching learning goal that is about “content” of the curriculum. Last year I had the content of the curriculum mixed in with the inquiry cycle learning goals. I still think this is valid because we do not learn “knowledge” in isolation when doing inquiry-based learning. However, it was difficult to assess or track. The “content overarching learning goal” will hopefully increase my ability to balance depth and breadth of curriculum learning.

The second change is that I am using Sesame as a documentation and feedback tool instead of digital portfolios. I am hoping that this will allow me to get a snapshot, at any time, of what each student has completed (where they are in the inquiry cycle, how well they have met the success criteria, and which overall expectations they have learned). Also, all the feedback and assessment will be in one place and students will be in charge of documenting their learning and reflecting on this learning. Parents will also be able to access the program.

Some of the other issues I encountered in a gradeless classroom are part of our TLLP project learning goals–such as how to teach students to reflect on the success criteria, how to give effective feedback that moves learning forward, and how to make the whole process more time and energy efficient for the teacher and students. What a great opportunity we have to be supported through this learning journey with release time to collaboratively build knowledge and skills. I would like to leave off my first TLLP blog post with this tweet that really sums up why I am a Teacher Throwing Out Grades (TTOG). Hence our hashtag: #TTOGTLLP

100 days project blog hop

It’s been three weeks since I completed #the100dayproject where I took a picture or video during a walk and posted them on Instagram (with the hashtag #100daysofwalking). Thousands of other people created their own projects, each one a personal challenge. My project was not as daunting as those who created their own drawings or paintings, but it was certainly a commitment for me. Many of my posts were from late evening when I realized it was almost dark and I still had not been on a walk. It forced me to get outside and at least walk around the block.

Looking back at my posts, the ones I like the most are, predictably, from BC while on vacation and those I took on walks not in my neighbourhood. I was running out of inspiration along the sidewalks near my home. I joked, near the end, that everyone must be tired of all the flower pictures. Fittingly, my last post was of a lone daisy poking through the cedar trees and fence of a catwalk in the neighbourhood.

I had pretty much stopped walking when my dog passed away almost three years ago. Walking by myself was so lonely and I am not organized enough to set up walking dates with friends. So my camera became my walking partner and I knew that I would be able to share my walk later with Instagram friends and 100 days partners. I’m not walking everyday now, but I am walking regularly and no longer feel lonely.

I enjoyed connecting with new people completing their own 100 day project on Instagram. It is amazing what people can do. However, having partners in this project was essential to my success. Without their encouragement and camaraderie, I would not have completed it. They inspired me with their talent and openness and still do.

Please check out their blog posts on the 100 day project below:
Tina Zita at Miss Kit Kat
Debbie Axiak at Debbie Axiak’s Blog
Natalie at Happy Hour Book Club
Jim at Jim’s Music Blog

High fives

I don’t think I’ve ever given a student high fives for completing a worksheet. However, we did lots of celebrating today when my Grade 9 Vocational Science students not only completed their deep space models, but also created an Educreations video podcast that explained the parts of the model and reflected on the challenge.

We started the unit with a brief inquiry on, “What makes a star a star?” (modified from here in the Investigation Pack.)  Each student was given a story and fact sheet about a visiting a specific type of star and they were asked to make note of the star’s characteristics (size, colour, temperature, etc.). After sharing, the group was supposed to make a list of properties of a star. Although the students read and learned about their star, they were reluctant to share with their group, so we completed the activity as a whole class.  Then we looked at a black hole and determined that it was not a star.

Next the students watched a video on the different types of space features, chose one to model and made teams. After researching the characteristics of the space feature in library books and on the internet, they made a sketch of their model and a list of materials needed.

Several periods of model building followed. I found that the students seemed skeptical at first–and more than a little frustrated–and had a hard time envisioning how to create the model. I was worried that they couldn’t do it, but I had read about enough teachers’ experiences with project-based learning to keep moving forward. I showed space videos for about 15 minutes of every class to focus on the features.

When I showed the students the craft materials I bought from the dollar store (glitter, plastic gems, wire mesh, metal scrubbies, sparkly ribbon, pipe cleaners, etc.), I could see the light bulbs going off. I wish I could post all the students’ models, but here is a sampling.

Once the models were finished, the groups answered questions on their model and the creation process, created scripts from their answers, took pictures of the model and put it all together in an Educreations “podcast.”

Pinwheel Galaxy

Life Cycle of a Star

In conversations with students, I was surprised to hear how much the they knew about their feature–the minute details of the big bang, the swirling clouds of gas around a black hole and the deadly gases trapped in the dust and ice of a comet. I saw all the students engaged and on task.

Glitter. It makes everything better!

Letting go of the worksheet–letting the students shine

What does 21st Century learning mean to you? That is the question for our  #peel21st community “blog hop.” Check out my response below then hop on over to someone else’s site listed at the bottom of this post.

A few weeks ago, I overheard one of my vocational students say, “This class drains me.” I knew how she felt. Frankly, I never want to create or mark another worksheet.

Cartoon artist sketch
Photo Credit: Evan via Compfight

Worksheets = control + carrot + stick

I jumped in with both feet when I returned to the classroom this fall in my academic classes—passion projects, inquiries, social media and lots of tech tools. It’s been fun and very challenging. However, I was scared to try student-centred learning with my needier students that are less predictable or motivated.

“Just do it!” I told myself. So we recently started an inquiry on stars followed by learning by creating models of galaxies and other deep-space features. We definitely need to work on community norms and teamwork, but I already see more light in their eyes and smiles on their faces. I’ll never go back to worksheets.

Check out these other #peel21st bloggers:

Jim Cash @cashjim
Greg Pearson @vptechnodork
Phil Young @_PhilYoung
James Nunes @jameseliasnunes
Donald Campbell @libramlad
Ken Dewar @Bestbefore2030
Graham Whisen @grahamwhisen
Sean Coroza @SRCoroza
Lynn Filliter @assessmentgeek
Debbie Axiak @DebbieAxiak
Josh Crozier @Mr_Crozier
Alicia Quennell @AliciaQuennell
Jonathan So @MrSoClassroom
Jim Blackwood @jimmyblackwood
Jason Richea @jrichea
Tina Zita @tina_zita
Sean Broda @MrSeanBroda
Heather Lye @MsHLye
Engy Boutros @mrsboutros
George Couros @gcouros

 

Let’s stop fighting about which LMS is best

Since I am finishing my 3 years in the Instructional Technology Resource Teacher role, I’ve had several people ask me lately which Learning Management System (LMS) I will be using when I go back to the classroom in September. The choices are many–Desire2Learn (D2L), Google Apps for Education (GAFE), Office 365, Edmodo and blogging platforms to name a few. There’s also been a lot of talk about each system in my online network in the last few weeks, mostly due to the OTRK12 conference and Google Summit.

Frankly, I’ve been pretty disappointed in the tone of these online conversations. The tone is: “If you are not using ________, you’re not as smart as me.” Or better yet: “You’re just a sheep.” It doesn’t really matter which system, they all have their evangelists.

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