Friday, 21 November 2014

Inquiry Topics Motivate Discussion

We just had the most incredible experience in the ECC. I led the first lesson in the year long inquiry project. This lesson is all about asking the students to think about what they would like to learn about. I asked them, if you could spend your time doing anything, what would you do? If you could learn about anything at all, what would you choose? What are you passionate about in life?

Students wrote their ideas about their 'burning passions' down on paper, and then they were asked to login to our shared online moodle site and post their 'burning passions' to the online forum. They were very enthusiastic and the excitement in the room was fantastic!

But the most incredible part of the lesson was yet to come. We have spent two weeks learning about paper blogging (see Pernille Ripp's post on this for more information!), or, for us, paper moodling (meaning I adapted the paper blogging lessons to fit our moodle site). Students have been practicing 'highway' comments, or comments that continue the conversation by asking questions or making connections to what others have said, as opposed to 'dead end' comments which end the conversation.

I asked students to read through other student replies to see if they had any connections or questions and to make at least one 'highway' comment to try to start a conversation with one of their classmates. I also mentioned that maybe, just maybe, they might find another student interested in the topic and that perhaps you could talk about learning together.

I expected most to comment and then most of those to reply back, meaning I estimated high at 120 posts in the forum after about 30 minutes. I'm usually pretty good at predicting things like that, but not this time!

I was absolutely amazed to see that after 30 minutes, posts were still flying in. Student 'burning passion' replies were much more than I expected. And student 'highway' comments were everywhere! In less than 45 minutes, we had over 250 student replies on the forum!

In all the years I've been teaching, I've never seen anything like that. I was beyond speechless and completely thrilled!

Once again, the inquiry project inspired and motivated students and worked as a context in which to teach something important, in this case, how to have a productive learning conversation online.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Back to School...Finally!

Well, it's been quite a school start up here in BC this year. Last night the majority of teachers in the province voted to ratify a tentative deal between teachers and the employer. That meant that today, finally, after lockouts, job action and weeks of picket duty, teachers went to work to set up classrooms for students on Monday.

So much to do in so little time, but that's okay! I'm happy to be going back to work in the ECC.

What's ahead for the ECC this year? Well, we are starting out with the same teaching team that we ended with last year. Mrs. Patterson is once again teaching a grade 5/6/7 split in Cache Creek, Ms Marlow has a grade 4/5 split in Ashcroft, Mr. Lewis has switched to a grade 6/7 class in Lytton and I return to the first grade I ever taught - grade 7! - here in Lillooet. It's great to have an existing, experienced team in place and ready to go!

In the spring, the team had decided to go with the theme of Myths, Legends and Folklore for our first set of Online Literature Circles. No specific dates in place for when we start with that, but I can't wait to meet with the team and see what books and stories they found to go with that theme. I have two really good novels that I can't wait to share. Both are available on audiobook CDs so we can put our eight iPods to good use again this year!!

Because of the grade changes, I'm going to shift the focus for my digital photography lessons. In the past, I've focused on the Elements of Design (line, texture, shape, colour, etc.) from the Visual Arts curriculum but as most students have already been in the ECC and had those lessons, and as they are older and the curriculum shifts a bit with age, I think I'd like to focus on the Principles of Design (balance, contrast, emphasis, harmony, etc.) to begin with. These concepts are more difficult to grasp, but I think that by doing one concept per lesson per week that the students will do well. I know that the group I have in my classroom are particularly skilled visually - many very artistic kids! - so I'm looking forward to seeing what they can do!!

One other really cool, new thing that the teacher team is doing this year is engaging in a collaborative teacher inquiry.  This year, the team is using teacher inquiry to look at how to use technology to deepen meaningful connections between students in different schools with a focus on peer learning. This inquiry is based on the notion of the ECC as a learning community and the desire to grow from current successes. I spent some time going through my Masters coursework on teacher inquiry and action research and I think that, as a team, we can engage in some very meaningful and powerful learning to improve our practice and improve student learning in the ECC. More to come!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Spring Learning Highlights in the ECC

This spring, the ECC has been a busy place full of energetic learners of all ages. Here are some of our highlights from the last couple of months:

Writing - Special Grown-Ups

One highlight that seems to be a stand-out for students in my room is a set of two writing lessons by Ms Marlow. The first lesson started with a beautiful story about a mother and child and then students participated in a planning activity meant to evoke details about a special grown-up in the child's life. 

The power of this activity was evident when, during an Elder's and Family Tea in my classroom, one student shared her piece of writing about her deceased grandfather. The hush that comes over a crowd moved with emotion spread like a blanket over the 50 or so people in the room that day. It is a beautiful piece of writing and this student, like many others, will be proud of that piece of writing for a long time to come.

Science - Environmental Science

For many students, the most memorable learning in Science with Mr. Lewis this spring has to be the lesson about the green and blue frog. Students have been learning through scientific inquiry all year and recently Mr. Lewis has been using Smarter Science as a framework for lessons.

The lesson on the green and blue frog was focused around a seemingly simple photograph prompt. Students made observations, asked questions and then wrote and shared inferences about the photograph. I was impressed with the quality of their ideas and surprised at how insightful many students were - I should know better by now, but kids never cease to amaze me! At the end of the lesson, the discussion turned to the frog life cycle and how this frog spent some of it's early years in polluted water resulting in a permanent change in the colouring of it's skin. Serious discussion about the effects of pollution ensued and left a lasting impression.

Photoshop - Happiness Imagery

The focus of my lessons this spring was editing and altering digital imagery using Photoshop Elements 11. By this point in the year, students have a bank of their own amazing photographs and they are skilled at creating and critiquing images using specific knowledge learned throughout the first part of the year. The shift in learning from simply taking photographs to uploading and editing/altering those photographs using software is subtle yet profound. Students love using Photoshop. It is instant engagement and students are surprisingly skilled at using software with only the most basic of how-to lessons. I've learned the best thing to do is introduce Photoshop, demonstrate a bit, and then let the kids have the time to figure it out on their own and teach one another if needed. They are quick to learn!!

The highlight has to be the Happiness Imagery for a few reasons. Students were asked to create an image that communicated the idea of happiness. We brainstormed what those images might include (a lovely list of ideas that included rainbows, smiling faces and puppies!) and then students were given time to create. The ability to create a image using digital technologies is an important piece to the larger learning goal of visual literacy.

While many students jumped into the assignment and quickly created their imagery, one of our classes struggled. When it came time to share, they didn't have any images to share out that week (which is fine - depending on each individual class schedules sometimes one class is ahead or behind the rest of the group). Interestingly, after seeing about a dozen Happiness Images shared from three sites, the teacher in the fourth site reported that the students went crazy and quickly completed an assignment that they had previously been stumped on. It seems that all they needed in the end was a little more time and, as the song goes, "a little help" from their friends. 

Gathering at CCES - Geocaching!!

I'm quite sure that the number one highlight for most in the ECC would have to be the recent Gathering in Cache Creek. As Cache Creek is new to the ECC this year, this was the first ever Gathering hosted by Cache Creek Elementary School (CCES). Mrs. Patterson and her students did a fantastic job creating a day of community building through several hours of geocaching around the town of Cache Creek.

A local volunteer from Gold Country helped to start our day and, after Mrs. Patterson placed students in multi-site groupings, off we went! Not only did we have students and teachers from all four sites participating, but we also had Aboriginal Student Support Workers, Special Teaching Assistants, parents, grandparents and Ms O'Connor, the principal of CCES. It was meaningful relationship building on many, many levels.

We had a super fun day travelling all over Cache Creek by foot searching for hidden geocaches. From my perspective, and the perspective of all those I talked with, the day was a huge success. I should mention, that perhaps a couple, (okay, three), groups took a wrong turn, misread a clue and became more than a little lost, resulting in an unnecessary and short hike, but that only led to making the day even more memorable! It was wonderful to see everyone and to spend some time in one of our communities, not to mention, one of our schools.

That's it!! Well, not really, so much more has happened, but those are a few of the more amazing learning experiences in the ECC this spring. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for at least one more update before our year ends in June.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Connected Learners Visit to PSII

Connected Learning in School District #74 is always a rich, full learning experience for all those involved. The last month or so has been extraordinary for both children and adult learners. Following on from the most recent post in this space (Nicky's first foray into the world of blogging - yay Nicky!!), I'd like to continue the theme of professional learning and write about a recent experience that will not leave me.

As many of you know, one exciting piece to the Elementary Connected Classrooms (ECC) is the year long inquiry project. I've written about the inquiry project already in this space here and here. While this marks the fourth year that students are experiencing this amazing way to learn in the ECC, it's interesting that in the last two years, inquiry-based learning as a methodology is at the forefront of education in BC and around the world. Inquiry as a way for students to learn is everywhere.

Inquiry-based learning is an ongoing topic of professional development for the Connected Learning team. Imagine my excitement when I was recently invited by the English Connected 8/9 team to travel with them to Victoria to visit the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII). I'd watched the tweets and blog posts online last year as Jeff Hopkins left his position as the Superintendent of Gulf Islands last year to open this school. I couldn't wait to meet Jeff and observe in his school.

Before you read the next few sentences, you need to know that I love my job, I love being a part of the ECC team and I love working in School District #74. I really do. I will say, however, that if there was some way that I could transport myself and my two sons to Victoria and beg Jeff to let me teach in his school, I would. What an amazing place of learning that has been created.

There are many, many things I have to say about this school that make it such a phenomenal place to teach and learn. Jeff's passion and brilliance. The amazing energy in the other two teachers I had a chance to talk with and learn from - Jake and Sophia. The physical space set up to facilitate everything from choreography practise to 3D printers to large, whole-school activities to small spaces meant for quiet contemplation or high-energy discussion. The respectful tone and polite way in which everyone interacted with others.

And the students. I spent as much time as I could talking with the kids about their learning. The relaxed, student-directed pace and tone in the building was exactly how I wish my classroom to always be. The students were so passionate and excited about what they were doing. They were extremely well-spoken. These students talked differently from any other students I've ever had the chance to speak with in that you could tell what they were doing was interdisciplinary; they made connections with their learning between disciplines. They were also profoundly respectful of the learning activities; that was clearly evident as they spoke about their inquiries. It was wonderful to see the excitement of a group of students creating a production schedule for the filming of their short film, the seriousness of a student conversing in French with her teacher during a French lesson, and the quiet passion with which one student spoke of the novel she is writing.

I learned a great deal that day, but I'd like to end by focusing on what I learned about inquiry-based learning methods. At PSII, the year started off much the same as our inquiry project does - what are you interested in and what questions do you have about that topic? The teachers then helped students to formulate better questions. The next steps involved turning those questions into learning activities. And off the kids go, leading their learning, happy to learn and engaged in learning that really matters to them.

That is a huge simplification of the process, but essentially, that was the essence of how to get the kids going on their inquiry projects. Students can have as many inquiry projects as they like. Some they will finish, some they will continue with the next year. It falls to the teachers to take a good look at the what the students are learning and determine how it fits with the learning outcomes. Some outcomes are very specific and must be covered in isolation but many curricular areas seemed to overlap in a natural, almost intuitive way. One example of this was that the student writing the novel created a large map of landforms, ocean currents, weather patterns, etc. for the setting she created for her novel. The map project work went towards Social Studies in one term, but more importantly, it will continue to inform her writing for months to come. Meaningful learning. Student-driven. Exciting.

One structure put in place to support and enhance student learning is the competency session schedule. Basically, if a student wants more formal guidance learning something for their inquiry, they can talk with a teacher about doing a competency session. The schedule of competency schedules can be found on the PSII website here. Teachers create sessions based on interest. If needed, a student might have to or want to have some more formal learning in some areas. If students want to attend the sessions just because, they can. If they want to attend the session as part of one of their inquiries, they can and then they need to create/produce evidence of learning connected to the competency sessions attended.

There are many other structures at PSII that seem to me more like the enabling constraints. Math is taught in context, with some tutorials when needed and many opportunities for practice and guidance. There are internships set up with many outside companies. Physical education requirements are met by students stepping out to the YMCA two blocks away from the school. It must be both exhausting and exhilarating to have one's mind open to a constant cross-curricular experience. I loved it.

After spending the day watching and talking and questioning, I asked Jeff my most burning question. When you have 30 students completing 30 separate inquiries in 30 separate ways, how do you manage the messiness as the educator guiding the learning? I asked this because that's where we are at in the year, and while the energy and excitement coming from the kids in my classroom is incredible, it's challenging for me to process how to most effectively manage that learning chaos.

Jeff's advice was simple and perfect:  give them what they need right now. Don't try to think about where they're going because they can each go in a hundred different directions with their learning everyday so give them what they need right now.

I could write much more about this: the profound dream I had about learning and teaching the night after the visit, the amazing short film crew kids I had a chance to learn from and more on assessment and evaluation. I'll finish up by saying it was a fantastic experience and made me even more excited to continue to improve upon the inquiry project we have in the ECC. While I still feel that I have a lot to learn, I think we're doing a great job so far.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Flashback to Tomorrow

When I first considered writing this blog post, I wasn’t sure what I would write about. I have been tossing ideas back and forth or straight into the trash. Finally, I decided I would introduce myself by sharing my long journey and timid entrance into the digital age. No matter how it is viewed, I felt it was important to share this part of my background in order for people to understand who I am, where I’m coming from, and what’s driving me forward.

Part 1:

My name is Nicole Patterson and I have been a part of the Gold Trail School District for the past 20 years. After graduating from Cariboo College with a UBC Bachelor of Education degree in 1994, I immediately travelled north, dropping resumes along the way. When I returned home, there was a message waiting for me; offering me a job as a TOC in SD74. I gratefully accepted and have dedicated my career to the students in this district.

I worked in a variety of jobs in the beginning, but the majority of my time has been spent working with students in the immediate grades. My particular focus has been in working with Grade 7 students, but as our student population has declined over the years, I have spent time working with a combination of intermediate grades. And this year, I have the most awesome class of Grades 5-7 students who compliment each other beautifully. At times, I miss the unique culture of the straight grade 7 class, but I have learned a set of different skills by working in multi-grade classrooms.

When I was in Grade 7, our small high school had just put in a computer lab and our teacher was showing us how to use DOS. My friends and I were playing tennis on our ATARI systems at home and Ms. Pacman at the arcade. Nobody told us that we would have to use computers in the future and computer class was viewed as just another interesting elective. Our parents pressured us to focus on academic subjects because we WERE going to attend post-secondary school. And guess what? 35 of 41 of us did.

My parents were so proud of me and gave me a “top of the line” Panasonic electric typewriter and a mini tape recorder to record lectures. At this point, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I still didn’t know that computers would become a huge part of my life later on. They were still quite expensive and nobody was pushing the idea. I didn’t even have a cell phone until 8 years ago! My husband actually forced me to get a cell phone, using the excuse that we had two teenage children and a baby on the way. I was not at all fond of the idea, but I begrudgingly agreed. Why would I want people to think they could interrupt my life whenever and wherever they wanted? Couldn’t they just leave a message? Unfortunately (or fortunately), kids do have a way of needing you immediately and I could possibly need medical help during my pregnancy. It was really at that time that I started my journey to get connected.

I wouldn’t say that I went along kicking and screaming; however, I definitely wasn’t an eager participant. I know there are still some of you out there, but I think I was one of the last teachers to check my email on a regular basis. Once checking email became expected, I finally got myself a home computer. After all, it was about time; it was 2005! I couldn’t believe how much information was at my fingertips at any given moment. For me, this was bittersweet. I can get lost in that little screen for hours. It is so easy to get side-tracked searching the endless library of knowledge! And I can’t express how frustrating it was to navigate through the internet and different software. Everything in this realm changes so quickly. Just when I thought I had a handle on things...

Although I’m always trying to improve my skills and find more time, I cannot say that, even today, I’m terribly diligent about every email. It isn’t instinctual to use digital technology to solve problems or make life easier. There are an awful lot of things to do in a day, especially with two young children still at home and wanting all of my attention. If I could only have been born ten years later, I’m sure these skills would have been more like second nature to me. But alas, it was not meant to be. Getting connected has been a steep learning curve. I think I might be getting the hang of it though, lol!

Part 2:

In 2009, as I was getting “geared up” to have my last child, SD74 was just getting started with implementing the idea of Connected Classrooms. It sounded very interesting, so even though I knew I would be taking a maternity leave, I decided to use some of my time to take a few online courses to learn more about the digital tools that many teachers were already using. I did the best I could to concentrate on reading and connecting with other educators between cuddle time, poopy diapers, and piles of laundry.

In January of 2011, I was extremely excited to start back to work to try out some of the tools I had learned about. It was tough going, simply because, like anything else, unless you do something regularly, you are usually quite clumsy with it. My students were gracious and supportive as I practiced. I learned a lot from them and was able to introduce them to some tools that would make their school lives a little easier and more interesting. Still, the growth and diversity of technological tools seemed astounding in such a short period of time and I was beginning to see students with a variety of their own devices. It was clear that the students were learning and creating in new ways. Obviously, I would also have to find new ways to engage and teach this new generation of learners. I felt somewhat panicked that I wouldn’t be able to learn quickly enough, but I found comfort in knowing that, as long as I did my best to learn and grow along with them, my teaching would transform as well.

It wasn’t long before the idea of expanding the Elementary Connected Classrooms project was presented to the schools in our district. For me, it was pretty clear that this was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up and I was eager to show my interest. What better way to improve and grow than to jump right in? And now, as I enter the third and final term of my first year, I couldn’t be happier with that decision.

It certainly wasn’t an easy transition to go from my own private classroom with our own sense of community to one that included three other peers and over 80 students that communicated through video conferencing. On the other hand, I always wondered how we could bridge the gap between our communities. Our students usually came together during sports competitions and thought of each other as rivals, instead of resources and a supportive network. There were very few opportunities for them to work together and build relationships with one another.

Connected Classrooms has built a stronger sense of belonging and a culture of collaboration between our students and our teachers. We are all learning from one another and our perspectives and level of acceptance has broadened. We are able to draw strength to fill weaknesses, inspire to meet challenges, and thrive on our passions to fulfill our goals. And although we use technology to help us accomplish this, I realize that the bigger idea is how we interact and communicate. We need to continue to strive to become creative problem solvers who are willing to share solutions and resources for the good of the whole. We need to be prepared to make improvements based on feedback, critique, and proven results. The students who can collaborate and become fully engaged in learning opportunities will become the leaders of tomorrow.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Latest ECC Gathering: Connections, Active Students and Tons of Fun!!

Last week, students, teachers and other adults from all four Elementary Connected Classrooms (ECC) gathered together. Every year, each ECC site hosts the entire group for a day of active learning and community building face to face. It was our turn so we booked several facilities at the local recreation center and then walked down, welcome poster in hand, to see the rest of our classmates and colleagues.

Waiting to welcome our friends!
The students were super excited to see the other classes. My students watched down Main Street carefully as we walked down from our school in case one of the school buses arrived. At the last minute, when we were no more than 40 meters from the recreation center, we saw a school bus round the corner. The first student who saw it started screaming "RUN!! The bus is coming!! The bus is coming!! HURRY!!" which of course prompted everyone to pick up the pace and hustle in order to arrive at the recreation center first. My students were howling with laughter or screaming 'RUN', or 'they're going to beat us', or 'HURRY!!', or 'we need to get their first and welcome them!!' as they raced along. It was one of those moments that none of us will ever forget.

Setting up a running race to stretch the legs after a long bus ride!
After we welcomed the first bus full of people from Lytton Elementary (we did get there first...just!), Mr. Lewis decided to run a racing game while we waited for the other two classes from Ashcroft and Cache Creek to arrive. It was great to see the students mixing between classes much more easily than at the previous gathering in October. It does take time, and a great deal of purposeful effort, to build the community but one takeaway from the day was that real peer relationships are definitely forming between the groups.

Skating in the arena!
The first part of our day together was spent skating in the arena! As a class of nearly 100 students, it was wonderful that many parents and family members came along to help tie all the skates!! One aspect of the gatherings that I enjoy the most is that regardless of which community we gather in, there are always parents and family members involved in some way. The ECC doesn't just connect students and teachers in a meaningful way, it connects families too.

Fast friends who live 80 km apart!
After working up an appetite in the arena, the whole group ate lunch together. There's nothing like enjoying a meal together to bring people closer. The photo above is one of my favourites from the entire day. I was walking along and they asked me to take their photo together because they said they were 'besties'. While these two boys, who attend schools that are 80 kilometres apart, connected tentatively in the fall, they were fast friends during our day together last week. Every day since the gathering, the one on the right has pointed out his friend on the video conferencing screen during our daily connected lesson. I would guess that they have a connection that will last.

Swimming, diving, a water slide, and the tether ball made for a fun afternoon! 
The afternoon went quickly with all the students either in the pool or playing pickleball in the gym. The busy pace of the day resulted in engaged, active students! They certainly had enough exercise that day, but, of course, they had more than enough energy to keep going right to the end! Our community is the only one with an indoor pool so it was a real treat for students to spend time in the water with their friends that day.

Walking up the hill to return to school
After saying our good-byes and seeing the last bus pull away, it was time to make the trek up the hill and return to school. As both a mother and a teacher, there is something very satisfying about leading children through a fun day so packed with activity and friends that the children are happily exhausted at day's end. That was the lasting impression as we arrived back at the school. The children, and adults, experienced a full day that will be remembered as a full of connections, physical activity and tons of fun!