Is Collaboration A Myth?

I can’t believe I’m writing this blog post. I’m a huge supporter of collaboration in the classroom and in education in general. Then on Friday, my step-dad forwarded me a blog post that really made me think. The big question was, “are two heads really better than one?”

Yesterday, Pearson Canada brought 50 educators together, I think somewhat in the hopes that collaboration would make a difference. Pearson was very up front with their reason for the meeting: they wanted to know what publishers could do to “socialize.” Throughout the day, people contributed to this Google site for the Ontario Social Media Symposium #ontsm. There were also hours worth of discussions in person at the event and online through Twitter. It was almost a bit overwhelming to follow everything.

As I participated both online and in person in the discussions, I realized the real power of what was shared in the Monday Morning Memo article.



And that was what was amazing about yesterday. People were not just sitting there nodding their heads in agreement with everything that was said. They were questioning others, wondering about new possibilities, and challenging current trends. We all signed group norms at the beginning of the session, and everyone adhered to these norms, but “discussion and debate” still evolved throughout the session.

Then back to the topic of collaboration, at the end of the day, the 50 of us did not come up with a finalized list of suggestions, but instead, a messy conversation full of lots of ideas. Interestingly enough though, it’s through this messy conversation and lots of reflection, that many individuals have started to clarify ideas through their own blog posts. Maybe it’s through this continued conversation and these blog posts that changes will happen.

So was it the collaboration that mattered, or was it what individuals took from these collaborative opportunities that made (or will make) a difference? How can this learning impact on how we view collaboration in the classroom? How should this learning impact on how we have educators and administrators collaborate?


When Math Just Happens

As I continue to meet my Annual Learning Plan goal of increasing communication in math, I’m constantly looking at ways to incorporate more problem solving into math. Up until now, I’ve been making very deliberate attempts to do this — be it asking open-ended questions or exploring word problems — but today things changed.

We’re currently working on this Global Teapot Project thanks to a fantastic teacher in Hawaii, Melvina Kurashige. Coupled with our Social Studies Unit on Canada’s Trading Partners, students are working in groups to design a box to send five teapots off to five different classrooms from around the world: including one in Australia, one in Manitoba, one in Wisconsin, and two in Ontario. Their box designs need to depict Canada’s connections with the United States. Students have researched this topic and sketched pictures using various tools from pencils and paper to the computer to an iPad app. Some students even used Minecraft. After creating their designs, they had to explain how their pictures relate to the topic of Canada’s connections with the United States, and why their designs are the best ones to use for the box. Students are sharing their thinking in various ways (from written reports to movies), and incredibly engaged by this project.

This morning, a student approached me asking if we needed boxes for the project. She just moved, and she has tons of boxes at her house. I was initially going to use pizza boxes for students to cut-up and tape together for their teapot boxes. Moving boxes seemed like an even better idea though! I said that this would be fantastic, and the student texted her mom asking. By first nutrition break, her fantastic mom had already dropped off a pile of boxes. Yeah!!

Since we’re not creating the actual teapot boxes until next week, I found a corner in the classroom to store the boxes and thought nothing of them again. Then I had Social Studies with my teaching partner’s class, and that’s when things changed.

The students saw the boxes right away, and got incredibly excited about them. As students worked on their designs, math conversations started to evolve. Students began to whisper, “I wonder how big our box needs to be.” Then they wanted to check.

Students came to ask me and instead of giving them a size, I had them look at the teapot.

One student got a ruler and started measuring around the teapot. Another student put her thumbs together, spread her hands out wide, and said, “The teapot is about this big. We’ll need more room in our box though. The teapot needs to be wrapped in bubble wrap.” Now students were thinking in terms of standard and non-standard units of measure.

Some students were adding up how much cardboard they would need for the entire box. They started multiplying by the number of sides on the box. As one boy said, “Remember, we have the four sides we’re going to draw on, but we also need a top and a bottom. That’s six sides.” Now students were starting to use addition and multiplication in meaningful ways. They were even exploring surface area and volume, and all without realizing it.

Watching the students today (and wishing that I was videotaping them as well) made me wonder: when we create math problems for students, do we forget about the importance of making math meaningful? When the students started wondering and exploring today, they saw the purpose in math, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. Next week, the students will be learning the formulas for determining the volume of different prisms. Maybe now they’ll really realize the purpose in this math and have an even greater interest in it as well.

How do you promote mathematical wondering in your students (of all ages)? I’d love to hear your ideas!


Why I Have Such A Strong Reaction To Rows

This morning, my students wrote their Geometry Math Test. Since EQAO is coming up at the end of May, and I want students to understand how it feels to be in this testing environment, I had students move into rows this morning. We’ve done this before for tests, but regardless of that, both the students and I have the same reaction to these rows: it’s a silent group groan. 

The room just feels wrong when students are all sitting in isolation. I know a testing environment should be silent, and this one definitely was, but even the silence feels wrong. It’s too quiet. I love the hum of collaboration. It’s great to see students working and learning together. Learning is social.

It’s funny: even my students that like to work alone see the power of collaboration. I am amazed at all of the different ways that they use tools such as GoogleDocs to comment on each other’s work, share ideas, and ask questions. They even use it to study. 🙂

As a teacher, I continually hear about the importance of collaboration and I encourage it, but then in a testing situation, everything changes. It makes me sad to sit and watch a silent classroom. But did the students feel this sadness too?

I think that they did: the moment that they handed in their test, they quickly grouped together. Some moved out into the hallway to continue working on group projects. Others used GoogleDocs or Twitter to share online. Another group moved to the guided reading table to whisper their thoughts as they finished a project together. And even though the test took us right until the nutrition break, students happily gave up a few minutes of eating time  to move their desks back into groups. Ahhh … order restored. 🙂

How do you and your students feel about rows? Can collaboration still exist in a classroom of rows?

Mulling Over Mad Minute

Yesterday, I attended the last of three math inservices offered through our Board on the new Leaps and Bounds resource that we are using in our classrooms. As we worked in groups to examine curriculum expectations, we also started discussing different math topics. I mentioned to the math facilitator at our table that I’m struggling with what to do with drill sheets. Many of my students rely on using a calculator, particularly for multiplication and division questions. When they do figure out the answer without a calculator, it takes them a while, and the answer is not always correct. This year, students are learning how to answer more difficult multiplication and division problems, and how can they do so if they do not know their basic facts?

I am not a fan of math drills, and for students that need this extra support, I often suggest that they work on this at home with their parents. I have even posted links on the class website. I’m still noticing that most students struggle with recalling basic facts, and now I’m thinking that I may need to do more. When sharing my concerns at the table, the topic came up of Mad Minute. One teacher mentioned that she did this with her class and competed with another class in the school. She posted student scores, and then individual scores were compared against individual scores in the other class.

This got me really upset. I asked about the students in her class that were struggling. How did they feel? How did this activity help them improve? She said that all student scores went up, so all students should have felt proud, but did they? It really matters to me that all students meet with success, so how am I going to help students memorize the math facts that they need, while also focusing on individual student needs, and allowing students to communicate and apply what they learned during these drill activities?

I know that students respond well to competition, but if I’m having my class compete with another class, then I want my entire class to feel as though their contribution matters. I also want individual students to focus on their own scores, and look at their own improvements each week, instead of their scores measured against their friends’ scores.

As I mull over Mad Minute, here are my thoughts:

  • I don’t want to devote more than 5 minutes a day to math drills. Math should be primarily able rich dialogue, good opportunities for application, and the thinking behind the questions. I know my students all need to practice the facts, so if they are going to do so in isolation, then I want this drill time to be short.
  • I want to differentiate these drills. I differentiate everything else in the classroom, so why should this be different? Students can review the math facts and concepts that they need to review. If they need the challenge of multiple types of questions on the same page, then they can have this challenge. This will allow all students to meet their individual goals.
  • The focus will be on growth. If all students need this review (and it’s apparent that they do), then the goal is going to be to improve. We always want to “bump up” our work, so why shouldn’t we in this case as well? Each week, we will calculate the average score as a class, but without names attached to each score. Then we can compare these scores with the other Grade 6 class for some healthy competition. We’ll celebrate successes, but without worrying about the numbers, but about the gains.

Maybe these short math drills at school will even encourage some students to practice these skills more at home. I look forward to seeing what happens.

What are your thoughts on math drills in the classroom? How do you ensure that this activity leads to “success for all?” I would love to know your thoughts on this!


Further Contemplating Learning Goals And Success Criteria

This week, we had our District Review Visit. I’ve been through this process a couple of times before, and I know that it shouldn’t be a stressful time, but I do find it stressful. I know how hard the students have worked this year, and how far they’ve come, and I want the principals and superintendent to see the growth that I see. The students really do ”own” all of the work that we do in the classroom though, and they were stellar at discussing learning goals and success criteria, and how both contribute to their academic success. I couldn’t be prouder of my class!

At the end of the day, we met with some members of the Board team to discuss what they saw. Our superintendent shared with us many celebrations, but she also left us with a couple of next steps. One of these next steps, I’ve really been contemplating a lot since last night. Her question to us was, what is the impact of learning goals and success criteria other than higher levels of achievement? (Please note that I may be paraphrasing slightly here as I was trying to copy down this question quickly.)

You see the creation of learning goals and success criteria was the focus of our District Review. Yes, focusing on this area has helped students achieve. They know what’s expected of them, and as such, they’re doing better. Focusing on this area, has had more benefits though:

  • Students are better at reflecting on their own learning now because of the clear expectations that learning goals and success criteria offer. When students do reflect on their own learning they are really linking their reflections to these expectations. You can see that in this Genius Hour video clip:

  • Students can now set realistic goals for themselves because they clearly understand what’s being expected of them. These goals not only help the students meet with more academic success, but also monitor their own learning: making them more independent learners.
Students Set Goals Based On Success Criteria

Students Set Goals Based On Success Criteria

  • Students better understand, and now actively contribute, to assessment and evaluation practices. Not only do the students help create the success criteria, but they also transfer this success criteria to more formalized evaluation methods, such as rubrics. This is something that I plan on focusing on as one of my next steps. I have to thank one of our wonderful Grade 8 teachers, Jo-Ann Corbin-Harper, for showing me how she gets her students to use the success criteria and a list of qualifiers to design their own rubrics. This is something that I’ve done in more of a modelled way up until this point, but with Jo-Ann’s help, I already have plans to have students co-create our next Social Studies rubric. Thanks Jo-Ann!
  • Students better understand curriculum expectations. Learning goals and success criteria are based on curriculum expectations. This year more than any other year, I’ve had students working with the curriculum documents to group the expectations, reword the expectations, and develop the anchor charts to help support these expectations. Having students explore expectations make them more aware of what they’re learning, why they’re learning it, and how the various topics coincide. Seeing the “big picture” provides context for students that need it, and this is just another way that we can meet the needs of all students.

The last benefit that comes to mind actually came to me tonight after re-watching our Director, John Malloy’s, message to all staff. In it, he spoke again about “academic optimism.” To be honest with you, my initial concern when focusing on learning goals and success criteria was, how do I get my neediest students to understand and use these goals and expectations? I’m really glad that I asked myself this question, as looking at our school focus through this lens really helped me consider all of my students.

I can’t help but think of a comment that Em Del Sordo, a Board administrator and member of yesterday’s team, said during our debriefing session: ”I know how to teach fractions. I just don’t know how to teach fractions to kids that don’t get it.” I could have made the same comment when it came to learning goals and success criteria. This was a good thing though.

When planning with my teaching partner, we then discussed ways to ensure that all students understood these learning goals and success criteria. We looked at how to scaffold the learning. We had more small group discussions with these students. We modelled how the work that they were doing aligned with the success criteria. We even included the learning goals and success criteria on the individual assignments, so the students could access them easily in multiple ways, and see the correspondence between the expectations and the activity. It worked!

All students understood the learning goals and success criteria, and ensuring that they did, also ensured that we created an environment of academic optimism and true success for all. This is something that I want to continue to keep at the forefront of all that I do in the classroom. All students can learn. We need to ensure that all students do learn. Thank you to yesterday’s team for reminding me of this!

Now I’d be curious to know what you think the benefits of learning goals and success criteria are in addition to higher levels of achievement. For any parents reading this blog post, what impact has this school-wide focus had on you, and what impact have you noticed for your children? I would love to hear your thoughts on this!