The Facts of Memory Project

One of my favourite classroom projects comes from FLIGHT 10. The project began by asking students to discover the truth in memory. The concept of this inquiry unit is that by studying the non-fiction narratives and comparing the two versions of stories from the elders (plus the visual and oral versions), students would see how the line between fact and fiction can be a fine balance.

We worked as a team, myself the classroom teacher, and Bryan Hughes the teacher librarian/media specialist for the school to have students answer that question orally, visually and textually to see how the line between fact and fiction can be a fine balance.

The students began by reading non-fiction narrative books in literature circles. Some of the novels we used included:

The Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagna

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky by Benjamin Ajak

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

Next, students were paired with a classmate to interview a local elder. Most of the stories were based on conflict (since their novels from the novel study had a great deal of conflict in them), but some were just funny or unusual tales that the elder wished to tell.

After the interview, students individually wrote a biographical narrative in the first person about one of their elder’s stories. We did multiple drafts and critique processes on the stories, peer, self, and teacher, so that students could improve their work.

At the same time, students built shadow boxes for their stories. We supplied the pre-cut wood and used a woodworking room to nail and glue the pieces together. Painting them black took another couple of classes, but the students were extremely proud of having put their own display together! Students also created 5 to 7 artifacts to represent the story to place in the shadow box. The only requirement was that the artifacts needed to be their own construction. They also loved doing something tactile in an English Language Arts classroom (I have written on their engagement in this task in this previous post).

Finally, student used VoiceThread to tell the story orally using their own narration and recordings from the interviews they conducted with the elder. Here are two great examples of the final product from Declan and Ryan. Please feel free to add your own comments! This was displayed alongside the boxes with a QR code so the audience of the boxes could add comments on the VoiceThread.

After returning to the retirement home to share with the elders and after a presentation of learning to the community, students summarized their learning in a comprehensive blog post reflecting on the process of the project and the overall discoveries students made about the topic and themselves.

This project made an indelible mark on the class and us as their teachers. Together we were moved, frustrated, honoured, and overwhelmed – and we wouldn’t have given any of it up! We can’t wait for next time to improve upon what we have started! Check out this student’s personal reflection for more information!

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Links Referred to in this Post:

Petra’s Blog on Engagement during the project

Declan’s VoiceThread on Newt’s Story

Ryan’s VoiceThread on Irene’s Story

Sample drafts of stories and critiques

Photos of interviews and boxes

Student’s Reflection on the process

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Filed under English, FLIGHT, non-fiction, Project Based Learning

Student Engagement 13 years Later

I have a confession to make. I have been teaching for thirteen years, but I rarely see true student engagement in my classroom. Of course students do the work I assign (for the most part), but it is just a means to the end for most assignments – another hoop for them to jump through.

However, this year I’m teaching in a new problem based learning program at Seycove called FLIGHT.  So for the past few weeks, I have been working with the grade 10’s on a project involving interviewing seniors from the community to get a biographical story and creating written, visual and oral products based on the information.

As part of the project, students have built and painted their own ‘shadow’ boxes as a final presentation piece for the various components of the assignment. That meant going outside of my comfortable English classroom and heading down to the wood shop (with backup support from two colleagues with more practical knowledge than I!) to build the boxes and eventually painting them as well.

What shocked me was what happened to the class. My rambunctious, hard to manage, sixteen year olds became engrossed in the building. There was silence while they hammered and painted. Classroom management ceased to be a concern. I could wander around and actually discuss their work and give constructive criticism. They were really learning.

It reminded me what I need to be doing every day to engage my students. Not every day can be in the wood shop, but every class can have a practical application. If I can manage to build that into my lessons, then I know I will truly be educating my students.

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Reviewing Integers with iPads

As we finished our integer unit, our math class had a fantastic opportunity for review using new technology. Since our school is lucky to have 25 iPads, the class was able to use them in lieu of a more traditional review class.

First, I split the class into 6 groups (each group was 4 to 5 students) and assigned each group to a section of review (multiplying integers, dividing integers and order of operations – two groups did each topic).  Then, each group met with a large piece of blank white paper and planned out what were the important things to say about their topic, an example that they would use to show the use of the rule(s), and a script for the order of presentation on the recording.

After I had previewed their prewriting, each group went to a different corner of the school library to record with the app ‘explain everything‘. In the app, students can use the whiteboard function to record both what they are saying and the math equations at the same time. I explained only the very basics of the app before handing out the iPads (how to change the pen colour, pressing record, pausing, adding a new slide).

As I checked up on the groups, I couldn’t help but be impressed with how quickly the students had taken the task. Students were using the laser pointer function, re-recording bad takes and even adding their own personality to the project – all things I hadn’t even discussed with them. Every student was engaged and on task. Everyone had a role and they all were enjoying playing their parts.

When they were completed, we uploaded the the videos directly from explain everything to my math YouTube channel – this meant giving the kids the password – which I changed after class 😉

In the end, I couldn’t have been happier with the results. This particular example on order of operations shows how students had to synthesize their learning with the new technology which really did improve the students’ comprehension of the topic. Additionally, in posting the videos on YouTube, the students had ready-made reviews to help them study for the test.


And the test results? Paid off. Students had their highest scores yet this year. I can’t wait to finish the next unit to use this lesson again!

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‘A Negative Times A Negative’

Another busy week in the Math classroom. However, this unit is SO much easier for me and the students than the Pythagorean Theorem was. Next year I definitely think I’ll start with the integer unit instead.

I began by reviewing (in most cases) how to add positive and negative integers. We used number lines to visualize the process and then manipulatives (two-sided red and yellow counters) to practice. Students eventually got the idea, but, of course, the subtraction of negative numbers from a negative number was the hardest concept to get across.

IMG 1327

Next class, we were ready to move on to multiplying. Here I ran into a roadblock. It is almost impossible to illustrate the concept of negative times negative equals positive on a number line. In fact, the textbook even switches to the integer counters to explain it, rather than the number line. I knew that this wouldn’t be enough for my inquisitive crew of grade 8’s: if I can illustrate the other rules of integer multiplication with a number line, I should be able to show negatives times negatives.

After wracking my brain and scouring the internet, I did find one site that attempted a reasonable explanation:


Imagine a number line on which you walk. Multiplying x*y is taking x steps, each of size y. Negative steps require you to face the negative end of the line before you start walking and negative step sizes are backward (i.e., heel first) steps. So, -x*-y means to stand on zero, face in the negative direction, and then take x backward steps, each of size y.


It sounds so reasonable! As soon as I go to explain it however, the logic of it falls apart. I sound like a babbling idiot insisting on something the grade 8’s are sure is patently false. So I switched to the integer counters, but I felt like a bit of a failure. I really wanted to be able to use the number line consistently! Anybody have any suggestions? How do you explain this concept to your class?

On the bright side, I did find this video which was my ‘flipped instruction’ for the day. The students loved it (who wouldn’t love a singing ninja?) and it is catchy!


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Filed under flipped, math

Using in the English Classroom

For many years I have run a reading program in my English Language Arts classroom. Students know that every class begins with them coming into to class and reading for 10 minutes or so silently before we start the lesson for the day. The requirements for the reading are pretty basic: students are expected to read a certain number of books per year based on their grade level, the book must be a reasonable length (no newspapers or magazines) and after they finish the book, they write a brief (5-10 sentences) review of it.

This year, I decided to use for students to publish their reviews. The advantages seemed obvious: students can access reviews from home to complete them, they can share reviews with each other and they can update their progress as they are reading. So, going all in, in the first month of classes, I had all my students register and ‘friend’ me.

Immediately there were some issues – student forgot passwords, they couldn’t find me to friend, the site slowed to a crawl with the entire class bombarding the server etc. But gradually reviews have started to come in. As students wrote their reviews, I tried to comment on each one – which has led to some interesting exchanges: Goodreads Example


I always love it when students catch me on my grammar! What I like best is that the student felt comfortable enough to give me a hard time.

The other thing I really love about is the new recommendations it makes to students once they’ve read a book. This student put it best:

Goodreads Example 2

Since this isn’t a book I knew, is doing a better job than I could have at helping this student! Overall, I’m super impressed with the results of using it in my classroom and I can’t wait to see where students take it next.


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Diversity of Learners in Math

The flip is working better this week. Or I’m working smarter. Probably both.

I finally have allowed myself to also use other people’s resources. So instead of creating my own explanation of Pythagorean Theorem, I embedded one from Khan Academy. It explained exactly the concept I wanted  and pretty much in the same way I would have recorded it. I didn’t even tie a google form questionnaire to it this time because I didn’t require the viewing – just made it available for extra help.

I found that helped a lot – it takes the pressure off me to produce every class. Which is a very good thing – because, as I recently have discovered, there’s a lot, a lot, more things demanding my attention in the math classroom. One of the most significant being the diverse learning needs.

It’s not like I’m a new teacher. I have 12 years in this profession and I’ve taught everything from math to drama. Plus, I’ve always believed that every teacher of every subject has his/her own challenges to face. But none of that compares to what I’ve seen this week in math.

I know that students learn at different rates and in different styles. I’ve read the research and applied techniques in my other classes. But nothing prepared me for the breadth I face in this math classroom. From the student who finishes every problem as soon as I assign it to the student who can only complete an equation as I sit next to her. The disparity is actually shocking.

I don’t have an answer to how to meet all these needs (nor do I expect a magic one to appear), but I’m definitely going to have to spend some time on some solutions this weekend. Any thoughts?

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Filed under flipped, math

Setback in the Flipped Classroom

So I’ve begun attempting flipping my math classroom in absolute earnestness and I’ve hit my first roadblock. It began last Friday in class when I set up stations in the library. With our school’s new set of 25 iPads (and the fantastic support of our teacher-iibrarian who had purchased some awesome math apps), I planned out some stations. I had planned 5 stations: three with the iPads and 2 with practice exercises.

The problem came when I realized (seems somewhat stupid in retrospect) that I would be needed at all 5 stations. Since this was our first time with stations and the first time with the iPads, the students needed more support than I could give – at least without more than one of me! So I found myself bouncing from station to station and never getting settled at any one place to actually help my students. So, inevitably, when it came time to assign the homework, I quickly realized that a majority of the class had not completed the practice questions in class and few understood what the lesson had meant.

So I was faced with a dilemma: do I go ahead and assign the practice questions as homework (thus negating the whole purpose of the flip) or should I just accept their misunderstanding, write the class off, and start again next class? In retrospect, I probably should have written the class off and started again next day. However, since this is my first time through Math 8 at this school, I felt under pressure to keep pushing through the curriculum (I knew the other classes were already ahead of me). So against instinct, I assigned the problems as homework.

The next day in class I was greeted by several students who told me they ‘didn’t get’ the homework and (of course) were worried because they couldn’t finish it. So I ended up (as I suspected I might) reteaching what I hadn’t managed to do last class. What surprised me about that is how bad I felt that I had let my class down by sending them away to work on something that I knew they were ill-prepared to be successful at.

The entire episode does point out an issue with the flipped classroom. What do you do when you don’t finish the work you planned to do in class? I don’t want to make my students that frustrated again, but I also need to make sure I’m moving along with the curriculum.

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First Flipped Lesson

With my first Math 8 class this week, it was also my first flipped class. I was a bit worried about how the students would react to the idea.

I began by introducing the idea with the handout I had created. After I had given the basic explanation of what a flipped classroom meant and before I explained why I was planning to do this, I asked the students why a teacher might want to do this. The answers were exactly my rationale: “Because then if we are frustrated with the problems the teacher is there” and “We’ll have more time in class”. As much as any class is when you talk course outlines, they seemed excited.

I kept the first video very simple. I used the explain everything app on the iPad to record and set up a google form for the students to record some simple information as a test. Before the school day was even over I had about half the class’s responses turned in.

The biggest problem I foresee this week is keeping that momentum going. I want the students to be as engaged this week as they were on that very first day. So, back to the planning today!

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Filed under flipped, math

Flipping Math Introduction

I started seriously getting to work this week on planning for my flipped math classroom. I’m excited, but also a little overwhelmed. Since I haven’t taught math since a new curriculum was rolled out, I’m feeling a little challenged in taking on the flip at the same time as the new content.

I had spent the summer researching different flip models and reading blog posts about flipping. So I thought putting together an outline would be easy. Immediately I ran into some fundamental flipped classroom questions that I wasn’t sure how to answer.

First, I tried to define to parents (and students because I feel that by secondary school students need to be in charge of their own learning) what the flipped classroom was. That forced me to also be sure about what I meant by a flipped classroom. It was a little difficult because I was aware I didn’t want to get into too much jargon: educational or technical, so in the end I settled on the simplest explanation I could design.

Next, I went into a how/why/when etc trying to anticipate some of the basic questions that might arise when I introduce the idea. The why is simple because I could focus on the class time that the flipped classroom will give me to work with students directly.

The when was a bit harder for me to determine. Having never flipped before I had to think realistically about its use. What if I can’t sustain it throughout the year? What if the students/parents hate it? I decided to be deliberately vague and gave myself an ‘out’ in case any of my ‘what if’s’ came true. By suggesting that the flip may not happen every class, I removed the expectation for the class to be run this way every class.

Finally, I needed to explain the assignments and the assessments. Again, since the flip will be new to me, I had to do a little bit of teacher philosophy soul searching combined with fortune telling to try and see where this might go. I settled on explaining that there would be accountability for the video watching, but again, I chose to be vague about what that might look like. Although I most likely will use some type of google form or an edmodo post to ensure students are viewing the videos, I didn’t want to be overly explicit and therefore wedded to one method of assessing.

There were still some ideas I had for the outline that I didn’t include. For example, should I include links to some documentation on the flipped classroom model? Was it too vague not to break down the assessment piece more directly? Was the explanation too simple overall?

I’ve posted below the document I created; I’d love any feedback and suggestions anyone has!

Flip Explanation2011.doc


Filed under math, Summer

Technology and Course Outlines

Two weeks before school begins and I decided to start up my year as I usually do with updating my course outlines. Now it’s only one week before school opens and I still haven’t finished writing them. Yes, it’s partially because the weather has been spectacular and the PNE opened, but it’s also because I am a bit stumped as to where to go with my outlines this year.

I teach three different grade levels of English Language Arts and I am teaching one Math 8 for the first time in a long time. The English courses have a standard course outline with the learning outcomes and general department guidelines and thanks to a generous colleague I have a similar outline for math as well. But those aren’t the outlines that I find the kids are interested in, and nor am I quite frankly.

Students are always more interested in the outlines where I explain explicitly what we will learn (the units) and how (projects, writing, assessment etc). And that’s where I find myself bogging down this summer. As I explained in my first post, I have big technology plans this year. Those plans all involve students, to varying degrees, using the internet and various social media devices to communicate. This means having to explain to both students and parents why I feel this exposure is both safe and necessary for their learning. Not an easy task.

When my friend’s daughter started kindergarten, she was given the standard permission form that many districts use regarding the use of photographs in the school. She refused to allow her daughter’s photo to be used because she thought it might be in some negative way. Fast forward two months and the daughter comes home crying with a photo of her class all sitting on the firetruck that came to visit them, only the daughter’s face has been blurred out and she couldn’t understand why. My friend went and signed the form the next day.

The story illustrates an important point – the consent forms do nothing to explain why the students’ photographs are useful in the educational process. It also does nothing to cover the other technology that I plan to have students use – which in some ways can be more exposing than a simple photo. My friend is not unintelligent, nor is she anti-technology, but since no one explained the importance to her of the photo release form, she didn’t sign it. How can I expect any different of my students’ parents unless I explain myself fully and completely.

So even if the sun is shining (again), I will continue to bash something out here that I hope will both the importance of the technology use in my classes, as well as the necessity.

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Filed under Summer