header image

Archive for teaching


Posted by: | February 19, 2010 | 4 Comments |

Ah, homework!  To give it or not to give it?  If you give it then how much?  And once you’ve given it, then what?!

Now, because I work at a distributed learning school (online school or distance learning) really there is no homework.  Or maybe everything the students do could be considered homework?!  Anyways, a recent post by Kate Nowak started me thinking about homework again.  If you haven’t read Kate’s blog and you teach math, you should definitely give it a read.  In her post she describes a new system for dealing with; assigning homework, getting rid of homework checks, and doing homework quizzes.  In her post she referred to this post by Sameer Shah on his binder system.  Sameer describes a system designed to keep his students organized and motivated to do and correct their homework.  His system is also a more efficient use of his time.  Anyway, both posts got me thinking about the system that I used in my Biology 11 classes back when I was in a bricks-and-mortar school.

First off, I did not plan homework for any of the science classes I taught (gr 8 – 10 Science, and Biology 11 and 12).  I tried to give enough time in class to complete assignments.  If students didn’t complete the assignments in class, well then they had to finish them for homework.  They did, of course, have to use time at home to study for quizzes and tests also.

Before implementing my system (which I’ll describe soon) I was frustrated with the following scenario; students do an assignment, hand it in, there is a delay for me to mark it and get it back, they get it back (by which time they can’t even remember doing the work), they look at the grade but they do not read all the wonderful feedback I’ve given them and life moves on.  I found this particularly frustrating when it involved lab reports; so often students have difficultyunderstanding why it was they did the lab and interpreting their data.

My system:

  • Students are given time to complete an assignment.  If not completed in class then it is for homework.
  • Next day–students take out their completed assignments and start working on the  ’opener’ questions that have been posted on the screen or if it is a simple assignment–not a lab–the answer key is posted and they are to start their corrections.
  • I walk around and check the assignment briefly–making suggestions to students as necessary (full sentence answers please, remember to do your drawings in pencil, oops–forgot the conclusion to your lab, that sort of thing.)
  • Each student gets a happy face stamp on their work; right side up if the assignment is complete, upside down if it is only half done etc.  This way I don’t have to keep a record–you’ll see how the stamps help in a bit.
  • We go over the assignment.  We do this briskly.  Students are expected to mark their own work and make corrections in a different coloured pen.  Theoretically all of the students should have a completely corrected assignment.
  • At the halfway and end points in the course (I taught semestered courses) the students were required to hand in a portfolio of their work.
  • The day before the portfolio was due they would get the list of assignments required for the portfolio.  There were usually 10 items.  For some of the items the students had a choice (eg hand in lab 2a or lab 3b, choose your best opener questions etc) and for others they did not.  The list would include the date that the assignment was assigned, the full name of the assignment, and if the assignment was a series of questions from the textbook I’d include the page numbers.  I encouraged students throughout the course to properly date and label their assignments as this would make organizing their portfolios easier.  They were expected to write out a table of contents and to number the pages of the items in their portfolios.  One of the items was to write a page long reflection of their learning (most interesting thing they learned, what they thought was the best example of their work and why, their strengths and/or where they need to improve.
  • The only thing the students could prepare ahead of time was the title page and their reflection paper (I offered to comment on their draft versions).
  • They were given time in class to assemble their portfolios.
  • They had to include the original work — not write out good copies.
  • When they handed in their work I would mark it according to a rubric that the students were given ahead of time.
  • My stamp system (see above) allowed me to tell how complete the original assignment was.
  • Corrections needed to be evident.   If a student made a good first attempt, but got a number of parts wrong, that was ok if  they did good corrections.

With the first couple of assignments, the students did hand them in so that I could get a good look at their work and provide a lot of written feedback.  I wouldn’t necessarily grade their work–just provide a lot of suggestions and get an idea on what I needed to clarify with the class.

The benefits of this system were:

  • I got to go over the work with the students right away.
  • if students were away the day that we went over the assignment, they were motivated to find out from their peers what their corrections should be.
  • my informal homework checks allowed me to talk to students and make suggestions on how to improve their work so that they were handing in their best in their portfolios.
  • students were motivated to keep their work organized.
  • students had to reflect on what represented their best work.
  • students were more likely to pay attention to the feedback they’d been given.
  • less grading and more on-going feedback.

The drawbacks of this system:

  • once the portfolios were handed in, it took a fair amount of time to mark them all .  On the up side though, the students didn’t need them back right away as we had already gone over the individual assignments.
  • I had to constantly remind students that they needed to keep all of their work as it may be needed in their portfolios.  For some kids it is just force of habit to throw out an assignment once they think the teacher is done with it.

Now I need to ask myself what’s stopping me from using a system like this for my distributed learning students?

What is your system for making assessment authentic?  What would you change about my system?  As always, I welcome your feedback.

under: science, teaching
Tags: , ,


Posted by: | December 31, 2009 | 5 Comments |

A few years ago when I discovered Google Calendar, Docs, iGoogle, Reader and on and on and on I was really thrilled that I could have all my ‘stuff’ online and accessible from any internet ready device.  I’m not sure that all of those apps have increased my workflow though.  Ease of collaboration, yes!  Ease of sharing, yes!  Ease of access, yes!  More work done in less time–well, not really.


I teach at a distributed learning school.  I am responsible for Science 8 – 12 courses as well as Math 8 – 11.  The math courses are all paper based and the science courses are all online.  My students work from home, but they have access to face-to-face tutorials, online tutorials via Elluminate, as well as help as needed via phone, e-mail and face-to-face.  The students work asynchronously at their own pace.  This means that it is rare that I mark two of the same assignments in a row.

When Technology Makes Life Decidedly Better

Part 1: Moodle

Moodle banner

This fall my district undertook to host Moodle on its own server.  Prior to this our online course offerings were through WebCT (an oldish version).   In our Moodle courses assignments can be submitted electronically within the course, with alerts being sent to the teacher to let them know when new material is ready to be marked.

Part 2: HP Tablet Laptop

Our school has had 2 HP Tablet laptops for the past couple of years.  If you haven’t seen or used one of these, you have the ability to draw directly on the screen using a special pen.  There is handwriting recognition software which can convert handwriting into typed text.  Prior to this year I have used the tablets with a projector when teaching to write notes and instructions, just as you might use a felt pen and transparencies on an overhead projector.

Marking with the HP Tablet

Marking with the HP Tablet

Part 3: Putting It All Together

Here’s what happens when you combine Moodle with the HP tablet.

I receive an e-mail alert that a student has submitted an assignment.  I click on the link and am taken to the assignment in Moodle.  I select the student’s file which is downloaded on my computer and opened in word.  Using the pen on the tablet I can easily mark and add comments to the assignment (marking with the pen tool is far easier than adding comment boxes).  I then save the file with a new name.  I go back to Moodle, input the grade, and upload the marked file.  The student will now receive an e-mail alert to tell them that their work has been marked.  Easy peasy!

Prior to using Moodle, when students e-mailed in their work I had to save it to a specific folder, mark it, go to my marks program to record the mark, save the marked file, attach it to an e-mail and send it to the student.  Lots of clicks, lots of little pieces to remember to do.

Prior to using Moodle, most students did their work on paper and dropped it off at the school.  There was a delay between the student finishing the work and me receiving it and then a delay between me marking the work and them picking it up.  And then there are the (infrequent) times I’d forget to record the mark and the times that students claimed that they handed in their work but it disappeared or they claimed that the marked work never reached them.  This doesn’t happen with the new system!   In addition, it is far more convenient to carry home just a laptop as opposed to envelopes of student work.  Students also tended to hand in a whole whack of work all at once, preventing timely feedback.  In Moodle students are less likely to do this.

I’m finding it difficult to convey how smooth and seamless the Moodle/tablet combination is!  Let me just say that I actually look forward to marking now (sick, I know).

How ‘Bout You?

Is there some system or technology that you use that actually helps your workflow to a significant degree?  I’d love to hear about it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see about getting all of those math courses I teach into Moodle ;-)

under: distributed learning, Moodle, teaching
Tags: , ,

Reflecting on 08/09

Posted by: | July 13, 2009 | 6 Comments |

Before I really get into my plans/goals for the 09/10 school year, I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on the past year. 

Goals and Results 
Prior to the school year starting, and as it went along I had a number of goals.  I’ll discuss them below with a review of how they worked out.

Malinconia. L’ultima partitella (the last match of+the+summer)

  1. Get more face-to-face time with my students (I work at a distributed learning school–students work at home on the curriculum that we provide):  In the 07/08 school year my colleague, Jodie, ran a humanities class for her grade 8-10 students and I could see the benefits of this weekly face-to-face time; it allowed for discussions, one-on-one tutoring, and an opportunity to speak to students about their progress.  So for this past school year Jodie and I offered a general high school class for 2 hours on Thursday mornings.  Students were encouraged to attend, but for many students it was optional.  For other students at risk for failure the class was mandatory.  The benefit to this structure was that we had weekly face-to-face time with the students who needed it most.  The drawback was that with the large number of students present, all at different levels and at different points in their programs, it became difficult to conduct effective lessons.  I think that the benefits outweighed the drawbacks though.  In my experience one of the key factors for a student to succeed in a distributed learning program at the high school level is good communication with the teacher.  These face-to-face classes facilitated this.
  2. Improve communication with students:  I’ve written about the communication aspect before in this post.  This year many of the courses I was responsible for were paper based which meant that my kids were not in a Learning Management System (LMS) with built in e-mail.  I wouldn’t have thought this would be a problem, but a surprising number of students do not have their own e-mail accounts that they use regularly–I guess they rely more on IM and sites like Facebook to communicate.  Partly to address this, Jodie and I (ok, it was mostly Jodie) set up a ‘Student Lounge’ in WebCT.  Most of our students take at least one course in the WebCT LMS; enrolling all of them in the ‘Student Lounge’ meant that it was easy to send out batch e-mails and it was easy for them to e-mail us.  We had other plans to showcase student work along with some general discussions.  Those didn’t materialize, but I definitely had more students contacting me with questions than prior to the ‘Lounge’, so I’m pretty happy with the results.
  3. Provide opportunities for students to conduct labs at our school with support:  There are some virtual labs that my students do, but there are also a good number of traditional labs the students are expected to do.  To do a lab at home on your own can be frustrating.  Let’s face it, even in a typical classroom kids get frustrated because they don’t get the ‘right’ results, or they are unsure what to do.  This year my goal was to have time during some of the weekly high school class (see #1 above) to help students with labs.  This was not a big success.  I was able to do a couple of labs with the kids, but because the students start at different times and end up in different places in the course, it was difficult to choose a lab that all students were ready for.
  4. Improve my weekly Elluminate sessions: In the 07/08 school year I started doing weekly Elluminate sessions.  One week was for science and the next was for math.  We met for 30 minutes for each grade.  I gave a mini-lesson reviewing old concepts and introducing new ones.  Then there was time for questions from the students. I started out this way again in 08/09.  As usual the problem is that very quickly the students get spread out in their courses, so preparing a mini-lesson becomes difficult.  Over the course of the year the sessions shifted more to being a straight tutorial.  I find Elluminate to be very useful to help students with their math.  It is difficult to answer math questions over the phone or via e-mail, but using the whiteboard feature in Elluminate allows you to write out the math symbols easily and have the student help to answer the question.  For next year I think I will spend more time recording mini-lessons so that I can build up an archive that students can access as needed and use the Elluminate times as straight tutorials.  I have to work on attendance too.  The sessions are not mandatory and attendance is not always great.  I’ll have to look at ways to improve this.

Future Plans
Those are the main goals I pursued this year.  If you have any thoughts on how I can improve on these areas, I would love to hear it.  I plan on posting again soon with my goals for next year.  I hope to make this an annual event: posting goals prior to the new school year and reviewing them once the year is over.  If you already do this, do you find it useful?  If you don’t, would you consider it to be helpful.  As always, thanks for reading this!

under: distributed learning, DL, teaching
Tags: , , , ,

The Power of Observation

Posted by: | April 18, 2009 | 7 Comments |

One of the best things about my teaching practicum, oh those many years ago, was the chance to sit in and observe other teachers in their classrooms.  Everyone has a different teaching style and there is always something to take away and make your own.  Since my practicum days I have taken the opportunity a few times to sit in on colleagues’ classes, but never as often as I would have liked.

student teacher by peiqianlong
Attribution License

Blogs, Twitter, and social networks are making it easier to network with and learn from other educators, but for the most part they don’t allow for actual observation.  Lately, however, I’ve been able to get in some virtual classroom observations and it’s been great!  This past year I’ve taken a number of week long on-line professional development classes through KnowSchools.  In addition, I’ve been training to be an assistant facilitator for KnowSchools which has allowed me an inside peek as to how the different facilitators organize and run their week long classes.  The classes are done using Moodle and it has been fascinating to see how the different facilitators make use of the different features in Moodle.  So I’m learning about some great ways to improve my teaching practice and I’m getting to observe talented educators and how they teach.

I’ve also participated in some virtual PD offered in Elluminate Live from a variety of sources; today I popped in (briefly) to Classroom 2.0′s weekly show.  I use Elluminate Live with my distributed learning students so whenever I’m in a session that someone else is moderating I’m looking for good ideas that I can steal!  It’s also good to experience an Elluminate Live session as a participant.  It reminds me that it is boring just to sit and listen to the moderator; I need to give my students an active way to participate and discuss ideas and I need to engage them with good visuals.

Do you take the opportunity to observe your colleagues as they teach?  If so, how do you make time to do this?  Do you prefer live and in person, or virtual observations?  I’d love to hear from you :-)

under: education, professional development, teaching
Tags: , , , ,

We’ve Got The Power

Posted by: | December 9, 2008 | 14 Comments |
Sometimes I think we forget that for many of our students we are a significant adult in their life. For some students we are one of the very few significant adults in their lives. As such, how we respond to our students can have a very big impact on them and their perception of themselves.

For Example:

A number of years ago I had the following experience which really brought this idea home to me. I was teaching Biology 11 and there was a girl in the class that I had known for a few years. She was a sweet girl, but very unsure of herself. I had noticed that she had seemed down for awhile and after class one day I asked her if everything was ok. She smiled and said that things were fine. The next day I got a call from her mom; her daughter had told her about the brief conversation we had. The daughter felt that none of her other teachers even noticed her, and so when I noticed and was concerned about her it really affected her in a positive way. Her mom shared some of the troubles her daughter was having and thanked me again for taking an interest. She said it meant a lot to them both. All this from a brief conversation; just letting another human being know that they matter.
Recently there was a situation with a high school student at my school which also illustrates my point. As a staff we had noticed that this student had changed quite a bit since September; in both his appearance and behaviour. He was also making some poor choices which were affecting more than just his schooling. Then a situation arose that was clearly a cry for help. My principal met with the mother and then with the boy. He did a great job of letting the boy know that: 1) the staff and students had noticed the changes in him; 2) we were all concerned about him; and 3) we all really liked the “old him” better than this new persona. There was more to it than that of course, this is just the Coles notes version. A week after that meeting, the student was back in class and he was so positive. He was working well and interacting with the other students, not shutting them out like before. He was back to his old self and more. His positive energy was contagious and the other students were feeding off it; very cool. I’m just guessing, but I think it probably felt pretty good to know that the staff and students at the school cared about him and liked him. He mattered.

The Take Home Message

Now I’m not saying that we need to go around acting as counselors for all of our students; in fact when students come to me with personal troubles I let them know that I will offer them support, and part of that support is finding a person with the right skills to help them (I’m not trained in that kind of stuff and I definitely do not want to botch things up.) And I know for a good percentage of our students they are doing just fine, thank you very much. But we do need to be aware that for some of our students, just the fact that we notice them and are concerned about them really is a big deal.

What About You?

How do you try to connect with your students? Do you think I’m overplaying this role of teachers as significant adults? I’d love to hear from you!
under: education, Google, teaching