Report from ConnectEd…Thank you Shelley!

                                      “So much freedom, you feel the responsibility”

What follows are some of my thoughts about what I learned over the past weekend at the ConnectEd conference in Calgary.The quote is from a student video posted on Wendy Drexler’s blog, a site recommended by Shelley Wright, who was presenting and who I have been following on Twitter for the past six months. I was so excited to hear her speak and she did not disappoint.

I am anxious to go deeper into project based learning in my practice, something which Shelley has experience in. Even better, she teaches high school science as I do. An underlying theme to her talk was choice and how choice enhances student engagement by providing them with a sense of control. This is not to be confused with the idea that the teacher relinquishes the class to the student, instead teachers create a safe environment and provide scaffolds so that students can learn.  The focus is on teaching students how to learn, to become competent collaborators and critical thinkers.

When the going gets rough and concepts are difficult, that becomes part of the discussion. Students bring their own devices, there is no class set of computers and no ban on cell phones in her class. The underlying message here is “Our teachers trust us.” Students are encouraged to look up what they don’t know and share what they find out. A conversation about “crap detection” evolves as a way to teach students to think about the validity of  information. Students are Google jockeys, they research answers to questions like “what are the six types of chemical reactions?” they look up the answer, “what’s your source?”, “ok, someone find another source”. This leads to conversations about how we find info and make sure it’s credible. Digital citizenship is discussed in context.

Labs are products and created digitally. Students take pictures of the lab, upload them and describe what they did using VoiceThread. Rather than having to draw what was on the slide, students take a picture with their cell phone, upload to a wiki so it’s there for all to see (authentic audience) especially if students missed the lab. Texts: students create texts on wikis and embed Ted talks in them.

Among many of my ah ha moments was Shelley’s 3 basic questions, questions that both teacher and students need to address:

What are we going to learn?
How are we going to learn it?
How are we going to show what we’ve  learned?
Shelley designs assignments and assessments with the students and they co-create rubrics. They are presented with an issue and asked to do something about it. Content is used to teach skills and solve problems.  She creates an environment from a design thinking perspective where students pursue the answer rather than being told the answer. Students design their own notes (what a revelation for me, I am so tired of fill-in-the-blank notes) and labs.

Shelley uses Bloom’s taxonomy but backwards. Students start with create, then evaluate, then analyze, concepts are introduces towards the end, then they research the answer. Peers teach peers, they discuss what good teaching looks like. Struggling students understand better, can get more help from the teacher because she is doing less telling and more relationship building. Students are thriving, feeling smart and digging deeper (and the exam results are higher).

The great thing about hearing a teacher talk about what she has learned is that they are so practical. Shelley told us to try it, to expect it to be messy and that it doesn’t work for everything.

When she has to deliver content (like stoichiometry), Shelley flips the classroom ( another idea that I am trying out). She uses this in specific instances  for more difficult concepts that are abstract and painful (like the Kreb’s cycle). Students watch videocasts at home (eg. Khan Academy) and then class time is spent doing something with what they learned.   This provides another way to differentiate learning, some students “get it” after one viewing while other students can revisit portions of the lesson and learn at their own pace (there’s still a deadline).

Projects topics are chosen by students, and usually involve some personal connection. Students learn to research, problem- solve, and present their learning to the class. Shelley has found the results meaningful and surprising. She also has a higher project completion rate. Self assessment is  important for students to understand their own learning. The teacher provides feedback: this is what you can do, this is where you need to go and this is how you can get there.

Here is a quote from Shelley that really brought it home to me.

“I trust that my kids are doing the best they can and if it doesn’t work we move on. We are not about doing assignments, we are about learning. They’re not asking about marks anymore because the kids understand the rubric because they created it.

It’s not easy!

Let them do it and fall on their faces and ask what happened and now what?  Why didn’t it work? What are we going to do about it?”

I returned to university in my mid thirties as a single mom. I was unprepared for the change in terms of computer technology that was now the norm. I remember the prof. in my entomology course tell us on the first day that this would be the most challenging and most rewarding  course we would ever take. He was right. Teaching is like that for me. Listening to people like Shelley just affirms that I am on the right path and that I am not alone. Thank you, Shelley.

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