Monday, November 24, 2008

Are You A Control Freak Too? Or Why It Can Be Hard Shifting To Being The Guide On The Side

Today I learned a few new things, some interesting, and one disturbing.

New Thing Number One

Mosses reproduce by fragmentation (I know, some of you are gasping "you must be joking" and others are saying "well, duh!", while still others are saying "that's interesting... why?")

New Thing Number Two

Some mosses have found ways to survive in the desert. (Ditto parentheses above).


Photo by ecstaticist Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

So What?

I have been teaching grade 11 students about mosses for about 10 years now and I didn't know about this fragmentation stuff. I mean I knew about fragmentation, but not that mosses did it. I found out today because one of my students highlighted fragmentation as a key way that mosses reproduce. He was also the one who mentioned that mosses can live in the desert.

So here's the disturbing thing: these revelations about mosses lead me to realize that for too many years I have mercilessly controlled the information that my students receive. My students would only learn about a narrowly defined (by me) version of mosses, or arthropods, or the excretory system etc. The official curriculum document says the students have to learn X,Y, and Z so I made sure I served X, Y, and Z up in easy to digest morsels. I injected humour and stories, I used a variety of instructional strategies and provided activities that uncovered prior knowledge, but for the most part I controlled the information.

Despite my strangle hold on the information, the assignments that I've always enjoyed assessing the most are the ones where students have to research a topic. That's where I get to be the learner and they get to truly explore. (One very useful piece of information that I learned from a student research project is that we get the urge to urinate when our bladder is only a third full. I find that comforting when I am on a long car trip or hiking in the woods--it's only a third full, it's only a third full...)

For the past few years though, I have been teaching at a distributed learning school where, so far, I don't own the courses. By that I mean that the courses students take are not designed by me. I am their guide, tutor, cheerleader, and assessor, but I am not their course designer (not yet anyway). Often times there is a poor fit with the text and the course a student is taking, so the student has to look to other sources to answer their questions. That's how my student found out about fragmentation and about desert mosses. It was not from his textbook, it did not come from me. He found it 'out there'. And I'm so glad he did. It reminded me that it was never my job to own the information. And now, more than ever before, it is not necessary for me to own the information.

I know, bit of a slow learner ;-)

Some Questions

Do you ever feel that you have to own the information? For me I think this came about because I needed to be sure that they learned what they were supposed to. And, how else would we make it through the curriculum? If you have relinquished control over the information, or perhaps never felt like you needed to have control in the first place, how would you counter these concerns?

As always, thanks for taking the time to read this!

Friday, November 21, 2008

On Teaching Science At A DL School

Yesterday was a good day.

I teach at a distributed learning (DL) school and though this is home learning, we do encourage most of our high school students to show up for a face-to-face class for 2 hours on Thursday mornings. It can be challenging wrangling 20 plus kids from grades 8 - 11 who are all at different places in their (different) courses. My colleague and I have used the time to check up on where kids are at, prod them to get work done, provide tutoring and do mini-lessons to the whole group (on studying for example). My colleague has also pulled out grade groups to go over grammar and to discuss their reading journals. We've found that our students are far more successful when we have this regular face to face contact with them.

How Can You Do Science Without Labs?

Today was the first time I was able to pull out a group to work on a science lab. In a DL program labs often get short shrift. It can be time consuming for the student to complete the labs, they often feel at sea--not sure if they are getting the expected results, or unsure of what they should be observing. While this also happens in a traditional classroom, at least the teacher and peers can support the student.

Seeing the Lightbulbs Go On

Lightbulb head

Photo by Cayusa Attribution-NonCommercial License

I had 4 grade nines work on an electricity lab; comparing series and parallel circuits. I really baby stepped them through the lab. We went over the proper lab format and I dictated or wrote what they needed to include at each step. I guided them through setting up the circuits and drawing the schematics. One of the students was really adept at setting up the combined series / parallel circuit and he explained to the others how to do it. He used what he had learned earlier in the lab to confirm that he had it set up correctly. We discussed their observations and what they meant. When we got to the final section of the lab write-up, the conclusion, I explained how it should be set up and said "Here's where you explain what you learned from the lab, so what have you learned?" The response was great; "A lot!" And then they went on to tell me the things they learned in a very animated way. I just don't think that these kids would have gotten a lot out of this lab had they been doing it by themselves at home.

"What did you learn"--"a lot!" I'm still smiling :-)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Living Life On-line

The other day I was talking to a colleague who was bemoaning the fact that her computer crashed on her. It was report card time and she couldn't access her marks program, lost all her bookmarks, and needed to get/find the disks for her software. It made me think about how much of what I do is stored on-line. Bookmarks, documents, presentations, spreadsheets, e-mail; all on-line. Marks are on the district server (which I can access via the 'net.) For me that leaves my photos, videos and music which are not on-line.

How much of your computing is on-line? Are you up in the clouds, on terra firma, or somewhere in between?

head in the clouds

Photo by puja Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Saturday, November 15, 2008

You Say It's Your Blog Birthday...

Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, NAH. It's my blog birthday too, yah!

OK, the original lyrics are definitely better ;-)

birthday cake by photolate

birthday cake by photolate CC License

Clarify Me Turns One

Yup, it was a year ago in November that I took the plunge and dove into the blogosphere. The milestones weren't as dramatic as those for a human in their first year of life, but significant none-the-less.

The Early Days

The first blog I started was on Blogger, and I didn't really know what my focus was going to be. At the end of December I switched over to Edublogs. I regret not keeping the original Blogger blog as a time capsule--I transfered my posts over to Edublogger, but I didn't keep the those very first tentative posts. I posted photos about the big November windstorm that hit my neighbourhood, and I pondered what I would write about at Claire's World.

I was inspired to blog by my younger sister; she'd been blogging for about a year by then, and yes it was sibling rivalry ;-) What helped me find a direction for my blog was taking a KnowWeeks course called 'Using Blogs in Education'. Cristina Costa and Ramona Dietrich were the facilitators and they did a wonderful job helping us (mostly) newbies find our way. It was there that North Van educator David Brear directed me to Sue Waters' blog. Wow, did I feel like I hit pay dirt!


When I started this blog, my focus was on how to get my students blogging. As I blogged more and read more I began to realize that blogs and blogging weren't necessarily the key; it was using technology, and web 2.0 in particular, to help students learn. Heck, before I started blogging I had no idea what web 2.0 even meant. My focus for blogging became not so much about finding out how to get students doing it and more about my own professional development. I was building my Personal Learning Network (only I didn't know it at the time.) By the spring I volunteered to do a professional development session on blogging for teachers.
The aim of the session is to introduce participants to blogs and illustrate how blogging can enhance on-going teacher professional development by facilitating communication and collaboration with teachers from around the world.

Over the summer I prepared my session by posting all of the tasks and information on a blog I set up for PD activities.

Full Circle

So, earlier this week I noticed that KnowWeeks was offering 'Using Blogs In Education' again with Cristina and Ramona. I thought I'd sign up for old time's sake ;-) The interesting thing is that I tweeted about it and as a result two of my BC Twitter friends signed up. My colleague at work too. Cool. This time around there are fewer newbies, and the focus is less on setting up a blog as it is about sharing resources.


Spiral Staircase by Martin Haesemeyer CC license


The most amazing thing about this past year has been getting to meet so many wonderful, and inspiring educators. I won't start listing them all; you can check out my blogroll to find most of them. There are some folks who I converse with on a regular basis, others who graciously respond to my comments or questions, and still others whom I admire from afar :-) You've all influenced me in countless ways. Thank you.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

May I Have A Word?

This past little while I've been exploring ways to improve communication with my students. I teach at

Photo by ohhector
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

a distributed learning school (DL) and have limited face-to-face contact with my students. My students are in grades 8 to 11 and I am responsible for math and science. At this point, these courses are paper based. Their other core courses, English and Social Studies, are delivered in WebCT.

A challenge has been setting up an effective way to communicate directly with all of the students. Many of the 8s and 9s do not have an e-mail that they use, so e-mail communication is mainly through a family or parent account. We do have a school website where Google Calendars for each of the grades are posted. This has worked well in terms of posting time-lines and important dates, but not much else.  Add to the mix the fact that I have very few so called digital natives in the group, and perhaps you can understand my difficulties. (Teaching 21st century literacy skills to this group will be a whole other post...)


I have only dabbled in using wikis, so this past Professional Development (PD) day I set up test wikis in Wetpaint and Wikispaces. After tinkering around for a bit, I felt that I was just duplicating what I already have on the school website, so I don't think that the wiki is necessarily the way to go to improve communication with my students.


I've used Moodle a little bit; as a participant in a few KnowWeeks courses, and I was part of an Open School BC pilot project delivering Science 10 through Moodle. My district is hosting Moodle in house (as part of the one to one tablet laptop program, I believe), but to access Moodle students have to get onto the district server using Citrix and then log onto Moodle. Citrix can be a little slow and has a nasty habit of kicking you off. I looked into a Moodle hosting service and they seem to fall into two groups--the "it's too good to be true" $5 per month options and the "wow, that's a lot of clams for a small school" $5000+ per year options.

WebCT Students' Lounge

Photo by imedagoze
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

An idea that my colleague suggested is setting up a "Students' Lounge" in WebCT, in which all students would be registered. Announcements and batch e-mails could be easily handled here. In addition, almost all students should already be signing into WebCT every day. I have to find out if there would be any costs to setting up this 'course' and enrolling all our students.

Where It's At

Right now, barring cost, the best option would appear to be setting up a Students' Lounge in WebCT. I'll also investigate to see if the district could be convinced to make Moodle available out of house (is that the opposite of in house?)

How Do You Do It?

If you don't see your students face to face on a regular basis, how do you ensure that communication is effective and efficient? Are there other tools out there that I should be investigating?  As always, thanks for taking the time to read this!